The Woman of Honey
By Gary Langford
As a girl she had studied bees, especially the colony of the honeybee, handing in her school project for the year, diagrams and photographs, from a queen bee to thousands of worker bees, gathering food and care for the young, along with a few hundred drones who fertilized the queen; how workers made bees wax, shaping it into a waterproof honeycomb in a mass of six-sided compartments or cells. The cells contained eggs with developing bees in the center, which she said was done with thick honey.
In her acknowledgements at the end of the project, no books, articles or the Internet were mentioned. Only bees.
'You got all your work from bees?' asked her teacher when the girl came out the front of the class to speak, partly due to her assignment being the only one handed in that was more than a summary of spelling mistakes. All the others together did not equal its length. There was only a week to go before the end of the school year and the teacher was looking forward to it as much as the students.
'Drones are males,' the girl told her classmates. 'Workers are female who often sting and die. Isn't that heroic, how much they will do to protect the queen bee and look after the young?'
The coolness of her voice caused everyone to stare at her, including the teacher. Her right hand was in her pocket. She took it out, holding a drone bee on the palm of her hand, gently talking to it, then letting it fly around the room. Screams occurred. The bee returned to her hand.
'We'd be grateful if you'd get rid of the bee, now,' said the teacher, swallowing.
The girl looked at everyone disdainfully. None of them knew drones cannot sting and are burly compared to the delicacy of the worker bee. She returned him to her pocket, gathered up her project and left.
By the time she was twenty-one bees infested the back garden at home. Her parents no longer ventured there, causing them to suggest she would need a larger area than the garden for a burgeoning career. She thanked them for their advice and moved out to the edge of the city, taking the hives with her to set up Honey Fields. It became the fastest growing company of bees over the next few years.
Bees stored pollen in the cells on the side of the brood nest, nectar going above it and becoming pure honey.
A journalist came out to her place for an interview, observing bees gathered around her as she walked towards him. 'How do you live with the rascals on your body?' he asked.
'The only danger is the bee assassin. They catch you in flowers, eating you.'
The journalist wrote how she ran dozens of colonies, producing some of the finest honey in the country due to bees worshipping her. The photo of the woman with bees all over her caused the sales of her honey to boom. She couldn't make enough for the market. And never would if she remained a single beekeeper.
At this point, she sold the company name, returning to the day when the hives were all that she wanted, there purely for her and she for them, moving to the opposite side of the city in the district of bee-keeping.
Her colonies still went with her.
The president of the local apiculture society announced she would become a member before he had met her, convinced she would feel it an honour, given her youth in the ancient world of bees.
He visited her with the offer, only to receive a flat refusal. Nonplussed, he said the commercial bee keeping movement had started in the 1880's, expecting her to be to be impressed by bees in his family, handed down from one generation to another.
Like her, he lived alone.
Unlike her, he began to worry about being unable to hand on his heritage of bees.
She was so disinterested that he felt bound to publicly scorn her at future meetings of the apiculture society, along with writing letters of derision to the newspaper.
Shortly afterwards, the journalist asked her out for a meal, along with another interview. She agreed to meet him at a restaurant, arriving with a bee on top of her hair. He tried not to examine where other bees might be, but must have as she remarked, 'they're all under control.'
He hurriedly dropped his eyes to the menu. When he looked at her again, the bees in her hair had grown, almost as if they reflected what she was thinking and how she was feeling. He shook his head, gulping down a glass of wine.
'I imagine you don't go out very often,' he said.
She nodded so the bees rose from her hair before settling back down. 'Anyone worth anything to me has to be accepted by the colony I'm part of.'
He pictured her returning to hives rather than a home. Her brown skin was covered in what appeared to be light freckles. Her eyes were dark.
'There's also solitary bees,' she continued. 'They're all females, sometimes living together to lay eggs, seal the nest and fly away.'
'You might be a cuckoo bee' he said. 'Unable to build your own nest without help, needing a solitary bee to provide food.' He nodded as she blinked at him. 'I read up about bees.'
'So you have,' she acknowledged.
'Research for my article.' He grinned. 'I'm about to cross over to television journalism, so keep that in mind should you need to.'
The Woman of Honey was printed with a photograph of her among what he called the holy temple of hives from the ancient fields of honeybees, a culture starting in the Stone Age when people learned to make crude hives for the bees. He knew the further back you went, the less you had to prove, writing how the woman of honey had an ability to augment the worker bee to do as she wished due to her being seen as a queen bee.
The president of the district apiculture society wrote another letter to the editor on behalf of commercial beekeepers, stating the article was preposterous.
He was further irritated when he noticed she wore no veils with bees and was never stung, whereas he wore protective veils, though, like most experienced beekeepers, handled the bees and honeycombs with his bare hands. He often got stung, developing a certain resistance to the sting.
'I'd like to sting her,' he told others at the monthly meeting of the apiculture society.
'She's brought a lot of media coverage to our industry. She's different.' One man winked at him. 'Beautiful looking for a starter.'
The others laughed.
'Lucky bees,' reflected one of the members.
'You're not jealous are you?'' said another one, whose hands were disfigured from many stings. He was regarded as a veteran.
The president of the apiculture society bit his tongue and said no more.
Driving home he began to grin, hitting the wheel of the car, picturing what he might do to the woman of honey. He was positively joyous by the time he reached home, patting his dog on the head, saying, ' how about you and I do some beeswax of our own?'
The following morning he drove over to the woman's place before the sun had risen. A week ago he had crept through the field of flowers only to find she appeared to be watching him, surrounded by bees, as he hurried away.
He was determined to find why his hives were closing and hers were growing.
My timing is ideal for the evening news, he thought, turning the engine off and climbing out of the van.
Initially he had been despondent when he had discovered diseased bees in one of his hives, knowing they would spread through the district as an epidemic if not destroyed straight away. He had sprayed them so most died in the hive, having decided to load these bees on to the woman of honey, showing the public why she kept to herself so much.
He would perform his social duties by spraying her bees.
The first thing he did was put down the hive of dead bees he had brought over. She wouldn't see the act committed, given the angle of the house, and the fact no light was on. The hive of dead bees, carried in three different components, took him quarter of an hour to rebuild, along with samples and proof of the disease they carried.
The relocation of his hive was completed as the sun began to rise.
Back at his van, he put the chemical sprayer on his back, carrying the hose with him as he returned to the hives by the creek, which ran near her house. He had been a little nonplussed, having discovered a few of her bees gathered around him when he placed the hive of dead bees among them, then deciding it was how each of her hives gathered more than the average 10 kilograms of nectar a day with ease.
Somehow the queen bee got them started earlier than others in bee culture, enabling her worker bees to visit the best flowers in the district before the hundreds of other hives were on the swarm. Government bee inspectors had reported how her nectar intensified wherever she was, how bees were attracted to her. They had marveled at the whole process.
He felt the five eyes of each bee weighing him down as he approached their hives.
He was not wearing a veil of wire screen around his face, nor had he tied his clothing at the wrists and ankles. Given he was going to start spraying the hives, he had not believed it was necessary. Now the bees were gathering around him and he wondered if he should return to the van for the full clothing, then shrugged, thinking, I've been bitten before. Most of them will be dead before they can do much.
He clicked the sprayer on.
It was then he noticed the woman watching him from the middle of the hives, just as she had a week ago. She was motionless and completely covered in bees, causing him to wonder how long she might have been there. All he could really see were her eyes, deeply brown, staring him down as they deepened in colour.
Then the bees left her, flying towards him in a cloud.
He raised the sprayer to let out a thin liquid blur of chemicals to kill them as they approached. Only the bees flew through the spray to land on his hands. He was suddenly aware of heavy stings, which caused him to drop the sprayer, putting his hands into the pockets of his working clothes.
Now he panicked, picking up the sprayer and forgetting how you shouldn't run near bees on the swarm due to exciting them. He ran towards his van, picturing himself climbing inside and closing the door to regather his wits.
The bees swarmed in front of him. He changed direction, shocked to find he was running back towards the hives and the queen bee. She was waiting for him, arms folded as if she had made up her mind about something. He suddenly thought, I have to spray her before the bees, only then will they go.
He was close enough to be mesmerized by her large brown eyes, honey skin and those tell tale freckles of an affinity with bees. These eyes settled on him and he could neither change direction, nor avoid their heavy somnolent stare. He even felt there were other eyes on her face.
Three small ones and two large compound eyes
He pointed the sprayer at her.
She smiled and the swarm of bees landed on every bit of exposed skin, stinging him, causing him to drop the sprayer as he fell, screaming and clawing at them over his face. He felt the agony of being stung in the eyes. Again and again, as if knocking on the door to his spirit, given he felt he was being paralyzed.
Thousands of bees stung him as they died, causing his body to be covered in bees, not a millimeter of skin able to be seen.
Later that morning, she rang the police to report what had happened. She also rang her journalist friend for exclusive coverage of a tragedy in the district of bees. He visited her with a camera crew for an interview.
On the news that night, the man's body was shown, completely punctured and swollen, surrounded by bees. So many it amazed viewers how bees lived in individual hives. So many that, even with the crisis, none of the hives was empty.
'What happened?' she was asked.
'He tried to spray the hives.' She shook her head. 'He set off a swarm of workers that attacked him to protect the queen bees in each one.'
The report then cut to the man's property, where a hive of dead diseased bees had been discovered, standing slightly adjacent to his other hives like a symbol. He must have known it might be the end of his work in the bee industry.
'Poor man,' she said as the camera cut back to her. 'He's been around bees too long, otherwise he would not have tried to spray healthy ones of honey.'
Bees bounced approvingly on her hair, as police and viewers also agreed.QLRS Vol. 5 No. 4 Jul 2006