Bees – a short story

Victorian-era Gold Bee Brooch

“If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.” Quote incorrectly attributed to Albert Einstein, but accurate all the same.

 

“I am afraid the logistics of making a mechanical bee is still years beyond current technology,” said Professor Melissa Beowulf. She pushed her honey-coloured hair back from her face, fighting hard against her overwhelming feeling of hopelessness. “We aren’t going to make the deadline following this path of inquiry.”

“What about the other projects? Maybe we should switch the focus and funds to one of them?” suggested Mr Woozle, the Prime Minister. He sat back into his chair, which was upholstered in an expensive leather too soft to squeak, and tried to look concerned. Melissa wriggled in her chair, seated across from him in a much cheaper and squeakier chair. He continued on, “I promised the country we would find a solution. I need something to give heart to the farmers affected by the bee shortage.”

He wasn’t fooling Melissa. She ignored the royal ‘we’. She knew the Prime Minister wouldn’t shoulder any of the blame and would be quick to distance himself from any failure, as slippery as any toad. He was infamous for it. He would then pull all funding from anything to do with the bee shortage … including the long-term breeding strategies, the best bet for recovery.

Instead of panicking, she sorted through her files and pulled out a couple of the ones that she mentally labelled as ‘pseudo-science’; as her granny used to say, Desperate times call for desperate measures. She laid the files out in front of her. She wondered just how little science Mr Woozle understood. Melissa assumed that, to become Prime Minister, he couldn’t be a stupid man, and yet he was popularly considered to be quite the Luddite in his attitudes to science and technology. Her pseudo-science files might test that assumption.

“I have here some innovative suggestions – you might even call them cutting edge,” said Melissa.

Mr Woozle leant forward, and Melissa resisted the urge to lean back.

“Well then, let’s hear them,” he said.

She opened the first folder and few out a few concept illustrations. She fanned them out in front and Mr Woozle. He looked them over, and Melissa took careful note of his expression; his face remained interested. He didn’t look amused, nor did he start to sneer, which Melissa found encouraging.

The pictures showed tiny people helping the bees to pollinate flowers.

“As you know, due to the lack of bees to pollinate crops, we are facing a food shortage. So, as an alternative to bees, or to assist them, one of my teams suggested we genetically adapt humanoid creatures. The success of the human form makes it a good all-rounder.”

Melissa was pleased that Mr Woozle nodded as if he understood.

She continued, “We know historically and traditionally that, in most cultures, homunculi were considered to assist in the growing of all sorts of flora.”

“Excellent,’ said Mr Woozle, steepling his hands and leaning even further forward. “As you know, I like to think of my government as standing for traditional family values. Maybe you should divert some of your funding to this group.”

“Well, the idea isn’t something we can pull together overnight. We would need secure, long-term funding for such a project.”

“Hmmmm. You boffins always say that,” said Mr Woozle, sitting back in his chair and twisting his expression to create his trademark ‘cynical eyebrow lift’. He used that eyebrow to cower junior members of his party and the opposition, but Professor Melissa Beowulf was made of sterner stuff.

“We can’t abandon the other projects just when some of them are coming close to showing results,” she said, gesturing to her pile of folders. “As well, we can profitably repurpose the results from my various teams.  The robotic bees – as the project stands now – can be modified to be spy bugs, as just one example.”

The quirked eyebrow had lowered significantly at the mention of the word ‘profitably’. If there was one thing that Mr Woozle treasured over everything else, it was economic gain. It was ironic that it had been his devotion to great god of Economics that had created the problem in the first place. His government had approved the use of chemicals to improve crops by regulating harmful insects; except it had also regulated bees to near extinction. At first, the government had fobbed of the loss of bees as collateral damage and denied that anyone needed to be concerned. However, most of the very same crops that needed to be ‘protected’ from insect attack also needed bees to pollinate the flowers that produced the crop. When shortfall started to hit the general public with larger grocery bills, and the complaints had started pouring in, only then did the government set up a taskforce to save the bees.

Melissa tried not to feel bitter that she had been advocating for the bees for years before the crisis had finally occurred. As her granny used to say, An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. It was a pity that governments spent money so grudgingly on science-related projects. The Prime Minister and his government were among the most technophobic she had ever encountered. Having to come to the man, subservient, with cap in hand, was a subtle form of torture.

Mr Woozle didn’t notice how Melissa’s lips thinned as she waited for his response. He was again studying the pictures in front of him. It would have taken a heart of stone not to be captivated by the images of tiny people frolicking with the fuzzy bees; he had enough fibres of humanity left to set his heart a-twitching. And he could see it wouldn’t be that hard to sell the general public on such an attractive project.

“It’s a pity we only have sketches,” he said. “An actual  … what did you call it? A human-clueless? One of those would make funding this project so much easier.”

Melissa looked uncertain. “The file does make mention of a prototype,” she said, “but I haven’t witnessed it in action.”

“Excellent!” barked Mr Woozle. “Arrange a demonstration for me asap. You may go.”

Melissa gathered up her folders, smothering elation. The Prime Minister hadn’t mentioned anything about cutting her funding. She’d bury him in flower fairies if she thought that would keep her projects going.

 

Doctor Tündér was one of those men who looked like they were carved rather than grown, since he was all sharp angles and thin, long limbs, with smooth teak-coloured skin. Melissa found him attractive, but she was perturbed by what his motivations might be and what was it that dedicated him to his project; he looked too stern to be creating cute, thumb-sized homunculi. As her granny used to say, Handsome is as handsome does. However, he certainly looked like the type of scientist that the Prime Minister would best respond to: male, white-coated, clinical, and serious.

A good half of Doctor Tündér’s laboratory was a greenhouse, full of flowering plants and pleasantly a-buzz with bees. The air was fragrant rather than antiseptic. Instead of artificial lighting, it was full of sunshine. Melissa approved of the set-up. The more she saw, the better she like Doctor Tündér.

Mr Woozle flinched as a bee flew past one of his ears.

“Do they sting?” he asked, glancing around in a nervous manner, as he walked with Melissa and Doctor Tündér. The Prime Minister was nattily dressed in a Saville Row suite with Italian shoes … he had to look good in his photos. Behind him trailed his ‘crew’: his personal media assistant/spin doctor, his Minister for Industry – in lieu of a non-existent Minister for Science – and his personal media assistant, and the usual flock of housebroken journalists and photographers.

“Only if provoked,” said Doctor Tündér, “so I wouldn’t be too worried. Unless you are allergic?”

“I don’t think so,” said Mr Woozle. “I can remember being stung as a child.”

“Then you should be fine,” said Doctor Tündér.

Melissa fused a few of her brain cells at the thought of Mr Woozle as a boy. She just couldn’t imagine him playing outdoors. Surely he was more the type to stay indoors and play computer games about world domination. He did try to improve his image with action shots, but even the least cynical person could see that most were staged photographs.

Doctor Tündér led them through into the back of his greenhouse. There, on an ordinary wooden bench, stood a little object that resembled a pigeon coop merged into a doll house. “This is where I house my prototype. Please don’t crowd around too close. The creature is too small to be truly intelligent, and I have attempted to modify her instincts accordingly. The creature gets easily frightened by the presence of large animals and by unexpected loud noises.”

Melissa stood perfectly still, and resisted the urge to stop breathing, as Doctor Tündér leant down beside the strange little house and made a clicking noise with his tongue against his teeth. It was obviously how he communicated with his prototype, because a little person walked out of its house and onto the bench. The murmuring of the Prime Minister’s entourage grew silent. The creature was humanoid in shape, but it did not look like a miniaturized human being. It had a rotund, bottom-heavy body, so that its arms looked long and elegant by comparison. Its least human-like feature was its head, as round as a ball, small-featured, noseless, and crowned with a mass of dark fluff. It had been dressed in a simple tunic, but the stiffness of the fabric created the impression of a swing skirt; it was self-evident that Doctor Tündér was not a seamstress. Melissa guessed the creature stood approximately three bees in height, or just under the length of her thumb.

“Amazing,” she whispered. Doctor Tündér had managed a scientific miracle on a very limited budget. Her eyes met with her fellow scientist, and they smiled.

Mr Woozle, on the other hand, was disappointed.  “It isn’t terribly sweet,” he said.

“Whatever do you mean?” asked Doctor Tündér, reluctantly breaking eye contact with Melissa.

“It doesn’t look anything like the illustrations. It’s kind of boring.”

Doctor Tündér just stared at the Prime Minister, literally and figuratively gobsmacked. In complete contrast, Melissa discovered a whole avalanche of words that she wanted to say, but most of them were unrepeatable.

“I think you misunderstand,” she said icily. “This is a magnificent achievement. World shaking.”

“This little toy? It doesn’t even look that much like human,” said Mr Woozle. He gestured at the creature with his hand.

The little creature jumped back and went into a crouch. Melissa thought it had a thorn clutched in one fist. And was it her imagination, or did the bees suddenly seem more agitated?

“Careful!” said Doctor Tündér. “I asked you not to frighten her.”

“Her? HER?” spluttered Mr Woozle, almost shrieking with disapproval. “Your prototype is a female?”

The creature went down on one knee as if she felt the Prime Minister’s outrage like a blow. The buzzing of the bees grew louder. More angry.

“I didn’t keep it a secret,” said Doctor Tündér.

“All worker bees are female,” pointed out one of the brighter media clones. He was death-glared at for his trouble. The Prime Minister’s face turned puce.

Melissa broke in before Mr Woozle to start into a rant. The furious bees were beginning to frighten her.

“Why does it matter?” she asked.

“How am I supposed to fund this ugly thing?” asked Mr Woozle, and he jabbed his finger down at the cowering creature.

She jabbed right back, using her tiny weapon. Then she turned and ran back into her house.

“It bit me!” howled Mr Woozle.

“Well, you frightened her!” replied Doctor Tündér. “I told you not to frighten her.”

“And she didn’t bite you, she stabbed you with something. Maybe a cactus thorn,” said Melissa. “She was defending herself. You look like a monster to her.”

Mr Woozle turned to inflict his anger on Melissa, but the bees stopped him. They rose in a stormy squarm and attacked. Panic ensued as Mr Woozle and his entourage fled, knocking over plants and overturning tables in their hurry to escape. Melissa expected to be badly stung, but it was soon apparent they were only targeting the Prime Minister.

The politician was shrieking and flailing his arms, driven out of his mind with pain. Melissa went to run to his aid, but Doctor Tündér grabbed her arms and held her back. “The bees are defending one of their own,” he explained. “You might get stung.”

“But we can’t just leave him to suffer like this,” said Melissa. As much as she disliked Mr Woozle, she had never wanted to see him hurt or injured.

“Wait… and watch,” whispered Doctor Tündér, still holding Melissa close.

From the doll house came a high-pitched crooning noise, almost too high to hear. The angry drone of the bees lessened immediately. The crooning noise continued until the bees were calm and returning to their flowers. Mr Woozle remained in a heap, moaning. One of his entourage could be heard calling for an ambulance.

“She is the queen?” asked Melissa.

“She is a queen analogue. It seemed to be the quickest way to gain the cooperation of the bees,” Doctor Tündér replied. He loosened his grip on Melissa, but she felt no urge to move out of his arms.

“How clever,” she said. And as her granny always said, You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

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