Writer in Residence · 07/05/2011

Swarmed (excerpt)

The first bee she found was dead. It spilled out, riding a wave of cereal as she poured herself breakfast one morning. It lay, bright yellow, like a discarded curl of dusty velvet, amid the bland Cheerios she hadn’t wanted to eat to begin with. She had picked the box up out of habit, knowing that she had to eat, that she only had a few minutes before she would need to leave for work.

She touched her belly lightly, unconsciously, as she stared at the bee, wondering what to do now. Should she remove the bee and eat the cereal? Should she throw away the contents of the bowl? The whole box? What does one do with a dead bee anyway? Surely no one would expect her to bury the thing, not that the apartment building had a yard anyway. She could bury it in the meager soil of her houseplants she supposed. It seemed callous, somehow, to just throw the cheerful remains into a wastebasket like any old piece of trash. You wouldn’t flush it like you would with an expired fish, would you?

She gave each question more thought than she should have, each speculation running into the next like, well, like the flow of a dead bee surfing the crest of a sweep of processed grain cereal.

She shook her head slightly. Bee, she thought again; the word, for whatever reason, steadied her.

It’s perfect, she thought, looking at the desiccated little corpse.

She could see each and every single golden thread of hair on its alien form and, gleaming in the morning sun, each segment of its impossibly tiny legs curled under its body, curved and gentle as a baby dreaming its unknowable womb dreams.

+

+

Bees, a cousin to ants and wasps, can be found on every continent except Antarctica. Most bees are small, ranging from around half in inch in length to up to an inch and a half. There are 20,000 known species of bees. All have a long tongue, known as a proboscis, which allows them to drink nectar from flowers though only seven species of the 20,000 are true honey bees.

Honey bees are able to turn this flower nectar into honey. Long before humans began stealing honey the bees used it as a food source for their hive. Honey bees sometimes travel up to ten miles to find the nectar producing flowers they feed off of. Bees use dance in order to communicate directions to the fellow citizens of their hive. This waggle dance, as it is known, is so precise that one bee can tell another where to find a specific flower that is many miles away.

Hives are amazingly complex social structures that have been compared to corporations. In order to feed so many individual creatures they have to be. A small hive of honeybees contains about 20,000 insects. A large hive can hold up to 100,000. All of the thousands of bees in any given hive are separated into three castes: worker bees, drone bees, and the Queen bee.

Successful hives can get so large that they split and create a new colony. Scout bees fly ahead and look for suitable places for a new hive. The preferred spot for a hive must have enough room for at least six gallons of honey and all of the tens of thousands of bees, face south for added warmth, and be high enough off the ground to discourage casual predators. Honey bees love hollowed out tree trunks and other places with rotting wood as hive locations.

Once they have found the location for a new hive the scout bees return to the waiting swarm. They perform the elaborate waggle dance needed to tell the swarm how to find their new home. Queen bees, the largest of the hive, are too heavy to fly long distances without taking many breaks. The swarm moves slowly because of this. While they take their time reaching their destination the scout bees are traveling at speeds up to fifteen miles per hour to get back to the new hive location in time to prepare for the swarms arrival. Using their tongues the bees chew away at the dead wood. They collect tree resin and coat the interior to give it a smooth surface on which to begin building cells of beeswax. This wax cup will hold the honey they create to feed the hive and serve as a nest of sorts for the eggs the Queen bee will begin laying as soon as she arrives.

Geneticists who study bees tell us that the insects have a high frequency of learning genes. Bees can tell the difference between an object that is familiar to them and one that they have not seen before. And, for no good evolutionary reason that we can think of, bees can recognize human faces.

+

She had been a paper eater as a child. She couldn’t remember now how it had started, why, or even really that she had ever done it. But in the hazy moments just before drifting off to an unplanned nap she would sometimes recall the deep yellow smell of paper, pulled strip by careful strip from the unprinted outer margins of paperback books as she slid them into her mouth. They would fold there, curious origami, in soft waves until, with relish, she crushed them flat against the rough roof of her mouth with her pointed pink tongue.

Everything about those moments spoke contentment. The smell of the old paper. The subtle rasp of the wood pulp, which was somehow both insect-like and pleasant, like the rustle of a taffeta party dress worn by a young girl, about to go out for the evening for the first time.

+

Early man discovered very quickly that bees produced honey and that honey was good for his health and could, fairly easily, be fermented into a sweet and dizzying drink. Ancient cultures had bee gods and goddesses, used the flower loving insect to represent royalty, and began keeping bees for easy access to their sweet produce very early in human history. A 15,000 year old cave painting discovered near Valencia, Spain shows a man ascending a ladder and collecting honey.

Today we know that early man was right about the health benefits of honey. It has anti-carcinogen properties, can be used as a natural treatment for everything from burns to sore throats, and contains vital vitamins and nutrients like B6, calcium, iron, potassium and zinc.

But the real value of bees isn’t their ability to make honey. Bees are a worldwide $60 billion dollar a year industry that keeps human-kind from starving. One third of the average person’s diet has been directly pollinated by honeybees. On top of this, alfalfa which is used to feed livestock, and cotton are almost entirely bee-dependent for pollination. In any ecosystem with flowering plants, bees are a keystone species. Without their pollination abilities those ecosystems would fail.

Albert Einstein quite famously is said to have once warned, “If the bee disappears from the surface of the Earth, man would have no more than four years to live.”

+

In the later months of 2006, a series of formerly unheard of incidences that would eventually come to be known as Colony Collapse Disorder began to take place in North America. From one moment to the next perfectly healthy, otherwise happy, honey bees began to take flight from their hives in record numbers. With the bulk of the colony (often as much as 90 percent of the hive) missing, the abandoned Queen, the young bee larvae, and their attendants starved to death. Bodies of the runaway bees, numbering well into the millions, were never found.

Within a year Colony Collapse Disorder had spread to much of the world, affecting 30 to 50 percent of all the hives in any given country. The United States lost a million hives of bees in 2007. Croatia lost five million bees in less than 48 hours.

Crazy theories sprang up. Cell phone signals were screwing with the bees brains, global warming was impeding their ability to properly waggle dance, the nicotine found in several popular pesticides was disorienting them to the point that they could not remember how to get home. Even the more scientific theories involving fungi and viruses and previously-unknown predators, were knocked down with even the slightest bit of research. The bees were leaving, Queenless, and were not seen or heard from again.

+

When she got home from work that night there were three bees crawling on the outside of her apartment door, but sluggishly. Watching them she had the sudden inexplicable thought that they were sick maybe, possibly dying, but as she approached the lock with her key they buzzed weakly and she realized they were just tired. Exhausted even, though how she could know that she couldn’t say. But there it was; they had flown a long way and now were spent.

She waved at them a little halfheartedly, trying to shoo them away from the doorknob so she could let herself in. One, a small amber jewel half the size of her thumb, surprised her by taking drunkenly to the air and then alighting on her hand. It seemed happy there.

It tickled a little, but in a comforting way, and so she left it and let herself inside. A soft prickling in her dark blond hair told her that the other bees had landed there. And I was worried that this place would have cockroaches, she thought as she tossed her purse on the kitchen table. Instead it has bees.

+

It is inarguable that the disappearance of honey bees would have unimaginable impacts on economies world wide, food production, and human and animal populations. The only problem with the “four years of no bees will lead to human extinction” quote is that Einstein never said it.

Albert Einstein, born on March 14, 1879, died on April 18, 1955, is popularly considered to be one the smartest human beings that has ever lived. He was, and continues to be, the extremely rare person who could be considered a celebrity-scientist. Einstein is often called the Father of Modern Physics. He came up with such ideas as the Theory of Relativity, the Quantum Theory of Light, and proved, for the first time in the history of science, that atoms really existed.

Einstein was much more than just a physicist, however, even if he was an extraordinary one. In his lifetime Einstein published more than 300 scientific works and 150 non-scientific pieces. He was the author of important books on philosophy, politics, international relations, and religion. In fact just about the only subject that Einstein never wrote about was the keeping or the value of bees.

To put not too fine a point on it, Einstein, a man whose name has become synonymous with genius, wouldn’t have known any more about bees than, say, your average mechanic, your hairdresser, or your next door neighbor.

+

Now there were more bees, many, many times more than the three who had arrived first. Thousands, if not tens of thousands, and the combined beating of their hundred thousand wings roiled and eddied the normally still air of the apartment.

She paced from one side to another in the small space, her hair stirred by this wind. They covered the walls in a constantly shifting curtain that seemed to move in a gentle wave towards her as she walked. She didn’t wonder where the bees had come from. The windows of the apartment were old, the frames unable to keep out the sounds of the filthy city below her. She knew that nothing could have stopped the bees from finding this place once they had set their collective mind to it.

The soft bodies flew through the air, caressing her face with their delicate touch and for the first time since those paper eating days as a young child she felt content. It was nice after all these years to be doted upon. She reached out with one finger and traced a heart in the writhing froth of insects covering the wall. In seconds the bees, always moving, had obscured it.

She had completely forgotten that these scouts had not been her first bees. The first one she’d found had been dead.

+++

Renee Mallett is the author of several books on mythology and folklore. Her forthcoming non-fiction book covering the artwork and traditions surrounding Mexico’s Day of the Dead holiday, Dia de los Muertos, will be available from Schiffer Publishing in early 2012. Renee Mallett lives in southern New Hampshire with her family. “Swarmed” will be released in its entirety as a chapbook later this year by Starling River Press.

+++

posted by Tim Horvath