Why should anyone care about my debut novel for middle-grade schoolchildren? THE BOY WHO COULD BEE was inspired by poring over my beehives and written under a pen name. When I recalled my uncle in England visited the famous monk-beekeeper, Brother Adam, I turned the monk and his Devonshire abbey into fiction and sent a village boy, Joe, to help breed perfect bees. His cousin, Emily from London, became curious about the legend of treasure hidden by medieval monks before King Henry VIII closed the former monastery, but the village bully’s family lays a claim. Only the bees in Brother Adam’s favorite hive know the secret, told from their point of view in alternating chapters. Presented recently on BBC Radio and for book festivals and school readings, the book is published by Jamestowne Bookworks and distributed by Amazon internationally in Kindle, paperback, and hardcover formats and is coming to bookstores. Illustrated by a Cornish and an American artist. Recently presented on BBC Radio and scheduled for book festivals and book readings in schools. Profits from sales are pledged to children’s cancer research for professional and personal reasons.
“The old mystic symbiosis of honeybee intelligence and hive-keeper husbandry told through the viewpoints of both species—what a lesson!” James Alexander Thom. New York Times bestselling novelist.
Suddenly Uncle Henry stood up. “There’s a cyclone coming …” he said. Thus, began Dorothy’s voyage over the Kansas prairie with her dog, Toto, carried by a tornado. The first warnings were the wail of the wind and bowing grass.
The blood and sinew memory of panic soon fades after danger passes. After escaping to a safe haven, we tell the story blithely. Hence, I am writing while feelings remain fresh.
I was walking my dog in the afternoon. The air was calm and the clouds creamy-white apart from a sulking grey curtain over the horizon. Ben wanted to go further than planned but we turned back at the first spots of rain. By the time we were 400 yards from home I heard a tremendous roar behind, like a steam engine chasing us. I didn’t look round but pressed forward faster, expecting only to be drenched.
When debris started flying at a rate never seen before, we ran towards the path through our woodlot that takes us home. Later, I regretted we didn’t stop for refuge under a neighbor’s verandah because the violence grew and grew. The path was covered in debris and branches laden with leaves flailed as if animated by pulses of high voltage. We heard loud crashes behind, on each side, and even overhead. To halt under a tree seemed suicidal; to press forward felt perilous.
When we reached home, Lucinda held the door open eyes round as marbles and her quaking voice inaudible from the din outside. The phone I left on the table during our walk showed an emergency announcement to take cover immediately. Later we heard people had seen a funnel cloud. I could tell them where it had touched down.
When the wind abated, I went outside to check the damage. Large trees had fallen in a narrow swath almost surgically. Only a few yards from the giants, delicate plants were unaffected, although the ground was strewn with broken boughs, sticks and leaves. I found a tree lying across the path where it had been felled seconds after we passed.
A tornado transported Dorothy and Toto to the Land of Oz, but Ben and I missed going to another place.
While observing expressions of public affection and admiration for Queen Elizabeth II from afar, I began to muse about other queens. Queen bees in my hives.
They shouldn’t be called monarchs by any stretch in the meaning of royalty. But I am struck by a correspondence between the late queen and insect queens. The steadfast duty to serve in one great role for society’s sake. Without that service, the institution of a constitutional monarchy or the life inside hives cannot survive.
But here’s a wonder. A queen bee isn’t born from a royal lineage, like the House of Windsor, and doesn’t have a unique genome. She is what she is because the egg that made her was laid in a special cell and workers fed her a special diet as a larva. Any egg can potentially make a queen in the process of supersedure to ensure succession where a queen is failing. It’s more like making a new Dalai Lama (although always male) than the heir to a European throne. It has none of the mystique of a royal family tracing its roots to an ancient founder. The current Lama and Tibetan monks discover his successor as a child and turn him into an extraordinary individual with a momentous life as a spiritual leader and diplomat. Somewhat similar to when nurse bees care for a precious larva in a queen cell.
Aside from rambling on about royalty, poring over frames of honeycomb covered in busy insects gives me a cast of mind about the tranquility of hive life. It’s neither feudal nor communist, but still a highly organized community. Individual honeybees don’t have the freedom of solitary bee species, but neither are they stuck at the bottom of a rigid caste system. A new worker bee starts with humble jobs and transfers to other occupations, such as nursing, honey-making and guarding the hive. Finally, she graduates to flying for foraging outside for nectar and pollen. There’s no jealousy or conflicts from competition in the patriotic fervor to benefit the community.
This post sounds anthropomorphic for a biology professor, but I can’t find better words to express the industry of honeybees, which the mind of the hive organizes. They have an admirable society, even if not one we can or want to emulate.