The piece I posted yesterday about whether the names two of our most well known pollinators should be spelled honey bee/honeybee or bumblebee/bumble bee generated a lot of interesting comments on Facebook, Twitter, and on the blog. A few people pointed me to the “Snodgrass Rule” that informal names should be combined only if the species concerned are not members of that particular taxon (e.g. “butterfly” rather than “butter fly”, because they are not “flies”), in which case “honey bee” and “bumble bee” are correct.
If I was ever aware of this entomological convention I’d certainly forgotten about it, but it strikes me that there’s a lot of examples outside of entomology that break the rule, e.g. hummingbird, goldfinch, catfish, ground ivy, etc.
A couple of commentators also asked me about the old term “humble bee”, as used in Frederick Sladen’s 1912 book “The Humble-Bee, its Life-History and How to Domesticate It”. So I added this to the bumblebee/bumble bee search on the Google Ngram Viewer, taking the time frame back to 1500, and the results are very intriguing:
It would appear that “bumble bee” pre-dates “humble bee” by a considerable period, with the former being superseded by the latter from the late 1600s onwards, until “humble bee/humblebee” started to decline in use from the end of the 19th century.
I’ve also searched using the term “dumbledore”, which is an old local name, but it was also applied to other buzzing insects such as chafers, making interpretation of the results difficult. There’s more on the etymology of bumblebees on Wikipedia if you’d care to follow it up.
Many thanks to everyone who contributed to the discussion!