24 October 2022: Today I learned:

all about bumblebee mouthparts, thanks to Mary Holland (Naturally Curious), and a little more about my mind/memory.

Saddest news: “Most bumble bees, except for the young queens, have only a few weeks left to live, … until a killing frost arrives.”

seven bumblebees (and a hoverfly) on aster in early Oct. 2014

From what I can find online, a frost can occur when the temperature hits 36 to 32F; a hard freeze occurs between 28 and 25 degrees F, and a killing freeze is 24F (about -4C) and below. I’m not sure which of these thresholds she’s referring to.

So far, our lowest temp this fall is 30.6F, and we’ve had several frosts. We’re forecast for two 29F nights soon, the first on 28 Oct (this Friday) and the next on 7 Nov. I’m rooting for the non-queen bumblebees to live on for a few weeks more. It’s so satisfying to watch them busy on the asters and other remaining flowers when it’s warm enough, like the last couple of days (67 and 60F). We usually don’t see them until it’s over 55F (about 13C), especially if it’s not sunny. Eleven of the next fourteen days are forecast to be 55F or above, nice for us and for bumblebees and others.

I think this shows the “lip”? Wave Hill Public Garden, The Bronx, NY, May 2015

Holland talks about the bee’s “lip,” behind which are “multiple structures that are adapted to grasp, shape and collect food,” including jaws (mandibles) that “clasp pollen and wax used to form cells for eggs;” two long sheaths (maxillae or maxillary palps) that also grasp and shape food; and “two labial palps located under the maxillae [that] serve as taste sensors.” The latter two also protect the bee’s tongue. Other mouthparts are the tubal proboscis and “a tongue-like structure called a glossa” with a “hairy tip … well suited for collecting nectar.” Some of this was confusing to me, especially as not all the diagrams I looked at show a proboscis (which might be called a tongue or described instead as a collection of mouthpieces) and some renderings add a structure called a galea proceeding from the maxillae. If you want to get more into the weeds on this, try Buzz About Bees’ article “Which Bees Have Long or Short Tongues.”

I think the curved sharp sheath is visible on this bumblebee on globe thistle, Aug. 2019

Museum of Earth has some diagrams of bee parts, including the mouthparts, as well as good macro photos and a video of the mouth in action. Holland includes two excellent photos on her post, one showing the “lip” and the other the sheath-like maxillae. Ray Cannon’s Nature Notes has some stunning close-up shots of bumblebee mouthparts, too.

I flipped back through all my bumblebee photos. Unsurprisingly, the bee is often moving, collecting nectar and pollen, so tiny body parts like these mouthparts are not super-clear.

sheath is visible between all the legs of the bumblebee on an aster, 12 days ago (12 Oct 2022)

Seeing these online photos, particularly this one of a bumblebee in Spain taken by Ray Cannon

photo by Ray Cannon

… dislodged something in my brain and it took a lot of false Googling to figure out some of what this spiky curved sheath recalled for me: “The Stymphalean Birds” (sometimes spelled as “Stymphalian”), originally published in a magazine as “The Vulture Women” in 1939. The story is titled after one of Hercules’ labours, as recast by Agatha Christie and collected in the book The Labors of Hercules (1947). The birds of prey in her story are actually women, though not actually these two women, which you’ll understand if you’ve read it:

“They came up the path from the lake very slowly and it just happened that at the moment when Harold’s attention was attracted to them, a cloud came over the sun. He shivered a little. Then he stared. Surely there was something odd about these two women? They had long curved noses, like birds, and their faces, which were curiously alike, were quite immobile. Over their shoulders, they wore loose cloaks that flapped in the wind like the wings of two big birds.” Later, he tells someone, “I may be fanciful, but I distinctly felt there was something evil about them.”

Really, the description isn’t much like the bumblebee image above, but it emerged that way in my mind. That Christie story, for me, is very atmospheric, uncanny, unsettling. I just skimmed through the video episode, with David Suchet as Poirot; in that version, several of the labours are tied into a single story, which changes how it feels for me. But the funny thing is, I was sure there was an image in that episode of the women as described in the story, with black cloaks and long beaky faces. There isn’t, not that I could find.

Still feeling that there was an image that I’d seen and not made up of these women in black, I searched my photos and found this, taken at Longwood Gardens in June 2013. The women (four, not two) are not birdlike, no sharp beaks, and their cloaks don’t cover their heads — both things I recall differently — but their placement in relation to this tree is what I “remembered” of the Stymphalean birds in Christie’s story.

I think I somehow elided the Christie Stymphalean Birds story with this photo and perhaps some other visual images.

For instance, I’m also thinking of the 2003 film “The Triplets of Belleville” (which is described as a comedy but which was horror-adjacent for me), and maybe it’s those twinned men in dark coats, the mafia bodyguards, that I’m adding a smidgen of to this particular cauldron of memory.

from The Triplets of Belleville

Another image that may have influenced my jigsaw memory is of black vultures on Jekyll Island standing impassively in groups. Especially those two near the center.

While Googling, I came across a description of Stymphalean birds in Greek myth, “with beaks of bronze that could penetrate all armour”; and I also noticed images of a modern day bird called the waldrapp, or northern bald ibis, and that bird’s appearance, particularly the bill or beak, also matches something of the image that was called to my mind this morning when I opened Mary Holland’s email, then found Ray Cannon’s photos, and gazed not on mafia hit men, vultures, ibis, or strolling Mennonite women but on the gentle and vulnerable bumblebee’s intricate mouthparts, its “beak of bronze” sheath protecting its delicate tongue as it sips sweet nectar for a few more short days.

It’s strange the way the brain works, and memory, what’s salient and what’s evocative, and how hard it is at times to understand why one image (scent, sound, texture, taste) triggers another. Even more difficult, it feels, to untangle the images or sense records of a lifetime — whether memories of the billions of things we encounter (consciously or not) external to ourselves or images constructed or re-created, collaged if you will, within the mind — and to have a clear sense of what’s “real,” what we’ve actually experienced (and what we’ve imagined), to have any consistent sense of order or correspondence between us and the world we inhabit.

Maybe bumblebees don’t consider these things, but we do know that they too can create mental images in their minds. They’re capable of cross-modal sensory transfer, “the ability to recognize something through one sense, like touch, after experiencing it only through another, like sight. … Even with a brain smaller than a sesame seed, the humble bumblebee appears to … generate elaborate representations of their surroundings in their minds, and stow them away for future use.”

Who knows what they’re thinking about or remembering (or misremembering) as the air chills and they dip their tongues a few more times into the sweet potion of life.

a very wet and bedraggled bumblebee feasting on an aster, on 30 Oct 2019 —
the latest I’ve ever taken a bumblebee photo in NH

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