Curly the Wise One, last of the three drones, of three brothers, was keeping very still. As Mother moved away with her retinue, the ring of guard bees slowly dispersed. He was overwhelmed with relief and sorrow. Relief that the seven sisters, his colony’s council of leaders, would let him keep his wings and stay. Sorrow that he had not been able to save Burly and Twirly from their very different drone fates. Curly was the only male bee left in the hive and his sisters were stepping away as well. All the bees were moving to their posts, to their allocated tasks. He was alone.
But Curly the Wise was also reprieved and still alive. He hadn’t been turfed out, wingless with the rest of the drones and could stay in the hive if he could ensure the nest of bees would stay warm, as temperatures fell and winds howled. He didn’t really know how to do this, only that his survival and that of his sisters, depended on it. “I said it, and I shall make it so.” He was talking to himself through gritted mandibles, all by himself in a world where every individual had their place and their function. Alone and uncertain. And with a promise to keep.
Curly’s usually tip top brain was in turmoil. The last couple of days had left him exhausted, his thoughts in disarray. He felt confused and incoherent for the first time in his life. As he moved closer to the centre of the nest, he tried to calm down, slowly methodically cataloguing what he saw, reassured by its familiarity. He noted a dwindling number of capped brood cells and saw that the newly born bees were much rounder than usual. They did not have the streamlined and slender figures of the older girls, but were instead curiously plump. A chill passed through the hive as the wind outside rose and a heavy rain started to pound on the roof. Perhaps the new shape was in response to the growing cold. Curly’s bee brain was still processing the awful events of the last couple of days, but this little thought lodged somewhere in the muddle. He would come back to it later.
The loss of Twirly wrenched and the image of the wingless drone with his slightly irregular limbs and fear-filled eyes rose up. Curly saw again as Twirly slowly drifted blank and stiff down to the grass below the hive, desolate and afraid. By now Curly reasoned that Twirly and the other expelled drones would be dead. Perhaps blown away in the wind, or drowned in the rain, bodies curled and limbs tucked in. Dead. Death was the one thing a bee should definitely avoid. But colony logic dictated that dead drones meant fewer mouths to feed during the winter and an increased chance of survival for everyone else. Drone destruction made sense in a sort of way, if you accepted insect logic to protect the many by evicting the expendable.
It was this flawed reasoning that had given Curly his chance. He knew a smarter way to manage the cluster would help keep the nest warm so the bees could survive the winter. How to do this though? How to live up to the bold and desperate promise he had made to the seven sisters? How could he manage the changeovers, the timings, how could he know if a bee’s temperature was dropping to dangerous levels? Did the chubby shape of the new bees hold a clue? He needed a plan and he needed authority, he needed to tell the council of seven how his plan would work and how it should be shared with the colony. He must demand absolute power over the shifts. They must understand that the very survival of the colony depended on the bees’ blind obedience to Curly the Wise.
Curly wasn’t sure who to ask. He didn’t know which of the tens of thousands of bees made up the council of seven, nor was he even sure there really was such a council. He formulated his plan quietly at the edge of the nest which was slowly cohering into a single mass of bees. They were at the centre of the hive where the Queen was and where the last of the season’s brood were being nurtured.
Curly moved away further to the periphery where for some reason it seemed to feel less cold. Here the scent of propolis was strong and there were no drafts. The wall of the hive felt warm to the touch and it reminded him of summer. Sunshine. Sunshine was bringing heat and Curly moved from side to side and up and down to track the warmth. This is what the bees could do to keep warm, so following the sun must be part of the plan. He was drawing imaginary circles on the wall and became aware of another bee, also away from the main cluster and also seemingly aimless. She came up close to Curly and he understood that she had news. She wanted to tell him what Mother had told her. Mother was the oldest bee in the colony and Mother wanted Curly to know what happened when the world turned cold and dark, when the colony started to fail and that the colony needed a plan for self-preservation.
The messenger explained that their survival would depend on the cluster having enough to eat and on keeping warm. There were plenty of stores, but warmth was another matter. It was this that Curly pondered. The messenger, an older bee who seemed to know Curly, let him understand that the dark and the cold would not last but that they would seem endless. The Queen had survived this cold and dark twice before and had stopped laying eggs because without brood to keep warm and nurture they could risk lower temperatures in the hive. Instead of maintaining summer’s temperatures, perhaps they could be much colder and they could still survive.
Curly the Wise wasn’t convinced. He remembered his night after the drone massacre, the night when he started to lose all sensation, when his legs, wings and antennae seemed to freeze and he became immobile. He remembered the slow sensation stealing over him and his legs curling under him and his hold on the honeycomb failing. This is what the cold does to a bee. They might be alive, but a temperature of 9º or less paralyses. Movement towards food or other bees is impossible, so they collapse and slowly die. Curly understood this now and understood that he must balance the temperature of the outer edges of the bee cluster with the time it takes for a bee to become so chilled. That would depend on the sunlight hitting the hive, on the number of bees in the outer layers and even their shape. Curly suddenly understood that curvey bees make better insulators than slender ones built for flight because curves can trap more air.
They’ll join arms the messenger was continuing, and they’ll vibrate their wings and limbs to generate heat, and they must be able to move as one. Curly’s imaginary drawings on the wall were starting to make sense to him. He started with the middle of the nest, with where the Queen would stay. That would mean nursing bees should be the next ring out, except that maybe nursing bees aren’t needed in the dark and cold, because there will be no grubs to nurture. Perhaps it doesn’t matter who is where, except that the layers of bees who were thin would be more vulnerable to the cold and less able to generate kinetic warmth than the rounder shaped bees.
Curly set off to survey the hive. There had been some changes in the last couple of days, changes that he hadn’t previously noticed. The giant grub had put strange foods in the top of the hive. No good doing that Curly harrumphed, if the bees are too cold to move they’ll not forage within the hive even if there’s extra rations. He noticed that there were ample honey stores and that some of the honey was runnier than it had been in the pre-massacre days. Water. Water would be difficult to manage when the days were mostly dark which was another thing the messenger had said before leaving. Mother had said that water was a constant worry for her attendants, although the Queen herself couldn’t see what the fuss was about.
He understood what the messenger said about keeping things cosy, but Curly, not being used to numbers, didn’t know how warm the nest should be. The messenger had said it should be like a summer’s day, like when drones were going out and sometimes coming back, when workers would drop exhausted and heavily laden on the landing board. He didn’t know it but 34º C is the number Curly should have had in mind for summer, and the messenger had said they could make it with less than this but this lower temperature of 25º would have to be constant, until the light and warmth returned. He had no idea how long that would be or how long his family of many thousands would be able to survive. Or how they would manage to keep together as they slowly exhausted their stores.
Curly the Wise made a list. After make list, the next item was a conversation with the seven sisters. Then he must calculate how many bees were in the colony and how many would be needed to enclose the Queen and create a tight nest. Then how often the bees on the outside should creep to the middle and how many layers at a time should move. What about hygiene and defending the hive? The guard bees would have to be part of the cluster so the colony would be undefended from mice or badgers or wasps. Wasps he worried less about because they were like bees and probably had their own concerns as the darkness came and the temperature fell. Curly had seen mice and badgers coming up to the hive in the early summer mornings before being chased off by the colony’s guard bees. He had noticed they had fur all over their entire bodies, even their faces and legs. Curly had wondered at the time why that was so, but now reasoned that it probably helped them stay warm and mobile. Maybe they were a risk, so maybe the stores should be moved away from the hive entrance to remain hidden under the scent of bees and propolis.
Water would be important so even though there were some limited water stores, he should factor in the occasional departure from the hive for a few of the stronger bees. They could collect water before going back to the heart of the nest. Curly would need to check for any cracks or gaps and delegate a team to block up new drafts with propolis. They had ample stores and were a healthy colony so they had the strength to vibrate their muscles to generate heat. Hooking into each other would conserve heat and make the vibrations more effective.
Now was the time to confer with his seven sisters. He finished his checks and ordered his thoughts as he moved closer to the heart of the hive. Within moments of his decision he was aware of the same drone patrol starting to surround him and turning their bodies outwards. The group of seven were clustered together, the messenger one of their number. “Well,” someone said. And Curly the Wise cleared his bee throat and started to explain his plan.