Charles Darwin rarely ventured anywhere once he settled with Emma into family life at Down House. But, as biographer Janet Browne points out, Darwin proceeded to turn Down House itself into a sort of scientific ship. While Darwin was ensconced in his study (his cabin), Emma kept everything ship shape. And the children? “Running around below were the staff and his children, rather like the crew and midshipmen, always available to help with his inquiries.”
In “Bee Lines and Worm Burrows: Growing up as Darwin’s Little Helpers,” Sheila Ann Dean describes the Darwin children’s involvement with experiments, such as collecting seeds, poking knitting needles into worm holes, and playing music over worms to see if the worms responded (they didn’t).
And then there were bees. Bees were a favorite Darwin subject, and Darwin’s articles on bees are still cited today. Dean notes, “On at least one occasion he stationed several children at plants he knew to be pollinated by bumblebees. As a bee visited a flower, the child dusted the insect with flour and shouted where it was headed next. Mapping the flight of a bumblebee thus became a Darwin family project.”
In writing The Humblebee Hunter, I wanted to show this side of Darwin – a father who instilled a love of natural history in his children by involving them in his work in a real way. The book, with lovely illustrations by Jen Corace, is historical fiction. But it was directly inspired by imagining Darwin and his children undertaking to answer a question: how many blossoms does a humblebee (bumblebee) visit in one minute?
In a letter written to the British horticultural periodical, The Gardener’s Chronicle, on August 16, 1841, Darwin describes the number of flowers he saw a humblebee (bumblebee) suck in one minute. I, of course, did my own research, bending over flowers to watch bees at work.
So, any idea as to the number of blossoms a bumblebee visits in one minute? You may – like Darwin and his children – just have to experiment yourself.
Deborah Hopkinson won a 2009 Oregon Book Award for Keep On! The Story of Matthew Henson, Co-Discoverer of the North Pole. The Humblebee Hunter is her latest book. She lives near Portland, Oregon, where she serves as vice president for advancement at Pacific Northwest College of Art. Click here to visit her on the web.