A shrill wind blew the day they drove the drones out. Bringing with it a chilly bite that few of them had ever felt, it seemed to add even more weight to Mother’s statement about how there would be no room for the useless now that the Cold Times were returning. So out they went, all hundred and a half of them, and the first of them to leave was Bombus.
Bombus had known this was coming. He’d heard the rumors, whispers of what had happened when the Cold Times had last come, and while some refused to believe that Mother might be so cruel, he hadn’t. He’d packed away a good bit of honey near the entrance to the hive and made certain that, at a moment’s notice, he’d be ready to leave. The only thing he hadn’t counted on was Api saying no.
Bombus and Api had been pupas together. Side-by-side they had learned to fly, and when they were grown and she’d gone off to collect pollen while Bombus had been stuck inside the hive, she brought back such grand tales of the world beyond that he’d wished more than anything he’d been born a worker too so the two of them could have seen it all together. So the moment he caught wind that the drones were being driven out, Bombus found her and asked if she might come along.
“Come along?” Api had buzzed in disbelief. “To die out in the Cold?”
“To start a new hive, with me,” he’d said. He showed her his stash then and not only the honey he’d tucked away, but the half-comb full of royal jelly too. “It’s not much,” he told her. “But it should be enough to turn you into a queen, like Mother.”
“You’d have me steal from Mother? “she’d hissed hotly. “Betray Mother? Are you mad?”
“But—but Mother’s betraying me,” Bombus argued, “She’s betraying all us drones.”
But Api wouldn’t hear any of it. She was already backing away from him, heading back toward Mother and the other workers. She didn’t even give him a chance to say goodbye.
A few of the other drones stuck together after the eviction. They swore oaths to help keep each other warm and fed, to huddle down somewhere and try and stave of the coming Cold as best they could, but Bombus wasn’t one of them. He wanted to see all the marvelous things Api had spoken of in her tales. And with each rambling journey he took, that was just what he did.
He snuck through the grassy forest, hiding from the great feathered demons that swooped and screeched and had eaten hundreds of his sisters. And as he trekked through the tall green, he met the long, pink folk that not only burrowed through the earth, but also fed upon it. But the most memorable things that Bombus encountered after leaving the hive were the things that Api hadn’t mentioned at all.
About a week into his exile he came across a clan of flies feasting on a dead, rotting thing. Upon meeting Bombus, they offered him work as hired muscle among their ranks. The other fly clans, it seemed, were quite terrified of bees and every time Bombus helped scare them off a stash of food he was awarded with anything sweet that hadn’t yet decayed. Having been on his last drip of honey when he’d arrived, Bombus was happy to help and even happier when not a one of the flies ever learned that he’d been born without a stinger. He stayed with the flies for quite some time, but then one morning when the wind’s bite grew sharper, he awoke to find that the flies had disappeared.
It was only a few days later when Bombus found the ants. They too were eager for help, and offered him some of their food if he’d assist them with all the tasks that were easier with a set of wings. Bombus obliged and spent the next week helping them make the last of their preparations before the Cold Times.
He very much liked it there, finding that the ants were a lot like bees, save for their lack of wings and the fact that their Mother, whom they called “The Overseer,” would have never driven the males from the colony. The longer he stayed with them, however, the more he found himself missing the hive for the first time since he’d left. His heartache did not last long though.
At the great feast the Overseer pulled Bombus aside and told him that, though she appreciated his service to the colony, there would be no place for him there the following morning when they collapsed their entrances and journeyed into the deep tunnels where the Cold Times couldn’t reach. This had upset Bombus, who was hoping the week and half he’d spent helping the ants might earn him a place among them. “Where will I go?” he asked the Overseer. “The winds blow bleaker every day, soon it will be so cold my wings won’t flap fast enough to even keep me in the air.”
The Overseer had taken her time in answering, scratching at her chin a long while before pulling Bombus close and whispering, “There is a place, it is said, where the Cold does not come. It is far, and now that the green has all withered and died, it will be dangerous. But there is still time if you fly fast.” So the following morning he set off bright and early to search for the place she had described.
The flight was just as long and dangerous as the Overseer had promised. There were plenty of times Bombus had to stop and nestle beneath the dead grass to warm his wings, and even more times where he’d needed to burrow beneath the brush to hide from the remaining feather demons that patrolled the open sky. But after three days of near non-stop flight, he finally reached the place of which the Overseer had spoken.
It was impossibly big. Bombus wasn’t sure he could have even estimated how many hives, or ant colonies, or even trees might have been able to fit inside the thing, the only thing he was certain of was that the number would have left him awestruck. Yet for all it’s size, Bombus found that there didn’t seem to be any entrances. At first he figured it must just simply be well hidden, this was the place that Cold couldn’t reach, after all. But after two tireless days of scouring the thing, he was beginning to worry. And then, on the third day, it happened.
He was flying around the perimeter for a fourth time, studying the surface for any irregularities, when a harsh wind swept down from the North. On a summer’s day wind was little more than a nuisance to Bombus, but now that each gust carried an icy sharpness with it every shift of it had become a battle. This one lifted him high off-course and when he tried to beat his wings to combat it he found that they beat slower and slower until finally they weren’t moving at all.
For Bombus it was as quick as being in the sky one moment and staring up at it, motionless and numb, the next. He didn’t remember the fall, nor did he remember the impact, all he could remember as he lay there, staring up at the cool, ashen sky, was that he’d been part of a hive once. He’d been part of a hive and there had been a bee named Api twho he’d loved very much. And as the world began to blur at the edges, Bombus wondered how things might have turned out differently had she come with him.
That might have been the end for Bombus. He might have died there, freezing on the ground as the Cold Times began to tick away their first few minutes. But just before his world went dark and frozen forever, he heard a small buzz and was touched by a feeling of warmth.
He didn’t know how long he was asleep, but when he woke the frozen winds had given way to a dry summer heat. He stirred, and as he slowly returned to consciousness he smelt something familiar and sweet. Honey? Bombus crawled halfway out of the small hole he’d been sleeping in and found that it wasn’t just a hole, but a comb.
He looked up and his large eyes were filled with wonder. All around him thousands of bees were buzzing about, feeding larva, making honey, teaching pupa’s to spread their wings. For a short moment he thought he might have dreamt the whole thing, perhaps Mother had never driven him and the others from the hive, perhaps there had never been any flies or ants or great feathered demons. But then he noticed that the walls of this hive didn’t have the familiar curve of his own. They were flat and narrow and seemed to go on forever.
Confused, Bombus pulled himself the rest of the way out of his comb. He wasn’t three steps out of it, however, when he came face to face with a bee that was easily three times his size. He was standing eye to eye with the hive’s Mother. “Uhm—excuse me,” he said, when she declined to speak first. “I think there has been some sort of mistake. You see, I’m not one of you–”
“There has been no mistake,” said the Mother, the buzz of her voice slow and ancient. It might have been frightening had she spoken in Bombus’s own Mother’s tone, but hers was as sweet as the scent of her hive. “One of our patrols found you half-frozen in the wastes. They swarmed you to heat you back up, then brought you here for further recovery.”
“Where is here, exactly?” he asked. “It’s—erm—it’s not that I’m not grateful, I just haven’t seen a hive quite like this before.”
The Mother chortled a bit, her laughter filling their part of the hive with a pleasant hum. “Well, my dear,” she said. “That’s because there hasn’t been a hive quite like this before, you’re in the Lands of Eternal Summer.”
Bombus’s large eyes glimmered again as he once again drank in the hive’s long, expansive halls. “It’s real,” he said to himself, forgetting that the hive Mother was standing right beside him.
A sudden concern washed over Bombus then. “But wait,” he said, “Why go through the trouble of saving me if you’re just going to kick me out like all the rest of the drones?”
“Look a little harder at your surroundings, dearie,” she said, giving another pleasant bout of laughter as she motioned upward.
Bombus did, staring intently at the swarms that buzzed in every direction above him. Sure enough, he was able to find a few dozen drones among the throngs of workers. When he turned back toward the Mother, it was as if she could see the question written in his expression.
“I was a worker-bee once,” she explained. “And a lifetime ago, in a hive far, far away, a drone that I loved was driven out as the Cold Times came nearer. I couldn’t stand the cruelty of it, so I followed him, stealing enough royal jelly to turn me into a Mother myself. And when we found this place where the Cold Times could never come, we vowed that any bee, no matter their caste, would never be driven from it.”
“So I can stay?” said Bombus.
“For the rest of your days, if you wish it.”
Bombus stared out down the hives long halls again. He’d never seen them before, just a day ago he hadn’t even known they’d existed. But as he stood there, beside his new Mother, he knew that he was home.