When I got off the tube train at East Finchley Station this afternoon, I noticed a small, hunched shape on the platform. As I bent over for a closer look, I realised that it was a bumblebee, lying motionless on her back. As everybody else piled past on their way home, I wondered what to do. I couldn’t bear to think of people treading on her. What if she was still alive? So I picked her up and rested her in the palm of my hand. She looked substantial, but her weight barely registered. And then she moved, one of her legs groping into the air as if looking for something, anything to cling on to.
My bumblebee is a Queen, who has come out of hibernation too early because the weather has been so unseasonably mild. She has been unable to find any flowers to feed from, and has used up her last energy searching the desert of the station platforms for something to eat.
I cradle her in my hand all the way home. Once there, I put her onto a plate, and position her so that she can drink from a spoon filled with sugar-water, the closest substitute for nectar that I can make. I watch as her leg twitches, but gradually the movement becomes weaker. I fear that there is no hope for her.
The bee will not be the only creature to die – she has some ‘hangers-on’. I count four mites crawling through her fur, each the size and shape of a flaxseed. That’s a heavy burden for an insect to be flying around with. The mites live in bumblebee nests, and will attach themselves to the young queens, like this one. When an infested bumblebee lands on a flower, some of the mites will get off and wait for another bee to latch onto, as if changing buses. However, without the bee the mites won’t survive either.
Looking at the bumblebee closely, in a way that she would never allow if she was healthy, is both a privilege and a kind of impertinence. I notice, as I never did before, that her wings are like smoked glass, the ridged veins standing out and catching the light from my angle-poise lamp. Her eyes are black, like twin coals in her alien face. She has little hooks on the end of each leg, rather than feet. There are bands of dirty yellow fur behind her wings but just behind her head there is the faintest shadow of gold, only discernible from a very particular angle.
As I watch, she is curling up, her antennae covering her face, her legs crumpled under her. I will leave her for a while, but I am sure that she is dead.
The other casualties, apart from the bee herself and her little team of parasites, are the eggs that she carries. She will have mated once last summer, when she first emerged from the nest as a fresh young queen. I imagine her flying to meet the male bees at the top of the lime trees where they leave their pheromones, a kind of sexual perfume, so that she can find them. Inside her will be the first of her fertilised eggs that, if things had been different, would have hatched into the first workers to support her nest. From this one female up to four hundred and fifty bumblebees would have been born, going on to pollinate countless thousands of plants. When any creature dies, however humble, however common, there is a ripple effect that spreads much wider than that little death.