Words in the News


Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

News that the UK is to support a total Europe-wide ban on outdoor use of pesticides that harm flying insects has been greeted with joy by environmental campaigners. The neonicotinoids that are accused of having wiped out vast numbers of beneficial insects, as well as harming bee colonies, have been banned for use on flowering crops across the EU since 2013. Further restrictions, which are likely to pass next month, will prohibit their use everywhere except in greenhouses.

As well as being essential for pollination, bees are deeply embedded in the English language. A busy bee is someone who is always busy, while a queen bee, like her entomological counterpart, is the centre of all attention and activity; or thinks she is. Worker bees, meanwhile, are those who do all the hard work but get no credit, while drones are the opposite, doing no work at all. A bee is also a communal activity, whether in the form of a spelling competition or a sewing bee, a friendly get-together where people sew.

If you have a bee in your bonnet you annoy other people by obsessing about an issue, while someone who thinks they are the bee’s knees believes themself to be very clever and important. We use the euphemism the birds and the bees to refer to explanations of the facts about sex, while if you make a beeline for someone or something you go towards them via the quickest and most direct route.

As you might expect, like many other basic words in English bee is of Germanic origin and is related to similar words in Dutch and German.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter


  • Why does the photo with this article appear to have some type of black and yellow striped fly in it rather than a 4 winged actual bee?

  • Thanks for your comment, James. This is absolutely my fault. I looked in the image bank for a suitable image of a bee and didn’t examine the one I chose too closely. Looking at it now I can see that it has rather large eyes, and no doubt many other features that mark it out as a fly and not a bee. I shall leave the image in place as a reminder to myself not to trust what I see.

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