Rain pounded the walls of the hive with such ferocity that Curly feared icy water would soon penetrate his home. Winter winds had been shaking the hive for days now and the temperature had barely moved up or down. Gales forced damp and cold into every available gap and the bees had been unable to send out scouts for days. The entire colony had remained tightly clustered around the brood, rotating at Curly’s command as he tracked time and temperature to keep live bee numbers as high as possible. But something was changing.
Weeks had gone by since Curly’s momentous confrontation with the seven sisters and the aging Queen. She was legendary having twice swarmed away from her home, only to return twice to murder about-to-hatch virgin princesses in their beds. Throughout the summer the Queen had been ruthless whenever she discovered newly built Queen cells. She had stung through cell walls to kill numerous gestating princesses. And finally as summer turned to autumn she had stopped laying altogether. But as legendary as her determination to hold onto power, was her laziness. Curly had barely seen her since the nights had started to draw in.
From time to time a messenger bee came to tell Curly the numbers he had requested: new bees born, bee deaths, hours of light, hours of darkness, how quickly their food stores were diminishing, if the Queen was showing any sign of egg-laying. This last was a crucial question for Curly, for once Mother started laying it was a hint that winter may perhaps be coming to an end. He wasn’t convinced of this, nor did he entirely trust that the Queen would be right in her timing. But it gave him a sense of hope.
Curly made his calculations on the warmest wall of the hive, using a softened concoction of wax and propolis flakes and his trusty propolis stick to record the data. The graphs and charts he was particularly proud of, although on the rare days when the sun hit the hive wall with especial intensity, Curly’s figures and diagrams tended to droop a little. But they would harden back up again when the temperature reverted to superchill and it was doing this less often of late. The variability tended to bring into question some of the numbers and graphs, but overall Curly was confident that winter was beginning to wane. The charts for daylight hours and darkness were showing clearly that the light was beginning to outpace the dark. The frequency of his bee rotations was slowing down too, and the noises outside the hive were occasionally more than just howling wind and pounding rain.
He chewed on his propolis stick awhile, aware that he hadn’t eaten much lately. In fact he couldn’t quite remember when he had last eaten and the latest messenger bee to visit had not brought any supplies. Or had she? Looking at the numbers was becoming more interesting to Curly than recording them or sending his instructions for the changeovers. And Curly was aware that he couldn’t quite remember why they were so important. After all, it was just a bit of wind and cold and Mother was still somewhere in the hive, doing whatever it was she did. Curly couldn’t always remember that either.
His charts and diagrams though were a great comfort, and as he pondered what the overlapping circles meant a new messenger bee arrived. At least she might have been a new one. She stood slightly deferential with her head bowed at the entrance to Curly’s little cubby hole. The hive wall with its calculations and pictures formed one wall. Honey comb was shaped to form the rest of this small private cell, where Curly spent his days mostly asleep when he wasn’t pondering. No one ever entered, not even messengers bearing nourishment. At night when the hive was coldest, he was up on the outer edges of the cluster. He moved constantly into and out of the nest’s many layers instructing the bees. He told them when and where to move, so that they did not get chilled and risk death, and so that the brood at the heart of the nest would be kept warm. Daytimes were his to contemplate his calculations and to doze.
“What is it?” Curly called over his shoulder to his young visitor with some irritation. “It’s Mother said the little round bee, “she’s told me to fetch you and the seven sisters have told me to hurry up and bring you to her. They’re going too.” Curly leant a little against the honeycomb, taking care not to lean too hard as it was softening under the growing warmth of the sun. The wild winds had dropped to occasional squally gusts, and the rain was easing. Curly couldn’t see it, but the late winter cloudscape was losing its overhanging grey and revelling in erratic golds and pinks, sunlight shining on clouds highlighted with gleaming streaks of silver. Behind them an endless blue was getting slowly bluer. A radiant sky. A harbinger of spring. “Are you sure” said Curly somewhat dubiously. “Why? And why should I believe you?” The youngster had not anticipated any challenge, nor had she expected the imperious superiority of Curly’s tone. She shivered slightly and looked defiantly at the ends of her antennae which were drooping uncontrollably as the shivers continued and she started to doubt the wisdom of volunteering for this mission. Confused and cross she turned away. She muttered “you’re not all you’re cracked up to be Curly the Wise”, not quite under her breath.
Curly, being feted as Curly the Wise for so many weeks now and having a somewhat inflated view of his own indispensability, had heard her. But as he couldn’t remember why this messenger was here, or what she had been saying to him, he stepped out of his cell and traipsed after the little round bee “Curly the Wise did you say?” And tucking his propolis stick under a foreleg, he started speeding up to catch his visitor. She in turn looked over her shoulder slightly uncomfortable that this saviour bee might have heard her rude remark. “You are Curly the Wise aren’t you?” she ventured in a conciliatory tone and slowed her pace a little so that they could walk alongside. “I’m Lisa. They want to see you, that’s all I know.” Curly stared ahead puzzled and a little anxious, memories of drone patrols and wingless corpses floating into view. He gave his young companion a soft pat and did his best to maintain an expression that lived up to his name as they ambled along.
Together they passed carefully through the outer layers of the nest, comforted by the low level hum of the moving bees, working to create heat from their collective movement’s friction. As Curly and Lisa crept carefully through the dense network of bees, Curly began to understand that it was Mother who wanted to talk to him and that the seven sisters had agreed to let him approach. Curly the Wise had said something sometime ago to the seven sisters about wanting to know when the Queen would start laying again. Perhaps that was what this meeting was all about. He had told them that this step in the colony’s progress through the winter would mark a crucial turning point. The rota for nest warming duties could be changed, food and water rationing could slow down and there might be more chances for foragers to take preliminary excursions, weather permitting. But only when the Queen started laying again.
As they approached her, Curly sensed that whatever it was the Queen wanted to share, it was not just to do with egg-laying. She was reclining, long and lazy, her head supported by a couple of attendants who appeared to be massaging her. She bee-yawned and slowly shifted to ensure the continuation of the massage and that Curly was in full sight. “Welcome Curly the Wise. We have something to share you and I, but we need to be alone.”
This last caused a buzzing panic from the surrounding bees. Their message passed quickly to the outer layers of the nest where it came out as “whinny toblerone” a phrase that gave the outlying bees no cause for consternation or concern. But closer in the colony was tense and anxious. As they pressed tighter around Curly and Mother, the seven sisters made it very clear that alone was not an option. Reassured the bee cluster lost some of its tension and resumed its agitations. But Curly and Mother were in a very different shared space, aware of the surrounding bees, but unaware that it should matter. They were together alone and both understood that other bees, seven sisters or no, were excluded from their private intoxication. Together they turned to face the gathered bees, Curly feeling unaccountably larger and bolder, slightly dizzy and somehow very peaceful. Outside a crow landed on the roof of the hive and lifted off sharpish, as the entire colony started to buzz. The distraction was long enough for Curly to move in closer to Mother. He sat at her feet like an aged companion only slightly less frail than his friend.
“Get up Curly the Wise and come and sit beside to me” she said as the surrounding bees let out a collective gasp and as one stepped in shock away from them both. Even the courtiers and attandants moved involuntarily and unaccountably away, curiously drawn to join the rest of the congregation and away from the Queen and Curly. In this swift moment of separation Curly was annointed, priviledged, an honoured consort. He knew it could only be temporary, just as long as it took for the seven sisters to regain their composure and for the attendants to get over their strange stupor and remember their duties. As if she could read his thoughts Mother whispered “we have only limited time. I must ask you to stay with me, rest with me, and to tell them that egg-laying is commencing”. Curly turned to the massed onlookers and leaning on his propolis stick cleared his throat and waited as they as one drew in closer. He did his best to set his voice at what might be considered an authoritarian pitch. It sort of worked, but his voice was more croaky and thin than Curly remembered it being.
“Egg-laying” he said, “Egg-laying is what this is all about. And Mother wants me to stay close. Not sure why, but there is no need to panic. I can continue to give instructions at night and I will nap with her during the day.” The Queen nodded slowly at the start of this terse speech, but had dozed off before Curly had finished it. The seven sisters went immediately into action, shuffling about and telling the bees to “move along now, nothing to see here, show’s over”. Curly sat quietly for a moment or two before giving the Queen a surreptitious nudge and whispering that she might want to wake up and get a bit of a move on, to start with the egg-laying as soon as possible. It would be three or four days before the eggs turned into grubs and another three weeks or so before the grubs would be born into new young bees. According to Curly’s calculations, Mother should be laying at least six hundred eggs a day and this should be enough to get the colony’s population up to where it needed to be for its survival. As the weather improved and the days continued to lengthen Curly estimated that soon the bees would be able to stop their nest warming rotation and to start foraging.
With a lazy arm draped over Curly’s bent shoulders the Queen heaved herself up and started moving from cell to cell, dipping her slender abdomen into each one she passed and leaving behind a tiny egg, a speck like a tiny grain of rice. Over the next few hours she moved slowly, deliberately across random empty cells. With each deposit she whispered to herself, “another and another and another and soon they will all be gone”. Curly followed along but wasn’t paying much attention to Mother’s meanderings or her peculiar conversation. He became aware of a sense of alarm from the young messenger bee who had so insulted him. Lisa had stayed behind to watch out for Curly and Mother when all the other bees had returned to their various tasks. Curly pulled away from his Queen to reassure Lisa that all was well, because the Queen was laying again and that winter would soon be over. Everything would be just fine. But the young bee shook her head resolutely and told Curly in a very quiet voice, that they couldn’t survive as a colony, if all the eggs were gone.
Curly had no idea what she was talking about, egg-laying was egg-laying surely. But the young bee had been a housekeeper before getting her promotion to messenger for the seven sisters. As a housekeeper bee Lisa had paid close attention to all the nursing bee conversations about eggs and brood and what they should be fed, because she too would be a nursing bee at some stage. She didn’t want to mess it up. Her eavesdropping lead her to understand that when there were not enough eggs laid or if fewer than several hundred eggs were laid every day, the bees would take an important decision. They would have to decide if it was time to raise a new queen. In preparation they would tell the engineers to enlarge selected cells in which an egg could be fed a special diet of honey and Royal Jelly, and so that the growing grub would eventually emerge as a honey bee princess. But the new princess would be a virgin, so she would not be able to lay any eggs until she had mated. There had to be enough eggs laid, so that there would be enough bees to raise the new Queen and send her out to mate with as many drones as possible. Timing was critical. At least that is what the young messenger bee had overheard. Lisa understood what it meant and as Curly’s mind rapidly processed this new information, so did he.
Curly returned to Mother’s side repeating under his breath what Lisa had said, lest he forget. It was difficult though and by the time Curly reached the Queen he was saying it out loud. As he took a proffered foreleg, the Queen drawled “now do you get it?” and Curly stared back blank and uncomprehending. “Er, not entirely majesty, no, sort of? No not really at all.” She finished laying her final egg and turned away from the brood cells, using her heft to pull Curly along with her. “Where are we going?” he asked struggling feebly to resist before giving up. Wherever it was, they were going together.
“I’ve long watched you Curly, I always knew you were special, different, like me, and that we should have a wonderful future together. And now the time is right for us, it’s time for you and I to take a different sort of step. Now. Together.” By the time this little speech was finally completed Curly was feeling very tired. The traipsing about seemed to have gone on for hours and what with all these conversations and strange ponderings his bee brain was feeling the strain. And now he was beginning get it. He turned to Lisa still loitering along behind them. “Look, Lisa, look at the sunlight coming in. Stay here and watch us. Tell the seven sisters to remember for the next time. Tell them we’re off, we’re at the end and we’re going together.”
Lisa watched amazed as the Queen and Curly readied themselves for take off. Out and up into the chilled blue of an early spring sky the two bees flew to the nearest landing spot. For a few moments they stretched out limbs and wings sunning themselves and catching their breath. All memories of their lives in the colony, of their brothers and sisters, of honey, of eggs, of charts and propolis sticks and gentle massages, slowly faded into pallid remembrances. Lisa watched the two bees make it unsteadily to the first available branch and watched as they stretched out in the sun. She was watching still when, with infinite grace, Curly and his Queen drifted slowly to the ground forelegs linked, wings folded, eyes sightless, and all so very silent.