Much to see in a bee’s name

Much to see in a bee’s name

Farming Small Areas News
CHANGE: The Australian stingless bee's real name was Trigona carbonaria, but the genus name was recently changed to Tetragonula.

CHANGE: The Australian stingless bee's real name was Trigona carbonaria, but the genus name was recently changed to Tetragonula.

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In biological names the first word, spelt with a capital, is the genus, and the second is the species. Most such names are based on characteristics of the plant or organism, but often the name of the discoverer of the species is immortalised in it’s name.

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In biological names the first word, spelt with a capital, is the genus, and the second is the species.

Most such names are based on characteristics of the plant or organism, but often the name of the discoverer of the species is immortalised in it’s name.

The Australian stingless bee's real name was Trigona carbonaria, but the genus name was recently changed to Tetragonula because DNA testing found our stingless bees to be genetically different from the Trigona of other countries.

What do Trigona and Tetragonula mean?

Unable to find out despite asking learned entomologists, I followed the advice of Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty - ‘When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean’.

So I made up my own interpretation of their meaning.

A Trigon is defined in the Oxford dictionary as ‘a figure having three angles and three sides’ – a triangle.

Such imagination those early biologists had, but the dear little bee doesn’t look like a triangle to me!

And the species name carbonaria is presumably based on carbonaro, a collier or charcoal burner. Well, it is black!

More intriguing, the name of the genus was officially changed to Tetragonula. 

‘Tetra’ is easy, it means four. But what about this ‘gonula’?

Again the Oxford dictionary defines tetragon as a quadrangle.

Does the bee look four-sided to you?

I prefer a different explanation. Tetra certainly means it has four something.

A gonad is (again with the Oxford’s help) ‘an undifferentiated germ-gland’.

In ordinary language (for males) testes or testicles.

Since the vast number of bees in the colony, the workers, are infertile we must assume that the picturesque name is based on the sexually active males of the swarm, drones.

So is this male bee endowed with four of these essential attributes while we and the rest of the animal world are denied such luxury and are limited by ungenerous nature to two?

And if we go back to its old name Trigona, perhaps it once had only three and is evolving before our very eyes to now boast four?

But long ago Shakespeare put similar thoughts into the mind of Juliet:

‘What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’

C J Dennis, in The Sentimental Bloke, translated her words into Australian vernacular. ‘Wot's in a name? A rose by any other name would smell the same.’

  • Jim Wright is a life member of the Hunter Valley branch of the Amateur Beekeepers' Association of NSW.
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