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The subject was "A Queue". What does that mean, and how does a story wrap itself around that? I'm not sure I came up with a satisfactory answer to that question (though the story does have its amusing aspects). My only defence, such as it is, is that I actually witnessed the incident described in the last paragraph and the story is an attempt to explain the reasons behind what I saw...

The Queue

"Bees are so much more clever than we give them credit for," said Peter. I nodded in agreement. It was my first day in my new job as a bee keeper and I didn’t want to get on the wrong side of my boss just yet. But really! How can a small insect be considered to be clever? A bee is tiny. It has barely enough brain cells to cope with being a bee. It certainly doesn’t have any left over for extra intellectual accomplishments. Peter must have seen something of my doubts in my face for he said, "Come on, I’ll show you."

We walked over to the hives which were set out neatly in multi-coloured rows in a field that was bordered by tall trees. There was a storage shed in one corner of the field. Bees scurried to and fro, flying out into the countryside and returning with nectar. Peter had set a transparent plastic tube into the entrance of one hive and I was astonished to see that the traffic into and out of the hive was extremely well regulated – every bee kept to the left just as if they were driving in a car on the road. Two constant streams of bees flowed independently back and forth, one stream leaving the hive and another returning, neither stream interfering with the other. "Look at that," said Peter with quiet pride. "Isn’t it clever, the way they’ve got themselves so well organised?"

"Yes it’s very impressive," I said. "I love the way they keep to the left all the time. Do the bees in Europe and America keep to the right?"

Peter frowned. He didn’t look pleased at my silly joke, but he decided to ignore it for the time being. "Bees can talk to each other as well," he said. "That’s really clever of them!"

"Are you telling me that they have a language?" I asked.

"Sort of," said Peter. "They communicate by dancing. When a bee discovers a new source of nectar it comes back to the hive and dances to all the other bees. The dance tells the bees where the nectar is and when the discoverer stops dancing, they all fly off to harvest the nectar."

"Come off it," I said. "You’re pulling my plonker."

"No," said Peter, "I’m really not. It’s a well known fact. You can look it up on google." Suddenly Peter stiffened with excitement. "Look there," he said. "It’s Reginald."

"Reginald?" I asked.

He pointed a stubby finger at the glass tube. The two way traffic had slowed down almost to a halt and every bee seemed to be concentrating on the antics of one particular bee who was hopping and gyrating in a most curious fashion. "That’s Reginald," said Peter proudly.

"Why do you call him Reginald?" I asked.

Peter looked puzzled. "Because that’s his name," he said. "You can easily pick him out, his stripes are darker black and brighter yellow than the other bees and he seems to be a much better forager than any other bee in the hive. He’s always finding new places to harvest. I see him dancing his discoveries quite a lot. Watch closely – I think you’ll find this interesting."

Reginald’s dance eventually slowed and stopped. He rested against the wall of the glass tube. He looked exhausted. I almost imagined that I could hear him panting. The bees who had been watching him dance buzzed together for a moment after he stopped, and then they all did a little dance back to Reginald. After that they shot out of the hive in an arrow-straight stream leaving Reginald alone to recover himself. "There they go," said Peter. "Off to investigate Reginald’s discovery. They’ll be back shortly, laden down with nectar. You mark my words."

And they were. Peter was quite right.

Over the next few days I watched Reginald seek out lots of new plants for the rest of the hive to harvest. Reginald would dance his new discovery, the bees would dance back an acknowledgement and then fly off, returning later in the day with the new nectar that Reginald had found for them. It happened far too frequently to be a coincidence. The bees were definitely talking to each other. I decided to embark on a scientific investigation of the phenomenon…

The first thing I did was paint my forefinger with alternating yellow and black stripes then I wriggled it about over the glass tunnel hoping to attract Reginald’s attention. Eventually after a lot of experimenting, I managed to wiggle my finger in a manner that Reginald seemed happy to interpret as the dance of another bee. I got very excited when he danced back to my wriggling finger. Clearly a conversation was now taking place, though of course I had no idea what it was about! Many weeks later, after I had gained a certain fluency in the language of bees, I discovered, rather embarrassingly, that my very first conversation with Reginald consisted of me wiggling my finger and him saying, "I have no idea what you are talking about. You are speaking gibberish! Are you French?"

I made very slow progress but, after several weeks, Reginald and I finally reached a point where we managed to communicate successfully with each other, more-or-less...

Every so often, Peter would decide that a set of hives needed to have their honey harvested. He would dress himself in protective clothing and then, using a special apparatus, he would pump the hives full of smoke. The stupefied bees would tumble out of the hives and Peter would then stack the bee-free hives on a truck and drive them off to the factory. Eventually the bees would recover from their stupefaction, buzz around in puzzlement for a while wondering where their hives had gone and then, accepting their fate, make themselves at home in whatever hives would accept them. Sometimes, if they were lucky, Peter would have brought a set of empty, newly processed hives back from the factory, in which case the bees would simply move in lock, stock and barrel. If they were less lucky, they would have to try and infiltrate an already thriving hive, often with mixed and sometimes fatal results.

I couldn’t help thinking that this removal of their hives from underneath their wings must be quite a traumatic experience for the bees. I discussed it with Reginald. He hadn’t heard of the practice before, and he was horrified! "What!" he said. "You mean we get kicked out of our home and left to fend for ourselves?"

"Yes," I said. "That’s right."

"That’s terrible!" said Reginald. "I’m not going to stand for that. I’ll let the others know and we’ll put a plan together so that we’ll be prepared when it finally happens to us. Can you give us some warning when it’s about to take place?"

"I’ll try," I said. "If I see Peter coming towards you dressed in his protective suit and carrying his smoking gun I’ll sneak in quickly and tell you. Keep an eye open for my finger!"

"Will do!" said Reginald, and he buzzed back to the hive for a summit meeting with his queen and her counsellors…

A week later, Peter decided that about twenty hives, including Reginald’s, were ready to harvest. Fortunately he started work at the far end of the row and I estimated that it would take him at least half an hour to reach Reginald’s hive. That gave me plenty of time to paint my finger and sneak over to warn Reginald that the moment of truth had arrived. "Thank you," said Reginald and he hurried away to prepare all the other bees in the hive for what was to come. I went and hid behind a hive a few rows away where I could keep an eye on what was happening.

Eventually Peter reached Reginald’s hive and began to puff smoke into it. But as soon as the smoke started to infiltrate the hive, a huge cloud of bees buzzed angrily into the air and hid themselves in the trees at the edge of the field. Peter shook his fist at the bees as they vanished from view and I heard muffled swearing coming from inside his protective suit.

When Peter had finished processing all the hives, he took off his protective suit and stored it, together with his gun, in the shed. Then he stacked all the empty hives on his truck and roped them securely in place. He hopped into the truck and drove out of the field onto the road, heading for the factory. As he left the field, Reginald and his fellow bees reassembled themselves from the trees and poured out in pursuit of the truck that was carrying the only home they’d ever known away from them. The truck accelerated and behind it trailed a huge queue of thousands of madly buzzing bees desperately trying to go home...

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