Halfway down the garden path, I hear the lone buzz of a single bee. It’s winter and the garden is lost in thought. The Japanese maples are bare; their limbs silhouettes against the blue-grey sky, and the quince are slumbering still, while the roses, not yet in bloom, stand guard. But the rosemary, she is in her splendor: silvery-blue branches covered with small purple flowers and heady perfume thick in the air. As I grow near, that single buzz crescendos until I see that every branch is alive, teeming with bees, dancing from flower to flower.
A recent spate of warm days has enticed me from my chair by the fire and into the garden. With book in hand, I’ve come searching for a new perch from where I can pass away the better part of an afternoon. But while I may have the luxury of lounging about, the bees must constantly work, for without their diligence and labor, we humans would soon be in distress.
I’m quickly reminded of the old adage, busy as a bee. The bees never stop working—even in the dead of winter. While the unseasonably warm California weather has drawn them from their hive, elsewhere, during the cold winter days and nights, the bees must huddle together and tirelessly flap their wings to keep the queen warm. After all, without the queen, there would be no hive.
The bees in my garden are but just a fraction of the colony. Back at the hive, every bee has work to do, including the queen. None, however, works harder or undertakes more tasks than the female worker bees. Their lives are relatively short, lasting mere weeks in the summer, but during their lifetime, they are the ones who keep the hive humming. The worker bees care for the queen, take care of the babies, feed the drones, and make sure the honey is produced at the greatest volume possible. It’s the worker bees who build the honeycomb and guard the queen and, when they grow too old, leave the hive—a dangerous undertaking—to forage, gather pollen, and retrieve water for the colony. They work all day, every day, from sunup to sundown until, finally, at their demise, their fellow worker bees remove their bodies from the hive.
The drones, or, male bees, have one singular purpose: to mate with the queen. But only a few ever succeed, and those that do die immediately, a consequence of their mid-air dalliance. As for the rest of the drones, once autumn nears, the worker bees starve the drones and force them from the hive, where instead of finding food, they quickly find death.
It’s tempting to assume that the queen can rest upon her throne, but she has her job, too. The most important, of course, is to mate with the drones. She leaves the hive just once, drawing her suitors near with her royal perfumes. Thousands of drones vie for her attention, but she mates with only a dozen or so, and then returns to the hive to lay the eggs that keep the hive bustling. When she eventually stops laying, the colony quickly surrounds and smothers her to death. As the worker bees remove her body from the hive, a new queen takes her place, thus, beginning the cycle anew.
Looking about the garden, I see that the same cycle extends beyond the hive and into the world around me. Soon enough, spring will arrive and the bees will be busy gathering pollen. I pull up a chair (at a safe distance) and marvel not only at their industriousness, but how intricately our lives are entwined.
Instead of indulging in an afternoon of idle pursuit, I decide to pick up a few packets of seeds—zinnias, stock, and sunflowers—so, I can do my part, too. While I‘m out, I buy some honey and put it to good use, too. While widely loved drizzled over toast or stirred into tea, honey offers a natural way to preserve fruit and, if memory serves, it’s time, after all, for the first blueberries of the season.