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What Rev Gilbert White heard?

UPDATE: This story and audio featured on Paddy O’Connell’s Slow Radio feature on BBC Radio 4 on 25 June 2017. You can listen here, starting at 41 mins 8 sec in.

On 28 June 1792 – 225 years ago – the Rev Gilbert White, a pioneering English naturalist living in Selborne, Hampshire, England, heard a mysterious sound which he documented:

Humming in the Air
There is a natural occurrence to be met with upon the highest part of our down in hot summer days, which always amuses me much, without giving me any satisfaction with respect to the cause of it; and that is a loud audible humming of bees in the air, though not one insect is to be seen. This sound is to be heard distinctly the whole common through, from the Moneydells, to Mr White’s avenue-gate. Any person would suppose that a large swarm of bees was in motion, & playing about over his head. This noise was heard last week on June 28th.

From The Natural History of Selborne by Rev Gilbert White.

Gilbert White did not know what it was, but we now realise that it was almost certainly the sound of a drone congregation area (DCA) – where male honeybees go to mate on the wing with queens. No-one can satisfactorily define the characteristics of these special areas, but they can persist year after year – and seemingly century after century.

Today, 225 years later, Sheep Down on Selborne Common is still a drone congregation area.

This week, armed with a queen pheromone lure, we recorded the sound that Gilbert White might have heard:


And below is a video of drones flashing about Sheep Down in search of queens (unfortunately interrupted by the audio of a passing airplane!). Those little flashing specks are drones caught in the late afternoon sun.

Without the queen pheromone lure, it’s unlikely that you’ll hear the sound so clearly today unless there are queens in the vicinity. How, then, did Gilbert White hear it so well? Perhaps there were many more honey bees in his day? There are many orchards in the area, so, with orchards, you should find pollinating bees. Perhaps, like us, he heard it on a very fine day.

Looking back through what sparse weather records exist, it doesn’t seem to have been a good summer, but that 28 June 1792 might have been an unusually good day.

1792: «A wet summer (in London).»
24 June: «Thunder, & hail. A sad midsumr day.»
21 June: «Longest day: a cold, harsh solstice!»
May & June: «cold and dry».
July «wet and cold»

But wait:
28 June 1792: «Glow-worms abound on Baker’s hill (Selborne).»
Glow worms: «muggy nights from June to August usually see more activity than cool ones».
So, perhaps it was a rather special day when lots of cooped-up drones and queens came out to play!

For more about DCAs on this blog, start here.

Vita’s Guest Beekeeper Blogger


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