Sept. 30, 1852, was a fine clear day, and Henry David Thoreau decided to go bee hunting. He ended up feeling richer for the experience, and not just because of the honey.
He was 35 years old, living in Concord, Mass., as the town’s principled eccentric. Two years earlier he had published A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, but it wasn’t a success. He had finished his sojourn in the woods, though he had yet to publish his masterpiece, Walden.
He had already spent a night in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax as a protest against slavery and the Mexican War. Thoreau was hiding escaped slaves in his family’s home and taking long walks in the surrounding woods and fields.
Thoreau and the Bees
He recorded in great detail his observations of nature in his journal. On the day he went bee hunting, he described how he went with three friends in a wagon to Fair Haven Pond. They brought with them their bee-hunting apparatus: a small round tin box and a small wooden box.
At first they had no luck, as they couldn’t find flowers. The goldenrods were dried up and the asters were scarce. They tried the pond, a brook and a tree where Thoreau had found a bees’ nest that summer. No luck. And then,
After eating our lunch, we set out on our return. By the roadside at Walden, on the sunny hillside sloping to the pond, we saw a large mass of goldenrod and aster several rods square and comparatively fresh. Getting out of our wagon, we found it to be resounding with the hum of bees. (It was about 1 o’clock.) There were far more flowers than we had seen elsewhere. Here were bees in great numbers, both bumblebees and honey-bees, as well as butterflies and wasps and flies.
They caught the bees, and then let them loose to see where they flew. The men watched them fly toward the village, where they knew there were hives,. They returned in less than half an hour to the bank of flowers.
Thoreau then tried an experiment.
We were furnished with little boxes of red, blue, green, yellow, and white paint, in dry powder, and with a stick we sprinkled a little of the red powder on the back of one while he was feeding,–gave him a little dab,–and it settled down amid the fuzz of his back and gave him a distinct red jacket. He went off like most of them toward some hives about three quarters of a mile distant, and we observed by the watch the time of his departure. In just twenty-two minutes red jacket came back.
Thoreau was surprised at the distance to which the village bees go for flowers. His experiment put the bees in a whole new light:
The rambler in the most remote woods and pastures little thinks that the bees which are humming so industriously on the rare wild flowers he is plucking for his herbarium, in some out-of-the-way nook, are, like himself, ramblers from the village, perhaps from his own yard, come to get their honey for his hives…I felt the richer for this experience. It taught me that even the insects in my path are not loafers, but have their special errands. Not merely and vaguely in this world, but in this hour, each is about its business.
This story about Thoreau and the bees was updated in 2022.
Image of Fairhaven Bay By Thoreau's ghost – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20413840.