The Three Bees: Winter blows into Spring 

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.

Winter is come

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Three Bees: And then the cold came

When he woke up Curly was extremely cold, much colder than he had ever been before. Alone and almost immobile he was afraid. But he could feel the rising sun warming the walls and roof of the hive and slowly he found he could move a little bit, then more as his body temperature rose above 9º. Curly had spent the night quietly creeping as close as he dared towards the middle of the hive. He had moved cautiously amongst the almost sleeping bees, gleaning meagre warmth as he went. The scent of propolis was calming and he could take sips of honey from uncapped cells as he moved cautiously amongst dozing workers. They noticed his slow comings and goings not at all. Back in his hiding place and as the sun rose higher, Curly watched the worker bees heading for the exit. He noticed that fewer than usual were going out to forage and wondered what was happening in his home.

Bees can only survive the winter if they can keep the hive’s temperature at around 32-34º Centigrade. This they can only do if there are enough bees. Weak colonies rarely survive the winter.

Curly chewed on a sliver of propolis that he’d found on the floor during one of his nocturnal rambles. Sticky with honey it must’ve been broken off from somewhere when they were murdering the drones. “Wondering is what you do best,” he whispered to himself. “…it’s your strength, your power. It’s the only thing no other bee in this colony can do the way you do.” Then as an afterthought he said aloud ”and it’s what you must do now.” Curly thought the propolis might be useful for defence if the workers found him, so he tucked it under a forelimb. It was somehow comforting. “Foolish boy” he said resuming his conversation with himself. “I’d have no chance. Propolis stick or not. I must understand what is going on and why everything seems to be slowing down.” Curly got himself in tight behind the broken and overhanging comb that had been his camp for the night to think it all through. He noted the facts: drones evicted from the hive, drones with their wings snipped off, drones going out and not coming home again. What could it mean, why were they not staying in the hive, especially now it was getting cold. Then he understood. They were being discarded. Curly didn’t understand why, but he did understand that drones still around once summer was over were somehow surplus to requirements.

Curly was hungry again, but didn’t dare move. He sucked on the no longer sticky propolis, wondering why he felt so hungry when surely sleepy would have been more likely. Food. Food was obsessing him and his supply was strictly limited to the oversucked piece of old propolis. It’s flavour reminded Curly of his younger days as a newly hatched drone, days when the sun warmed the hive all day long and darkness came only once he and his brothers were safe and asleep. Darkness and food, the one too much of and the other too little of, and the traffic in the hive getting thinner and the drone population collapsed to nothing, soon only to him and only then if he could stay hidden. Curly could hear them, still shoving out drones. Soon he sensed a new instruction to a platoon of workers. They were moving to the warmest part of the hive, in the middle where Mother and most of the brood were. They were charged with routing out any remaining drones still hiding in the hive. “Their surplus to requirements, get them out.”

Numbers were not Curly’s strong suit, he was after all just a bee and a male bee at that. But he did understand the workings of his home, and that everything had purpose and function, and that everything contributed to the well-being of the colony. The purpose of drones was to do something on the outside, something that only the best of drones could do. For the rest of them, they had no further role in the hive so they were dispensable. It was just a matter of time before the drone patrol found him, or he became immobilised and died as the temperature fell. He had managed to keep moving by stealth in the night, but that was never going to work long term. He was already exhausted. Curly understood that there were two options: die of starvation and cold, cowering in a secret corner of the hive, or let the drone patrol find and mutilate him before tossing him from the hive. 

But there must be some other possibility, he thought to himself. That possibility could lie in some sort of negotiation. “I’ll talk to them” he said shivering as the chill sunk into his joints, slowing his blood, softening his senses. But who should he talk to? Who is in charge of the drone patrol and why? Who decides that the drones must go? Curly crept out from his sticky shelter and started cleaning off the honey, not just because he was hungry and it was so very tasty. He wanted to look his best, his most impressive, big, strong, smart. His antennae were droopy though and he was overwhelmed with apathy, a laziness in his body that his sleepy mind struggled to overcome. As he moved he felt warmer, but he could only move slowly through the crowds of workers. He did his best to move as he and his brothers used to move: with confidence and self-assurance, fearless. Only the drone patrols knew that they were to catch drones, so the rest of the bees kept busy with their various tasks. The reasoning was sound and Curly soon found himself in the midst of a mass of workers, struggling to get to a group of hungry grubs. Curly passed over numerous cells wherein he could see tiny specks, eggs, eggs that had only recently been laid soon to be nurtured into grubs and hatch as fully formed bees.

Then he had it. “Mother” he said aloud and twittered his antennae in response to the added buzz of a few hundred workers, turning their antennae towards him. It took no more than a few seconds for a bossy worker bee to signal to Mother, although what the signal meant baffled Curly because Mother did not appear. Instead a group of seven, slightly rough looking bees approached him. Curly knew that as soon as the seven sisters recognised him as a drone, he would have to talk fast. He sensed that the drone patrol was already coming for him, and quickly. Best to start the conversation immediately before the seven or the patrol reached him. “You need me” he said, watching the movement of their antennaee, trying to divine what they were thinking. The movements were subtle, invisible almost. Slightly louder and with more patience he called to them “Mother needs me. You all need me, because I am bigger than you but don’t need so much food”. Curly had no idea where that had come from, nor did he really understand what he was saying. The seven sisters had Curly in a tight ring, antennae now straight up and forward, faces expressionless, forelimbs interlinked. They did not speak, they just held him there, penned and waiting for the drone patrol to arrive. Curly could see Mother coming slowly closer, her entourage fussing, cleaning, feeding, grooming her as the small group approached the seven sisters. Curly heard a lazy drawl “what is it, what do you want now, isn’t it enough that these cells are all full of my lovely eggs, of lovely grubs. What else do you want?” “Take her away” Curly heard a nearby voice growl. It came from the ring of bees around him, but none of them appeared to have spoken. “Now” a hiss came from another direction, as Mother drifted off to sleep a hindleg dipped into an empty cell. The group of courtiers, gave her a little shove and then a couple of kicks to get the massive bee moving on, as instructed. Curly was speaking fast, desperate to convince the seven to call off the patrol. “I can help with the cold. I can help keep her warm, and the brood. I can. I can keep her laying. You need me. I can help the colony survive. It’s getting colder, you know this. You need me.”

Curly felt his voice rising and struggled to keep it below the pitch of a squeak, tried to pretend he was Burly, big, strong and handsome. He watched and the seven sisters remained still, implacable. Curly had the sense that some other communication, something beyond the pheromone transmissions, beyond clicking mandibles or antennae was going on. It was just a thickening of the air, a pause in breathing perhaps, but then Curly understood that he should continue. He squared his little shoulders and held his antennae steady, still. He said “I can help keep you warm, Mother, the brood, the brood, I can help the brood.” Mother’s entourage were still pulling her leg from the honey cell, and as it dribbled out Curly heard her sigh as she slowly turned to face him, head lolling, her attendants frantically cleaning the honey from her wayward leg.

Ever since Curly, Burly and Twirly had been born all those weeks ago, Curly had noticed that the most important things in his colony were keeping Mother laying, and raising her brood which involved constant attention, recipe finessing and work. It was the brood that grew into worker bees or drones, depending on the diet the nursing bees fed them. It was the brood that would matter most if the hive continued to get colder and darker as the days progressed. Now he was hearing or sensing that what mattered most in what Curly had said was the word “brood”. He continued without really knowing what he was talking about, repeating and repeating that “I can help keep the brood warm, keep them safe. I am a drone that can do more than any other drone, a drone to help the brood.” As he said this the drone patrol arrived and immediately halted some few honeycomb cells away from Curly’s circle of seven sisters. He could sense some hesitation, some sudden reluctance to get closer to the circle. And then the seven moved away and the drone patrol surrounded Curly. His heart was pumping and he instinctively tucked in his wings as tight as they would go as the circle drew tighter, and then inexplicably the bees turned their backs on him. As one, they turned to face away, drawing up their antennae and tightening the ring around Curly. They locked arms.

Curly’s first instinct was to panic and reach for his propolis stick, but then he reasoned, “why are they facing away from me, blocking me in yes, but attacking me, no. And my stick is stuck to my abdomen. And they are locked, so I cannot get away, but I am also protected.” As he mulled over what this meant for his future health and well-being, Curly saw the seven sisters unbundle from their huddle and move in his direction. The platoon ring opened to form a horseshoe and the sisters approached. They bowed their antennae in polite greeting and Curly understood that he had to explain what he meant by keeping safe the brood. The platoon had turned around again and were facing towards him, their eyes brimming with unspoken menace. “You need bees to keep the hive warm. You need the brood at the heart of the nest and insulation against the cold. You need to know when it’s too cold at the outer layer, so you can move bees in and get new ones at the edge and you need to do that before they are immobilised with the cold.” “The cold? What’s the cold got to do with it. We keep them warm until the next group of bees comes to keep the brood warm.”

Up to this point Curly had been guessing that the only way the brood could survive the cold is if the bees somehow block the cold air so that it didn’t reach the brood. But his night in his chilly corner had taught him that at a certain point, lethargy and tiredness threaten to take over. Many times when he had tried to move he had found it almost impossible, despite his every effort. Eventually he had worked out that there was a certain point of coldness at which his body became immobile. The bees were waiting. “You see,” said Curly with increasing confidence, “The bees in the outer layer, might not always be able to move inwards, they might leave it too late, forget, or doze off. When that happens they die and you lose bees that might otherwise help keep the brood warm. I know when they should move. I can tell them, warn them that it’s time to go in closer to the heart of the nest to recover from the cold.” The seven sisters were silent, antennae still eyes searching to see some trick or secret, but there was none. There was just a clever drone, explaining something that they previously had never understood: why did so many of their sisters die when the cold came, even if they were chatting energetically shortly before they fell to the floor of the hive, alive but silent and immobile. They were always dead soon after. Curly stood up a little prouder, a little more himself and added “All I ask is to be allowed to help save the brood, if the cold and the darkness get worse.” He looked at each of the seven earnestly before adding: “All I need is enough food to survive and a place to stay, but not outside.” “Then I can manage the changeovers so that you get the best possible protection as a colony, as guardians of Mother and the brood, when the cold comes.”

The seven sisters turned their heads and formed a tight circle. Antennae were bristling, hind legs scratching backs and wings lifting and falling as they considered Curly’s proposal. They understood that they had little to lose. There were plenty of stores and the Giant Grub had put a lump of sugar paste at the top of the hive, just under the roof. Food wasn’t a problem. The concern was the efficiency of what Curly was proposing. “Wise one, we understand” Curly heard and awash with a new sensation he understood too, as did the drone patrol and all the workers in the hive. Mother even understood. Curly the Wise One could keep his wings and stay. In the muddle of bees he found himself alone. No drone patrol, no council of seven sisters, just the normal business of the hive. He found an uncapped honey cell and feasted until he could eat no more. Then Curly found a quiet corner underneath a well-stocked frame of honeycomb and fell deep asleep. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

The Three Bees: A Brutal Truth

“Still no sign of him?” whispered Twirly to Curly who was struggling to come awake after his long night’s vigil and final collapse into sleep. It was chilly so the two hungry drones huddled together, waiting for the temperature to rise as the sun broke through clouds scudding high in the sky in a rising wind. Curly watched carefully as a couple of his sisters worked away blocking a random gap between their set of honeycomb frames and the edges of one above. The three bees had never been into that one because the absent Burly, and Curly and Twirly were all too big to get through the grill between the two sections. Nor was Mother small enough to get upstairs, only the worker bees could squeeze in. Curly watched as more and more bees went up, their honey stomachs full of nectar. They never stopped to feed the drones who were left to their own devices these days. Curly listened to his little brother twittering on about Burly and about how Twirly didn’t much want to go in search of breakfast without him. “I can’t manage to push through the crowds, what with my dodgy legs. I need Burly to shove everyone out of the way and hold me in position to slurp at the honey you see.” Twirly continued in this conversational vein, encouraged by Curly’s wise nodding and occasional straightening of his antennae to express interest.

Once the mating season is done, drone honeybees are surplus to requirements and get ejected from the colony.

But Curly’s mind was elsewhere. He had a sense of change in the hive, not least because the wind was blowing stronger and the propolis work seemed to be accelerating. More and more of his sisters were working on the gaps in the hive walls, sticking frames hard into place, gluing up the layers, bridging frames with honeycomb and fixing the end frames to the hive walls. Curly was becoming anxious. This was not just about blocking drafts, this was about more than the weather.

He linked a foreleg into one of Twirly’s feeble limbs and moved along the edge of the hive to where a handful of drones were gathered sipping at breakfast and trying to keep out of the way of the worker bees. They chatted amongst themselves between sips as their sisters crawled over them. They were nursing bees moving to and fro between brood cells, pollen stores and honey stores to feed the grubs. After many weeks of observation, Curly understood the nursing bees were preparing to seal the grubs into their cells, so that they could grow into baby bees in the coming days. This was normally a restful process to watch. But it seemed to Curly that the hive’s mood was becoming increasingly impatient. And something else was odd, these brood cells were uniform in size, all quite small with no larger cells for drones or giant queen cells for new princesses. Odd.

Curly remembered the day when he and his closest brothers were born. Along with countless other drone honeybees they had chewed their ways out of the oversized cells. Burly had shoved his way out of his cell, rather than chew his way out. The wax wasn’t very tasty Curly had agreed and yes it did make quite a mess of one’s jaws and hair. Curly had to admit that once Burly had squeezed his way out he was a magnificent specimen. When Twirly was being born though something had gone wrong, a fall of comb it might have been. Curly couldn’t remember, but it had meant that Twirly’s little legs and wings had been damaged, and reshaped they were not very strong. Since then Twirly had depended on Burly for muscle and Curly for guidance. Twirly’s nerves were extremely fragile. Daily existence was drama enough for him. When Burly set off out into the light the first time, Twirly had gabbled and squeaked for the whole day until Burly returned along with a gaggle of other dazed drones. When Burly had set off the second time Twirly had been less worried. Curly knew he believed that Burly would return. Maybe he would, but listening to other drones running through the names of the missing, Curly was unconvinced. 

Twirly was still going on about how important Burly was and how much he missed him when Curly noticed a small group of bees heading towards them. He instinctively steered Twirly away and under an outcrop of comb. “Shut up would you. Would you just shut up” Curly hisssed giving his brother a firm push. “Ow” said Twirly. “What are you doing, we haven’t had enough breakfast and we could have asked those lads if they’ve seen Burly anywhere.” Rubbing at his bruised thorax Twirly moved towards Curly who was peering out and who immediately shoved Twirly back. Curly was staring in horror at a group of bee vandals attacking one of the drones. Twirly and Curly had just now been chatting with him and now the drone was surrounded by a group of aggressive and violent worker bees. The drone was crying out in terror “let me go, let me go”, but his sisters muffled his sound as they held him down. Curly watched as two bees positioned themselves on either side of the drone and each ripped at a wing with jaw and claw. They soon finished their gruesome task and turned the wingless drone over to a couple of other workers who led him away from the group. In soothing tones they were saying “there, there. It’s all over now. No need to fret. You’re alright. It’s done. Don’t think any more about it. It’s finished, there there.”

Curly watched as they gently edged the wingless and traumatised drone away. Curly wanted to assume they were heading for another part of the hive, perhaps somewhere new wings could be fitted. But he couldn’t reconcile the ruthless attack, with the gentle words and the care some of those very same bees had shown to them all just a few weeks ago. In his heart of hearts, and more importantly in his brain, Curly knew the two could not be reconciled. Twirly was cross, fidgeting to get past his brother. With a clumsy shove Curly pushed him further back and watched in horror as another drone underwent the same procedure. By this time the rest of the diminishing group of drones was panicking, struggling to get away to somewhere else in the hive. But they were blocked by a second group of bees who had appeared unseen to keep the drones in place.

Curly overheard one of the reinforcements say something about needing to finish this work and get back to the nest to keep Mother and the brood warm enough. “We’re wasting too much energy on these guys. We should have taken care of it weeks ago when they first started coming back.” Curly heard an older worker answer: “They’re only good for one thing, except this lot obviously” and the air buzzed with high pitched bee tittering, and rude gestures. “I’ve seen it a few times coming back from foraging. The virgin princesses and the drones. One by one she takes them. She lets them hold her then they explode. It’s not a pretty sight” another added, “but at least they die happy hugging a queen.” And the others bee-giggled again. “Not this lot though,” said the first to more giggles. “This lot couldn’t make it, couldn’t handle it. And if they think they can stay here for the winter, they’ve another think coming.” The duty bees continued to joke, watching the wing removers and the housekeeper bees remove the amputated wings. The number of drones was falling.

“Stay here and don’t move” Curly hissed at Twirly as he started to work his way around his brother and up the honeycomb frame. Curly wanted to see where the wingless drones were being taken. “Where are you going? Don’t leave me, don’t leave me Curly I can’t manage. I can’t be by myself.” Twirly was whimpering. “I need you to be very quiet now, Twirly” Curly said. “I need you to trust me and stay here and be very, very quiet. Don’t move. On no account do you move. You stay here.” He left Twirly muttering to himself about how cold it was getting on his own and it was worse because he hadn’t had enough breakfast, and how was he expected to cope with so much excitement and so little comfort, so little food all alone. Curly had reached the top of the frame before Twirly finally stopped whining. What Curly saw turned his cold insect blood even colder. He watched a steady parade of wingless drones being taken one by one to the hive entrance. Once there guard bees roughly shoved them out onto the landing board. Curly couldn’t see what was happening but his every sense was quivering, alert to an awful terror, a sensation of horror seeping into every pore, a sensation of treachery, of betrayal. Curly shook with fear, wings quivering and antennae trembling in the morning chill. Despite the light getting stronger the hive wasn’t really getting much warmer. Curly decided to risk getting closer to the entrance to see for himself what was happening on the landing board.

Twirly hadn’t paid much attention to his brother’s instructions, being too preoccupied with his own tummy and nervy anxieties. He almost certainly didn’t catch the urgency in Curly’s voice or its intensity and Twirly was getting bored on his own. He sighed and peeped out from his honeycomb screen and saw the group of drones. A little confused because he was sure there had been more of them before he saw them chatting with a group of foragers, one of whom looked familiar. They were probably giving the drones some breakfast he thought to himself, an envious little twinge echoing in his tummy. With a sigh Twirly decided that given the short distance between him and his new friends he should rejoin them. Creeping carefully amongst worker bees too distracted to notice him, Twirly ventured a little wave with one of his feeble forelegs. The drones watched in silent, fearful horror as Twirly made his way towards them. The assassin assistants parted to usher Twirly into the group.

The new friend drones were a sorry looking bunch and Twirly, used to being the sorriest looking of all felt a curious sense of confidence. He didn’t notice their silence or their fear, so he waved again, and let his antennae stand up straight for once. He thought he could sense excitement and enthusiasm for having another drone join their group, even if Twirly wasn’t a top notch specimen. And he looked forward to a bit more breakfast.

By the time Curly was in position to see what was happening on the landing board, it was too late. Twirly, the weakest and most vulnerable of the group was inevitably next in line for wing trashing. It didn’t much hurt so Twirly decided this whole business was about refurbishment of the drones who couldn’t fly very well. Maybe he could get some new legs too. Curly’s heart almost stopped as he saw his foolish brother escorted to the hive entrance. Twirly’s companions handed him to the guards for transfer to other bees, standing at the edge of the landing board. With a sudden push one of them tipped Twirly over the edge. They watched him fall flightless and silent into the grass far below. There was no sound, no one could see Twirly’s weedy legs thrashing, or the tears flooding into sightlessness his enormous eyes. Down on the ground it was too cold for Twirly to make any sound or even to move to some unknown place of safety. Twirly felt cold and colder seeping slowly and his body slowly atrophy. He felt his heart slow and his breathing become a series of tiny gasps. As he looked around at the other dying drones he understood that there would be no new wings, no mended limbs, no more breakfast. He understood that there would be no more anything, no hope, nothing, only nothing and his vacant eyes saw greens and the blues of a windswept sky fade softly away.

Tears flooded Curly’s eyes and face, his frantic antennae were bending and flexing in terror. He hurried to hide in the farthest corner of the colony he could find. Desperate and afraid, for the first time in his bee life Curly was confused and panicked. Close to the hive wall he found a bit of broken honeycomb and chewed through the wax to the honey for more nourishment. He pushed at the sticky mess until it was wedged into a forgotten corner. There he hid exhausted, quivering fearfully, desperate to stay alert and alive. He monitored every single tremor his antennae could pick up, but he could make no sense of anything. Distraught and alone he remained hidden for the rest of the day. He tried to clean himself up and to pick up more signals. He heard the foragers returning and orders being given for the next day’s work. Propolis making. Gap sealing. Brood feeding. Foraging. Fragments of sentences, pieces of data he struggled to process. He picked up nothing about drones. “If I survive the night, I’ll think about it in the morning” he whispered but no one was there to hear zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

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