For the latest competition you were invited to submit a short story entitled ‘The Last Bumble Bee’.
The buff-tailed bumblebee, Bombus terrestris, was once voted Britain’s favourite insect, and this challenge seemed to strike a chord, inspiring stories that ranged from the topical to visions of a near-future of drone pollinators and enforced entomophagy. Congratulations all round. The winners, printed below, earn £25 each.
As B. came buzzing over the common, he noticed that he was alone.
Where were his erstwhile friends? he wondered idly. They seemed to have packed up their hives and vanished, although some, he realised, had switched sub-genus, and were describing themselves as rumblebees, jumblebees, even zomblebees. Very discombobulating. Were they really of a different stripe?
Once they’d all been on his team, up to their thighs in delicious honey. They’d been on the B-team. Even the Queen. He thought fondly of that great day when she had invited him to partake of royal jelly.
Below him he saw ants massing. They were rightly called eusocial, even if their head emmet, a formica rufa, was a bit strange. A whiff of nectar distracted him. Ah, larkspur! Pretty! He dived away for a casual flirt. Who could care, on this glorious morning, that he was the very last bumbler?
Derek woke from a vivid dream: he was tucking into a rare steak, french fries and a salad garnish. After all these years, why were these dreams tormenting him? It had been so long his children didn’t know what meat was, nor his grandchildren. His thoughts drifted to the days of dining out, selecting tempting dishes from the menu, consuming them with relish. Nowadays it was a quick walk to the corner café and very little choice.
‘Is that all you have? Nothing but insects?’
‘We prefer to call them hexapods, sir.’
Derek studied the display. ‘I’ll have a few grasshoppers, and’ — his eye fell on a dried, furry morsel at the back — ‘a couple of those, please.’
‘Sorry, sir, that’s the last one.’
‘’Fraid so. Climate change. Wiped out the species.’
Derek groaned. ‘The last bumble bee!’
‘We prefer to call it a bombus, sir.’
The laboratory gleamed too brightly, blond with false hope. ‘Course we can do it,’ the Prime Minister spluttered enthusiastically. ‘Do or die, nothing to it, existing technology, best that Britain can offer, leading the world, showing the way.
What’s its Latin name again?’
‘Bombus…’ began the Professor.
‘Bomb us! Yes, but never knocked the stuffing out of us! Dunkirk spirit. We’ve got what it takes — well, you have. Bee crisis? — piffle, show the EU, Britain’s bees rule the waves again. Not waves. Whatever bees do. Pollinating, lots of it. Sex. Can’t see what stopped them.’
Nonsense. The US knows what’s what. Can’t be that. You’ve got the last… er… er…’
‘That’s it. Make some more. DNA and all that. Primus inter pares. We can go it alone. Didn’t try hard enough. Show the EU — no deal with the bee or else. Do or die. End of October all right?’
I’m a completionist. Otherwise, I would never have started that crazy Seven Summits thing, climbing the highest peak on each continent but, me being me, in alphabetical order. So, there I was, near the end of my quest, in the sublime cold of Mount Vinson, Antarctica — white snow, white sky, black rock — when I spied a painterly dash of scarlet. Closer up, it was a person: closer still, a dead person. Turned out this Webster guy was a much greater completionist than me. I found his final note, the childish scrawl of a gloved hand. He’d wanted to collect a specimen of all 250+ bumblebee species and lacked only the impossible, legendary Antarctic Bumblebee. There it was, in a little plastic tube, as lifeless as he. They called it Antarctobombus websteri in his honour. I call it the Last Bumble Bee.
I’m buzzing about the hedgerows on the edge of a wheat field, lumbering through the air, when a crop sprayer descends, dousing the other members of my nest in poison. They die in agony. I don’t escape unscathed, either. The pesticide residue drifts across the wheat field, disabling and downing me.
Unaffected by the poison, the mechanical bumblebee drones continue with their pollination missions.
Footsteps approach. The ground reverberates beneath me. A human, dressed in jeans, T-shirt and a face mask spots me. She’s one of the scientists studying mechanically pollinated crop yields.
‘Hey, Chuck!’ she shouts. ‘I’ve found a live bumblebee. I thought they were all extinct.’
She bends down, gingerly picks me up by the wing and places me in one of her crop sample test tubes.
‘If they don’t have bumblebee DNA in the extinct animal database,’ she tells Chuck, ‘I’ve just made myself a small fortune.’
No one called it the last. It was the Ultimate Bumble Bee we badgered our parents to see. Our expectations were of something humongous, our favourite word that summer. Being whispered through one antechamber after another by an animatronic Attenborough raised our expectations ludicrously. Being children, however, we were soon all whine and fidget, boredom catalysing anticipation as we ignored the didactic signage and stormed the Ultimate’s habitat, trampling flowers, flailing at bushes to flush the elusive creature out. Several of us cried, one was sick, none of us saw the bumble bee except on the souvenir video they emailed us much later. It hovered about, a stray yellow and black pixel that might have been added in post-production to our scenes of mayhem. This was our first great disillusion. What a swizz, we complained. None of us even got stung. ‘One of us did,’ Dad harrumphed, showing his empty pockets.
Your next challenge is to submit an extract from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Brexiteers. Please email entries of up to 16 lines to email@example.com by midday on 14 August.