For Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday in 2009, the Bushwick Book Club took on On the Origin of Species, which I read (most of) on my iPhone, on the subway. A quarter of the way into it I was still wondering when we were going to get to the cool stuff, like the finches and the Beagle and the Galapagos islands and the monkeys coming down out of the trees (answer: never, because those are completely different books).
Even so, it was a surprisingly good read. I especially liked the parts where Darwin talks about the webs of relationships among different species that have evolved together, which are what inspired my song “Humble Bee:”
Humble bees alone visit red clover, as other bees cannot reach the nectar. It has been suggested that moths may fertilise the clovers; but I doubt whether they could do so in the case of the red clover, from their weight not being sufficient to depress the wing petals.
Hence we may infer as highly probable that, if the whole genus of humble-bees became extinct or very rare in England, the heartsease and red clover would become very rare, or wholly disappear. The number of humble-bees in any district depends in a great measure upon the number of field-mice, which destroy their combs and nests; and Colonel Newman, who has long attended to the habits of humble-bees, believes that "more than two-thirds of them are thus destroyed all over England."
Now the number of mice is largely dependent, as every one knows, on the number of cats; and Colonel Newman says, "Near villages and small towns I have found the nests of humble-bees more numerous than elsewhere, which I attribute to the number of cats that destroy the mice." Hence it is quite credible that the presence of a feline animal in large numbers in a district might determine, through the intervention first of mice and then of bees, the frequency of certain flowers in that district!
After Darwin drew this connection between the populations of cats, mice, bees and clover, a contemporary of his, Thomas Huxley, extended the chain (in a spirit of humor, we think) to include the unmarried women who keep cats as pets. Then at some point either Huxley or someone else extended the chain even further to include the British soldiers who eat beef from cattle who live on the clover.
So the chain goes like this: old maids; cats; field mice; humble bees (now known as bumble bees); red clover; cattle; British soldiers.
NPR’s Science Friday blog, which covered this edition of the book club, described "Humble Bee" this way:
“Ellia Bisker’s soft voice over the twangy sound of her ukulele and the bird-like bell sounds of Mike Dobson’s glockenspiel tells of the humble bees’ role in preserving the power of the British Empire.”(Speaking of Mike Dobson and bees, have you seen him playing “Flight of the Bumblebee” in a bee costume on Letterman? It is a joy to behold.)