The Last Worker
On the twelfth day of the first year of the Obama administration, as the nation’s economy continued to crumble, we opened our beehive and found the colony dead.
Through most of the winter, we left the bees alone so as not to release the heat they generated huddled between their walls of honey. But when the temperature rose into the 50s, the bees could bear the air enough to take brief cleansing flights, and we dared to open the hive for a few minutes. We had plenty of unseasonable warmth this year—sunny days when the bees flew to gather maple sap, risen during the freezing night, draining through holes the sapsucker drilled through the bark. No bees were flying the afternoon we opened the hive, but we assumed they’d finished their business in the warmest part of the day. A few dead bees lay scattered below the hive, evidence of the cleaning efforts of the workers.
Even though the hive still had honey-weight when we hefted it, Jason decided to bring the bees a sugar syrup bailout. If the nectar flow is slow in early spring, strong colonies can die of starvation. Jason pried up the lid and eased it back just enough to expose the winter feeder, a deep tray tucked into the box in place of a tenth frame of honeycomb. I anticipated the small eruption of bees that comes with hive-breaking and winced, in spite of my veil and gauntlets. No one emerged. We guessed it was too chilly for the bees after all, so I ladled the syrup quickly, sloppily, so that we could put the lid back on. My cup made a poor ladle, and syrup sludged between the frames and down the exterior of the hive. No matter, I thought. The bees would soon clean it up.
But then we opened the hive for a quick peek. Across the top of the frames, we found a scattering of dead bees. They’d been using a crack under the cover as a second entrance; perhaps they’d brought up their dead to dump on their next flights. But nobody flew up between the frames to see about the influx of light and cold. Jason prodded the top of a bee cluster clinging near the top of a pair of frames, but instead of stirring into angry action, the bees dropped lifeless into the hive body. We beat on the sides of the box. No response. We pried off the top box, looking for survivors in the bottom half of the hive, only to find thicker clusters of unmoving bees and at the bottom, heaps of the dead. We’d lost the colony.
In winter, the bees cluster tightly to form a corporately warm-blooded sphere around their queen. The skin of the sphere is two tightly-packed bees thick; the bees trade places before cold overcomes their ability to move. Inside the sphere, attendants gather around the queen, burning honey for heat by shivering. Maintaining a summery warmth of 64 to 90 degrees at its center, the cluster creeps from frame to frame as the bees empty the cells of honey. Sometimes, it’s too cold for the cluster to move, or confused, it breaks into less efficient factions. Sometimes a virus will take out the bees—just a touch of dysentery could throw off the balance. Sometimes, the cold is enough.
On Inauguration weekend, the temperature dove below zero, 30 degrees lower than average for mid-January, close to the record low. We thought the colony pulled through the cold patch. A week later, the volatile mercury reading 63 degrees, I went down to the hive and found a handful of bees flying. Only one worker was on mortuary duty. She dragged a dead bee to the edge of the porch and then off, plummeting with the body. It wasn’t enough to accompany the corpse to the ground; as soon as she righted herself, she tugged it through tangles of dry grass to a resting place several dozen bee-lengths away. I couldn’t detect any difference in the new place or the body’s position, but the worker seemed satisfied and launched herself up to the entrance to collect another body.
Must not be many dead bees, I thought, if they only need one worker to carry them out. But of course the opposite was true. So many bees had died that only a few remained to clean out the masses of bodies.
That would be my job. The day after we found the silent hive, I pried the boxes apart. I carried the pieces, still sticky from sugar syrup, outside of the bear fence to brush the bodies from the frames. The corpses fell around me in furry heaps, perfectly intact, as though their transparent wings would stir to life at any moment. I didn’t bother with a veil or gloves.
Halfway through the top hive I found bees I couldn’t remove. They’d burrowed deep into the comb seeking the final drops of honey at the bottom of the cells. Unwilling or too cold to emerge and move to a new frame of honey, they starved. I found a few scouts clinging to full frames of honey, frozen mid-search. They brushed off easily, but the starving bees had tucked themselves so tightly into the comb that I couldn’t get purchase on their pointed abdomens, even with finger and thumb.
The last time I saw bees tucked so firmly into a comb, Jason held a nursery frame for me to check for new brood while a cloud of bees swirled angrily around our veils. At the edge of the frame, a new bee pushed itself through the remains of the wax cap on its brood cell, antennae twitching, legs wriggling in an ecstasy of sensation and motion. When it finished hatching, it would turn and clean out its cell, then join its broodmates to tend the next generation. From the nursery, it would graduate to the honey-guzzling, wax-making chain gang. When it outgrew the ability to secrete wax, it might move on to housekeeping duties—breeze-making, patrolling for intruders, carrying out the dead. Later, it would fly miles at a time, scouting and foraging for the colony until it grew too weak to return to the hive.
Winter bees live the longest, if they survive the cold; there’s no foraging. Their sole job is to warm the queen. She’s the reason for their existence, the cohering force in the hive, yet she’s helpless without the workers. In early spring, they induce her to lay, carry her from cell to cell, feed her and clean her. She’s self-sufficient only once: during her mating flight. I can’t find the queen of this dead hive; she’s probably in the tumbled mass of bodies collected on the bottom board.
I wonder if the bees realized when the end came. When we opened the hive on the first of February, one bee still stirred among the dead scattered atop the frames—an antenna, then a leg, in drunken motion. She was too weak to fly. Still, she tugged at the corpses around her, hoping—it seemed—to drag one last sister from the hive, to bury herself with it in the proper spot under the dry grass. Was death, to her, like any other bee’s death, weary but working until the last, like the bees who try to hike back to the hive when their wings give out half a mile from home? Was her focus biologically narrowed to the job at hand?
Or did she know, in some tiny part of her bee brain, that she was the only one left, that her civilization had collapsed beyond return? Did she panic as the scent of her queen faded? For us, it was no surprise: even experienced beekeepers lose a few colonies in winter. For her, it would have been the end of the world.
All through the fall, while the bees harvested the last of the heath asters, hoarding for winter, I knocked on doors, called strangers, cheered for a face behind the tinted windows of a motorcade, stocking up on change and yeswecan. I thought a strong leader would be enough—hoped, anyhow. Now there’s nothing left to do but wait massed together, sharing warmth, to see how cold this winter gets.