So it's less than two months until The Last Beekeeper is released on 20th April and I have another character to introduce to you.
Meet Blume, Alphor's magic bumblebee!
Blume was an interesting character to write because she's not human. I told her story from her perspective and getting into the mind of a bee was a really unusual experience. I did a lot of research, a lot of wandering the park near where I live to observe bees, a lot of chatting to bee experts. But Blume plays a really important part in The Last Beekeeper. She is the first bee seen in a century. She's a bee with the weight of the future on her tiny, fuzzy shoulders (if bees can even be said to HAVE shoulders).
Blume is a special bee, and in The Last Beekeeper, she's kind of magical. But what I learned when I was writing this story is that all bees are magic. So keep reading for three cheers for magic bees, and three special things about Blume.
1. Blume is A Hundred Years Old
This is definitely magic. Blume has been hibernating deep under the soil for a hundred years, since the last bee was seen in Alphor.
She carries the memories of her old nest with her and, when she emerges from her very long nap, she must make a nest of her own.
But real bees would never make it to a hundred years old, not even a queen bee. Honeybee queens can live for 5-7 years, but this is unusual, and worker bees normally have a lifespan of around a month.
Blume isn't a honeybee. She's a buff-tailed bumblebee.
I love these little guys. I think they're adorable, and learning about them definitely made me appreciate them more.
Apart from being a hundred years old, Blume's story mostly follows the typical life of a queen bumblebee. Before she went into hibernation, Blume will have mated with a drone from another nest. She will then have burrowed deep underground to hibernate through the winter. Her mother and sisters, from the nest she was born in, will have died before the winter. Under normal circumstances, Blume would have woken the following spring, as the weather started to warm up. Of course, she didn't. She slept for a hundred years, which is not a thing that real bees do. But hey, The Last Beekeeper is a fantasy story so I'm allowed to take a few liberties.
When a queen bumblebee wakes in the spring, she'll be very hungry. So she visits flowers to drink nectar and eat pollen and then she'll search for a nesting site. Buff tails like old rodent burrows with bits of moss, fur and feathers inside they can use as lining. Once the queen has found a burrow she likes, she'll gather loads of pollen to make tiny little honeypots, which she fills with nectar. Then, she'll create a big, sticky pollen ball and lay her eggs in it. It'll take a few weeks for the eggs to hatch and a few more for them to turn into adult bees.
But this is the cute bit. A queen bumblebee will sit on her eggs, like a bird, to keep them warm while they hatch. a buff tailed bumblebee can shiver her flight muscles to generate heat.
When the eggs have hatched and turned into worker bees, they'll do the heavy lifting. The queen's job, now, is to keep laying eggs for the survival of the nest. The daughter bees (the workers) will forage for nectar and pollen to keep the colony fed and bring up the larvae. Interestingly, all of these worker bees are female.
Towards the end of summer, the queen will start laying boy bees, known as drones. Drones can't sting, but they also can't collect pollen and nectar.
They're pretty lazy, and very demanding of their sisters, but the survival of the next generation is partly down to them, because they will fly out in search of virgin queens from other hives.
They'll try to mate with these queens and, if they're successful, they'll die shortly after.
The queen bumblebee will also start laying her own virgin queens around this time. These queens will be doted upon by their sisters and when they're ready, they, too, will fly away and find drones to mate with. Then, they'll burrow underground to wait out the winter, just like their mother did.
As winter approaches, it is, sadly, the end of the line for the current nest. Now old, the queen will die and the nest will cease to function. The remaining workers will die off, too.
The future of the entire species will sleep underground with those precious new queens, waiting until the weather warms them enough to bring them out of hibernation and build their own nests.
So, no bee that we know of has ever lived to a hundred. But they do live pretty interesting lives. A bee's life might be short, but it is full of life and industry, and we need to take care of our hedgerows and wild places to make sure there are plenty of nesting sites for new queens in the spring.
In The Last Beekeeper, Blume has Warren and Solma to help her find a nest. But real buff tail queens don't have anyone. And the truth is, they don't need anyone, either. Bees are little survivors. We've just got to create and nurture the right environment for them.
2. Blume Can Communicate with Warren
I've never met a person who can speak bee, but I do know of people who work very hard to understand bee behaviour and learn as much about their society and communication as they can.
These people are called entymologists and they study insects. Lots of entymologists specialise in the study of bees.
In The Last Beekeeper, there are no more entymologists. There are no flying insects to study, after all, and the few surviving ground insects are very rare. Human beings are preoccupied with staying alive. So, when Blume emerges from underground, no-one knows what she is at first.
Luckily for her, the first person who sees her is Warren, the seven-year-old little brother of our hero, Solma. Warren might not be an entymologist, but he has a very unique magical power. A power no-one on Alphor has seen or heard of before now.
Warren can talk to bees.
Now, this is very weird, because bees don't communicate like humans do. They don't really use sound at all. They use scent and vibration. We don't know a lot about how bumblebees communicate. We know the queen uses scent to direct her workers, we know workers use scent to communicate with each other and we think bumblebees might also use vibration to talk to each other.
If you want to know more about bee communication (far more than I can tell you!) It's worth checking out some of Dave Goulson's books. They're interesting, funny, autobiographical and very informative. I learned a lot from his work when I was researching for Blume.
We know far more about how honeybees communicate.
For example, we know that honeybees will tell each other the location of nectar-rich flowers by dancing.
And they'll dance together to make decisions about which flowers to forage, or even where to build a nest. Basically, honeybees vote by flash mob! (I feel this should be a thing humans should adopt. I love this idea.)
To communicate with Blume and her bees, Warren has to learn to speak their language of scent. The truth is, this is currently impossible for a real human. We don't have the same sensitivty to smell that a bee does and the parts of our brain that interpret scent aren't sophisticated enough to understand a bee's chemical language.
But, again, this is a fantasy story, so I can take liberties. Warren's ability to communicate with Blume and her daughters is a kind of magic. One that many people in Alphor would kill for.
3. Blume is the Mother of Alphor's Bees
Because Blume is the first bee anyone has seen in a century, she's the mother of Alphor's returning buff tailed bumblebees. This makes her very special. All of Alphor's new bees rely on her managing to keep her nest alive, avoiding parasites, predators and starvation.
Bumblebees face a lot of challenges and there are many things that could destroy a nest. In a way, it's a miracle that any bumblebee nest survives long enough to produce virgin queens and drones.
But it's really important that they do, because we need them. Bees, butterflies and other insects are responsible for pollinating at least a third of the food humans consume on Earth. That's a lot.
And Alphor's humans really struggle when there are no bees to pollinate their crops. So, when Blume comes along and establishes the only bee colony on the continent, lots of village Stewards want to take control of the nest. They want to be the ones who control what the bees pollinate and how far they travel. Some of them even want to destroy the bees to level the odds and keep others from gaining power.
Blume is a very important bee. She's the only hope Alphor has of the buff tailed bumblebees returning, which is why Warren is so desperate to protect her.
But others aren't so open minded. Others want to control her, contain her or even destroy her. If you want to know who, or if they succeed, you'll have to read the book!
The Last Beekeeper will be out on April 20th and I'm really excited to share it with you!
Peace and Love,
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