Notes From the Lawn

Insects and Expats

No matter how many ferns we arrange or seedlings we covet, many of us have a very complicated relationship with the landscape. This week: A London bumblebee needs no help, thank you.

One morning during my first year in London, I was nearly moved to tears by a bumblebee, but not for the reason you’d expect. I was sitting in St. James’s Square, watching the bee struggling in the grass when his plight—disgruntled on a cold summer morning, stiff wings, slow legs, difficult high grass to get through—seemed startlingly like my own. It was summer, June, and yet I was wearing jeans and a wool sweater buttoned up to my neck. I was trying to warm my hands around a cup of coffee. For 20 minutes, I’d been trying to thaw mind, body, and spirit. The London summer suddenly struck me as tragically unfair to bees.

The day before had been reasonable, even warm in direct sun, and the bee must have worked steadily, as I had done. Then, overnight, the temperature plummeted. Midsummer was only a week past, but the present day—crisp, cold, with great thunderheads above giving rain and sun in about equal measure—felt like November. The bee, poor creature, was benumbed. I felt certain that if I were to approach and ask his opinion of Samuel Johnson’s remark about the connection between life and London (“Is it true, dear bee, that when a man is tired of London, he’s tired of life?”), he would spit, “London. A pox on it!” He was a kindred spirit, this bee.

He was also large and an unmistakably distinguished member of the genus Bombus, or bumblebee, the “bumble” deriving from the original “humble,” inspired by their loud humming sound. My grandmother, a gardener who liked to pet the bumblebees working on her daylilies in the early morning, preferred to think the “humble” came from their inability to sting. They are in the melliferous, or honey-gathering, division of the Hymenoptera order, and it is quite possible to stroke their fuzzy backs without injury. They are deliberate and industrious and will go right on with their work, their buzzing deepening for just an instant under the pressure of your finger.

I studied the bee more carefully. That he was in mid-life seemed possible. His color was mostly black, and where there was yellow it was neither the bright yellow of a spring bee nor the ocher they achieve during an Indian summer. He was determined, but off-course; resolute, but with no logical goal. Without the use of his wings, he was pursuing an erratic path across the grass that would lead to—I scouted ahead for him—not a single flower. A clerk in the nearby London Library, where I spent my days writing, had told me the week before that there used to be a rose garden here until the trustees decided to remodel the square according to its original, 18th-century design by John Nash. Some flowering bushes had survived in a few places around the perimeter, but in the square proper there were no longer any flowers.

The idea that the bee might have come that morning in search of those old roses and found them gone saddened me. Something about it felt uncomfortably close to my own adventure in London. And isn’t it also true that the bee is the very spirit of summer, its motion a slow careening, languid and sensuous? It lands on a flower and the flower moves, swaying to and fro under its weight. New expats have a tendency to imbue small events with enormous meaning, and, true to form, I decided that if I saved a bee for London, I might save London for me.

I stood up and scooped the bee into my hands. He showed no qualms, seemed relieved, actually, to find himself on firmer, drier footing. I carried him into the middle of the square and deposited him in a patch of sun, convinced all he needed was some warmth.

A man in a business suit seemed to be watching me from a bench on the path. I thought he probably couldn’t see what I was doing, so—thrilled, warmed, invigorated by my task—I smiled in his direction and pointed at the grass in front of me. “A bee!” I called. “Too cold.”

“Right,” he said, his tone the essence of English disdain, and lifted his newspaper.

I left the bee nestled in the bright grass and went back to the bench. Aside from a few pedestrians ambling on the perimeter and a flock of pigeons feeding on the opposite side, my bee was the only thing moving in the square. While I sipped my coffee, I was able to follow his progress quite well. For a few minutes, he continued to make his way through the thicket of grass in the same manner as before. Then, to my joy, he became airborne. It was as if a spot of earth had detached itself and with an explosion of buzzing flew up into the air, attained an altitude of perhaps 12 inches, flew perhaps six feet toward the equestrian statue of William III at the center of the square, then suddenly seemed to become front-heavy and made a spectacular nose-dive into the grass. For a few seconds there was no movement, then he began to crawl again.

An English bee, after all.

He had flown into the shade of a plane tree, planted in great quantities all over London because of their ability to withstand air pollution. In St. James’s Square, not large by London standards, there are about a dozen. If what the bee needed was some sun, the odds were against him.

He continued to make short eccentric flights every few minutes, always, it seemed, landing in another shady patch. During one long interval, when he seemed to be resting for a particularly long time, I walked over and moved him into the sun. The rain was holding off, and meek and mild as the sun was, it seemed pitiful that he should be missing it. He tested his wings, let out the throttle, but to no effect. The day was growing busy around me. Rush hour was under way and the sound of traffic around the square had increased. Disheartened, I walked back to my bench.

I should have realized that the cold June dawn was a far more powerful force than the bee’s instinct for life or one American’s optimism. He resumed crawling, but his progress was sluggish. Lacking the courage to put him out of his misery or, like Virginia Woolf and her moth, witness his demise, I left the square and trudged up the smooth stone steps of the library. I was greeted by the clerk who had told me about the roses. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” she beamed.

“Right,” I said, feeling moody, English.

I went up to the reading room, where, fortunately, the killing-jar effect of an overheated library has never failed me: I was asleep in five minutes.


TMN Contributing Writer Jessica Francis Kane’s first novel, The Report (Graywolf Press, 2010) was shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her story collection, This Close (Graywolf Press, 2013) was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Story Prize and was named a Best Book of the year by NPR. She lives in New York with her husband and their two children. More by Jessica Francis Kane