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Tree Texture

       Livia races through the orchard towards me, hands cupped before her as she weaves her way through the flowering apple trees. Around her, silver drones belch clouds of pollen and sucrose onto the waiting flowers. She knows enough to the avoid the drones’ sticky-sweet emissions, and soon enough, I can hear her shrill voice calling out over their metallic hum.

       “Grandma,” she yells, “look what I found!”
       “What is it?” I ask as she races towards me, her ink-black braids flying behind her as she takes the porch steps two at a time.

        Livia holds her cupped hands out towards me, her sweaty forehead wrinkling.

       “I dunno,” she says, breathing hard, “I just found it on one of the apple blossoms. It was stuck.”

       She opens her hands a crack, and I lean forward to peer inside. There is a small creature, not much bigger than my thumbnail, crawling across her palm on six fuzzy legs. Translucent wings fold back against a segmented yellow body with faint black stripes, as two thin antennae probe the folds of her flesh. The sharp point at the back end nearly takes my breath away. Apis mellifera.

       “Kill it,” I hiss. “Drop it to the ground and step on it. Now.”

       Livia frowns, her hands closing protectively around the little creature. “Why? What is it?”

       But I can’t force the words from my throat. I’m twelve years old again, a throbbing pain in the sole of my foot, my lungs screaming for air as my throat swelled shut. I stopped carrying my epi-pen long ago – it’s been decades since the extinction – but the memory is sharp as ever.

       I swallow my anxiety, forcing myself to think rationally.

       “It’s called a bee,” I say, trying to keep the fear from my voice. “They used to pollinate the trees and flowers before we had drones to do it.”

       “You mean, before Great-Grandpa’s invention?”
        I smile despite myself. “Yes, sweetheart. In fact, my father invented Hill Pollens because the bees were going extinct.

       Without him, we would live in a world without fruit.”
       “Because apples need pollinators,” Livia recites. “And without pollination, there is no fruit.”

       I feel my chest swell with pride; the child is a Hill through and through. But then she frowns, her face scrunching into up as she gazes down into to her palm.

       “But the bees aren’t gone,” she says, holding her cupped hands up for me to inspect, “are they?”

       As I stare down at the incontrovertible evidence before me, fear and guilt war with curiosity inside my mind. Where did it come from? Honeybees like this one have been believed to be extinct for decades. Why has one suddenly shown up here?

       “Apparently not.”

       I can’t hide the tremor in my voice but Livia, busy peeking into the crack between her thumbs, doesn’t notice.

       “Then why’d you want me to kill it?” she asks, not looking up.

       I force myself to take a deep, shaky breath. My granddaughter does not understand the repercussions of what she’s found. And I intend to keep it that way.

       “They can sting,” I reply, voice miraculously calm. “It’s very painful, and sometimes a sting can even kill you. It almost killed me once.”

       Livia gasps and opens her hands. The bee takes off, making a faint buzzing sound as it zips through the air. She watches it go, her expression falling.

       “It could have killed me?” she asks, a slight quaver in her voice.

       I want to kick myself for my hasty words. Ever since I became Livia’s guardian, I’ve dedicated myself to fostering her sense of wonder, to supporting her bright and quizzical mind. Yet when she made this incredible discovery, my first instinct was to shut her down.

       Fear has made a monster of me.
       The bee circles higher, moving through the orchard in lazy, looping patterns. The late May sun is warm on my face, dredging up memories. As a child, I’d stood inside boxelder bug swarms, held ladybugs in my hand, rolled potato bugs down the slide and watched dragonflies dance over the lake. It was why I studied biology in college, why I spent six years studying the chemical composition of the pollen of Malus domestica – the common apple tree – for my PhD.

       Livia has never experienced these delights; she’s barely even seen bug splats on the windshield. There just aren’t many insects left. This might be her only chance – my last chance – to see these creatures in the wild.

       “Let’s follow,” I say, my knees creaking as I stand. “Maybe it can lead us to its hive.”

       Livia frowns. “Hive?”
       “The bee’s home,” I clarify, “where it lives with other bees.”
        Livia’s eyes widen. “But you said they were dangerous.” I force down the guilt rising at the back of my throat.

“They only sting if they feel threatened,” I say. “Come on!”
       I grab my cane and start down the steps, dragging my stiff left foot behind me. The flies lazily, but it will still outpace me.

       Livia hovers beside me, looking worried. “Go!” I call, “I’ll follow you.”

       Livia nods and dashes off. I follow at a more sedate pace, heading towards the sleek electric motocart I use to survey the orchards. Long after the bee disappears into the blue spring sky, I can still see Livia darting amongst the trees, laughing and jumping as she shoos the bee onward.

       I glide into the furthest area of the northwest corner of the orchard and pull to a stop. These ten acres are out of rotation due to a recent outbreak of apple scab. I set the drones’ programing to apply fungicides, but skip pollination, as the crop would be useless anyway. No point in wasting the serum. Yet as I step from the cart, my breath catches in my throat.

       Bees are everywhere; thousands of them high above us, darting among the gnarled branches, the murmur of their wings a musical backdrop. Livia stands under a tree crowned with blossoms, staring upwards, her eyes darting back and forth as she follows the flight of the bees.

        The smell of the flowers and the wide-eyed innocence on her face remind me of my own adolescence spent in this orchard. For years, the artificially pollenated trees bloomed in abundance, yet produced little fruit. My family had been on the verge of bankruptcy when I made my discovery.

       “Why are there so many?” Livia’s soft voice pulls me back to the present.

       “It’s a swarm,” I say, lifting my face towards the sky. The hum of thousands of wings is nearly deafening. Though I have walked these orchards for nearly eighty years, seen insects and animals my granddaughter could never imagine, I have never seen anything like this.

       I step forward and take Livia’s hand in mine. I learned long ago that swarming bees rarely sting, but I cannot suppress the shiver of fear that runs through me at the sight of so many.

       “What’s a swarm?” she asks, still staring upwards.

       “The bees are looking for a new home,” I reply. “They use the pollen from the apple blossoms to make food, so they want to live nearby.”

       “Then why haven’t they come before?”
       I frown, reaching up to touch a flower petal. It is soft and smooth, so unlike the sticky, sucrose-coated flowers that bloom after artificial pollination. I can’t stop the corners of my mouth from turning down into a frown. In the end, it was my research, my decision to add sucrose to the artificial pollen solution, that improved crop yields and saved the company, allowing our patent to extend beyond apples to stone fruits, citrus, and more.

        “I don’t know,” I say finally.
       My stomach tightens. It is not a lie – not quite – but the beginnings of a hypothesis churn in my mind.
        The diseased section is only a few acres and the artificially pollinated section just yards away. Yet the bees do not cross the boundary, as if an invisible barrier stands between them. The bees will not touch the flowers that have been artificially pollinated.

       I slip my hand from Livia’s – she does not seem to notice as she continues to watch the swarm – heading for the healthy grove. My stiff leg moves awkwardly as I trudge over the uneven ground. Leaning on my cane to catch my breath, I pluck an artificially pollinated flower from a tree without a single bee. Careful not to crush it, I shuffle towards the nearest diseased tree and coax one of its many bees onto an artificially pollinated petal.

The bee takes one step, then another. I can see the yellow pollen trapped in the wiry brushes of its legs as it investigates the stamen. Then its wings turn to blur and it takes off, flying towards the sky. My heart lifts as I watch it go – then plummets as it swerves drunkenly, crashing into the dense grass at my feet. Its wings fall still.

       I turn away from the tiny corpse, bile rising at the back of my throat. It is not the first time I have secretly wondered if our process might harm the bees. Their decline certainly steepened once Hill Pollens became the global gold-standard for artificial pollination. There was a scientist nearly fifty years ago who kept asserting that something about our process was actively harming bee populations. But she was soundly disproved. I spent the next twenty years making sure that any who echoed her accusations faded into obscurity. I now employ thousands of my own scientists who assure me that our process is beyond reproach.

       But I cannot the neglect the evidence before me. The dead bee in the grass, the swarm landing on the diseased, non- pollinated trees. Something about the new artificial pollination hurts the bees. And if anyone found out, Hill Pollens would be ruined.

       “Grandma, look!”
       Livia points to what looks like an oddly thick branch just above her. I hurry towards her, abandoning the unlucky bee’s body, and follow her gaze upwards. It is not a branch, but thousands of bees, one on top of the other. They move slowly, crawling over one another, the hum of their wings almost deafening.

       Taking her hand, I step closer, examining their tangled mass of fuzzy yellow and black bodies. There are mostly worker bees, though I identify a few drones by their large eyes and chubby bodies. The queen is in there somewhere, and for a moment, I imagine searching through the swarm to find her, crushing her swollen thorax between my fingers. But no – there are more dependable ways to eradicate a colony.

       “Look!” Liva beams as a drone wanders onto her open palm.

       “It likes me.”
       I smile, reach out and stroke her dark head, wishing she could remain this innocent forever.
“Don’t you want to hold one?” she asks.

       Swallowing my fear, I reach up and coerce a worker bee onto my palm. My pulse accelerates, my breathes catch. This creature holds my death in its slender body.

       Do it, I think.
       This far out, no one will be able to administer the epinephrine that would save my life. But I am old. My sole heir, the only child of my only son, stands before me, a sense of wonder shining in her eyes. She would never give the order.

       Sting me!

       But the bee simply wanders aimlessly about my palm, its antennae seeking the thick deep folds of my flesh. Livia turns back to the swarm.

       Once her eyes are no longer upon me, I close my fist. The bee’s exoskeleton crushes beneath my fingers. I feel the slight flutter of its wings, and then it is gone. I drop the corpse to the ground and grind it beneath the toe of my orthotics.

        “Come on,” I say, taking her hand, “we should go home.”

       I have trouble following Livia’s excited prattle as I drive the motocart back to our house. She races upstairs, eager to tell her nanny about her exciting find. I do not follow. Instead, I make my slow way to my office, shutting the heavy oak door behind me. I sink into my leather office chair and log in to the interface. Rafael, my head orchardist, appears on the screen, surrounded by his usual bevvy of monitors.

        “Dr. Hill,” he begins, but I wave him away.
       “Ten acres in the northwest corner of the flagship property – they have not been pollinated, correct?” Rafael straightens.

       “Yes, Dr. Hill. Because of the apple scab, we deemed it unnecessary this year.”

       I nod, gripping the arms of my chair with white knuckles. I do not want to give this order. But then I think of Livia, remember the future I want to give to her, and my resolve hardens. I will not allow my legacy to go extinct.

       “Burn it.”

Natalie Dale is a disabled former neurologist with short stories published through "Wyldblood," the "ReAD White & Blue" anthology, "Breath & Shadow," and "Flash Fiction Magazine," (forthcoming October 2021), among others.

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