This story is a year and a half old and I had nearly forgotten all about it!
My original description as posted on another site:
This story was inspired by events that I fear may come to pass sooner than most people think.
Consider the following elements:
1. The threat of the extinction of the common honeybee from overuse of pesticides.
2. The droughts in California, which are forcing lawmakers to choose between water for the people and water for lucrative cash crops.
3. A general attitude that pervades the culture of the United States that poverty represents a moral failure.
I see this as a perfect storm for a new breed of slavery in which those too poor to afford the spiraling cost of food and water will be pressed into involuntary service doing jobs that had previously been done by insects.
I decline to comment on whether or not Sheriff Laredo is inspired by a real figure active in law enforcement in the US today -whose name may or may not rhyme with "Ohio"- who attracts millions of admirers with his brand of so-called justice and likes to sue people for exercising their constitutional right to criticize him, but let those who are savvy see the truth for what it is.
The sun rose over the Happy Acres Orange Orchard in San Martin del Campo, California, illuminating the small oasis of greenery among the desert wastes of the Central Valley.
Large sprinklers began misting the orange trees, generously drenching the parched ground. This was the only water that fell here any more, and the people who couldn't afford the cost of food or pay to have their water trucked in from out of state would be arriving soon, to do the work of the bees that had once called these orchards home in the days before the last of the colonies had collapsed. The program had, in terms of facts and figures at least, been a great success; the voters were satisfied that the lazy were finally being made to work for their supper and Sheriff Laredo, widely regarded as the toughest sheriff in the history of the state of California, had been re-elected three times thanks in no small part to this program.
Fifteen gray buses, their windows covered in heavy steel grating, drove down the dusty road to the middle of the orchard, opening their doors. Out marched several guards armed with military rifles who stood on either side of the bus doors, followed by about seventy men and women from each bus clad in suits like old-fashioned prison uniforms, the white of earlier times replaced with yellow so that they had the appearance of a sad, ragged, downtrodden swarm of earthbound bees. They stood in a long line, down the length of the orchard. The guards handed out small bags of cotton swabs to each of them, moving quickly down the line without a word.
“Alright, listen up!” said the gravelly voice of Sheriff Laredo over loud speakers located throughout the orchard. “We have some new bees in our hive so those of you who have been here a while, show them the ropes. Just remember, good bees don't talk and lazy bees don't get their rations!”
It was the only time they would be addressed by a human voice for the rest of the working day. Sheriff Laredo had theory that if a prisoner only heard his voice all day long and was forced into total silence, that they'd adopt him as a father figure and they'd mend their wayward ways and stop being poor by learning proper work ethic from their adopted father. Whether or not it worked was never actually debated; what mattered- to the voters at least- was that the poor were out of sight, out of mind.
The silent convicts made their way toward the orchard, each taking out a cotton swab, and began their long, tedious task of pollinating each individual flower by hand. Take a swab of one flower, then another, then another. It was such a simple task that even those who had been too poor for the recently-privatized school system could do it.
Temperatures rapidly climbed into the high 110s as the sun rose higher, each of the “bees” making their way slowly, tortuously through the orchard.
Near a water main feeding the main sprinkler system, number 210 turned to number 2493.“I'm planning a break tonight,” she said. “They can't do this to us! My only crime was being poor and black!”
No sooner had number 210 spoken when a small yellow and white striped quad copter drone flew into view, hovering with its black, soulless camera eyes at her eye level.
“Numbers 210 and 2493, talking is forbidden. You have been reported and your rations will be halved,” it said in a cool mechanical voice.
“I can't take it any more! I'm hungry!” she screamed, grabbing the drone and breaking it over her knee.
A burst of automatic gunfire split the air, and number 210 and 2493 both crumpled to the ground, bleeding profusely.
“Destroying company property will get you stung!” said a guard in dark reflective glasses that hid his eyes, blowing the smoke rakishly away from the barrel of his M4 carbine and spitting on the bodies of the two slaughtered prisoners.
The sun rose higher, and with it the temperature rose, spiking at an afternoon high of 125 degrees Fahrenheit. Across the orchard came that same familiar voice.
“Break time!” the drunken sheriff belched across the valley.
The prisoners fell back to the buses where a large water tanker had been set up, along with a series of large aluminum troughs. The troughs were full of water and the prisoners fell into an orderly line. As they reached the end of the line, each was given a 20 ounce cup and allowed to dip it once into the water.
Those at the head of the line got water that was relatively fresh, but those toward the end of the line got water that was full of dirt, to the point where it was practically mud.
When a prisoner was done drinking their water ration, a guard snatched their cup from their hands and shoved them back toward the fields.
More of the same. Hours passed. The “swarm” made its way slowly, painfully across the scorched earth to the end of the field.
Number 393 had begun to stagger a bit. His skin had become hot and dry and turned ghostly pale, but he kept working, his fingers fumbling and his arms no longer raising like they should. He finally fell, exhausted and unconscious in the dust, his breath coming in short, shallow agonal gasps as his life slipped away.
The others kept working, stepping over and around him; there was nothing that could be done for him now. Any prisoner who stopped and helped would lose their rations, and the people in charge certainly weren't going to spend their time saving him. To Sheriff Laredo and his guards, number 393 was just another lazy bee soon to get what he deserved.
About fifteen others suffered this same fate as the evening went on; nobody even looked at them. There was too much work to be done and in another day, there'd be another fifteen prisoners to replace them, rounded up from cities across California.
Sunset finally came, and with it the last flurry of activity in one corner of the orchard as prisoners worked frantically to finish the job before....
“Alright, boys and girls, King Bee says it's time to come back to the hive,” Sheriff Laredo's whiskey-soaked pack-a-day voice growled across the valley.
With heads hung low, the swarm began their sad march back to the buses that would take them to their hive, a massive tent city just outside the city of Fresno where thousands of others would wait to be bussed out to fields across the state, performing the same duties day in, day out until they either died or were able to somehow please Sheriff Laredo enough to be released into one of his community work programs cooking food for prisoners or building new tents for inmates for $3.50 an hour until they could save up the $4000 required to buy their freedom... assuming they weren't fined into oblivion for some tiny mistake.
The guards made a sweep of the orchard and counted each head that got on the bus, making account of the dead and the living as the last rays of the sun slipped below the mountains to the west.
The prisoners lined up. A guard went down the line, checking numbers against a roster.
“Y'all smell awful!” he said. “Why don't you take a bath? Maybe you wouldn't be poor if you didn't stink so bad!”
Nobody dared point out that there were no showers in the prison camp.
With everyone accounted for, they were marched onto the buses, sitting on cold metal seats crammed close together for the long, uncomfortable ride back to Fresno, to face another day with little hope, little water, and almost no food, watching the earth die slowly around them.