By Athayde Tonhasca
If you take a close look at a tin of Lyle’s Golden Syrup or Black Treacle, you will notice one of the most unappetising and strange food logos: a dead lion surrounded by a swarm of bees above the slogan ‘Out of the strong came forth sweetness’. The image and text are based on the Biblical tale in which Samson kills a lion, and later finds a honeycomb inside it. This supposedly inspired Samson to write a riddle: ‘Out of the eater came forth meat and out of the strong came forth sweetness’. The meaning of the riddle is that Samson had meat and honey (sweetness) from the carcass of a lion (the eater and the strong).
The story apparently inspired the stanch Presbyterian Abram Lyle (1820-1891), businessman and founder of the sugar refinery Abram Lyle & Sons. So one of Britain’s oldest brands was born; its logo remains virtually unchanged since 1885.
The yarn about dead animals and bees is more than 2,000 years old: the Greeks, the Romans and other Mediterranean peoples believed honey bees originated spontaneously from animal carcasses, primarily those of oxen. The Greeks had a name for this miracle: bugonia, from bous (ox) and gon (generation). The Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BC) describes the story of a farmer, who in want of bees, slaughtered an ox and waited for a new swarm. Bugonia inspired Shakespeare as well: ‘Tis seldom when the bee doth leave her comb, in the dead carrion’ (Henry IV).
Corpse apiculture suffered a serious blow in 1668, when the Italian physician, naturalist, biologist and poet Francesco Redi (1626-1697) published Esperienze Intorno alla Generazione degl’Insetti (Experiments on the Generation of Insects). With simple experiments involving the covering of meat-filled glass containers and observing the presence or absence of flies and maggots, Redi put an end to the belief in spontaneous generation.
Bugonia was dead, but the recurrent reports of bees swarming around carcasses, just like in Lyle’s logo, still required explanation. Enter diplomat and entomologist Baron Karl-Robert von Osten-Sacken (1828-1906), who, despite his Teutonic-sounding name, was Russian. The Baron suggested that the ‘bees’ found around dead animals were in fact flies: not the expected carrion-seeking blow flies and bluebottles, but the drone fly, Eristalis tenax.
The drone fly is native to Europe and one of the most common British hoverflies. In some years populations are boosted dramatically by immigration from the continent. The name ‘drone fly’ comes from its resemblance, in appearance and behaviour, to honey bees. Males are territorial, chasing away other males and even bees, wasps and butterflies. The adults feed on pollen, especially from yellow flowers such as dandelions, and they are known to pollinate various crops including onion, kiwifruit, soybean, sweet pepper and carrot: they may contribute to the pollination of wild plants as well. The drone fly can be as efficient as the honey bee in transferring pollen between plants, so it is one of the few fly species being evaluated for mass production and release in greenhouses.
After mating, females lay eggs near dirty, contaminated water such as manure lagoons, holding pits in livestock areas, ditches and wet silage. The larva has a long ‘tail’, which is a specialized respiratory structure that works as a snorkel, allowing the insect to breathe air from the surface. This respiratory appendage gives the larva its common name: the rat-tailed maggot.
In his 1894 publication ‘On the oxen-born bees of the Ancients (bugonia) and their relation to Eristalis tenax, a two-winged insect’, Baron von Osten-Sacken explained the bugonia phenomenon as this:
‘The original cause of this delusion lies in the fact that a very common fly, scientifically called Eristalis tenax (popularly the drone-fly), lays its eggs upon carcasses of animals, that its larvae develop in the putrescent mass, and finally change into a swarm of flies which, in their shape, hairy clothing and colour, look exactly like bees, although they belong to a totally different order of insects.’
The Baron came close: the drone fly does not lay its eggs on carcasses, but on their liquid exudates and foul water accumulated around them. That’s why the drone fly is important in forensic investigations involving partially submerged human corpses.
Hence an entomological mystery appears to have been solved. Next time you spot a drone fly busy pollinating flowers in your garden or local park, pause to consider the long thread that links it all the way to our ancient legends and history.