The Fable of the Bees and the Mantis

            The penstemons are blooming in my garden. These plants are three to four feet tall, topped with spikes of lavender flowers, each shaped like a long, thin snapdragon blossom. They were in full bloom today, and perhaps because it was a still and humid day, the flowers attracted a wide array of insects.

            Buzzing around the spikes of flowers was a very large bumble bee, determined to get at the nectar at the base of each blossom. I watched her go from blossom to blossom, and at each one, crawl over the top of the bloom and poke at the base to get at the nectar. Except she couldn’t. The way to the nectar was to go in through the tubular blossom. Inside, not outside. Yet the bee ignored the interior, insisting on climbing on top and poking at the base. Of course, even had she tried the right route in, she was far too big to squeeze into those flowers. Obviously, this bee was designed to feed from very different plants, yet she kept trying. I kept thinking she would give up, fly off to a more suitable food source, but she did not. In fact, while I worked in the garden, another bee showed up, and another until one had become seven, all buzzing around in apparent frustration. They could obviously sense a bounty of nectar all around them, but could not get at it, and so they continued trying their failed strategy over and over again.

            At the same time, the bees, plus flies and butterflies and other insects swarming around these flowers attracted the attention of a large praying mantis. I first spied her, a long, thick, brown stick perched on the leaves just below a spike of flowers. Two bees attacked flowers nearby, and the mantis moved towards one. That bee moved on, so the mantis turned to the other. That one also flew away. Undeterred, the mantis climbed higher, right up into the spike. One of the bees buzzed in, close enough for the mantis to strike at. Also close enough for the mantis to get a good look at. I watched the mantis study the large, bulky bee. She obviously decided (wisely) that it was too big for her to handle, too dangerous to be tempting. She backed off, pulling back to a different stalk. Another bee bumbled by. Again the mantis prepared to strike, studied her intended prey, gauged its size and backed off. The bee flew on. The mantis turned her attention to an approaching butterfly, prey of a more manageable size. She prepared to strike.

            I feel like there should be a moral here, a lesson learned. Why else single out this one little observation from all the activity in the garden that day? By pulling this episode out and turning it into a story, I have created the expectation of some meaning in it. After all, stories are not just observations or bits of description. Stories are about something. That’s what distinguishes them from real life.

            Years ago when I was teaching a class in how to tell stories, a student asked if every story has to have a moral. We debated the question. I forget what I said in class, but the question stuck with me. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the answer must be yes. Every story is about something. The tale may be profound, it may be simple, but it has some meaning. Stories tell us about out world, our place in it. About something. Otherwise, why would we bother with them?

            So what is the moral of the tale of the bees and the mantis? I can think of several possible morals. Perhaps something about persistence versus innovation? Perhaps about knowing your limits? Perhaps something else. Just because there is a moral, I so not have to tell you what I think it is. I can leave it to you to figure out. A good story should have enough clues within it that the audience can work out the moral for themselves…

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