A winter tale (continued)

“Get out of my way, I must dance!”  My sister butts me out of the way. She butts a load of others out of her way too. Then she starts wriggling, shaking her tail like crazy, runs a few steps along the comb before turning around and dashes back to where she started, turns and wriggles her tail again. What is going on? Has she gone mad? I smell pollen off her, suddenly she lunges at me! To my surprise she gives me some pollen to taste and then continues that mad dancing routine over and over, every now and again lunging at another unsuspecting sister bee to share her loot.

Some of my older sisters have gathered around. They are getting very excited. “It’s a waggle dance, come see.” They call to others to watch. “She’s found pollen! Lots of it.”  The mad sister continues in around and back in the shape of an 8, wiggle, waggle.  “It’s 100m away, that’s not far.” The older sisters are shouting now, they understand this dance and the direction of the sun to the source of pollen. They know where to go and start rushing out away towards the hive entrance to fly off to gather this precious protein.  

 I watch the dance in a trance, memorised, getting joisted about by the crowd. I start understanding it, I read the dance. It’s like a fog lifting.  “Yes, yes!”  I shout. I see it clearly now, the dance is a map! I suddenly want to leave the hive and to go foraging.   “If only I could fly!” I sigh suddenly feeling very useless. The hours and hours cleaning and repairing the hive seem so pointless compared to the glamour of being a forager.

“You will be our foraging soon young one.” An elder says to me reading my mind. I turn and there she is, an elder. She must be 6 weeks old maybe even a few days older. She looks old, and tired. Her wings are torn. There are small bald patches on her abdomen where her fine hair has been worn or torn. Her legs are scratched. There are several bees around her taking off her heavy load of grey Blackberry pollen so that she can turn around and head back out for another load. With all the shoving and pushing I find myself further and further from the dancer.  

The hive entrance lures me. It’s brighter here than in among the comb. The sun is streaming in, it’s a warm September day, an Indian summer I heard some of the foragers say. Bees are flying in and out. They are constantly chattering and telling us young bees stories of the outside world, what to watch out for, what to look for. It’s like they have to tell us so much but haven’t enough time. Their words gush, they don’t seem to care who is listening, but they insist we young ones hear. We must learn what the world outside the hive is like. What to avoid, what to do if it rains, if there are wasps about, if there are humans, when the best time of day is to collect nectar and when is best to collect pollen or why we need resin and the best sources for mineral water. They name a litany of flowers according to the seasons like a mantra. We must learn, they insist and chatter on and on.

I stand by the hive entrance, there are so many bees going in and out I’m getting dizzy. Maybe it’s the bright light of the sun, the heady smell of the outside word or the buzz of bees flying in and out. Some crash land thought the entrance at speed. I wonder how they don’t hurt themselves. There are extra guard bees on duty today, their antenna twitching, checking each bee coming in, Friend of foe? Friend or foe? In you go. I’m jostled again and I’m now standing on the ledge outside the hive entrance. I scurry out of the way of another crash-landing.

It’s cold here, 15oC colder than the middle of the hive. I so want fly, but I’ve never done it before. I’m terrified as I look down at the heady distance to the ground and the infinity of the sky above me. My wings twitch and unfurl as instinct takes over. The hooks of the left wings engage then the right ones. I hesitate. What! I don’t believe it, the guard bee rushes over and pushes me off the ledge. “Get on with it!” she says impatiently.

 I plummet, then swoop up in a curve, my wings seem to know what to do themselves. They spread out and up and down and lift me and take me where I want them to.  I will them to take me out to the hedgerow, the smell of blackberry blossom invites me. Suddenly, I start to panic. Where’s the hive? How will I find my way home? I do a wide circle in the air and see the hive. What a relief! I take note of the land marks,  I circle around again, I study the hive, what it looks like, a box on stilts, it’s colour, the big rocks near it, the fence, the grass, the trees.  Circle around and around going further from the hive studying my surroundings until I’m exhausted and decided that it’s time I go home.

“Welcome back”, the guard bee says as our antenna touch in greeting at the entrance. “How was your first orientation flight?” Before I’ve time to answer she’s moved on checking another incoming bee. I’m elated. I’ve never felt such a thrill, such joy and freedom. I walk back into the hive my head held high, I’ll be a forager very soon. I find a quiet corner of the hive and collapse in a heap and a sound happy sleep my dreams full of flying adventures.  

Video of a honeybee doing a waggle dance

NC State Extension Publications The Honey Bee Dance Language

The Apiarist on Orientation Flights

This story is a follow on to A winter tale. For Cara, because you asked.

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