Chapter 2: The Three Bees Under Attack

The comb was barely pressed soft and cosy to their shapes, before the boys woke to a terrific buzzing and the choking fug of bee commotion. A wild storm of pheromones clogged the air and all about them was frantic motion. A nanny bee bustled up, antennae akimbo and sticky with fresh nectar from a minor collision with an incoming worker. “Get out, get out of the way you fools” she squeaked in near panic pressing herself against the side of the hive, one leg stretched protectively in the general direction of Burly, Curly and Twirly. Sleep drenched and hazy they watched wide eyed as dozens of workers dropped their loads and martialled into tidy rows, creeping as one across the comb towards the hive’s opening. It was almost clogged with the serried rows of massed bees, all facing the same way moving in steady robotic lock step. Stretching his neck which gave a little crack as it reached maximum stretch for the first time, Burly looked slightly to one side and hissed with what he hoped was menace (it wasn’t) at the little nanny bee: “what’s going on, we were asleep. You woke us up. We’re hungry.” The little nanny bee ignored him, and pressed her outstretched leg tighter against Burly’s abdomen. Curly, peering out from behind his much bigger brother, added by way of encouragement: “why aren’t you feeding us?”. The little nanny bee paid no attention. Instead she pulled in her leg and started moving carefully towards a new row of bees creeping slowly and deliberately towards the hive’s exit. She was soon pushed back by an incoming forager: “not so fast you, you stay here with the brood and youngsters. You’re not ready for this.” The little nanny bee’s head dropped disconsolately, antennae drooping, wings still as she moved aside to let forager and guard bees go by to join the ranks. Moving away from the exit, she headed towards the stores to fill her belly and return to feed the three sleepy drones. Burly and Curly watched her go in anticipation, oblivious to the shoving and jostling as more and more bees scrambled by to form new lines.

“What’s happening?” Twirly mumbled through a half yawn as he snuggled deeper into the softened comb. He was still recovering from his birth trauma, wax still sticking to parts of his face and dozily he rubbed his massive eyes. In the near darkness he slowly focused on the mayhem that was all around. “We don’t know, but something big is definitely up” Curly hissed. “All the bees are being called up and the guards are yelling orders.” Burly stared after nanny bee, looking forward to getting something to eat, but Curly was urgent. “Now’s not the time for food. We can’t wait. Something big is going down. Follow me”. With Curly weaving a careful way through the colony and Burly and Twirly struggling to follow, the three bees started moving towards the hive wall where the traffic looked easier to navigate. It was slow going, and as they moved forwards they saw more and more ranks of bees crawling steadily on. But no nanny bees stopped to give them anything to eat. All nanny bees had been ordered to guard the brood chambers, to keep the gestating baby bees safe and to feed those grubs whose chambers were still uncapped. These were the most vulnerable and possibly hardest to protect, but they were the colony’s future. They had to survive the drama at all costs.

Hornet looking for bee meat.

As the three drones got closer to the hive entrance, they could hear the sounds of guard bees snarling instructions and a terrible humming sound that stopped them in their tracks. The guards were calling all workers to come straight to the entrance and to organise themselves into tight exit facing formations. The three youngsters could just about make out teams of bees as they lifted off no longer in tidy rows but in what looked like a state of chaos, of turmoil, random and messy. They jumped out into the air flying at alarming speeds whilst inside the hive the signal was spreading and the ranks of defenders lined up row after row after row awaiting instructions. Twirly, now suddenly wide awake and in a state of extreme agitation was turning tiny circles in a complete panic, his little legs sticking and tripping and hooking onto one another making him lose his balance. As he twisted and turned he stepped into the paths of harried bees now moving in many directions, who cursed him as they passed. “Useless drone. Get out of our way”. Most moved towards the entrance to join the guards and their rapidly assembled army, some were in search of their Queen and some to rally nurse and housekeeping bees and order them to the brood cells.

Poor Twirly was the one who understood what was happening although he didn’t get it quite right.“Attack” he squeaked, “we’re under attack, we’re going to die, even though we’ve only just been born, we’re going to die, to die” and tiny bee tears misted his oversized eyes, as he tripped over another bee, blind and consumed with unnamable terror. It was useless drama and Curly watched quietly as Burly bumped hard into Twirly’s abdomen, before whacking him resolutely across his gaping and hysterical jaws, which suddenly stopped their frantic opening and shutting. Burly had a forelimb raised for a second swipe, but with a twist of an antennae Curly stopped it. Twirly’s tears did not stop but his wild motion calmed and ceased. He sniffed and whined in a little whisper “we’re going to die, to die, we’re going to die. All of us.” And he sniffed some more. Nursing the slight bruise to his foreleg, Burly was inclined to believe him, despite the fact that he was totally unaware of what attack his brother was on about.

Burly’s thinking didn’t stretch so far as to wonder if the colony had the strength of numbers to see off whatever it was. “What is it?” muttered Curly his tiny bee brain working at top speed to process all the signals he was getting. It was no use, he would have to get away from the terror pheromones emanating from his companions and clogging his senses. As Curly moved away, he could hear Burly and Twirly offering small mewing sounds of reassurance and comfort to one another. They were following him, which did little to help Curly’s mood. For a moment he stayed still in the mayhem, masses of worker bees and newly conscripted guard bees eddying around and over him. Gradually the signals got clearer and Curly could sense a strange scent in the air. Slowly he came to understand that something was circling some short distance from the hive entrance, picking off tired workers as they returned heavily laden with nectar in their bellies and pollen in their legsacks. He understood that the something had been chased away but only to hover at a slight distance, beyond the range of the usual guards. It kept coming back. The guards had started sending emergency communications shortly before the three bees’ sleep had been disturbed. The colony had flown into action with the more experienced guards responding to signals from the hive to get more ranks of defenders into position so that they could counter attack in large numbers.

Curly processed all this data at speed, and understood that it could take much more than the usual few coordinated defence teams to kill off whatever it was. He wasn’t entirely sure what an attacker looked like or why it would be interested to invade the hive, only that the colony was in an extreme state of distress. A few moments pondering and he found himself creeping closer towards the outside, slowly moving along the wall to where the guards were coordinating their platoons’ departures.

As Curly approached the light he noticed a small hole in the hive wall. It was too small for him to pass through, but big enough to see out. Then he understood what was attacking. There were three of them, massive airborne insects magnificent in gleaming golden armour, giant eyes shining with malice, menace and malevolence, focused, coordinated. The huge yellow legs, barbed and powerful, were held in perfect symmetry from their immaculate bodies, their vicelike jaws ready. As the long black wings whirred and rattled in the air, Curly watched in fascination. The creatures dove and swirled into the clouds of oncoming bees, opening and shutting their iron hard mouths to capture bees that couldn’t move fast enough to get out of their paths. And with every thrust towards the hive entrance the defending bees, at top speed changed direction, confusing and deflecting their foes. What looked like mayhem was an aerial dance elegant and random, choreographed in precise and coordinated patterns. The bees were suffering losses, but stayed intent, agile and resilient turning suddenly and unexpectedly to pound and pound against the hornets again and again, tiny spitfires hurtling through the air to hit and sting with sudden impact the shining sides of the invaders.

At the first onslaughts of angry bees, the armour plated hornets, momentarily shimmied away before continuing forwards to meet the next swathe of bristling angry bees. Curly watched fascinated as the defending squadrons leapt into the air from the hive’s take off and landing platform. And slowly it seemed they were winning. A process of steady attrition was underway. The gold of the invaders seemed to shine less brittle bright, seemed to catch less and less of the slow setting sun, and the inclination to fight on through the defenders seemed to weaken. The noise around the hive was giving way to a softer and less frantic hum. Still close to the exit, Curly could see the guards conferring, casting their eyes over the readied ranks of foragers turned soldiers, assessing, calculating, deciding if more should be readied for potential sacrifice. And then suddenly it was all over. Inside the hive the ranks of bees were once again in apparent disarray, meandering about, deciding who should go where for nectar and sharing food with others before heading, bellies empty, back out to the flowers. Curly could see no more hornets, so he made his way carefully across the comb to find his brothers.

He found them in good spirits. Burly was happy because a passing bee had heard his plea for food and along with a few of her sisters was feeding him and Twirly. Twirly wasn’t quite happy, but his anxiety was subsiding and he was pleased to see that his little bit of honeycomb was still unrepaired and Twirly shaped. He eased himself back into his own personal nest, patting the comb beside him and signalling to Burly and Curly that it was time for a nap. They joined Twirly but Curly decided not to share what he had learned that day with his brothers. Instead he signed a tiny bee sigh and turned over zzzzzzzzzzzz.

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