Her flight was so fast that time stood still, and hung as it were, suspended in space while the colors of the spectrum merged into white. The scorching heat simmered all around her. She knew the way home, guided by signals from her three miniature eyes or photoreceptors which messaged to her the positioning of light.
Courageously she set her course, willing her every muscle to respond which did so with astonishing speed. The speed of her flight challenged the laws of aerodynamics as her wings flashed astoundingly fast at two hundred times every second. The buzzing sound generated by her flight merged harmonically with the summer hum of the scrubland. She flew with all the strength she possessed, skillfully navigating the rugged terrain covered sporadically with red-flowering bottlebrush, grevillea and tiny bush orchids.
Bombus was making her escape! Every instinct was now alerted to danger and her whole system focused solely on her flight of self-preservation. One thought motivated her return flight,
“To the safety of the colony!”
Resolutely, she flew the shortest route from the pollen source to her hive, a true bee line through the hot, dry scrub. Her thorax muscles vibrated like a taut rubber band as her nervous system sent rapid impulses to the muscles below her wings, driving her two sets of flight wings faster than the human eye could see.
Behind her, the heat haze of the summer noonday blended into the blue-gray mountains in the distance and the occasional yellow box gums towering around her stood at attention, motionless, as she sped in full flight.
She relived her encounter again and again.
“Terrible assassins!” She felt like shouting a warning to every living thing around her.
In awful clarity, her mind supplied the hideous image of the ambushing monster, for covertly hiding deep within the reddish bloom, a deadly red and brownish-black assassin bug had lain camouflaged, awaiting her arrival! The horrifying vision of her would-be assassin loomed even larger now in her imagination and filled her with apprehension.
It was in late spring that Bombus, now a mature trained worker, had been hatched into the busy colony which she called her home. The colony was
comprised of more than a hundred bumblebees which included the queen, the workers and the drones. The dance of the worker bees in the hive that morning had clearly informed her of the location of the pollen she was to collect that day. The dance was actually a complex communication system, for as they circled together, the bees’ glands secreted a liquid and their antennae and bodies received the chemical messages held within the vapors. This elicited the required responses in the bumblebees. Thus receiving direction, unerringly, she had flown toward the prized bed of crimson blooms flourishing by a deserted homestead.
“I did not anticipate such a reception“, she thought grimly, as she retraced her flight, fleeing home with nothing at all to contribute to the maintenance of the hive.
Involuntarily, she quivered again at the remembrance of the horror she had found awaiting her. Cold eyes had lain focused upon her and worse, a deadly poisonous beak was raised at the ready to strike! She knew about these killers, they were called assassin bugs. All the pathetic victims of the dreaded assassin bug suffered the most dreadful fate. The assassin bug held its unfortunate captive in its powerful legs and thrust its long piercing beak into the victim’s body. It then injected a poisonous liquid which struck the nerves, liquefying the muscles and tissues of their prey, on occasion many times their size. Thus quickly overcome, the inside tissues of the unfortunate prey turned into a liquid…which the assassin bug then drank through its beak.
Bombus quivered at this ghastly prospect, nevertheless she bravely persevered in flight toward her home. She had often seen the tragic remains these marauderers had left behind after their rampage…nothing but an empty shell of some ill-fated insect, or even a small bird, with literally all the life sucked out through the assassin bug’s deadly beak. She shivered again.
As she made her escape, her short life flashed in vivid snapshots across her mind. Bombus thought of the day she was newly hatched…she was a larvae then, safe and warm in her own little cell of wax. For six days, her nursemaids had taken good care of her, feeding her a delicious soup of pollen and nectar. The remembrance of the sweet honey made her feel even thirstier, since the assassin bug had barred her from drinking any nectar. However, she didn’t linger now to quench her thirst but stoically continued her flight homewards.
The next period of her life was a black screen in her memory. They recounted to her that for twelve more days she had stayed in her little wax cell, not eating at all, while a most amazing thing was happening. From her life as a helpless, wriggling little grub to the day she emerged from her wax cell, she had undergone a complete change.
“Unbelievable“, she thought. Yes, she had changed dramatically from the larvae first hatched in her wax cell. Bombus had been transformed.
Her four beautiful wings of which she was so proud, were of finest gauze but very strong. Her two sets of wings were linked with tiny hooks and moved together in flight. She also had two large ‘compound’ eyes, wonderfully composed of hundreds of smaller eyes. These supplied her with the most wonderful vision. She also had three eyes on the top of her head to enable her to navigate by the position of the sun. Even on a cloudy day, Bombus could navigate using cloud-penetrating ultraviolet light.
Her antennae were a very special addition to her equipment. When she lifted them high, she detected new and exciting fragrances which filled her senses, awakening and exciting her to explore. She used her antennae when foraging among the flowers, not only to identify fragrances, but also to detect the slightest movement.
Bombus sustained her flight homewards without wavering. Her thoughts again reverted to her almost ill-fated visit that day. It was her antennae that had alerted her to the vibrations in the flower caused by the dreaded assassin bug surreptitiously hiding there. She kept her antennae folded back against her body to protect them as she flew. She didn’t breathe through her antennae, but tiny air holes called spiracles which were located along the sides of her thorax and abdomen allowed air in to travel through tiny tubes inside her body.
Bombus felt much safer now that she had flown quite a distance from that awful assassin and as she flew, she continued to think about her life.
“Yes, flight was the most incomparable experience of all!” The thought filled her with excitement.
Bombus’ first flight had been a truly memorable occasion. With unbelievable speed, she had flown that very first flight with a feeling of exhilaration and freedom hard to describe. Her speed was incredibly fast because her wings encountered dynamic stall in every single oscillation cycle. This speed had most likely saved her not only today, but from many predators, not the least of these were the crab spiders. Often called flower spiders, this enemy of bumblebees would lie in ambush waiting for unsuspecting prey and hunt by jumping on their victim. Looking like a crab with their flattened, angular bodies, they hold their first two pairs of legs out to the side. They also cleverly move sideways and backwards and Bombus knew that these venomous crab spiders whose bite, she was told, killed the cells and the tissues, were her bitter enemy, should she ever see one.
Not that she was unarmed for self defense or in defending the colony, for unlike the female honey bee who may die after she stings, Bombus had the weaponry to sting repeatedly, pumping a dose of venom through the barb at the end of her abdomen, and live to see another day. Though maybe of small comfort for the recipient of her sting, it was not as painful as the tormenting sting of the tarantula hawk wasps, bullet ants and velvet ants.
Still, as she flew, leaving the assassin bug far behind, Bombus continued to reflect about the many events of her life within the colony.
Bombus thought now of their queen, honored and respected in the colony and very, very old, at least four summers it was said. Decorated with bold black and yellow stripes alternating strikingly around her big, fuzzy body, the queen was particularly fine indeed. The golden fuzz, which wrapped beautifully around her like a lady’s fox fur, gave her quite a stately appearance. Larger than all her subjects, who were remarkable miniature replicas of their distinguished monarch, she was dutifully attended by all the female workers. Bombus knew that without her, their colony would eventually die out.
So Bombus continued to fly homewards. She was no longer fearful however, having greatly recovered from her shock encounter with the assassin bug, and so she continued to reminisce about life in her colony.
She had been told that some years ago, that at the very beginning of the colony, a young virgin bumblebee matured, who was to eventually become their queen. That first spring, after emerging, she had discovered a deserted rodent hole which lead underground and there the young queen had begun to establish her own colony. Bombus was informed that initially, the queen built hexagonal brood cells which she cleverly built of wax. Here, in these symmetrical polygon cells, she lay unfertilized eggs. Small workers hatched, developed, and were dispatched to visit flowers for nectar and to construct new brood cells. With the warmer weather, larger adults, including male drones, matured in the colony. Bombus knew that the queen mated with the drones and then laid fertilized eggs in the cells. These became the female workers and the emerging virgin females became new young queens which would grow and subsequently leave their hive to establish a new colony of their own, thus repeating the cycle.
Bombus continued her flight home along with her recollections of that summer.
She had heard there were some female bumblebees which looked just like Bombus and her companions, yet were deceptive and dangerous. These females were known as cuckoo bumblebees, who could not, or would not collect their own pollen. They were known to sneak into another colony and heartlessly kill the queen. Then the intruder would brazenly enslave all the workers in the hive and force them to supply her with food as well as all her own young.
“Would this terrible scenario ever happen in her hive?” Bombus wondered apprehensively.
“I am almost home”, she thought with relief, as she located familiar landmarks close to her hive.
Now this particular summer, Bombus was experiencing, and enjoying, her one and only opportunity to live Life. Cognizant that her close shave with the dreaded assassin bug and the great escape from its conniving devices had been a miracle get-away, she valued every precious moment of her short existence. Instinctively, she knew her purpose for being and fulfilled it without question or demand. However, sometimes, ignorance may be bliss and Bombus naively had no understanding at all of the sudden and final termination that the approaching bitter winter held for her.
For the present moment, her one aim was to gain the safety of the colony and at last her flight culminated in a rapid descent into the entrance of the hive. Safe at last! Wearily, slowly now, she climbed the entrance. Here she was among friends. She savored the familiar music of the hive, for her kind make a buzzing sound not so much when in flight, but prior to flight, as they can decouple their flight wings and vibrate the flight muscles to warm themselves, hence making their signature buzzing sound.
It was very cool in the earth, sheltered from the searing heat outside and her system adjusted to the lower temperatures and maintained her body at the right temperature enabling her to work comfortably. Sociable activity within the bumblebee colony now surrounded her and eventually resting in the shelter of the colony, Bombus sank her long thirsty maxilla into a welcome storage of food, savoring the taste of the sweet honey on her tongue. Foraging was thirsty work and there had been no time on this eventful almost disastrous trip to suck the sweet nectar from the flowers she had scheduled to visit.
Refreshed now, and systematically prioritizing her tasks within the colony, Bombus crawled deep inside the hive to the nursery. She, as with all the other adult workers in their colony, had a hormone which regulated the workers’ division of labor tasks in the hive. Surrounding her in the nursery, were many, many wax cells with other workers carefully attending the young of the hive called larvae. These larvae eventually became additional female workers or male drones, both very important to the survival of the colony. Bombus was a good worker and made sure her young charges had the sustenance they required, using the honey from her own body and also bringing bee-bread made of honey and pollen to the nursery cells.
Later on, Bombus would return to the work outside the hive, foraging again among the flowers to collect the pollen and sometimes drink of the sweet nectar. With her tongue she was able to reach deep into the throat of the flowers to suck up the nutritious nectar. Once the nectar was inside her stomach it was converted into honey. Bombus and all the other workers used most of this honey to feed the young ones.
Gathering the pollen was one of her favorite jobs… when no assassin bugs were lurking. An expert forager, Bombus provided well for her hive, skillfully gathering a load in three minutes flat, visiting about sixty to ninety flowers. This awesome task sometimes took a less skilled worker up to eighteen minutes to accomplish. Expertly, she would bite and scrape the pollen from the flower with her beak and legs. With her moistened tongue, she then brushed all the pollen that had adhered to her body onto her back legs. Bombus completed the task by combing, pressing and compacting all the precious pollen onto the tibia of her hind legs and into her pollen bag. After storing her precious cargo for the flight home, she secured her load onto her leg pinning it with a single hair. On warm, still days the task was easy, but sometimes, when the wind blew and the flowers waved wildly, she would grip securely with the two sharp claws on each of her feet and just hang on. Yet even if her work had to stop during the gusts, it was a great sensation riding the flowers.
So the summer passed and the colony functioned as if guided by an unseen master designer. With her small perspective on life, Bombus was not cognizant that bumblebees are one of the most important pollinators in the world, both systematic and effective. Being bigger than their cousin the honeybee, and having a longer tongue, bumblebees are wonderfully equipped to do this very important work. Without workers like Bombus, the world‘s crops and vegetation would fail to fruit and reproduce in any abundance.
So Bombus proficiently fulfilled her destiny. All summer she worked, flying many, many kilometers. On occasions she foraged even further from her hive than the normal five kilometers, searching the scrubland up to a distance of thirteen kilometers, although she rarely did so unless absolutely necessary.
However, as the summer drew to a close and the days grew shorter and the sun lost its heat, Bombus somehow instinctively knew that she was nearing the end of her short existence. Already, many of her co-workers had died, but fortunately for their colony‘s survival, the loyal work of the bumblebees throughout the summer had produced many more young virgins.
One day, after the work of foraging and having subsequently returned to the hive to offload her precious cargo, Bombus exited her hive again for the last time. She rested for a moment in the cool sunlight, allowing the breezes to blow around her. She was still an exceptional bumblebee, ingenious and conspicuously striking. Carefully, she preened herself with meticulous attention to detail. Commencing with her wonderful antennae, Bombus dexterously used her front legs to preen them. Having attended carefully to this duty, she stopped for a moment, extending her antennae, listening and sensing. She was not far from the hive and as she listened, a high piping sound, like the sound of a child’s toy trumpet, could be heard coming from the hive.
“Something of great importance is taking place inside the colony,” she whispered to herself . Alerted, she heard the piping again and yet again.
“It’s a battle-cry!”
New emerging virgin queens were announcing their willingness to fight. Bombus knew that virgin bumblebees who have never mated with a drone, will quickly find, challenge and kill by stinging, any other emerged virgin, and even kill the ones still encased in their wax cell. Some of the workers had made a series of supercedure where they had carefully raised replacement virgins who would be suitable to become queen. At least one of these, the victorious one, would take the place of their old queen whose strength to increase the colony by laying many eggs had now diminished.
Bombus bowed her fine dark head. She was glad she would not be joining with the other workers who would ‘ball the queen‘. For as soon as the victorious virgin was accepted as the new queen into the colony, Bombus knew all the workers would gather around the old queen to form a warming ball that would cause her to overheat and kill her.
“Yes“, she thought, “when that big wasp threatened us right inside our own hive, we used that very strategy.”
For together, the bumblebees had bunched around the large predator and overcame it by the heat created by their own bodies.
“I am old. I will leave the responsibilities of the colony to the younger workers.”
The piping sounds from the hive had stopped now.
Casting all these deliberations away from her, Bombus began to prime herself once more for flight .
Decoupling her wings, Bombus vibrated her flight muscles as she had done thousands of times before. Now that the autumn days had grown colder, she more than ever needed this warming procedure to enable her to fly. She relished the feeling of warmth and the buzzing resonance, now so familiar. Though the temperatures were beginning to drop down to five degrees, the bumblebees were incredibly resilient to the cold, wind and rain, being equipped with splendid insulating fur coats. Of these impressive coats, Bombus and all her companions were rightfully proud. Wearing their coats, the valiant co-workers stoically persisted in the work of pollination when other species of bees could no longer exist in the lowering temperatures.
Somewhat tragically, unspoken, yet somehow instinctively understood, this was to be her final flight.
As she launched once more, there were no goodbyes and there was no applause. Navigating with her ultraviolet light detection under the darkening clouds, Bombus had covered some kilometers, when imperceptibly at first, but then alarmingly, the light diminished and the temperature rapidly plummeted toward zero. The stoic little creature, dramatically alerted to impending disaster, turned to retrace her flight. She was aware that the young fertilized females would already be hiding now in the shelter of hollow trees or under loose bark in a dry protected place, preserved there to hibernate until the winter freeze was over.
The temperature continued to plummet but even though sensing her life-threatening predicament, she bravely flew on. The storm broke with terrible ferocity and the cold was more than Bombus could endure. Weakened now, she endeavored to shelter under some bark, but being old and her body colder than even she could tolerate, the small worker knew her time had finally come.
As she began to enter her final sleep, once again she heard the beautiful pulsating music rising and swelling to a crescendo, filling her senses with the wild exhilaration of the flight of the bumblebee.
Note to the reader:
The information included in this short story about bumblebees has been carefully researched in Wikapedia and other sources.
This wonderful little insect has inspired my fascination and admiration as I have researched for this Assignment.
Bumblebees are insects of the genus Bombus* in the family Apidae - hence the name I have chosen for the main character, Bombus, used in this story.
Rimsky-Korsakov composed the music “The Flight Of the Bumblebee”:
A couple of wonderful musical versions of this on the web are:
Clarinet (wav file):
Eight grand pianos in concert (video) :