Funny Honey


What is a weed? Just a flower that grows in the wrong place, or something more useful? Many have roots capable of stabilising sand dunes, yet undermine pavements; some have vicious spines, but hold the only water in the baking desert; others light up immaculately manicured lawns with their bright, yellow, shaggy petals before sending out clouds of gossamer seeds to colonise neighbouring gardens.

Bernice's dandelions were certainly the last culprits. Forget about dahlias, daffodils and dicentra. Plants the neighbours tried to eliminate as weeds, she regarded as meadow flowers. Her bees were not interested in the showy, double-petalled hollyhocks that sneered down on her uncultivated plot from next door's garden. Insects evolved side by side with the single petals of bindweed, buttercups and bluebells; and surely the bluebell is a greater wonder of nature than a frilly, pink petunia, whether native to Britain or Spain? Bernice's garden was a wildlife haven and, much to the chagrin of her neighbours, full of nettles, milkweed, stitchwort, knapweed, buttercups, soapwort, cow parsley, and oxeye daisies.

The other suburban gardeners resented that her pollinating insects did not appreciate their salvias, double delphiniums or hanging baskets dripping with begonias, petunias and fuchsias. When Bernice's first hive arrived they fully expected their flowers to be the first they visited. Instead, they spent their time pollinating the fragrant blossom of lime trees lining the street and the buddleia in her freely flowering wildlife haven that seeded their immaculate borders and lawns with dandelions. Eventually curiosity overcame alienation. If Bernice's parents were prepared to allow the 14-year-old nature lover to handle swarms of busy, stinging insects with such confidence, she perhaps deserved a little respect.

And Bernice talked to her bees. Every morning, as the sun rose, she would come out and address the busy troops before going to school. It was not possible to tell what this - slightly strange - teenager was saying to her hives, though one or two neighbours did think it odd that the newest swarm ignored even her wild flowers. Some wondered if these unusually large insects with a flash of flame red on their furry backsides were actually bees. Every morning, after their pep talk from Bernice, they would rise in a neatly formed, furiously buzzing swarm over the local gardens, passing over allotments, and even farmers crops, before disappearing from view. Then they would return just before sunset in exactly the same formation and circle their hive several times before going inside where their frenetic activity sounded like a factory assembly line. Surely these insects couldn't have been making something so benign as honeycombs. The other bees apparently couldn't stand this noisy activity either and left their hives in swarms, which were promptly taken over by the red-bottomed insects.

It wasn't until jars of honey began to appear that the neighbours became persuaded that they were, after all, only bees. How Bernice managed to wrest the honeycombs from the hives of her furious charges and spin it from the honeycombs was a mystery - they must have resented it. It must have been done at the dead of night when they were too exhausted to realise what was happening.

When, one late afternoon, a solemn faced Bernice delivered neatly labelled jars of honey to her immediate neighbours they were accepted gratefully, and with a degree of relief that it hadn't after all been produced by some exotic strain of insect with a venomous sting.

Then night fell and the lights went out. Only then did anyone coming downstairs for an illicit midnight snack notice that the jars of honey were filling the kitchen with a fluorescent glow.

The neighbours, of course, were far too diplomatic to mention the fact and discreetly disposed of the glowing substances down the drain.

As soon as Bernice became aware of the honey's extraordinary properties even her confidence was shaken. Not a young woman who mixed easily at school, she was unable to resist mentioning it to three friends she regularly helped with coursework because they spent more time on their mountain bikes than reading books. Despite their devil-may-care, athletic prowess with two-wheeled machines, Chanel, Denbigh and Robert had always been wary of what was going on behind Bernice's thin-rimmed spectacles. With one blink of her odd coloured eyes she could deal with problems it would have taken them days to solve. They expected her to expound some complicated explanation for the fluorescing honey that her bees had produced, only for her to shrug her shoulders at the mystery instead. If Bernice was baffled by anything, it had to be really astounding.

Now all of them were curious to know where her bees were collecting their nectar.

It would have been impossible to pursue the tightly knit swarm in a car, even if one of her parents had agreed to attempt it, but there were few places a mountain bike could not go.

So, early the next Saturday morning, Chanel, Denbigh and Robert waited on their mountain bikes in the alley at the back of Bernice's garden.

With their customary, businesslike drone, at seven o'clock sharp, the swarm ascended, circled, and then zoomed off towards the countryside. Bernice was right to assume that no car could have followed them. The pursuing mountain bikes bounced over deeply rutted tracks, through gaps in hedgerows, and across uncultivated farmland.

Bernice could not keep up on her ancient bicycle so Chanel phoned to tell her that the bees had descended into a large garden concealed at the bottom of a deep, disused quarry. Bernice pedalled furiously to the location along the lanes and tracks indicated on her smartphone.

Chanel, Denbigh and Robert were tempted to go down and investigate, but had no idea how to handle a swarm of bees that might be annoyed at having three kids on BMXs following them.

When Bernice arrived, she looked down at the large, verdant plot below. It was obvious where the swarm had found its rich source of nectar, so rich they had no need to forage anywhere else. She took out her binoculars from the bicycle's basket. The garden was bursting with foliage and flowers so dense they virtually concealed the non-descript, single-storeyed building at its centre. None of this appeared on Google Earth when Bernice checked, possibly because there was no nearby road for the camera vans to access. The mysterious plot bursting with flower-filled bushes and towering borders should have at least been detected by a surveillance satellite.

There was something very odd going on here and even Chanel, Robert and Denbigh looked apprehensive. Skateboard parks were their natural element, not Kew Gardens.

Bernice did not attempt to offer an explanation. She had the suspicion that this garden glowed in the dark, like her honey. If so, any satellite image might have identified it as a large, illuminated greenhouse.

"What do you want us to do then Bernie?"

Bernice was so engrossed in thought she was barely aware Chanel had spoken.

"Do we go down then?" Robert sounded more enthusiastic.

"It's a research place of some sort," Bernice eventually decided. "You interested in that sort of thing?"

No, none of her adventurous companions had an affinity with science on any level, especially botany, and she could tell that they would rather be testing their skills on the slopes of the ancient quarry.

"I'll go down and let you know what I find."

Chanel, Robert and Denbigh needed no second bidding and were off on their mountain bikes, bouncing over rubble and attempting somersaults into piles of sandy spoil. Bernice paused to wonder if their stunts hadn't already caused brain damage which doctors had not yet detected. Their boisterous, dangerous activity was a mystery to the beekeeper.

She switched off her smartphone to save the battery, just in case it was necessary to phone for a paramedic when one of them inevitably crashed attempting wheelies down the dangerous slopes on the other side of the quarry. It was just as well that her friends were so far away. None of them had learnt the subtle art of keeping secrets and would have been bound to blurt out that Bernice had discovered the portal to another dimension or combustible flowers.

She left her bike to descend on foot to this strange plot in the middle of nowhere and, after pushing through a thick boundary of hazel, was greeted by that familiar buzzing. The bees had recognised Bernice and formed a tightly knit swarm in greeting.

She waved self-consciously. "Hi. So this is where you end up all day."

A sudden, rasping voice came from a thicket of ceanothus. "So they are your bees, then?"

Bernice spun round to see a tiny, elderly woman in a lab coat step out to greet her.

"Is this your... garden... then?"

"Oh yes. I thought it was a very secret garden until now."

"Sorry, but I had to know where they were getting their nectar." Bernice indicated her three companions bouncing about the quarry in the far distance. "Don't worry about them. They don't understand where honey comes from - they're still getting to grips with the birds and bees."

The scientist chuckled. "My name's Batista."

"Er... Dr... Professor? "

"Professor, but you can call me Juanita."

"I'm Bernice."

There was an embarrassed silence, which the bees obligingly filled with their chainsaw buzzing.

Bernice suspected that this scientist was using her swarm to help modify plants to glow in the dark. The project was probably unregulated at best, and downright illegal at worst. The uses such a development could be put to were not immediately apparent but, by the renegade attitude of the older woman, it probably wasn't for the benefit of a supermarket chain.

Whatever the reason, the botanical achievement fascinated the beekeeper. "The plants here are luminous, aren't they?"

"Well you're a sharp one and no mistake."

"How did you manage to incorporate the gene into them?"

"I modified ostracod DNA and spliced it in at the reproduction stages. Took half a lifetime."

"It's brilliant... But why?"

Professor Batista gave an enigmatic smile. "Only ecologists and other scientists seem bothered that the planet's survival depends on plants. The rest of humanity needs reminding that they aren't a finite resource. Like your bees, once they have gone - so are we. If plants glowed like those in Avatar, loggers might hesitate before felling a tree and farmers be less likely to slash and burn away the planet's lungs. If forests no longer exist, we cease to breathe."

The idea was so extraordinary, yet plausible, Bernice could think of no immediate argument against it.

All the Professor needed was for swarms of insects to carry the pollen from her plants across the country.

"How many varieties have you altered so far?"

"Quite a few. Lime was first, but trees take a long while to grow."

"Isn't there a way to directly alter a plant without it having to set seed?"

"I don't know - Is there?"

Bernice hesitated. Her knowledge of botany came from an interest in bees.

The 14-year-old remained quiet for a moment. Professor Batista's experiment was brilliant for the sake of it. It was hardly surprising that it had taken her half a lifetime to manipulate the DNA in the pollen of so many different plants.

"I won't say anything to anyone - promise," Bernice eventually told her.

The scientist smiled. Her young visitor belonged to the generation that would have to deal with the consequences of climate change. "I'm sure you won't."

"How long before your plan starts to have an effect?" asked Bernice.

"It might be working on a modest scale, but how many people would admit to seeing the verges glow in the dark on their way home from the pub?"

"So you think it's already happening?"

"Not too noticeably, I hope. I don't want to be shut down by the protesters against modified crops before I'm ready. If they're prepared to destroy fields of food with the potential to prevent starvation, just think what they might do to this place."

"I don't know about other insects, but my bees seem too happy here to spread your pollen very far."

"They're the ideal pollinators for my present purposes. Once enough plant varieties have been treated, then I'll need hives of more adventurous bees."

The thought of fields of wheat and hedgerows glowing in the night filled Bernice with the sort of euphoria she hadn't experienced since receiving her first book on beekeeping. Though what the wildlife would think of it might be different matter. They wouldn't know whether it was night or day; as if they didn't already have enough to contend with in pesticides. That was something which apparently hadn't occurred to the Professor. Now Bernice knew her path in life. It was bizarre, exciting and had already consumed most of another person's lifetime, though explaining that to a jobseeker interviewer might not be such a good idea.

"Got any vacancies?"

"When can you start?"

"Weekends all right? Got GCEs coming up."

"Good idea. Get qualified. Never know from day to day whether I could get closed down."

Bernice watched her bees busy in the fluorescent flowers. Professor Batista needed a realist like her to help put things into perspective before she managed to illuminate the whole world, from the Siberian tundra to Brazilian rainforest.

"You know, there are quite a few ways of making your research even more useful."


"Your glowing lime trees could eliminate the use for street lights and, if only the pollen of certain species could be targeted, so many societies without access to electricity could carry on being active after sunset."

"Yes," Prof Batista admitted, "you really are a very bright kid, aren't you."