The bee that lost her Waggle
Featuring: Honeybees, hornets, hive protection, hive invasion, thermo-balling, asphyxio-balling, pheromones, swarming, hive abandonment, bee nest, bee sleep, electrostatic fields, bee-flower interactions, nectar, proboscis, nectar guides, waggle dance, honey production, neonicotinoid pesticides, impaired bee navigation and flight, altruism.
"Ok ladies, this is it! They’ll be here any second. Be strong my daughters!" The queen’s buzz soared above the vibrations of the agitated bees. Flora had been warned against these invaders all her life. The vile Vespas; hornets that were notorious for their merciless carnage of bees and savage pilfering of honey stores. She had regularly been reminded by her sisters to 'Stay vigilant, you never know when they’ll strike,’ and 'Your job is to protect the queen at all costs.’ Her sisters didn't seem to mind that their only purpose was to ensure the queen was safe. They did not question the ‘hive mind’, but Flora was different. She was often getting into trouble with the queen - her mother, for thinking too much ‘outside the hive’ and not worrying enough about the protection of her family.
The Vespa’s thunderous buzz, together with the powerful beating of thousands of bee wings, became deafening. A sudden darkness filled the hive as the hornet’s vast body blocked the entrance. Flora saw a sight that would come to haunt her for the rest of her life; the hexagonal patterned eyes of a large, monstrous Vespa. The hornet was every bit as grotesque and terrifying as the stories had told. Flora saw many of her sisters immediately fly into action; they threw themselves at the intruder as it tried to enter the hive. But the hornet picked off bee after bee. The dead bodies of Flora's siblings were appearing everywhere. The beast had got into the hive. It was already ripping apart the bees' stores of honey. There was a blur of brown, black, and yellow as the bees dived, attacked, and rolled over their opponent. Flora instinctively did the same and launched herself at the beast. But, before she could reach the Vespa, her larger sisters pushed her small body aside as they came to aid the defence.
Flora watched as hundreds of angry bees engulfed the towering Vespa. Her sisters had formed a ball around the hornet that constrained its gigantic abdomen. There was a hissing sound as the Vespa struggled to get enough oxygen into its body. Over and over the hornet and bees rolled, tangled up in each other’s bodies. The Vespa was unable to escape. The mob of bees had surrounded the hornet and paralysed it with the heat of their unremitting vibrations.
"Come on!" The queen screeched over the din, "We have to escape. Other hornets will already have smelt this Vespa's signal and be on their way. We must go now, before any more arrive! The queen and those daughters who'd survived the attack, swarmed out of the hive. They passed the suffocating Vespa, and out into the trees.
The queen led them on and on until the light of day was dimming. Eventually, the swarm filed into a small opening in the trunk of a beautiful old oak tree, standing tall in a woodland.
Inside their new home, Flora looked around at her exhausted sisters; the Vespa invasion had wiped out more than half of her family. Many of those who had made it were almost at the point of collapsing after expending so much energy fighting the Vespa. Despite being so weary from the day’s events, all the bees had a restless night. They tossed and turned, reliving the horrors they had seen that day. Flora hardly slept at all. As soon as the light of the sunrise came filtering through the
entrance to their new nest, she prepared to fly back out of the hole in the trunk. Flora knew that her family needed her to provide for their diminished number. Her queen and sisters were clearly fatigued and needed to be rejuvenated with the nourishing taste of pollen and nectar. Flora performed her pre-flight checks. She unfolded her four wings and felt them hook into each other ready to take flight. She felt the strength of the wind passing her antennae and then took a deep breath. She arched her abdomen, and launched herself out of the new nest. Immediately, Flora's beating wings became a blur.
Left a bit… right a bit… a bit more…. She was approaching the flower quickly. Flora followed the dark patterns on the petals that guided her, like runway lights, towards the centre. She could feel the attraction to the flower ringing through her legs and it filled her with electric delight. The flower’s nectar shone brightly in the sunlight. Flora stuck out her tongue-like proboscis and delighted in the sweet-tasting droplets. Throughout the day, Flora collected nectar in this manner. She moved from one flower to the next, until her honey stomach felt heavy with its nectareous content.
It was easy to get back to the bee nest when she was finished. Her navigation system was a highly tuned innate skill, so she didn't even have to try to think about where she was.
When she arrived back, she was eagerly greeted by her sisters, "Well? Have you got some nectar for us? We're starving! Where was it? Can we get some more?" Flora enjoyed being the centre of attention. She regurgitated her day’s nectar collection into the waiting open mouth of one of her sisters, and then positioned herself in the centre of the nest. For a moment, she delighted in the palpable hum of excitement around her, then she began her Waggle.
Pointing towards the sun, Flora spun round three times. She did a figure-of-8 and vigorously waggled her behind. These choreographed movements passed on all the information her sisters would need to find the beautiful flowers that she had been indulging in all day. The distance, the direction, and most importantly, she told them how good the nectar had tasted. Flora’s stinger was a blur with movement. Her moves felt so fluid and instinctive, dancing to the imaginary music. Her proboscis
stuck out a little as she concentrated, she was determined not to forget a single thing.
She felt so alive, it was as though this waggle was her true purpose in life.
Once the other bees were satisfied they had received the information about the location of the flowers, her sisters started to copy Flora’s moves. They passed on the details to the rest of the colony as if they were playing a game. The nest was awash with activity and excitement. It felt like a party was taking place.
Throughout the next day, Flora went backwards and forwards between the nest and flowers, collecting nectar for her family. Other bees had followed her Waggle instructions from the day before and were doing the same. Flora went out again and again, to flowers further and further away. But there was still not enough nectar to feed the whole colony. Eventually, Flora had gone so far, in her desperate search for nectar, that she could no longer hear the buzz of the other bees. She reached a new field that was full of flowers she did not recognise and had an unfamiliar smell. Her proboscis reached out for some nectar; it tasted bitter. She tried a neighbouring flower, but its nectar had a similar metallic taste that made her proboscis recoil.
Flora began to worry, something wasn't right in this field. She tried to fly back towards the nest. But she couldn't remember where it was! Her mind was clouding over. She started to panic and turned around, maybe it was the other way? The sun, which had always been her navigational reference point, now just felt hot, and did not help at all. Flora attempted to follow the edge of the field, but she had no idea which side to follow, or which direction to go in. Buzzing frantically now, Flora flew this way and that. She desperately tried to remember where the nest was and how she should get
back to her mother and her sisters. Exhaustion started to overwhelm Flora. She did not have the energy to keep flying around looking for clues to guide her home. Her sense of direction had completely gone. Her mind had fogged up and her ability to navigate had been destroyed. Her wings flapped chaotically, not beating to her command anymore.
Flora was losing hope that she'd ever get home, when she heard the familiar buzz of one of her sisters, "Flora, what on earth are you doing this far away from home?"
"Mellitus, I’m so glad you are here!" Flora's buzz was filled with relief, "Help me please, I can’t find my way back!”
Her sister looked at her with surprise, "You’re…lost?"
Flora hung her head and her antennae drooped sadly, "My mind feels foggy, something’s happened to it."
"Oh no Flora, did you try the nectar from these plants? These are the farmer’s fields, weren’t you listening to Mum when she told us not to go near these fields. They have been sprayed with poison! Come on, I’ll guide you home."
With the help of Mellitus, and with several stops as Flora was exhausted by even short flights now, they flew back to the nest.
Inside the nest, the hum of activity made Flora feel nauseous. The surrounding waggling movements of the other bees made her dizzy. "Mel! I can't remember how to Waggle! I can't warn the others about the poison!"
Mel shuffled towards Flora, "Don't worry, I'll do it." Mel immediately passed the information on to their sisters with a vigorous Waggle. The two bees then slumped down in a dark empty corner of the nest.
“Whatever am I going to do?” Flora said. “There’s no way I’m going to be able to collect nectar for the colony anymore, my head starts to spin even when I just move around the nest. I have no idea if I'm up, down, or which way round.”
After a moment's pause, Mel said, "Well there is only one thing for it, I’ll be your guide. You follow me and collect nectar wherever I collect it. After all, two bees are still able to carry more than one, and you can copy my Waggle."
Flora stared at her caring sister and was speechless with obvious gratitude.
Mellitus smiled, understanding her sister's silence, "Don’t worry, that’s what sisters
are for. Just make sure we stay away from the Farmer’s fields!"