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.
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.
Plans for the morning were interrupted when I heard the Silver Hand Meadery in Williamsburg was filling glasses for all-comers this morning. And why? It’s World Honeybee Day on the third Saturday in August. The calendar event has gone international since 2009 for celebrating the benefits of pollinators and the only kind that manufactures sweet liquid gold.
There was more to attract attention than the chink of glasses in a small crowd gathering to start the weekend with “Cheers!” A beautiful mural stretching yards along a wall leading to the front door was unveiled by the meadery’s owners. It is as colorful as a children’s picture book, full of bright flowers, bees, and butterflies under a blue sky. The artist Emma Zahren-Newman titled it: “The Flight of the Honeybee, circa 1622.” Why the date? It is reckoned to be the year when the Virginia Company of London shipped honeybees to the Jamestown colony, then only 15 years old and barely hanging on after starvation and a fractious relationship with local Native Americans.
Although many native bee species exist here, they were probably the first honeybees introduced to North America. Evidently, they didn’t do well in this climate at first, but they followed the westward march of the frontier as European settlers grew new crops that depended on the services of Old World insects then and ever since.