Should Bumble Bee Be Written As One Word Or Two?

i.e. is it 'bumble bee' or 'bumblebee'?

Bumble bee foraging on Sedum

Years ago, when I began to write this website, I actually had the same question.   I somehow felt it should be written as two words – i.e. bumble bee.  However, I came across a lot of books – including text books and natural history books written by experts, that concatenated the two words (i.e. joined  ‘bumble’ and ‘bee’ together) – such as Professor Dave Goulson’s book – Bumblebee Behaviour And Ecology, and Bernd Heinrich’s Bumblebee Economics.

There is also one of my old favourites by Ted Benton – a weighty hardback: Bumblebees (Collins New Naturalist) 

Then there are small field guides about 'bumblebees'.

I proceeded to write the whole of my website, joining the two words together to form one word – bumblebee.

Bumble bee foraging on poppy

Nevertheless, it seemed odd to me that we have ‘mason bees’, and ‘leafcutter bees’ (two words).  I felt it appeared to suggest that the first word merely described the type of bee, and in that sense, I wondered whether we should really be writing ‘bumble bee’

Do All Authors Write Bumblebee As One Word, Or Do Some Write It As Two?

No, indeed, some authors write it as two words, take for example:  Bumble Bees Of North America – this was written by:

  • Paul H. Williams, research entomologist at the Natural History Museum in London, England;  
  • Robbin Thorp, professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis;  
  • Leif L. Richardson, doctoral candidate in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Dartmouth College; and 
  • Sheila R. Colla, an NSERC post doctoral fellow at Wildlife Preservation Canada.

So What Is The Answer?

More recently, authors of The Bees In Your Backyard, Wilson and Messenger Carril, actually tackle the question directly, and to my mind, most satisfactorily.  They write:

Bumble bee or bumblebee?  Honey bee or honeybee?

“The term bumble bee is just as often written bumblebee in the United States and Canada, and knowing which style is correct can be tricky.  Most dictionaries stick with the concatenated version (honeybee), but most scientists separate the two.  Their logic is that the “bee” part of the word is an accurate reflection of the insect’s identity, and so it can stand on its own.  There are many kinds of bees, they argue: sweat bees, carpenter bees, honey bees, and bumble bees among them.  In cases where the second part of the word does not accurately reflect the kind of insect, it should be concatenated.  So while house fly is correct (because houseflies are indeed flies), butter fly is not (because butterflies are not flies).”

The authors go on to separate the two words (i.e. bumble bee) within the Bombus section of their book.

To me this makes perfect sense, even though, just as the authors state, both terms are in use (bumblebee and bumble bee). 

However, from now on I will probably split the words for new pages, but leave them joined together on pages I have already written, and edit them gradually.   It would be too much work for me to make so many changes all at once on this website!

What About 'Humble Bee'?

I was aware that Charles Darwin used the term 'humble-bee'.  For example, in his writings "On the routes of the males of Bombus" (from "The Correspondence of Charles Darwin") he says:

"On 8 September 1854 one of my sons saw a few humble-bees going into a hollow at the foot of a tall ash tree......Hoping to find a humble-bee nest inside, I looked in, but could not see any chamber."

Later, a book written in 1912, by F. W. L. Sladen The Humble Bee also uses the term ‘humble’.  He also hyphenates honey bee as  honey-bee.  Within the book, he starts the introduction writing ‘bumble-bee’, but then appears to use both ‘humble’ immediately after:

"Everybody knows the burly, good-natured bumble-bee.  Clothed in her lovely coat of fur, she is the life of the gay garden as well as of the modestly blooming wayside as she eagerly hums from flower to flower, diligently collecting nectar and pollen from the break to the close of day. Her methodical movements indicate the busy life she leads - a life as wonderful and interesting in many of its details as that of the honey-bee, about which so much has been written.  Her load completed, she speeds away to her home.  Here, in midsummer, dwells a populous and thriving colony of humble-bees.”

You can download Sladen’s book for free from this page.

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