Inside they’re growing. It’s not the bees themselves that are growing but the colony itself, and the comb which is lengthening from the top bars towards the base. At first the new comb was so pale it seemed almost translucent and I worried there were no eggs inside it; when brood has been capped with wax it’s supposed to be the colour of digestive biscuits, but this was more like shortbread. It was all so new – there were no layers, and nothing soiling them. A couple of weeks on, the comb is thicker. It’s toughened into yellow, and almost brown in places. I look back at Dan standing by the shed. He’s craning his neck without moving a step closer. I can see his socks. They’re bright blue, like his hair wisps. How is it that he is always so perfectly matched?
In the middle, near the centre of the comb, I find the queen. Her head and upper body are the same size as a worker’s, but her abdomen is huge; round and shining like the smooth outside of a chestnut bud. She rotates slightly, her backside nudging as though it were the one doing the directing, and not her head. I hold the comb higher, squinting, and her attendant workers gather in a clutch – mounting her, hiding her, wary of my gaze and the glare of the sunlight.
The hive has often been touted as a symbol for the virtues of a monarchical society, but that’s misleading. In fact it is the workers, not the queen, who hold much of the decision-making power; and in the absence of a ruling authority it is communication, not control, that maintains the stability of the hive. Which rings true with the sense I have, standing here, leaning over them like this, of something alive and meshlike at work.
‘That was wild!’ Dan says, when the lid is closed and the suit is off and I’m standing by the shed with him. But I’m not sure wild is how it felt. My eyes are wide and my heart is beating faster, but I also feel calmed and – well – sort of contained, I suppose. There is something quietening about looking in on the bees. I have to steady my legs; concentrate on what I’m holding and not on their seething; find a way of picking out what’s happening beneath all that heat and constant motion. It makes me feel a bit forceful myself.
‘How are they doing?’ Dan asks, tweaking my elbow, nudging me back down to earth.
‘They’re getting bigger – I saw the queen.’ I pull him closer to the entrance until he sees their differently dressed-up legs. There are pollen buds the colour of traffic cones and dumper trucks, and some are even an odd grey-green.
‘Looks like mould,’ he says, eyeing it suspiciously. ‘Where does it come from?’
‘Not sure. All over, I guess. Allotments. Parks. There’s a meadow just beyond the playing fields, so maybe there.’ Three more come down, carrying that odd grey-green. He’s right; it does look like mould.
Next he wants to know about the queen. ‘There were so many of them,’ he says. ‘How does it – who do they – how do they know where to find her?’
I search around in my head, trying to find an answer for him. ‘Well,’ I begin, ‘they can’t see her. It’s crowded, and pitch black in there. So she sends out a pheromone – a particular smell, like a signal to let them know she’s in attendance. It gets licked off by the workers around her, and they pass it onto the workers around them, and so on. They spread it body to body through the whole colony.
Workers also use smell to communicate. After a rainstorm last week I saw three of them standing over the entrance, waving their backsides at the freshly watered air. They were releasing a different pheromone to guide home any foragers who had become lost. And they use scent to recruit foragers out of the hive, too – sharing samples of nectar during a waggle dance. In fact, if you think of smell as a form of communication, then even the dead speak: the last odour to be emitted by a bee is oleic acid, the smell of decay. On smelling this an undertaker bee will seek out the corpse and begin dragging it towards the entrance. Dropping the load after some distance and moving on, another undertaker will arrive and drag it further, and then another, until the entrance is reached and the dead bee ejected from the hive. I saw this too last week. I was sitting watching the entrance when suddenly something dropped. I thought at first it was a stone falling, but then half of it moved. It was two bees wrapped around each other, and one of them was alive. The live one began tugging. The dead one was so tightly curled I couldn’t see its legs. It got tugged almost to the edge of the concrete slab before the alive one left it.
A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings was published in July 2018 by Scribner. Helen’s personal website is here.