I am the ground controller for bee hive 12 and have been for approaching two weeks. I am a veteran of over three million landings and take-offs with only 14,000 deaths in transit on my watch (landings and take-offs combined). I know what I do and what I do I do well.
My day starts at dawn and ends at dusk, random gassings aside. Port-side is take-off with the wind from the west and traffic starts to warm up slowly after daybreak with young guns eager to earn early-day favour with the Queen. Prepared to chance their luck in the long shadows of the early morning, this cuts their chance of locating nectar considerably, but they won’t be told. I watch them attack the small white wooden runway, taking off almost instantly on their nimble wings and lithe bodies, shaking off the dew as they rise into the milky morning. About half of them never return. They think they are the first.
Next out are the professionals, almost three days into their hunting cycles and graceful with beauty and air. They step onto the runway, look up, across, stand forth and throw themselves with purpose into an updraft that limits effort and adds distance to the first foray of the day. It is magnificent and brief and you cannot separate the two.
Lastly come the veterans, still not fully clean from the previous day. Many die with sheer exhaustion on the runway and are swept away with the next take-off or shower. It is hard to watch them go this way but it has to be so. They were becoming a burden anyway.
Everyone takes renewed optimism from take-off, or steals it, or cheats it, even if it is often misplaced.
A little less then 10 minutes later the first young things return, along with veterans concerned a wing will shortly fall off. The youngsters dance their stories with hungry watchers nearby, though the story ‘I went to that tree over there and found nothing’ has limited appeal to a story-weary veteran. They often smash head long into the hive through eagerness, drunk on sweet adventure, but most bounce off and learn nothing except an aversion for repeating the experience.
It was on a day such as this that something happened that is worth recounting.
With the young guns flying (stupidly early in my opinion) the professionals started to limber up and take stock. Borris, the ‘meister’, the unparalleled guardian drone of the week sprang forth and took to the air as if guessing the breeze before it knew its own mind. It was a marvel to me and a lesson to those who watched in awe. Borris had been by far the most successful drone of the week, collecting the bee equivalent of 12 gallons of nectar, am and pm. With verve and accuracy he wasted no time in transit to the most bountiful honeysuckle, rose or dahlia. His stature grew as the week progressed, for, it was rumoured, he had a secret source of sweet deliciousness that only he knew of. This accounted for his prodigious collections and his metronomic regularity of successful returns.
Indeed, beholding these returns laden with juice and a scant dabbling of pollen was to watch a master in landing. From some way out he would pit against the current of air, falling and rising in measure with its push and pull and then from a short distance away he would dart at the strip like a viper before cushioning the last inch in complete stillness. It was only those who tried the same that new its perfection and imitators corpses could be seen strewn about the grass around and splattered to the hive. As with all top professionals he made it seem easy but it wasn’t.
On the fourth day he returned, as before, cargo full and ready to land. A watching crowd awaited his map-dance with eagerness to share his discovery and learn once more from the master. This time the dance was complex. It said this:
“Beyond the tree to the left is a wall. Beyond the wall is a courtyard. Before the drawn stable, lift up and over the apex of the barn, across the field to the stream in the far west corner”
No bee from this hive had ever been beyond this point.
“Once across the stream, look for the house with the red door. Travel through, round, or over the house and in the yard in the back are a couple drinking lemonade from cans. This is the sweetest lemonade you will ever drink. The couple are talking so much they are hardly taking notice if you take some. You can see right now I am full of juice from my first journey but there is still plenty remaining. The cans are on a wooden table with green on the outside and silver on the inside. There is a small entrance at the top. Climb in and drink what you can and is necessary for the return journey”.
This revelation caused a flurry of activity. Some youngsters puffed up their chests, some even suggested the task was too easy for them but only so they had a ready made excuse for bowing out of the mission. Some professionals viewed the journey with suspicion, cautioning the wisdom in travelling so far when there were plentiful pickings nearer to home, though they had difficulty disputing the potential spoils which lay before their magnificent eyes. The veterans offered some counsel, knowing no one expected their airborne input.
In the end an admirable drone called Johnson was elected. He had strength, a solid collection record and a name for pin-point accurate map-dances that were incredibly reliable if not dripping in artistic merit.
So off they went, past the tree, over the wall, beyond the courtyard and the stable and the barn and the field and the stream to the house with the red door. Johnson was pleased they rested there and looked down upon their quarry.
But it was not what Borris had described.
Some things were true. There was a wooden table in a yard. But there was only one can and seemingly no people.
In dismay, Borris headed down into the yard and towards the gap in the can that was no longer there. This can was red. But Borris could not see. Bounding off the can he was amazed and dazed. So amazed, he repeated his practiced dive again, and again he failed. Once more, driven by a powerful incomprehension he could not have foreseen, he dove again, and again, and again. Finally, near to exhaustion and concussion, he settled, landing perfectly on top of the can and screamed in anguish rested atop where the gap should be. He stung it repeatedly before he gradually realised that willpower was not enough this time.
Johnson hadn’t moved. He sat near the guttering and took off in one long low swoop past the scene and the can – which was clearly not a flower – and turning quickly started for home. He went over the house, past the stream, barn, courtyard, wall and tree. When he returned to the hive, tired, he danced like he had never danced before with honesty and shame and bravery. We still talk of it now. I could draw you that wall and that stream. I could show you the courtyard in a painting.
When Borris returned we could see him coming from some way off. He fought the wind rather than using it. He took a circle around the hive before settling in to land which he did with a slide, like a frog thrown on ice. And there he stopped, panting, wings unmoved.
The younger professionals approached him slowly. The novices watched in suspended thrills of excitement. The veterans didn’t dare put themselves on the line. Traffic was suspended briefly. They grabbed him and they stung him and they bit him. He screamed in pain and rejection but they wouldn’t stop. They bit and bit, until finally his wings came off. And they left him there where he shrivelled in the heat of the midday sun before blowing gently away in the breeze of dusk.
Flights resumed shortly after as usual.
Bringing brutal adoloscence and bees together in a simple tale of lemonade