Observations from a Bee Buffet
“Total bed rest,” said the Doctor, and “Lay on the couch and do not speak. An infection in the lungs must be treated seriously,” he said, shaking his silver head to add emphasis. No work. No exercise. No working the bees. I can testify that if one wants to see psychological warfare designed to drive a man mad there is no need to travel to Gitmo or Baghdad. Daytime television is the blight of the soul.
Out the window I could see them flying, bees shining golden in the morning light and fading away as the sun rises. In the evening the light is once again right to show their comings and goings but for a beekeeper that is hardly enough. I had the suit in hand when my wife caught me. “I won’t lift anything,” I said. “Back to the couch,” she said. So I brought the bees to me.
I stocked my feeding frenzy with a frame of the nastiest honey I have ever tasted. It came from thousands of feet up in the mountains so I do not suspect contamination but it is proof that just because it is sticky and sweet doesn’t mean you should put it in your mouth. I cut the comb from the frame before I sampled the disgusting darkness that lines these cells. My wife tasted it and said “Throw it away.” That seemed irresponsible. Some disease infested vermin might consume the honey and die before it could eat some other piece of rotten filth to get the taste out of its mouth. Nothing deserves to die like that. Instead I had my daughter push a recliner up to the window, where I took up residence. Outside on the deck my wife placed the tray. To facilitate my observation I had sliced the comb into strips about two inches high and stood them up in rows. The better for the bees to get to them, I reasoned. Then I nestled down in my recliner for the night and passed into a fitful sleep.
The First Day
The sun rises on the wrong side of the house, I decided the morning of the first day. And the ridge of earth and stone to the east of me is inconvenient when one needs the sun to rise and wake the bees. All the wishing in the world will not alter the course of the sun nor speed the passing of a second, so I spent the first few hours watching…nothing.
10:30 marked the arrival of the first customer to my combination fine dining and entertainment venue. It was a wasp. A common yellow jacket spent the better part of fifteen minutes eating. If that was all the entertainment a tray of honey would attract I would be better off putting it out by the curb and seeing if the neighborhood kids would be attracted. Fortunately at 10:45 my first visitor of the apis order arrived. My brother once ran a restaurant and he always said that word of mouth is the best advertising. Since bees practice tropholaxis (food sharing), the hive has some of the best word of mouth communication one could ask for. I hear most of the gossip is about the state of the queen, how many of what kind of brood there are, and how much pollen there is, but an occasional “and you won’t believe the little place E227732 and I found – it’s fabulous” would fit right in. My bee spent three minutes lapping up honey until it had the bad luck to set the lunch tray down right beside the wasp. The wasp promptly leapt on the bee and tore it apart. It then took the abdomen and flew away. It was going to be hard to get word of mouth advertising when the mouth (and indeed, the head and thorax) were still twitching on the tray. The head, I will note, continued to extend its tongue for a while despite the fact that its nectar crop, stomach, and other vital innards had vacated the premises. Eat up, bee. You won’t be getting fat.
10:55 – Third customer arrives. This too is a honeybee. Judging from the color she hails from the small hive on the end. The wasp had already picked up her take out order and so the bee was alone. When it finally left I knew that this was the buffet’s big break. It didn’t take long to prove me right. Within two minutes there was a party of ten feasting on the honey. At the early stages the bees stuck to slurping the honey from the bottom of the tray and the open cells where I had cut the comb. An hour later all the hives were in full flight and the bee buffet – well, lunch was definitely served.
How and why the bees decided the move from drinking the open cells to tearing the cell cappings I cannot say. By late afternoon the mass of bees had eaten the honey from the bottom of the tray and all the open cells. That’s when the looting began. For all the people who want to point to the honeybee as a grand architect and an incredible engineer, let me point out that no engineer I know of would ever have done what they did: They started eating at the bottom.
Beginning with the lowest cells the bees tore off the cappings. If you’ve never watched it it is a strange sight – the bees nip and dodge as though at any moment the hand of God will reach down to smite them for their acts. I watched bees take bite after bite off of different cappings. The cappings began to look ragged and thin. And then a bee would grab an edge and fold it back like laundry. Any open cell soon attracted a ring of diners eager to help themselves. And when the cell wasn’t open wide enough for a new comer, they would chew back the edges.
Now, remember how I said they started at the bottom? By late evening the bottom cells were nearly chewed away. And the comb began to lean. My wife stopped to look at them and said “It isn’t supposed to look like that, is it?” No it is not. “Are they repairing it,” she asked? Not exactly. The sun set on the second day with the rows of comb resembling an ancient monument. Previously straight and white, the comb now meandered from side to side like the great wall of china meets Chin’s Chinese buffet, leaning far over where the vandals had done the most damage. Closing time and last call saw the wasps leave after dark.
The Second Day
Day two began with a line waiting when the sun came up. Some of these bees had obviously spent the night and were actually stuck in place where the honey had run to one side. They continued to gorge themselves, an action I actually understand since there’s nothing else for them to do. I opened a bottle of juice and raised a toast to my trapped guests. Welcome to my world, bees.
That day the bees arrived en mass from the moment the sun came up and this day the guests began to get out of hand. Yesterday when all the cells were being uncapped there was a frenzy. Today things began in a full blown panic. We had open feeding at the bottom of the tray, or you could wait in line for a honey cell to open up. Oh, and by open up I mean “Tear it open from the side if necessary.” So a fine furry coating of bees took up residence in the valley of the combs while the pickier waited impatiently for a table with a view. And the feast went on. Wasps occasionally landed to sample my offering but now they were in for a surprise. Backed by numbers the bees were in no mood to share their fortunate find. The wasps were driven from the comb by the apis horde. The waiter regrets to inform that civility is no longer on the menu. Bees began to drag each other from the open cells, dashing in for a quick sip themselves before being pulled out. By mid afternoon though I began to watch in earnest as a disaster movie took shape.
Down in the bottom of the pan bees were still feasting on the sticky floor. No five second rule for them – five days and they’d still eat this stuff. Up on the combs the bottoms had been emptied out and chewed away. As the hours passed the lean of the comb became more and more steep.
I was oblivious to everything as I waited for the pending
disaster. “Today,” said my wife, “We find out how Stephan destroyed the hotel
to keep Ellie and Arron from finding true love.”
I regret to say I missed the first collapse, as the comb leaned over. I like to imagine that bees ran screaming in terror as their world rained down upon them. I actually saw the second and third rows fall over and it was a lot more entertaining in my mind.
“Run Buzz, Save yourself!”
“I won’t, Bea, I won’t leave you.”
“You never loved me, only my honey.”
“You know, on second thought, you are right. I’m out of here.”
Some bees did run. Some escaped the great comb collapse of day two. I think in the hive at night the bees tell stories to the larva about how the screams of the dead and the dying were horrible. I also like to think that the larva go off to pupate wondering how bad things have to get for the dead to be screaming about it.
Either way, the comb fell, crushing those in its shadow into a sticky grave. I like to think of it as a remodeling job where my upscale buffet was reworked into a working class diner. “The Sticky Pan”, I would call it. The bees didn’t leave even while gravity did its extreme makeover. They just switched to eating from the few cells available for hours. Evening of the second day saw bees licking clean the exposed cells.
The Third Day
Today my working class restaurant remade itself again, and not for the better. No scrap of wax was too small to chew and re-chew in search of honey. Wasps roamed the comb or tumbled in wrestling matches with bees ½ their size. And when the bees drove the wasps away they turned on each other. “Field bees do not fight over freely available food,” said a book I read when I was first starting out. I think my entire field force must be ex convicts because these bees would roll you for a dime bag of sugar. Bees began prospecting – chewing through the midrib on cells to get at the honey trapped below. Other bees tunneled in from the sides like coal miners, chewing through the wax walls supporting the comb. As I might have noted earlier – identifying load bearing walls is not their strong suite. A lucky prospecting bee would soon find herself the victim of a quintuple-cross or more as the fur was torn off. Then the stingers came out.
Bees are peaceful, gentle creatures in my experience. In the middle of a drought they will shank each other for a cup full of nectar without a second thought, it seems. The comb sags lower and lower as the bees on the bottom chew out the cell walls, unaware that at some point it’s not going to be possible to escape.
Remember the bee from day two, stuck to the bottom of the pan? At around 1:00 she actually began to work herself free as the bees around her ate away the honey holding her captive. This wasn’t a rescue mission though = she’s now minus two legs where bees pulled them off in attempt to drive her away from the area underneath her.
Regardless of what the media says about America, if you want to see a culture of violence, pitch a picnic for your bees during a nectar drought. I like to think of my fine buffet as playing classical music on the first day. On the second day, perhaps rock. By day 3 my fine establishment was blasting hip hop while gangs cruised the aisles looking to pop a stinger in someone’s abdomen. Instead of gang signals we had hive scents. If you were from the eastside orange hive and got caught by a group from west side triple deep hive, look out.
By evening the pan looked like a African war zone. Crumpled comb lay in ruins across the pan. One unlucky prospector chewed through cell and quickly backed out – a fountain of bees erupted from this single cell like a clown car. It seems the mining bees became trapped and were accidentally rescued. I’d bet that after this they will all rethink their current career as foragers and take up safer occupations, like robbing the bald faced hornet’s nest.
That evening I brought in the pan. It was littered with dead bees, devoid of anything edible. I flip over the comb and found a trapped bee, which decided to leave me a tip on the forearm. Sigh. I am so glad I never went into the restaurant business.
“So what are you going to serve tomorrow?” my wife asked.
“I was thinking we could build a tiny cage. Put some packets of that corn syrup from KFC in the middle Two insects enter, one insect leaves, winner takes all. We could take bets on it, maybe even have people over to watch. It would be like a wrestling cage match where the wrestlers have six legs and wings and stingers. Like a running a dog fighting ring, except that we don’t have to move to Detroit and the cops won’t kick down our door.”
“You have been watching entirely too much daytime television,” she says.