The Three Bees and the Giant Grub

The light was pushing in far too brightly thought Curly, as he turned away from the morning. Gentle murmuring sounds and tiny whistling snores told him that his brothers were still asleep. As he turned to shade his large eyes from the sunrise Curly was aware of a draft coming from the other side of the comb. They had settled down some hours before near to the uncapped honey that was still curing and where nursing bees could access it easily for the brood and hopefully for Twirly, Curly and Burly. Soft summer air dawn chilled caressed Curly’s back, his lazy wings slowly rising and falling. He sensed tension and focused fully on a strange activity that was beginning to build. His brothers were slowly waking up and the three of them, antennae rising started moving towards what appeared to be the cause of the commotion.

They crossed cautiously to the edge of the frame, forgoing breakfast in their tense urgency, for now it was clear that something was wrong on the other side. Creeping around the edge they saw a terrible sight. A large section of brood comb had fallen away and the grubs inside were now horribly unclothed, naked along an entire side. The damage to the cells was considerable and the three bees looked in horror at the exposed, gestating grubs. Their little bodies were white, translucent and barely formed. They had no bee-like shape other than the pale shadow outlines of legs folded and wings merely hinted, but all just white. Their eyes were formed and densely black. There was the merest hint of antennae shaping along their newly blacked heads. They were ghosts waiting to be born but now might never arrive. Worker bees worked at frenzied pace to salvage what they could from the avalanche of comb and Curly could hear the hissing fear at the implications of this terrible loss if the damaged nursery could not be saved.

An evil beekeeper in full harassment mode. Guard bees already on the alert.

How this had happened wasn’t clear. It seemed that somehow a section of comb in the brood box had suffered an impact and collapsed. It was clear that the priority had to be repairing the damage. The loss of hundreds of grubs would mean that too few new bees would be born in the coming weeks. This would mean fewer resources to collect nectar, pollen and propolis, and so less to feed the colony and ensure it had sufficient numbers and nourishment to survive the coming winter.

Curly could hear the urgency buzzing across the frame as the workers struggled to repair the harm. Then he noticed that the space beside the frame with the damaged cells was larger than it was last time he and his brothers had cruised this part of the hive. He now saw multiple wax hexagons on the wall of the colony, irregular and inconsistent and also in need of repair. Could it have been that the brood cells had been attached to this part of the wall? And if so, had they fallen under their own weight as the grubs grew from tiny little commas into curls of white and then to recognisable grubs? Did they get too heavy once they had filled their cells ready to complete their transformations into new bees ready to be born and take up their duties in the hive? All this Curly pondered as he looked at the broken wax on the hive wall.

Burly was ambling about watching his sisters work and wondering aloud if it would be ok to help himself to some honey from part of the unexpectedly uncapped honeycombs. Twirly was cowering behind his brother looking in horror at the devastation. He had barely recovered from the trauma of the Hornet attack and reminded both Curly and Burly that “my nerves are in absolute shreds, I simply cannot cope with any more terrifying moments”. “I think the terrifying moments have passed” Curly told him narrowing his antennae into what passed for a bee frown. He was inspecting the tears and fallen bits of honeycomb, fascinated at the translucent new life that his sisters were desperately trying to protect and salvage. 

But for an unexpected moment all efforts ceased as the bees felt a strange movement on the frame they were repairing. The movement was a sort of shift away from them, an upwards pulling and then a sharp release before they found themselves rising up through the air into the harsh bright sunlight. Worker bees, nursery bees, undertaker bees, housekeeping bees, bee assassins, the three drones, hatching and vandalised cells, all of them suddenly were in the grip of a giant beast with giant eyes staring black and vacant at their frame. It breathed a horrible carbon dioxidey scent and apart from the awful black eyes shone bright white in the harsh morning light. The bees swayed on the bottom edge of the frame, linked barb to barb in an anxious effort to keep their positions and to carry on working on the repairs to their vandalised brood cells.

Burly was uppermost of the three drones and took a few paces forwards to face the monster, before thinking better of it and burying himself in a cluster of worker bees who were desperately trying to block the light and keep the exposed grubs somehow safe. Twirly was nowhere to be seen having panicked immediately and set off randomly into the morning air emitting tiny squeals of terror. He could be heard for quite some time whining “my nerves, my nerves” and was by now about a quarter of a mile from the hive. He soon settled on a wavering beech leaf crying miniscule bee tears, and then crying some more because his weeping blocked his pheromone receptors so he had no chance at all of finding his way back, at least not immediately.

Curly was just as terrified of the monster, but in addition intrigued to know what it was. Did it have anything to do with the brood comb collapse and what could turn out to be a grub massacre? The creature tall and forbidding was now puffing acrid smoke at the frame, and Curly and his companions were forced to shift away from the dirty air. The worker bees went immediately into emergency mode, moving to fill their little bellies with honey, as a preamble to general evacuation. This was the established drill in the case of fire but the urgency of their response never seemed to include any consideration of whether there was really a fire or not. Curly had observed the giant grub, for that is what he concluded the invader to be, based on his extensive and detailed evaluation of the creature’s many beelike characteristics. He had already noticed that far from being a fire it was this horrible giant grub that was scaring the bees into departure mode. He decided to stand his ground but the smoke was too much for him, interfering with his breathing, blinding his eyes and, in the absence of his fellow bees, leaving him uncomfortably exposed. He moved back to the safety of the edge of the frame barely managing to hang on as the giant grub flipped over the frame with all the wickedness and malice of the evil badger, tales of whom had been passed on bee to bee for generations eternal.

With respect to the poor exposed grubs, the frame was now in a slightly safer position because they were out of the direct light. Throughout the trauma of this bizarre framelifting business, the bees had continued working to repair their damaged brood cells, tirelessly tickling the wax back into shape and adding new wax. No one knew if the vandalised brood would be able to recover. No one would know the full implications of the harm until there were signs that the colony’s population was falling and not showing fast enough signs of recovery.

Suddenly they were all flying once again through the warming morning light, the smoke swirling and pushing them all away from the edges of the frame. Curly and Burly made for the bottom away from the light and in search of breakfast before noticing that the same strange stretching and pulling movement was occurring on the adjacent frame. As they peered up at the sky they saw another frame grasped in the awful paws of the giant grub, its black eyes once again come close to the comb and its awful paws turning the frame this way and that. Again the smoke and again the eyes bearing down on the frame, almost as if it were counting. The frame was finally returned and Curly hurried across the gap to the next frame, only to see the process repeat itself. The giant grub was pulling each from the colony one by one, deliberately and consistently wrenching away the propolis the workers had carefully placed to insulate the hive and protect it from drafts. Curly concluded that this was truly an evil beast with a sick sense of humour, tricking them into thinking there was a fire and meanly breaking up their draft excluders.

Eventually after every frame had been pushed, lifted, twisted, peered at and replaced, all was steady and calm. The colony was once more wrapped in warmth and darkness and Curly could reassure Burly that it was all over and that they were safe again. The giant grub had gone, hopefully never to return, but where was Twirly they wondered. It was not until night was starting to fall that Twirly fell into the hive exhausted and desperate for food. He found his brothers napping contently on a fallen piece of disused comb. Some workers had picked up his scent and didn’t understand what a young drone was doing sitting on a beech leaf. They had guided him home giving him only a few minor if baffling chastisements about not leaving the hive until he was ready. And they told him that he had a duty as a drone to on no account waste time outside the hive sitting on beech leaves. He had much more important work to do when he was ready. Twirly was still wrestling with this curious advice as he stepped his careful cautious way towards his brothers. He was still grizzling a little, and with relief accepted some food from a sympathetic nanny. He fell asleep where he lay, safe between Curly and Burly snoozing contently into the night.zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

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.

Back to chapter 1

The Three Bees Chapter 1

Burly, Curly & Twirly

“It tastes like crap this wax. And just because they told me I have to eat my way out, doesn’t mean I have to.” An oversized drone honey bee spat out some half chewed wax, smearing it against the wall of his cell as he did so. He paused a moment, peering through the tiny hole in the hatch at the mass of bees crawling back and forth. Within his dim view he could see that there were also loads with half their bodies deep in the honeycomb cells. He harrumphed as well as a bee could manage, and shifted his copious weight against the six tight walls of his cell, contemplating how to get out without having to chew at the wax which clogged up his mouth parts and left what he was certain were unsightly crumbs on his gleaming mandibles. After a few moments he had it.

Honey bee drones are much bigger than the ladies, and the Queen is much bigger than all of them. Here is a drone and a couple of worker bees, which are ALWAYS female.

With a few heavy shoves at the hatch with his big head, the burly drone heaved his way out of his too tight cell and was born. He paused a moment at the edge of the cell, letting his outer skin harden and his body become accustomed to the warmth and the space. All around him a mass of bees, all of them female and all of them muttering instructions and comments, none of which were addressed to him and none of which he could properly hear. His first thought was food, more food, and nicer food than the measly dribs and drabs they’d left him when they sealed him inside his cell to grow from grub into drone. On second thoughts, maybe it was measly in amount but it had actually been quite tasty especially in the beginning, a nummy mix of honey and Royal jelly. But that ran out pretty quick and what they gave him later just wasn’t the same and now here he was full of heft and hunger.

Beside him he heard a slightly gruffer mumbling, distinct from the wider hum all around him. First checking that his chest fluff was straight and his wings fully dry, he turned to see another drone bee forcing his way out of his cell. But this bee was coming out backwards, his abdomen almost folded to his chest as he struggled to exit the tight space. Burly bee sidled over, preening his wings, giving them a little flutter, and looking over his shiny shoulder to see if any of the girls had noticed just how sleek and magnificent he was. They hadn’t. “What’s wrong with forwards?” he said to the slowly uncurling new arrival whose unfolding needed to be sharpish if he was to dry bee shaped and not curly shaped. “There’s nothing wrong, just a bit of a wardrobe malfunction a few days ago. I got squished by some nutter human scraping at the cells. Pushed me around and the girls thought I was a goner so they left me. And I finished growing alright, except that I was crooked. It’s taken longer than it should, and I’m much too small but here I am. Thankfully I didn’t dry too fast.” Curly waggled his antennae and set off in the direction of what he thought might be somewhere to go. Burly followed on and soon passed him by with an unintended shove. “Oy watch it would you”, Curly hissed before he noticed the Queen ambling past with her retinue in train. “Is that her? Is that Mother?” he whispered, watching as Burly preened his massive eyes and straightened the slightly mussed fluff on his side. “Don’t even think about it Curl, she’s only interested in one thing, and it certainly won’t involve you.” Curly looked confused and was distracted by the frantic flaking at the hatch of a nearby drone cell. Like Burly and Curly, instead of eating its way out, this drone was taking a completely different approach to being born. He appeared to be kicking his way, but bees aren’t really made for kicking. Curly called to Burly and together they watched the new drone arrive, twisting round and round, round and round, antennae outstretched mouthparts chomping away at the wax but mostly missing. Panting, his antennae drooping and his head low the drone finally pulled himself out of the cell, landing on his back, staring up at his tiny audience. As they looked from one to the other and then all around them they realised that this little group of three were the only drones born in those few minutes and they breathed in each another’s special drone smell knowing that this scent would always bring them home. Together they moved across the comb, Burly pushing his way ahead and the others following, comparing notes on the diet the nursing bees had offered, commenting on the abundance of pretty ladies bustling around them. They moved towards the Queen who was trailing slowly along looking for new empty cells in which to lay some eggs. 

A buffer of worker bees was suddenly blocking their way. “What’s this?” Burly pulled himself up to his full 1.3cm and stared out with what he hoped was mighty masculinity, antenna flicking, massive eyes gleaming with what he was sure was menace. It wasn’t. The buffer of ladies as one murmured, “stay back, don’t move any further”, and one of them came forward and offered each of the boys a drink of water, mouthparts to mouthparts. They drank with relish and relief and by the time their lips were thoroughly smacked and their little bellies thoroughly filled, the queen, her retinue and the bee buffer had moved on. It was clearly time for a nap but no one knew quite how this worked now that they were out of their cells. “So what happens next?” Twirly asked, yawning and leaning slowly into a small undulation of softly fragrant honeycomb. His huge eyes were slowly losing focus and he could see only umbrous shadows. “Well”, said Burly, “we’ll have a rest and then start looking for the exit. We need to get out of here, but I can’t quite remember why”. “It’s the princesses, that’s what it is, the princesses” Twirly added helpfully before drifting off to sleep while Burly and Curly made yum yum noises, as they snuggled deep into the softly crushed hexacombs… zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

To chapter 2