April 15, 2024

Honey Harvest

by Spencer Orey

“Bugs came in looking for a safe haven, then got so hooked that they’d pay anything to keep the honey flowing. I’d been one of them. I just hoped I wouldn’t be one again.”

It was late when she buzzed into my office in the shrub. This time of the year, I expected grasshoppers, maybe someone left behind in a migration. No such luck today. She was a mantis, same species as me, the kind I’d run away from before the cockroach war changed everything. These days, I didn’t see much reason to run. Better to sit still and let her eat.

“I heard you can find anyone,” she said.

Disappointing. But at least a job would give me something to do. “Sure,” I said. “When’s the last you saw him?”

“Her,” she said. “She vanished last night. After…” She ran a front leg up to straighten one of her antennae. “After she tried to eat me. I want her to know it’s okay. That I forgive her.”

Made sense. Some mantises got the hunger something terrible, couldn’t stop themselves from biting the head off of someone they cared about even when they knew they’d regret it later. Back before the war, I never would’ve understood something like that. Now, I knew we all had it in us to do something monstrous.

“Anywhere you think she’d hide?” I asked. But I already knew where to look. There was only one place any of us went when we messed up so bad that we needed to forget everything. The hive. The one place I never wanted to see again. It was always the hive.

* * *

By the time I glided in, it was late enough that even the fireflies were done flirting. They’d settled onto tall grass stalks, giving a final flickering show to some collector spiders in the shadows who were probably hoping for another chance at dinner.

I scuttled to the door, where two cockroaches accepted my entrance fee and waved me through without any questions. Maybe they still recognized me from the old days, or maybe I still looked hopeless enough to belong in a bad place like this.

Even from the doorway, the sweet smell hit me hard. Here I was, back in the trap, after everything I’d done to stay away. And the hive was one hell of a trap. Most bugs didn’t need to sleep, but staying outside at night wasn’t safe, especially when the weather turned cold. That’s where the cockroaches came in. After the war, when there was nobody left to stop them, they’d colonized a beehive and expanded it into a business. Bugs came in looking for a safe haven, then got so hooked that they’d pay anything to keep the honey flowing. I’d been one of them. I just hoped I wouldn’t be one again.

The front parlor was crawling with flies, most of whom wouldn’t see the sky again. I shouldn’t have blamed them for wasting their short time like this, but I did. Drinking sugar water until your legs curled was no way to live. And that’s most of what I tasted in the air, watered-down honey, dripping down the walls and into the troughs. Bigger bugs were in the back. A few locusts crouched around a trough of what was probably alfalfa honey, based on the flowery spice. I even spotted a wasp, slinking away.

“Ah, the private eye returnsss,” a voice hissed to my side. “What’sss bugging’ ya today? Heh heh.”

Roach. He ran the place. We had bad history together from the war.

“I’m looking for a mantis,” I said. “A dame. Seen anyone like that tonight?”

“Maybe I have, maybe I haven’t.” Roach’s wings twitched. He knew something alright. He always did. “What’sss it to you? Finally looking to get your head bitten off?”

Right, a bite. Just like in the war, when Roach led my friends into an ambush, and the wasps bit off their heads. Nobody had been able prove he’d led them into trouble on purpose. We all suspected the roaches of being malicious, but they kept getting away. Except, when the war ended, it turned out only the cockroaches had survived without taking heavy losses. The rest of us — wasps and mantises and all the other bugs who just so happened to be the cockroachs’ natural predators — discovered we’d had our numbers thinned out. Sure, we were furious, but we were broken. Nobody could fight anymore. Any talk of revenge died in places like the hive, where we all tried to forget what the cockroaches had put us through while we gave them everything we had left. But not tonight.

“Listen up, you larva.” I lunged forward and grasped Roach’s front leg, ready to snap it free. “How about you tell me where she is, and I’ll forget I saw you here tonight.”

“Maybe I sssaw a mantisss back in framesss,” Roach hissed, legs spindling around as he tried to slip free.

I let him go. “Good. Thanks.” If she was back in the frames, things were even worse than I’d suspected. I might even be too late.

“Wait. It’d be a pity to lose a good cussstomer.” Roach massaged his leg. “Surely it can’t hurt if she ssstays a couple more daysss. How about it, old friend?” He reached out with one of his legs, offering me money, a thick roll of bills.

A bribe. A good one at that, more than I was being paid for the job. More than I’d been paid in a long time. Whoever this dame was, she had to be a real high roller to be worth that kind of cash. That or someone was paying to eat a mantis, maybe a frog on the outside. Money like that could buy me a month of the good life. It’d be easy to do as Roach said, to back off and then come pick up whatever remained of the dame’s corpse. But I didn’t need anything else to keep me up at night.

“Keep your dirty cash, Roach.” I scuttled away, past a table of centipedes, all the way to the back wall, where a rhinoceros beetle guarded the doorway to frames. I paid him and went inside.

Most bugs either couldn’t tell the difference between sugar water and orange blossoms or just didn’t care. But anyone who stayed in the hive long enough developed a hard craving for something stronger. And that’s what you could get from frames.

It was a loud place and darker than the main floor. The far wall was packed with bee drones hard at work making honey for the cockroaches to sell to the rest of us. Below the wall, honey dripped down into a trough before it got piped elsewhere for dilution and distribution. But tonight, it wasn’t just bees buzzing. Something else buzzed too. Something familiar. Something bad.

I twisted away as a stinger darted at me from the side. A wasp. I raised my forelegs in defense, ready to strike back.

“Hey you two! Cool it before you anger the drones,” someone called from inside the trough.

“I recognize you from the war,” the wasp slurred at me. She only had one wing but kept buzzing it like she could still fly if she tried hard enough. Honey clung to the sides of her mandibles and her eyes. She’d eaten so much she couldn’t even see straight. I didn’t recognize her. Chances were, we’d never met. But she could still hate my species.

I raised my forelegs higher, ready to slash. It’d be a good fight, just like the bad old days.

The wasp wove to the side, looking for weakness. And as she moved, I saw the bug who’d called out from the trough. It was a beetle, blue shell resplendent against the thick orange of the honey. Next to the beetle was the mantis dame. She was in bad shape, drooping in place, wide-set eyes too heavy. No way she’d last another few days of this. The cockroaches had set her on a path to her death, same as they’d done to the rest of us. My fighting a wasp would just play into their plans. I had to get her out of here.

I lowered my forelegs. “We all did bad things in the war. Things we regret.” Even talking about the war made little memories flash up at me. Stingers. Broken eggs. Cockroaches hissing with laughter. “Right now, I’m here on a job.”

“What kind of job?” The wasp feinted striking at me a few times.

“I came looking for that dame over there. Someone wants her home safe.” I decided to try getting honest. “Someone who loves her. Someone who wants a fresh start.”

“Love, huh.” The wasp’s wing stopped buzzing. “Not a lot of love around here. Not a lot of fresh starts either.”

“Not enough,” I agreed.

I scuttled closer to the trough. The mantis dame had her head lowered into the honey for a long bite. Her legs were already shaking badly. It wouldn’t be long until the roaches fished her out and fed her to whoever was paying.

When she came back up, I said, “Your gal sent me to find you. She wants you home.”

“Home? I don’t deserve a home,” the mantis dame said, voice heavy and slurred. “I tried to eat her. I lost control.”

“No, you almost lost control,” I said. I looked over at the wasp. The two of us, we’d done bad things we couldn’t take back. But this dame, she hadn’t done anything bad yet, just come close. She’d found out she had limits, same as the rest of us, and it’d scared her. I said, “You almost went over the edge, but you stepped back in time. That makes all the difference.”

The dame slurred something I didn’t quite catch, except, “…safer alone.”

“How I see it is, you want to pass your life alone, that’s your business. You can do that after you get out of here,” I said. “But if you run away from too many good things just because you’re scared, you’ll end up like the rest of us, trying to forget your way through a bad night. And trust me, eventually, they’re all bad nights.”

The mantis swayed a little in place. I could see she was almost convinced. Maybe she’d been telling herself the same thing before the honey got to her.

The wasp buzzed closer to her. “Go while you still can. There’s nothing for anyone here but bad memories.”

I offered a foreleg. “Let’s get you back to someone who cares about you.”

For a moment, I thought she’d tell me to leave again. Nothing I could do about that. Sometimes, my pedantic lectures didn’t work, no matter how honest I let myself get. We all still got to make our choices, no matter how bad they could be.

The mantis took hold and stepped one leg out of the trough. I could smell the honey on her, wildflowers, always something special. I remembered my old sweet stupor and suddenly, all I wanted was to climb into the trough myself. But if I did that, the mantis dame would lose her courage. And I didn’t need any more drinking buddies.

We headed toward the door. The mantis stopped, then turned back to the wasp. “You should come too. We can find you a place to stay.”

“It’s too late for me, kid,” the wasp said. She gave me a quick salute, then buried her mandibles in honey. She’d made her choice, as much as I hated to see it. I saluted back.

I said, “Let’s get you home.”

Roach was waiting for us outside of frames. Then I found myself staring into the eyes of the rhinoceros beetle. Up close, she was ugly, sickly white with spots. Before I could tell her to move out of the way, a second beetle slammed into me from the side. I tumbled to the ground.

“Too bad you couldn’t sssee thingsss our way,” Roach said. “Girlsss, let’s give our friend a good long drink, on the house. I’ll take thisss other one to the collector.”

I twisted and slashed with my forelegs, but the two beetles held me with their horns and pushed me to the nearest trough. I kept fighting even as they shoved my face toward a honey trough. They pushed harder, and then I was sinking in. I twisted my head to the side, but that sweet stickiness seeped onto my face, coated my antennae. It was the cheap stuff, thin and runny. Sugar water. And it smelled wonderful. I tried to lift my mandible away, but the beetles pushed my head fully in, and warm honey seeped over my face and into my mouth, my first taste in far too long. I opened my mandibles and took a full bite. Then another. I stopped fighting, and when the beetles relaxed the pressure on me, I pushed myself the rest of the way into the trough.

I started eating the honey. Then I ate some more. I ate for a long time, letting it all fade, losing track of time, losing everything. I’d forgotten this bliss, how memories could fade into perfect empty sweetness.

Then someone ruined it. They pulled my head out of the trough, then pushed me out, onto the sticky ground. The mantis dame. She said, “Looks like you get a fresh start too.”

“Perhapsss we can come to an underssstanding,” Roach said.

She let go of me. I heard a buzzing of wings, followed by a hissing scream. With my vision still blurred from honey, I saw things in little flashes. The mantis dame bit hard into Roach’s head. Far away, a rhinoceros beetle had lowered horns to charge our way across the floor. I had to help, but I was weak and slow. I wouldn’t reach her in time.

One wing buzzed loud. The wasp leaped through the air and came down hard, stinging the rhinoceros beetle in the side. The beetle screeched in pain and slammed into a trough of honey. Flies scattered into the air. Hatches opened around the floor, and hordes of cockroaches came hissing out to keep the peace. Some of the other bugs poked their heads out of the honey in languid interest.

Roach was flailing in the mantis dame’s grasp. His head was gushing fluid from his bite wound, but he’d live. The mantis must have stopped herself from killing him.

She said, “Let us out of here now, or we’ll kill you all.”

My limbs were still sticky and heavy. I could barely stand.

“Let them go!” Roach hissed. “Get them out of here!”

The mantis dame released Roach and grabbed me, pulling me toward the door. The cockroaches made an aisle for us, hissing in anger. The wasp buzzed close with us, darting forward with her stinger whenever a cockroach came too close.

And then we were out in the night. I still wanted to sink into honey, away from all the memories flooding back. But I knew better than to give in. And this time, maybe not all of those memories would be bad. The night was full of predators, but right now, it was a night full of bugs who could still forgive each other. A mantis had forgiven herself enough to try living again, and somewhere out there, her lover was waiting for her to return. Maybe that was enough to earn me another day.


* * *

About the Author

Spencer Orey (he/him) is a writer living in rainy Denmark with his insect-loving family. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and his short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Tales from Fiddler’s Green and Flame Tree Press’s Lost Atlantis anthology. He has a PhD in cultural anthropology, with academic interests in magic, mobility, and media dreams that he loves to weave into stories. You can find him online at www.spencerorey.com or @spencerorey on Twitter and Mastodon.


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