The Upside Down World News

"If the world is upside down the way it is now, wouldn't we have to turn it over to get it to stand up straight?" - Eduardo Galeano

The Vanquished Department of Bee Keeping

By Emily McNair

The worker bees of Malta are throwing the drones out of the hives for the season. Iknow this because I came across one of the nearly-flightless, sightless little guys heading up the steps of St Agatha's catacombs and primary school today. To clarify the dangling modifier: I was heading up the steps; he was staying put, probing the sandy, pitted limestone with straw-like mouth parts, no doubt a little confused as to where the honey he was accostomed to sipping had got off to, perhaps wondering about the sudden chill and quiet around him. He would be dead, as would all other drones expelled that day, by sunset. I paused and bent down low to inspect him: huge, blind, black eyes that wrapped around the side of his head; fuzzy body, short wings; stouter than the workers and with none of the queen's tapering length. I nudged him with my finger to see if he would crawl onto it, but he was too weak or else disinclined to accept my invitation. I picked him up by the wings, moved him to the side of the step to decrease the likelihood of him being trampled, and continued up the steps. But then I stopped. He was slowly freezing and/or starving to death. Was it better o leave him to be trampled? Would it be best to trample him myself? I went back down the steps and knelt again in front of him. He seemed unperturbed.

Drones live an easy, if truncated, life. The only males in the colony, their sole pupose is to inseminate a new queen, the only fertile female in the hive. And this is necessary only once in a queen's lifetime (which spans two or three seasons): a new queen will fly out of the hive on what eekeepers (who are predominantly male)romantically call her nuptual flight. The drones fly out after her (on what will be their only trip out of the hive), drunk on pheromones, looking to copulate, and leaving half of themselves behind as they fall away from the newly fertilized queen, who returns to the hive to commence her life of near-constant egg-laying and royal jelly consumption. I will readily admit that I don't know why they fly out of the hive to mate, but I have two theories as to the reason. The first, of course, is a sperm-to-the-egg-style race, survival/triumph of the fittest, scenario. The other being to save the worker bees the hassle of so much housekeeping. They would have to pick up and throw out all the dead drones and drone parts -- which is precisely what they do with the still-living drones in preparing the colony to overwinter. The little guy in front of me was one of such thousands, victim to the season and to his own uselessness and gluttony. The oft-co-opted metaphor of the hive: busy worker bees toiling continuously for the good of the colony, directed by a supreme central commander's chemical secretions, no place for the consumers, only producers. Hail the work that unites us.

I've invented a new dance for all you clubbers: you wiggle your hips to signal where the good pollen forage is at. Message: We've got to work together -- it's the only way to make honey. I did not trample the exiled drone myself. I left him to the the side of the step, and he was gone when I passed back that way later. Regarding him, I felt that peculiar ambivalence familiar to beekeepers facing bee death (or maybe just me): were the drones permitted to overwinter with the colony --especially in harsher climates -- their presence would strain food supplies and weaken the colony, perhaps fatally. But at the same time, the drones are completely defenceless (ie, stingless), unable to forage or produce honey,and, like all honeybees, are kind of cute. This drone in particular was very cute, being an Italian honeybee (apis mellifera ligustica), which are especially fuzzy and archetypically yellow and black (easily distinguished from Malta's predominantly black native bees). The drone's huge black eyes afford it a limited capacity for sight within the dim recesses of the hive, but the bright light outside blinds them; anthropomorphological though it may be, I cannot help but be charmed by the baby-seal innocence of those oversized eyes.

I am writing this now from my flat on Triq il-Fejgel in Rabat, one of Malta's oldest towns (quite a claim on islands that were host to Oddysseus for a leg of his journey), while listening to Astor Piazzola's incongrous blend of cello and accordian that is Le Grand Tango, and thinking about drones. Sunset has come and gone; twilight is not so much fighting a losing battle as surveying a battle already lost; the moon, having risen several hours ago, smugly turning up its glow, already on high. The drones thrown out to the hives' doorsteps today will have died by now, frozen, eaten by birds, carried off by insects or stuck to the soles of passing shoes. I can't help but check my own --did I step on one without noticing and carry him home? Nope. It wouldn't have been the first time I'd brought along a stowaway from the hives -- including a truly obnoxious little lady who secreted herself in my veil during one hive inspection only to sting the back of my neck when I put it on again at the next apiaries. (Aside: I personally recommend arnica gel for such occasions.) I have been in Malta for nearly two months now (having fled Slovakia, land of mullets that would put Canadian mullets to shame, and open culinary hostility towards vegetarianism, after a two month beekeeping stint there), and will stay about another month before heading to ever-warmer climes down Argentina way.

The sky tonight is clear and bright, the ennervating xlokk (a seasonal humid wind) blowing stong and making the islands uncomfortably clammy but hardly cold. Given that it is December, the only indication of winter to this New England girl so far was the drone on the catacomb steps this morning;otherwise, the sand and the steps smelled of the sea and the courtyard of still-blooming freesia and jasmine. Under the white noise of constant wind, I imagine I can hear the thousands of workers humming as they go about
their housekeeping before settling down around their queen to keep her warm and safe until the xlokk stops blowing and a new season begins with the hatching of the new drone brood.

Emily McNair is conducting research on beekeping through the Watson Fellowship.