We wander to where the flowers are. Their stamens ripe with nectar, their frills sugared with pollen. The brightest petals and strongest scents lead our way.
The elders carry hives in silken packs through meadows and over mountains so our bees may thrive. Our nomadic colony has kept bees for generations. We scale across the landscape like turtles, our shells filled with honey.
I do not remember life without the hum. The buzzing harmony of my sisters tending the gardens while I tasted sweet treats of honeycomb in a forest of alliums. My childhood was an endless spring and summer of flowers in my hair, bonfires at twilight listening to the songs of our colony, the cottonwoods letting go of their fluff lit in the fading light like floating magic, falling asleep under a canopy of exotic patterned scarves, my clothes and blankets scented with dew, crushed petals and smoke.
“Smoke makes the bees sleep.” My Grandmother chews her long clove cigar and taps her hive as she blows into their nest. “Make sure the queen is in the new hive. She is the mother of all the bees.” She pauses and looks into my eyes. “You must leave them enough comb to survive. Some bees will die, but they all die as we die for the good of the hive.”
The circle of people standing around us repeat, and I with them, “For the good of the hive.”
Grandmother continues. “Tonight your youth dies for the good of the hive.”
“For the good of the hive.”
I know all of this. But I listen patiently. We repeat truths in our colony. We do our dance over and over and over, like the scout bees telling the hive of a new flower source in order to send these truths into the next generation.
“Can you see her?” Grandmother asks.
I scour the swarm of bees inside the basket. The long orange-yellow tail of the queen stands out.
“Take her. You are one now.”
My Grandmother drags on her cigar and blows on the queen. I pinch her and hold her gently. Grandmother drops all of the bees into the new hive. Some buzz up into the air and some fall to the ground, but they will find their way in in the end.
The hive is my own. I wove it with the muhly grasses. Their pink tufts still stick out in places, but they will brown in the hot sun. Grandmother takes a chunk of comb and gives it to the bees. A little honey drizzles out in a sticky mess. She takes another chunk filled with eggs and another with propolis and drops them in. I place the queen on top of the comb of eggs and seal the opening with a lid of woven grass. Attendants thread the sides and help me fill the seams with wax.
My grandmother turns the hive over and hands it to me.
“Althea, this is your hive. Your nectar. Your blood. Your colony.”
The circle around us hums. My family. I am being inducted into the tribe. This is my coming of age ceremony. Though I have lived among the hive baskets for sixteen years I am now truly accepted. I have emerged from my cell and it is my turn to carry the burden with them.
I take the hive from Grandmother’s brown, wrinkled arms. She looks up at me. Her face is stern and worn from years of stings and hard travel. One cheek raises. It is the only sign of love I shall receive from her, but I know it runs deep.
The hum escalates into singing. I lift the hive up into the air and the singing turns into whoops. I am lifted by my people. We dance together in swirls, the women’s long skirts twirl and tiny bells around their ankles jingle to the beat of the men’s hands against their chests. The crackle and smoke of the bonfire sends tiny glowing cinders up to the glittering sky and I feel as though I am flying with them. A bee in the stars.
Our ancestors came from the stars; dying colonies searching for a new hive. Our knowledge of our beginnings is shrouded in myth. We are aware of the stories, but do not have the experience to know the whole truth. It is veiled as sun through honey.
What we know is our people give an offering every spring to the Goddess: the gift of new swarms. A creature from the sky with skin like a jewel beetle comes and takes them. It sucks them up with long protrusions and fills the valley with blue light. In return the Goddess gives us every wish and need. Our planet is covered with fruits, vegetables, flowers, and water from crystal streams and deep blue lakes. The Goddess makes it so.
The ancestors found this place when they scattered into the universe. They were looking for small planets with fertile soil, untouched by any natural creatures. The giant insects came to give air, and seeds were planted in mindful ecosystems. Different planets were given different crops and purposes. Ours is a garden planet. We have a variety of different flowers and ornamental fruits and trees, but our planet’s main crop is the bees.
The docile honeybees were dying out in the far reaches of the universe. In the place where they originated a sickness had infected their colonies. New colonies were genetically modified and some became harmful, killing their keepers and refusing new queens. They were wild and unruly and could not be contained to pollinate crops. And so the docile honeybees were sent into the stars.
Our planet is a honey bee arc and we are its keepers. Our ancestors, too, came seeking a haven from the harsh sting of the world and here they found the flower Goddess for whom our planet is named: Mellisera.
Mellisera taught us to live differently from the other humans. She taught us to live like the bees. Humans, like the bees, had been experiencing the collapse of colonies. We have all heard the legends. It used to be that every female could give birth. Each woman had one man and they could create a family of their own. But since those thousands of years ago, as they reached out into the universe and began to fill in all of its gaps, Humans had become infertile. Children were becoming more and more scarce, and the few girls who showed blood were prized. We were to give our girls with our swarms to the gods when the sacrifice was made each year.
But we rebelled.
We soon learned the gods of the stars needed us. The bees of our planet were an essential part of the pollination of other worlds. The bees were everything. Without the bees they had no crops, and without crops they all would die. And so we kept our child bearers, and they became our Queens.
There is one Queen for every colony. And she gives birth for all. She is given royal jelly and pampered in her silken tent as the worker women tend the gardens and bees and care for the children. The men, our drones, take turns laying in the tent with the queen insuring the children are from all.
There are several colonies spanning over Mellisera, all with a different genetic makeup, but they would become stagnant without trading blood between the colonies. Every half century or so Mellisera produces a new Queen, and it is an exciting time for the whole planet. Every tribe desires her, and it is the flight that decides her fate.
The ceremonial flight takes place on the southern part of the planet where the wild, clawing plants grow. The strongest drone from each of the colonies prepare, exercising their warrior skill and prowess in order to find the queen and fight for her if necessary. Whoever gets to her first lays claim of her for his colony.
The whirling dancing comes to an abrupt stop and suddenly I am standing before her: our mother, the Queen. Her long, dark braided hair reaches her ankles. Her skin glistens with royal jelly and pollen. She is naked except for the delicate ropes of bee wings she wears around her neck and waist. The people stand still and silent for it is rare to behold her. She spends most of her time in her tent waited upon by the workers and laying with the drones. She is not only my mother, but the mother of us all. The only one in our colony who has ever been able to give birth. Until now.
“Althea, you are no longer mine,” she says. “You are all of ours, and we are all yours. For the good of the hive.”
“For the good of the hive!” the crowd cries.
“Sweet to sweet, my love.” With these words she kisses me. Sweet honey sticks to my lips. She takes a crystal bottle etched with asters and vines from one of her attendants. I take a drink from the glowing amber liquid it holds. It is the mead of our people, more valuable than our honey. The drink washes through me, stinging my throat and warming my insides.
I sip slowly for I know that after this last drink I am no longer a girl. My flight will begin and the men will come after me. Whichever drone finds me will take me and I will start a long sacrificial life.
I am the new Queen.
Bridget Beth Collins.
Writer, painter, and naturalist.