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The Life of the Bee by Maurice Maeterlinck

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tower-shaped edifice, whose roof is lost in gloom. Or, to take a
case that is more usual, perhaps, and one that will give some idea
of the surprise habitually in store for the bees: after having lived
for centuries past beneath the straw dome of our village hives, they
are suddenly transplanted to a species of mighty cupboard, or chest,
three or four times as large as the place of their birth; and
installed in the midst of a confused scaffolding of superposed
frames, some running parallel to the entrance and some
perpendicular; the whole forming a bewildering network that obscures
the surfaces of their dwelling.

And yet, for all this, there exists not a single instance of a swarm
refusing its duty, or allowing itself to be baffled or discouraged
by the strangeness of its surroundings, except only in the case of
the new dwelling being absolutely uninhabitable, or impregnated with
evil odours. And even then the bees will not be disheartened or
bewildered; even then they will not abandon their mission. The swarm
will simply forsake the inhospitable abode, to seek better fortune
some little distance away. And similarly it can never be said of
them that they can be induced to undertake any illogical or foolish
task. Their common-sense has never been known to fail them; they
have never, at a loss for definite decision, erected at haphazard
structures of a wild or heterogeneous nature. Though you place the
swarm in a sphere, a cube, or a pyramid, in an oval or polygonal
basket, you will find, on visiting the bees a few days later, that
if this strange assembly of little independent intellects has
accepted the new abode, they will at once, and unhesitatingly and
unanimously have known how to select the most favourable, often
humanly speaking the only possible spot in this absurd habitation,
in pursuance of a method whose principles may appear inflexible, but
whose results are strikingly vivid.

When installed in one of the huge factories, bristling with frames,
that we mentioned just now, these frames will interest them only to
the extent in which they provide them with a basis or point of
departure for their combs; and they very naturally pay not the
slightest heed to the desires or intentions of man. But if the
apiarist have taken the precaution of surrounding the upper lath of
some of these frames with a narrow fillet of wax, they will be quick
to perceive the advantage this tempting offer presents, and will
carefully extract the fillet, using their own wax as solder, and
will prolong the comb in accordance with the indicated plan.
Similarly--and the case is frequent in modern apiculture--if all the
frames of the hive into which the bees have been gathered be covered
from top to bottom with leaves of foundation-wax, they will not
waste time in erecting buildings across or beside these, or in
producing useless wax, but, finding that the work is already half
finished, they will be satisfied to deepen and lengthen each of the
cells designed in the leaf, carefully rectifying these where there
is the slightest deviation from the strictest vertical. Proceeding
in this fashion, therefore, they will possess in a week a city as
luxurious and well-constructed as the one they have quitted;
whereas, had they been thrown on their own resources, it would have
taken them two or three months to construct so great a profusion of
dwellings and storehouses of shining wax.


This power of appropriation may well be considered to overstep the
limit of instinct; and indeed there can be nothing more arbitrary
than the distinction we draw between instinct and intelligence
properly so-called. Sir John Lubbock, whose observations on ants,
bees, and wasps are so interesting and so personal, is reluctant to
credit the bee, from the moment it forsakes the routine of its
habitual labour, with any power of discernment or reasoning. This
attitude of his may be due in some measure to an unconscious bias in
favour of the ants, whose ways he has more specially noted; for the
entomologist is always inclined to regard that insect as the more
intelligent to which he has more particularly devoted himself, and
we have to be on our guard against this little personal
predilection. As a proof of his theory, Sir John cites as an
instance an experiment within the reach of all. If you place in a
bottle half a dozen bees and the same number of flies, and lay the
bottle down horizontally, with its base to the window, you will find
that the bees will persist, till they die of exhaustion or hunger,
in their endeavour to discover an issue through the glass; while the
flies, in less than two minutes, will all have sallied forth through
the neck on the opposite side. From this Sir John Lubbock concludes
that the intelligence of the bee is exceedingly limited, and that
the fly shows far greater skill in extricating itself from a
difficulty, and finding its way. This conclusion, however, would not
seem altogether flawless. Turn the transparent sphere twenty times,
if you will, holding now the base, now the neck, to the window, and
you will find that the bees will turn twenty times with it, so as
always to face the light. It is their love of the light, it is their
very intelligence, that is their undoing in this experiment of the
English savant. They evidently imagine that the issue from every
prison must be there where the light shines clearest; and they act
in accordance, and persist in too logical action. To them glass is a
supernatural mystery they never have met with in nature; they have
had no experience of this suddenly impenetrable atmosphere; and, the
greater their intelligence, the more inadmissible, more
incomprehensible, will the strange obstacle appear. Whereas the
featherbrained flies, careless of logic as of the enigma of crystal,
disregarding the call of the light, flutter wildly hither and
thither, and, meeting here the good fortune that often waits on the
simple, who find salvation there where the wiser will perish,
necessarily end by discovering the friendly opening that restores
their liberty to them.

The same naturalist cites yet another proof of the bees' lack of
intelligence, and discovers it in the following quotation from the
great American apiarist, the venerable and paternal Langstroth:--

"As the fly was not intended to banquet on blossoms, but on
substances in which it might easily be drowned, it cautiously
alights on the edge of any vessel containing liquid food, and warily
helps itself; while the poor bee, plunging in headlong, speedily
perishes. The sad fate of their unfortunate companions does not in
the least deter others who approach the tempting lure from madly
alighting on the bodies of the dying and the dead, to share the same
miserable end. No one can understand the extent of their infatuation
until he has seen a confectioner's shop assailed by myriads of
hungry bees. I have seen thousands strained out from the syrups in
which they had perished; thousands more alighting even on the
boiling sweets; the floors covered and windows darkened with bees,
some crawling, others flying, and others still so completely
besmeared as to be able neither to crawl nor to fly--not one in ten
able to carry home its ill-gotten spoils, and yet the air filled
with new hosts of thoughtless comers."

This, however, seems to me no more conclusive than might be the
spectacle of a battlefield, or of the ravages of alcoholism, to a
superhuman observer bent on establishing the limits of human
understanding. Indeed, less so, perhaps; for the situation of the
bee, when compared with our own, is strange in this world. It was
intended to live in the midst of an indifferent and unconscious
nature, and not by the side of an extraordinary being who is forever
disturbing the most constant laws, and producing grandiose,
inexplicable phenomena. In the natural order of things, in the
monotonous life of the forest, the madness Langstroth describes
would be possible only were some accident suddenly to destroy a hive
full of honey. But in this case, even, there would be no fatal
glass, no boiling sugar or cloying syrup; no death or danger,
therefore, other than that to which every animal is exposed while
seeking its prey.

Should we be more successful than they in preserving our presence of
mind if some strange power were at every step to ensnare our reason?
Let us not be too hasty in condemning the bees for the folly whereof
we are the authors, or in deriding their intellect, which is as
poorly equipped to foil our artifices as our own would be to foil
those of some superior creature unknown to us to-day, but on that
account not impossible. None such being known at present, we
conclude that we stand on the topmost pinnacle of life on this
earth; but this belief, after all, is by no means infallible. I am
not assuming that when our actions are unreasonable, or
contemptible, we merely fall into the snares that such a creature
has laid; though it is not inconceivable that this should one day be
proved true. On the other hand, it cannot be wise to deny
intelligence to the bee because it has not yet succeeded in
distinguishing us from the great ape or the bear. It is certain that
there are, in us and about us, influences and powers no less
dissimilar whose distinction escapes us as readily.

And finally, to end this apology, wherein I seem somewhat to have
fallen into the error I laid to Sir John Lubbock's charge, does not
the capacity for folly so great in itself argue intelligence? For
thus it is ever in the uncertain domain of the intellect, apparently
the most vacillating and precarious condition of matter. The same
light that falls on the intellect falls also on passion, whereof
none can tell whether it be the smoke of the flame or the wick. In
the case above it has not been mere animal desire to gorge
themselves with honey that has urged on the bees. They could do this
at their leisure in the store-rooms at home. Watch them in an
analogous circumstance; follow them; you will see that, as soon as
their sac is filled, they will return to the hive and add their
spoil to the general store; and visit the marvellous vintage, and
leave it, perhaps thirty times in an hour. Their admirable labours,
therefore, are inspired by a single desire: zeal to bring as much
wealth as they can to the home of their sisters, which is also the
home of the future. When we discover a cause as disinterested for
the follies of men, we are apt to call them by another name.


However, the whole truth must be told. In the midst of the marvels
of their industry, their policy, their sacrifice, one thing exists
that must always check and weaken our admiration; and this is the
indifference with which they regard the misfortunes or death of
their comrades. There is a strange duality in the character of the
bee. In the heart of the hive all help and love each other. They are
as united as the good thoughts that dwell in the same soul. Wound
one of them, and a thousand will sacrifice themselves to avenge its
injury. But outside the hive they no longer recognise each other.
Mutilate them, crush them,--or rather, do nothing of the kind; it
would be a useless cruelty, for the fact is established beyond any
doubt,--but were you to mutilate, or crush, on a piece of comb
placed a few steps from their dwelling, twenty or thirty bees that
have all issued from the same hive, those you have left untouched
will not even turn their heads. With their tongue, fantastic as a
Chinese weapon, they will tranquilly continue to absorb the liquid
they hold more precious than life, heedless of the agony whose last
gestures almost are touching them, of the cries of distress that
arise all around. And when the comb is empty, so great is their
anxiety that nothing shall be lost, that their eagerness to gather
the honey which clings to the victims will induce them tranquilly to
climb over dead and dying, unmoved by the presence of the first and
never dreaming of helping the others. In this case, therefore, they
have no notion of the danger they run, seeing that they are wholly
untroubled by the death that is scattered about them, and they have
not the slightest sense of solidarity or pity. As regards the
danger, the explanation lies ready to hand; the bees know not the
meaning of fear, and, with the exception only of smoke, are afraid
of nothing in the world. Outside the hive, they display extreme
condescension and forbearance. They will avoid whatever disturbs
them, and affect to ignore its existence, so long as it come not too
close; as though aware that this universe belongs to all, that each
one has his place there, and must needs be discreet and peaceful.
But beneath this indulgence is quietly hidden a heart so sure of
itself that it never dreams of protesting. If they are threatened,
they will alter their course, but never attempt to escape. In the
hive, however, they will not confine themselves to this passive
ignoring of peril. They will spring with incredible fury on any
living thing, ant or lion or man, that dares to profane the sacred
ark. This we may term anger, ridiculous obstinacy, or heroism,
according as our mind be disposed.

But of their want of solidarity outside the hive, and even of
sympathy within it, I can find nothing to say. Are we to believe
that each form of intellect possesses its own strange limitation,
and that the tiny flame which with so much difficulty at last burns
its way through inert matter and issues forth from the brain, is
still so uncertain that if it illumine one point more strongly the
others are forced into blacker darkness? Here we find that the bees
(or nature acting within them) have organised work in common, the
love and cult of the future, in a manner more perfect than can
elsewhere be discovered. Is it for this reason that they have lost
sight of all the rest? They give their love to what lies ahead of
them; we bestow ours on what is around. And we who love here,
perhaps, have no love left for what is beyond. Nothing varies so
much as the direction of pity or charity. We ourselves should
formerly have been far less shocked than we are to-day at the
insensibility of the bees; and to many an ancient people such
conduct would not have seemed blameworthy. And further, can we tell
how many of the things that we do would shock a being who might be
watching us as we watch the bees?




LET us now, in order to form a clearer conception of the bees'
intellectual power, proceed to consider their methods of
inter-communication. There can be no doubting that they understand
each other; and indeed it were surely impossible for a republic so
considerable, wherein the labours are so varied and so marvellously
combined, to subsist amid the silence and spiritual isolation of so
many thousand creatures. They must be able, therefore, to give
expression to thoughts and feelings, by means either of a phonetic
vocabulary or more probably of some kind of tactile language or
magnetic intuition, corresponding perhaps to senses and properties
of matter wholly unknown to ourselves. And such intuition well might
lodge in the mysterious antennae--containing, in the case of the
workers, according to Cheshire's calculation, twelve thousand
tactile hairs and five thousand "smell-hollows," wherewith they
probe and fathom the darkness. For the mutual understanding of the
bees is not confined to their habitual labours; the extraordinary
also has a name and place in their language; as is proved by the
manner in which news, good or bad, normal or supernatural, will at
once spread in the hive; the loss or return of the mother, for
instance, the entrance of an enemy, the intrusion of a strange
queen, the approach of a band of marauders, the discovery of
treasure, etc. And so characteristic is their attitude, so
essentially different their murmur at each of these special events,
that the experienced apiarist can without difficulty tell what is
troubling the crowd that moves distractedly to and fro in the

If you desire a more definite proof, you have but to watch a bee
that shall just have discovered a few drops of honey on your
window-sill or the corner of your table. She will immediately gorge
herself with it; and so eagerly, that you will have time, without
fear of disturbing her, to mark her tiny belt with a touch of paint.
But this gluttony of hers is all on the surface; the honey will not
pass into the stomach proper, into what we might call her personal
stomach, but remains in the sac, the first stomach,--that of the
community, if one may so express it. This reservoir full, the bee
will depart, but not with the free and thoughtless motion of the fly
or butterfly; she, on the contrary, will for some moments fly
backwards, hovering eagerly about the table or window, with her head
turned toward the room.

She is reconnoitring, fixing in her memory the exact position of the
treasure. Thereupon she will go to the hive, disgorge her plunder
into one of the provision-cells, and in three or four minutes
return, and resume operations at the providential window. And thus,
while the honey lasts, will she come and go, at intervals of every
five minutes, till evening, if need be; without interruption or
rest; pursuing her regular journeys from the hive to the window,
from the window back to the hive.


Many of those who have written on bees have thought fit to adorn the
truth; I myself have no such desire. For studies of this description
to possess any interest, it is essential that they should remain
absolutely sincere. Had the conclusion been forced upon me that bees
are incapable of communicating to each other news of an event
occurring outside the hive, I should, I imagine, as a set-off
against the slight disappointment this discovery would have
entailed, have derived some degree of satisfaction in recognising
once more that man, after all, is the only truly intelligent being
who inhabits our globe. And there comes too a period of life when we
have more joy in saying the thing that is true than in saying the
thing that merely is wonderful. Here as in every case the principle
holds that, should the naked truth appear at the moment less
interesting, less great and noble than the imaginary embellishment
it lies in our power to bestow, the fault must rest with ourselves
who still are unable to perceive the astonishing relation in which
this truth always must stand to our being, and to universal law; and
in that case it is not the truth, but our intellect, that needs
embellishment and ennoblement.

I will frankly confess, therefore, that the marked bee often returns
alone. Shall we believe that in bees there exists the same
difference of character as in men; that of them too some are
gossips, and others prone to silence? A friend who stood by and
watched my experiment, declared that it was evidently mere
selfishness or vanity that caused so many of the bees to refrain
from revealing the source of their wealth, and from sharing with
others the glory of an achievement that must seem miraculous to the
hive. These were sad vices indeed, which give not forth the sweet
odour, so fragrant and loyal, that springs from the home of the many
thousand sisters. But, whatever the cause, it often will also happen
that the bee whom fortune has favoured will return to the honey
accompanied by two or three friends. I am aware that Sir John
Lubbock, in the appendix to his book on "Ants, Bees, and Wasps,"
records the results of his investigations in long and minute tables;
and from these we are led to infer that it is a matter of rarest
occurrence for a single bee to follow the one who has made the
discovery. The learned naturalist does not name the race of bees
which he selected for his experiments, or tell us whether the
conditions were especially unfavourable. As for myself I only can
say that my own tables, compiled with great care,--and every
possible precaution having been taken that the bees should not be
directly attracted by the odour of the honey,--establish that on an
average one bee will bring others four times out of ten.

I even one day came across an extraordinary little Italian bee,
whose belt I had marked with a touch of blue paint. In her second
trip she brought two of her sisters, whom I imprisoned, without
interfering with her. She departed once more, and this time returned
with three friends, whom I again confined, and so till the end of
the afternoon, when, counting my prisoners, I found that she had
told the news to no less than eighteen bees.

In fact you will find, if you make this experiment yourself, that
communication, if not general, at least is frequent. The possession
of this faculty is so well known to American bee-hunters that they
trade upon it when engaged in searching for nests. Mr. Josiah Emery
remarks on this head (quoted by Romanes in his "Intellect of Animals
"): "Going to a field or wood at a distance from tame bees with
their box of honey, they gather up from the flowers and imprison one
or more bees, and after they have become sufficiently gorged, let
them out to return to their home with their easily gotten load.
Waiting patiently a longer or shorter time, according to the
distance of the bee-tree, the hunter scarcely ever fails to see the
bee or bees return accompanied by other bees, which are in like
manner imprisoned till they in turn are filled; then one or more are
let out at places distant from each other, and the direction in
which the bee flies noted; and thus, by a kind of triangulation, the
position of the bee-tree proximately ascertained."


You will notice too in your experiments that the friends who appear
to obey the behests of good fortune do not always fly together, and
that there will often be an interval of several seconds between the
different arrivals. As regards these communications, therefore, we
must ask ourselves the question that Sir John Lubbock has solved as
far as the ants are concerned.

Do the comrades who flock to the treasure only follow the bee that
first made the discovery, or have they been sent on by her, and do
they find it through following her indications, her description of
the place where it lies? Between these two hypotheses, that refer
directly to the extent and working of the bee's intellect, there is
obviously an enormous difference. The English savant has succeeded,
by means of an elaborate and ingenious arrangement of gangways,
corridors, moats full of water, and flying bridges, in establishing
that the ants in such cases do no more than follow in the track of
the pioneering insect. With ants, that can be made to pass where one
will, such experiments are possible; but for the bee, whose wings
throw every avenue open, some other expedient must of necessity be
contrived. I imagined the following, which, though it gave no
definite result, might yet, under more favourable conditions, and if
organised more carefully, give rise to definite and satisfactory

My study in the country is on the first floor, above a somewhat
lofty room; sufficiently high, therefore, to be out of the ordinary
range of the bees' flight, except at times when the chestnuts and
lime trees are in bloom. And for more than a week before I started
this experiment I had kept on my table an open comb of honey,
without the perfume having attracted, or induced the visit of, a
single bee. Then I went to a glass hive that was close to the house,
took an Italian bee, brought her to my study, set her on the comb,
and marked her while she was feeding.

When satisfied, she flew away and returned to the hive. I followed,
saw her pass over the surface of the crowd, plunge her head into an
empty cell, disgorge her honey, and prepare to set forth again. At
the door of the hive I had placed a glass box, divided by a trap
into two compartments. The bee flew into this box; and as she was
alone, and no other bee seemed to accompany or follow her, I
imprisoned her and left her there. I then repeated the experiment on
twenty different bees in succession. When the marked bee reappeared
alone, I imprisoned her as I had imprisoned the first. But eight of
them came to the threshold of the hive and entered the box
accompanied by two or three friends. By means of the trap I was able
to separate the marked bee from her companions, and to keep her a
prisoner in the first compartment. Then, having marked her
companions with a different colour, I threw open the second
compartment and set them at liberty, myself returning quickly to my
study to await their arrival. Now it is evident that if a verbal or
magnetic communication had passed, indicating the place, describing
the way, etc., a certain number of the bees, having been furnished
with this information, should have found their way to my room. I am
compelled to admit that there came but a single one. Was this mere
chance, or had she followed instructions received? The experiment
was insufficient, but circumstances prevented me from carrying it
further. I released the "baited" bees, and my study soon was
besieged by the buzzing crowd to whom they had taught the way to the

We need not concern ourselves with this incomplete attempt of mine,
for many other curious traits compel us to recognise the existence
among the bees of spiritual communications that go beyond a mere
"yes" or "no," and that are manifest in cases where mere example or
gesture would not be sufficient. Of such, for instance, are the
remarkable harmony of their work in the hive, the extraordinary
division of labour, the regularity with which one worker will take
the place of another, etc. I have often marked bees that went
foraging in the morning, and found that, in the afternoon, unless
flowers were specially abundant, they would be engaged in heating
and fanning the brood-cells, or perhaps would form part of the
mysterious, motionless curtain in whose midst the wax-makers and
sculptors would be at work. Similarly I have noticed that workers
whom I have seen gathering pollen for the whole of one day, will
bring no pollen back on the morrow, but will concern themselves
exclusively with the search for nectar, and vice-versa.


And further, we might mention what M. Georges de Layens, the
celebrated French apiarist, terms the "Distribution of Bees over
Melliferous Plants." Day after day, at the first hour of sunrise,
the explorers of the dawn return, and the hive awakes to receive the
good news of the earth. "The lime trees are blossoming to-day on the
banks of the canal." "The grass by the roadside is gay with white
clover." "The sage and the lotus are about to open." "The
mignonette, the lilies are overflowing with pollen." Whereupon the
bees must organise quickly, and arrange to divide the work. Five
thousand of the sturdiest will sully forth to the lime trees, while
three thousand juniors go and refresh the white clover. Those who
yesterday were absorbing nectar from the corollas will to-day repose
their tongue and the glands of their sac, and gather red pollen from
the mignonette, or yellow pollen from the tall lilies; for never
shall you see a bee collecting or mixing pollen of a different
colour or species; and indeed one of the chief pre-occupations of
the hive is the methodical bestowal of these pollens in the
store-rooms, in strict accordance with their origin and colour. Thus
does the hidden genius issue its commands. The workers immediately
sally forth, in long black files, whereof each one will fly straight
to its allotted task. "The bees," says De Layens, "would seem to be
perfectly informed as to the locality, the relative melliferous
value, and the distance of every melliferous plant within a certain
radius from the hive.

"If we carefully note the different directions in which these
foragers fly, and observe in detail the harvest they gather from the
various plants around, we shall find that the workers distribute
themselves over the flowers in proportion not only to the numbers of
flowers of one species, but also to their melliferous value. Nay,
more--they make daily calculations as to the means of obtaining the
greatest possible wealth of saccharine liquid. In the spring, for
instance, after the willows have bloomed, when the fields still are
bare, and the first flowers of the woods are the one resource of the
bees, we shall see them eagerly visiting gorse and violets,
lungworts and anemones. But, a few days later, when fields of
cabbage and colza begin to flower in sufficient abundance, we shall
find that the bees will almost entirely forsake the plants in the
woods, though these be still in full blossom, and will confine their
visits to the flowers of cabbage and colza alone. In this fashion
they regulate, day by day, their distribution over the plants, so as
to collect the greatest value of saccharine liquid in the least
possible time.

"It may fairly be claimed, therefore, for the colony of bees that,
in its harvesting labours no less than in its internal economy, it
is able to establish a rational distribution of the number of
workers without ever disturbing the principle of the division of


But what have we to do, some will ask, with the intelligence of the
bees? What concern is it of ours whether this be a little less or a
little more? Why weigh, with such infinite care, a minute fragment
of almost invisible matter, as though it were a fluid whereon
depended the destiny of man? I hold, and exaggerate nothing, that
our interest herein is of the most considerable. The discovery of a
sign of true intellect outside ourselves procures us something of
the emotion Robinson Crusoe felt when he saw the imprint of a human
foot on the sandy beach of his island. We seem less solitary than we
had believed. And indeed, in our endeavour to understand the
intellect of the bees, we are studying in them that which is most
precious in our own substance: an atom of the extraordinary matter
which possesses, wherever it attach itself, the magnificent power of
transfiguring blind necessity, of organising, embellishing, and
multiplying life; and, most striking of all, of holding in suspense
the obstinate force of death, and the mighty, irresponsible wave
that wraps almost all that exists in an eternal unconsciousness.

Were we sole possessors of the particle of matter that, when
maintained in a special condition of flower or incandescence, we
term the intellect, we should to some extent be entitled to look on
ourselves as privileged beings, and to imagine that in us nature
achieved some kind of aim; but here we discover, in the hymenoptera,
an entire category of beings in whom a more or less identical aim is
achieved. And this fact, though it decide nothing perhaps, still
holds an honourable place in the mass of tiny facts that help to
throw light on our position in this world. It affords even, if
considered from a certain point of view, a fresh proof of the most
enigmatic part of our being; for the superpositions of destinies
that we find in the hive are surveyed by us from an eminence loftier
than any we can attain for the contemplation of the destinies of
man. There we see before us, in miniature, the large and simple
lines that in our own disproportionate sphere we never have the
occasion to disentangle and follow to the end. Spirit and matter are
there, the race and the individual, evolution and permanence, life
and death, the past and the future; all gathered together in a
retreat that our hand can lift and one look of our eye embrace. And
may we not reasonably ask ourselves whether the mere size of a body,
and the room that it fills in time and space, can modify to the
extent we imagine the secret idea of nature; the idea that we try to
discover in the little history of the hive, which in a few days
already is ancient, no less than in the great history of man, of
whom three generations overlap a long century?


Let us go on, then, with the story of our hive; let us take it up
where we left it; and raise, as high as we may, a fold of the
festooned curtain in whose midst a strange sweat, white as snow and
airier than the down of a wing, is beginning to break over the
swarm. For the wax that is now being born is not like the wax that
we know; it is immaculate, it has no weight; seeming truly to be the
soul of the honey, that itself is the spirit of flowers. And this
motionless incantation has called it forth that it may serve us,
later--in memory of its origin, doubtless, wherein it is one with
the azure sky, and heavy with perfumes of magnificence and
purity--as the fragrant light of the last of our altars.


To follow the various phases of the secretion and employment of wax
by a swarm that is beginning to build, is a matter of very great
difficulty. All comes to pass in the blackest depths of the crowd,
whose agglomeration, growing denser and denser, produces the
temperature needful for this exudation, which is the privilege of
the youngest bees. Huber, who was the first to study these
phenomena, bringing incredible patience to bear and exposing himself
at times to very serious danger, devotes to them more than two
hundred and fifty pages; which, though of considerable interest, are
necessarily somewhat confused. But I am not treating this subject
technically; and while referring when necessary to Huber's admirable
studies, I shall confine myself generally to relating what is patent
to any one who may gather a swarm into a glass hive.

We have to admit, first of all, that we know not yet by what process
of alchemy the honey transforms itself into wax in the enigmatic
bodies of our suspended bees. We can only say that they will remain
thus suspended for a period extending from eighteen to twenty-four
hours, in a temperature so high that one might almost believe that a
fire was burning in the hollow of the hive; and then white and
transparent scales will appear at the opening of four little pockets
that every bee has underneath its abdomen.

When the bodies of most of those who form the inverted cone have
thus been adorned with ivory tablets, we shall see one of the bees,
as though suddenly inspired, abruptly detach herself from the mass,
and climb over the backs of the passive crowd till she reach the
inner pinnacle of the cupola. To this she will fix herself solidly,
dislodging, with repeated blows of her head, such of her neighbours
as may seem to hamper her movements. Then, with her mouth and claws,
she will seize one of the eight scales that hang from her abdomen,
and at once proceed to clip it and plane it, extend it, knead it
with her saliva, bend it and flatten it, roll it and straighten it,
with the skill of a carpenter handling a pliable panel. When at last
the substance, thus treated, appears to her to possess the required
dimensions and consistency, she will attach it to the highest point
of the dome, thus laying the first, or rather the keystone of the
new town; for we have here an inverted city, hanging down from the
sky, and not rising from the bosom of earth like a city of men.

To this keystone, depending in the void, she will add other
fragments of wax that she takes in succession from beneath her rings
of horn; and finally, with one last lick of the tongue, one last
wave of antennae, she will go as suddenly as she came, and disappear
in the crowd. Another will at once take her place, continue the work
at the point where the first one has left it, add on her own, change
and adjust whatever may seem to offend the ideal plan of the tribe,
then vanish in her turn, to be succeeded by a third, a fourth, and a
fifth, all appearing unexpectedly, suddenly, one after the other,
none completing the work, but each bringing her share to the task in
which all combine.


A small block of wax, formless as yet, hangs down from the top of
the vault. So soon as its thickness may be deemed sufficient, we
shall see another bee emerge from the mass, her physical appearance
differing appreciably from that of the foundresses who preceded her.
And her manner displays such settled conviction, her movements are
followed so eagerly by all the crowd, that we almost might fancy
that some illustrious engineer had been summoned to trace in the
void the site of the first cell of all, from which every other must
mathematically depend. This bee belongs to the sculptor or carver
class of workers; she produces no wax herself and is content to deal
with the materials others provide. She locates the first cell,
scoops into the block for an instant, lays the wax she has removed
from the cavity on the borders around it; and then, like the
foundresses, abruptly departs and abandons her model. Her place is
taken at once by an impatient worker, who continues the task that a
third will finish, while others close by are attacking the rest of
the surface and the opposite side of the wall; each one obeying the
general law of interrupted and successive labour, as though it were
an inherent principle of the hive that the pride of toil should be
distributed, and every achievement be anonymous and common to all,
that it might thereby become more fraternal.


The outline of the nascent comb may soon be divined. In form it will
still be lenticular, for the little prismatic tubes that compose it
are unequal in length, and diminish in proportion as they recede
from the centre to the extremities. In thickness and appearance at
present it more or less resembles a human tongue whose sides might
be formed of hexagonal cells, contiguous, and placed back to back.

The first cells having been built, the foundresses proceed to add a
second block of wax to the roof; and so in gradation a third and a
fourth. These blocks follow each other at regular intervals so
nicely calculated that when, at a much later period, the comb shall
be fully developed, there will be ample space for the bees to move
between its parallel walls.

Their plan must therefore embrace the final thickness of every comb,
which will be from eighty-eight to ninety-two hundredths of an inch,
and at the same time the width of the avenues between, which must be
about half an inch, or in other words twice the height of a bee,
since there must be room to pass back to back between the combs.

The bees, however, are not infallible, nor does their certainty
appear mechanical. They will commit grave errors at times, when
circumstances present unusual difficulty. They will often leave too
much space, or too little, between the combs. This they will remedy
as best they can, either by giving an oblique twist to the comb that
too nearly approaches the other, or by introducing an irregular comb
into the gap. "The bees sometimes make mistakes," Reaumur remarks on
this subject," and herein we may find yet another fact which appears
to prove that they reason."


We know that the bees construct four kinds of cells. First of all,
the royal cells, which are exceptional, and contrived somewhat in
the shape of an acorn; then the large cells destined for the rearing
of males and storing of provisions when flowers super-abound; and
the small cells, serving as workers' cradles and ordinary
store-rooms, which occupy normally about four-fifths of the
built-over surface of the hive. And lastly, so as to connect in
orderly fashion the larger cells with the small, the bees will erect
a certain number of what are known as transition cells. These must
of necessity be irregular in form; but so unerringly accurate are
the dimensions of the second and third types that, at the time when
the decimal system was established, and a fixed measure sought in
nature to serve as a starting-point and an incontestable standard,
it was proposed by Reaumur to select for this purpose the cell of
the bee.*

*It was as well, perhaps, that this standard was not adopted. For
although the diameter of the cells is admirably regular, it is, like
all things produced by a living organism, not _mathematically_
invariable in the same hive. Further, as M. Maurice Girard has
pointed out, the apothem of the cell varies among different races of
bees, so that the standard would alter from hive to hive, according
to the species of bee that inhabited it.

Each of the cells is an hexagonal tube placed on a pyramidal base;
and two layers of these tubes form the comb, their bases being
opposed to each other in such fashion that each of the three rhombs
or lozenges which on one side constitute the pyramidal base of one
cell, composes at the same time the pyramidal base of three cells on
the other. It is in these prismatic tubes that the honey is stored;
and to prevent its escaping during the period of maturation,--which
would infallibly happen if the tubes were as strictly horizontal as
they appear to be,--the bees incline them slightly, to an angle of 4
deg or 5 deg.

"Besides the economy of wax," says Reaumur, when considering this
marvellous construction in its entirety," besides the economy of wax
that results from the disposition of the cells, and the fact that
this arrangement allows the bees to fill the comb without leaving a
single spot vacant, there are other advantages also with respect to
the solidity of the work. The angle at the base of each cell, the
apex of the pyramidal cavity, is buttressed by the ridge formed by
two faces of the hexagon of another cell. The two triangles, or
extensions of the hexagon faces which fill one of the convergent
angles of the cavity enclosed by the three rhombs, form by their
junction a plane angle on the side they touch; each of these angles,
concave within the cell, supports, on its convex side, one of the
sheets employed to form the hexagon of another cell; the sheet,
pressing on this angle, resists the force which is tending to push
it outwards; and in this fashion the angles are strengthened. Every
advantage that could be desired with regard to the solidity of each
cell is procured by its own formation and its position with
reference to the others."


"There are only," says Dr. Reid, "three possible figures of the
cells which can make them all equal and similar, without any useless
interstices. These are the equilateral triangle, the square, and the
regular hexagon. Mathematicians know that there is not a fourth way
possible in which a plane shall be cut into little spaces that shall
be equal, similar, and regular, without useless spaces. Of the three
figures, the hexagon is the most proper for convenience and
strength. Bees, as if they knew this, make their cells regular

"Again, it has been demonstrated that, by making the bottoms of the
cells to consist of three planes meeting in a point, there is a
saving of material and labour in no way inconsiderable. The bees, as
if acquainted with these principles of solid geometry, follow them
most accurately. It is a curious mathematical problem at what
precise angle the three planes which compose the bottom of a cell
ought to meet, in order to make the greatest possible saving, or the
least expense of material and labour.* This is one of the problems
which belong to the higher parts of mathematics. It has accordingly
been resolved by some mathematicians, particularly by the ingenious
Maclaurin, by a fluctionary calculation which is to be found in the
Transactions of the Royal Society of London. He has determined
precisely the angle required, and he found, by the most exact
mensuration the subject would admit, that it is the very angle in
which the three planes at the bottom of the cell of a honey comb do
actually meet."

*Reaumur suggested the following problem to the celebrated
mathematician Koenig: "Of all possible hexagonal cells with
pyramidal base composed of three equal and similar rhombs, to find
the one whose construction would need the least material." Koenig's
answer was, the cell that had for its base three rhombs whose large
angle was 109 deg 26', and the small 70 deg 34'. Another savant,
Maraldi, had measured as exactly as possible the angles of the
rhombs constructed by the bees, and discovered the larger to be 109
deg 28', and the other 70 deg 32'. Between the two solutions there
was a difference, therefore, of only 2'. It is probable that the
error, if error there be, should be attributed to Maraldi rather
than to the bees; for it is impossible for any instrument to measure
the angles of the cells, which are not very clearly defined, with
infallible precision.

The problem suggested to Koenig was put to another mathematician,
Cramer, whose solution came even closer to that of the bees, viz.,
109 deg 28 1/2' for the large angle, and 70 deg 31 1/2' for the


I myself do not believe that the bees indulge in these abstruse
calculations; but, on the other hand, it seems equally impossible to
me that such astounding results can be due to chance alone, or to
the mere force of circumstance. The wasps, for instance, also build
combs with hexagonal cells, so that for them the problem was
identical, and they have solved it in a far less ingenious fashion.
Their combs have only one layer of cells, thus lacking the common
base that serves the bees for their two opposite layers. The wasps'
comb, therefore, is not only less regular, but also less
substantial; and so wastefully constructed that, besides loss of
material, they must sacrifice about a third of the available space
and a quarter of the energy they put forth. Again, we find that the
trigonae and meliponae, which are veritable and domesticated bees,
though of less advanced civilisation, erect only one row of
rearing-cells, and support their horizontal, superposed combs on
shapeless and costly columns of wax. Their provision-cells are
merely great pots, gathered together without any order; and, at the
point between the spheres where these might have intersected and
induced a profitable economy of space and material, the meliponae
clumsily insert a section of cells with flat walls. Indeed, to
compare one of their nests with the mathematical cities of our own
honey-flies, is like imagining a hamlet composed of primitive huts
side by side with a modern town; whose ruthless regularity is the
logical, though perhaps somewhat charmless, result of the genius of
man, that to-day, more fiercely than ever before, seeks to conquer
space, matter, and time.


There is a theory, originally propounded by Buffon and now revived,
which assumes that the bees have not the least intention of
constructing hexagons with a pyramidal base, but that their desire
is merely to contrive round cells in the wax; only, that as their
neighbours, and those at work on the opposite side of the comb, are
digging at the same moment and with the same intentions, the points
where the cells meet must of necessity become hexagonal. Besides, it
is said, this is precisely what happens to crystals, the scales of
certain kinds of fish, soap-bubbles, etc., as it happens in the
following experiment that Buffon suggested. "If," he said, "you fill
a dish with peas or any other cylindrical bean, pour as much water
into it as the space between the beans will allow, close it
carefully and then boil the water, you will find that all these
cylinders have become six-sided columns. And the reason is evident,
being indeed purely mechanical; each of the cylindrical beans tends,
as it swells, to occupy the utmost possible space within a given
space; wherefore it follows that the reciprocal compression compels
them all to become hexagonal. Similarly each bee seeks to occupy the
utmost possible space within a given space, with the necessary
result that, its body being cylindrical, the cells become hexagonal
for the same reason as before, viz., the working of reciprocal


These reciprocal obstacles, it would seem, are capable of marvellous
achievement; on the same principle, doubtless, that the vices of man
produce a general virtue, whereby the human race, hateful often in
its individuals, ceases to be so in the mass. We might reply, first
of all, with Brougham, Kirby and Spence, and others, that
experiments with peas and soap-bubbles prove nothing; for the reason
that in both cases the pressure produces only irregular forms, and
in no wise explains the existence of the prismatic base of the
cells. But above all we might answer that there are more ways than
one of dealing with rigid necessity; that the wasp, the humble-bee,
the trigonae and meliponae of Mexico and Brazil achieve very
different and manifestly inferior results, although the
circumstances, and their own intentions, are absolutely identical
with those of the bees. It might further be urged that if the bee's
cell does indeed follow the law that governs crystals, snow,
soap-bubbles, as well as Buffon's boiled peas, it also, through its
general symmetry, disposition in opposite layers, and angle of
inclination, obeys many other laws that are not to be found in
matter. May we not say, too, of man that all his genius is comprised
in his fashion of handling kindred necessities? And if it appear to
us that his manner of treating these is the best there can possibly
be, the reason only can lie in the absence of a judge superior to
ourselves. But it is well that argument should make way for fact;
and indeed, to the objection based on an experiment, the best reply
of all must be a counter-experiment.

In order to satisfy myself that hexagonal architecture truly was
written in the spirit of the bee, I cut off and removed one day a
disc of the size of a five-franc piece from the centre of a comb, at
a spot where there were both brood-cells and cells full of honey. I
cut into the circumference of this disc, at the intersecting point
of the pyramidal cells; inserted a piece of tin on the base of one
of these sections, shaped exactly to its dimensions, and possessed
of resistance sufficient to prevent the bees from bending or
twisting it. Then I replaced the slice of comb, duly furnished with
its slab of tin, on the spot whence I had removed it; so that, while
one side of the comb presented no abnormal feature, the damage
having been repaired, the other displayed a sort of deep cavity,
covering the space of about thirty cells, with the piece of tin as
its base. The bees were disconcerted at first; they flocked in
numbers to inspect and examine this curious chasm; day after day
they wandered agitatedly to and fro, apparently unable to form a
decision. But, as I fed them copiously every evening, there came a
moment when they had no more cells available for the storage of
provisions. Thereupon they probably summoned their great engineers,
distinguished sculptors, and wax-workers, and invited them to turn
this useless cavity to profitable account.

The wax-makers having gathered around and formed themselves into a
dense festoon, so that the necessary heat might be maintained, other
bees descended into the hole and proceeded solidly to attach the
metal, and connect it with the walls of adjacent cells, by means of
little waxen hooks which they distributed regularly over its
surface. In the upper semicircle of the disc they then began to
construct three or four cells, uniting these to the hooks. Each of
these transition, or accommodation, cells was more or less deformed
at the top, to allow of its being soldered to the adjoining cell on
the comb; but its lower portion already designed on the tin three
very clear angles, whence there ran three little straight lines that
correctly indicated the first half of the following cell.

After forty-eight hours, and notwithstanding the fact that only
three bees at a time were able to work in the cavity, the entire
surface of the tin was covered with outlined cells. These were less
regular, certainly, than those of an ordinary comb; wherefore the
queen, having inspected them, wisely declined to lay any eggs there,
for the generation that would have arisen therefrom would
necessarily have been deformed. Each cell, however, was a perfect
hexagon; nor did it contain a single crooked line, a single curved
figure or angle. And yet the ordinary conditions had all been
changed; the cells had neither been scooped out of a block,
according to Huber's description, nor had they been designed within
a waxen hood, and, from being circular at first, been subsequently
converted into hexagons by the pressure of adjoining cells, as
explained by Darwin. Neither could there be question here of
reciprocal obstacles, the cells having been formed one by one, and
their first lines traced on what practically was a bare table. It
would seem incontestable, therefore, that the hexagon is not merely
the result of mechanical necessities, but that it has its true place
in the plans, the experience, the intellect and will of the bee. I
may relate here another curious instance of the workers' sagacity:
the cells they built on the tin had no other base than the metal
itself. The engineers of the corps had evidently decided that the
tin could adequately retain the honey; and had considered that, the
substance being impermeable, they need not waste the material they
value so highly by covering the metal with a layer of wax. But, a
short time after, some drops of honey having been placed in two of
these cells, the bees discovered, in tasting it, that the contact of
the metal had a deteriorating effect. Thereupon they reconsidered
the matter, and covered over with wax the entire surface of the tin.


Were it our desire to throw light upon all the secrets of this
geometric architecture, we should have more than one curious
question still to consider; as for instance the shape of the first
cells, which, being attached to the roof, are modified in such a
manner as to touch the roof at the greatest possible number of

The design of the principal thoroughfares is determined by the
parallelism of the combs; but we must admire the ingenious
construction of alleys and gangways through and around the comb, so
skilfully contrived as to provide short cuts in every direction and
prevent congestion of traffic, while ensuring free circulation of
air. And finally we should have to study the construction of
transition cells, wherein we see a unanimous instinct at work that
impels the bees at a given moment to increase the size of their
dwellings. Three reasons may dictate this step: an extraordinary
harvest may call for larger receptacles, the workers may consider
the population to be sufficiently numerous, or it may have become
necessary that males should be born. Nor can we in such cases
refrain from wondering at the ingenious economy, the unerring,
harmonious conviction, with which the bees will pass from the small
to the large, from the large to the small; from perfect symmetry to,
where unavoidable, its very reverse, returning to ideal regularity
so soon as the laws of a live geometry will allow; and all the time
not losing a cell, not suffering a single one of their numerous
structures to be sacrificed, to be ridiculous, uncertain, or
barbarous, or any section thereof to become unfit for use. But I
fear that I have already wandered into many details that will have
but slender interest for the reader, whose eyes perhaps may never
have followed a flight of bees; or who may have regarded them only
with the passing interest with which we are all of us apt to regard
the flower, the bird or the precious stone, asking of these no more
than a slight superficial assurance, and forgetting that the most
trivial secret of the non-human object we behold in nature connects
more closely perhaps with the profound enigma of our origin and our
end, than the secret of those of our passions that we study the most
eagerly and the most passionately.


And I will pass over too--in my desire that this essay shall not
become too didactic--the remarkable instinct that induces the bees
at times to thin and demolish the extremity of their combs, when
these are to be enlarged or lengthened; though it must be admitted
that in this case the "blind building instinct" fails signally to
account for their demolishing in order that they may rebuild, or
undoing what has been done that it may be done afresh, and with more
regularity. I will content myself also with a mere reference to the
remarkable experiment that enables us, with the aid of a piece of
glass, to compel the bees to start their combs at a right angle;
when they most ingeniously contrive that the enlarged cells on the
convex side shall coincide with the reduced cells on the concave
side of the comb.

But before finally quitting this subject let us pause, though it be
but for an instant, and consider the mysterious fashion in which
they manage to act in concert and combine their labour, when
simultaneously carving two opposite sides of a comb, and unable
therefore to see each other. Take a finished comb to the light, fix
your eyes on the diaphanous wax; you will see, most clearly
designed, an entire network of sharply cut prisms, a whole system of
concordances so infallible that one might almost believe them to be
stamped on steel.

I wonder whether those who never have seen the interior of a hive
can form an adequate conception of the arrangement and aspect of the
combs. Let them imagine--we will take a peasant's hive, where the
bee is left entirely to its own resources--let them imagine a dome
of straw or osier, divided from top to bottom by five, six, eight,
sometimes ten, strips of wax, resembling somewhat great slices of
bread, that run in strictly parallel lines from the top of the dome
to the floor, espousing closely the shape of the ovoid walls.
Between these strips is contrived a space of about half an inch, to
enable the bees to stand and to pass each other. At the moment when
they begin to construct one of these strips at the top of the hive,
the waxen wall (which is its rough model, and will later be thinned
and extended) is still very thick, and completely excludes the fifty
or sixty bees at work on its inner face from the fifty or sixty
simultaneously engaged in carving the outer, so that it is wholly
impossible for one group to see the other, unless indeed their sight
be able to penetrate opaque matter. And yet there is not a hole that
is scooped on the inner surface, not a fragment of wax that is
added, but corresponds with mathematical precision to a protuberance
or cavity on the outer surface, and vice versa. How does this
happen? How is it that one does not dig too deep, another not deep
enough? Whence the invariable magical coincidence between the angles
of the lozenges? What is it tells the bees that at this point they
must begin, and at that point stop? Once again we must content
ourselves with the reply, that is no reply: "It is a mystery of the

Huber has sought to explain this mystery by suggesting that the
pressure of the bees' hooks and teeth may possibly produce slight
projections, at regular intervals, on the opposite side of the comb;
or that they may be able to estimate the thickness of the block by
the flexibility, elasticity, or some other physical quality of the
wax; or again, that their antennae, which seem so well adapted for
the questioning of the finer, less evident side of things, may serve
as a compass in the invisible; or, lastly, that the position of
every cell may derive mathematically from the arrangement and
dimensions of the cells on the first row, and thus dispense with the
need for further measurement. But these explanations are evidently
insufficient; the first are mere hypotheses that cannot be verified,
the others do no more than transplant the mystery. And useful as it
may be to transplant mystery as often as we possibly can, it were
not wise to imagine that a mystery has ceased to be because we have
shifted its home.


Now let us leave these dreary building grounds, this geometrical
desert of cells. The combs have been started, and are becoming
habitable. Though it be here the infinitely little that, without
apparent hope, adds itself to the infinitely little; though our eye
with its limited vision look and see nothing, the work of wax,
halting neither by day nor by night, will advance with incredible
quickness. The impatient queen already has more than once paced the
stockades that gleam white in the darkness; and no sooner is the
first row of dwellings complete than she takes possession with her
escort of counsellors, guardians, or servants--for we know not
whether she lead or be led, be venerated or supervised. When the
spot has been reached that she, or her urgent advisers, may regard
as favourable, she arches her back, bends forward, and introduces
the extremity of her long spindle-shaped abdomen into one of the
cells; the-little eager heads of her escort meanwhile forming a
passionate circle around her, watching her with their enormous black
eyes, supporting her, caressing her wings, and waving their feverish
antennae as though to encourage, incite, or congratulate. You may
easily discover the spot where the queen shall be found by the sort
of starry cockade, or oval brooch perhaps of the imposing kind our
grandmothers used to wear, of which she forms the central stone. And
one may mention here the curious fact that the workers always avoid
turning their back on the queen. No sooner has she approached a
group than they will invariably arrange themselves so as to face her
with eyes and antennae, and to walk backwards before her. It is a
token of respect, or of solicitude, that, unlikely as it may seem,
is nevertheless constant and general. But to return to the queen.
During the slight spasm that visibly accompanies the emission of an
egg, one of her daughters will often throw her arms round her and
appear to be whispering to her, brow pressed to brow and mouth to
mouth. But the queen, in no wise disturbed by this somewhat bold
demonstration, takes her time, tranquilly, calmly, wholly absorbed
by the mission that would seem amorous delight to her rather than
labour. And after some seconds she will rise, very quietly, take a
step back, execute a slight turn on herself, and proceed to the next
cell, into which she will first, before introducing her abdomen, dip
her head to make sure that all is in order and that she is not
laying twice in the same cell; and in the meanwhile two or three of
her escort will have plunged into the cell she has quitted to see
whether the work be duly accomplished, and to care for, and tenderly
house, the little bluish egg she has laid.

From this moment, up to the first frosts of autumn, she does not
cease laying; she lays while she is being fed, and even in her
sleep, if indeed she sleeps at all, she still lays. She represents
henceforth the devouring force of the future, which invades every
corner of the kingdom. Step by step she pursues the unfortunate
workers who are exhaustedly, feverishly erecting the cradles her
fecundity demands. We have here the union of two mighty instincts;
and their workings throw into light, though they leave unresolved,
many an enigma of the hive.

It will happen, for instance, that the workers will distance her,
and acquire a certain start; whereupon, mindful of their duties as
careful housewives to provide for the bad days ahead, they hasten to
fill with honey the cells they have wrested from the avidity of the
species. But the queen approaches; material wealth must give way to
the scheme of nature; and the distracted workers are compelled with
all speed to remove the importunate treasure.

But assume them to be a whole comb ahead, and to have no longer
before them her who stands for the tyranny of days they shall none
of them see; we find then that they eagerly, hurriedly, build a zone
of large cells, cells for males; whose construction is very much
easier, and far more rapid. When the queen in her turn attains this
unthankful zone, she will regretfully lay a few eggs there, then
cease, pass beyond, and clamour for more workers' cells. Her
daughters obey; little by little they reduce the cells; and then the
pursuit starts afresh, till at last the insatiable mother shall have
traversed the whole circumference of the hive, and have returned to
the first cells. These, by this time, will be empty; for the first
generation will have sprung into life, soon to go forth, from their
shadowy corner of birth, disperse over the neighbouring blossoms,
people the rays of the sun and quicken the smiling hours; and then
sacrifice themselves in their turn to the new generations that are
already filling their place in the cradles.


And whom does the queen-bee obey? She is ruled by nourishment given
her; for she does not take her own food, but is fed like a child by
the very workers whom her fecundity harasses. And the food these
workers deal out is nicely proportioned to the abundance of flowers,
to the spoil brought back by those who visit the calyces. Here,
then, as everywhere else in the world, one part of the circle is
wrapped in darkness; here, as everywhere, it is from without, from
an unknown power, that the supreme order issues; and the bees, like
ourselves, obey the nameless lord of the wheel that incessantly
turns on itself, and crushes the wills that have set it in motion.

Some little time back, I conducted a friend to one of my hives of
glass, and showed him the movements of this wheel, which was as
readily perceptible as the great wheel of a clock; showed him, in
all its bareness, the universal agitation on every comb, the
perpetual, frantic, bewildered haste of the nurses around the
brood-cells; the living gangways and ladders formed by the makers of
wax, the abounding, unceasing activity of the entire population, and
their pitiless, useless effort; the ardent, feverish coming and
going of all, the general absence of sleep save in the cradles
alone, around which continuous labour kept watch; the denial of even
the repose of death in a home which permits no illness and accords
no grave; and my friend, his astonishment over, soon turned his eyes
away, and in them I could read the signs of I know not what saddened

And truly, underlying the gladness that we note first of all in the
hive, underlying the dazzling memories of beautiful days that render
it the storehouse of summer's most precious jewels, underlying the
blissful journeys that knit it so close to the flowers and to
running water, to the sky, to the peaceful abundance of all that
makes for beauty and happiness--underlying all these exterior joys,
there reposes a sadness as deep as the eye of man can behold. And
we, who dimly gaze on these things with our own blind eyes, we know
full well that it is not they alone that we are striving to see, not
they alone that we cannot understand, but that before us there lies
a pitiable form of the great power that quickens us also.

Sad let it be, as all things in nature are sad, when our eyes rest
too closely upon them. And thus it ever shall be so long as we know
not her secret, know not even whether secret truly there be. And
should we discover some day that there is no secret, or that the
secret is monstrous, other duties will then arise that, as yet,
perhaps, have no name. Let our heart, if it will, in the meanwhile
repeat, "It is sad;" but let our reason be content to add, "Thus it
is." At the present hour the duty before us is to seek out that
which perhaps may be hiding behind these sorrows; and, urged on by
this endeavour, we must not turn our eyes away, but steadily,
fixedly, watch these sorrows and study them, with a courage and
interest as keen as though they were joys. It is right that before
we judge nature, before we complain, we should at least ask every
question that we can possibly ask.


We have seen that the workers, when free for the moment from the
threatening fecundity of the queen, hasten to erect cells for
provisions, whose construction is more economical and capacity
greater. We have seen, too, that the queen prefers to lay in the
smaller cells, for which she is incessantly clamouring. When these
are wanting, however, or till they be provided, she resigns herself
to laying her eggs in the large cells she finds on her road.

These eggs, though absolutely identical with those from which
workers are hatched, will give birth to males, or drones. Now,
conversely to what takes place when a worker is turned into queen,
it is here neither the form nor the capacity of the cell that
produces this change; for from an egg laid in a large cell and
afterwards transferred to that of a worker (a most difficult
operation, because of the microscopic minuteness and extreme
fragility of the egg, but one that I have four or five times
successfully accomplished) there will issue an undeniable male,
though more or less atrophied. It follows, therefore, that the queen
must possess the power, while laying, of knowing or determining the
sex of the egg, and of adapting it to the cell over which she is
bending. She will rarely make a mistake. How does she contrive, from
among the myriad eggs her ovaries contain, to separate male from
female, and lower them, at will, into the unique oviduct?

Here, yet again, there confronts us an enigma of the hive; and in
this case one of the most unfathomable. We know that the virgin
queen is not sterile; but the eggs that she lays will produce only
males. It is not till after the impregnation of the nuptial flight
that she can produce workers or drones at will. The nuptial flight
places her permanently in possession, till death, of the spermatozoa
torn from her unfortunate lover. These spermatozoa, whose number Dr.
Leuckart estimates at twenty-five millions, are preserved alive in a
special gland known as the spermatheca, that is situate under the
ovaries, at the entrance to the common oviduct. It is imagined that
the narrow aperture of the smaller cells, and the manner in which
the form of this aperture compels the queen to bend forward,
exercise a certain pressure upon the spermatheca, in consequence of
which the spermatozoa spring forth and fecundate the egg as it
passes. In the large cells this pressure would not take place, and
the spermatheca would therefore not open. Others, again, believe
that the queen has perfect control over the muscles that open and
close the spermatheca on the vagina; and these muscles are certainly
very numerous, complex, and powerful. For myself, I incline to the
second of these hypotheses, though I do not for a moment pretend to
decide which is the more correct; for indeed, the further we go and
the more closely we study, the more plainly is it brought home to us
that we merely are waifs shipwrecked on the ocean of nature; and
ever and anon, from a sudden wave that shall be more transparent
than others, there leaps forth a fact that in an instant confounds
all we imagined we knew. But the reason of my preferring the second
theory is that, for one thing, the experiments of a Bordeaux
bee-keeper, M. Drory, have shown that in cases where all the large
cells have been removed from the hive, the mother will not hesitate,
when the moment for laying male eggs has come, to deposit these in
workers' cells; and that, inversely, she will lay workers' eggs in
cells provided for males, if she have no others at her disposal.
And, further, we learn from the interesting observations of M. Fabre
on the Osmiae, which are wild and olitary bees of the Gastrilegidae
family, that not only does the Osmia know in advance the sex of the
egg she will lay, but that this sex is "optional for the mother, who
decides it in accordance with the space of which she disposes; this
space being often governed by chance and not to be modified; and she
will deposit a male egg here and a female there." I shall not enter
into the details of the great French entomologist's experiments, for
they are exceedingly minute, and would take us too far. But
whichever be the hypothesis we prefer to accept, either will serve
to explain the queen's inclination to lay her eggs in workers'
cells, without it being necessary to credit her with the least
concern for the future.

It is not impossible that this slave-mother, whom we are inclined to
pity, may be indeed a great amorist, a great voluptuary, deriving a
certain enjoyment, an after-taste, as it were, of her one
marriage-flight, from the union of the male and female principle
that thus comes to pass in her being. Here again nature, never so
ingenious, so cunningly prudent and diverse, as when contriving her
snares of love, will not have failed to provide a certain pleasure
as a bait in the interest of the species. And yet let us pause for a
moment, and not become the dupes of our own explanation. For indeed,
to attribute an idea of this kind to nature, and regard that as
sufficient, is like flinging a stone into an unfathomable gulf we
may find in the depths of a grotto, and imagining that the sounds it
creates as it falls shall answer our every question, or reveal to us
aught beside the immensity of the abyss.

When we say to ourselves, "This thing is of nature's devising;
she has ordained this marvel; those are her desires that we see
before us!" the fact is merely that our special attention has been
drawn to some tiny manifestation of life upon the boundless surface
of matter that we deem inactive, and choose to describe, with
evident inaccuracy, as nothingness and death. A purely fortuitous
chain of events has allowed this special manifestation to attract
our attention; but a thousand others, no less interesting, perhaps,
and informed with no less intelligence, have vanished, not meeting
with a like good-fortune, and have lost for ever the chance of
exciting our wonder. It were rash to affirm aught beside; and all
that remains, our reflections, our obstinate search for the final
cause, our admiration and hopes--all these in truth are no more than
our feeble cry as, in the depths of the unknown, we clash against
what is more unknowable still; and this feeble cry declares the
highest degree of individual existence attainable for us on this
mute and impenetrable surface, even as the flight of the condor, the
song of the nightingale, reveal to them the highest degree of
existence their species allows. But the evocation of this feeble
cry, whenever opportunity offers, is none the less one of our most
unmistakable duties; nor should we let ourselves be discouraged by
its apparent futility.




HERE let us close our hive, where we find that life is reassuming
its circular movement, is extending and multiplying, to be again
divided as soon as it shall attain the fulness of its happiness and
strength; and let us for the last time reopen the mother-city, and
see what is happening there after the departure of the swarm.

The tumult having subsided, the hapless city, that two thirds of her
children have abandoned for ever, becomes feeble, empty, moribund;
like a body from which the blood has been drained. Some thousands of
bees have remained, however; and these, though a trifle languid
perhaps, are still immovably faithful to the duty a precise destiny
has laid upon them, still conscious of the part that they have
themselves to play; they resume their labours, therefore, fill as
best they can the place of those who have gone, remove all trace of
the orgy, carefully house the provisions that have escaped pillage,
sally forth to the flowers again, and keep scrupulous guard over the
hostages of the future.

And for all that the moment may appear gloomy, hope abounds wherever
the eye may turn. We might be in one of the castles of German
legend, whose walls are composed of myriad phials containing the
souls of men about to be born. For we are in the abode of life that
goes before life. On all sides, asleep in their closely sealed
cradles, in this infinite superposition of marvellous six-sided
cells, lie thousands of nymphs, whiter than milk, who with folded
arms and head bent forward await the hour of awakening. In their
uniform tombs, that, isolated, become nearly transparent, they seem
almost like hoary gnomes, lost in deep thought, or legions of
virgins whom the folds of the shroud have contorted, who are buried
in hexagonal prisms that some inflexible geometrician has multiplied
to the verge of delirium.

Over the entire area that the vertical walls enclose, and in the
midst of this growing world that so soon shall transform itself,
that shall four or five times in succession assume fresh vestments,
and then spin its own winding-sheet in the shadow, hundreds of
workers are dancing and flapping their wings. They appear thus to
generate the necessary heat, and accomplish some other object
besides that is still more obscure; for this dance of theirs
contains some extraordinary movements, so methodically conceived
that they must infallibly answer some purpose which no observer has
as yet, I believe, been able to divine.

A few days more, and the lids of these myriad urns--whereof a
considerable hive will contain from sixty to eighty thousand--will
break, and two large and earnest black eyes will appear, surmounted
by antennae that already are groping at life, while active jaws are
busily engaged in enlarging the opening from within. The nurses at
once come running; they help the young bee to emerge from her
prison, they clean her and brush her, and at the tip of their tongue
present the first honey of the new life. But the bee, that has come
from another world, is bewildered still, trembling and pale; she
wears the feeble look of a little old man who might have escaped
from his tomb, or perhaps of a traveller strewn with the powdery
dust of the ways that lead unto life. She is perfect, however, from
head to foot; she knows at once all that has to be known; and, like
the children of the people, who learn, as it were, at their birth,
that for them there shall never be time to play or to laugh, she
instantly makes her way to the cells that are closed, and proceeds
to beat her wings and to dance in cadence, so that she in her turn
may quicken her buried sisters; nor does she for one instant pause
to decipher the astounding enigma of her destiny, or her race.


The most arduous labours will, however, at first be spared her. A
week must elapse from the day of her birth before she will quit the
hive; she will then perform her first "cleansing flight," and absorb
the air into her tracheae, which, filling, expand her body, and
proclaim her the bride of space. Thereupon she returns to the hive,
and waits yet one week more; and then, with her sisters born the
same day as herself, she will for the first time set forth to visit
the flowers. A special emotion now will lay hold of her; one that
French apiarists term the "soleil d'artifice," but which might more
rightly perhaps be called the "sun of disquiet." For it is evident
that the bees are afraid, that these daughters of the crowd, of
secluded darkness, shrink from the vault of blue, from the infinite
loneliness of the light; and their joy is halting, and woven of
terror. They cross the threshold and pause; they depart, they
return, twenty times. They hover aloft in the air, their head
persistently turned to the home; they describe great soaring circles
that suddenly sink beneath the weight of regret; and their thirteen
thousand eyes will question, reflect, and retain the trees and the
fountain, the gate and the walls, the neighbouring windows and
houses, till at last the aerial course whereon their return shall
glide have become as indelibly stamped in their memory as though it
were marked in space by two lines of steel.


A new mystery confronts us here, which we shall do well to
challenge; for though it reply not, its silence still will extend
the field of our conscious ignorance, which is the most fertile of
all that our activity knows. How do the bees contrive to find their
way back to the hive that they cannot possibly see, that is hidden,
perhaps, by the trees, that in any event must form an imperceptible
point in space? How is it that if taken in a box to a spot two or
three miles from their home, they will almost invariably succeed in
finding their way back?

Do obstacles offer no barrier to their sight; do they guide
themselves by certain indications and landmarks; or do they possess
that peculiar, imperfectly understood sense that we ascribe to the
swallows and pigeons, for instance, and term the "sense of
direction"? The experiments of J. H. Fabre, of Lubbock, and, above
all, of Romanes (Nature, 29 Oct. 1886) seem to establish that it is
not this strange instinct that guides them. I have, on the other
hand, more than once noticed that they appear to pay no attention to
the colour or form of the hive. They are attracted rather by the
ordinary appearance of the platform on which their home reposes, by
the position of the entrance, and of the alighting-board. But this
even is merely subsidiary; were the front of the hive to be altered
from top to bottom, during the workers' absence, they would still
unhesitatingly direct their course to it from out the far depths of
the horizon; and only when confronted by the unrecognisable
threshold would they seern for one instant to pause. Such
experiments as lie in our power point rather to their guiding
themselves by an extraordinarily minute and precise appreciation of
landmarks. It is not the hive that they seem to remember, but its
position, calculated to the minutest fraction, in its relation to
neighbouring objects. And so marvellous is this appreciation, so
mathematically certain, so profoundly inscribed in their memory,
that if, after five months' hibernation in some obscure cellar, the
hive, when replaced on the platform, should be set a little to right
or to left of its former position, all the workers, on their return
from the earliest flowers, will infallibly steer their direct and
unwavering course to the precise spot that it filled the previous
year; and only after some hesitation and groping will they discover
the door which stands not now where it once had stood. It is as
though space had preciously preserved, the whole winter through, the
indelible track of their flight: as though the print of their tiny,
laborious footsteps, still lay graven in the sky.

If the hive be displaced, therefore, many bees will lose their way;
except in the case of their having been carried far from their
former home, and finding the country completely transformed that
they had grown to know perfectly within a radius of two or three
miles; for then, if care be taken to warn them, by means of a little
gangway connecting with the alighting-board, at the entrance to the
hive, that some change has occurred, they will at once proceed to
seek new bearings and create fresh landmarks.


And now let us return to the city that is being repeopled, where
myriad cradles are incessantly opening, and the solid walls even
appear to be moving. But this city still lacks a queen. Seven or
eight curious structures arise from the centre of one of the combs,
and remind us, scattered as they are over the surface of the
ordinary cells, of the circles and protuberances that appear so
strange on the photographs of the moon. They are a species of
capsule, contrived of wrinkled wax or of inclined glands,
hermetically sealed, which fills the place of three or four workers'
cells. As a rule, they are grouped around the same point; and a
numerous guard keep watch, with singular vigilance and restlessness,
over this region that seems instinct with an indescribable prestige.
It is here that the mothers are formed. In each one of these
capsules, before the swarm departs, an egg will be placed by the
mother, or more probably--though as to this we have no certain
knowledge--by one of the workers; an egg that she will have taken
from some neighbouring cell, and that is absolutely identical with
those from which workers are hatched.

From this egg, after three days, a small larva will issue, and
receive a special and very abundant nourishment; and henceforth we
are able to follow, step by step, the movements of one of those
magnificently vulgar methods of nature on which, were we dealing
with men, we should bestow the august name of fatality. The little
larva, thanks to. this regimen, assumes an exceptional development;
and in its ideas, no less than in its body, there ensues so
considerable a change that the bee to which it will give birth might
almost belong to an entirely different race of insects.

Four or five years will be the period of her life, instead of the
six or seven weeks of the ordinary worker. Her abdomen will be twice
as long, her colour more golden, and clearer; her sting will be
curved, and her eyes have seven or eight thousand facets instead of
twelve or thirteen thousand. Her brain will be smaller, but she will
possess enormous ovaries, and a special organ besides, the
spermatheca, that will render her almost an hermaphrodite. None of
the instincts will be hers that belong to a life of toil; she will
have no brushes, no pockets wherein to secrete the wax, no baskets
to gather the pollen. The habits, the passions, that we regard as
inherent in the bee, will all be lacking in her. She will not crave
for air, or the light of the sun; she will die without even once
having tasted a flower. Her existence will pass in the shadow, in
the midst of a restless throng; her sole occupation the
indefatigable search for cradles that she must fill. On the other
hand she alone will know the disquiet of love. Not even twice, it
may be, in her life shall she look on the light--for the departure
of the swarm is by no means inevitable; on one occasion only,
perhaps, will she make use of her wings, but then it will be to fly
to her lover. It is strange to see so many things--organs, ideas,
desires, habits, an entire destiny--depending, not on a germ, which
were the ordinary miracle of the plant, the animal, and man, but on
a curious inert substance: a drop of honey.*

*It is generally admitted to-day that workers and queens, after the
hatching of the egg, receive the same nourishment,--a kind of milk,
very rich in nitrogen, that a special gland in the nurses' head
secretes. But after a few days the worker larvae are weaned, and put
on a coarser diet of honey and pollen; whereas the future queen,
until she be fully developed, is copiously fed on the precious milk
known as "royal jelly."


About a week has passed since the departure of the old queen. The
royal nymphs asleep in the capsules are not all of the same age, for
it is to the interest of the bees that the births should be nicely
gradationed, and take place at regular intervals, in accordance with
their possible desire for a second swarm, a third, or even a fourth.
The workers have for some hours now been actively thinning the walls
of the ripest cell, while the young queen, from within, has been
simultaneously gnawing the rounded lid of her prison. And at last
her head appears; she thrusts herself forward; and, with the help of
the guardians who hasten eagerly to her, who brush her, caress her,
and clean her, she extricates herself altogether and takes her first
steps on the comb. At the moment of birth she too, like the workers,
is trembling and pale, but after ten minutes or so her legs become
stronger, and a strange restlessness seizes her; she feels that she
is not alone, that her kingdom has yet to be conquered, that close
by pretenders are hiding; and she eagerly paces the waxen walls in
search of her rivals. But there intervene here the mysterious
decisions and wisdom of instinct, of the spirit of the hive, or of
the assembly of workers. The most surprising feature of all, as we
watch these things happening before us in a hive of glass, is the
entire absence of hesitation, of the slightest division of opinion.
There is not a trace of discussion or discord. The atmosphere of the
city is one of absolute unanimity, preordained, which reigns over
all; and every one of the bees would appear to know in advance the
thought of her sisters. And yet this moment is the gravest, the most
vital, in their entire history. They have to choose between three or
four courses whose results, in the distant future, will be totally
different; which, too, the slightest accident may render disastrous.
They have to reconcile the multiplication of species--which is their
passion, or innate duty--with the preservation of the hive and its
people. They will err at times; they will successively send forth
three or four swarms, thereby completely denuding the mother-city;
and these swarms, too feeble to organise, will succumb, it may be,
at the approach of winter, caught unawares by this climate of ours,
which is different far from their original climate, thatthe bees,
notwithstanding all, have never forgotten. In such cases they suffer
from what is known as "swarming fever;" a condition wherein life, as
in ordinary fever, reacting too ardently on itself, passes its aim,
completes the circle, and discovers only death.


Of all the decisions before them there is none that would seem
imperative; nor can man, if content to play the part of spectator
only, foretell in the slightest degree which one the bees will
adopt. But that the most careful deliberation governs their choice
is proved by the fact that we are able to influence, or even
determine it, by for instance reducing or enlarging the space we
accord them; or by removing combs full of honey, and setting up, in
their stead, empty combs which are well supplied with workers'

The question they have to consider is not whether a second or third
swarm shall be immediately launched,--for in arriving at such a
decision they would merely be blindly and thoughtlessly yielding to
the caprice or temptation of a favourable moment,--but the
instantaneous, unanimous adoption of measures that shall enable them
to issue a second swarm or "cast" three or four days after the birth
of the first queen, and a third swarm three days after the departure
of the second, with this first queen at their head. It must be
admitted, therefore, that we discover here a perfectly reasoned
system, and a mature combination of plans extending over a period
considerable indeed when compared with the brevity of the bee's

These measures concern the care of the youthful queens who still lie
immured in their waxen prisons. Let us assume that the "spirit of
the hive "has pronounced against the despatch of a second swarm. Two
courses still remain open. The bees may permit the first-born of the
royal virgins, the one whose birth we have witnessed, to destroy her
sister-enemies; or they may elect to wait till she have performed
the perilous ceremony known as the "nuptial flight," whereon the
nation's future depends. The immediate massacre will be authorised
often, and often denied; but in the latter case it is of course not
easy for us to pronounce whether the bees' decision be due to a
desire for a second swarm, or to their recognition of the dangers
attending the nuptial flight; for it will happen at times that, on
account of the weather unexpectedly becoming less favourable, or for
some other reason we cannot divine, they will suddenly change their
mind, renounce the cast that they had decreed, and destroy the royal
progeny they had so carefully preserved. But at present we will
suppose that they have determined to dispense with a second swarm,
and that they accept the risks of the nuptial flight. Our young
queen hastens towards the large cradles, urged on by her great
desire, and the guard make way before her. Listening only to her
furious jealousy, she will fling herself on to the first cell she
comes across, madly strip off the wax with her teeth and claws, tear
away the cocoon that carpets the cell, and divest the sleeping
princess of every covering. If her rival should be already
recognisable, the queen will turn so that her sting may enter the
capsule, and will frantically stab it with her venomous weapon until
the victim perish. She then becomes calmer, appeased by the death
that puts a term to the hatred of every creature; she withdraws her
sting, hurries to the adjoining cell, attacks it and opens it,
passing it by should she find in it only an imperfect larva or
nymph; nor does she pause till, at last, exhausted and breathless,
her claws and teeth glide harmless over the waxen walls.

The bees that surround her have calmly watched her fury, have stood
by, inactive, moving only to leave her path clear; but no sooner has
a cell been pierced and laid waste than they eagerly flock to it,
drag out the corpse of the ravished nymph, or the still living
larva, and thrust it forth from the hive, thereupon gorging
themselves with the precious royal jelly that adheres to the sides
of the cell. And finally, when the queen has become too weak to
persist in her passion, they will themselves complete the massacre
of the innocents; and the sovereign race, and their dwellings, will
all disappear.

This is the terrible hour of the hive; the only occasion, with that
of the more justifiable execution of the drones, when the workers
suffer discord and death to be busy amongst them; and here, as often
in nature, it is the favoured of love who attract to themselves the
most extraordinary shafts of violent death.

It will happen at times that two queens will be hatched
simultaneously, the occurrence being rare, however, for the bees
take special care to prevent it. But whenever this does take place,
the deadly combat will begin the moment they emerge from their
cradles; and of this combat Huber was the first to remark an
extraordinary feature. Each time, it would seem that the queens, in
their passes, present their chitrinous cuirasses to each other in
such a fashion that the drawing of the sting would prove mutually
fatal; one might almost believe that, even as a god or goddess was
wont to interpose in the combats of the Iliad, so a god or a
goddess, the divinity of the race, perhaps, interposes here; and the
two warriors, stricken with simultaneous terror, divide and fly, to
meet shortly after and separate again should the double disaster
once more menace the future of their people; till at last one of
them shall succeed in surprising her clumsier or less wary rival,
and in killing her without risk to herself. For the law of the race
has called for one sacrifice only.

The cradles having thus been destroyed and the rivals all slain, the
young queen is accepted by her people; but she will not truly reign
over them, or be treated as was her mother before her, until the
nuptial flight be accomplished; for until she be impregnated the
bees will hold her but lightly, and render most passing homage. Her
history, however, will rarely be as uneventful as this, for the bees
will not often renounce their desire for a second swarm. In that
case, as before, quick with the same desires, the queen will
approach the royal cells; but instead of meeting with docile
servants who second her efforts, she will find her path blocked by a
numerous and hostile guard. In her fury, and urged on by her fixed
idea, she will endeavour to force her way through, or to outflank
them; but everywhere sentinels are posted to protect the sleeping
princesses. She persists, she returns to the charge, to be repulsed
with ever increasing severity, to be somewhat roughly handled even,
until at last she begins vaguely to understand that these little
inflexible workers stand for a law before which that law must bend
whereby she is inspired.

And at last she goes, and wanders from comb to comb, her unsatisfied
wrath finding vent in a war-song, or angry complaint, that every
bee-keeper knows; resembling somewhat the note of a distant trumpet
of silver; so intense, in its passionate feebleness, as to be
clearly audible, in the evening especially, two or three yards from
the double walls of the most carefully enclosed hive.

Upon the workers this royal cry has a magical effect. It terrifies
them, it induces a kind of respectful stupor; and when the queen
sends it forth, as she halts in front of the cells whose approach is
denied her, the guardians who have but this moment been hustling
her, pushing her back, will at once desist, and wait, with bent
head, till the cry shall have ceased to resound. Indeed, some
believe that it is thanks to the prestige of this cry, which the
Sphinx Atropos imitates, that the latter is able to enter the hive,
and gorge itself with honey, without the least molestation on the
part of the bees.

For two or three days, sometimes even for five, this indignant
lament will be heard, this challenge that the queen addresses to her
well protected rivals. And as these in their turn develop, in their
turn grow anxious to see the light, they too set to work to gnaw the
lids of their cells. A mighty disorder would now appear to threaten
the republic. But the genius of the hive, at the time that it formed
its decision, was able to foretell every consequence that might
ensue; and the guardians have had their instructions: they know
exactly what must be done, hour by hour, to meet the attacks of a
foiled instinct, and conduct two opposite forces to a successful
issue. They are fully aware that if the young queens should escape
who now clamour for birth, they would fall into the hands of their
elder sister, by this time irresistible, who would destroy them one
by one. The workers, therefore, will pile on fresh layers of wax in
proportion as the prisoner reduces, from within, the walls of her
tower; and the impatient princess will ardently persist in her
labour, little suspecting that she has to deal with an enchanted
obstacle, that rises ever afresh from its ruin. She hears the
war-cry of her rival; and already aware of her royal duty and
destiny, although she has not yet looked upon life, nor knows what a
hive may be, she answers the challenge from within the depths of her
prison. But her cry is different; it is stifled and hollow, for it
has to traverse the walls of a tomb; and, when night is falling, and
noises are hushed, and high over all there reigns the silence of the
stars, the apiarist who nears these marvellous cities and stands,
questioning, at their entrance, recognises and understands the
dialogue that is passing between the wandering queen and the virgins
in prison.


To the young princesses, however, this prolonged reclusion is of
material benefit; for when they at last are freed they have grown
mature and vigorous, and are able to fly. But during this period of
waiting the strength of the first queen has also increased, and is
sufficient now to enable her to face the perils of the voyage. The
time has arrived, therefore, for the departure of the second swarm,
or "cast," with the first-born of the queens at its head. No sooner
has she gone than the workers left in the hive will set one of the
prisoners free; and she will evince the same murderous desires, send
forth the same cries of anger, until, at last, after three or four
days, she will leave the hive in her turn, at the head of the
tertiary swarm; and so in succession, in the case of "swarming
fever," till the mother-city shall be completely exhausted.

Swammerdam cites a hive that, through its swarms and the swarms of
its swarms, was able in a single season to found no less than thirty

Such extraordinary multiplication is above all noticeable after
disastrous winters; and one might almost believe that the bees,
forever in touch with the secret desires of nature, are conscious of
the dangers that menace their race. But at ordinary times this fever
will rarely occur in a strong and well-governed hive. There are many
that swarm only once; and some, indeed, not at all.

After the second swarm the bees, as a rule, will renounce further
division, owing either to their having observed the excessive
feebleness of their own stock, or to the prudence urged upon them by
threatening skies. In that case they will allow the third queen to
slaughter the captives; ordinary life will at once be resumed, and
pursued with the more ardour for the reason that the workers are all
very young, that the hive is depopulated and impoverished, and that
there are great voids to fill before the arrival of winter.


The departure of the second and third swarms resembles that of the
first, and the conditions are identical, with the exception that the
bees are fewer in number, less circumspect, and lacking in scouts;
and also that the young and virgin queen, being unencumbered and
ardent, will fly much further, and in the first stage lead the swarm
to a considerable distance from the hive. The conduct of these
second and third migrations will be far more rash, and their future
more problematical. The queen at their head, the representative of
the future, has not yet been impregnated. Their entire destiny
depends on the ensuing nuptial flight. A passing bird, a few drops
of rain, a mistake, a cold wind--any one of these may give rise to
irremediable disaster. Of this the bees are so well aware that when
the young queen sallies forth in quest of her lover, they often will
abandon the labours they have begun, will forsake the home of a day
that already is dear to them, and accompany her in a body, dreading
to let her pass out of their sight, eager, as they form closely
around her, and shelter her beneath their myriad devoted wings, to
lose themselves with her, should love cause her to stray so far from
the hive that the as yet unfamiliar road of return shall grow
blurred and hesitating in every memory.


But so potent is the law of the future that none of these
uncertainties, these perils of death, will cause a single bee to
waver. The enthusiasm displayed by the second and third swarms is
not less than that of the first. No sooner has the mother-city
pronounced its decision than a battalion of workers will flock
around each dangerous young queen, eager to follow her fortunes, to
accompany her on the voyage where there is so much to lose, and so
little to gain beyond the desire of a satisfied instinct. Whence do
they derive the energy we ourselves never possess, whereby they
break with the past as though with an enemy? Who is it selects from
the crowd those who shall go forth, and declares who shall remain?
No special class divides those who stay from those who wander
abroad; it will be the younger here and the elder there; around each
queen who shall never return veteran foragers jostle tiny workers,
who for the first time shall face the dizziness of the blue. Nor is
the proportionate strength of a swarm controlled by chance or
accident, by the momentary dejection or transport of an instinct,
thought, or feeling. I have more than once tried to establish a
relation between the number of bees composing a swarm and the number
of those that remain; and although the difficulties of this
calculation are such as to preclude anything approaching
mathematical precision, I have at least been able to gather that
this relation--if we take into account the brood-cells, or in other
words the forthcoming births--is sufficiently constant to point to
an actual and mysterious reckoning on the part of the genius of the


We will not follow these swarms on their numerous, and often most
complicated, adventures. Two swarms, at times, will join forces; at
others, two or three of the imprisoned queens will profit by the
confusion attending the moment of departure to elude the
watchfulness of their guardians and join the groups that are
forming. Occasionally, too, one of the young queens, finding herself
surrounded by males, will cause herself to be impregnated in the
swarming flight, and will then drag all her people to an
extraordinary height and distance. In the practice of apiculture
these secondary and tertiary swarms are always returned to the
mother-hive. The queens will meet on the comb; the workers will
gather around and watch their combat; and, when the stronger has
overcome the weaker they will then, in their ardour for work and
hatred of disorder, expel the corpses, close the door on the
violence of the future, forget the past, return to their cells, and
resume their peaceful path to the flowers that await them.

[ 76 ]

We will now, in order to simplify matters, return to the queen whom
the bees have permitted to slaughter her sisters, and resume the
account of her adventures. As I have already stated, this massacre
will be often prevented, and often sanctioned, at times even when
the bees apparently do not intend to issue a second swarm; for we
notice the same diversity of political spirit in the different hives
of an apiary as in the different human nations of a continent. But
it is clear that the bees will act imprudently in giving their
consent; for if the queen should die, or stray in the nuptial
flight, it will be impossible to fill her place, the workers' larvae
having passed the age when they are susceptible of royal
transformation. Let us assume, however, that the imprudence has been
committed; and behold our first-born, therefore, unique sovereign,
and recognised as such in the spirit of her people. But she is still
a virgin. To become as was the mother before her, it is essential
that she should meet the male within the first twenty days of her
life. Should the event for some reason be delayed beyond this
period, her virginity becomes irrevocable. And yet we have seen that
she is not sterile, virgin though she be. There confronts us here
the great mystery--or precaution--of Nature, that is known as
parthenogenesis, and is common to a certain number of insects, such
as the aphides, the lepidoptera of the Psyche genus, the hymenoptera
of the Cynipede family, etc. The virgin queen is able to lay; but
from all the eggs that she will deposit in the cells, be these large
or small, there will issue males alone; and as these never work, as
they live at the expense of the females, as they never go foraging
except on their own account, and are generally incapable of
providing for their subsistence, the result will be, at the end of
some weeks, that the last exhausted worker will perish, and the
colony be ruined and totally annihilated. The queen, we have said,
will produce thousands of drones; and each of these will possess
millions of the spermatozoa whereof it is impossible that a single
one can have penetrated into the organism of the mother. That may
not be more astounding, perhaps, than a thousand other and analogous
phenomena; and, indeed, when we consider these problems, and more
especially those of generation, the marvellous and the unexpected
confront us so constantly--occurring far more frequently, and above
all in far less human fashion, than in the most miraculous fairy
stories--that after a time astonishment becomes so habitual with us
that we almost cease to wonder. The fact, however, is sufficiently
curious to be worthy of notice. But, on the other hand, how shall we
explain to ourselves the aim that nature can have in thus favouring
the valueless drones at the cost of the workers who are so
essential? Is she afraid lest the females might perhaps be induced
by their intellect unduly to limit the number of their parasites,
which, destructive though they be, are still necessary for the
preservation of the race? Or is it merely an exaggerated reaction
against the misfortune of the unfruitful queen? Can we have here one
of those blind and extreme precautions which, ignoring the cause of
the evil, overstep the remedy; and, in the endeavour to prevent an
unfortunate accident, bring about a catastrophe? In reality--though
we must not forget that the natural, primitive reality is different:
from that of the present, for in the original forest the colonies
might well be far more scattered than they are to-day--in reality
the queen's unfruitfulness will rarely be due to the want of males,
for these are very numerous always, and will flock from afar; but
rather to the rain, or the cold, that will have kept her too long in
the hive, and more frequently still to the imperfect state of her
wings, whereby she will be prevented from describing the high flight
in the air that the organ of the male demands. Nature, however,
heedless of these more intrinsic causes, is so deeply concerned with
the multiplication of males, that we sometimes find, in motherless
hives, two or three workers possessed of so great a desire to
preserve the race that, their atrophied ovaries notwithstanding,
they will still endeavour to lay; and, their organs expanding
somewhat beneath the empire of this exasperated sentiment, they will
succeed in depositing a few eggs in the cells; but from these eggs,
as from those of the virgin mother, there will, issue only males.


Here we behold the active intervention of a superior though perhaps
imprudent will, which offers irresistible obstruction to the
intelligent will of a life. In the insect world such interventions
are comparatively frequent, and much can be gained from their study;
for this world being more densely peopled and more complex than
others, certain special desires of nature are often more palpably
revealed to us there; and she may even at times be detected in the
midst of experiments we might almost be warranted in regarding as
incomplete. She has one great and general desire, for instance, that
she displays on all sides; the amelioration of each species through
the triumph of the stronger. This struggle, as a rule, is most
carefully organised. The hecatomb of the weak is enormous, but that
matters little so long as the victors' reward be effectual and
certain. But there are cases when one might almost imagine that
nature had not had time enough to disentangle her combinations;
cases where reward is impossible, and the fate of the victor no less
disastrous than that of the vanquished. And of such, selecting an
instance that will not take us too far from our bees, I know of no
instance more striking than that of the triongulins of the _Sitaris
colletes._ And it will be seen that, in many details, this story is
less foreign to the history of man than might perhaps be imagined.

These triongulins are the primary larvae of a parasite proper to a
wild, obtuse-tongued, solitary bee, the Colletes, which builds its
nest in subterranean galleries. It is their habit to lie in wait for
the bee at the approach to these galleries; and then, to the number
of three, four, five, or often of more, they will leap on her back,
and bury themselves in her hair. Were the struggle of the weak
against the strong to take place at this moment there would be no
more to be said, and all would pass in accordance with universal
law. But, for a reason we know not, their instinct requires, and
nature has consequently ordained, that they should hold themselves
tranquil so long as they remain on the back of the bee. They
patiently bide their time while she visits the flowers, and
constructs and provisions her cells. But no sooner has an egg been
laid than they all spring upon it; and the innocent colletes
carefully seals down her cell, which she has duly supplied with
food, never suspecting that she has at the same time ensured the
death of her offspring.

The cell has scarcely been closed when the triongulins grouped round
the egg engage in the inevitable and salutary combat of natural
selection. The stronger, more agile, will seize its adversary
beneath the cuirass, and, raising it aloft, will maintain it for
hours in its mandibles until the victim expire. But, while this
fight is in progress, another of the triongulins, that had either no
rival to meet, or already has conquered, takes possession of the egg
and bursts it open. The ultimate victor has therefore this fresh
enemy to subdue; but the conquest is easy, for the triongulin, deep
in the satisfaction of its pre-natal hunger, clings obstinately to
the egg, and does not even attempt to defend itself. It is quickly
despatched; and the other is at last alone, and possessor of the
precious egg it has won so well. It eagerly plunges its head into
the opening its predecessor had made; and begins the lengthy repast
that shall transform it into a perfect insect. But nature, that has
decreed this ordeal of battle, has, on the other hand, established
the prize of victory with such miserly precision that nothing short
of an entire egg will suffice for the nourishment of a single
triongulin. So that, as we are informed by M. Mayet, to whom we owe
the account of these disconcerting adventures, there is lacking to
our conqueror the food its last victim consumed before death; and
incapable therefore of achieving the first stage of its
transformation, it dies in its turn, adhering to the skin of the
egg, or adding itself, in the sugary liquid, to the number of the


This case, though rarely to be followed so closely, is not unique in
natural history. We have here, laid bare before us, the struggle
between the conscious will of the triongulin, that seeks to live,
and the obscure and general will of nature, that not only desires
that the triongulin should live, but is anxious even that its life
should be improved, and fortified, to a degree beyond that to which
its own will impels it. But, through some strange inadvertence, the
amelioration nature imposes suppresses the life of even the fittest,
and the Sitaris Colletes would have long since disappeared had not
chance, acting in opposition to the desires of nature, permitted
isolated individuals to escape from the excellent and far-seeing law
that ordains on all sides the triumph of the stronger.

Can this mighty power err, then, that seems unconscious to us, but
necessarily wise, seeing that the life she organises and maintains
is forever proving her to be right? Can feebleness at times overcome
that supreme reason, which we are apt to invoke when we have
attained the limits of our own? And if that be so, by whom shall
this feebleness be set right?

But let us return to that special form of her resistless
intervention that we find in parthenogenesis. And we shall do well
to remember that, remote as the world may seem in which these
problems confront us, they do indeed yet concern ourselves very
nearly. Who would dare to affirm that no interventions take place in
the sphere of man--interventions that may be more hidden, but not
the less fraught with danger? And in the case before us, which is
right, in the end,--the insect, or nature? What would happen if the
bees, more docile perhaps, or endowed with a higher intelligence,
were too clearly to understand the desires of nature, and to follow
them to the extreme; to multiply males to infinity, seeing that
nature is imperiously calling for males? Would they not risk the
destruction of their species? Are we to believe that there are
intentions in nature that it is dangerous to understand too clearly,
fatal to follow with too much ardour; and that it is one of her
desires that we should not divine, and follow, all her desires? Is
it not possible that herein there may lie one of the perils of the
human race? We too are aware of unconscious forces within us, that
would appear to demand the reverse of what our intellect urges. And
this intellect of ours, that, as a rule, its own boundary reached,
knows not whither to go--can it be well that it should join itself
to these forces, and add to them its unexpected weight?


Have we the right to conclude, from the dangers of parthenogenesis,
that nature is not always able to proportion the means to the end;
and that what she intends to preserve is preserved at times by means
of precautions she has to contrive against her own precautions, and

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