The Horror and Monotony of Bees – Yuna Winter
May 3, 2020
He stood at the top of a ladder set inside the ninth or tenth apricot tree in the center of the third and middle of five rows of give or take twenty apricot trees which collectively made up the apricot block of the orchard, distracted momentarily by the sound of bees. It was late February, unseasonably warm and the apricot trees were in bloom.
The bees were prolific to the degree of distraction.
There were about a hundred apricot trees in the orchard that needed to be pruned. And the pruning was late, or rather the spring was early and now the art of cutting the limbs off the trees became an even more difficult task due to the early opening of blossoms, not yet securely fastened to the branch.
The trees, bare in winter, begin to set buds from wood along the branches in early spring. First the buds are tight and with warmer weather and sunny days, they begin to push themselves out and open. “The Popcorn Phase” it’s called.
He watched as a bee grasped at a flower bud whose petals bulged and curled inward creating a little apricot blossom house into which the bee somewhat forcefully broke and entered.
To be a bee would be, so effortless he poetically thought while half heartedly focused on pressing the handles of his pruning shears together around the correct branch of apricot.
Life is so complicated and monotonous. God there are so many trees left to prune.
The art of pruning trees is an entirely different daydream, which ran silently in the background of the constant distracting buzz of bees hovering around him.
Avoid pruning the branches with too much force. Avoid snapping the branch back or knocking other branches with the discarded pruning or your clumsy elbow. Blossoms in “the Popcorn Phase” are delicate and only loosely attached to the branch. They will fly at your face. Sometimes bees will come with them.
To fly like a bee. Moving easily in defiance of gravitational pull. To be amongst the flowers and air instead of perched on cold metal inside of pointy sticks. Teetering on a ladder. Straining with sharp tools through dense wood.
If you knew the true life of bees Daniel, you would not be envious of them. You think this is monotony? Really? These few hours of one day of only several weeks that happen but once a season each year? These few hours inside of blossoming trees, cutting their swollen new growth?
This moment is so rare it barely exists. This moment is a skin cell in the body of your life.
And the life of a bee? The life that is distracting you with envy? That is the life of true hive mind monotony. The life of a machine. A kamikaze pilot. A slave. Slow servile suicide.
An ounce of wax takes a pound of honey to make.
A pound of honey takes two million flowers.
(A fact too horrifying to acutely grasp: during her entire lifetime the average worker bee will make just one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey)
There are indeed three types of bees, and none of them are as lucky as you. The female worker bee. The male drone. And the Queen.
All of them live lives you should not envy. Their functions so tied to their lives that they have become their names. Workers work, drones drone and the queen commands.
The three types of bees are really just cogs in the life of the hive. The hive being really, just a cell rallying for replication.
The queen is the nucleus of the cell that is the hive and the drones are her chromosomes and reproductive organs. Literally also, they are the eggs she lays that contain only her chromosomes, unfertilized, or haploid.
The drone emerges as a living duplicate of only the queen’s genetic code. Fatherless. Male drone bees exist for sex with other queens. Their lives are docile, having no other purpose than transmittable code, and if they live it properly, a singular sexual encounter, midair, that rips their genitals from their body and flings them to their death to mix the DNA of their queen with another’s in order to strengthen female worker and queen genetics and in turn overall colony health.
The drone has a genealogical tree that is both unusual for genealogical trees but very usual for nature. The drone legacy follows a Fibonacci sequence in lineage, providing us with a lovely little riddle:
Q: What animal does not have a father and cannot have sons but will be a grandfather and have many grandsons?
A: A drone bee.
Female worker bees however, are fertilized eggs. Their lives are full of tasks for survival. They are the mitochondria and organelles of the cell, the energy centers, the immune, digestive, homeostatic and security systems of the hive. Built to withstand disease and perform the duties necessary to the survival of the whole.
Worker bees are made of the intermingling of the DNA from drones (the queen’s DNA) of other hives with the DNA of the hive’s queen to ensure hardiness. Their lives are predetermined patterns of survival. They live and die for the good of the hive. This one isn’t a riddle, it’s a reminder:
Q: How much does one teaspoon of honey cost?
A: The lives of twelve worker bees.
The first thing a female worker bee must do upon arrival into the world is clean her room. For one to two days she is tasked with cleaning the cell she came to life in because it needs to be used again to make more worker bees. The Queen inspects each cell and if it isn’t clean enough the worker must do it again and again until the Queen is happy.
After successfully cleaning her womb, room and cell, the worker becomes a nurse. Her job is to feed the larvae growing into workers and drones and queens. She must feed them up to 1300 times a day, giving worker jelly to worker larvae and young male drone bees who cannot feed themselves. Mixing in some honey and pollen she gets from older worker bees doing other specialized hive survival tasks.
After a few days of nursing worker larvae and drones, she advances to feeding royal jelly to queen larvae and waiting on the queen.
Around day 6, she becomes a builder. Her royal jelly glands atrophy and her wax glands activate to excrete flakes that when chewed and shaped become the walls and rooms of the hive.
Older worker bees specialize in the functions of the hive like the organs of a body. Some maintain homeostatic hive temperature by bringing water and fanning air when too hot and vibrating to increase temperature, especially in the brood chambers which must be maintained at a precise and constant thirty four point four degree centigrade.
They maintain immunity by patching holes and removing dead bees and failed larvae and they protect the hive, willing to die to kill an intruder like a wasp, or a mouse or a lizard.
They cover failed invaders too large to carry away like they would a dead bee or wasp in an antifungal and antibacterial made from a mix of wax and resins gathered by older foraging bees called ‘propolis’, from the latin meaning ‘suburbs’ so named as the bees use it to extend their hive.
Around day twenty, a worker reaches maturity and becomes a foraging bee, until she dies of exhaustion from foraging. From this point on, until her death, her task is gathering for her hive.
Do not envy the bees, Daniel. The worker bee works herself to death. She lives 140 days in the winter and 40 days in the summer and every one of those days is work. The drone bee exists, helpless, a transmittable receptacle of a legacy of which he has no part.
The worker bee is not leisurely flitting about from flower to flower enjoying their scent and colour like a cruise ship tourist moves from port to port on shore excursions. She moves with the drive of survival, and not even of her own. She lands, sometimes just hovers, sucking nectar from a flower and storing it a special nectar crop in her throat. She knocks the flower’s pollen onto her body, combing her hair with her arms, collecting the pollen into little baskets on her legs.
She flies around three thousand meters foraging distances and in times of desperation twelve thousand meters to find the appropriate flowers with enough food to be worth the energy of the journey. A journey she makes anywhere from one to five times a day until she dies of fatigue.
Suddenly Daniel snaps out of his daydream. Surrounded by thousands of bees each landing, hovering and flying around him from one white popcorned apricot blossom to another, his section of tree pruned, he steps down from the ladder.
Flowers are beautiful, Daniel. But we get to experience the fruit.
But papa, replied Daniel to the voice of his dead father playing in his head.
We are the bees.
Our life is work. All day, we work. Our bodies, the cells in our bodies, all work so we can also work. And we too, our cells, our lives, we die from fatigue while foraging for a future life, for a legacy we know will outlive ourselves.
Remember you told me our hearts never stop working for us? About our blood? That our blood is selfless and has given up its own heart and mind to be a carrier of energy for ours?
Papa, we are the bees and our life is work.
Daniel, you are beautiful and brave.
Thank you, thank you for answering me.
Thank you for thinking of me.
For thinking of what I would be saying to you.
Thank you for thinking about the bees.
But we are not the bees.
Your thoughts alone, myriad and full.
These flowers in these trees.
The hot cocoa you will drink when you return home.
The flowers of the cacao tree pollinated by insects.
The cacao pods harvested.
Heated, cooled and combined with Honey
foraged by bees.
mixed with goats milk
fed only alfalfa
The heat from the fire that will be burning in the house.
Finding a fallen tree.
Lighting a fire.
The smell of dinner,
potatoes and carrots
planted in spring
harvested in summer
stored for winter in the root cellar
fertilized, laid, hatched
fed, slaughtered, butchered
upon our table.
These everyday experiences are a result of a chain of events so full and vast that contemplating the energetic origins of even just the simplest things can incapacitate your own contributions of time and energy.
You see, the story doesn’t go forward very fast if we keep tracing the origins of every new thing we encounter.
But maybe, Dan, that’s the speed the story is supposed to go.
In any case, dear boy, we are not bees.
We are so far beyond the production of the honey in your cup of hot chocolate.
The honey for which the bees work themselves into fatigued deaths.
The cup which was dug from the earth as a ball of clay and formed by your mother’s hands on our pottery wheel in our shed, fired in that tiny kiln we found at a garage sale. Then glazed, Refired. Filled. Held. Washed. Stored. Filled. Held, by your hands.
The hot chocolate, shipped from across the world. Formed by flower, then fruit, then seed pod that must be picked, stored, fermented, roasted and ground. Heated. Cooled. Reheated. Conched. Recooled. Packaged. Shipped. Hundreds of years of collective striving, and thousands of years of plant evolution to extract a final product from a living thing that brings almost everyone who consumes it a feeling of comfort.
We are not the bees. We make so much more than honey. We make so much. And we exist within a life dependent on the inter- and in- dependent creations, discoveries and disseminations of the knowledge and experiences of other people harnessing the past creations of the world in new ways to enable us to think of so much more than just survival.
We really have a chance to live.
We have a chance to experience the myriad of experiences that this time and space dimension provides.
And oh, it is so much more vast than a hive.
“Daniel,” called out a voice from the house beyond the apricot orchard.
“Come take a break.”