by Anna Ready-Campbell
an afternoon in
Lola lived opposite an apple orchard. In springtime, the trees bloomed like long lines of lacy old maids. Honeycrisp, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Belle du Boskoop. Lola lilted their names.
But her favorite part of spring was the coming of bees. She loved the orchard best when it was filled with warm sunlight and the thrum buzz of bees.
Mack, who owned the orchard, kept the bees to help his apples. Mack liked to explain this to Lola.
He told her:
“Without bees, apples don’t grow. See how that bee’s sticking its head into a flower? It’s drinking up the flower’s nectar. When it gets back to the hive, it will make honey by—“
“What are those yellow dots on its legs?” Lola interrupted.
“Good question! I was getting to that. Bees also gather pollen—yellow, powdery stuff it is. It gets all over them when they’re drinking nectar.”
“Well, look. The bee’s flying away now. It’ll bring pollen from this flower to that flower. And that’s what makes apples grow!”
Mack pushed his cap back and beamed.
Lola did not entirely understand. And though curious, she was also impatient.
“Alright, pollination’s tricky. Let’s take a look at the hives, shall we? See if we can find the queen?” said Mack because Lola was hopping from foot to foot looking bored.
Mack’s hives were stacks of boxes. He called the boxes supers. Queens lived in the bottom one. Bees were born in the one on top of that. And the ones of top of that? Honey.
The supers were packed with neat rows of rectangular frames filled with honeycomb. Lo held a frame while Mack peered and poked. He scratched his hairy ear until—
“Aha!” he cried. “Look at that old girl! See the bee with the big bottom? Oh she looks grand. Had to make sure she was healthy after the winter. Thanks, Lo, you can run along now.”
So off she dashed to climb the knobby trees. When she got close to a bee she was very still. Bees, she knew, only sting when they’re scared or angry.
Once a bee landed on her nose and she didn’t even blink. Mack was very proud. He gave her a bit of honeycomb to chew on.
Lola would have liked to eat nothing but honey. Her mum often warned that she might turn into a bee if she ate too much. Lo had wondered gravely just how much that was. She had not, however, stopped gulping it by the spoonful.
It was lunchtime. The day was getting almost hot. It hummed with bees. Lo let herself down from a Cox’s Orange Pippin tree and plopped down in the exact middle of the orchard. She fell asleep instantly.
Bzzzzz bizzzer bezuzzz buzz. A great thrumming shook Lo’s bones and woke her. It was hot and dark. Alarm cut through her drowsiness.
Where was she?
Fear pulsed through her. The noise rattled her like Mack’s power saw. But it sounded duller. It filled up the low chamber she found herself in.
There was a hole in one side. Peering out, she saw honeycomb stretching in all directions. She froze while an enormous bee darted by.
Her heart was sore from hammering.
She must be in a hive!
What would Mack say? He would say:
“Bees are your friends. If you stop and watch, you’ll learn more than you’d ever think.”
But these bees were huge.
One bustled right up to Lo’s chamber.
Lo recoiled. What a stinger it must have!
But the bee cocked its head, friendly. It unfurled a long thing, like a huge tongue, from its mouth. On the tip lay a buttery white lump.
It smelled divine. If it was honey, or something like it, Lo had to taste it. She took the buttery white lump. Sinking her tentative teeth into it she tasted biscuits dipped in thick cream, rose gardens and hot milky tea. It was royal jelly. It had to be.
Mack had told her all about royal jelly. Bees fed it to their babies.
She ate it all. Full to bursting Lo curled up and slept again. For a long time she woke only to eat.
At last she stirred, plump and hazy with happiness, to antennae tickling her face.
“Mmm?” sleepy Lo murmured.
“Up on my back, that’s it. Off we go!”
And so Lo found herself jouncing along outside her cell.
The deep hum thrum of bee work and red gold darkness enveloped them. The bee, with Lo holding fast to her wings, crept down, down, down the honeycomb.
As they passed honeycomb cells she peeped inside and saw fat white crescents curled at the bottom. Must be bee babies—brood—getting born, she thought.
Other cells were being covered by bees who chewed and spit a wax seal. Capped brood, that’s what Mack called them. Lo imagined the little bees inside sprouting legs and antennae, as Mack told her they would.
A bit anxious, Lo looked down at her own arms and legs. Downier than they were before, but definitely human. Her whole body, though distinctly girlish and not beeish, was soft and furry as rich velvet.
Lo remembered her mum’s warning uneasily. But she was hungry again. She’d have eaten a gallon of honey.
“Hello? Bee? Is there more royal jelly? Can I have some please?” she asked the bee carrying her.
“Jelly’s only for very special babies. And you are very special, but you’ve already hatched, haven’t you,” said the bee.
“Oh.” said Lo. Was she very special?
“Though I must say, you are a strange looking little bee,“ the bee added.
“Oh I’m not a bee. I’m a girl. My name’s Lola,” Lo offered.
The bee paused.
“A girl? Really? I’ve always wanted to meet one!” she said. “I’ve only ever seen the very big ones. I landed on one’s nose just the other day.”
“Hey that was my nose!” exclaimed Lo.
“Well!,” said Clover, laughing. “How wonderfully strange to meet you again. My name’s Clover.”
Clover started off again.
“Where are we going, Clover?” asked Lo.
“To the Queen,” replied Clover, at once brisk and business-like.
“Does she make honey?” asked Lo.
“Not the Queen,” said Clover.
“What does she do?” said Lo.
“Lays eggs! She’s our mother,” replied Clover.
Not my mother, thought Lo. She wasn’t yet quite bold enough to say so.
“You mean she’s all these bees’ Mum? ” said Lo, looking about.
“Then who does make honey?” said Lo.
“My sisters,” said Clover. She gestured with her at the bees bustling by.
“Oh are all these bees girls?” said Lo.
“Almost. All the bees tending brood here are workers—girls. Up there—“ she indicated back up the hive—“other workers are making honey.”
That’s right. The honey supers were on top.
Lo thought hungrily of asking Clover to turn round.
“How do they make honey?” she asked instead.
“They stir nectar and beat it with their wings. That dries up all the water. It makes it thick and sweet and—,” Clover came to a sudden stop.
Before them was a quiet cluster of workers. They were still and solemn. Lo felt suddenly shy.
As Clover crawled closer, the crowd parted.
The Queen appeared.
Honey, At Last
She was magnificent. Her lower half was gargantuan—nearly twice the size of the workers’—with thick, shiny black stripes. Lush golden fuzz covered her body. It made her glow. She seemed to tower over the bees around her.
“Ah, our princess,” the Queen hummed. Her voice was deep, slow, and sweet. It was like honey pouring off a spoon.
Every bee bowed to Lo.
“Welcome,” the Queen murmured. “Have you have eaten well?”
“Yes. Thank you,” said Lo meekly though her stomach was rumbling.
“Did you like your royal jelly?” the Queen asked.
“Oh yes,” Lo whispered.
“Very much?” the Queen persisted. She laid a long, slender front leg on Lo’s arm. Her eyes glowed when she noticed the gold hair covering the girl’s hands. Lo suppressed a shudder.
“Very much,” said Lo, shrinking from her just a bit.
“Good,” the Queen said, her voice suddenly warm. Her antennae waved at Lo. “Now. You must meet the honeymakers,” the Queen announced. Her abdomen lifted, her thin legs stretched, her wings beat a few times, but feebly.
“Your Majesty. The honey super is a long way. In your state—” a worker near her murmured.
The Queen glared at her. Her wings fluttered, suddenly fast and strong. They sent up a threatening buzz. Then she turned and began to crawl back up the hive.
Lo gripped Clover’s back. She did not want her to follow the Queen.
But Clover did.
On the way up they stopped often for the Queen to gather herself before going on. The bees near the Queen buzzed and fretted. Yet none touched her.
Still they toiled up and up.
At last they rounded a corner.
How bright! How noisy!
The air vibrated and thrummed with busy legs and beating wings. Workers came and went through a big round hole. Sunlight streamed in with them.
Everywhere bees danced and shook. They glowed with busyness. The ones coming in hastened to find honeycomb to fill with light yellow—nectar, Lo thought. Others stirred and beat the nectar.
Clover’s wing nudged Lo. She pointed with her antennae. There, in that bit of honeycomb, the light yellow nectar.
“Honey!” Lo cried. At last.
The New Queen
“Taste it,” the Queen ordered. But her voice was faint. Her abdomen sagged.
Lo hardly noticed. All she could see was honey.
The Queen’s eyes watched her as she leaned down from Clover’s back. They were multi-faceted—almost like honeycomb—but dark and secret. Lo scooped a handful of sticky gleaming amber honey.
“It’s so fresh it makes my tongue tingle!” she said, laughing.
“Do you love it?” the Queen asked, hushed but eager.
“Yes, oh yes!” said Lo. Not even the queasy feeling the Queen gave her could spoil her honey-love.
The Queen exhaled deeply. She rested her body on the honeycomb.
“Gather the others,” she murmured to a nearby bee. “They must meet their new Queen.”
Lo looked about.
The new Queen?
Bees flocked from every corner of the hive. One of them reached up and caressed Lo’s hair. One stroked her elbow. Suddenly she was tickled and massaged all over by funny hairy bee feet.
“Me?” cried Lo. “No!”
But she was already swallowed up.
Clover alone felt Lo’s fear. She shifted from side to side, bristling. At last the others departed with little caresses. They settled in a ring around the Queen and Lo.
Lo looked down at her trembling hands. They were beginning to look dark and strange. Tiny black bristles sprouted between her fingers. Her palms were distinctly sticky. Everything prickled. It felt like hairs were sprouting all over her body.
All she wanted was her mother to appear with a bathtub.
Turning to the Queen, her eyes got big and hot but could not cry. Did bees cry?
“When can I see my Mum and Dad?” she pleaded.
“What?” the Queen whispered. Her soft voice was suddenly ragged and dangerous.
“When can I go home?” whimpered Lo.
A shadow fell across her as bees hurried to block the entrance to the hive.
“You are home,” the old Queen wheezed. “You are our new Queen.”
“No! I’m a girl!” Lo shouted.
She threw herself off Clover’s back.
Actually, she flew.
For there, where shoulder blades once were, wings sprouted.
“A girl?” the Queen whispered.
“No. You have eaten too much royal jelly. You love our honey? Without you, there will be no more. No more bees. No more honey. No more apples.”
“I can’t! Please, I’m, I’m too young!” cried Lo. She looked around wildly. The circle of bees was pressing nearer. Their mouths worked furiously.
The Queen, though, laid her head down on the honeycomb. She didn’t look dangerous any more. Only sad and crumpled.
“No,” she whispered. “I’m too old.”
A hush descended.
“What do you mean?” asked Lo, startled.
“I won’t live another winter. Our workers know. That’s why they fed you royal jelly and raised you in a queen cell. That’s why they brought you to me,” the Queen breathed.
Lo’s heart sank. She remembered her lesson on queen cells. Only baby queens lived in them. To normal-sized girls they looked like puff mushrooms stuck on the comb. She had not recognized the inside of one.
“No. I’m going home home,” Lo said firmly.
“You cannot,” the Queen said. She raised a weak leg to point at Lo’s wings. She let it fall.
As though at a signal, the workers surged between them.
The bright hive vanished behind the crushing horde. She couldn’t see or breathe. It felt like being pummeled into the sand by a wave.
She tried to yell—she had no breath! She couldn’t wriggle so much as the tip of her nose.
Where was Clover?
She recognized the sound of bees chewing furiously all around her. They were building another queen cell! Her heart beat wildly as the walls grew. Faster than it would have taken Mack to walk from one end of his orchard to the other, Lo was enclosed again in a waxen chamber.
This time, though, there was no opening.
Lo was alone in the dark.
Fear and fuzz prickled along her arms and legs.
She sobbed into the fuzzy crook of her elbow. It smelled of old wet hay in the springtime. Her whole body ached to be back in the orchard.
“Clover! Help! Mummy! Daddy! Where are you?” she bawled.
Exhausted, she quieted at last. She slumped at the bottom of the cell.
She was going to escape.
I’ll wait till nighttime, she thought, when everything’s quiet and I’ll chew my way out and…
All her plan had was a beginning. It was all she needed to get a little sleep.
Into the Night
Lo woke with a jolt. A bee had thrust her head through a tiny hole in the floor of the cell. Lo’s eyes went big.
“Clover?” Lo breathed.
“Lola!” Clover whispered back.
Joy poured through Lo. Clover must have chewed through once the other workers fell asleep!
“Come!” Clover urged quietly.
Lo squeezed out. Moonlight like pussy willow down lit the hive. Huddled shadows of bees were everywhere.
“Get on my back,” Clover barely whispered.
Lo clambered up. Ever-so-slowly, ever-so-cautiously, Clover began weaving through the sleepy bees. Slowly they drew nearer the round silvery hole. The hole out into the night.
Lo kept her gaze fixed on it. She shivered with yearning for the breeze that sighed through it carrying apple blossoms and sweet starlight.
When they were two bee-lengths from it, a bee appeared from nowhere.
It blocked the hole.
Clover’s antennae pricked up. Her wings rose.
“Move,” she hissed, sinister. “She is not ours!”
The sooty outline of the bee did not move. Lo trembled harder.
Beyond the bee’s silhouette she could see stars.
“You must promise something, little girl,” the strange bee murmured.
“What?” Lo managed to whisper.
“Tell the big man to get us a new Queen,” the bee said.
“Mack? A new Queen? I, I promise!”
The bee turned to the night. She turned back to Clover and Lo. Silently, she melted back into the sleeping hive.
Clover glided quick as could be to the hole and
out! Into the glorious open night, brisk and pearly gray!
Lo wept with relief. Great big human tears rolled down her human face. She wiped them away and sat up.
She sat up in the exact middle of the orchard. Apple tree leaves quivered in a breeze. They caught the late afternoon sun and shook it about.
“Clover?” she whispered. “Clover!” she called, louder.
“Lo!” a voice behind her called. It wasn’t a dream, here was Clover! Lo turned excitedly. “There you are! I’ve brought you a picnic.”
It was not Clover.
It was her mum. Her mum, tramping up the row—Macintoshes on her right, Cox’s Orange Pippins on her left—her galoshes thumping. A basket swung on her arm.
“Oh Lola honey! What’s wrong?” her mum exclaimed. Swooping down, she gathered little Lo up. “My love. I know just what.”
Out of the basket came a piece of fine gold bread. Her mum smothered it in honey.
“Swarm” overlaps with”Lola Honey” rather a lot (right down to the honey-and-toast obsession). Obviously a fiction writing assignment was less different from my main writing assignment than it was for others. It did, however, give me a chance to explore a different child’s point of view and voice. I also included different aspects of bee behavior that I learned about at Champlain Valley Apiaries (swarming and beekeeper garb).
Luke’s father only ever woke him up by wafting breakfast smells through his open door. This morning, eggs and bacon nudged between the curtains of his cupboard bed.
Right hand propping an old brown book open, his father gave a slow smile and ruffled Luke’s hair with the other. Elbow on the table, head on fist, Luke ate. The oak table was thick. The bacon was thick. While Luke chased the last of his eggs round the plate, his father pulled galoshes onto his knobby socked feet. The socks were grey wool, the galoshes cracked brown. Then he helped Luke with his. He steadied the boy with one hand on his back and shoved the old yellow mud boots on hard.
Before leaving the cabin, Luke’s father retrieved a white sheet from the bedroom. Once outside—where peeling crocus shoots wriggled out of cold loose earth—he shouldered a box leaning against the house. It was painted wood, about the size of Luke’s father’s chest, had a lid, and, most fascinating of all to the little boy, a small round black hole on one side. Luke’s father bent down so Luke could peer into it.
Then Luke’s father took Luke’s hand. They tramped past the sleeping garden, and the smoke shack, and the overturned canoe, and the drowsy sheep, out into the young wood beyond. Slender curving trees cast shadows like dark ribs. Eventually the trees gave way to the meadow. Luke let go his father’s fingers to look for red salamanders.
As the boy waddled about in a squat, his father scanned the edge of the great big clearing. Robins and chickadees kept catching the corner of his eye and made his heart thump.
Until at last—there on that old sugar maple. Luke’s father gently turned the boy’s head toward the north end of the meadow. Luke hung on his father’s belt loop and lagged as they approached.
One branch was alive. Not with green buds.
Luke squirmed and looked up at his father as though he’d just seen a snake or a dying ewe. Uncertain fear made his eyes wide the way an angry river pulling at his ankles might.
His father put a hand on his head. While Luke watched, he sniffed and sidled closer, sheet in one hand, box in the other. He spread the first under the branch, put the box on top of it. Produced a spray bottle and sprayed all over the branch, vigorously.
Luke took a quick step back when he tossed the empty bottle out of the way and started shaking the branch—back and forth, up and down—hard. But Luke’s father did it all calmly, and watched while the branch fragmented into individual insects that flooded onto the white sheet in a ragged stream. A few took to the air, but most crawled around on the sheet frantically until one, then seven, then all of them realized the beautiful black waiting in the box. Each of them filed into the small hole until all but a handful was safe inside.
Luke’s father picked up the box, shook out the sheet, and turned homewards. Luke did not take his hand. But as they made their way back, he started to daydream about how maybe, later this summer, once his father had put a bunch of other boxes on top of this box, and once the bees inside had found the clover and alfalfa fields nearby, he might wake up to the golden scent of nicely burned toast slathered with honey.
Luke had never owned anything like the shoes Maude gave him for his birthday. They were new and soft leather and red. Maude lived a few fields over with her marmalade cat and bushels of carrots. She grew other things, too, but not nearly so much as Luke’s father did. And no animals.
Luke’s father and Harrison and Lucy and Ezra were already in among the squash when Luke woke. He ate a biscuit with elderberry jam for breakfast. In the quiet kitchen his swinging heels thumped loud against the sturdy chair legs.
When he was done Luke found a jar and a lid. He put it, a long white shirt, gray trousers, and an apple into his basket. It was a basket with broad green straps that went over the boy’s shoulders. Putting his little bare arms through, he went out. The new shoes were silent on rich grass. Luke found his father in the barn, knitting his brows at a thin, sickly sheep. Over the ewe’s wet, desperate coughing, he told Luke yes, alright, visit Maude, but be back for lunchtime.
Off Luke went. He found the familiar old road that sloped up and over the hill. It was the quickest way round the fields to Maude’s. Trees twice as thick as he marked where horses once pulled carts and carriages and sleighs. Jewelweed and wild carrot spilled onto the dappled lane. A tiny, full-bellied, cinnamon lizard with black spots sunned on a leaf. Luke crouched to look at it. He did not touch it. But his eyes found its almost imperceptible breath. He counted its dots, eight, and toes, eighteen.
A bit further along, at hill’s crest, was the clearing. There stood the stacked boxes. There buzzed the bees. The boxes were freshly painted: one dusty purple, one pale blue, one yellow, one light green. Green, on bottom, was the one Luke’s father had gathered the swarm into.
Luke took off his basket and set it in the middle of the road. He put on the white shirt. Then, sitting down to unlace his red shoes, he tugged on the gray trousers.
Jar in hand, Luke went into the clearing. He set the jar down nearby. One bee buzzed dully against it for a moment and flew off. A few more looped about. But it was bright out. Most of them were deep in alfalfa flowers, Luke knew. Standing on the tips of his toes, he lifted the top cover off the top box. His small arms strained. He made a face like an angry ram. Next, he took down the smaller topboard.
There gleamed the honey.
It wasn’t ready for harvesting. The bee’s work was not done till winter. But a few burr combs stuck out the half-full frames. Bees crawled in a sweet stupor among them. Luke kept very still. Breathing as little as possible he fetched the jar. But when he returned there were many more bees.
They bumbled about the top of the frames. He saw one tasting honey, proboscis flicking. Others were in the air. Little mouth turned down Luke hopped from one red foot to another, hesitating.
Suddenly more bees took flight. They spiraled down. A throng formed around his new red shoes. Luke gave a cry.
Wear nothing but white or light, his father said on their last hive visit. Red shoes! Luke danced around the hive, his legs aswarm. Whimpering he leaned in and scooped—
“Oh!” he wept. His first sting.
Hastily he scooped a burr comb into the jar.
“Ah!” His second.
On went the topboard. On went the heavy cover.
He bit his lip and didn’t make another noise after the fifth sting.
Eyes streaming, he dashed out of the clearing. He hurtled down the other side of the hill. Angry bees trailed him. He felt them up his sleeves and in his hair. Oh, his stings smarted! They felt hot and sharp. He ran harder.
He burst out of the woods to find Maude weeding calmly.
Safe at last and aching all over, Luke began to bawl.
Maude took one look at him and threw down her trowel. She took the jar and his hand and led him inside. There she drew him a warm bath into which she dumped three generous scoops of oatmeal.
“You brave boy!” she exclaimed.
While Luke soaked and hiccupped, the oatmeal soothing his stings—eighteen he counted, as many as the salamander had toes—Maude disappeared downstairs. Sparkling veins of late morning sun shot about in the pale green tub water. They ran all over Luke’s sore body.
“Luke, my boy, this is the most beautiful, boldest honey I’ve ever tasted,” said Maude, reappearing. In one hand she had a mug of milk, in the other a piece of nicely burned toast slathered with honey.