By Bren MacDibble
A story about family, loyalty, kindness and bravery, set against an all-too-possible future where climate change has forever changed the way we live. Peony lives with her sister and grandfather on a fruit farm outside the city. In a world where real bees are extinct, the quickest, bravest kids climb the fruit trees and pollinate the flowers by hand. All Peony really wants is to be a bee. How To Bee is a beautiful and fierce novel for younger readers, and the voice of Peony will stay with you long after you read the last page.
Extract reproduced with permission, from How to Bee, by Bren MacDibble (Allen & Unwin Children’s Books, April 2017)
The New Bees
Lessons start on the speakers. Urbs don’t like that we farm kids are too busy to get educated, so lessons get played over the speakers while we work.
Today’s lesson’s just for us. It’s about the history of the bees. Not us. The real ones they used to have thirty years ago before the famines.
It’s about the history of the bees. Not us. The real ones they used to have thirty years ago before the famines.
I think they looked like pests. Not the kids who kill pests but the actual bugs. They flew on little wings like some pests from flower to flower to collect nectar to make something sweet like sugar to share with people. ‘Honey,’ the speaker says over and over, like honey was the whole point of bees, not this job I’m doing now.
I don’t know what honey tastes like. Gramps knows. He says, ‘Sweet like honey,’ sometimes. When the real bees flew from flower to flower, they did this job. One tiny bee could do the work of twenty kid bees every day. And the speaker says there used to be millions of them.
I think all the bees went away coz they looked small like pests. Before the famine, farmers didn’t have enough farm kids to catch the pests so they sprayed poison on the pests, but the poison didn’t know which was bees and which was pests.
Scientists still have some of the little bees and they say one day they’ll bring them back to work on the farms.
I don’t want the bees to come back. I want to be a bee. Coz Mags and me is farm kids, and we can stay in our shed with Gramps and we get food enough for all of us even though Gramps can’t work much no more, except for packing time. Everyone works like a dog at packing time. Little or old, there’s so many jobs, everyone works.
I want to be a bee. Coz Mags and me is farm kids, and we can stay in our shed with Gramps and we get food enough for all of us even though Gramps can’t work much no more . . .
Before the famine, Ma was little and lived with Gramps in the city with the Urbs. Life was bad, there was no food, and no shed to live in. When the farms came to the city and asked them if they wanted to work just for food and a place to build their shed, they came on the buses with the other people who were tired of living in the streets, and being hungry, and being attacked while they slept.
Ma works back in the city now, coz she says if we don’t make some cold hard cash we’ll be living in a shed forever. But I like our shed. I like the trees. I like our chooks. If I get chosen to be a bee today everything will be super-cherries.
I jump down and run to the next tree. Pomz is just ahead of me. She looks over her shoulder and scowls a face like a dried apricot that I’m catching her.
There’s five trees each in our rows, and when I get to my last tree, there’s not enough stamen powder in my pouch to cover the feathers properly. I can pretend, but it’s important to get powder on every flower, that I know for sure. If the last tree in my row has no fruit in a few weeks’ time, Foreman will be telling me all about it and asking for my bee vest back.
I run two rows down where AJ’s in his fourth tree. ‘I’m out and I’ve got one more tree!’ I tell him, holding up my pouch. He holds out his and lets me dip. He’s a good friend.
‘Go! Go!’ I tell him and he goes back to work.
Pomz is already in her fifth tree. Foreman’s watching us both. We’re the leaders. He seen me reload from AJ’s pouch. He’ll guess I spilled.
I scramble into the tree and get to work, touching each of the flowers gently.
I jump down just after Pomz and we race to Foreman. We arrive together coz I’m faster at running.
Foreman nods and puts Pomz first in line and me behind. That don’t mean nothing, I tell myself.
AJ races the girl from row three and beats her to stand in line behind me.
Being first or second doesn’t mean you’re instant bee. Foreman has to like your style. You have to be gentle to the flowers and branches and not clumsy. With four of us done, Foreman blows his whistle and the other pests run up from their rows to hear who has won. It was one of us four. AJ pats my back. He thinks it’s me. I hope it’s him as well, not Pomz, coz she’s too heavy and mean.
Being first or second doesn’t mean you’re instant bee. Foreman has to like your style. You have to be gentle to the flowers and branches and not clumsy.
Foreman gets out two new black-and-yellow stripe vests. ‘The new bees are…’ He stops and looks at us all. Me especially. I think my heart is gonna slide out my mouth. ‘Pomegranate and Applejoy.’
I turn around and give AJ a quick hug. I don’t let him see my face. ‘Yay, Aaj,’ I say but my voice is croaky. I run.
I get to our shed and slam right into Gramps and I can’t tell him what happened coz all I can do is gulp at air and slap at my wet cheeks.
‘Shh,’ he says. ‘Just too young. Next time.’ He hugs me tight as he can for a moment, my wet face buried into his smoky shirt.
I am too young. I’m not ten, but I kept up with Pomz and AJ who are. If Pomz hadn’t tripped me and made me spill the pouch I’d be first. But she did that coz she knew I was lying about my age. Age is stupid.
Mags is never gonna bee. And with me and Mags growing and needing more food for us and Gramps, I have to bee soon. Gramps pats my back until I can breathe properly again.
Mags is never gonna bee. And with me and Mags growing and needing more food for us and Gramps, I have to bee soon.
‘You and Mags are the best pests the farm’s ever seen,’ he says. ‘You get back out there and show your spirit. Bees gotta have spirit. Next time they need a bee, Foreman’s just gonna call you, straight out.’
‘Mags and the chooks is down in pears today,’ Gramps says and turns me around and pushes me off.
I wipe my face on my sleeve and walk down to pears. Mags looks surprised to see me. ‘Peony,’ she says like she’s breathing out my name. My chooks cluck around my feet. They don’t care I’m still a pest after I told them I’d be a bee. They’re probably happy. More food for them.
Mags points down the row. ‘I’m going that way,’ she says. I pull my skewer out of my vest and check the ground for pest holes, then the trunk, then I scale the branches looking for sap suckers. I find some caterpillars, pluck them off the leaves, cluck to the chooks and drop the caterpillars down to them. The chooks dive on the squirming pests.
I work two rows with Mags before I can tell her. ‘Pomz tripped me and I fell out the tree,’ I say.
Mags leans back against a trunk, wipes her hair from her face and nods. ‘I knew it was something.’
‘I ran out of powder and had to get some from AJ. Boz saw me and probably thought I spilled it being clumsy,’ I say.
‘You’s never clumsy,’ Mags says.
‘Pomz and AJ got bee,’ I say.
Mags thinks for a while. ‘They’s good. Not good as you, but.’
I take a deep breath and go back to looking for pests. Kids are the best at pest catching, small hands, good eyes, fast and good at climbing. Me and Mags with our five chooks, we’re a good team. The chooks keep us fed with eggs, all from the pests we feed them. I dunno how people fed chooks from before when they poisoned the pests.
The farm’s full of circles. Bees, flowers, fruit. Pests, chooks, eggs. People, bees, flowers, fruit, pests, chooks, eggs, people…all overlapping circles. I don’t understand how it went before the famine. Poison? That’s like cutting the circles right through the middle. The circle can’t go nowhere but a dead end. No wonder the little bees stopped working and left us to starve.
The farm’s full of circles. Bees, flowers, fruit. Pests, chooks, eggs. People, bees, flowers, fruit, pests, chooks, eggs, people…all overlapping circles.
When the sun gets low, Mags and me follow the chooks home to our shed. Gramps has scavenged apricots from the pulp bin, cut off the bad bits and has some apricot slices waiting for us.
All the good fruit goes to the Urbs in the city, but they won’t take fruit with marks on it. So as soon as the fruit appears, adults put paper bags around the fruit while it grows, to keep off the birds and pests and flies. Apples cost loads, so none of us farm kids ever had a whole apple to ourselves. Just bits from the pulp bin on its way to be apple juice. Fruit is my favourite thing in the whole world.
Apricot slices is a treat to make me feel better but none of us say that.
How to Bee
By Bren MacDibble
Published by Allen & Unwin