Last flight of the forager
My daughters called me down to stare at the dirt with them.
"Dad, it's important," said my oldest. So I came and we gathered to look. There in the dirt crawled a worker bee, its fur gone, its wings tattered.
"It fell to the ground, Dad. It can't fly. You have to take it home," said my younger daughter. So we did.
Bees live around six weeks in the summer. They live longer in the winter and even less in the summer when they work themselves to death. They do not specialize. Every bee performs almost every task in the hive at some point in its life. Right after hatching a bee will clean its cell and takes on its first role as a nurse bee. Nurse bees clean cells, feed larvae, and draw wax. After a time, they become house bees, transferring pollen and nectar from the foragers. Later they will be guard bees and finally foragers.
The old forager was weak and barely able to crawl, but the pollen baskets on its legs were packed with proof of her hard work. She fell less than fifteen yards from the hive. It might as well have been a mile.
Bees lifetimes are limited by a number of factors: cold, predators, food, but also by their wings. Their wings are gossamer strands and they literally wear them out flying back and forth. Their fur wears off over time, a hazard of scrambling over other bees, fighting with wasps, crashing into the landing board, just working.
The forager's wings were tattered and frayed. It struggled to lift itself into the air but failed time and again. Each time it waited longer and longer to lift off. The right wing was shredded. The cool shadows cast by the setting sun meant certain death without the warmth of the colony.
My daughters are not afraid to stand near the hive but getting into the flight path, that's another thing entirely. I gathered the forager up on a leaf and carried it over to the front. The landing board of a hive is like a combination runway, customs booth and dance party at once. Bees are flying inbound all the time, sometimes crashing on the board they are so heavily loaded. In the same airspace other bees are struggling to leave. Guard bees stand ready to attack any inbound bees that don't belong to this hive. Other workers hang on the board, fanning their wings to spread the scent of the hive. Their scent acts as a chemical flare drifting out on the wind, calling the workers home.
The forager crawled off of its leaf and onto the landing board. Immediately it was surrounded by guard bees and accepted. It disappeared into the hive, lost in the swirl of activity.
As the evening grew dark I went down to refill the feeder and I saw it. Two workers dragging a dead bee off the side. I looked closer, and recognized the barely present right wing. One bee among thousands, one day, one moment in six weeks of hard work, one final journey home. This is their life.