Amid lightly rolling hillsides where the first green of the young spring crops were interspersed with fields of sheep, the little yellow car made its way along a ribbon of road wending between them until it finally pulled up to the apiary in question, part of a neatly kept small farm. A simple wooden sign read Byrne’s Bees, with a painting of a bee and honeycomb beneath it and a secondary placard swinging beneath advertising goat’s milk for sale. The little yellow house was looking exceptionally picturesque in the sun, framed as it was with the early spring blossoms of apple and plum trees.
Introducing themselves as being there to inspect the bees and to see if they could find out anything about the recent honey thievery, they were quickly welcomed into the cozy little back kitchen and seated at a small wooden table spread with bright oilcloth and accented with, most appropriately, a crock of honey and a partially melted beeswax candle.
“Now, have you had anything to eat?” the woman, Mrs. Byrne, asked, having already customarily inquired after their health, commented on the weather and delivered a piece of neighborhood gossip that meant nothing to them. “I’ve some scones left that would go down well after a long drive like that and I’ll make you up some sandwiches in just a bit.”
“Thank you,” the Doctor said, accepting the plate she passed to him. “We won’t be in your way for too long. Where were your bees located when the honey was taken?”
She turned from the sideboard where she’d been fetching a jar of jam to go with the scones. “Well, you get right to business, don’t you now? But that’s all right, that’s all right. I just don’t mind a bit of a visit and I forget sometimes that other folk are in more of a hurry than I am. It’s just off to the north side of the apple orchard there,” she gestured with the jam still in hand. She put it down in front of him and popped off the lid. “Though they’ve been moved down a bit since then. I penned up the goats so they shouldn’t be a bother, they keep the grass down around the trees you know. Oh goats. Cheese,” she said, reaching to add a pot of soft farmer’s cheese to the pot of jam.
“Have you been a beekeeper for long?” Jo asked politely, reaching to snag a scone before the Doctor ate them all. She had learned she had to be quick around him or go hungry.
“My mother’s family was from up near Conwy,” Mrs. Byrne said. “Some of the finest beekeeping in the country there, you know, honey runs in the blood.”
“You must be very proud of that,” Jo observed, having no idea what was being referred to and thinking the analogy sounded odd. She tried to be pleasant.
“Have you ever been to the Honey Festival there?”
“Well, you’ll have to, dearie, no one who has any love of bees should be missing that one. Now, did you bring your kit?”
“You can’t go out in that little dress. Pretty as a flower but the bees will go right down those boots and get themselves stuck, poor little things. You don’t have your bee clothes with you?”
“Oh! Um, no,” Jo said, shifting her feet in horror at the very thought.
She patted Jo’s hand. “Well, don’t you worry. You can borrow some of mine, just a tick!” She bustled down the hall.
Jo took the opportunity to snag a second small scone from the plate, spreading it with the jam. “She’s a bit of a talker, isn’t she?” she said in an amused undertone.
“Lonely people sometimes are,” the Doctor observed, popping nearly half a scone in his mouth and enunciating around it. “By the look of things I expect she’s a widow.”
“Why does she think we already know about bees?”
“The cover for UNIT. She’s more likely to be accepting of experts in bees, than investigators of alien incursions. And I do know something of them, so I think we can manage.” Having rapidly finished the scone, he stood, eyeing the door to the back yard.
“You can maybe, but what about me?”
“Here you go, dearie,” Mrs. Byrne called as she came. “This is one of my old ones, but it’s clean and should fit you, you’re so close to my size.” She set a small bundle of tan cloth on the table, thankfully missing Jo’s reaction to being thus compared to such a round woman. The beekeeper eyed the Doctor up and down. “But my bits and bobs won’t work for you, now will they?” she chuckled. “Wait a minute, wait a minute, I have just the thing.” She pattered back down the hallway towards the bedroom.
Jo picked up the floppy veiled hat. “I guess if it keeps the bees out…” she said.
“At least it’s simple to dress the part,” the Doctor said, shaking out the matching light coverall and handing it to her. “You aren’t allergic to them, are you?”
“No, but I can’t say I like to be stung.” Jo took the coverall and after a moment, gingerly climbed into it. As expected, it was a too big around but at least the length worked. She wrapped the cloth belt around and knotted it so it wouldn’t be so baggy.
“Now, there’s a tin smoker in the shed there if you need it,” the beekeeper called as she bustled back in from her bedroom again, another set of clothing folded over her arm. “The matches are right beside it. You know how to use one? Of course you do. And here, this set was my husband’s, God bless him, and he was a long man like you. It should fit.” She patted the Doctor's arm as she laid out another coverall, hat and gloves set on the table.
“I don’t need anything, Madam, I assure you. Bees don’t bother me at all.”
“Are you quite sure? At least take a hat,” she said, stuffing it into his hands.
“I really don’t need it, but thank you,” he replied politely.
“Go on, put it on!” she insisted. “It won’t muss up your curls.” He blinked as she took it back out of his hands and with an expert twitch, fluffed the veil open and jumped up on her tiptoes to pop it over his head.
Jo stifled a giggle behind her hand as he apparently decided the best way out was to simply graciously allow it, stooping because she was so determined to help him with it that she was hopping up and down around him like a little apron-bedecked hen. He finally straightened, adjusting the strings.
“There,” she was saying with satisfaction. “Now at least you won’t get them in your hair. My man never did like them in his hair, as long as he had hair, that is.”
“I’m sure that he appreciated your attention to the matter. Meet me in the orchard as soon as you’re ready, Jo,” he said and with a small bow to their hostess, quickly went out the screened kitchen door and into the back garden. They could hear him singing quietly beneath his breath as he strode away. The two women watched him through the window, following the little brick pathway around the sunny cutting-flowers then walking towards the apple-trees. He lifted a bright burgundy velvet arm invitingly and tiny golden motes of bees came to settle on it.
“That one’s a natural bee-keeper, he is,” the lady said with deep approval. “The bees know a good man when they see one. Do the two of you keep many back at your home?”
Jo had bent down to double and triple-check that her pant hems were well tucked into her boots. She looked up with surprise. “Oh no. I mean, I just have a flat, myself. I can’t even keep my houseplants alive, I’m gone so often.”
She tut-tutted. “I’m sorry dearie. You got along so naturally, I thought he was your husband.”
“Oh no! No, no, I’m not married,” laughed Jo, a little embarrassed at the matron’s scrutiny of her hands, which were, as usual, covered with rings.
“All those rings and no husband?” the lady said and shook her head, clucking her tongue in good humour. ”Ah, girls these days. Is he?”
“What, the Doctor?” Jo said with an honest laugh that seemed to indicate it was ludicrous to even consider. “No.”
The woman leaned her comfortable bulk against the wooden table and wiped her hands on her apron, looking out the window at the colours of the garden again. “My husband, God bless him and keep him, was a fair hop older than I was. Oh, how my mother carried on when we were married, you would think I was one of those terrible girls you read about in the papers, you know the ones I mean. They marry old rich men and wait for them to die.” She chuckled, looking up at the kitchen lamp, lost in memory. “Why, there were times we barely had two coins to rub together, but we were happy. We were happy. He was a natural gardener, you know. And we kept bees.”
Jo smiled at her, honestly touched. “That’s very sweet,” she said. “I’m sorry he’s gone, though. That must be quite hard for you.”
She brushed it off. “Oh, it was a long time ago now. I do well enough here, we countryfolk watch out for one another. And goodness knows I’ve plenty to keep me busy!” She blinked, her eyes focusing as she returned to the present and suddenly made shooing motions with her hands. “Now run along, dearie, run, go find your… well, whatever you want to call him if you don’t want to call him your beau. But just between us, you really ought to consider making it official, he’s quite a handsome figure of a man, isn’t he? And a girl as sweet as you really ought to be married.”
Jo looked down, pulling the long leather gloves over her hands, self-consciously blushing and wishing the subject would change. “Thank you,” she managed and went out as quickly as she could without seeming to flee.
She found him in the orchard, sprinkled in velvety bees and apparently happy that way. He was humming and singing something she couldn’t understand and the bee-hat was off, hanging by its strings like a voluminous bonnet. A golden cluster of bees danced on his forearm and he was carefully petting them with the tip of a finger.
“They like you!” she said in wonder as she came up.
He glanced over at her with a smile. “Oh, most creatures will appreciate someone who properly appreciates them. Honeybees are quite social.” He went back to humming and petting them. More of them arrived, settling around his shoulders and picking their way through his hair like tiny finicky cats. He didn’t seem to mind.
Jo gave an involuntary little shiver at the thought of bees in her hair and pulled the drawstring on the netting veil around her hat. “So,” she said. “What are we looking for again? Besides bees.”
“Clues,” he said. “Residue, markings that might indicate what kind of vehicle was used, anywhere near the orchard boundaries. I’m trying to see if I can get any reaction from the first-hand witnesses here.”
“You can talk to bees?” Jo wasn’t sure if he might be joking.
“Well, it’s not quite talking, is it? I’ve been duplicating a variety of frequencies for them to see if any of them are associated with any kind of threat to their hive. They have a community memory, some of them may have been nearby when the abduction of their fellow bees took place.”
“Isn’t that kind of a dangerous thing to do? They’d probably sting you if you scared them all of the sudden. I could get that smoking thing.”
“Hmm. Hmmmm,” he hummed. “I don’t want to stun them with the smoke, it confuses them. But if you’re concerned, you’re welcome to use it. Might as well fetch it for yourself before that rather persistent woman decides you need it,” he said. “She may come after you.”
“I’ll say. You left her quick enough, I noticed.”
“The wisest course when someone is determined to foist something off on you. Especially if it’s something you don’t even need.” He glanced up curiously. “I’m sorry, Jo. Did I say something wrong?”
“No, no. Don’t mind me. I’ll go get that smoker and then I’ll start looking for those impressions in the dirt.”
“Good thinking.” He went back to humming. “Measure the depth if you find any.”
Jo made her way back to the shed, which apparently served as pump-house, potting shed, honey jar storage and all around catchall for the small farm. The smoker was easily lit and soon smouldering nicely. Carrying it along, she tromped through the grasses past a small wire and wood enclosure where a pair of nanny-goats blinked sleepily at her, one tiny kid pushing its way through the gapping wooden gate to stare after her as she her way out to the edge of the orchard.
The smoke swirled past and she blinked away the sting of it in her eyes. All about her in the dappled sunshine living bits of humming bright velvet swirled up like golden sparks, lifting from the blooming grasses as she went, swerving away from her veil and smoke, never coming close enough to be in any danger of staying, or stinging. Perhaps she was influenced by the Doctor’s own lack of fear for them, or perhaps it was just the effect of a quiet spring day but she didn’t shy from them and even enjoyed the sight of them dancing about her. She whimsically lifted an arm in invitation as she’d seen him do, but they shied clear of her.
Of course, as long as she kept up the veil and smoke she would be left alone. There was something deeper in that thought that twinged at her heart but she pushed it away.