Winter is come

The sisters were waiting. And Curly was keeping his head as still as he could, standing as straight as he could, eyes fixed and antennae up ,and listening as hard as he could. He tried not to tremble and tried to imagine he was his brother Burly, lost somewhere in a summer’s haze. A single whisper was passing around the colony as the bees drew in closer. They were waiting, waiting and alert keen to hear Curly’s plan for their survival.

With Burly in his mind’s eye, Curly stood up even straighter, moved his head from one side to the other and started to outline his plan. He began with a grateful acknowledgement of the priviledge he had been given, honour, blah blah until he became aware of a cacaphony of blah blah blahing. He stopped ostensibly to clear his throat. “Just get to the point would you?” and his friendly messenger bee raised her head as her six sisters nodded in agreement and mutterings about drones wittering on, better off without them, better off alone, are we sure we want to do this? This last an alarming suggestion that brought Curly straight to his plan.

Few sights are as distressing to a beekeeper as that of a dead colony at the end of winter. Image courtesy of The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), Crown Copyright

“Right. Our objective is survival. We must keep Mother and the nest warm, but not as warm as summer as there isn’t so much brood to care for. We need the nest ready for when Mother feels it’s right to start laying again. I can’t tell you when that is, but she will know. All I can tell you is that we must be ready.” This last Curly said with some urgency, as it had only just occured to him that indeed if the darkness and cold continue to grow, the colony will soon be dangerously low on everything: food, water, brood and bees. Any mistake, any miscalculation will mean the end. He noted with some satisfaction that all around the bees were watching and murmuring agreement with his explanation of the objective. Recognition and agreement of the objective was the first step. 

“The plan I have devised is one you can follow every time the dark and cold come. We know from Mother that this thing called winter comes every year and that every year it is different, but eventually spring comes and the sun starts shining once again and we can stay warm. Now it’s getting colder so we need to cluster around the nest so that Mother survives and will start laying again in the spring. We’ll only have a few days between her laying and the birth of new bees who can help nurse the eggs and grubs as they come along. They’ll also help us with the warmth, but in the meantime we need to cluster, we must cluster.” “We know that you fool of a drone” came an angry voice from somewhere out on the edge. “We know that, yes,” Curly hesitated and tweetled his antennae anxiously before adding “but it doesn’t always work does it? We don’t always survive the night and we know that we lose sisters when it gets really cold and the grey light turns black quicker and lasts longer. We know only this much.” A general bee-harumphing rippled through the assembled bees and a small voice, that of a bee only recently born could be heard to whisper “I don’t want to die before I’ve lived”.

Curly’s plan was bouncing around his head and he was struggling to control the conversation. Too fast and they wouldn’t believe him, too slow and they would think he was making it up as he went along. He remembered Burly and his habit of stroking his antennae and mandibles, and followed the model as best he could, while the hubbub lessened and the young sister was comforted by some of her siblings. Curly heard with some concern, “at least you’re not a drone, at least you know we’ll take care of you”. Judging the time to be right Curly started to outline his plan. He knew he had to be completely clear, leave no possibility of misunderstanding or doubt, and to make sure that there was just enough concern about the plan to ensure that the Seven Sisters would not trust themselves to pull it off without Curly.

“We cluster like we always do, but we don’t just clump up around the nest. We do follow the principles of clumping, keeping Mother and the brood safe and warm in the middle.” “What’s he talking about? Swarming? We only swarm when the weather’s hot and the hive is too full and when Mother gets the hint that it’s time for new blood?” Curly did his best to nod in wise agreement, slow and careful and continued with his plan. “We use scouts to check how cold people are getting on the outside of the clump, they can crawl into the centre and as they go tell the sisters to prepare to move back from where they are, and out towards the periphery. The scouts will need to move slowly to conserve energy, but their movement will generate heat. It might balance out.” At this point 30,000 bee brains were whirring at the idea that they would rotate in layers from the centre of the nest out to the external layers of clustered bees. It was a lot to take in, but Curly had his senses closely tuned to those of the Seven Sisters who were not communicating. He took this as a good sign, a sign that each of the seven was thinking hard and that none had made any judgement about his plan, at least not yet.

“With every rotation we minimise the loss of bees on the outside to the cold. You all know what happens to us when the temperature drops to 9º. We stop moving and we gradually atrophy and die. We drop to the floor and wait to for the end. I know because I’ve seen it, I know because it’s what happens if a bee isn’t lucky enough that the sun comes to warm her up again before she has to die.”

Curly then explained how he had survived following the drone massacre some weeks earlier. He explained how he had hidden during the day in a tiny space pulled together from disused and empty comb. He explained how he had been lucky that the small corner of the hive where he had been lodged happened to be the part of the hive where the sun hit first, so the cold did not last as long. He told them how he moved about the hive at night, only sipping uncapped honey and only where there were sleeping bees. And this is how he found out about them dying in the cold. “I saw with my own eyes how once chilled a bee has no chance of survival without help.” Survival, he explained can only happen if the colony follows the plan.

Curly could sense that the Seven Sisters were communicating, not visibly or with much intensity but there was something going on and he could see the old drone patrol getting into position. He noted there were some new members in the group, replacing those who had died off since their prevention convention. Curly pulled himself up to be as tall as he could manage, and did his best to adopt an air of nonchalant authority. If he had had fingernails he would have been studying them as he waited for some response. None being forthcoming he asked in as casual a tone as he could muster, “any questions? Or are you all happy with the plan? It means you can live longer than usual in the cold and dark, and it means Mother and the babies will survive too.” At this Curly noticed the Seven Sisters and drone patrol rearranging themselves one on either side of him, to form a sort of channel or corridor. Curly soon realised that this was in fact an aisle and that Mother, her retinue in train, was slowly coming towards him. He looked anxiously from side to side at the drone patrol standing to attention and at the Seven Sisters as they bowed in reverence to the Queen. Their reverence was more for the benefit of the colony than in deference to her Majesty and as a one they were sighing with some annoyance at this unprecedented overstep of the usual boundaries. What was she doing interfering in the business of the colony? The Queen’s only function is to mate and lay eggs and her involvement in big decisions is nil. Curly bowed as low as he could manage without tipping over and said “Your Majesty” in a grovelling tone as he did so. He could see the Seven Sisters antennae working furiously and understood that this was not so bad.

“Your Majesty has arrived just in time to hear our decision and the plan of this remnant drone to help us survive the winter.” The Queen looked up absent mindedly. Her intention had never been to get involved with whatever it was that was going on, here so close to the middle of her nest. She was confused and leant her head on one side with a view to taking a nap instead. One of her retinue tidied the drooping antennae and positioned the Queen close to some empty honeycomb cells so that she could doze more comfortably. To the surrounding bees this all looked suitably majestic and grand, but mainly because a Queen bee is so much larger than all the other bees, and so elegantly put together with a long pointed torso and huge hairy eyes. She is also constantly fed and groomed so her appearance has none of the scant lankiness of the other girls. A gentle snoring soon proceeded and the ranks of the drone patrol and the Seven Sisters closed around Curly, slightly irritated at the distraction of the Queen’s random and unintentional visit.

A spokesperson for the Seven Sisters came forward and the drone patrol ensured she had space and the attention of the whole colony, apart from that of the Queen who was now deep asleep. “Well thank you drone for this illuminating plan. If it works, your idea will help us we are certain. We are not certain of how much it will help us, or if we can train scouts in time or if we can organise them properly. But that is another matter, another task for you, another task that you must undertake straightaway. We’ll follow your plan and we will let you stay to see it is properly done. The drone patrol is dismissed and you are now an honorary guest in our home. If this works and we are most of us still when the winter ends, you will indeed be called Curly the Wise.” 

Curly stared back at his sister and nodded slowly, his antennae alert to any signs of disagreement or dissent within the ranks of bees surrounding him. There were none and Curly was gradually aware that the bees were gradually moving back to their various tasks. Outside the wind had dropped and foragers were setting off to gather the last of the autumn’s nectar from late flowering ivy creeping up and around the trees surrounding the hive. Curly watched as bees capped honey and fed the few grubs that were expected to add to the colony’s numbers over the coming weeks. He moved away to his little corner and started working the numbers. How many bees in each layer, how often the rotations would have to happen, how cold it would get, how many babies would be born, how he himself would survive, and for how much longer. At least he had had this one more day he smiled to himself and slowly drifted off to sleep. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. 

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