Bombus lapidarius, the red-tailed bumblebee, photo by me.
“Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort. There must be the will to produce a superior thing.”
― John Ruskin
The banks of the river fell sharply away, just as Cormorant sunk beneath the surface like a lead weight. I traced her bubble fish-hunt until she popped up again like a charred log. With a smile, I acknowledged her ability. How did she learn this? Was it something innate, observational or was it by instruction? I returned my attention to the steep river bank, lowered myself over tussock and bramble, to find the sturdiness of a small shingle-cove. There I stood, rooted, feeling the vibrations of a rolling Afon Taff through my boots and into my bones.
I heard the buzz again; she was here somewhere.
I took a minute to observe the water. Sometimes at the river the best things happen when I have my back turned to it. This requires trust gleaned through experience. I’ve spent thousands of hours by rivers and they can be dangerous. Usually, I watch the flow for a good few minutes, and when all patterns are relatively steady and predictable, I’ll turn and face the hinterland.
Somewhat self-assured, but not entirely (I was in a hurry), I turned and leaned close to the bank to find my Queen. With one foot on the shingle and the other on tussock, my landward knee took all my weight and a pain shot through the ligaments. I winced and pondered; I am getting too old to be clambering about on tangled riverbanks. The thought terrified me, so I quickly threw it in the water with an old pebble I found in my pocket.
Queen Red-Tail, on the other hand, was born just last summer, as a gyne, a virgin bumblebee queen. She’d matured enough to fly and mate before winter, and after a lonely hibernation, has emerged to find reviving nectar and a new hollow somewhere along the Taff. For the last twenty minutes, I’d watched her forage among the daisies. Glistening wings blurred over her downy, black sphere, adapted from a long line of ancestors for cooler, lengthier, seasons. Perhaps, an inch long, her plump form is dusted, rear end, as if dipped in cinnabar.
My eyes strained to watch as she crawled through a few ivy leaves, wings beating at a low resonance. I could hardly tell her apart from the shadows. But then she disappeared down a black hole and was gone. Alice-like, I followed her into this strange under-world, a realm of springtails and earthworms and all manner of semi-aquatic life we humans cannot see. I had never thought of a queen bumble bee as a potholer before. But spelaeologist she is; a cave dweller, of her own scale, in a depth of blackness, water, and organic and mineral-matter.
Here, she will live in symbiosis with her own microbiome and other soil-life, making it comfy and warm, using soft fibres for lining. Here, she will be all-purveying through the colony’s social phase ~ producing worker daughters. Present, she is Bee-as-Dasein (Heidegger/Tao), existential of this world, active in caring now and for what comes next.
Leaning in again, I put my ear to the ground. When her delicate shuffling sounds dampened and stopped, I noticed a ball of wet moss and twigs to the side of the entrance. I couldn’t resist rolling it sideways to see what I could see. The ball of moss went deeper than expected, a good few inches, and with a pang of guilt searing through me as I observed my Queen in her hollow. I gazed for only a couple of seconds and her eyes glinted. Right next to her was a little wax pot full of nectar.
I quickly replaced the moss to avoid more disturbance, so what I write next is my memory from that moment of voyeurism. A cup is a better description than a pot. Its surface was reddish and marginally scaly. Curvacious to organic perfection, a wide brim narrowed to a smaller flat base, but its thickness was fairly uniform. Inside, a dark liquid shone like molasses.
This is her fuel; a honey store of energy for colder days, when she is bound to stay inside, dipping her feathery tongue into its goodness. She’ll need it for incubating eggs and keeping all warm by shivering her muscles. Together, the cup and the nectar are mindfulness manifest (McEvilley); more than art and techne. This is Queen Red-Tail Phronesis, an evolved practical wisdom, and I contend as high a knowing as any epistemological concept. And she will make more cups, in time, and fill them for the good of the colony ~ an enactment of care for process; essence of intelligent bumblebee, and on through her genetic line.
She has made it from a waxy substance secreted in small flakes from between her chitinous, abdominal plates. With her feet and, perhaps, her mandibles, saliva and microbes, she softens the material and crafts this vessel with utter devotion. Her masterpiece is of her own body. It is part of her. This IS her: Matriarch. The wax itself emits scent, pheromones, cues, that control the fertility of her worker daughters in the language of chemistry. Without her bee-biosemiotics, the colony would overpopulate, malfunction, with disorder and suffering due to shortages of food.
How does she know what to do, why and how to care for herself and her family in this way? Is it learned very early from others whilst in larval stage the previous year, or is this something deeply innate, hard-wired, like a human baby seeks her mother’s breast at birth? Queen Red-Tail has also crafted pollen balls upon which she lays her eggs to hatch out and feed; such preparedness for what comes about in the following months. And in doing so, she will pollinate many plants. It is a pure devotion to her cause and that of her offspring. It is love. Why not? Bees are emotional beings.
On she will go for a while, making more nectar cups and foraging food for her offspring. She’ll keep them warm until matured, and then they’ll assume many of her tasks. They will cool the nest in high summer by wafting fresh air inside from the entrance, and find food for the colony, leaving more scent trails on flowers as signals to others.
But Queen is now bound to her underground existence, never to leave again. She will produce the next brood using sperm stored in her body from last year, new gynes and males who will abandon the nest to find new mates and start anew. Then she will die and her end will come in Autumn. All will wither, including her nectar cups, to return to dust to begin once more as life, uncharted.
This is her gift to the soil.
I gazed at the ball of moss for a while longer and all remained still. Queen was underneath, getting ready to lay eggs, my guilt feeling a little assuaged. I turned again to the river. Plastic drinks bottles bobbed in the shallows and a mallard furiously peddled away from me in a downstream-diagonal. I waded in to retrieve the rubbish, as slabs of brown Taff water slumped south towards the artifice of Cardiff Bay. From there, the water will make its way to the sluish gates and drop to the monster tides of the Severn Sea. And I considered, from bee to sea, there is presence, lives in process, an intelligent, interconnected craft. It is a superior thing, fluminism, and inspires our own participation and wilful devotion to life on this rare planet.