Farmer Delphine: Birds Do It, Bees Do It

Off a prompt from trylonandperisphere: Sweet lickable nectar...

"If you get bees up your crotch, don't even think about asking me to help you get them out."

Balancing near the top of a lightweight ladder leaning against the bole of an apple tree, Delphine smiles down at Cosima and tries unsuccessfully to suppress a laugh. In stark contrast to her own tanktop, cutoffs and sandals, Cosima is swaddled from head to toe in an old beekeeping suit that had belonged to her aunt. When she'd been healthy, Aunt Mireille had been tall, strong from years of working on the farm, and comfortably upholstered; the sleeves and legs of her suit now puddle around Cosima's gloved hands and booted feet in comically redundant folds. "Swarming bees tend to be very docile — they don't have a home or a brood to defend, and their honey stomachs are full, so they're fat and lazy and happy. They have no reason to sting. See?"

Moving with exquisite care, Delphine slides her bare hand into the center of the soccer ball-sized buzzing mass wrapped around a bobbing branch. She marvels at the warmth. Tiny prickly feet and the vibrations of thousands of small wings tickle her skin. Scooping up a handful and lifting creates an elastic ribbon of bees that hold on to one another with surprising strength, reluctant to be separated from the cluster.

"Dude, you're insane!"

Flashing a grin at her girlfriend, Delphine gently shakes the bees from her hand, letting them rejoin their compatriots. With the pruning shears she pulls from the back pocket of her shorts, she snips off the end of the branch. Climbing slowly down the ladder, she carries the branch with its dense cluster of bees over to the Langstroth hive she'd set up at the edge of the orchard a few dozen yards away. Carefully she lowers the branch, watching with satisfaction as virtually all the bees stream into the box and clamber over the frames. Brushing stray bees away from the edges of the box to keep from squashing them, she places the inner cover and then the telescoping outer cover on top of the hive.

Wary despite the protection of the suit, Cosima shuffles forward awkwardly, still hanging back a few feet away. "Are you, like, a bee whisperer or something?"

"You just have to understand how they think and what they want. The fact that they're swarming means that they're looking for a new home. I've provided them a nice clean hive with plenty of room and lots of food sources nearby, and I sprayed it with swarm lure to make it more attractive for them so they're unlikely to leave. And if you've got the queen... aha!" She points to one of the worker bees lining up near the entrance at the bottom board. "See the little white spot on the last segment of the abdomen? That's the Nasonov gland; the scent from it will broadcast a signal to any bees that either flew away during the transfer or were out scouting for a better location. They stand head down and beat their wings to disperse the scent until the rest of the bees have joined the ones in the box. That's how you know you have the queen — they wouldn't be fanning otherwise."

"And then what?" Cautiously Cosima unzips the veil and tips it back, revealing her red, sweating face. She pulls off her thick gloves and removes her fogged-over glasses, waving them until the fog evaporates and the lenses are clear again.

"And then nothing. You leave them alone to do what they do best. They're going to be hard at work building comb and starting to raise brood, so I won't look in on them for at least a week." Trying not to giggle, she helps Cosima out of the bee suit. "I was worried you'd pass out in this heat."

Sweat darkens her maroon t-shirt, which clings damply to her slender torso. "At least you didn't say 'I told you so.'" Wide hazel eyes narrow into a mock glare. "But you were thinking it."

"Never crossed my mind," Delphine says, raising her hand in the three-fingered Scout salute. "Come on, let's go back to the house. I could use a drink."

Gathering up the bee suit and her ladder and tools, they stroll hand in hand down the path that runs alongside the orchard. "What is that incredible smell? I meant to ask you about it earlier but you were like all hella fired up to catch your bees."

"I had to hurry. Swarms don't usually stay in one place for very long." Inhaling deeply, Delphine fills her senses with a familiar intensely sweet, fruity, faintly musky aroma. "Mmm, honeysuckle."

She leads Cosima over to a vine-covered fence. Butterflies and chubby bumblebees flit in and around hundreds of pale yellow trumpet-shaped blossoms that nod in the warm breeze. Plucking a flower, making sure to include the little green calyx, she pinches just hard enough to break through the bottom of the petal, then tugs on the calyx to pull out the stringy white style, which squeezes out a tiny clear droplet from the tube-like end of the blossom. She brings the little drop to Cosima's mouth. "Lick it."

Up go the sculpted eyebrows. The pink tip of her tongue darts out. "Oh, man. That's amazing."

Delphine bends to kiss Cosima, smiling against her lips. The honey-like essence of the flower mingles with the sharp tang of clean sweat and the tastes and scents of this woman who in such a short time had become as fundamental as air. "Yes, it is."