I fear the photos I took of the now flowering hellebores one bright morning last week could end up being like the frosty morning ones and taking a month to get through. So, first of all, I selected only the ones which had bees in. I can't get enough of photographing bees, of course, and people seem to quite like seeing them. Even so, there are a lot of photos. So I've put the 'bees in the green hellebores' in a grid collage to save time and space, but it's at quite a large resolution, so can be looked at in greater detail should you so wish.
I especially like the picture in the middle row, on the left, where the insect seems to be angling its head to give me a baleful (subjective and anthropomorphic interpretation...) glance as it passes, rather as the damselflies seemed to.
I was intrigued by the yellowish masses on the bees legs. I always assumed these were pollen sacs, but on zooming in they look rather waxy, and I wondered if they were perhaps composed of propolis, the protective plant secretion which make sticky buds sticky and shiny spring leaves shiny, and which bees use in the making of beeswax. Researches on-line were inconclusive but interesting; sites, blogs and forums run by beekeepers are marvels of single-minded passion and expertise. One exposition on the wonder of bees' legs led me to conclude that the expression 'the bees' knees', rather than being the humorous deformation of the word 'business' I had always taken it to be, was quite literal, for these really are the most extraordinary and multi-purpose of appendages. Another explained that among the many uses to which bees put propolis, which has strong antiseptic and preservative qualities, is to encase and mummify the corpses of mice who have made the mistake of trying to enter the hive, and been stung to death. More charmingly, I found this little video of a honey bee collecting propolis.
Thinking about propolis, and sticky buds, led me to remembering the joys of horse chestnuts in childhood, how these trees, not really native to this part of Europe, seem in so many ways larger than life, from the amazing stickiness of the aforesaid buds in spring, to their magnificent blazing white candle flowers in early summer, and their great splayed opposing pinnate leaves with their boldly lined parallel veins, which I never tired of drawing, to the glossy glory of the fruit, 'conkers', in their sponge-lined, spiny husks in autumn.
Which in turn (I am feeling digressive in the extreme today) led a memory of an Enid Blyton story I remembered reading when I was very young, perhaps six, something about a wooden toy soldier and a fairy, and how the latter stuck some part of the former's anatomy (I think it was his nose...) which had come off, back on with 'sticky bud glue'. It is probably my first memory of throwing a book down in disgust. I probably couldn't have articulated why; but it was to do with the romantic soppiness of fairies and toy soldiers falling in love (I was completely incurious of such matters at that age, they simply made me squirm, whether among make-believe characters or realistic human ones), and partly because of an incapacity to suspend disbelief about the physical properties of plant secretions as adhesives; I knew sticky bud glue, it was remarkable and interesting stuff, but it would not work to stick wooden articles back together, even supposing one could collect enough of it to do so - it may be seen I was a rather tiresomely literal-minded child, a characteristic I still have difficulty in shaking off. Also though, I think I just hated the simpering and patronising style of the writing.
Later, at perhaps 8 or 9 years old, our teacher read to us from an Enid Blyton adventure story - something from the [Mountain, Ship, Valley, Island...] of Adventure' series, I think. We enjoyed it as a whole class thing, and I sought out others in the series from the school library to read. I may have made it through another, but couldn't read any more of them. This recollection heartens me, when I doubt my powers of discernment as to whether things I read are good or not. Neither my family nor my teachers were prescriptive about reading matter, if we were reading and enjoying it that was all that mattered. I was not always a particularly discerning and certainly not a precocious reader - at about 14 I went through a phase of compulsively devouring Biggles books, I knew they were not good, laughed at the repetitive and clichéd writing and paper-thin characters, but they provided something I craved, I'm still not sure what. My parents wouldn't actively have encouraged Enid Blyton, and I don't think there were many of her books in the house, but they never sneered or snorted at anything we liked. Evidently my primary teacher was not opposed or she wouldn't have been reading from them to the class. So nobody had told me they weren't very good, and in fact I probably felt disappointed with myself at being unable to finish a book, but something in me simply found them irritating and unsatisfying.
For my secondary schooling I moved on to a smallish girls' private school, which was very definitely an Enid Blyton-free zone (though in the Junior Library I did find a rare old copy of one of the adventures of 'Worralls the WAAF', Capt WE Johns' attempt to become a reconstructed male and cater for tomboyish gels by providing a female counterpart to Biggles, quite a curiosity). I still appreciate their attempts to inform and guide and provide for our reading habits, though sometimes it seems to me that the works by classic writers which are, by virtue of their length or subject matter, deemed suitable for younger readers, are often poor and unappetising examples of those writers' work.
Jane Eyre was fine at 13 or so, but Persuasion the following year was hopeless, it's a grown-ups' book, I don't know what they were thinking of, but at least it wasn't Northanger Abbey, which has, I gather put many people right off by being presented as Jane-Austen-lite . A Christmas Carol and The Childhood of David Copperfield (the first part of the whole) are not good places to start with Dickens, even if they are short and deal with apparently kiddy subjects (and yes, I know there are some who will say there is no good place to start with Dickens...). And The Nun's Priest's Tale as Chaucer for beginners (that was O level) was pretty stupid too - we're 15 now, too big for fables and talking animals, right? One of the problems is that the small, bagatelle works by big writers, such as Northanger Abbey and a Christmas Carol and the Nun's Priest's, which at first look to be lightweight and easy, is that they are often satirical, self-referential, or otherwise bits of quite sophisticated whimsy which in the context of their work overall (sorry, can't bring myself to write 'oeuvre' with a straight face), and the milieu in which they were writing, fall into place and can be appreciated as such, but taken apart, as an introduction, seem fairly pointless and unappealing and give a misleading impression.
I'm inclined to think it might be better to let youngsters roam a bit, and just give them the wherewithal to do so; if they're ready for grown-ups' books early they'll find them, otherwise wait until they get to a point where they can get stuck into the proper canon. By 16 I was ready for more or less anything the A level syllabus and its related reading could throw at me, and relished Sense and Sensibility, Middlemarch, The Franklin's Tale and Troilus and Criseyde, and even Bleak House. I can't say I enjoyed Paradise Lost all that much, and Hopkins was a struggle, but I'm glad I was bent to studying them, as I've come to love them as life has gone on. So I'm not against a degree of pushing into more difficult things, but it's just what and when, I suppose.
The other thing my posh school weaned me on to of course, was Shakespeare, starting with A Midsummer Night's Dream, and this is the exception I'd make to not prescribing the fairy story bagatelle for the kids. We were about 11 or 12, and it was a delight, most people seemed to enjoy it. There's something about the charm of it which just works, even if it does all seem a bit bonkers. I never had to study it again, not at school or university, and it stands alone. There was even a junior school production of it, which thinking about it, was quite a feat, getting 11 and 12 year-olds to act a full Shakespeare. I auditioned but didn't get anything. This was a disappointment, but another worthwhile lesson; projecting myself, becoming someone else, a voice that could carry to the back of the school hall and a prodigious memory for lines were not something I could or should aspire to.
But I still love those crazy fairies. One of the things which it strikes me now about it, which was never drawn attention to when we studied it or made much of generally, is the confounding of scale. It's the kind of elephant in the room of the overlay and bleed of the fairy world into the mortal one, but an elephant which might be only as big as a mouse, or else equipped with seven-league boots. Enid Blyton's fairies exist in teensy-weensy fairyland, where they might mix with toy soldiers, but like sticky bud glue, they've got no strength or substance. Just how big are Shakespeare's fairies? They fall in love with mortals and steal their children, on the stage they appear alongside them. They can apparently get 'around the earth in forty minutes' at a time when the size of the earth was still problematic and difficult to grasp, so they can clearly encompass huge areas and distances. Then Bottom gets magicked and translated and grows a donkey's head, frightens his mates, but then cavorts with Titania, and everything's tiny, on a scale of cobwebs and mustardseeds and moths. What's going on?
Which brings me back to the bees. Those little sacs of propolis, or pollen or nectar, or whatever they are, and the bees' knees,
'Monsieur Cobweb; good monsieur, get your weapons in your hand and kill me a red-hipped humble-bee on the top of a thistle; and, good monsieur, have a care the honey-bag break not; I would be loath to have you overflown with a honey-bag, signior...'
they always make me think of that.