Honey Bee from “All Creation Waits”
The snow doesn’t yet cover the foot of my boot, so the walking’s still easy among the hardwoods. I have my dog with me as a hearing aid. When I find a hollow oak tree I call her and watch as she sniffs around it, hoping to see her stop and cock her head and stare intently at the trunk. If it were summer and if they were here, we both could hear the hum. Now, if they’re here, I’m not sure even her smart, sharp ears could pick it up. What’s the sound of twenty thousand honey bees shivering?
If they’re here—all females in a winter hive—they’re clustered together inside, queen at the heart of their sisterhood.
The fine, transparent wings they beat hard in summer’s heat—a constant buzzing fan to keep the hive from cooking— they hold, now, folded and still. The tiny muscles to which those wings are attached shiver. One honey bee shivering her flight muscles does not make much heat. But twenty thousand, huddled together, shivering, can keep the queen and the colony’s honey supply at their core at a tropical ninety-two degrees Fahrenheit, even as blizzard winds, inches away, flail the trunk.
This calls for carefully timed choreography. When the bees on the outside layer of the cluster feel their body temperature fall to near forty-two degrees Fahrenheit—a cold that would paralyze them—they push inward toward the radiant center. The next outermost layer takes their sisters’ place, backs to the cold. From edge to center, center to edge, inward and outward they move, one hypnotic, looping dance.
At the heart of the dance lies the queen. She is every bee’s reason for being. Without a queen the colony would fall into chaos. Nurse bees, grooming her, pass her scent back through the ranks. It tells all the news of her health, which is their health. They smell that now, in Advent, she’s laying no eggs. There is no brood to feed. Each bee senses that her one obligation is to give the smallest motion of her flight muscles to the collective work of keeping the queen and the colony’s honey stores warm. The whole hive knows they will survive only if they shiver together.
Some of them in the shivering cluster will die of old age. Had they hatched in the flowering season, their labor for the hive’s survival—harvesting nectar and pollen from as many as two thousand flowers a day—would have killed them in four weeks or less, their wings worn to nubbins. But hatched on the cusp of winter they may live six months. They will know only the dark hive, the press of their sisters’ bodies. They will never fly, never fall into a flower. They give their lives to shivering together in the dark, the tiny repetitive gestures of each, added together, a music beyond our hearing, sustaining a future for the community.