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

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

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