Beside the driveway in late September, I stopped to watch a red-tailed bumble bee pore over some New England asters, bright purple-blue-rayed medallions in tight clusters. He was making his way over each blossom, methodically prodding each dusky orange central disk. He was working very slowly, gathering what nectar he could to make the honey that feeds the larvae in the nest. He did not seem inclined to search out more blossoms, but for as long as I watched, just worked the cluster he was on, making his way on foot from central button across petals to button.
No doubt it was fall that was slowing him down. He didn’t have much longer to live, because the Bombus ternarius workers and drones all die before the snow flies. The young queens overwinter and build new nests in sheltered spots on the ground in springtime.
He crept from flower to flower. His fur was black-and-yellow-banded behind his head, and then swaths of rust-orange on his abdomen, then yellow and black again near the tail. Smoky-colored wings folded over his back. His face and legs probed and gathered with dexterity and diligence. There was clearly intelligence at work. What that intelligence would be like is of course practically unknowable, but he moved with purpose and — do I overstep my own perceptions? — awareness of some kind. What is an old bee at the end of his working life aware of?
Suddenly my vision shifted and I was living in the bee’s world. I saw into the aster disks, the scant sweet moisture there, and the maples, spruces and raspberry thicket a few yards away, the flowers and withered goldenrod were one intensely vivid, yawning, blank enormity. It was a completely fathomless wilderness, the way you’d feel if you had strayed from your little settlement on Mars, the only one, into the pointless red desert. Silent, trackless, stark and vacant. No memory, no path, no mental image, no art. It was utterly empty at its heart. It had no heart.
Somewhere there was the nest. There was no word “forest” because a word would fill it.
I did not become the bee, as some naturalists, like Annie Dillard with her weasel, report, but simply stumbled over the edge into the bee’s world and saw what he sees — saw it for a minute or two or maybe more, I don’t know, until a few words bubbled into my mind telling me what I was seeing, and with the appearance of the words my entry was lost, the empty woods receded, and I was back on the edge of the driveway observing the old bee diligently doing his job for maybe the final time. Whether he knew that or not, I have no idea.