Burly and the virgin queen

Sisters were marshalling themselves and herding a group of young drones towards the hive entrance. Curly and Twirly, were still asleep and had somehow managed to avoid the bee dragnet closing in around the other drones. Burly, half awake and still too tired to argue, was on the wrong side of the line. Messages flooding his senses muddled and tangled as other drones, bumped and pushed and loud worker bees thrust them ever forwards. Burly shook himself awake and looked around him in search of his bothers, but he couldn’t see them and in the shoving confusion lost his footing, falling between two frames and missing the outstretched grapple one of the herding sisters offered. He landed with a bump on the hive floor, alone no longer in the herd. From his secluded position he could see the group of other drone bees being ushered out onto the landing board of the hive. He could see shafts and shadows of light crossing the entrance to his home. And he could hear some of his sisters calling harshly to the drone bees to hurry up and to follow the scents in the sky. “Head for the Drone Congregation Area as fast as you can, now, get moving” he heard the ugly tones of one of the uber worker bees, a bee whose prowess with propolis and pollen collection was legendary. She was elegant, powerful, slightly larger than most of the other girls, and she was a special confidant of Mother. It might have been the other way round Curly had once told Burly, but no one was really sure. Even if it wasn’t her idea, the Queen must have issued instructions to gather up so many drones to send them out into the morning air. “And don’t come back too soon!” she yelled, adding, “if you come back at all” to the general amusement of her sniggering fellows.

Honey bee drones are much bigger than their sisters. And they don’t sting. But their lives are short albeit sweet.

Burly didn’t know what was going on and Curly wasn’t there to explain everything, so Burly kept very still. He sucked at some stray drops of nectar dripped to the floor of the hive by hurrying foragers. Soon he was feeling better, enjoying the morning air, rising, dewdropped and scented through the gaps in the floor. He could see bees flying around under the hive, before heading off into the morning, or returning to the landing board to deliver their loads. There is nothing quite so restful as watching others work, he pondered. He thought about getting back to Curly and Twirly, but it was so early and it was only by mistake he had ended up in that crowd. His brothers were probably still asleep anyways. With a full belly and an exciting story to tell, Burly was tempted to make his way back up and across the frames of honey and brood and eggs to share the excitement of his morning. But there was something else calling him. “They’ll still be asleep,” he said to himself, before getting another whiff of wild outside air, heavy with the scents of his fellow drones, lumbering their way up and away into the sky, in search of wherever that place was. “Drone Congregation Area” Burly repeated to himself, adding with a bit of bee bluster and a puff of his chest, “I like the sound of that”. So instead of clambering back up to the top of the frame and struggling past all the busy bees to his brothers, Burly took the most important decision of his young life. 

With the morning air gently lifting and tickling his underbelly, Burly angled his antennae and raised his bee chin just a little bit higher. He dragged his forearms over his face, cleaning his sticky mandibles and straightening as many of his body hairs he could reach. He had noticed in the general roundup that a lot of sister bees were grooming their brothers ready for the excursion. Burly knew he was amongst the handsomest of drones in the colony for as well as being slightly bigger than pretty much all of his brothers, he also made a point of keeping himself in good trim. Yes, he slept a lot but he also traipsed about the hive a lot in search of the tastiest food, and then he always went back and got Twirly and Curly, making sure to take the shortest route back to the food and to help Twirly when he got panicked in the crowds. It meant he daily crossed many more frames and comb than his brothers and he was quietly pleased that he was so athletic and strong compared to them. Actually he wasn’t at all quietly pleased about it, only in front of Twirly and Curly. To the rest of the hive Burly was known to be excessively full of himself, so apart from a couple of naive nursing bees, the girls and other drones tended to ignore him.

His vanity was to be Burly’s undoing. He decided that he needed to redeem yesterday’s failure to do the unknown job he was meant to do on the outside, out in the light, high in the sky. Despite feeling a little tired following yesterday’s fruitless exertions Burly decided to make his way to the hive entrance, get a little additional preening and fly out into the light once more. He was pleased at the stir he caused amongst the remaining workers who were being fed and watered by some incoming bees. They paused and looked as one as Burly stepped onto the landing board wondering why he was late, not particularly at his glorious beauty. The sun shone bright and strong on his huge shiny eyes, and Burly could feel their gaze, puffing himself up a little bit more, basking, proud. A light breeze was tickling at the hairs on his head. His wings were trembling daintily in the air as a couple of workers added the finishing touches to his toilette. “Of you go, my lad” the brash uber worker growled as she shoved his attendants aside. “Out and up and away” pushing with her head as Burly’s wings flicked and vibrated, and carried him suddenly upward with unexpected speed. Then he was alone high in the air, vaguely aware of a message that he should keep going high and straight until he could feel the mysterious call of other drones and a virgin queen.

The morning was lengthening and Burly was glad of his strength and power as he slid across the sky, antennae alert and all five openings to his heart beating a new and urgent rhythm. Light flooded his massive eyes, he was breathing new fresh air and could scent neither his brothers, nor his sisters. He had forgotten the warm cosy stink of the colony, the mix of propolis, pollen, baby bees, honey capped and uncapped. Mother. All of it was gone and only one message came floating to call him on and on and on. The scent of a virgin queen bee somewhere in the sky. An intoxicating scent, beautiful, peculiar, alien and intense. It drew him on, closer and closer. 

Gradually there were no other sensations for Burly, no sounds, no tiredness. There was no ache in his wings, no messages hitting his antennae. There were no thoughts of Curly and Twirly or of his home. Burly was utterly alone, suspended in the heavens, caught in a euphoria he had never before known. He was aware only of a single constant, something pulling every part of him closer and closer. As all thoughts and volition left his small bee brain, Burly saw in the near distance a magical creature, a bee bigger even than him. Bouncing black and gold against radiant blue, Burly was getting closer and closer to her. This was the virgin queen he had heard about, this was the bee who would be his own, his queen. Burly watched as she rejected an unworthy suitor, thrusting him suddenly out and away from her. Burly sneered seeing the drone’s pathetic, inadequate body, wretched and torn, wing beats slowing, head drooping.

Burly watched as the unworthy one spiralled listless and slowly down towards the ground. He watched as a passing swallow gobbled up the unworthy one. He watched as the swallow spun slicing perfect arcs through the hovering drones to send them wheeling away, but ever far from the virgin queen. “Poor chap” Burly said to himself as he cruised into range of the luscious deliciousness calling him. He knew he had to move fast, before some other wannabee paramour got to his love first.

As he approached her, the young queen raised her antennae straight above her beautiful head, which she dipped in what Burly took for coy acquiescence. But if she’d been human she’d have been checking her watch. Shirley was much larger than Burly, with a tiny waist and a long abdomen tapering to an elegant point. Her colours were bright, radiant black and yellow bands, her hair stood straight and golden around her lovely eyes. Her iridescent wings were long and elegant. But her massive eyes saw nothing, lost as she was in a curious state of ecstasy. Burly understood that it was this ecstasy calling him, drawing him in closer and closer. He was upon her now and the air between them slid away as he climbed onto her back and felt a strange part of his body push out to join with his beloved. His antennae caressed his queen’s gently up and down, his legs stroked hers, up and down, up and down in step with the motions of his body. And his legs clasped her beauty tighter and tighter to him. There were no more signals only this union, euphoric, joyful, soundless and full of light. And they two danced across the glowing sky in perfect motion, a rhythm shared, a rhythm deadly. She lifted her legs high and as Burly thrust forwards he felt himself turned inside out with delirious joy, he felt himself a creature of heaven.

But the light shining on Burly was about to fade. As his love rose and his rhythm slowed he felt a new ecstasy moving through his body, fiery, uncontrolled, a shimmering electricity exploding out of him and turning him into a quicksilver version of himself. Burly was aware that every atom in his beautiful drone body was a whelm of rapturous bliss. He was unaware that most of his abdomen was in shreds, and that she had cast him off, or that he was dying. As he floated down and away and into the open jaws of a hungry swallow, Burly’s fickle queen welcomed her 26th drone of the day.

When Curly found out that Burly had once again gone out into the light, he kept his misgivings to himself.  Twirly was already struggling to recover from Burly’s tales of yesterday’s excursion. He was especially worried that so few drones came back with Burly yesterday, but Twirly was unaware that his fear was not misplaced. All of the returning drones had the same story of confusion and bafflement. Not a one could explain or even share any idea of what they were supposed to do. And many were too exhausted after a full day’s flying to even speak.

When darkness fell Curly told Twirly to settle down and get some sleep, “I’ll keep watch” he said and crept to the hive entrance. Nodding to some sleepy guards Curly snuggled amongst them to stare out at the blackness. He heard owls and nightingales calling in the night, saw stars shining sharp and high in the sky, and he understood that the turning of the day would see no return of his brother. Curly wiped away a little tear and ambled back to Twirly pondering how to explain that Burly was gone. As he pondered Curly drifted gently to sleep, close and safe zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

When Mother Leaves Home

It was hot and stuffy and Burly was squashing Curly uncomfortably into the side of the honeycomb frame. Soft spring light washed gently over Curly’s enormous eyes and Twirly was twitching slowly, coming out of sleep. He was anxious that Curly would be cross at the fidgety disturbance and at the squashing, but Curly’s mind was elsewhere. He shoved as best he could at his other brother and Burly snored softly, slightly shifting his large body to get away from the fidgeting and the pushing.

Swarming bees can settle anywhere, from high in a tree to the ground. A swarm will not hurt you, but it you come across one get in touch with your local bee association and they will gladly collect the swarm.

Curly wasn’t particularly cross, but as the growing sunlight spread warmth and morning throughout the hive, he had a curious sense of something changing. The girls were everywhere awake and all their senses were probing the air, trying to understand what it was that was different today. It was more than the sense of spring and the rising heat, it was more than the newly ambered light drifting up through the grid that formed the base of the hive. On this very particular morning there was none of the early morning muttering about inadequately sealed gaps, none of the urgent movement towards the sharded light piercing through unsealed spaces. No brow-furrowed bee engineers were assessing how much propoliswould be needed to seal the breaches, or where the bees should source it, who should do the work nor even how long it would take. Instead there was just this curious electric energy and a charged, murmuring anxiety spreading from frame to frame throughout the hive.

Listening absent mindedly to Burly’s snoring rhythm, Curly pondered awhile. The honey stores were proceeding nicely he had observed. Curly had learned from his many sisters that their primary function, and the function that killed them in the end, was foraging to bring back the raw materials for the colony’s survival. They had clearly been busy and the colony was thriving, crowded even. He had noted yesterday that Mother had been extremely lively with her egg laying and that her fastidious retinue were especially busy keeping her fed and watered. They had been cleaning her more urgently as she moved from cell to cell, each time leaving behind a tiny egg that would soon grow into a grub and eventually into a new bee. She had even laid eggs in several overly large cells, cells which Curly thought were mistakes made by younger bees not used to drawing out comb for honey stores and raising brood.

Curly had also noticed that her retinue seemed bigger lately and that periodically a group of them stopped and surrounded Mother. They were moving her limbs up and down, side to side. They stretched out her wings and bent her joints for minutes at a time. They had also forgotten to feed her as regularly and when they did feed her, it was much less than usual. It was as if she were on a diet. It was as if she were being forced to exercise. Curly pondered this strange possibility awhile. Shoving Burly awake and telling Twirly to keep close because something was up, Curly headed off to where he had last seen the colony’s Queen. “What’s happening” piped Twirly, his eyes gleaming and his wonky frame moving awkwardly to keep up with his brother. He looked over his shoulder to check that Burly was coming too. Yawning and trying his best to get his antennae up and alert, Burly mumbled something about breakfast. There would be no breakfast yet. The whole hive was in a buzzing uproar, with many bees moving fast and apparently at random across the frames and with no clear goal. To Burly it looked like chaos and he wondered fleetingly if the hornets were back. But this wasn’t like the hornet attack. There was no organisation, no sense that anyone had any idea where they were going or why, just high energy agitation. He pushed a leg around his little brother, shielding him from the seething crowd, helping him along as Curly shoved his way through.

Curly was taken aback to see Mother moving with considerable purpose towards the hive’s entrance. She never moved that fast and her wings were twitching, her limbs flexing. All around and behind her a turmoil of bees was gathering itself into a tangled group, anxious to keep as close to the Queen as possible. And all the time the noise, the rising drone of thousands and thousands of wings limbering up for sudden action. As one, Curly watched them surge towards the exit, a turbulent mass of black and yellow, wings glittering, eyes gleaming, antennae outstretched. Like lava they passed out of the hive flying fast, straight and bouncing high into the bright morning light. The day was fully broken, leaving amber streaked mists hovering in the air. It embraced the rising cloud of bees, darting randomly back and forth rising higher and higher into the light. All tried to keep within range of their Queen as she spanned the golden air in random aimless arcs. They knew they had to protect and follow her but had no idea where it was she was going, only that they must come too. What was left of the colony, like the three drones, saw the chaos but continued with their daily tasks. They gave no thought as to why they should join the departing bees or why they were all making such a fuss. Afterall there was still nectar to collect, honeycombs to build, brood to feed. They understood that this last task was imperative and that a raising a new queen was vital for the survival of their colony. They knew that Mother would not return.

Scout bees were dispatched from the mess of high flying bees and Curly heard that one scout had said something about a tree hollow some distance to the south. Another worker bee returning to the colony from an early morning excursion, said they needed to get those new queens going. One of the younger nursery bees was crying because she couldn’t remember the precise combination of honey and royal jelly she should be giving the grubs in the giant cells. It was all a muddle and as half the colony hovered high in the shimmering light, Curly wondered what would become of them all without their Mother. Burly didn’t much care because he was hungry, but once Curly explained that without Mother there could be no more egg laying and no more new bees to feed them and tell them stories, Burly’s antennae drooped. He put a forlorn arm around Twirly who had started snivelling to himself. As Burly hugged him closer Twirly once again muttered ominously about their imminent death.

A short while later a forager returned with the news that the queen and her entourage had settled high amongst the cooling air of a nearby oak tree and that several of her scouts had found possible new homes. They were apparently adiscussing their relative merits while the Queen remained at the heart of the settled cluster. The forager explained that there would be no food until the scouts agreed on a new home and the bees were able to navigate their ways back to it. “But why did she leave?” Curly asked. “Why did they desert us?” The worker bee did not know, but she had heard stories. “What stories?” Burly wanted to know. “I’m not sure, just stories, stories about how Mothers always want to leave home eventually”, the forager replied. “Maybe she just wanted more space. Maybe she’d had enough of all the egg-laying and being fed, all the grooming and all the fuss.”

Burly was tucking into breakfast but managed to remind Curly that “we don’t need to worry … the girls will have it under control, you know that, you know they always do, whatever it is. It’ll be fine.” And Curly, sighing, had to agree. After all there was plenty of food and far fewer bees to eat it now. The hive wasn’t so stuffy and hot and they didn’t need to push through the crowds to get around. The sun was shining and winter was a part of some remote story he had heard once when passing the Queen, as she told her latest retinue a bedtime story. Whatever winter was, Curly decided they didn’t need to worry. Far better to enjoy a late breakfast and then a peaceful midmorning nap with his brothers, somewhere out of the way and quiet.zzzzzzzzzzzzzz 

Into the light

The hive was stuffy and busy. When Burly squeezed himself into wakefulness he was beset with a curious sense of annoyance. Little snuffling sounds told him that his brothers Curly and Twirly were still asleep, but why this sense of irritability? Food? Maybe a sip or two of some uncapped honey would sort out his temper. He meandered his way, lazy and slow, watching as his many sisters moved rapidly across the comb, nimble and focused to disgorge their nectar and unload collections of pollen and propolis they had already collected. By carefully controlling its water content, they would turn the nectar into honey. Burly knew that, still unaccountably cross as he muscled his rough way past his sisters to sip. Being nearly six weeks old, he now understood how it was that the different parts of the hive could have honey that tasted different. The knowledge didn’t sweeten his mood.

When he was newly born, he remembered being told the colony’s honey tasted vaguely of daffodils and crocuses. That’s what the nursing bee who had made him and his brothers her special project, had said. He remembered it tasted of chilly mornings and sunlight slowly seeping, soft and lazy into the hive. His favourite nanny also told him: “we gathered this in the Spring, early in the season when it was really a bit too cold and windy to go out. Stores were running low so we needed to take a bit of a risk. Not much was out except a few daffodils and crocuses, and the occasional primrose. But we can’t reach primrose nectar because our tongues aren’t long enough. We leave the primroses to the hairy footed flower bee: their tongues are way longer than ours.” Burly hadn’t entirely followed her but he got the bit about daffodils and crocuses being risky.

Burly remembered the conversation and pondered the fate of his nurse. She had of course died from overwork, like so many of her sisters. Curly had told him that she would, so she must have. Curly was always right. Curly told him he had been watching the nursing bees and all the others. He told Burly and Twirly that they shouldn’t expect to see too much of their nurses any more. Curly told them the nurses were moving on to other duties in the hive. Depending on how old they were the girls would be nurses, cleaners, undertakers, workers, assassins, chemists, guards, scouts and advisers. They might also be builders, engineers and royal attendants looking after Mother.

Curly observed all this as he and Twirly moved together about the hive, vaguely following Burly who always seemed to know where all the tastiest honey was stored. Curly had to go slowly with Twirly whose nerves and weaker legs made it impossible for him to cope with the colony’s chaos on his own. Their favourite flavour so far was the honey made from lupin nectar, but that was already nearly fully capped. They were looking forward to making do with rose, which was just coming onstream when they came across Burly sulking, his belly full, his antennae being cleaned by a diligent sister. “And don’t ask me what the matter is” he snarled at his brothers. It’s the weather I think, I don’t know, I’m restless and feeling stifled in here, it’s so hot and clammy and sticky. I need to get out.”

Twirly stared at him in horror, the signals reaching his brain from his enormous eyes a tangled mass of confusing terror, his antennae almost rigid with terror. “No…” he croaked, shaking and running a foreleg across his back to check that his wings were still in place. “No, you cannot even be thinking such a dreadful thing, it’s madness, utter madness, we belong here, we’ve got important work to do, they told us, the sisters told us, important work. Important work!” he kept on repeating the phrase in a low mumble, his mandibles working, big eyes glancing to and fro between Curly and Burly, looking for reassurance.

But it was no good. They were ignoring him. Again. He was alone in his festering fear. Again. And they were still ignoring him. Twirly steadied himself chewing on a bit of old wax he liked to keep handy in his leg hairs. He told himself over and over that he was alright, it was just a little shock, I’m alright, I’m alright. and then tired of being ignored, Twirly drew closer to hear what Curly and Burly were saying. He eavesdropped news that put him back into a state of terror: “… we have to go out because we’ve got work to do on the outside”. Burly was nodding slowly as Curly said this in patient and gentle tones. As he heard it, Burly’s mood started to soften only to harden once more when Curly answered his next question. “I don’t know. That’s the thing with this. I really don’t know what the work is, or how we do it. No one will tell me and none of the other drones know either.” Curly bit at his hard edged lip and pulled on his antennae, his brain running in overdrive as he pondered the question. But Curly’s limited answer was enough for Burly. Burly shoved past his brothers, energised “I’ll go and find out for myself” he snarled over his shoulder and disappeared into the throng.

Curly and Twirly didn’t see him again that afternoon, but as twilight was settling they saw him arrive home wobbling and unbalanced, exhausted and dazed as he collapsed onto the landing board. “I did it” he said, “I went out into the light and flew and flew and flew until it seemed I was on the other side of the world.” Curly rubbed at the bee’s grubby head and dew dropped eyes anxious concern twittering in his antennae. “What happened?” he said with some urgency, “what was it? What was the work out in the light?” “That’s the thing” Burly replied in an uncharacteristically small voice. “I don’t know. I still don’t know what it is or how to do it. And I’ve been flying all day.” His voice was weak and thin and tears were creeping into his sleepy eyes. “All I know is that I had to keep flying on and on, until I knew I just had to come back again, but it took a long time because it was so very far.” His voice was almost inaudible and his eyes were dimming. Curly and Twirly looked askance at one another. They looked at Burly. “Tomorrow I’ll have another go” he whispered and fell asleep slumped where he stood. zzzzzzzzzzz