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The Life of the Bee by Maurice Maeterlinck

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The Life of the Bee



_Translated by_




_Published May, 1901_














IT is not my intention to write a treatise on apiculture, or on
practical bee-keeping. Excellent works of the kind abound in all
civilised countries, and it were useless to attempt another. France
has those of Dadant, Georges de Layens and Bonnier, Bertrand, Hamet,
Weber, Clement, the Abbe Collin, etc. English-speaking countries
have Langstroth, Bevan, Cook, Cheshire, Cowan, Root, etc. Germany
has Dzierzon, Van Berlespoch, Pollmann, Vogel, and many others.

Nor is this book to be a scientific monograph on Apis Mellifica,
Ligustica, Fasciata, Dorsata, etc., or a collection of new
observations and studies. I shall say scarcely anything that those
will not know who are somewhat familiar with bees. The notes and
experiments I have made during my twenty years of beekeeping I shall
reserve for a more technical work; for their interest is necessarily
of a special and limited nature, and I am anxious not to over-burden
this essay. I wish to speak of the bees very simply, as one speaks
of a subject one knows and loves to those who know it not. I do not
intend to adorn the truth, or merit the just reproach Reaumur
addressed to his predecessors in the study of our honey-flies, whom
he accused of substituting for the marvellous reality marvels that
were imaginary and merely plausible. The fact that the hive contains
so much that is wonderful does not warrant our seeking to add to its
wonders. Besides, I myself have now for a long time ceased to look
for anything more beautiful in this world, or more interesting, than
the truth; or at least than the effort one is able to make towards
the truth. I shall state nothing, therefore, that I have not
verified myself, or that is not so fully accepted in the text-books
as to render further verification superfluous. My facts shall be as
accurate as though they appeared in a practical manual or scientific
monograph, but I shall relate them in a somewhat livelier fashion
than such works would allow, shall group them more harmoniously
together, and blend them with freer and more mature reflections. The
reader of this book will not learn therefrom how to manage a hive;
but he will know more or less all that can with any certainty be
known of the curious, profound, and intimate side of its
inhabitants. Nor will this be at the cost of what still remains to
be learned. I shall pass over in silence the hoary traditions that,
in the country and many a book, still constitute the legend of the
hive. Whenever there be doubt, disagreement, hypothesis, when I
arrive at the unknown, I shall declare it loyally; you will find
that we often shall halt before the unknown. Beyond the appreciable
facts of their life we know but little of the bees. And the closer
our acquaintance becomes, the nearer is our ignorance brought to us
of the depths of their real existence; but such ignorance is better
than the other kind, which is unconscious, and satisfied.

Does an analogous work on the bee exist? I believe I have read
almost all that has been written on bees; but of kindred matter I
know only Michelet's chapter at the end of his book "The Insect,"
and Ludwig Buchner's essay in his "Mind in Animals." Michelet merely
hovers on the fringe of his subject; Buchner's treatise is
comprehensive enough, but contains so many hazardous statements, so
much long-discarded gossip and hearsay, that I suspect him of never
having left his library, never having set forth himself to question
his heroines, or opened one of the many hundreds of rustling,
wing-lit hives which we must profane before our instinct can be
attuned to their secret, before we can perceive the spirit and
atmosphere, perfume and mystery, of these virgin daughters of toil.
The book smells not of the bee, or its honey; and has the defects of
many a learned work, whose conclusions often are preconceived, and
whose scientific attainment is composed of a vast array of doubtful
anecdotes collected on every side. But in this essay of mine we
rarely shall meet each other; for our starting-point, our aim, and
our point of view are all very different.


The bibliography of the bee (we will begin with the books so as to
get rid of them as soon as we can and go to the source of the books)
is very extensive. From the beginning this strange little creature,
that lived in a society under complicated laws and executed
prodigious labours in the darkness, attracted the notice of men.
Aristotle, Cato, Varro, Pliny, Columella, Palladius all studied the
bees; to say nothing of Aristomachus, who, according to Cicero,
watched them for fifty-eight years, and of Phyliscus, whose writings
are lost. But these dealt rather with the legend of the bee; and all
that we can gather therefrom--which indeed is exceedingly little--we
may find condensed in the fourth book of Virgil's Georgics.

The real history of the bee begins in the seventeenth century, with
the discoveries of the great Dutch savant Swammerdam. It is well,
however, to add this detail, but little known: before Swammerdam a
Flemish naturalist named Clutius had arrived at certain important
truths, such as the sole maternity of the queen and her possession
of the attributes of both sexes, but he had left these unproved.
Swammerdam founded the true methods of scientific investigation; he
invented the microscope, contrived injections to ward off decay, was
the first to dissect the bees, and by the discovery of the ovaries
and the oviduct definitely fixed the sex of the queen, hitherto
looked upon as a king, and threw the whole political scheme of the
hive into most unexpected light by basing it upon maternity. Finally
he produced woodcuts and engravings so perfect that to this day they
serve to illustrate many books on apiculture. He lived in the
turbulent, restless Amsterdam of those days, regretting "Het Zoete
Buiten Leve "--The Sweet Life of the Country--and died, worn-out
with work, at the age of forty-three. He wrote in a pious, formal
style, with beautiful, simple outbursts of a faith that, fearful of
falling away, ascribed all things to the glory of the Creator; and
embodied his observations and studies in his great work "Bybel der
Natuure," which the doctor Boerhave, a century later, caused to be
translated from the Dutch into Latin under the title of "Biblia
Naturae." (Leyden, 1737.)

Then came Reaumur, who, pursuing similar methods, made a vast number
of curious experiments and researches in his gardens at Charenton,
and devoted to the bees an entire volume of his "Notes to Serve for
a History of Insects." One may read it with profit to-day, and
without fatigue. It is clear, direct, and sincere, and possessed of
a certain hard, arid charm of its own. He sought especially the
destruction of ancient errors; he himself was responsible for
several new ones; he partially understood the formation of swarms
and the political establishment of queens; in a word, he discovered
many difficult truths, and paved the way for the discovery of more.
He fully appreciated the marvellous architecture of the hive; and
what he said on the subject has never been better said. It is to
him, too, that we owe the idea of the glass hives, which, having
since been perfected, enable us to follow the entire private life of
these fierce insects, whose work, begun in the dazzling sunshine,
receives its crown in the darkness. To be comprehensive, one should
mention also the somewhat subsequent works and investigations of
Charles Bonnet and Schirach (who solved the enigma of the royal
egg); but I will keep to the broad lines, and pass at once to
Francois Huber, the master and classic of contemporary apiarian

Huber was born in Geneva in 1750, and fell blind in his earliest
youth. The experiments of Reaumur interested him; he sought to
verify them, and soon becoming passionately absorbed in these
researches, eventually, with the assistance of an intelligent and
faithful servant, Francois Burnens, devoted his entire life to the
study of the bee. In the annals of human suffering and human triumph
there is nothing more touching, no lesson more admirable, than the
story of this patient collaboration, wherein the one who saw only
with immaterial light guided with his spirit the eyes and hands of
the other who had the real earthly vision; where he who, as we are
assured, had never with his own eyes beheld a comb of honey, was yet
able, notwithstanding the veil on his dead eyes that rendered double
the veil in which nature enwraps all things, to penetrate the
profound secrets of the genius that had made this invisible comb; as
though to teach us that no condition in life can warrant our
abandoning our desire and search for the truth. I will not enumerate
all that apiarian science owes to Huber; to state what it does not
owe were the briefer task. His "New Observations on Bees," of which
the first volume was written in 1789, in the form of letters to
Charles Bonnet, the second not appearing till twenty years later,
have remained the unfailing, abundant treasure into which every
subsequent writer has dipped. And though a few mistakes may be found
therein, a few incomplete truths; though since his time considerable
additions have been made to the micrography and practical culture of
bees, the handling of queens, etc., there is not a single one of his
principal statements that has been disproved, or discovered in
error; and in our actual experience they stand untouched, and indeed
at its very foundation.


Some years of silence followed these revelations; but soon a German
clergyman, Dzierzon, discovered parthenogenesis, _i. e._ the
virginal parturition of queens, and contrived the first hive with
movable combs, thereby enabling the bee-keeper henceforth to take
his share of the harvest of honey, without being forced to destroy
his best colonies and in one instant annihilate the work of an
entire year. This hive, still very imperfect, received masterly
improvement at the hands of Langstroth, who invented the movable
frame properly so called, which has been adopted in America with
extraordinary success. Root, Quinby, Dadant, Cheshire, De Layens,
Cowan, Heddon, Howard, etc., added still further and precious
improvement. Then it occurred to Mehring that if bees were supplied
with combs that had an artificial waxen foundation, they would be
spared the labour of fashioning the wax and constructing the cells,
which costs them much honey and the best part of their time; he
found that the bees accepted these combs most readily, and adapted
them to their requirements.

Major de Hruschka invented the Honey-Extractor, which enables the
honey to be withdrawn by centrifugal force without breaking the
combs, etc. And thus, in a few years, the methods of apiculture
underwent a radical change. The capacity and fruitfulness of the
hives were trebled. Great and productive apiaries arose on every
side. An end was put to the useless destruction of the most
industrious cities, and to the odious selection of the least fit
which was its result. Man truly became the master of the bees,
although furtively, and without their knowledge; directing all
things without giving an order, receiving obedience but not
recognition. For the destiny once imposed by the seasons he has
substituted his will. He repairs the injustice of the year, unites
hostile republics, and equalises wealth. He restricts or augments
the births, regulates the fecundity of the queen, dethrones her and
instals another in her place, after dexterously obtaining the
reluctant consent of a people who would be maddened at the mere
suspicion of an inconceivable intervention. When he thinks fit, he
will peacefully violate the secret of the sacred chambers, and the
elaborate, tortuous policy of the palace. He will five or six times
in succession deprive the bees of the fruit of their labour, without
harming them, without their becoming discouraged or even
impoverished. He proportions the store-houses and granaries of their
dwellings to the harvest of flowers that the spring is spreading
over the dip of the hills. He compels them to reduce the extravagant
number of lovers who await the birth of the royal princesses. In a
word he does with them what he will, he obtains what he will,
provided always that what he seeks be in accordance with their laws
and their virtues; for beyond all the desires of this strange god
who has taken possession of them, who is too vast to be seen and too
alien to be understood, their eyes see further than the eyes of the
god himself; and their one thought is the accomplishment, with
untiring sacrifice, of the mysterious duty of their race.


Let us now, having learned from books all that they had to teach us
of a very ancient history, leave the science others have acquired
and look at the bees with our own eyes. An hour spent in the midst
of the apiary will be less instructive, perhaps; but the things we
shall see will be infinitely more stimulating and more actual.

I have not yet forgotten the first apiary I saw, where I learned to
love the bees. It was many years ago, in a large village of Dutch
Flanders, the sweet and pleasant country whose love for brilliant
colour rivals that of Zealand even, the concave mirror of Holland; a
country that gladly spreads out before us, as so many pretty,
thoughtful toys, her illuminated gables, and waggons, and towers;
her cupboards and clocks that gleam at the end of the passage; her
little trees marshalled in line along quays and canal-banks,
waiting, one almost might think, for some quiet, beneficent
ceremony; her boats and her barges with sculptured poops, her
flower-like doors and windows, immaculate dams, and elaborate,
many-coloured drawbridges; and her little varnished houses, bright
as new pottery, from which bell-shaped dames come forth, all
a-glitter with silver and gold, to milk the cows in the white-hedged
fields, or spread the linen on flowery lawns, cut into patterns of
oval and lozenge, and most astoundingly green.

To this spot, where life would seem more restricted than
elsewhere--if it be possible for life indeed to become restricted--a
sort of aged philosopher had retired; an old man somewhat akin to

"Man equal to kings, and approaching the gods;"

whereto Lafontaine might have added,--

"And, like the gods, content and at rest."

Here had he built his refuge, being a little weary; not disgusted,
for the large aversions are unknown to the sage; but a little weary
of interrogating men, whose answers to the only interesting
questions one can put concerning nature and her veritable laws are
far less simple than those that are given by animals and plants. His
happiness, like the Scythian philosopher's, lay all in the beauties
of his garden; and best-loved and visited most often, was the
apiary, composed of twelve domes of straw, some of which he had
painted a bright pink, and some a clear yellow, but most of all a
tender blue; having noticed, long before Sir John Lubbock's
demonstrations, the bees' fondness for this colour.

These hives stood against the wall of the house, in the angle formed
by one of those pleasant and graceful Dutch kitchens whose
earthenware dresser, all bright with copper and tin, reflected
itself through the open door on to the peaceful canal. And the
water, burdened with these familiar images beneath its curtain of
poplars, led one's eyes to a calm horizon of mills and of meadows.

Here, as in all places, the hives lent a new meaning to the flowers
and the silence, the balm of the air and the rays of the sun. One
seemed to have drawn very near to the festival spirit of nature. One
was content to rest at this radiant crossroad, where the aerial ways
converge and divide that the busy and tuneful bearers of all country
perfumes unceasingly travel from dawn unto dusk. One heard the
musical voice of the garden, whose loveliest hours revealed their
rejoicing soul and sang of their gladness. One came hither, to the
school of the bees, to be taught the preoccupations of all-powerful
nature, the harmonious concord of the three kingdoms, the
indefatigable organisation of life, and the lesson of ardent and
disinterested work; and another lesson too, with a moral as good,
that the heroic workers taught there, and emphasised, as it were,
with the fiery darts of their myriad wings, was to appreciate the
somewhat vague savour of leisure, to enjoy the almost unspeakable
delights of those immaculate days that revolved on themselves in the
fields of space, forming merely a transparent globe, as void of
memory as the happiness without alloy.


In order to follow, as simply as possible, the life of the bees
through the year, we will take a hive that awakes in the spring and
duly starts on its labours; and then we shall meet, in their natural
order, all the great episodes, viz.: the formation and departure of
the swarm, the foundation of the new city, the birth, combat and
nuptial flight of the young queens, the massacre of the males, and
finally, the return of the sleep of winter. With each of these
episodes there will go the necessary explanations as to the laws,
habits, peculiarities and events that produce and accompany it; so
that, when arrived at the end of the bee's short year, which extends
only from April to the last days of September, we shall have gazed
upon all the mysteries of the palace of honey. Before we open it,
therefore, and throw a general glance around, we only need say that
the hive is composed of a queen, the mother of all her people; of
thousands of workers or neuters who are incomplete and sterile
females; and lastly of some hundreds of males, from whom one shall
be chosen as the sole and unfortunate consort of the queen that the
workers will elect in the future, after the more or less voluntary
departure of the reigning mother.


The first time that we open a hive there comes over us an emotion
akin to that we might feel at profaning some unknown object, charged
perhaps with dreadful surprise, as a tomb. A legend of menace and
peril still clings to the bees. There is the distressful
recollection of her sting, which produces a pain so characteristic
that one knows not wherewith to compare it; a kind of destroying
dryness, a flame of the desert rushing over the wounded limb, as
though these daughters of the sun had distilled a dazzling poison
from their father's angry rays, in order more effectively to defend
the treasure they gather from his beneficent hours.

It is true that were some one who neither knows nor respects the
customs and character of the bee suddenly to fling open the hive, it
would turn at once into a burning bush of heroism and anger; but the
slight amount of skill needed to handle it with impunity can be most
readily acquired. Let but a little smoke be deftly applied, much
coolness and gentleness be shown, and our well-armed workers will
suffer themselves to be despoiled without dreaming of drawing their
sting. It is not the fact, as some have maintained, that the bees
recognise their master; nor have they any fear of man; but at the
smell of the smoke, at the large slow gestures that traverse their
dwellings without threatening them, they imagine that this is not
the attack of an enemy against whom defence is possible, but that it
is a force or a natural catastrophe whereto they do well to submit.

Instead of vainly struggling, therefore, they do what they can to
safeguard the future; and, obeying a foresight that for once is in
error, they fly to their reserves of honey, into which they eagerly
dip in order to possess within themselves the wherewithal to start a
new city, immediately and no matter where, should the ancient one be
destroyed or they be compelled to forsake it.


The first impression of the novice before whom an observation-hive*
is opened will be one of some disappointment. He had been told that
this little glass case contained an unparalleled activity, an
infinite number of wise laws, and a startling amalgam of mystery,
experience, genius, calculation, science, of various industries, of
certitude and prescience, of intelligent habits and curious feelings
and virtues. All that he sees is a confused mass of little reddish
groups, somewhat resembling roasted coffee-berries, or bunches of
raisins piled against the glass. They look more dead than alive;
their movements are slow, incoherent, and incomprehensible. Can
these be the wonderful drops of light he had seen but a moment ago,
unceasingly flashing and sparkling, as they darted among the pearls
and the gold of a thousand wide-open calyces?

By observation-hive is meant a hive of glass, furnished with black
curtains or shutters. The best kind have only one comb, thus
permitting both faces to be studied. These hives can be placed in a
drawing-room, library, etc., without inconvenience or danger. The
bees that inhabit the one I have in my study in Paris are able even
in the stony desert of that great city, to find the wherewithal to
nourish themselves and to prosper.

They appear to be shivering in the darkness, to be numbed,
suffocated, so closely are they huddled together; one might fancy
they were ailing captives, or queens dethroned, who have had their
one moment of glory in the midst of their radiant garden, and are
now compelled to return to the shameful squalor of their poor
overcrowded home.

It is with them as with all that is deeply real; they must be
studied, and one must learn how to study them. The inhabitant of
another planet who should see men and women coming and going almost
imperceptibly through our streets, crowding at certain times around
certain buildings, or waiting for one knows not what, without
apparent movement, in the depths of their dwellings, might conclude
therefrom that they, too, were miserable and inert. It takes time to
distinguish the manifold activity contained in this inertia.

And indeed every one of the little almost motionless groups in the
hive is incessantly working, each at a different trade. Repose is
unknown to any; and such, for instance, as seem the most torpid, as
they hang in dead clusters against the glass, are intrusted with the
most mysterious and fatiguing task of all: it is they who secrete
and form the wax. But the details of this universal activity will be
given in their place. For the moment we need only call attention to
the essential trait in the nature of the bee which accounts for the
extraordinary agglomeration of the various workers. The bee is above
all, and even to a greater extent than the ant, a creature of the
crowd. She can live only in the midst of a multitude. When she
leaves the hive, which is so densely packed that she has to force
her way with blows of her head through the living walls that enclose
her, she departs from her proper element. She will dive for an
instant into flower-filled space, as the swimmer will dive into the
sea that is filled with pearls, but under pain of death it behoves
her at regular intervals to return and breathe the crowd as the
swimmer must return and breathe the air. Isolate her, and however
abundant the food or favourable the temperature, she will expire in
a few days not of hunger or cold, but of loneliness. From the crowd,
from the city, she derives an invisible aliment that is as necessary
to her as honey. This craving will help to explain the spirit of the
laws of the hive. For in them the individual is noting, her
existence conditional only, and herself, for one indifferent moment,
a winged organ of the race. Her whole life is an entire sacrifice to
the manifold, everlasting being whereof she forms part. It is
strange to note that it was not always so. We find even to-day,
among the melliferous hymenoptera, all the stages of progressive
civilisation of our own domestic bee. At the bottom of the scale we
find her working alone, in wretchedness, often not seeing her
offspring (the Prosopis, the Colletes, etc.); sometimes living in
the midst of the limited family that she produces annually (as in
the case of the humble-bee). Then she forms temporary associations (the
Panurgi, the Dasypodoe, the Hacliti, etc.) and at last we arrive,
through successive stages, at the almost perfect but pitiless society of
our hives, where the individual is entirely merged in the republic, and
the republic in its turn invariably sacrificed to the abstract and
immortal city of the future.


Let us not too hastily deduce from these facts conclusions that
apply to man. He possesses the power of withstanding certain of
nature's laws; and to know whether such resistance be right or wrong
is the gravest and obscurest point in his morality. But it is deeply
interesting to discover what the will of nature may be in a
different world; and this will is revealed with extraordinary
clearness in the evolution of the hymenoptera, which, of all the
inhabitants of this globe, possess the highest degree of intellect
after that of man. The aim of nature is manifestly the improvement
of the race; but no less manifest is her inability, or refusal, to
obtain such improvement except at the cost of the liberty, the
rights, and the happiness of the individual. In proportion as a
society organises itself, and rises in the scale, so does a
shrinkage enter the private life of each one of its members. Where
there is progress, it is the result only of a more and more complete
sacrifice of the individual to the general interest. Each one is
compelled, first of all, to renounce his vices, which are acts of
independence. For instance, at the last stage but one of apiarian
civilisation, we find the humble-bees, which are like our cannibals.
The adult workers are incessantly hovering around the eggs, which
they seek to devour, and the mother has to display the utmost
stubbornness in their defence. Then having freed himself from his
most dangerous vices, each individual has to acquire a certain
number of more and more painful virtues. Among the humble-bees, for
instance, the workers do not dream of renouncing love, whereas our
domestic bee lives in a state of perpetual chastity. And indeed we
soon shall show how much more she has to abandon, in exchange for
the comfort and security of the hive, for its architectural,
economic, and political perfection; and we shall return to the
evolution of the hymenoptera in the chapter devoted to the progress
of the species.




WE will now, so as to draw more closely to nature, consider the
different episodes of the swarm as they come to pass in an ordinary
hive, which is ten or twenty times more populous than an observation
one, and leaves the bees entirely free and untrammelled.

Here, then, they have shaken off the torpor of winter. The queen
started laying again in the very first days of February, and the
workers have flocked to the willows and nut-trees, gorse and
violets, anemones and lungworts. Then spring invades the earth, and
cellar and stream with honey and pollen, while each day beholds the
birth of thousands of bees. The overgrown males now all sally forth
from their cells, and disport themselves on the combs; and so
crowded does the too prosperous city become that hundreds of belated
workers, coming back from the flowers towards evening, will vainly
seek shelter within, and will be forced to spend the night on the
threshold, where they will be decimated by the cold. Restlessness
seizes the people, and the old queen begins to stir. She feels that
a new destiny is being prepared. She has religiously fulfilled her
duty as a good creatress; and from this duty done there result only
tribulation and sorrow. An invincible power menaces her
tranquillity; she will soon be forced to quit this city of hers,
where she has reigned. But this city is her work, it is she,
herself. She is not its queen in the sense in which men use the
word. She issues no orders; she obeys, as meekly as the humblest of
her subjects, the masked power, sovereignly wise, that for the
present, and till we attempt to locate it, we will term the "spirit
of the hive." But she is the unique organ of love; she is the mother
of the city. She founded it amid uncertainty and poverty. She has
peopled it with her own substance; and all who move within its
walls--workers, males, larvae, nymphs, and the young princesses
whose approaching birth will hasten her own departure, one of them
being already designed as her successor by the "spirit of the
hive"--all these have issued from her flanks.


What is this "spirit of the hive"--where does it reside? It is not
like the special instinct that teaches the bird to construct its
well planned nest, and then seek other skies when the day for
migration returns. Nor is it a kind of mechanical habit of the race,
or blind craving for life, that will fling the bees upon any wild
hazard the moment an unforeseen event shall derange the accustomed
order of phenomena. On the contrary, be the event never so
masterful, the "spirit of the hive" still will follow it, step by
step, like an alert and quickwitted slave, who is able to derive
advantage even from his master's most dangerous orders.

It disposes pitilessly of the wealth and the happiness, the liberty
and life, of all this winged people; and yet with discretion, as
though governed itself by some great duty. It regulates day by day
the number of births, and contrives that these shall strictly accord
with the number of flowers that brighten the country-side. It
decrees the queen's deposition or warns her that she must depart; it
compels her to bring her own rivals into the world, and rears them
royally, protecting them from their mother's political hatred. So,
too, in accordance with the generosity of the flowers, the age of
the spring, and the probable dangers of the nuptial flight, will it
permit or forbid the first-born of the virgin princesses to slay in
their cradles her younger sisters, who are singing the song of the
queens. At other times, when the season wanes, and flowery hours
grow shorter, it will command the workers themselves to slaughter
the whole imperial brood, that the era of revolutions may close, and
work become the sole object of all. The "spirit of the hive "is
prudent and thrifty, but by no means parsimonious. And thus, aware,
it would seem, that nature's laws are somewhat wild and extravagant
in all that pertains to love, it tolerates, during summer days of
abundance, the embarrassing presence in the hive of three or four
hundred males, from whose ranks the queen about to be born shall
select her lover; three or four hundred foolish, clumsy, useless,
noisy creatures, who are pretentious, gluttonous, dirty, coarse,
totally and scandalously idle, insatiable, and enormous.

But after the queen's impregnation, when flowers begin to close
sooner, and open later, the spirit one morning will coldly decree
the simultaneous and general massacre of every male. It regulates
the workers' labours, with due regard to their age; it allots their
task to the nurses who tend the nymphs and the larvae, the ladies of
honour who wait on the queen and never allow her out of their sight;
the house-bees who air, refresh, or heat the hive by fanning their
wings, and hasten the evaporation of the honey that may be too
highly charged with water; the architects, masons, wax-workers, and
sculptors who form the chain and construct the combs; the foragers
who sally forth to the flowers in search of the nectar that turns
into honey, of the pollen that feeds the nymphs and the larvae, the
propolis that welds and strengthens the buildings of the city, or
the water and salt required by the youth of the nation. Its orders
have gone to the chemists who ensure the preservation of the honey
by letting a drop of formic acid fall in from the end of their
sting; to the capsule-makers who seal down the cells when the
treasure is ripe, to the sweepers who maintain public places and
streets most irreproachably clean, to the bearers whose duty it is
to remove the corpses; and to the amazons of the guard who keep
watch on the threshold by night and by day, question comers and
goers, recognise the novices who return from their very first
flight, scare away vagabonds, marauders and loiterers, expel all
intruders, attack redoubtable foes in a body, and, if need be,
barricade the entrance.

Finally, it is the spirit of the hive that fixes the hour of the
great annual sacrifice to the genius of the race: the hour, that is,
of the swarm; when we find a whole people, who have attained the
topmost pinnacle of prosperity and power, suddenly abandoning to the
generation to come their wealth and their palaces, their homes and
the fruits of their labour; themselves content to encounter the
hardships and perils of a new and distant country. This act, be it
conscious or not, undoubtedly passes the limits of human morality.
Its result will sometimes be ruin, but poverty always; and the
thrice-happy city is scattered abroad in obedience to a law superior
to its own happiness. Where has this law been decreed, which, as we
soon shall find, is by no means as blind and inevitable as one might
believe? Where, in what assembly, what council, what intellectual
and moral sphere, does this spirit reside to whom all must submit,
itself being vassal to an heroic duty, to an intelligence whose eyes
are persistently fixed on the future?

It comes to pass with the bees as with most of the things in this
world; we remark some few of their habits; we say they do this, they
work in such and such fashion, their queens are born thus, their
workers are virgin, they swarm at a certain time. And then we
imagine we know them, and ask nothing more. We watch them hasten
from flower to flower, we see the constant agitation within the
hive; their life seems very simple to us, and bounded, like every
life, by the instinctive cares of reproduction and nourishment. But
let the eye draw near, and endeavour to see; and at once the least
phenomenon of all becomes overpoweringly complex; we are confronted
by the enigma of intellect, of destiny, will, aim, means, causes;
the incomprehensible organisation of the most insignificant act of


Our hive, then, is preparing to swarm; making ready for the great
immolation to the exacting gods of the race. In obedience to the
order of the spirit--an order that to us may well seem
incomprehensible, for it is entirely opposed to all our own
instincts and feelings--60,000 or 70,000 bees out of the 80,000 or
90,000 that form the whole population, will abandon the maternal
city at the prescribed hour. They will not leave at a moment of
despair; or desert, with sudden and wild resolve, a home laid waste
by famine, disease, or war. No, the exile has long been planned, and
the favourable hour patiently awaited. Were the hive poor, had it
suffered from pillage or storm, had misfortune befallen the royal
family, the bees would not forsake it. They leave it only when it
has attained the apogee of its prosperity; at a time when, after the
arduous labours of the spring, the immense palace of wax has its
120,000 well-arranged cells overflowing with new honey, and with the
many-coloured flour, known as "bees' bread," on which nymphs and
larvae are fed.

Never is the hive more beautiful than on the eve of its heroic
renouncement, in its unrivalled hour of fullest abundance and joy;
serene for all its apparent excitement and feverishness.

Let us endeavour to picture it to ourselves, not as it appears to
the bees,--for we cannot tell in what magical, formidable fashion
things may be reflected in the 6,000 or 7,000 facets of their
lateral eyes and the triple cyclopean eye on their brow,--but as it
would seem to us, were we of their stature. From the height of a
dome more colossal than that of St. Peter's at Rome waxen walls
descend to the ground, balanced in the void and the darkness;
gigantic and manifold, vertical and parallel geometric
constructions, to which, for relative precision, audacity, and
vastness, no human structure is comparable. Each of these walls,
whose substance still is immaculate and fragrant, of virginal,
silvery freshness, contains thousands of cells, that are stored with
provisions sufficient to feed the whole people for several weeks.
Here, lodged in transparent cells, are the pollens, love-ferment of
every flower of spring, making brilliant splashes of red and yellow,
of black and mauve. Close by, in twenty thousand reservoirs, sealed
with a seal that shall only be broken on days of supreme distress,
the honey of April is stored, most limpid and perfumed of all,
wrapped round with long and magnificent embroidery of gold, whose
borders hang stiff and rigid. Still lower the honey of May matures,
in great open vats, by whose side watchful cohorts maintain an
incessant current of air. In the centre, and far from the light
whose diamond rays steal in through the only opening, in the warmest
part of the hive, there stands the abode of the future; here does it
sleep, and wake. For this is the royal domain of the brood-cells,
set apart for the queen and her acolytes; about 10,000 cells wherein
the eggs repose, 15,000 or 16,000 chambers tenanted by larvae,
40,000 dwellings inhabited by white nymphs to whom thousands of
nurses minister.* And finally, in the holy of holies of these partss
are the three, four, six, or twelve sealed palaces, vast in size
compared with the others, where the adolescent princesses lie who
await their hour, wrapped in a kind of shroud, all of them
motionless and pale, and fed in the darkness.

*The figures given here are scrupulously exact. They are those of a
well-filled hive in full prosperity.

On the day, then, that the Spirit of the Hive has ordained, a
certain part of the population will go forth, selected in accordance
with sure and immovable laws, and make way for hopes that as yet are
formless. In the sleeping city there remain the males, from whose
ranks the royal lover shall come, the very young bees that tend the
brood-cells, and some thousands of workers who continue to forage
abroad, to guard the accumulated treasure, and preserve the moral
traditions of the hive. For each hive has its own code of morals.
There are some that are very virtuous and some that are very
perverse; and a careless bee-keeper will often corrupt his people,
destroy their respect for the property of others, incite them to
pillage, and induce in them habits of conquest and idleness which
will render them sources of danger to all the little republics
around. These things result from the bee's discovery that work among
distant flowers, whereof many hundreds must be visited to form one
drop of honey, is not the only or promptest method of acquiring
wealth, but that it is easier to enter ill-guarded cities by
stratagem, or force her way into others too weak for self-defence.
Nor is it easy to restore to the paths of duty a hive that has
become thus depraved.


All things go to prove that it is not the queen, but the spirit of
the hive, that decides on the swarm. With this queen of ours it
happens as with many a chief among men, who though he appear to give
orders, is himself obliged to obey commands far more mysterious, far
more inexplicable, than those he issues to his subordinates. The
hour once fixed, the spirit will probably let it be known at break
of dawn, or the previous night, if indeed not two nights before; for
scarcely has the sun drunk in the first drops of dew when a most
unaccustomed stir, whose meaning the bee-keeper rarely will fail to
grasp, is to be noticed within and around the buzzing city. At times
one would almost appear to detect a sign of dispute, hesitation,
recoil. It will happen even that for day after day a strange
emotion, apparently without cause, will appear and vanish in this
transparent, golden throng. Has a cloud that we cannot see crept
across the sky that the bees are watching; or is their intellect
battling with a new regret? Does a winged council debate the
necessity of the departure? Of this we know nothing; as we know
nothing of the manner in which the spirit conveys its resolution to
the crowd. Certain as it may seem that the bees communicate with
each other, we know not whether this be done in human fashion. It is
possible even that their own refrain may be inaudible to them: the
murmur that comes to us heavily laden with perfume of honey, the
ecstatic whisper of fairest summer days that the bee-keeper loves so
well, the festival song of labour that rises and falls around the
hive in the crystal of the hour, and might almost be the chant of
the eager flowers, hymn of their gladness and echo of their soft
fragrance, the voice of the white carnations, the marjoram, and the
thyme. They have, however, a whole gamut of sounds that we can
distinguish, ranging from profound delight to menace, distress, and
anger; they have the ode of the queen, the song of abundance, the
psalms of grief, and, lastly, the long and mysterious war-cries the
adolescent princesses send forth during the combats and massacres
that precede the nuptial flight. May this be a fortuitous music that
fails to attain their inward silence? In any event they seem not the
least disturbed at the noises we make near the hive; but they regard
these perhaps as not of their world, and possessed of no interest
for them. It is possible that we on our side hear only a fractional
part of the sounds that the bees produce, and that they have many
harmonies to which our ears are not attuned. We soon shall see with
what startling rapidity they are able to understand each other, and
adopt concerted measures, when, for instance, the great honey thief,
the huge sphinx atropos, the sinister butterfly that bears a death's
head on its back, penetrates into the hive, humming its own strange
note, which acts as a kind of irresistible incantation; the news
spreads quickly from group to group, and from the guards at the
threshold to the workers on the furthest combs, the whole population


It was for a long time believed that when these wise bees, generally
so prudent, so far-sighted and economical, abandoned the treasures
of their kingdom and flung themselves upon the uncertainties of
life, they were yielding to a kind of irresistible folly, a
mechanical impulse, a law of the species, a decree of nature, or to
the force that for all creatures lies hidden in the revolution of
time. It is our habit, in the case of the bees no less than our own,
to regard as fatality all that we do not as yet understand. But now
that the hive has surrendered two or three of its material secrets,
we have discovered that this exodus is neither instinctive nor
inevitable. It is not a blind emigration, but apparently the
well-considered sacrifice of the present generation in favour of the
generation to come. The bee-keeper has only to destroy in their
cells the young queens that still are inert, and, at the same time,
if nymphs and larvae abound, to enlarge the store-houses and
dormitories of the nation, for this unprofitable tumult
instantaneously to subside, for work to be at once resumed, and the
flowers revisited; while the old queen, who now is essential again,
with no successor to hope for, or perhaps to fear, will renounce for
this year her desire for the light of the sun. Reassured as to the
future of the activity that will soon spring into life, she will
tranquilly resume her maternal labours, which consist in the laying
of two or three thousand eggs a day, as she passes, in a methodical
spiral, from cell to cell, omitting none, and never pausing to rest.

Where is the fatality here, save in the love of the race of to-day
for the race of to-morrow? This fatality exists in the human species
also, but its extent and power seem infinitely less. Among men it
never gives rise to sacrifices as great, as unanimous, or as
complete. What far-seeing fatality, taking the place of this one, do
we ourselves obey? We know not; as we know not the being who watches
us as we watch the bees.

But the hive that we have selected is disturbed in its history by no
interference of man; and as the beautiful day advances with radiant
and tranquil steps beneath the trees, its ardour, still bathed in
dew, makes the appointed hour seem laggard. Over the whole surface
of the golden corridors that divide the parallel walls the workers
are busily making preparation for the journey. And each one will
first of all burden herself with provision of honey sufficient for
five or six days. From this honey that they bear within them they
will distil, by a chemical process still unexplained, the wax
required for the immediate construction of buildings. They will
provide themselves also with a certain amount of propolis, a kind of
resin with which they will seal all the crevices in the new
dwelling, strengthen weak places, varnish the walls, and exclude the
light; for the bees love to work in almost total obscurity, guiding
themselves with their many-faceted eyes, or with their antennae
perhaps, the seat, it would seem, of an unknown sense that fathoms
and measures the darkness.


They are not without prescience, therefore, of what is to befall
them on this the most dangerous day of all their existence. Absorbed
by the cares, the prodigious perils of this mighty adventure, they
will have no time now to visit the gardens and meadows; and
to-morrow, and after tomorrow, it may happen that rain may fall, or
there may be wind; that their wings may be frozen or the flowers
refuse to open. Famine and death would await them were it not for
this foresight of theirs. None would come to their help, nor would
they seek help of any. For one city knows not the other, and
assistance never is given. And even though the bee-keeper deposit
the hive, in which he has gathered the old queen and her attendant
cluster of bees, by the side of the abode they have but this moment
quitted, they would seem, be the disaster never so great that shall
now have befallen them, to have wholly forgotten the peace and the
happy activity that once they had known there, the abundant wealth
and the safety that had then been their portion; and all, one by
one, and down to the last of them, will perish of hunger and cold
around their unfortunate queen rather than return to the home of
their birth, whose sweet odour of plenty, the fragrance, indeed, of
their own past assiduous labour, reaches them even in their


That is a thing, some will say, that men would not do,--a proof that
the bee, notwithstanding the marvels of its organisation, still is
lacking in intellect and veritable consciousness. Is this so
certain? Other beings, surely, may possess an intellect that differs
from ours, and produces different results, without therefore being
inferior. And besides, are we, even in this little human parish of
ours, such infallible judges of matters that pertain to the spirit?
Can we so readily divine the thoughts that may govern the two or
three people we may chance to see moving and talking behind a closed
window, when their words do not reach us? Or let us suppose that an
inhabitant of Venus or Mars were to contemplate us from the height
of a mountain, and watch the little black specks that we form in
space, as we come and go in the streets and squares of our towns.
Would the mere sight of our movements, our buildings, machines, and
canals, convey to him any precise idea of our morality, intellect,
our manner of thinking, and loving, and hoping,--in a word, of our
real and intimate self? All he could do, like ourselves when we gaze
at the hive, would be to take note of some facts that seem very
surprising; and from these facts to deduce conclusions probably no
less erroneous, no less uncertain, than those that we choose to form
concerning the bee.

This much at least is certain; our "little black specks "would not
reveal the vast moral direction, the wonderful unity, that are so
apparent in the hive. "Whither do they tend, and what is it they do?
"he would ask, after years and centuries of patient watching. "What
is the aim of their life, or its pivot? Do they obey some God? I can
see nothing that governs their actions. The little things that one
day they appear to collect and build up, the next they destroy and
scatter. They come and they go, they meet and disperse, but one
knows not what it is they seek. In numberless cases the spectacle
they present is altogether inexplicable. There are some, for
instance, who, as it were, seem scarcely to stir from their place.
They are to be distinguished by their glossier coat, and often too
by their more considerable bulk. They occupy buildings ten or twenty
times larger than ordinary dwellings, and richer, and more
ingeniously fashioned. Every day they spend many hours at their
meals, which sometimes indeed are prolonged far into the night. They
appear to be held in extraordinary honour by those who approach
them; men come from the neighbouring houses, bringing provisions,
and even from the depths of the country, laden with presents. One
can only assume that these persons must be indispensable to the
race, to which they render essential service, although our means of
investigation have not yet enabled us to discover what the precise
nature of this service may be. There are others, again, who are
incessantly engaged in the most wearisome labour, whether it be in
great sheds full of wheels that forever turn round and round, or
close by the shipping, or in obscure hovels, or on small plots of
earth that from sunrise to sunset they are constantly delving and
digging. We are led to believe that this labour must be an offence,
and punishable. For the persons guilty of it are housed in filthy,
ruinous, squalid cabins. They are clothed in some colourless hide.
So great does their ardour appear for this noxious, or at any rate
useless activity, that they scarcely allow themselves time to eat or
to sleep. In numbers they are to the others as a thousand to one. It
is remarkable that the species should have been able to survive to
this day under conditions so unfavourable to its development. It
should be mentioned, however, that apart from this characteristic
devotion to their wearisome toil, they appear inoffensive and
docile; and satisfied with the leavings of those who evidently are
the guardians, if not the saviours, of the race."


Is it not strange that the hive, which we vaguely survey from the
height of another world, should provide our first questioning glance
with so sure and profound a reply? Must we not admire the manner in
which the thought or the god that the bees obey is at once revealed
by their edifices, wrought with such striking conviction, by their
customs and laws, their political and economical organisation, their
virtues, and even their cruelties? Nor is this god, though it be
perhaps the only one to which man has as yet never offered serious
worship, by any means the least reasonable or the least legitimate
that we can conceive. The god of the bees is the future. When we, in
our study of human history, endeavour to gauge the moral force or
greatness of a people or race, we have but one standard of
measurement--the dignity and permanence of their ideal, and the
abnegation wherewith they pursue it. Have we often encountered an
ideal more conformable to the desires of the universe, more widely
manifest, more disinterested or sublime; have we often discovered an
abnegation more complete and heroic?


Strange little republic, that, for all its logic and gravity, its
matured conviction and prudence, still falls victim to so vast and
precarious a dream! Who shall tell us, O little people that are so
profoundly in earnest, that have fed on the warmth and the light and
on nature's purest, the soul of the flowers, wherein matter for once
seems to smile, and put forth it? most wistful effort towards beauty
and happiness,--who shall tell us what problems you have resolved,
but we not yet, what certitudes you have acquired that we still have
to conquer? And if you have truly resolved these problems, and
acquired these certitudes, by the aid of some blind and primitive
impulse and not through the intellect, then to what enigma, more
insoluble still, are you not urging us on? Little city abounding in
faith and mystery and hope, why do your myriad virgins consent to a
task that no human slave has ever accepted? Another spring might be
theirs, another summer, were they only a little less wasteful of
strength, a little less self-forgetful in their ardour for toil; but
at the magnificent moment when the flowers all cry to them, they
seem to be stricken with the fatal ecstasy of work; and in less than
five weeks they almost all perish, their wings broken, their bodies
shrivelled and covered with wounds.

"Tantus amor florum, et generandi gloria mellis!"

cries Virgil in the fourth book of the Georgics, wherein he devotes
himself to the bees, and hands down to us the charming errors of the
ancients, who looked on nature with eyes still dazzled by the
presence of imaginary gods.


Why do they thus renounce sleep, the delights of honey and. love,
and the exquisite leisure enjoyed, for instance, by their winged
brother, the butterfly? Why will they not live as he lives? It is
not hunger that urges them on. Two or three flowers suffice for
their nourishment, and in one hour they will visit two or three
hundred, to collect a treasure whose sweetness they never will
taste. Why all this toil and distress, and whence comes this mighty
assurance? Is it so certain, then, that the new generation whereunto
you offer your lives will merit the sacrifice; will be more
beautiful, happier, will do something you have not done? Your aim is
clear to us, clearer far than our own; you desire to live, as long
as the world itself, in those that come after; but what can the aim
be of this great aim; what the mission of this existence eternally

And yet may it not be that these questions are idle, and we who are
putting them to you mere childish dreamers, hedged round with error
and doubt? And, indeed, had successive evolutions installed you
all-powerful and supremely happy; had you gained the last heights,
whence at length you ruled over nature's laws; nay, were you
immortal goddesses, we still should be asking you what your desires
might be, your ideas of progress; still wondering where you imagined
that at last you would rest and declare your wishes fulfilled. We
are so made that nothing contents us; that we can regard no single
thing as having its aim self-contained, as simply existing, with no
thought beyond existence. Has there been, to this day, one god out
of all the multitude man has conceived, from the vulgarest to the
most thoughtful, of whom it has not been required that he shall be
active and stirring, that he shall create countless beings and
things, and have myriad aims outside himself? And will the time ever
come when we shall be resigned for a few hours tranquilly to
represent in this world an interesting form of material activity;
and then, our few hours over, to assume, without surprise and
without regret, that other form which is the unconscious, the
unknown, the slumbering, and the eternal?


But we are forgetting the hive wherein the swarming bees have begun
to lose patience, the hive whose black and vibrating waves are
bubbling and overflowing, like a brazen cup beneath an ardent sun.
It is noon; and the heat so great that the assembled trees would
seem almost to hold back their leaves, as a man holds his breath
before something very tender but very grave. The bees give their
honey and sweet-smelling wax to the man who attends them; but more
precious gift still is their summoning him to the gladness of June,
to the joy of the beautiful months; for events in which bees take
part happen only when skies are pure, at the winsome hours of the
year when flowers keep holiday. They are the soul of the summer, the
clock whose dial records the moments of plenty; they are the
untiring wing on which delicate perfumes float; the guide of the
quivering light-ray, the song of the slumberous, languid air; and
their flight is the token, the sure and melodious note, of all the
myriad fragile joys that are born in the heat and dwell in the
sunshine. They teach us to tune our ear to the softest, most
intimate whisper of these good, natural hours. To him who has known
them and loved them, a summer where there are no bees becomes as sad
and as empty as one without flowers or birds.


The man who never before has beheld the swarm of a populous hive
must regard this riotous, bewildering spectacle with some
apprehension and diffidence. He will be almost afraid to draw near;
he will wonder can these be the earnest, the peace-loving,
hard-working bees whose movements he has hitherto followed? It was
but a few moments before he had seen them troop in from all parts of
the country, as pre-occupied, seemingly, as little housewives might
be, with no thoughts beyond household cares. He had watched them
stream into the hive, imperceptibly almost, out of breath, eager,
exhausted, full of discreet agitation; and had seen the young
amazons stationed at the gate salute them, as they passed by, with
the slightest wave of antennae. And then, the inner court reached,
they had hurriedly given their harvest of honey to the adolescent
portresses always stationed within, exchanging with these at most
the three or four probably indispensable words; or perhaps they
would hasten themselves to the vast magazines that encircle the
brood-cells, and deposit the two heavy baskets of pollen that depend
from their thighs, thereupon at once going forth once more, without
giving a thought to what might be passing in the royal palace, the
work-rooms, or the dormitory where the nymphs lie asleep; without
for one instant joining in the babel of the public place in front of
the gate, where it is the wont of the cleaners, at time of great
heat, to congregate and to gossip.


To-day this is all changed. A certain number of workers, it is true,
will peacefully go to the fields, as though nothing were happening;
will come back, clean the hive, attend to the brood-cells, and hold
altogether aloof from the general ecstasy. These are the ones that
will not accompany the queen; they will remain to guard the old
home, feed the nine or ten thousand eggs, the eighteen thousand
larvae, the thirty-six thousand nymphs and seven or eight royal
princesses, that to-day shall all be abandoned. Why they have been
singled out for this austere duty, by what law, or by whom, it is
not in our power to divine. To this mission of theirs they remain
inflexibly, tranquilly faithful; and though I have many times tried
the experiment of sprinkling a colouring matter over one of these
resigned Cinderellas, that are moreover easily to be distinguished
in the midst of the rejoicing crowds by their serious and somewhat
ponderous gait, it is rarely indeed that I have found one of them in
the delirious throng of the swarm.

And yet, the attraction must seem irresistible. It is the ecstasy of
the perhaps unconscious sacrifice the god has ordained; it is the
festival of honey, the triumph of the race, the victory of the
future: the one day of joy, of forgetfulness and folly; the only
Sunday known to the bees. It would appear to be also the solitary
day upon which all eat their fill, and revel, to heart's content, in
the delights of the treasure themselves have amassed. It is as
though they were prisoners to whom freedom at last had been given,
who had suddenly been led to a land of refreshment and plenty. They
exult, they cannot contain the joy that is in them. They come and go
aimlessly,--they whose every movement has always its precise and
useful purpose--they depart and return, sally forth once again to
see if the queen be ready, to excite their sisters, to beguile the
tedium of waiting. They fly much higher than is their wont, and the
leaves of the mighty trees round about all quiver responsive. They
have left trouble behind, and care. They no longer are meddling and
fierce, aggressive, suspicious, untamable, angry. Man--the unknown
master whose sway they never acknowledge, who can subdue them only
by conforming to their every law, to their habits of labour, and
following step by step the path that is traced in their life by an
intellect nothing can thwart or turn from its purpose, by a spirit
whose aim is always the good of the morrow--on this day man can
approach them, can divide the glittering curtain they form as they
fly round and round in songful circles; he can take them up in his
hand, and gather them as he would a bunch of grapes; for to-day, in
their gladness, possessing nothing, but full of faith in the future,
they will submit to everything and injure no one, provided only they
be not separated from the queen who bears that future within her.


But the veritable signal has not yet been given. In the hive there
is indescribable confusion; and a disorder whose meaning escapes us.
At ordinary times each bee, once returned to her home, would appear
to forget her possession of wings; and will pursue her active
labours, making scarcely a movement, on that particular spot in the
hive that her special duties assign. But to-day they all seem
bewitched; they fly in dense circles round and round the polished
walls like a living jelly stirred by an invisible hand. The
temperature within rises rapidly,--to such a degree, at times, that
the wax of the buildings will soften, and twist out of shape. The
queen, who ordinarily never will stir from the centre of the comb,
now rushes wildly, in breathless excitement, over the surface of the
vehement crowd that turn and turn on themselves. Is she hastening
their departure, or trying to delay it? Does she command, or haply
implore? Does this prodigious emotion issue from her, or is she its
victim? Such knowledge as we possess of the general psychology of
the bee warrants the belief that the swarming always takes place
against the old sovereign's will. For indeed the ascetic workers,
her daughters, regard the queen above all as the organ of love,
indispensable, certainly, and sacred, but in herself somewhat
unconscious, and often of feeble mind. They treat her like a mother
in her dotage. Their respect for her, their tenderness, is heroic
and boundless. The purest honey, specially distilled and almost
entirely assimilable, is reserved for her use alone. She has an
escort that watches over her by day and by night, that facilitates
her maternal duties and gets ready the cells wherein the eggs shall
be laid; she has loving attendants who pet and caress her, feed her
and clean her, and even absorb her excrement. Should the least
accident befall her the news will spread quickly from group to
group, and the whole population will rush to and fro in loud
lamentation. Seize her, imprison her, take her away from the hive at
a time when the bees shall have no hope of filling her place, owing,
it may be, to her having left no predestined descendants, or to
there being no larvae less than three days old (for a special
nourishment is capable of transforming these into royal nymphs, such
being the grand democratic principle of the hive, and a counterpoise
to the prerogatives of maternal predestination), and then, her loss
once known, after two or three hours, perhaps, for the city is vast;
work will cease in almost every direction. The young will no longer
be cared for; part of the inhabitants will wander in every
direction, seeking their mother, in quest of whom others will sally
forth from the hive; the workers engaged in constructing the comb
will fall asunder and scatter, the foragers no longer will visit the
flowers, the guard at the entrance will abandon their post; and
foreign marauders, all the parasites of honey, forever on the watch
for opportunities of plunder, will freely enter and leave without
any one giving a thought to the defence of the treasure that has
been so laboriously gathered. And poverty, little by little, will
steal into the city; the population will dwindle; and the wretched
inhabitants soon will perish of distress and despair, though every
flower of summer burst into bloom before them.

But let the queen be restored before her loss has become an
accomplished, irremediable fact, before the bees have grown too
profoundly demoralised,--for in this they resemble men: a prolonged
regret, or misfortune, will impair their intellect and degrade their
character,--let her be restored but a few hours later, and they will
receive her with extraordinary, pathetic welcome. They will flock
eagerly round her; excited groups will climb over each other in
their anxiety to draw near; as she passes among them they will
caress her with the long antennae that contain so many organs as yet
unexplained; they will present her with honey, and escort her
tumultuously back to the royal chamber. And order at once is
restored, work resumed, from the central comb of the brood-cells to
the furthest annex where the surplus honey is stored; the foragers
go forth, in long black files, to return, in less than three minutes
sometimes, laden with nectar and pollen; streets are swept,
parasites and marauders killed or expelled; and the hive soon
resounds with the gentle, monotonous cadence of the strange hymn of
rejoicing, which is, it would seem, the hymn of the royal presence.


There are numberless instances of the absolute attachment and
devotion that the workers display towards their queen. Should
disaster befall the little republic; should the hive or the comb
collapse, should man prove ignorant, or brutal; should they suffer
from famine, from cold or disease, and perish by thousands, it will
still be almost invariably found that the queen will be safe and
alive, beneath the corpses of her faithful daughters. For they will
protect her, help her to escape; their bodies will provide both
rampart and shelter; for her will be the last drop of honey, the
wholesomest food. And be the disaster never so great, the city of
virgins will not lose heart so long as the queen be alive. Break
their comb twenty times in succession, take twenty times from them
their young and their food, you still shall never succeed in making
them doubt of the future; and though they be starving, and their
number so small that it scarcely suffices to shield their mother
from the enemy's gaze, they will set about to reorganize the laws of
the colony, and to provide for what is most pressing; they will
distribute the work in accordance with the new necessities of this
disastrous moment, and thereupon will immediately re-assume their
labours with an ardour, a patience, a tenacity and intelligence not
often to be found existing to such a degree in nature, true though
it be that most of its creatures display more confidence and courage
than man.

But the presence of the queen is not even essential for their
discouragement to vanish and their love to endure. It is enough that
she should have left, at the moment of her death or departure, the
very slenderest hope of descendants. "We have seen a colony," says
Langstroth, one of the fathers of modern apiculture, "that had not
bees sufficient to cover a comb of three inches square, and yet
endeavoured to rear a queen. For two whole weeks did they cherish
this hope; finally, when their number was reduced by one-half, their
queen was born, but her wings were imperfect, and she was unable to
fly. Impotent as she was, her bees did not treat her with the less
respect. A week more, and there remained hardly a dozen bees; yet a
few days, and the queen had vanished, leaving a few wretched,
inconsolable insects upon the combs."

There is another instance, and one that reveals most palpably the
ultimate gesture of filial love and devotion. It arises from one of
the extraordinary ordeals that our recent and tyrannical
intervention inflicts on these hapless, unflinching heroines. I, in
common with all amateur bee-keepers, have more than once had
impregnated queens sent me from Italy; for the Italian species is
more prolific, stronger, more active, and gentler than our own. It
is the custom to forward them in small, perforated boxes. In these
some food is placed, and the queen enclosed, together with a certain
number of workers, selected as far as possible from among the oldest
bees in the hive. (The age of the bee can be readily told by its
body, which gradually becomes more polished, thinner, and almost
bald; and more particularly by the wings, which hard work uses and
tears.) It is their mission to feed the queen during the journey, to
tend her and guard her. I would frequently find, when the box
arrived, that nearly every one of the workers was dead. On one
occasion, indeed, they had all perished of hunger; but in this
instance as in all others the queen was alive, unharmed, and full of
vigour; and the last of her companions had probably passed away in
the act of presenting the last drop of honey she held in her sac to
the queen, who was symbol of a life more precious, more vast than
her own.


This unwavering affection having come under the notice of man, he
was able to turn to his own advantage the qualities to which it
gives rise, or that it perhaps contains: the admirable political
sense, the passion for work, the perseverance, magnanimity, and
devotion to the future. It has allowed him, in the course of the
last few years, to a certain extent to domesticate these intractable
insects, though without their knowledge; for they yield to no
foreign strength, and in their unconscious servitude obey only the
laws of their own adoption. Man may believe, if he choose, that,
possessing the queen, he holds in his hand the destiny and soul of
the hive. In accordance with the manner in which he deals with
her--as it were, plays with her--he can increase and hasten the
swarm or restrict and retard it; he can unite or divide colonies,
and direct the emigration of kingdoms. And yet it is none the less
true that the queen is essentially merely a sort of living symbol,
standing, as all symbols must, for a vaster although less
perceptible principle; and this principle the apiarist will do well
to take into account, if he would not expose himself to more than
one unexpected reverse. For the bees are by no means deluded. The
presence of the queen does not blind them to the existence of their
veritable sovereign, immaterial and everlasting, which is no other
than their fixed idea. Why inquire as to whether this idea be
conscious or not? Such speculation can have value only if our
anxiety be to determine whether we should more rightly admire the
bees that have the idea, or nature that has planted it in them.
Wherever it lodge, in the vast unknowable body or in the tiny ones
that we see, it merits our deepest attention; nor may it be out of
place here to observe that it is the habit we have of subordinating
our wonder to accidents of origin or place, that so often causes us
to lose the chance of deep admiration; which of all things in the
world is the most helpful to us.


These conjectures may perhaps be regarded as exceedingly
venturesome, and possibly also as unduly human. It may be urged that
the bees, in all probability, have no idea of the kind; that their
care for the future, love of the race, and many other feelings we
choose to ascribe to them, are truly no more than forms assumed by
the necessities of life, the fear of suffering or death, and the
attraction of pleasure. Let it be so; look on it all as a figure of
speech; it is a matter to which I attach no importance. The one
thing certain here, as it is the one thing certain in all other
cases, is that, under special circumstances, the bees will treat
their queen in a special manner. The rest is all mystery, around
which we only can weave more or less ingenious and pleasant
conjecture. And yet, were we speaking of man in the manner wherein
it were wise perhaps to speak of the bee, is there very much more we
could say? He too yields only to necessity, the attraction of
pleasure, and the fear of suffering; and what we call our intellect
has the same origin and mission as what in animals we choose to term
instinct. We do certain things, whose results we conceive to be
known to us; other things happen, and we flatter ourselves that we
are better equipped than animals can be to divine their cause; but,
apart from the fact that this supposition rests on no very solid
foundation, events of this nature are rare and infinitesimal,
compared with the vast mass of others that elude comprehension; and
all, the pettiest and the most sublime, the best known and the most
inexplicable, the nearest and the most distant, come to pass in a
night so profound that our blindness may well be almost as great as
that we suppose in the bee.


"All must agree," remarks Buffon, who has a somewhat amusing
prejudice against the bee,--" all must agree that these flies,
individually considered, possess far less genius than the dog, the
monkey, or the majority of animals; that they display far less
docility, attachment, or sentiment; that they have, in a word, less
qualities that relate to our own; and from that we may conclude that
their apparent intelligence derives only from their assembled
multitude; nor does this union even argue intelligence, for it is
governed by no moral considerations, it being without their consent
that they find themselves gathered together. This society,
therefore, is no more than a physical assemblage ordained by nature,
and independent either of knowledge, or reason, or aim. The
mother-bee produces ten thousand individuals at a time, and in the
same place; these ten thousand individuals, were they a thousand
times stupider than I suppose them to be, would be compelled, for
the mere purpose of existence, to contrive some form of arrangement;
and, assuming that they had begun by injuring each other, they
would, as each one possesses the same strength as its fellow, soon
have ended by doing each other the least possible harm, or, in other
words, by rendering assistance. They have the appearance of
understanding each other, and of working for a common aim; and the
observer, therefore, is apt to endow them with reasons and intellect
that they truly are far from possessing. He will pretend to account
for each action, show a reason behind every movement; and from
thence the gradation is easy to proclaiming them marvels, or
monsters, of innumerable ideas. Whereas the truth is that these ten
thousand individuals, that have been produced simultaneously, that
have lived together, and undergone metamorphosis at more or less the
same time, cannot fail all to do the same thing, and are compelled,
however slight the sentiment within them, to adopt common habits, to
live in accord and union, to busy themselves with their dwelling, to
return to it after their journeys, etc., etc. And on this foundation
arise the architecture, the geometry, the order, the foresight, love
of country,--in a word, the republic; all springing, as we have
seen, from the admiration of the observer." There we have our bees
explained in a very different fashion. And if it seem more natural
at first, is it not for the very simple reason that it really
explains almost nothing? I will not allude to the material errors
this chapter contains; I will only ask whether the mere fact of the
bees accepting a common existence, while doing each other the least
possible harm, does not in itself argue a certain intelligence. And
does not this intelligence appear the more remarkable to us as we
more closely examine the fashion in which these "ten thousand
individuals" avoid hurting each other, and end by giving assistance?
And further, is this not the history of ourselves; and does not all
that the angry old naturalist says apply equally to every one of our
human societies? And yet once again: if the bee is indeed to be
credited with none of the feelings or ideas that we have ascribed to
it, shall we not very willingly shift the ground of our wonder? If
we must not admire the bee, we will then admire nature; the moment
must always come when admiration can be no longer denied us, nor
shall there be loss to us through our having retreated, or waited.

However these things may be, and without abandoning this conjecture
of ours, that at least has the advantage of connecting in our mind
certain actions that have evident connection in fact, it is certain
that the bees have far less adoration for the queen herself than for
the infinite future of the race that she represents. They are not
sentimental; and should one of their number return from work so
severely wounded as to be held incapable of further service, they
will ruthlessly expel her from the hive. And yet it cannot be said
that they are altogether incapable of a kind of personal attachment
towards their mother. They will recognise her from among all. Even
when she is old, crippled, and wretched, the sentinels at the door
will never allow another queen to enter the hive, though she be
young and fruitful. It is true that this is one of the fundamental
principles of their polity, and never relaxed except at times of
abundant honey, in favour of some foreign worker who shall be well
laden with food.

When the queen has become completely sterile, the bees will rear a
certain number of royal princesses to fill her place. But what
becomes of the old sovereign? As to this we have no precise
knowledge; but it has happened, at times, that apiarists have found
a magnificent queen, in the flower of her age, on the central comb
of the hive; and in some obscure corner, right at the back, the
gaunt, decrepit "old mistress," as they call her in Normandy. In
such cases it would seem that the bees have to exercise the greatest
care to protect her from the hatred of the vigorous rival who longs
for her death; for queen hates queen so fiercely that two who might
happen to be under the same roof would immediately fly at each
other. It would be pleasant to believe that the bees are thus
providing their ancient sovereign with a humble shelter in a remote
corner of the city, where she may end her days in peace. Here again
we touch one of the thousand enigmas of the waxen city; and it is
once more proved to us that the habits and the policy of the bees
are by no means narrow, or rigidly predetermined; and that their
actions have motives far more complex than we are inclined to


But we are constantly tampering with what they must regard as
immovable laws of nature; constantly placing the bees in a position
that may be compared to that in which we should ourselves be placed
were the laws of space and gravity, of light and heat, to be
suddenly suppressed around us. What are the bees to do when we, by
force or by fraud, introduce a second queen into the city? It is
probable that, in a state of nature, thanks to the sentinels at the
gate, such an event has never occurred since they first came into
the world. But this prodigious conjuncture does not scatter their
wits; they still contrive to reconcile the two principles that they
appear to regard in the light of divine commands. The first is that
of unique maternity, never infringed except in the case of sterility
in the reigning queen, and even then only very exceptionally; the
second is more curious still, and, although never transgressed,
susceptible of what may almost be termed a Judaic evasion. It is the
law that invests the person of a queen, whoever she be, with a sort
of inviolability. It would be a simple matter for the bees to pierce
the intruder with their myriad envenomed stings; she would die on
the spot, and they would merely have to remove the corpse from the
hive. But though this sting is always held ready to strike, though
they make constant use of it in their fights among themselves,_ they
will never draw it against a queen;_ nor will a queen ever draw hers
on a man, an animal, or an ordinary bee. She will never unsheath her
royal weapon--curved, in scimeter fashion, instead of being
straight, like that of the ordinary bee--save only in the case of
her doing battle with an equal: in other words, with a sister queen.

No bee, it would seem, dare take on herself the horror of direct and
bloody regicide. Whenever, therefore, the good order and prosperity
of the republic appear to demand that a queen shall die, they
endeavour to give to her death some semblance of natural decease,
and by infinite subdivision of the crime, to render it almost

They will, therefore, to use the picturesque expression of the
apiarist, "ball "the queenly intruder; in other words, they will
entirely surround her with their innumerable interlaced bodies. They
will thus form a sort of living prison wherein the captive is unable
to move; and in this prison they will keep her for twenty-four
hours, if need be, till the victim die of suffocation or hunger.

But if, at this moment, the legitimate queen draw near, and,
scenting a rival, appear disposed to attack her, the living walls of
the prison will at once fly open; and the bees, forming a circle
around the two enemies, will eagerly watch the strange duel that
will ensue, though remaining strictly impartial, and taking no share
in it. For it is written that against a mother the sting may be
drawn by a mother alone; only she who bears in her flanks close on
two million lives appears to possess the right with one blow to
inflict close on two million deaths.

But if the combat last too long, without any result, if the circular
weapons glide harmlessly over the heavy cuirasses, if one of the
queens appear anxious to make her escape, then, be she the
legitimate sovereign or be she the stranger, she will at once be
seized and lodged in the living prison until such time as she
manifest once more the desire to attack her foe. It is right to add,
however, that the numerous experiments that have been made on this
subject have almost invariably resulted in the victory of the
reigning queen, owing perhaps to the extra courage and ardour she
derives from the knowledge that she is at home, with her subjects
around her, or to the fact that the bees, however impartial while
the fight is in progress, may possibly display some favouritism in
their manner of imprisoning the rivals; for their mother would seem
scarcely to suffer from the confinement, whereas the stranger almost
always emerges in an appreciably bruised and enfeebled condition.


There is one simple experiment which proves the readiness with which
the bees will recognise their queen, and the depth of the attachment
they bear her. Remove her from the hive, and there will soon be
manifest all the phenomena of anguish and distress that I have
described in a preceding chapter. Replace her, a few hours later,
and all her daughters will hasten towards her, offering honey. One
section will form a lane, for her to pass through; others, with head
bent low and abdomen high in the air, will describe before her great
semicircles throbbing with sound; hymning, doubtless, the chant of
welcome their rites dictate for moments of supreme happiness or
solemn respect.

But let it not be imagined that a foreign queen may with impunity be
substituted for the legitimate mother. The bees will at once detect
the imposture; the intruder will be seized, and immediately enclosed
in the terrible, tumultuous prison, whose obstinate walls will be
relieved, as it were, till she dies; for in this particular instance
it hardly ever occurs that the stranger emerges alive.

And here it is curious to note to what diplomacy and elaborate
stratagem man is compelled to resort in order to delude these little
sagacious insects, and bend them to his will. In their unswerving
loyalty, they will accept the most unexpected events with touching
courage, regarding them probably as some new and inevitable fatal
caprice of nature. And, indeed, all this diplomacy notwithstanding,
in the desperate confusion that may follow one of these hazardous
expedients, it is on the admirable good sense of the bee that man
always, and almost empirically, relies; on the inexhaustible
treasure of their marvellous laws and customs, on their love of
peace and order, their devotion to the public weal, and fidelity to
the future; on the adroit strength, the earnest disinterestedness,
of their character, and, above all, on the untiring devotion with
which they fulfil their duty. But the enumeration of such procedures
belongs rather to technical treatises on apiculture, and would take
us too far.*

*The stranger queen is usually brought into the hive enclosed in a
little cage, with iron wires, which is hung between two combs. The
cage has a door made of wax and honey, which the workers, their
anger over, proceed to gnaw, thus freeing the prisoner, whom they
will often receive without any ill-will. Mr. Simmins, manager of the
great apiary at Rottingdean, has recently discovered another method
of introducing a queen, which, being extremely simple and almost
invariably successful, bids fair to be generally adopted by
apiarists who value their art. It is the behaviour of the queen that
usually makes her introduction a matter of so great difficulty. She
is almost distracted, flies to and fro, hides, and generally
comports herself as an intruder, thus arousing the suspicions of the
bees, which are soon confirmed by the workers' examination. Mr.
Simmins at first completely isolates the queen he intends to
introduce, and lets her fast for half an hour. He then lifts a
corner of the inner cover of the orphaned hive, and places the
strange queen on the top of one of the combs. Her former isolation
having terrified her, she is delighted to find herself in the midst
of the bees; and being famished she eagerly accepts the food they
offer her. The workers, deceived by her assurance, do not examine
her, but probably imagine that their old queen has returned, and
welcome her joyfully. It would seem, therefore, that, contrary to
the opinion of Huber and all other investigators, the bees are not
capable of recognising their queen. In any event, the two
explanations, which are both equally plausible--though the truth may
lurk, perhaps, in a third, that is not yet known to us--only prove
once again how complex and obscure is the psychology of the bee. And
from this, as from all questions that deal with life, we can draw
one conclusion only: that, till better obtain, curiosity still must
rule in our heart.


As regards this personal affection of which we have spoken, there is
one word more to be said. That such affection exists is certain, but
it is certain also that its memory is exceedingly short-lived. Dare
to replace in her kingdom a mother whose exile has lasted some days,
and her indignant daughters will receive her in such a fashion as to
compel you hastily to snatch her from the deadly imprisonment
reserved for unknown queens. For the bees have had time to transform
a dozen workers' habitations into royal cells, and the future of the
race is no longer in danger. Their affection will increase, or
dwindle, in the degree that the queen represents the future. Thus we
often find, when a virgin queen is performing the perilous ceremony
known as the "nuptial flight," of which I will speak later, that her
subjects are so fearful of losing her that they will all accompany
her on this tragic and distant quest of love. This they will never
do, however, if they be provided with a fragment of comb containing
brood-cells, whence they shall be able to rear other queens. Indeed,
their affection even may turn into fury and hatred should their
sovereign fail in her duty to that sort of abstract divinity that we
should call future society, which the bees would appear to regard
far more seriously than we. It happens, for instance, at times, that
apiarists for various reasons will prevent the queen from joining a
swarm by inserting a trellis into the hive; the nimble and slender
workers will flit through it, unperceiving, but to the poor slave of
love, heavier and more corpulent than her daughters, it offers an
impassable barrier. The bees, when they find that the queen has not
followed, will return to the hive, and scold the unfortunate
prisoner, hustle and ill-treat her, accusing her of laziness,
probably, or suspecting her of feeble mind. On their second
departure, when they find that she still has not followed, her
ill-faith becomes evident to them, and their attacks grow more
serious. And finally, when they shall have gone forth once more, and
still with the same result, they will almost always condemn her, as
being irremediably faithless to her destiny and to the future of the
race, and put her to death in the royal prison.


It is to the future, therefore, that the bees subordinate all
things; and with a foresight, a harmonious co-operation, a skill in
interpreting events and turning them to the best advantage, that
must compel our heartiest admiration, particularly when we remember
in how startling and supernatural a light our recent intervention
must present itself to them. It may be said, perhaps, that in the
last instance we have given, they place a very false construction
upon the queen's inability to follow them. But would our powers of
discernment be so very much subtler, if an intelligence of an order
entirely different from our own, and served by a body so colossal
that its movements were almost as imperceptible as those of a
natural phenomenon, were to divert itself by laying traps of this
kind for us? Has it not taken us thousands of years to invent a
sufficiently plausible explanation for the thunderbolt? There is a
certain feebleness that overwhelms every intellect the moment it
emerges from its own sphere, and is brought face to face with events
not of its own initiation. And, besides, it is quite possible that
if this ordeal of the trellis were to obtain more regularly and
generally among the bees, they would end by detecting the pitfall,
and by taking steps to elude it. They have mastered the intricacies
of the movable comb, of the sections that compel them to store their
surplus honey in little boxes symmetrically piled; and in the case
of the still more extraordinary innovation of foundation wax, where
the cells are indicated only by a slender circumference of wax, they
are able at once to grasp the advantages this new system presents;
they most carefully extend the wax, and thus, without loss of time
or labour, construct perfect cells. So long as the event that
confronts them appear not a snare devised by some cunning and
malicious god, the bees may be trusted always to discover the best,
nay, the only human, solution. Let me cite an instance; an event,
that, though occurring in nature, is still in itself wholly
abnormal. I refer to the manner in which the bees will dispose of a
mouse or a slug that may happen to have found its way into the hive.
The intruder killed, they have to deal with the body, which will
very soon poison their dwelling. If it be impossible for them to
expel or dismember it, they will proceed methodically and
hermetically to enclose it in a veritable sepulchre of propolis and
wax, which will tower fantastically above the ordinary monuments of
the city. In one of my hives last year I discovered three such tombs
side by side, erected with party-walls, like the cells of the comb,
so that no wax should be wasted. These tombs the prudent
grave-diggers had raised over the remains of three snails that a
child had introduced into the hive. As a rule, when dealing with
snails, they will be content to seal up with wax the orifice of the
shell. But in this case the shells were more or less cracked and
broken; and they had considered it simpler, therefore, to bury the
entire snail; and had further contrived, in order that circulation
in the entrance-hall might not be impeded, a number of galleries
exactly proportionate, not to their own girth, but to that of the
males, which are almost twice as large as themselves. Does not this
instance, and the one that follows, warrant our believing that they
would in time discover the cause of the queen's inability to follow
them through the trellis? They have a very nice sense of proportion,
and of the space required for the movement of bodies. In the regions
where the hideous death's-head sphinx, the acherontia atropos,
abounds, they construct little pillars of wax at the entrance of the
hive, so restricting the dimension as to prevent the passage of the
nocturnal marauder's enormous abdomen.


But enough on this point; were I to cite every instance I should
never have done. To return to the queen, whose position in the hive,
and the part that she plays therein, we shall most fitly describe by
declaring her to be the captive heart of the city, and the centre
around which its intelligence revolves. Unique sovereign though she
be, she is also the royal servant, the responsible delegate of love,
and its captive custodian. Her people serve her and venerate her;
but they never forget that it is not to her person that their homage
is given, but to the mission that she fulfils, and the destiny she
represents. It would not be easy for us to find a human republic
whose scheme comprised more of the desires of our planet; or a
democracy that offered an independence more perfect and rational,
combined with a submission more logical and more complete. And
nowhere, surely, should we discover more painful and absolute
sacrifice. Let it not be imagined that I admire this sacrifice to
the extent that I admire its results. It were evidently to be
desired that these results might be obtained at the cost of less
renouncement and suffering. But, the principle once accepted,--and
this is needful, perhaps, in the scheme of our globe,--its
organisation compels our wonder. Whatever the human truth on this
point may be, life, in the hive, is not looked on as a series of
more or less pleasant hours, whereof it is wise that those moments
only should be soured and embittered that are essential for
maintaining existence. The bees regard it as a great common duty,
impartially distributed amongst them all, and tending towards a
future that goes further and further back ever since the world
began. And, for the sake of this future, each one renounces more
than half of her rights and her joys. The queen bids farewell to
freedom, the light of day, and the calyx of flowers; the workers
give five or six years of their life, and shall never know love, or
the joys of maternity. The queen's brain turns to pulp, that the
reproductive organs may profit; in the workers these organs atrophy,
to the benefit of their intelligence. Nor would it be fair to allege
that the will plays no part in all these renouncements. We have seen
that each worker's larva can be transformed into a queen if lodged
and fed on the royal plan; and similarly could each royal larva be
turned into worker if her food were changed and her cell reduced.
These mysterious elections take place every day in the golden shade
of the hive. It is not chance that controls them, but a wisdom whose
deep loyalty, gravity, and unsleeping watchfulness man alone can
betray: a wisdom that makes and unmakes, and keeps careful watch
over all that happens within and without the city. If sudden flowers
abound, or the queen grow old, or less fruitful; if population
increase, and be pressed for room, you then shall find that the bees
will proceed to rear royal cells. But these cells may be destroyed
if the harvest fail, or the hive be enlarged. Often they will be
retained so long as the young queen have not accomplished, or
succeeded in, her marriage flight,--to be at once annihilated when
she returns, trailing behind her, trophy-wise, the infallible sign
of her impregnation. Who shall say where the wisdom resides that can
thus balance present and future, and prefer what is not yet visible
to that which already is seen? Where the anonymous prudence that
selects and abandons, raises and lowers; that of so many workers
makes so many queens, and of so many mothers can make a people of
virgins? We have said elsewhere that it lodged in the "Spirit of the
Hive," but where shall this spirit of the hive be looked for if not
in the assembly of workers? To be convinced of its residence there,
we need not perhaps have studied so closely the habits of this royal
republic. It was enough to place under the microscope, as Dujardin,
Brandt, Girard, Vogel, and other entomologists have done, the little
uncouth and careworn head of the virgin worker side by side with the
somewhat empty skull of the queen and the male's magnificent
cranium, glistening with its twenty-six thousand eyes. Within this
tiny head we should find the workings of the vastest and most
magnificent brain of the hive: the most beautiful and complex, the
most perfect, that, in another order and with a different
organisation, is to be found in nature after that of man. Here
again, as in every quarter where the scheme of the world is known to
us, there where the brain is, are authority and victory, veritable
strength and wisdom. And here again it is an almost invisible atom
of this mysterious substance that organises and subjugates matter,
and is able to create its own little triumphant and permanent place
in the midst of the stupendous, inert forces of nothingness and

*The brain of the bee, according to the calculation of Dujardin,
constitutes the 1-174th part of the insect's weight, and that of the
ant the 1-296th. On the other hand the peduncular parts, whose
development usually keeps pace with the triumphs the intellect
achieves over instinct, are somewhat less important in the bee than
in the ant. It would seem to result from these estimates--which are
of course hypothetical, and deal with a matter that is exceedingly
obscure--that the intellectual value of the bee and the ant must be
more or less equal.


And now to return to our swarming hive, where the bees have already
given the signal for departure, without waiting for these
reflections of ours to come to an end. At the moment this signal is
given, it is as though one sudden mad impulse had simultaneously
flung open wide every single gate in the city; and the black throng
issues, or rather pours forth in a double, or treble, or quadruple
jet, as the number of exits may be; in a tense, direct, vibrating,
uninterrupted stream that at once dissolves and melts into space,
where the myriad transparent, furious wings weave a tissue throbbing
with sound. And this for some moments will quiver right over the
hive, with prodigious rustle of gossamer silks that countless
electrified hands might be ceaselessly rending and stitching; it
floats undulating, it trembles and flutters like a veil of gladness
invisible fingers support in the sky, and wave to and fro, from the
flowers to the blue, expecting sublime advent or departure. And at
last one angle declines another is lifted; the radiant mantle unites
its four sunlit corners; and like the wonderful carpet the
fairy-tale speaks of, that flits across space to obey its master's
command, it steers its straight course, bending forward a little as
though to hide in its folds the sacred presence of the future,
towards the willow, the pear-tree, or lime whereon the queen has
alighted; and round her each rhythmical wave comes to rest, as
though on a nail of gold, and suspends its fabric of pearls and of
luminous wings.

And then there is silence once more; and, in an instant, this mighty
tumult, this awful curtain apparently laden with unspeakable menace
and anger, this bewildering golden hail that streamed upon every
object near--all these become merely a great, inoffensive, peaceful
cluster of bees, composed of thousands of little motionless groups,
that patiently wait, as they hang from the branch of a tree, for the
scouts to return who have gone in search of a place of shelter.


This is the first stage of what is known as the "primary swarm" at
whose head the old queen is always to be found. They will settle as
a rule on the shrub or the tree that is nearest the hive; for the
queen, besides being weighed down by her eggs, has dwelt in constant
darkness ever since her marriage-flight, or the swarm of the
previous year; and is naturally reluctant to venture far into space,
having indeed almost forgotten the use of her wings.

The bee-keeper waits till the mass be completely gathered together;
then, having covered his head with a large straw hat (for the most
inoffensive bee will conceive itself caught in a trap if entangled
in hair, and will infallibly use its sting), but, if he be
experienced, wearing neither mask nor veil; having taken the
precaution only of plunging his arms in cold water up to the elbow,
he proceeds to gather the swarm by vigorously shaking the bough from
which the bees depend over an inverted hive. Into this hive the
cluster will fall as heavily as an over-ripe fruit. Or, if the
branch be too stout, he can plunge a spoon into the mass; and
deposit where he will the living spoonfuls, as though he were
ladling out corn. He need have no fear of the bees that are buzzing
around him, settling on his face and hands. The air resounds with
their song of ecstasy, which is different far from their chant of
anger. He need have no fear that the swarm will divide, or grow
fierce, will scatter, or try to escape. This is a day, I repeat,
when a spirit of holiday would seem to animate these mysterious
workers, a spirit of confidence, that apparently nothing can
trouble. They have detached themselves from the wealth they had to
defend, and they no longer recognise their enemies. They become
inoffensive because of their happiness, though why they are happy we
know not, except it be because they are obeying their law. A moment
of such blind happiness is accorded by nature at times to every
living thing, when she seeks to accomplish her end. Nor need we feel
any surprise that here the bees are her dupes; we ourselves, who
have studied her movements these centuries past, and with a brain
more perfect than that of the bee, we too are her dupes, and know
not even yet whether she be benevolent or indifferent, or only
basely cruel.

There where the queen has alighted the swarm will remain; and had
she descended alone into the hive, the bees would have followed, in
long black files, as soon as intelligence had reached them of the
maternal retreat. The majority will hasten to her, with utmost
eagerness; but large numbers will pause for an instant on the
threshold of the unknown abode, and there will describe the circles
of solemn rejoicing with which it is their habit to celebrate happy
events. "They are beating to arms," say the French peasants. And
then the strange home will at once be accepted, and its remotest
corners explored; its position in the apiary, its form, its colour,
are grasped and retained in these thousands of prudent and faithful
little memories. Careful note is taken of the neighbouring
landmarks, the new city is founded, and its place established in the
mind and the heart of all its inhabitants; the walls resound with
the love-hymn of the royal presence, and work begins.


But if the swarm be not gathered by man, its history will not end
here. It will remain suspended on the branch until the return of the
workers, who, acting as scouts, winged quartermasters, as it were,
have at the very first moment of swarming sallied forth in all
directions in search of a lodging. They return one by one, and
render account of their mission; and as it is manifestly impossible
for us to fathom the thought of the bees, we can only interpret in
human fashion the spectacle that they present. We may regard it as
probable, therefore, that most careful attention is given to the
reports of the various scouts. One of them it may be, dwells on the
advantage of some hollow tree it has seen; another is in favour of a
crevice in a ruinous wall, of a cavity in a grotto, or an abandoned
burrow. The assembly often will pause and deliberate until the
following morning. Then at last the choice is made, and approved by
all. At a given moment the entire mass stirs, disunites, sets in
motion, and then, in one sustained and impetuous flight, that this
time knows no obstacle, it will steer its straight course, over
hedges and cornfields, over haystack and lake, over river and
village, to its determined and always distant goal. It is rarely
indeed that this second stage can be followed by man. The swarm
returns to nature; and we lose the track of its destiny.




LET us rather consider the proceedings of the swarm the apiarist
shall have gathered into his hive. And first of all let us not be
forgetful of the sacrifice these fifty thousand virgins have made,
who, as Ronsard sings,--

"In a little body bear so true a heart,--"

and let us, yet once again, admire the courage with which they begin
life anew in the desert whereon they have fallen. They have
forgotten the splendour and wealth of their native city, where
existence had been so admirably organised and certain, where the
essence of every flower reminiscent of sunshine had enabled them to
smile at the menace of winter. There, asleep in the depths of their
cradles, they have left thousands and thousands of daughters, whom
they never again will see. They have abandoned, not only the
enormous treasure of pollen and propolis they had gathered together,
but also more than 120 pounds of honey; a quantity representing more
than twelve times the entire weight of the population, and close on
600,000 times that of the individual bee. To man this would mean
42,000 tons of provisions, a vast fleet of mighty ships laden with
nourishment more precious than any known to us; for to the bee honey
is a kind of liquid life, a species of chyle that is at once
assimilated, with almost no waste whatever.

Here, in the new abode, there is nothing; not a drop of honey, not a
morsel of wax; neither guiding-mark nor point of support. There is
only the dreary emptiness of an enormous monument that has nothing
but sides and roof. Within the smooth and rounded walls there only
is darkness; and the enormous arch above rears itself over
nothingness. But useless regrets are unknown to the bee; or in any
event it does not allow them to hinder its action. Far from being
cast down by an ordeal before which every other courage would
succumb, it displays greater ardour than ever. Scarcely has the hive
been set in its place, or the disorder allayed that ensued on the
bees' tumultuous fall, when we behold the clearest, most unexpected
division in that entangled mass. The greater portion, forming in
solid columns, like an army obeying a definite order, will proceed
to climb the vertical walls of the hive. The cupola reached, the
first to arrive will cling with the claws of their anterior legs,
those that follow hang on to the first, and so in succession, until
long chains have been formed that serve as a bridge to the crowd
that rises and rises. And, by slow degrees, these chains, as their
number increases, supporting each other and incessantly
interweaving, become garlands which, in their turn, the
uninterrupted and constant ascension transforms into a thick,
triangular curtain, or rather a kind of compact and inverted cone,
whose apex attains the summit of the cupola, while its widening base
descends to a half, or two-thirds, of the entire height of the hive.
And then, the last bee that an inward voice has impelled to form
part of this group having added itself to the curtain suspended in
darkness, the ascension ceases; all movement slowly dies away in the
dome; and, for long hours, this strange inverted cone will wait, in
a silence that almost seems awful, in a stillness one might regard
as religious, for the mystery of wax to appear.

In the meantime the rest of the bees--those, that is, that remained
down below in the hive--have shown not the slightest desire to join
the others aloft, and pay no heed to the formation of the marvellous
curtain on whose folds a magical gift is soon to descend. They are
satisfied to examine the edifice and undertake the necessary
labours. They carefully sweep the floor, and remove, one by one,
twigs, grains of sand, and dead leaves; for the bees are almost
fanatically cleanly, and when, in the depths of winter, severe
frosts retard too long what apiarists term their " flight of
cleanliness," rather than sully the hive they will perish by
thousands of a terrible bowel-disease. The males alone are incurably
careless, and will impudently bestrew the surface of the comb with
their droppings, which the workers are obliged to sweep as they
hasten behind them.

The cleaning over, the bees of the profane group that form no part
of the cone suspended in a sort of ecstasy, set to work minutely to
survey the lower circumference of the common dwelling. Every crevice
is passed in review, and filled, covered over with propolis; and the
varnishing of the walls is begun, from top to bottom. Guards are
appointed to take their stand at the gate; and very soon a certain
number of workers will go to the fields and return with their burden
of pollen.


Before raising the folds of the mysterious curtain beneath whose
shelter are laid the veritable foundations of the home, let us
endeavour to form some conception of the sureness of vision, the
accurate calculation and industry our little people of emigrants
will be called to display in order to adapt this new dwelling to
their requirements. In the void round about them they must lay the
plans for their city, and logically mark out the site of the
edifices that must be erected as economically and quickly as
possible, for the queen, eager to lay, already is scattering her
eggs on the ground. And in this labyrinth of complicated buildings,
so far existing only in imagination, laws of ventilation must be
considered, of stability, solidity; resistance of the wax must not
be lost sight of, or the nature of the food to be stored, or the
habits of the queen; ready access must be contrived to all parts,
and careful attention be given to the distribution of stores and
houses, passages and streets,--this however is in some measure
pre-established, the plan already arrived at being organically the
best,--and there are countless problems besides, whose enumeration
would take too long.

Now, the form of the hive that man offers to the bee knows infinite
variety, from the hollow tree or earthenware vessel still obtaining
in Asia and Africa, and the familiar bell-shaped constructions of
straw which we find in our farmers' kitchen-gardens or beneath their
windows, lost beneath masses of sunflowers, phlox, and hollyhock, to
what may really be termed the factory of the model apiarist of
today. An edifice, this, that can contain more than three hundred
pounds of honey, in three or four stories of superposed combs
enclosed in a frame which permits of their being removed and
handled, of the harvest being extracted through centrifugal force by
means of a turbine, and of their being then restored to their place
like a book in a well-ordered library.

And one fine day the industry or caprice of man will install a
docile swarm in one of these disconcerting abodes. And there the
little insect is expected to learn its bearings, to find its way, to
establish its home; to modify the seemingly unchangeable plans
dictated by the nature of things. In this unfamiliar place it is
required to determine the site of the winter storehouses, that must
not extend beyond the zone of heat that issues from the half-numbed
inhabitants; it must divine the exact point where the brood-cells
shall concentrate, under penalty of disaster should these be too
high or too low, too near to or far from the door. The swarm, it may
be, has just left the trunk of a fallen tree, containing one long,
narrow, depressed, horizontal gallery; and it finds itself now in a

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