Small Plots Unfolding in the World

Passing under the pear tree on my morning walk I looked up at the branch that hangs over the chemistry grad students’ front door. Tightly clustered but quivering as it revs up for the day, the miniswarm is all that remains of the big swarm that showed up a week ago and assembled itself on the pear branch, a seething mass the size and shape of an American football.

Maybe a week earlier a persistent buzzing under the lawn chair had distracted me from the book I’d been reading. A bee swooped up past my face, then dove back under the chair. Yellow, but smaller and fuzzier than a yellow jacket — a honeybee? I’d not seen one yet this spring; for that matter I didn’t recall having seen any last summer. Then one afternoon the swarm showed up.

“Honeybees?” the office manager for our complex asked the next morning. I told her I didn’t know, that I wasn’t prepared to get close enough to verify. We’d googled it: it seems that only honeybees go in for this sort of swarming behavior. When the hive gets too big the queen sets out with half the workers and a team of scouts in search of a new home, leaving the old hive and the rest of the colony to her successor. It’s how honeybees expand their population. setting up shop temporarily in an exposed place, often a tree branch, until the scouts come to an agreement about the most suitable option for establishing a permanent hive. Beekeepers can be called in to capture a swarm, adding workers to the honey farm while diversifying the gene pool with the hardy resourcefulness manifested by a successful and expanding feral bee population. The office manager said she’d place the call.

That afternoon and evening it rained, hard. Next morning the swarm was still there in the tree, having shifted and rotated its position entirely to the underside of the branch. The previous day the office manager was supposed to have taken a photo and sent it to the beekeeper, confirming that the swarm was worth his while to come out and harvest, but what with the rain she hadn’t gotten out there to take the photo. I walked her to the tree. “Oh my God!” Bees, ten thousand or more, all piled on top of each other, the ones on the surface writhing and twitching, a few launching themselves into loose eccentric orbits around the living mass clustered on the branch. She took her photos and returned to the office. Later that afternoon when I went for a run I passed by the swarm: it seemed more energized, the bees on the surface flapping and seething and waggling. When I returned forty-five minutes later the swarm was gone. Had the beekeeper gathered them up? No: he’d come with his equipment, but by the time he showed up the bees had already gone. A hundred or so remained, a miniswarm: maybe they’d been out feeding and scouting while the coordinates for reaching the new location was being communicated through the swarm. By the time these outliers returned to the branch it was too late: they’d been left behind.

And there they are still, five days later, their numbers diminished a bit through the ordinary attrition of a short lifespan exacerbated by exposure to two more torrential storms. The tight cluster on the branch has reorganized itself a few times — once they formed an acrobatic chain, a few gripping the branch, some holding onto the backs of their anchored comrades, and so on and so on, until they’d contoured themselves into a dangling scaffold maybe twenty layers deep. Now they’re nestled in a notch underneath the branch, affording them at least some protection from the rain.

What will they do now? Their queen and their colony have gone away, leaving no forwarding address. Apparently they can’t return to the old hive from which the new colony splintered off — maybe they’d now be regarded as intruders, carrying the old queen’s pheromones into a population infused by the scent of a new queen. The worker bee’s usual lot is to find food, return to the hive, and regurgitate into the cells of the comb to feed the larvae. But the miniswarm has no princess queen it can nurture into maturity. There will be no eggs, no larvae, no need to feed them. What do worker bees do when they don’t have any work to do anymore? Do they lose their purpose, their will to live? There’s plenty of pine pollen in the air: do the hiveless bees continue to feed themselves even when no longer charged with feeding the next generation? I’d guess so — otherwise they’d likely have starved to death by now. Why don’t the scouts — there must be at least one scout left behind — find a more protected place for the retired workers to live out their lives of newfound leisure?

On my walk this morning I noticed, on the edge of the sidewalk about a quarter mile from here, a black mound roughly the same size and shape as the swarm had adopted when it was at full strength. More like half a swarm though, one hemisphere of a football, not seething but inert, a convex muddy dome rimmed with ragged edges. I nudged it with my toe: it wobbled, twice, before rocking back into its original position. I nudged it again: another rocking back and forth — was it a fraction slower this time? — then nothing. I walked on. Something about that wobble had seemed animated by more than mere mechanics. An inverted nest, fallen from a tree during the overnight storm, its hatchlings feebly pushing up from underneath trying to escape? Instead of following my usual course home I retraced my route, picking up a stick from the edge of the trail that I could use to probe the muddy mound. I passed back along the stretch of sidewalk: no sign of the black shape. I doubled back: nothing. Dropping the stick under a stand of trees I walked on

Reaching my front door I was buzzed by a solitary honeybee sweeping out from under the lawn chair. A scout from the miniswarm? But wait: wasn’t this bee already hanging around under the chair even before the swarm showed up?

 

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3 thoughts on “Small Plots Unfolding in the World

  1. On this morning’s walk I heard a croaking squawking noise coming from above. A heron, surely. But can herons fly as high as the bird that’s making that noise must be flying? I looked up. Sure enough, it’s a heron, mobbing a hawk. I’ve seen herons in flight before, but always just a few feet above the ground, like they couldn’t wait to splash down again at the edge of a nearby pond. This heron was way up there, swooping and diving like a crow, strong and acrobatic, faster than the hawk it was harrying. I guess hawks bring out the athlete in lots of bird species.

    Watching the aerial combat I realized that I was again standing near where I’d seen the black muddy hump next to the sidewalk, the mysterious object that had disappeared when I came back to investigate it. I looked again this morning: nowhere to be found.

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  2. Two bees remained this Easter morning; now, at 5 pm, all of them are gone. Since the main swarm left I’ve looked for bee carcasses at the base of the tree but have seen none. Maybe the last traces of queen scent have finally disappeared, leaving the remaining workers to find their individual ways in the world until their time runs out.

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  3. This morning there was one bee. Maybe it had been foraging when I’d looked in on the branch yesterday afternoon. Maybe it had left like the others but at dusk couldn’t figure out where else to go and so had returned to its only home.

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