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A short story

I found them at The Colony, drunk on mead and buzzing about the end times. A dankness from the night before hung in the air, heavy with the sweet reek of sour apples and dead ants. The barmaid swabbed the boards with a mop dripping disinfectant. Various bees hunched darkly over their steins, wetting their bristles in the winey brew. The Colony didn’t come to life until after dark, when a good little bee was safe and snug in its comb. These bees were off to an early start, drinking their fill during the unhappy hour.

I joined them in their brooding. A pint of mead does a body good. If fresh, it has a fine, racy flavor. I like it in a glass, which reflects the color, like sunlit honey. I eyed the bar and took a stool opposite. They could be a hotheaded lot, and barbed to the hilt.

Being a drone, I had no stinger, and little meaning anymore, what with the Queen kaput. There’d likely be other hives and other HR departments accepting CVs, but I was no spring chicken. Three campaigns and nary a conquest: A drone begins to doubt his manhood—really all he has, in the end.

My pint arrived and I drank deeply. Oh, the first sip of anything! But especially mead, bee spit bound up in alchemic ferment. No different from the Incan brewers, señoras all, that spit into the corn mash to dazzling enzymatic effect. I handed the barmaid my Visa and she walked off to swipe it, wagging her hindwing like a queen—in any other country.

As for the rest, the stench of fear was in their pheromones, caked beneath a veneer of apathy. I always did have a nose for it, and you can’t teach that. Take that one, hunched over her glass, a once-proud fanner (you could tell by the steroidal wings) charged with condensing the dew from the nectar. Now look at her. Her thorax burnished with smoke, her eyes like setting suns, droplets of sweat beading on her face. You could smell the sense of loss.

To avoid contamination, bees will abandon a hive with high virus levels. These were infected in the brain, no doubt, and had been since the election, if not before. Their queen had left them high and dry. I stuck around longer than I should have, rubbernecking the wreckage and racking up empties. But the contagion was spreading, and it was time to for me to fly.

She came from a passel of hopefuls and rose quickly, reared on the finest royal jelly. Her challengers could feel the force of her and kept to their cells, emerging only when it came time to assume their fate. She made short work of most, ripping them limb from tender limb. With Bernie off in the weeds, sucking at unsustainable stamen, she turned her attention to the royal cup and the brood at hand. No bee would have bet it wasn’t enough. Her place, infirm and short-lived—the babes weren’t much more than a sticky, yellow-white spongiform mass when she was sent packing—was bad for business and politics.

Alas the Queen was dead, an already fading memory. Some blamed Sanders, others the Weiner. The former was a fly in the wax, but the old gal lost her stinger in the face of Weiner and his pinprick, a puzzling bug she could not shed. She’d have booted him from the hive herself but for Huma. Huma, her dark eyes threatening water at any moment, was her soft spot.

Others, anxious for a rematch, were clamoring for Russian hide. The bear, our old nemesis, nosing drunkenly in the honeycomb. I say let’s rock! Sometimes, it feels good to haul off and sting something. I myself did not have that luxury. But I was up for a last order and a tour of flyover country. Barmaid … Mead here!

Who’s to blame? We are, of course. The enemy within. We were socialist, once, with hives from here to Atoka. Then came the dwindle. Was it Colony collapse? I wouldn’t know. I’m only a drone, worth more dead than alive. I was not alone. We’d all suffered a loss of earning power, a diminishing of respect and, most arguably, from an unclear mission. It doesn’t help to have toads barking at your cellar door.

Pilgrim, over against the wall, went dutifully through another set and not a beegirl was a-waggle on the dance floor. No longer were we humming in a fruitful C (minor key), but more the syncopated rasp of a death rattle.

Political suicide? Smear campaigns? A lack of strategic vision? It was a honey of a deal, and they’d gotten the raw end. All the waxing poetic was for naught. Their Mum had absconded, and I don’t mean with the church funds. This was no larceny, however grand. You can’t be jailed for what she took, which was their reason for being, not to mention most of the hive and certainly her inner circle. A high crime? No, not even a misdemeanor. But vanishing in a swarm doesn’t sit well with the base.

And now the mood everywhere was rotten, as sour as flawed comb. A hive was so brittle to begin with: vulnerable to infection, predation, climate change, even insanity; the plague was wide, the enemies were many. Hazards are a worker bee’s lot in life, but this abandonment stung. The cloud of chalkbrood hung about the hive, leaving mummies at the gate.

When it strikes, it’s without prejudice. Underlings had gone missing in droves, their smiling faces posted on the backs of honey pots with sad missives and 1-800 numbers. Kakugo, a nasty virus that infects bee brains and turns them against one another and anything in their flight pattern, akin to that awful mob in 28 Days Later. An omen from early November: A lone fruit bat flew past the Colony, foaming white at the nose, breathing his last. That kind of virus you can’t fight. Before the sun had set, the Queen was down for the count, a fate all but foretold.

Who suffers such maladies! Every corner of the Colony lay heaped with lifeless exoskeleton and empty brood cells—the vestiges of black plague and red menace. Bottles of mead crashed to the floor as bees went belly-up. Up and down the avenue, scattered survivors circled aimlessly, homeless nomads minus a hive, hiding in the corners of the Dollar Tree, watching the pumpkins grow yellow eyes. A dangerous game, for bees alone are bees short-lived. Mice, sloths, spiders and other plunderers fed on the weakened state. Deadliest of all: the mites, an insidious lot, and legion. They entered clandestinely, on the backs of gatherers back from a suckle. Bees began deleting emails en masse—skeptics, pundits, brazen blasts from odd accounts with sketchy grammar—but the virus was Colony-wide.

The barkeeps sprayed down the tables but all the drinkers complained about the smell.

I don’t blame her. A queen no longer pushing pheromones—signs on the campaign trail might include sudden confusion, internal revolt, bad press, usually a cocktail of several ingredients—won’t last a day. Detecting a weakened state, once faithful and productive staffers will “ball” a queen to death, circling her with a tenacity easily construed as fierce loyalty when, in fact, it’s wholesale sedition. She can’t stand the heat and is unceremoniously rid of the kitchen. Her dismembered parts they shove off land’s end.

Avoiding such a fate, ours had flown. And we were so close. Victory is a taste—heady and sweet—savored more often by those in the trenches, a place no dame of regal means dares go.

Our sordid history is replete with men who fell useless to riches, leaving a woman to carry on, occasionally taking her with him. (I’m recalling the Ceausescus, Elena and Nicolae, riddled with bullets, to quote a Guardian reporter, “beside a toilet block in a freezing courtyard.” He sang “The Internationale”; she dropped a resounding F-bomb.) For centuries, forever, our kings had been weak-kneed despots incapable of ruling a larder, let alone a nation. The best of them sat on their thrones, asses out and mouths open, gobbling up attention, nectar, and loot. The worst ransomed the hive with nary a qualm. Love, not money, marries a colony to its master. Money, for a bee, is honey.

“Blech!” a beegirl cried, spewing ale across the bartop. “Disgusting! Is this rapeseed? I’m, like, totally allergic.”

She lifted her blouse. Her belly was, in fact, covered in the pox. Bad beer: A sure sign of hive in decline. Well, no sugar water for me. Food, drink, and a place in the sun: Was that so much to ask?

Before this pestilence, we had it all. We had hope. Short-lived hope, perhaps, but who can measure the infinite quality of that? A time of pristine meadow and steady wuthering, probing sweet nectar, snorting up pollen, seeding the stigma—passionate only for the flower.

But it had been two months since we’d seen red and I’d gone all but dormant. A drone is afforded no second chance. It’s either the flight of your life—and death—or you’re out on the streets, going bar to bar with the rest of the also-rans, dribbling yellow rain, hanging out in bars, chasing beegirls half your age, playing godfather to the heirs of more nimble males, those swift and sure enough to land a queen on her maiden flight. In a word, slumming.

Better to join that mile-high club to which all drones are drawn, and all queens, though only one sticks around for the baby showers, the others doomed to kamikaze fates whose shrapnel remains must appear to a passing ant on a pheromone trail like the flotsam of any air disaster—torn abdomen here, shard of male member there—if a bit more carnal. The way I see it, you can resign, or you can resist.

Anyway, Lord Business was on the promenade, primed for a coronation. I downed my drink and wiped the pollen from my eyes. O, death, where is thy sting, indeed! Out there, somewhere (Portland? San Diego?) was my destiny, the one true hive. I was Joseph Smith in search of Deseret. As I took flight, I caught a nostalgic whiff of woodsmoke wafting from the Colony. God, the memories. So much honey, so little brine.

Up and away, north along the avenue, I broke the cardinal rule. I looked back.

Yes … we had it all. Everything but the girl.

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