So, the new issue of AMON HEN, the newsletter of the Tolkien Society, arrived today. Still no review, but a nice notice about RETURN TO BAG-END now being available through their Tolkien Trading Company, as well as an interesting short account of a visit to Sarehole Mill, about which I'd just been doing a little quick research for a point I wanted to make in the Marquette talk. But the piece which particularly caught my eye comes near the end, with a notice that the July 2007 issue of BEECRAFT ('The Official Journal of the British Beekeeper's Association') has an article on Tolkien. Apparently its authors have detected a possible shortcoming in Tolkien's bee-lore, pointing out that 'the native British honey bees didn't actually have yellow stripes . . . the stripy bee . . . is actually a 19th century Italian import' (AMON HEN #206 p.33). This is of course a reference to Beorn/Medwed's bees, which were "bigger than hornets, much bigger . . . the drones were as big as a small thumb, and the bands of yellow on their deep black bodies shone like fiery gold" (MR. BAGGINS p.232). The article suggests that this "may indicate that Italian bees had become commonplace around Birmingham by the time Tolkien was a child there". Quite possible, in which case this would be like the Purple Emperors, an accurately recalled detail from Tolkien's childhood. But then too it's only fair to point out that Bilbo is far from his home here, over the Edge of the Wild, and that the bees he sees at Beorn/Medwed's strike him as strange and remarkable. So we cannot rule out either possibility, since Tolkien was surprisingly well-versed in insect lore; someone who met him a year or so before his death told me that the conversation somehow got onto wasps, which he talked about for some time, in the course of which she discovered he knew an amazing amount about them. So the exoticism could cut both ways. Tolkien would certainly have been deeply distressed by the great bee die-off currently in progress over here, about which more later.
If I'd known about the British and Italian bees before, I could have added another footnote. Ah well. Still, it's interesting to see all the unusual places Tolkien turns up. I wonder if they know about his bee-poem from SONGS FOR THE PHILOLOGISTS?