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Lyle Zapato

Weaponized Bees: A Taste For Honey & Black Mirror

Lyle Zapato | 2016-10-26.4120 LMT | Entertainment | Nature | Technology | Simulacra | General Paranoia

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A Taste For Honey (1941) is a murder mystery novel by H. F. Heard, also known as Gerald Heard, whose works I've covered a number of times now.

[Spoiler Alert] Sidney Silchester, a man with a taste for honey, moves to the rural English village of Ashton Clearwater for some peace and quiet. Mysteriously, no one in the district is able to raise bees except for one secretive man, Mr. Heregrove.

A true honey fancier, Silchester won't buy the stuff sold in shops, so he makes arrange­ments with Here­grove's wife to secure a regular supply of real honey, until one day she turns up dead, stung to death by her husband's bees.

With his honey reserves dwindling and hearing that the coroner had ordered Heregrove to destroy his hives, Silchester is forced by his mellivorous appetite to go inquiring about an alternate honey source. He is drawn by a curious sign to the home of a new arrival in Ashton Clearwater, one Mr. Mycroft, who is interested in beekeeping, but only for studying bee psychology, not producing honey.

Mycroft tells Silchester that he was recently attacked by a particularly venomous breed of bees and that Heregrove is responsible. Mycroft has deduced that Heregrove has bred his bees to attack other hives to eliminate the competition. Little did Silchester realize he's embroiled himself in a deadly plot to corner the honey market of Ashton Clearwater!

Mycroft reveals that he has developed a countermeasure to protect himself against Heregrove's minions -- a modified gramophone that plays hypersonic death's-head moth songs that hypnotize bees. He cautions against visiting Heregrove alone, but Silchester is skeptical of all this crazy talk and hungry for honey, so he goes. After a suspicious encounter with Heregrove in which Silchester asks too many questions about a missing horse, he returns home only to be attacked by bees, barely escaping with his life.

Mycroft goes to Silchester's house and explains that the attack confirms that Mrs. Heregrove's death was no accident, as the coroner deemed it, but an intentional murder by her husband. With Silchester's help, Mycroft uses a deception to gain access to Heregrove's property and uncovers that Heregrove has learned to command the bees to kill by marking a victim with ammonia refined from horse sweat -- a concentrated smell of fear that drives his bees to rage.

In the end, Silchester and Mycroft are forced to decide to kill Heregrove using his own bees in order to save themselves, since the authorities would never believe such a ridiculous plot.

A Taste For Honey is most famous for being a thinly veiled, and unauthorized, Sherlock Holmes story, with Mr. Mycroft as Holmes in retirement under an assumed name (which just so happens to be the first name of his brother from Doyles' stories). He tells Silchester that Mycroft is "only one of my family names" and, having become confidants over their shared complicity in Heregrove's death, reveals his real name, which Silchester, our narrator, conveniently forgets. "Something not unlike Mycroft -- Mycroft and then another word, a short one, I think." Other hints of Mycroft's true identity are his beekeeping and a reference to him knowing about drug addiction.

There are two other books in Heard's Mr. Mycroft series, Reply Paid (1945) and The Notched Hairpin (1949), which I haven't read.

The cover image above is from the Avon 1946 paperback edition #108. It was also republished twice by Avon in paperback under the more boring title A Taste For Murder with recycled, beeless cover art. The original hardcover dust-jackets can be seen here.

Taste was adapted for screen twice, first in 1955 for a TV anthology episode titled "The Sting of Death" starring Boris Karloff, and then in 1966 as a theatrical movie titled The Deadly Bees. The latter was originally scripted by Robert Bloch to be close to the book, but was rewritten as a looser adaptation that replaced Silchester with a female pop-star recuperating from a nervous breakdown at the farm of beekeeper Hargrove on Seagull Island, and Mycroft with a similar but less Sherlocky character named Mr. Manfred, who [Spoiler] turns out to be the real murderer.

Black Mirror, "Hated in the Nation" (2016)

"Hated in the Nation", an episode of the third season of the tech-horror show Black Mirror, updates A Taste For Honey for the Twitter generation, replacing horse sweat with hashtags as markers for apioid assassination.

Ripped from the headlines of a decade ago.

[Spoiler Alert] After all the bees in the UK have died off, a tech company called Granular creates, under government contract, robotic Autonomous Drone Insects (ADIs) to take the bees' ecological place.

The mysterious deaths of two famous people who had recently been vilified on social media turns out to have been caused by these robot bees burrowing into their brains.

The police figure out that someone has gained access to Granular's Swarm system to control the ADIs using a back-door that the GCHQ insisted be included for mass surveillance. When the hashtag #DeathTo is used on social media along with the name and photo of a desired victim, that person is automatically added to a poll, and the one with the most votes that day will be targeted for execution by robobee. Social media users take enthusiastic advantage of this novelty for vindictive LOLs.

The police find a manifesto hidden in the bees' memory decrying the harm done by online mob justice. The author, a worker at Granular, was pushed over the edge when a co-worker he loved nearly committed suicide after being the target of online attacks.

With the help of the head of the Swarm project, the police move to retake control of the ADIs, but they are too late realizing that it was all a trap (or honeypot?) and they have just activated the bees to go after the real targets: all the people tweeting #DeathTo. Cut to a montage of roboswarms sweeping the UK and later a giant government warehouse filled with body bags.

While the episode is not an adaptation of Heard's book, and probably owes more to The X-Files (see the role of bees in its mytharc and robotic insects in "War of the Coprophages"), there are other similarities besides the weaponization of bees, whether hybridized or fully artificial.

Both "Hated" and Taste have two main characters recently thrown together trying to stop a rouge technical genius, one of whom shares some of the same technical knowledge as their adversary and uses it against him; a setting where all bees except an unusual/artificial type have disappeared; and a first death that is mistakenly thought by officials to be the result of domestic violence in "Hated" and mistakenly thought not to be in Taste.

Then there's this quote in Taste by Mycroft talking about Heregrove's bees, which reads like a metaphor for the toxic vindictiveness of social media opprobrium that "Hated" critiques:

He bred a curiously fierce and poisonous bee. You might expect that psycho-physical linkage -- after all, rage is a kind of poison, and, no doubt, venom was evolved gradually by animals which, both weak and vindictive, were literally and bodily embittered by their sense of wrong and age-long yearning for revenge. There is, you know, a bee in Australia which, because it has no serious enemies, has yet to evolve a sting. The sting in all bees and insects that we know is evolved from the ovipositor, the instrument first evolved just to insert their eggs into safe places. Venom is a late thing. There are, I gather, no poisonous snakes before the Miocene. It takes some considerable time and effort and brooding to be able to be as malignant as you wish. Nemo repente fuit turpissimus.

Although it's not in Heard's book, the scene in "Hated" where the police detectives try to protect a bee-target in a bathroom is similar to a scene in The Deadly Bees where the protagonist hides from bee attack in a bathroom, complete with blocking the bottom of the door with cloth, although the latter target escapes while the former doesn't.

There are also, certainly coincidental, parallels in "Hatred" to Heard's other works. In Narcissus: An Anatomy Of Clothes, Heard posits a future of a biologically transformed humanity living inside tiny, winged machine bodies, in a way reminiscent of how the disembodied wills of social media users inhabit the robot bees as avatars of their hatred. While Heard used bees as murder weapons, he also suggested they might be saviors. A contrast between Heard's more hopeful views and the dark warnings of Black Mirror can be seen in his "B + M - Planet 4", where a symbiosis of bees and humans leads to a utopia of world peace, whereas in "Hated" it leads to a dystopia of mob justice and mass death.

As Detective Parke laments in "Hated", "I didn't expect to find myself living in the future, but here I fucking well am." The future is now, but at least we don't need to worry about weaponized bees when Microscopic Black Helicopters are already just waiting for some clever hacker to crowdsource them for meatspace downvoting. The unfiltered id-stream of the internet has taught us who we should truly be paranoid of: ourselves.

End of post.