The buzz of bees distracted Ah Ming as he treaded carefully through the overgrown lalang, their heads now thick with white cottony seeds. He shivered, trying to focus on the path. He hated bees ever since he was stung by a stray worker during his army days.
He wondered why he was assigned this case by the Board of Natural Development. He was sure they knew about his fear of bees. Mr Quek, his boss, was probably behind the whole thing. The old bastard hated him.
“Find him and report to me!” Mr Quek probably told his personal assistant who then informed Ah Ming via a polite email message. He was junior staff, a recent addition to the department. His mother told him it was his time to shine.
The old man he was looking for was the last beekeeper of Singapore. The first and last beekeeper, to be exact. A Mr Lim, who volunteered to head the apiculture department about thirty years ago, and was presently stationed at some ulu area in Lim Chu Kang. For a while, bees were the craze and the benefits of bees (and honey) were touted daily and breathlessly in the national papers. The honey worked on everything, the supporters claimed. Health. Skin care. Natural sugar. The Miracle Food. Restaurants and eateries started using honey in their dishes and desserts. Even children sucked on honey sticks and everything was good for a while with a slew of “Eat Honey, Be Healthy” campaigns. Community gardens acquired hives and aunties were taught how to look after bees. Then, like many things in Singapore, the trend died out, the urban hives disappeared and everyone latched on the next latest craze to capture their attention. Released, most of the bees died.
I wonder how Singaporean honey tastes, Ah Ming thought idly. He had never tasted Singaporean honey, even though his mother had urged him to try. Then again, he hadn’t tasted cod liver oil, a staple for children growing up in Singapore. According to mom, he was a picky eater. A bee with golden and black stripes landed on his sleeve and he froze. Just plain froze. It felt like a century before the bee decided that his cotton long-sleeve shirt wasn’t a flower and buzzed away.
His boots sunk into thick mud, a product from last night’s heavy rain storm. Ah Ming lifted his foot irritably, examining the coat of brown gunk. He hated going out-station. The mud was a big reason why he avoided out-station assignments.
He heard the hives before he saw them. A gentle buzzing whispered in the air. Bzz-bzz-bzz.
Huge blue boxes. Five of them. They looked like old-fashioned book cabinets. A strange ghostly figure, clothed in a white protective baggy suit and netted helmet, moved about with a silver cylinder spouting smoke. When it saw Ah Ming approach, it waved a gloved hand and beckoned the young officer forward. Ah Ming walked on gingerly. Bees were flying around, going about their tasks. In a way, he thought, they are like me. A worker bee. Still, he had to curb the wild urge to run away. His nape itched madly, as if remembering the sting and the fever that felt like fire. He craved his safe little cubicle in a building right in the middle of the city. It was an ordeal.
The strange figure was checking a frame heavy with honeycomb. The center of the honeycomb looked dark-brown and moist. Bees clustered there, wagging their rear ends in a rhythmic dance.
“You must be Ah Ming,” a voice came from the helmet, muffled by the net. “Tell your boss that the yield has been dropping. I cannot sustain this any further.”
“Mr Lim?” Ah Ming hazarded a guess.
“Of course, I am,” the voice sounded amused. “Five hives are not enough to produce a lot of honey, if your boss wants to know.”
The strange figure slid the frame back and waddled away from the hive marked NUMBER FIVE. Ah Ming followed obediently. They headed towards a small shed with corrugated iron roofs. Inside the modest-looking shed was a table lined with rows of clean jars. A small centrifugal press stood in dire need of maintenance. Paint was peeling off the sides. At least, there wasn’t any sign of rust.
The strange figure peeled the helmet off, revealing a gnarled face and intense dark eyes. The hair was the color of silver, pressed tight against the temples. Sun-browned skin. The man started speaking, slowly, clearly:
“Apis cerana. Asian honey bees. Damn good workers, but a pest elsewhere. Apis dorsata. Giant honeybee, an aggressive breed, but their honey is priced. My favorite is Apis andreniformis. Dwarf honeybee. Also damn good workers. We use them here, if you care.”
“I know and care, sir.”
“They escaped colony collapse,” Mr Lim continued, picking up a glass beaker. Golden liquid shone in it. He gently tipped the beaker into a clear jar and the honey – glistening and amber-gold and thick – pooled into the jar. Ah Ming’s heart began to beat. He had never seen harvested honey up close. All he knew were pictures taken during his mother’s tour of Brisbane, Australia. The bees – and their stings - were shielded behind clear glass. The honey was already bottled in jars, safe for consumption and for sale. “But, no. No more urban hives. People got stung and they complained. People hated working under the sun and they complained. These five hives are the last domesticated hives. You should know. You sure you care, ah?”
“Sir, I just need to know how much bottles could be produced by end of the month,” Ah Ming swallowed hard. Mr Lim intimidated him. He was like a bee. Focused. Might sting when provoked.
“None! I tell you, none! If you want, only one, okay?” Mr Lim barked. “Look around you. The flowering shrubs and trees are not going to be around for a long time. Tell them to stop turning Lim Chu Kang into some theme park and then we can talk.”
“One is not enough,” Ah Ming blurted out and felt embarrassed.
“Young man,” the beekeeper shook his head sadly. “This is the reality. Bees are also living creatures. Can’t force them to produce honey just like that.”
Mr Lim turned around and busied himself with bottling the jar of honey. Ah Ming stared at his muddy boots. How was he going to phrase this nicely to Mr Quek? He was probably going to get fired.
“Want to taste this?” Mr Lim said, startling him. The old man held a wooden ice scream stick out. A glob of golden honey glimmered on the end pointed at him.
“Try it if you want to know how Singaporean honey is like,” the old man’s voice was suddenly gentle, kindly. “You will understand what I mean.”
Ah Ming took the pre-offered stick and placed it carefully in his mouth.
Sweetness burst on his tongue. Sweetness so intense he almost blacked out. Sweetness that reminded him of sun, of wind and of tree sap. Of laughter, of running in the rain, of singing happily. Of sun-dried pillow cases and clothes he wanted to bury his face in, of children playing under the rambutan trees at Ah Gong’s house. There was no hint of car exhaust fumes or the reek of cigarette smoke. It was pure joy. It was the transformation of nectar, of Singapore’s essence, into a miracle. It was, it was…
“Oh!” He could only exclaim.
“Tell your boss that. I have nothing else to say.” And Mr Lim disappeared into the shed and the interview was done. Ah Ming was left holding the stick. He wanted to keep sucking it to get everything…
How was he going to tell his boss?
Ah Ming walked carefully out of the shed, past the five hives, and up the muddy trail. He heard the buzz of bees and looked up. There were bees flying about a tree, its blossoms like yellow balls. Their tiny brown-yellow forms were a blur as they collected nectar and pollen. He peered closer. There was a slab of honeycomb hanging from one of the branches, heavy like a curtain.