All Purpose Bees – Chapter 1

Autonomous Unmanned Vehicle

The late October sun slipped through the narrow band of windows reminding the basement lab that they did not live among the depths. Ed Ortega squinted, trying to stay deep within the problem on his screen. The glare was an unnecessary distraction from the physical world. He felt the sunlight on his flannelled back. It warmed him, placing his body in that awkward no man’s land between short and long sleeves. Sweat pooled on his neck, causing him to reach back and itch. He felt oil on the tips of his fingers, smearing across the delicate keys of his Power Book. He didn’t need another variable to contend with. Somewhere in the Southern Indian Ocean a sleek submersible was going to surface, deliver a small payload of information, and then ask this basement what to do next.

Ed ran his hands over his jeans, rubbing them dry. He closed his eyes, counted to ten, felt his breath fall back under control. Slow and steady.

Remember he told himself, “This isn’t supposed to work. You have a castoff machine no longer fit for military testing. You got stuck in the leftover lab with a collection of undergrads who aren’t ready to do clearance level work. You did five months of afterhours programming just to get this AUV on the cruise. Everyone who has tried to find MH 370 has failed. You will too. You’ll be lucky if the Aardvark even surfaces.”

Ed’s earpiece crackled. It was WHOI’s mission control center. They kept track of hundreds of autonomous unmanned vehicles prowling the ocean, linking researchers with their robotic minions.

“Ed, it’s Nancy Simpson. The Aardvark is uploading to Iridium 12. We are patching to you.”

“Oh, sweet Jesus. Thank you, Amy. Standing by.”

The quiet lab came alive with the clacking of keyboards. His undergrads were deciphering packets of possible hits, analyzing signatures, trying to narrow thousands of potential sites down to a single one worth investigating. It was a race against time. The initial sweep of the search area consumed 80% of the battery. The longer it waited on the surface, transmitting up and down, the less charge it had to hunt.

“Status check,” Ed commanded.

“I’ve removed all locations matching Ocean Infinity hits. We have three hundred eleven new sites for investigation.” Lee replied.

Ed stood and walked down the row of terminals watching his undergrads in action. He thought back to the Apollo space missions, the inspiration that led him to M.I.T, to this room. He didn’t have to find MH 370 to be successful, he only had to prove his method could do the same work as equipment ten times the cost. That alone would pass the audition, give him bona fides with the Naval Surface Warfare Center. Once he had that, NSF grant money would flow, and he could call his own shots. All he needed was a likely hit, something big enough it could be the Malaysian airliner lost for decades.

“I’ve got something. Scattered over eight hundred meters. Definitive mechanical structures. Aluminum, steel signatures.” Amy Ng’s voice cracked with excitement.

Ed turned around, his hand on the back of her chair, leaning forward to look at the pink and yellow scatter plot taken two thousand miles off the Australian coast. She had something for sure. When the plane hit the ocean, the impact tore it to pieces. No one knew what MH 370 would look like at the bottom of the sea. All Amy’s screen said was that something big, manmade was there. It was worth investigating.

“Good job Amy.”

“Nancy, Aardvark Control here. What’s our coverage window?”

“Three minutes, then you are in a blackout for the next fifteen.”

Ed had a decision to make. As smart as his glider sub was in some ways, it was stupid in others. AUV design was like the Apollo program in so many ways. Small systems, necessary tradeoffs. The Aardvark wasn’t intelligent enough to know where the orbiting Iridium satellite fleet was. While on the surface, it would ping and ping the heavens waiting for an acknowledgement back. Every ping consuming precious battery life.

The team had two and a half minutes to run through the remaining hundred fifty sites. They were capable of clearing half that if they worked sloppy or he could put them all on Amy’s candidate. Get confirmation, study currents, run conservation calculations. Each bit of work increasing the odds the Aardvark reached this target and then surfaced with images to transmit. Ed had seen enough side scans to know that they had something here. Sure, MH 370 could be sitting in the remaining pile, but he wasn’t hunting for grim glory. He was trying to prove an approach, to show the higher ups that he was a capable operator worth putting money behind. A big hit would do that. Airplane or not.

He also knew the odds. There was a slim chance anything better was in the queue.

“Team, stop target investigation. I want you all on Amy’s candidate. Tim, Tania, O’Dwyer put eyes on the data and give us confirmation. The rest of you, I want course plots and site survey instructions prepped and beamed back. We have ninety seconds ‘til transmit.”

The kids snapped into action. He watched them with pride. Hours spent drilling for this moment, and how they moved. Nerves were showing. A calculator knocked over, paper pushed to the side. Wilson mumbling to himself, trying to call up a drift calculation like it was an ancient incantation. Ed could have stepped in, done half the work himself, but there was a second evaluation taking place. That of him as a leader. Everyone in this room was getting their first real shot. These little geniuses would go on to do big things in this small community. If he let them work, they would all look back to him as the guy that gave them the keys to the car. Today’s behavior might one day be what makes him a commander.

Besides, he was the backup. His big brain was already spinning through each of the separate tasks assigned. His eyeball would instantly know if a calculation was on the money or needed a crash correction. His job was to oversee, to trust, but verify. Ed returned to his chair. The sun had passed, casting the room in the blue screen glow of computers. Still, sweat ran down his back.

“Nancy, time check.”

“Forty-five seconds.”

The targeting package came together on his screen. It read like gibberish, condensed into abbreviated code, using a language written by his mentor. Ed walked through it like a mother tongue. The coordinates good, the glide calculations efficient, the survey calling for a classic zigzag. Everything checked out.

“Aardvark Control transmitting.”

He pressed a button and waited. It was in the hands of technology now. Their payload shot from a basement in Cambridge, Massachusetts eighty miles down the coast to Woods Hole. From there it would be relayed onto a military network with priority status, then up to a satellite in temporary geosynchronous orbit over Western Australia. Once in space, it would be beamed down to an eight-inch rubber antenna bobbing in one of the most desolate, dangerous patches of ocean in the world. If it made it there, a twelve-foot, bright yellow fiberglass tube with a motor the size of a fist would flood itself, turn its blades down and head off to hunt ten thousand meters under the sea.

Ed marveled at the impossibility of it.

“We have ACK. Full transmission acknowledged. Over.”

“Excellent news Amy. Thank you, and thank all our friends at WHOI, especially R/V Atlantis. Hell of a job.”

“Good hunting Ed. Mission control out.”

They wouldn’t hear from the Aardvark for three weeks. There was nothing left to do today. The remaining batch would be analyzed next week. After that, they’d go over all the data, possibly second guess this decision, but that was really just killing time. Today was a big success. Ed wanted to take the team out for beers, then he remembered only two were twenty-one. He chuckled to himself, such a capable group, but we can’t trust them with drink.

What a strange world.  

Almond Al

He stood on a cherry picker sixty feet up in the air. Beneath him, almond trees were obscured by huge clouds of dust. The grove was deep in the business of harvest. His was the only face unmasked. Unlike the workers below, he was above the danger. That didn’t mean Almond Al had not put in his fair share. He’d spent plenty of time below driving the truck with the huge forceps. In his day, he had been a true owner operator. Creeping through row after row, shaking trees bare of their bounty. Even then, he refused to wear the mask. It was already too late for Al. Whatever could harm him was already inside him, changing his cells, hollowing his body out.

Almond Al cracked a bottle of Fiji water. The water no longer came from Fiji, it came from Calgary. He’d been up there once to meet a second cousin of his, Alberta Al. The eldest male Nezerjian was always given the name Alexander. There were dozens, possibly hundreds of them now, all named in honor of their first ancestor in the New World. The original Alexander sailed into New York so long ago one could still call it a new world. Now, America was prematurely aged. Run so hard it was breaking down early.

His third wife was in on the joke. Ask around the Central Valley about Elizabeth Whitman-Nezerjian and you’ll walk away with a collection of blank stares. Call her by her new name, Betty Bees and those same faces will light up with affection. Almond Al and Betty Bees spoke for the independents, the family farms that the east coast endowments and hedge funds hadn’t bought out. The couple was beloved for their constant bickering with the Almond Board of California.

There had been a time to sell, before the ground dried up, but they stayed. They stayed when the taxes came. They worked with the State and built support for managed aquifer recharge. They were vindicated when enough storm runoff cycled through the soil to replenish the water table. Between that and the investment in smart drip irrigation, they got past the last big threat, the threat of drought. Afterwards, there’d briefly been a new window to sell, when almonds were acceptable to eat again and demand picked up, but they chose to stay then too. What else was there but these groves, this cloud of dust below the cherry picker? Now they had just enough water, but there were new problems. Always new problems.

There was a time when almonds were in everything including milk. Now, almonds were wrong. To the public they were still water hogs, immoral snacks. As if food could inherit a concept like right and wrong. The sub-continent was dry, millions displaced. How could one eat something that needed a gallon of freshwater in order to grow? Not each tree mind you, each nut. Al hated to think it, but refugees ruined the almond business. It didn’t matter that it was impossible to get water from California to India, or that India was solving its problems by copying California’s solutions. None of that mattered to the modern consumer. So, almonds were out, and crickets were in. They were austere, easily processed, and a cheap source of protein.

Crickets grew in plastic bins stacked high inside warehouses under timed LED lights. There was no rose garden in the center of a cricket factory. Dogs didn’t chase jackrabbits up and down the robot managed aisles. The sterile environments certainly did not invite millions of bees over each February. You wouldn’t find bird shit or field mice there. No one was stashing a little vineyard in a corner of their cricket production facility.

Al cringed every time he saw a carton of cricket milk. It wasn’t right.

He loved the almonds even if consumers no longer did. These trees had given him a second life and he would not abandon them. He could wait for tastes to change or he could die out of favor. Either option suited him. What did not suit him was a world without almonds, and almonds needed bees just like Alexander needed Elizabeth.

Pollination was their problem. Global warming wasn’t kind to honeybees. This thing which led the evening news, caused rioting in Europe, and dominated political debate made Al’s groves too damn hot or too damn wet. Sometimes, like last year, it did both. It was always too damn something since this strange stranger called climate change showed up. The bees didn’t behave like they used to. They were being pushed to their limits out here. A million acres of almonds filled California. Each acre needed two colonies of bees. Each colony had eighteen thousand bees in it. If Al’s math was right, that was thirty-six billion bees. He couldn’t fit that many bees in his imagination. It was as unfathomable as stories from days of old.

There had once been so many buffalo that any idiot with a rifle could fire out a train window and kill one. We almost wiped them out.

There had once been so many cod fish that the Mayflower got stuck when sailing into Plymouth harbor. No one has caught them commercially in a decade.

There were once so many passenger pigeons that their migration blocked the sun out for days. Then we killed them all. Western world, western stories, western death. It was coming to a climax.

Al took another sip of water. His thoughts filled with billions of pigeons, bees, buffalo and cod. As a little boy he went back to his village once, the ancestral one, not the mall at Glendale Village. Before the Great War no one needed lights at night because the stars did the job. Trillions of stars hiding a million billion worlds. That night he sat on a distant cousin’s rooftop and imagined Armenians in space driving Cadillacs across the solar system. If this world was once covered in buffalo and tigers, if the seas were once filled with cod fish and whales, if the television was once filled with Kardashians, then somewhere out there in deepest space there was a world where they all still roamed free.

He’d turned philosophical in his old age. A part of him worried about dementia, a part of him worried about wet brain, but mostly he was happy to be Almond Al now. In his old life as Adamant Al, he carried a custody battle on four years too long. Had he settled, swallowed his pride, he might have a relationship with his progeny, Abandoned Al and Dina. Instead he had second-hand pictures of grandchildren he’d likely never meet.

He looked up to the sky and held his hands out in prayer.

“Dear God, allow this operation, this land, this entire nutty Valley to continue to make copies of nuts to fill up copies of empty snack bags. Grant us your abundance. Grant us the absurd, grant us the beautiful. Help us carry on, help us to continue to deliver your bounty. Bless us and help us to overcome the challenges of the earth and the soil. Grant us prosperity so that we may be fruitful and continue to multiply. Dear God, I pray for the souls of Abandoned Al, Alberta Al, Alchemy Al, Alcoholic Al, Alabaster Al, and Air Force Al. All copies of copies of copies of your servant in the new world, Alexander Nezerjian. We honor the soul of our ancestor, the first professor of applied mathematics at Rutgers University. Help us to carry on, to carry our line of Armenians into space and beyond. Let us fill worlds, fill galaxies. Let us light up the void in your name. Grant us life everlasting through the continuance of our genetic code. Amen.”

It might be the sun making him crazy. It might be the pesticides. He didn’t care. He was happy as this version of himself. It was 2:00 PM and the stultifying afternoon heat was getting to the seventy-two-year old. The staff didn’t need him in the groves. Hours like this up on the platform were why he had skin cancer cut from every part of his body. Drones could do the job, but he liked to watch the work from above with his own eyes. Only now, he’d had enough for the day. He’d prefer to come down. His managers, Marta and Jacob, could easily finish on their own, but that would disrupt Betty’s ritual. She needed space to herself in order to create space for the two of them. Nothing Betty hated more than Al putzing around, sticking his big nose into bowls while she was prepping for their afternoon unwind. He would have to hang around the fields for another hour, if not their golden time on the deck would be soured. Sure, he could hide in the office and pretend to work, but he had gotten up at 3:00 AM this morning. All business had been handled well before sunrise.

He turned away from the operations below, towards the hill in the northeast corner of their property. He trained his binoculars on the front deck and watched as his love opened the awning and took the tarp off their outdoor living room. It rained so rarely in the summer that they kept a pair of recliners on the deck. Between them was a dark carved mahogany table where an hour from now Betty would lay out a sumptuous spread of hummus, olives, cheese, honey, dates, dried apricots, and of course, almonds.

They would pair that delicious board with a bottle, possibly two, of rose they kept in a small fridge under the table. The same serving tray, the same matching his and hers goblets, day after day, year after year. The routine molded into the shape of the recliners as their aging backsides filled out season after season. They lived for the ritual, to lay back, relax, and enjoy the Central Valley bounty. After a spell, Al feeling refreshed and a little buzzed would stand up, take her perfect feet in his hands and massage away the hardness caused by years on her feet. Betty would pour herself a second glass and finally relaxed, start to update Al on the progress of her search. He would rub the balls of her heels, watching her polished pink nails, waiting for the tension to release and her toes to curl, all the while listening, keeping his ears and mind on her. She would tell him of calls with labs, of online forums, of a beekeeper she connected with in Central Asia. All promising, but never moving forward fast enough for Betty.

Finally, the ache would creep past his fingers and into his wrists. Al would be forced to put down the feet he loved so much and return to his recliner. Betty would fill his goblet up and they would watch the hummingbirds work the deck garden until the sky turned a cloudy crimson and Al fell asleep outside, dreaming of an immortal almond grove floating in space.

He snapped out of his daydream as dust filled his eyes and his chest coughed, filled with mucus that had been building all afternoon. He loved this place so much. He loved Betty so much. Today when her eyes would flutter and toes open mid-massage, Al would tell her that she was right. They had to go for broke. They had to future proof the almond grove. They were going to make it last forever or lose everything trying.  

Bee Broker Blues

Betty put the office phone down. She looked at it for a moment, then looked out the open garage door at the neat and tidy groves stretching to eternity. Her face scrunched, then relaxed. She slowly exhaled, her mind counting backwards from five. Her nails ricocheted off the hollow metal of the desk. Tap, tap, tapping, echoing like miniature gunfire. Betty picked up a tennis ball and gave it a good squeeze. Scamp, their border collie, perked an ear up. She thought he was dead asleep.

The soiled green ball launched fifteen feet across the converted garage. It pitter-pattered across the blacktop before disappearing over the ledge, rolling fast down the steep driveway. Scamp was up and after it in a shot. She watched his black and white mottled fur blur out of view. She yanked the receiver off the phone and opened the bottom drawer of her desk for a cigarette.

She stood on the edge of the garage, her heels on the polished concrete, the balls of her feet on the hot rough asphalt. A plume of smoke rose up from extended fingers. It wrapped itself around the carbon in the air, clinging to the tiny glimmers of dirt that mingled with their atmosphere. Scamp approached her, submissive, his head low, tail down. She gave him a rub behind his ears, and he dropped the ball. Betty’s toes pulled it towards her and in a swift motion her foot scooped underneath it. With a striker’s touch she lofted it high in the air and dropped it right onto the roof of their Chevy Blazer. Scamp knew this game. The SUV was angled so the ball would go in one of two directions. If he guessed right and caught it before it fell, he’d get a treat. If he guessed wrong, well he’d have a tennis ball to gnaw on.

Betty flicked ash. The pack was stale. She hadn’t needed a smoke in a while. The heat from the glowing ember radiated down her fingers. The foul smell attaching itself to her skin. She flicked the butt away disgusted, not with her decision to smoke, but with how little it did for her. She thought about plugging the phone back in, digging deeper into her contact list. If she worked hard enough, she could scrape together some halfhearted commitments. Brokers who’d promise to keep her in mind. She also knew that if she could find those bees then the Van Kleets, the Diamonds, and TIAA AG would as well. They wouldn’t be enough anyway. That far down the list was nothing but amateurs with a hive or two to toss on a pallet. Insurance required two colonies per acre. Those numbers added up. Their spread needed professional pollinators.

They were getting squeezed. Half of it made all too much sense. 85% of the country’s commercial bees came here in February. Truck after truck of almond pollinating mercenaries. Bees don’t wake up from the winter until January. Poor little critters barely back in action and then called upon to do the biggest job of the year. The last couple winters the die off had been worse than usual, and it had already been bad. There were too many groves and not enough bees to go around. Simple enough problem, the solutions beyond complicated.

They had made it through this year by cashing in her chits. Years of harmless flirting, Christmas baskets, and sponsoring little league teams used up. She understood that next year was all business. It had to be for the beekeepers. Demand was white hot, and they couldn’t keep their product alive like they used to. Those guys had to cash in. They had to make their money now. It could be their last hurrah. If it was, then the almond business was in big trouble.

What Betty didn’t understand was the other half. Even if she matched the market, brokers were telling her it wouldn’t matter. Next year would be $400 per colony and the big players would go higher if they had to. They’d take losses to ensure they got their fill. That didn’t make sense. Sure, a vertical operation like Diamond had supermarket shelves to hold down, but the hedge fund guys? They flexed depending on the market. Their play should be to back off and sit the season out. She’d watched those stooges on the Almond Board for years now. They were simple creatures who listened to a calculator. Cornering the market, no matter the cost, wasn’t a calculator move. It meant their boss’s boss was up to something. There was a new play in motion, something was going on.

Betty needed more information. She needed to know if their land was being targeted or if they were caught up in something bigger. Consolidation was nothing new. Squeezing the independents was nothing new, but now seemed an odd time for it. Almonds were out of style, bee colonies were barely holding on, and she didn’t see the exurbs creeping this way. If there was a better crop to switch to, everyone would be on it. There are no secrets when it comes to planting. Something was off.

Scamp barked at her, the tennis ball between his paws. She envied the joy he took from this Pyrrhic play, but she had a call to make. She looked down at him, then back to her decapitated office phone. The collie begged with that high whiny growl. He added two short yips and a bark for emphasis.

“You want a good chase?” she asked, then launched the tennis ball over the first dip in the driveway. It landed on the second hump and bounced out of view. Scamp sprinted off. The ball would find a hole in the dense wall of bougainvillea, maybe run past that into the scrub brush. Scamp would come back stuck with burrs and brambles, but he’d be gone long enough. She pulled her mobile out and called their neighbor, Jimmy Ortega.

“Jimmy, it’s Betty. I need a couple minutes.”

“Betty, I’d give you all my minutes. You just let me know when you’ve grown tired of Al.”

She laughed, that ship sailed a long time ago. “Quit pining and come over for dinner tonight.”

“I can’t. Darts league kicks off. Come by the Bull and I’ll buy you a round.”

“I’ll be asleep by then. You’re the only farmer I know that doesn’t sleep.”

“I’ll sleep when I’m dead. What do you need dear?”

“Information. You got your bees lined up for next year?”

“Half done. I’m going with Kensington out of Bismark. He’s doing Wilson and has some spare capacity.”

“You and Wilson are doing business again?”

“I didn’t say that. I said Kensington is giving me his leftovers. He wants to keep his bees close. I’m still short on colonies. You got a line?”

“No. Diamond bought out our usual guys. Locked them in for three years. Paid half upfront.”

“That doesn’t sound right.”

“I’m hearing a lot of it lately. Long term deals are the new normal Jimmy. We might need to pool some cash and step on up.”

“You know how tight it is Betty.”

“And you know what having no bees means.”

Betty heard a can opening. She checked the clock. It wasn’t even eleven yet and Jimmy was in the beers already.



“Go easy on that. You said you had darts tonight. Try to make it there.”

“It’s seltzer. Don’t worry about Jimmy. I’ll talk to the guys tonight, see what they have to say. Everything is more money than I have, why should pollination be any different?”

“We’ll get through this. We always do.”

“Damn right. Tell Al I’ll see him for breakfast.”

“Sure thing. Take care Jimmy.”

Scamp was back. She looked down at him, stickers hanging off his fur. Her fault she knew. He’d get a good brushing later, but it could wait. Betty turned her back to him, walked into the garage and hit the clicker. The door shut between them, leaving the dog on the outside. A moment later obscenities echoed off the inside walls. He picked his ball up and walked over to the welcoming shade.