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Mr Frederick William Sladen and His Humble Bees

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Thursday, 8 April 2010

Mr Frederick William Sladen and His Humble Bees

I have been reading “The Humble-Bee” by F.W.L. Sladen. I have the 1912 edition borrowed from my local library, on loan from some other distant library in the USA and it has to go back tomorrow. I am reluctant to let it go, very reluctant. It’s a piece of Bumble Bee history being the first in-depth study of Bumble Bees and their behaviour to be published in English. Written in a similar style to Fabre where observation and affection are given equal billing it is a delightful, informative and engaging read.

 title page

Sladen published this book in 1912 at the age of 26 which seems young enough but it was preceded by a 40 page pamphlet which he wrote and published at the tender age of 16.

“The title, scheme, and some of the contents of this book are borrowed from a little treatise printed on a stencil copying apparatus in August 1892.”

What Frederick Sladen calls his “little treatise” was in fact an already knowledgeable study of bumble bees and their behaviour. I wonder if any sixteen year old these days could produce anything so wise and careful. He was fortunate to be born into a wealthy family with the encouragement of private tutors, but it is still an outstanding achievement.

One of eleven children he lived on the family estate at Ripple Court, near Dover in the UK (which is curiously only a few miles from my last UK home. If only I had known !).  Here he would find bumble bee nests and move them to a place in the garden where he could not only observe them, but care for them with the concern of a fond parent, protecting his bees from parasites, predators and inclement weather.

The book is full of scientific information, species descriptions and  lovely anecdotal observations. He keeps a nest of B lapidarius in his study and watches them as they fly in and out of the window while he works, he cares for a crippled B terrestris Queen, finds foster mothers for abandoned broods and tirelessly removes earwigs, millipedes and ants from the nests. There is of course the scientific collector about him and he describes how to make a collection of pinned specimens, which still makes me feel queasy. Although I have been grateful for specimens from others I just can’t be the one to deliberately end their little lives.

A Two Hour Photo.. Photographing bees in 1912

It’s so easy just to run out with the digital camera now, take a millions shots, hope that one of them will be OK and casually delete the rest.   But if Mr. Sladen was not so fortunate in his technology the excitement and possibilities of photography back then must have made every effort to photograph a living bee worthwhile, and a leap of faith.

On June 17th, 1911 he is endeavouring to take a photograph of a B terrestris Queen on her nest and even gives her a bit of film star touch-up before the shot.

I carried the nest to a suitable spot for taking the picture. To make a satisfactory exposure it was necessary for the queen to sit still for about half-a-minute, and several attempts were a failure; but a successful one was finally made, and the result is shown in the frontis-piece.

During the long ordeal, which lasted two hours, the queen took wing and flew back to her domicile four times. Each time I caught her in my net, and on the last two occasions she was quite pleased to find herself confined therein, having quickly learnt that this was the prelude to coming back to her nest, and she showed great eagerness to find her brood when she was placed on the photographing table, knowing perfectly well that it was there.

Her coat was a little dusty, and she allowed me to brush it clean with a camel's hair brush as she sat on the brood, just before her picture was taken.

This nest eventually developed into a very populous colony.

photo queen

 Frederic Sladen’s photo of B terrestris on her nest 1911

The book also has very good colour plates from photographs of his own collection, which makes it seem quite modern. Sadly it seems the original photos were lost and modern editions only have scans of the old printed pages.

sladen bombus prtorum 


If like me you can’t afford the 229.00 UK pounds for 1912 edition you can buy a print-on-demand edition via Amazon. A better option, but still expensive, is the Logaston Press edition from 1989 which has a facsimile of the original 1892 “little treatise” in the appendix.  However you can read and download the whole book here at the outstanding resource that is the Biodiversity Library,’s just not quite the same as the original though, is it?

It has been a delight and a privilege to hold this lovely, tatty, well thumbed old book in my hands. I wonder where it has been in the last 100 years? Who else has pored over its wonderful contents? And who else after reading it, felt that need to rush out into the garden to look with new eyes at what is going on around them?

Yes, I am extremely reluctant to return this book.

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Blogger Threadspider said...

Fascinating post-are you tempted to scan or photograph the best bits?
I am always amazed when youth produces outstanding work-not because I know young people shouldn't be able to , but because they can, if they have the dedication.
Thanks for the intro. to the solitary bee blog yesterday and for getting me outside with digital camera every day for the last fortnight photographing bees.

8 April 2010 at 18:35  
Blogger Threadspider said...

Of course, if I had read the whole post carefully before I commented, I would see there is no need to be tempted to scan or photograph it.What a great resource.

8 April 2010 at 18:43  
Blogger Dan said...

Hi Val
Tell them the local wasps chewed it...? Hey, it happens with dogs - Bobby's had two of my library books, so why not wasps - they probably wouldn't want you reading about bees anyway, so would do anything to stop you.

On a slightly more serious note, I know the feeling of enjoying beautiful books for just a brief moment before having to return them.

8 April 2010 at 19:52  
Blogger . . . Lisa and Robb . . . said...

I'm going to do a library search today!

I *adore* those plates!

8 April 2010 at 20:56  
Blogger Suz said...

Oh to love a book so much

8 April 2010 at 22:00  
Blogger Jane Adams said...

What a gorgeous book. I've found it here for only £14.95 (which seemed very cheap). I'm tempted to buy a copy after your write-up. Lots of bees in my garden now... saw an Andrena cineraria for the first time today - what a beautiful bee (I expect you have painted it... it's so stunning to look at). Jane

8 April 2010 at 22:29  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not sure how I came across your blog, but undoubtedly it had become one of my favorites. Personally, I am very fond of bees and bats, and am sad to see both so seriously endangered.

9 April 2010 at 00:58  
Anonymous Strumelia said...

I am enjoying your blog very much.
I keep honeybees and mason bees in my yard in rural New York state.

9 April 2010 at 01:59  
Blogger Shady Gardener said...

Right up your alley, I might add! :-) What a wonderful find. It looks fragile, though.

9 April 2010 at 03:20  
Blogger sharp green pencil said...

Hi all, thanks for you comments and if you in the UK, Jane(see comment below) has found a good source of the book!

Threadspider.. well yes, even though the book is available on line. I did scan the plates and a few of the text illustrations and I am so delighted that you have been out with your camera... the biodiversity library is just fab!!!

SG: yes it is a wonderful book. I don't think it is a very popular library book, but has been much used and pondered over in its life.. lovely!

Dan :)... indeed such a wicked thought would never cross my mind!!but the wasps are indeed a jealous bunch and I too have lost the odd library book ( really) to doggy frolics. But I can always get it back again. I think there are only about 6 copies in the USA libraries.

L&R: I am laughing because am wondering if you will get this very one! There are not many of the originals in the USA and I particularly wanted the 1912 edition, for all the reasons of having a historical document in my hands which always gives me such a thrill. The plates are really lovley given the date.

Suz.. I am afraid that books are my first love! favourite indoor places are book shops and libraries

Jane ..that is great and a good price! I think I might order one too to collect when I am over. I really think it is worth having . He was so important in the Bumble Bee world.. and that's so exciting to see a cineraria.. yes I have painted one already ...really pretty, very glam!

Anon: well what a very kind comment and thank you. I was only talking to someone the other day about bats and how they might be my next subject.! If I ever finish bees!

Strumelia: Thank you I am so glad you are enjoying the blog.I am learning so much about bees and the more I learn the more there is to learn. and so glad you are keeping mason bees!

9 April 2010 at 11:03  
Blogger Sarah Head said...

Hi Valerie, Just found your blog via Debs Cook's Herbaholic Herbarium. We were both at the Mercian Herb Group meeting last night for a talk on keeping honey bees by one of our members and the plight of the bee population in general. I love your articles and drawings.

9 April 2010 at 11:42  
Blogger Melanie J Watts said...

What a fascinating piece of history this book is. I can't imagine anyone doing this today, we are all so distracted with our ipods, twitter feeds, facebook profiles cell phones and.....

9 April 2010 at 14:06  
Blogger sharp green pencil said...

Hi there Sarah.. Ah yes Debs and I have been talking bees! Thank you so much. I am very interested in herbs hope to be catching up with Debs when I am in the UK.

Melanie.. you are so right. I dont have much but have had to turn tweetdeck off for a while. I would be happy if there were no mobile phones at all.. but not sure I could survive with out email!

11 April 2010 at 12:57  

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