The Life of the Bee
Published May, 1901
I. ON THE THRESHOLD OF THE HIVE
II. THE SWARM
III. THE FOUNDATION OF THE CITY
IV. THE LIFE OF THE BEE
V. THE YOUNG QUEENS
VI. THE NUPTIAL FLIGHT
VII. THE MASSACRE OF THE MALES
VIII. THE PROGRESS OF THE RACE
ON THE THRESHOLD OF THE HIVE
IT is not my intention to write a treatise on apiculture, or on practical bee-keeping. Excellent works of the kind abound in all civilised countries, and it were useless to attempt another. France has those of Dadant, Georges de Layens and Bonnier, Bertrand, Hamet, Weber, Clement, the Abbe Collin, etc. English-speaking countries have Langstroth, Bevan, Cook, Cheshire, Cowan, Root, etc. Germany has Dzierzon, Van Berlespoch, Pollmann, Vogel, and many others.
Nor is this book to be a scientific monograph on Apis Mellifica, Ligustica, Fasciata, Dorsata, etc., or a collection of new observations and studies. I shall say scarcely anything that those will not know who are somewhat familiar with bees. The notes and experiments I have made during my twenty years of beekeeping I shall reserve for a more technical work; for their interest is necessarily of a special and limited nature, and I am anxious not to over-burden this essay. I wish to speak of the bees very simply, as one speaks of a subject one knows and loves to those who know it not. I do not intend to adorn the truth, or merit the just reproach Reaumur addressed to his predecessors in the study of our honey-flies, whom he accused of substituting for the marvellous reality marvels that were imaginary and merely plausible. The fact that the hive contains so much that is wonderful does not warrant our seeking to add to its wonders. Besides, I myself have now for a long time ceased to look for anything more beautiful in this world, or more interesting, than the truth; or at least than the effort one is able to make towards the truth. I shall state nothing, therefore, that I have not verified myself, or that is not so fully accepted in the text-books as to render further verification superfluous. My facts shall be as accurate as though they appeared in a practical manual or scientific monograph, but I shall relate them in a somewhat livelier fashion than such works would allow, shall group them more harmoniously together, and blend them with freer and more mature reflections. The reader of this book will not learn therefrom how to manage a hive; but he will know more or less all that can with any certainty be known of the curious, profound, and intimate side of its inhabitants. Nor will this be at the cost of what still remains to be learned. I shall pass over in silence the hoary traditions that, in the country and many a book, still constitute the legend of the hive. Whenever there be doubt, disagreement, hypothesis, when I arrive at the unknown, I shall declare it loyally; you will find that we often shall halt before the unknown. Beyond the appreciable facts of their life we know but little of the bees. And the closer our acquaintance becomes, the nearer is our ignorance brought to us of the depths of their real existence; but such ignorance is better than the other kind, which is unconscious, and satisfied.
Does an analogous work on the bee exist? I believe I have read almost all that has been written on bees; but of kindred matter I know only Michelet's chapter at the end of his book "The Insect," and Ludwig Buchner's essay in his "Mind in Animals." Michelet merely hovers on the fringe of his subject; Buchner's treatise is comprehensive enough, but contains so many hazardous statements, so much long-discarded gossip and hearsay, that I suspect him of never having left his library, never having set forth himself to question his heroines, or opened one of the many hundreds of rustling, wing-lit hives which we must profane before our instinct can be attuned to their secret, before we can perceive the spirit and atmosphere, perfume and mystery, of these virgin daughters of toil. The book smells not of the bee, or its honey; and has the defects of many a learned work, whose conclusions often are preconceived, and whose scientific attainment is composed of a vast array of doubtful anecdotes collected on every side. But in this essay of mine we rarely shall meet each other; for our starting-point, our aim, and our point of view are all very different.
The bibliography of the bee (we will begin with the books so as to get rid of them as soon as we can and go to the source of the books) is very extensive. From the beginning this strange little creature, that lived in a society under complicated laws and executed prodigious labours in the darkness, attracted the notice of men. Aristotle, Cato, Varro, Pliny, Columella, Palladius all studied the bees; to say nothing of Aristomachus, who, according to Cicero, watched them for fifty-eight years, and of Phyliscus, whose writings are lost. But these dealt rather with the legend of the bee; and all that we can gather therefrom—which indeed is exceedingly little—we may find condensed in the fourth book of Virgil's Georgics.
The real history of the bee begins in the seventeenth century, with the discoveries of the great Dutch savant Swammerdam. It is well, however, to add this detail, but little known: before Swammerdam a Flemish naturalist named Clutius had arrived at certain important truths, such as the sole maternity of the queen and her possession of the attributes of both sexes, but he had left these unproved. Swammerdam founded the true methods of scientific investigation; he invented the microscope, contrived injections to ward off decay, was the first to dissect the bees, and by the discovery of the ovaries and the oviduct definitely fixed the sex of the queen, hitherto looked upon as a king, and threw the whole political scheme of the hive into most unexpected light by basing it upon maternity. Finally he produced woodcuts and engravings so perfect that to this day they serve to illustrate many books on apiculture. He lived in the turbulent, restless Amsterdam of those days, regretting "Het Zoete Buiten Leve "—The Sweet Life of the Country—and died, worn-out with work, at the age of forty-three. He wrote in a pious, formal style, with beautiful, simple outbursts of a faith that, fearful of falling away, ascribed all things to the glory of the Creator; and embodied his observations and studies in his great work "Bybel der Natuure," which the doctor Boerhave, a century later, caused to be translated from the Dutch into Latin under the title of "Biblia Naturae." (Leyden, 1737.)
Then came Reaumur, who, pursuing similar methods, made a vast number of curious experiments and researches in his gardens at Charenton, and devoted to the bees an entire volume of his "Notes to Serve for a History of Insects." One may read it with profit to-day, and without fatigue. It is clear, direct, and sincere, and possessed of a certain hard, arid charm of its own. He sought especially the destruction of ancient errors; he himself was responsible for several new ones; he partially understood the formation of swarms and the political establishment of queens; in a word, he discovered many difficult truths, and paved the way for the discovery of more. He fully appreciated the marvellous architecture of the hive; and what he said on the subject has never been better said. It is to him, too, that we owe the idea of the glass hives, which, having since been perfected, enable us to follow the entire private life of these fierce insects, whose work, begun in the dazzling sunshine, receives its crown in the darkness. To be comprehensive, one should mention also the somewhat subsequent works and investigations of Charles Bonnet and Schirach (who solved the enigma of the royal egg); but I will keep to the broad lines, and pass at once to Francois Huber, the master and classic of contemporary apiarian science.
Huber was born in Geneva in 1750, and fell blind in his earliest youth. The experiments of Reaumur interested him; he sought to verify them, and soon becoming passionately absorbed in these researches, eventually, with the assistance of an intelligent and faithful servant, Francois Burnens, devoted his entire life to the study of the bee. In the annals of human suffering and human triumph there is nothing more touching, no lesson more admirable, than the story of this patient collaboration, wherein the one who saw only with immaterial light guided with his spirit the eyes and hands of the other who had the real earthly vision; where he who, as we are assured, had never with his own eyes beheld a comb of honey, was yet able, notwithstanding the veil on his dead eyes that rendered double the veil in which nature enwraps all things, to penetrate the profound secrets of the genius that had made this invisible comb; as though to teach us that no condition in life can warrant our abandoning our desire and search for the truth. I will not enumerate all that apiarian science owes to Huber; to state what it does not owe were the briefer task. His "New Observations on Bees," of which the first volume was written in 1789, in the form of letters to Charles Bonnet, the second not appearing till twenty years later, have remained the unfailing, abundant treasure into which every subsequent writer has dipped. And though a few mistakes may be found therein, a few incomplete truths; though since his time considerable additions have been made to the micrography and practical culture of bees, the handling of queens, etc., there is not a single one of his principal statements that has been disproved, or discovered in error; and in our actual experience they stand untouched, and indeed at its very foundation.
Some years of silence followed these revelations; but soon a German clergyman, Dzierzon, discovered parthenogenesis, i. e. the virginal parturition of queens, and contrived the first hive with movable combs, thereby enabling the bee-keeper henceforth to take his share of the harvest of honey, without being forced to destroy his best colonies and in one instant annihilate the work of an entire year. This hive, still very imperfect, received masterly improvement at the hands of Langstroth, who invented the movable frame properly so called, which has been adopted in America with extraordinary success. Root, Quinby, Dadant, Cheshire, De Layens, Cowan, Heddon, Howard, etc., added still further and precious improvement. Then it occurred to Mehring that if bees were supplied with combs that had an artificial waxen foundation, they would be spared the labour of fashioning the wax and constructing the cells, which costs them much honey and the best part of their time; he found that the bees accepted these combs most readily, and adapted them to their requirements.
Major de Hruschka invented the Honey-Extractor, which enables the honey to be withdrawn by centrifugal force without breaking the combs, etc. And thus, in a few years, the methods of apiculture underwent a radical change. The capacity and fruitfulness of the hives were trebled. Great and productive apiaries arose on every side. An end was put to the useless destruction of the most industrious cities, and to the odious selection of the least fit which was its result. Man truly became the master of the bees, although furtively, and without their knowledge; directing all things without giving an order, receiving obedience but not recognition. For the destiny once imposed by the seasons he has substituted his will. He repairs the injustice of the year, unites hostile republics, and equalises wealth. He restricts or augments the births, regulates the fecundity of the queen, dethrones her and instals another in her place, after dexterously obtaining the reluctant consent of a people who would be maddened at the mere suspicion of an inconceivable intervention. When he thinks fit, he will peacefully violate the secret of the sacred chambers, and the elaborate, tortuous policy of the palace. He will five or six times in succession deprive the bees of the fruit of their labour, without harming them, without their becoming discouraged or even impoverished. He proportions the store-houses and granaries of their dwellings to the harvest of flowers that the spring is spreading over the dip of the hills. He compels them to reduce the extravagant number of lovers who await the birth of the royal princesses. In a word he does with them what he will, he obtains what he will, provided always that what he seeks be in accordance with their laws and their virtues; for beyond all the desires of this strange god who has taken possession of them, who is too vast to be seen and too alien to be understood, their eyes see further than the eyes of the god himself; and their one thought is the accomplishment, with untiring sacrifice, of the mysterious duty of their race.
Let us now, having learned from books all that they had to teach us of a very ancient history, leave the science others have acquired and look at the bees with our own eyes. An hour spent in the midst of the apiary will be less instructive, perhaps; but the things we shall see will be infinitely more stimulating and more actual.
I have not yet forgotten the first apiary I saw, where I learned to love the bees. It was many years ago, in a large village of Dutch Flanders, the sweet and pleasant country whose love for brilliant colour rivals that of Zealand even, the concave mirror of Holland; a country that gladly spreads out before us, as so many pretty, thoughtful toys, her illuminated gables, and waggons, and towers; her cupboards and clocks that gleam at the end of the passage; her little trees marshalled in line along quays and canal-banks, waiting, one almost might think, for some quiet, beneficent ceremony; her boats and her barges with sculptured poops, her flower-like doors and windows, immaculate dams, and elaborate, many-coloured drawbridges; and her little varnished houses, bright as new pottery, from which bell-shaped dames come forth, all a-glitter with silver and gold, to milk the cows in the white-hedged fields, or spread the linen on flowery lawns, cut into patterns of oval and lozenge, and most astoundingly green.
To this spot, where life would seem more restricted than elsewhere—if it be possible for life indeed to become restricted—a sort of aged philosopher had retired; an old man somewhat akin to Virgil's—
"Man equal to kings, and approaching the gods;"
whereto Lafontaine might have added,—
"And, like the gods, content and at rest."
Here had he built his refuge, being a little weary; not disgusted, for the large aversions are unknown to the sage; but a little weary of interrogating men, whose answers to the only interesting questions one can put concerning nature and her veritable laws are far less simple than those that are given by animals and plants. His happiness, like the Scythian philosopher's, lay all in the beauties of his garden; and best-loved and visited most often, was the apiary, composed of twelve domes of straw, some of which he had painted a bright pink, and some a clear yellow, but most of all a tender blue; having noticed, long before Sir John Lubbock's demonstrations, the bees' fondness for this colour.
These hives stood against the wall of the house, in the angle formed by one of those pleasant and graceful Dutch kitchens whose earthenware dresser, all bright with copper and tin, reflected itself through the open door on to the peaceful canal. And the water, burdened with these familiar images beneath its curtain of poplars, led one's eyes to a calm horizon of mills and of meadows.
Here, as in all places, the hives lent a new meaning to the flowers and the silence, the balm of the air and the rays of the sun. One seemed to have drawn very near to the festival spirit of nature. One was content to rest at this radiant crossroad, where the aerial ways converge and divide that the busy and tuneful bearers of all country perfumes unceasingly travel from dawn unto dusk. One heard the musical voice of the garden, whose loveliest hours revealed their rejoicing soul and sang of their gladness. One came hither, to the school of the bees, to be taught the preoccupations of all-powerful nature, the harmonious concord of the three kingdoms, the indefatigable organisation of life, and the lesson of ardent and disinterested work; and another lesson too, with a moral as good, that the heroic workers taught there, and emphasised, as it were, with the fiery darts of their myriad wings, was to appreciate the somewhat vague savour of leisure, to enjoy the almost unspeakable delights of those immaculate days that revolved on themselves in the fields of space, forming merely a transparent globe, as void of memory as the happiness without alloy.
In order to follow, as simply as possible, the life of the bees through the year, we will take a hive that awakes in the spring and duly starts on its labours; and then we shall meet, in their natural order, all the great episodes, viz.: the formation and departure of the swarm, the foundation of the new city, the birth, combat and nuptial flight of the young queens, the massacre of the males, and finally, the return of the sleep of winter. With each of these episodes there will go the necessary explanations as to the laws, habits, peculiarities and events that produce and accompany it; so that, when arrived at the end of the bee's short year, which extends only from April to the last days of September, we shall have gazed upon all the mysteries of the palace of honey. Before we open it, therefore, and throw a general glance around, we only need say that the hive is composed of a queen, the mother of all her people; of thousands of workers or neuters who are incomplete and sterile females; and lastly of some hundreds of males, from whom one shall be chosen as the sole and unfortunate consort of the queen that the workers will elect in the future, after the more or less voluntary departure of the reigning mother.
The first time that we open a hive there comes over us an emotion akin to that we might feel at profaning some unknown object, charged perhaps with dreadful surprise, as a tomb. A legend of menace and peril still clings to the bees. There is the distressful recollection of her sting, which produces a pain so characteristic that one knows not wherewith to compare it; a kind of destroying dryness, a flame of the desert rushing over the wounded limb, as though these daughters of the sun had distilled a dazzling poison from their father's angry rays, in order more effectively to defend the treasure they gather from his beneficent hours.
It is true that were some one who neither knows nor respects the customs and character of the bee suddenly to fling open the hive, it would turn at once into a burning bush of heroism and anger; but the slight amount of skill needed to handle it with impunity can be most readily acquired. Let but a little smoke be deftly applied, much coolness and gentleness be shown, and our well-armed workers will suffer themselves to be despoiled without dreaming of drawing their sting. It is not the fact, as some have maintained, that the bees recognise their master; nor have they any fear of man; but at the smell of the smoke, at the large slow gestures that traverse their dwellings without threatening them, they imagine that this is not the attack of an enemy against whom defence is possible, but that it is a force or a natural catastrophe whereto they do well to submit.
Instead of vainly struggling, therefore, they do what they can to safeguard the future; and, obeying a foresight that for once is in error, they fly to their reserves of honey, into which they eagerly dip in order to possess within themselves the wherewithal to start a new city, immediately and no matter where, should the ancient one be destroyed or they be compelled to forsake it.
The first impression of the novice before whom an observation-hive* is opened will be one of some disappointment. He had been told that this little glass case contained an unparalleled activity, an infinite number of wise laws, and a startling amalgam of mystery, experience, genius, calculation, science, of various industries, of certitude and prescience, of intelligent habits and curious feelings and virtues. All that he sees is a confused mass of little reddish groups, somewhat resembling roasted coffee-berries, or bunches of raisins piled against the glass. They look more dead than alive; their movements are slow, incoherent, and incomprehensible. Can these be the wonderful drops of light he had seen but a moment ago, unceasingly flashing and sparkling, as they darted among the pearls and the gold of a thousand wide-open calyces?
By observation-hive is meant a hive of glass, furnished with black curtains or shutters. The best kind have only one comb, thus permitting both faces to be studied. These hives can be placed in a drawing-room, library, etc., without inconvenience or danger. The bees that inhabit the one I have in my study in Paris are able even in the stony desert of that great city, to find the wherewithal to nourish themselves and to prosper.
They appear to be shivering in the darkness, to be numbed, suffocated, so closely are they huddled together; one might fancy they were ailing captives, or queens dethroned, who have had their one moment of glory in the midst of their radiant garden, and are now compelled to return to the shameful squalor of their poor overcrowded home.
It is with them as with all that is deeply real; they must be studied, and one must learn how to study them. The inhabitant of another planet who should see men and women coming and going almost imperceptibly through our streets, crowding at certain times around certain buildings, or waiting for one knows not what, without apparent movement, in the depths of their dwellings, might conclude therefrom that they, too, were miserable and inert. It takes time to distinguish the manifold activity contained in this inertia.
And indeed every one of the little almost motionless groups in the hive is incessantly working, each at a different trade. Repose is unknown to any; and such, for instance, as seem the most torpid, as they hang in dead clusters against the glass, are intrusted with the most mysterious and fatiguing task of all: it is they who secrete and form the wax. But the details of this universal activity will be given in their place. For the moment we need only call attention to the essential trait in the nature of the bee which accounts for the extraordinary agglomeration of the various workers. The bee is above all, and even to a greater extent than the ant, a creature of the crowd. She can live only in the midst of a multitude. When she leaves the hive, which is so densely packed that she has to force her way with blows of her head through the living walls that enclose her, she departs from her proper element. She will dive for an instant into flower-filled space, as the swimmer will dive into the sea that is filled with pearls, but under pain of death it behoves her at regular intervals to return and breathe the crowd as the swimmer must return and breathe the air. Isolate her, and however abundant the food or favourable the temperature, she will expire in a few days not of hunger or cold, but of loneliness. From the crowd, from the city, she derives an invisible aliment that is as necessary to her as honey. This craving will help to explain the spirit of the laws of the hive. For in them the individual is noting, her existence conditional only, and herself, for one indifferent moment, a winged organ of the race. Her whole life is an entire sacrifice to the manifold, everlasting being whereof she forms part. It is strange to note that it was not always so. We find even to-day, among the melliferous hymenoptera, all the stages of progressive civilisation of our own domestic bee. At the bottom of the scale we find her working alone, in wretchedness, often not seeing her offspring (the Prosopis, the Colletes, etc.); sometimes living in the midst of the limited family that she produces annually (as in the case of the humble-bee). Then she forms temporary associations (the Panurgi, the Dasypodoe, the Hacliti, etc.) and at last we arrive, through successive stages, at the almost perfect but pitiless society of our hives, where the individual is entirely merged in the republic, and the republic in its turn invariably sacrificed to the abstract and immortal city of the future.
Let us not too hastily deduce from these facts conclusions that apply to man. He possesses the power of withstanding certain of nature's laws; and to know whether such resistance be right or wrong is the gravest and obscurest point in his morality. But it is deeply interesting to discover what the will of nature may be in a different world; and this will is revealed with extraordinary clearness in the evolution of the hymenoptera, which, of all the inhabitants of this globe, possess the highest degree of intellect after that of man. The aim of nature is manifestly the improvement of the race; but no less manifest is her inability, or refusal, to obtain such improvement except at the cost of the liberty, the rights, and the happiness of the individual. In proportion as a society organises itself, and rises in the scale, so does a shrinkage enter the private life of each one of its members. Where there is progress, it is the result only of a more and more complete sacrifice of the individual to the general interest. Each one is compelled, first of all, to renounce his vices, which are acts of independence. For instance, at the last stage but one of apiarian civilisation, we find the humble-bees, which are like our cannibals. The adult workers are incessantly hovering around the eggs, which they seek to devour, and the mother has to display the utmost stubbornness in their defence. Then having freed himself from his most dangerous vices, each individual has to acquire a certain number of more and more painful virtues. Among the humble-bees, for instance, the workers do not dream of renouncing love, whereas our domestic bee lives in a state of perpetual chastity. And indeed we soon shall show how much more she has to abandon, in exchange for the comfort and security of the hive, for its architectural, economic, and political perfection; and we shall return to the evolution of the hymenoptera in the chapter devoted to the progress of the species.
WE will now, so as to draw more closely to nature, consider the different episodes of the swarm as they come to pass in an ordinary hive, which is ten or twenty times more populous than an observation one, and leaves the bees entirely free and untrammelled.
Here, then, they have shaken off the torpor of winter. The queen started laying again in the very first days of February, and the workers have flocked to the willows and nut-trees, gorse and violets, anemones and lungworts. Then spring invades the earth, and cellar and stream with honey and pollen, while each day beholds the birth of thousands of bees. The overgrown males now all sally forth from their cells, and disport themselves on the combs; and so crowded does the too prosperous city become that hundreds of belated workers, coming back from the flowers towards evening, will vainly seek shelter within, and will be forced to spend the night on the threshold, where they will be decimated by the cold. Restlessness seizes the people, and the old queen begins to stir. She feels that a new destiny is being prepared. She has religiously fulfilled her duty as a good creatress; and from this duty done there result only tribulation and sorrow. An invincible power menaces her tranquillity; she will soon be forced to quit this city of hers, where she has reigned. But this city is her work, it is she, herself. She is not its queen in the sense in which men use the word. She issues no orders; she obeys, as meekly as the humblest of her subjects, the masked power, sovereignly wise, that for the present, and till we attempt to locate it, we will term the "spirit of the hive." But she is the unique organ of love; she is the mother of the city. She founded it amid uncertainty and poverty. She has peopled it with her own substance; and all who move within its walls—workers, males, larvae, nymphs, and the young princesses whose approaching birth will hasten her own departure, one of them being already designed as her successor by the "spirit of the hive"—all these have issued from her flanks.
What is this "spirit of the hive"—where does it reside? It is not like the special instinct that teaches the bird to construct its well planned nest, and then seek other skies when the day for migration returns. Nor is it a kind of mechanical habit of the race, or blind craving for life, that will fling the bees upon any wild hazard the moment an unforeseen event shall derange the accustomed order of phenomena. On the contrary, be the event never so masterful, the "spirit of the hive" still will follow it, step by step, like an alert and quickwitted slave, who is able to derive advantage even from his master's most dangerous orders.
It disposes pitilessly of the wealth and the happiness, the liberty and life, of all this winged people; and yet with discretion, as though governed itself by some great duty. It regulates day by day the number of births, and contrives that these shall strictly accord with the number of flowers that brighten the country-side. It decrees the queen's deposition or warns her that she must depart; it compels her to bring her own rivals into the world, and rears them royally, protecting them from their mother's political hatred. So, too, in accordance with the generosity of the flowers, the age of the spring, and the probable dangers of the nuptial flight, will it permit or forbid the first-born of the virgin princesses to slay in their cradles her younger sisters, who are singing the song of the queens. At other times, when the season wanes, and flowery hours grow shorter, it will command the workers themselves to slaughter the whole imperial brood, that the era of revolutions may close, and work become the sole object of all. The "spirit of the hive "is prudent and thrifty, but by no means parsimonious. And thus, aware, it would seem, that nature's laws are somewhat wild and extravagant in all that pertains to love, it tolerates, during summer days of abundance, the embarrassing presence in the hive of three or four hundred males, from whose ranks the queen about to be born shall select her lover; three or four hundred foolish, clumsy, useless, noisy creatures, who are pretentious, gluttonous, dirty, coarse, totally and scandalously idle, insatiable, and enormous.
But after the queen's impregnation, when flowers begin to close sooner, and open later, the spirit one morning will coldly decree the simultaneous and general massacre of every male. It regulates the workers' labours, with due regard to their age; it allots their task to the nurses who tend the nymphs and the larvae, the ladies of honour who wait on the queen and never allow her out of their sight; the house-bees who air, refresh, or heat the hive by fanning their wings, and hasten the evaporation of the honey that may be too highly charged with water; the architects, masons, wax-workers, and sculptors who form the chain and construct the combs; the foragers who sally forth to the flowers in search of the nectar that turns into honey, of the pollen that feeds the nymphs and the larvae, the propolis that welds and strengthens the buildings of the city, or the water and salt required by the youth of the nation. Its orders have gone to the chemists who ensure the preservation of the honey by letting a drop of formic acid fall in from the end of their sting; to the capsule-makers who seal down the cells when the treasure is ripe, to the sweepers who maintain public places and streets most irreproachably clean, to the bearers whose duty it is to remove the corpses; and to the amazons of the guard who keep watch on the threshold by night and by day, question comers and goers, recognise the novices who return from their very first flight, scare away vagabonds, marauders and loiterers, expel all intruders, attack redoubtable foes in a body, and, if need be, barricade the entrance.
Finally, it is the spirit of the hive that fixes the hour of the great annual sacrifice to the genius of the race: the hour, that is, of the swarm; when we find a whole people, who have attained the topmost pinnacle of prosperity and power, suddenly abandoning to the generation to come their wealth and their palaces, their homes and the fruits of their labour; themselves content to encounter the hardships and perils of a new and distant country. This act, be it conscious or not, undoubtedly passes the limits of human morality. Its result will sometimes be ruin, but poverty always; and the thrice-happy city is scattered abroad in obedience to a law superior to its own happiness. Where has this law been decreed, which, as we soon shall find, is by no means as blind and inevitable as one might believe? Where, in what assembly, what council, what intellectual and moral sphere, does this spirit reside to whom all must submit, itself being vassal to an heroic duty, to an intelligence whose eyes are persistently fixed on the future?
It comes to pass with the bees as with most of the things in this world; we remark some few of their habits; we say they do this, they work in such and such fashion, their queens are born thus, their workers are virgin, they swarm at a certain time. And then we imagine we know them, and ask nothing more. We watch them hasten from flower to flower, we see the constant agitation within the hive; their life seems very simple to us, and bounded, like every life, by the instinctive cares of reproduction and nourishment. But let the eye draw near, and endeavour to see; and at once the least phenomenon of all becomes overpoweringly complex; we are confronted by the enigma of intellect, of destiny, will, aim, means, causes; the incomprehensible organisation of the most insignificant act of life.
Our hive, then, is preparing to swarm; making ready for the great immolation to the exacting gods of the race. In obedience to the order of the spirit—an order that to us may well seem incomprehensible, for it is entirely opposed to all our own instincts and feelings—60,000 or 70,000 bees out of the 80,000 or 90,000 that form the whole population, will abandon the maternal city at the prescribed hour. They will not leave at a moment of despair; or desert, with sudden and wild resolve, a home laid waste by famine, disease, or war. No, the exile has long been planned, and the favourable hour patiently awaited. Were the hive poor, had it suffered from pillage or storm, had misfortune befallen the royal family, the bees would not forsake it. They leave it only when it has attained the apogee of its prosperity; at a time when, after the arduous labours of the spring, the immense palace of wax has its 120,000 well-arranged cells overflowing with new honey, and with the many-coloured flour, known as "bees' bread," on which nymphs and larvae are fed.
Never is the hive more beautiful than on the eve of its heroic renouncement, in its unrivalled hour of fullest abundance and joy; serene for all its apparent excitement and feverishness.
Let us endeavour to picture it to ourselves, not as it appears to the bees,—for we cannot tell in what magical, formidable fashion things may be reflected in the 6,000 or 7,000 facets of their lateral eyes and the triple cyclopean eye on their brow,—but as it would seem to us, were we of their stature. From the height of a dome more colossal than that of St. Peter's at Rome waxen walls descend to the ground, balanced in the void and the darkness; gigantic and manifold, vertical and parallel geometric constructions, to which, for relative precision, audacity, and vastness, no human structure is comparable. Each of these walls, whose substance still is immaculate and fragrant, of virginal, silvery freshness, contains thousands of cells, that are stored with provisions sufficient to feed the whole people for several weeks. Here, lodged in transparent cells, are the pollens, love-ferment of every flower of spring, making brilliant splashes of red and yellow, of black and mauve. Close by, in twenty thousand reservoirs, sealed with a seal that shall only be broken on days of supreme distress, the honey of April is stored, most limpid and perfumed of all, wrapped round with long and magnificent embroidery of gold, whose borders hang stiff and rigid. Still lower the honey of May matures, in great open vats, by whose side watchful cohorts maintain an incessant current of air. In the centre, and far from the light whose diamond rays steal in through the only opening, in the warmest part of the hive, there stands the abode of the future; here does it sleep, and wake. For this is the royal domain of the brood-cells, set apart for the queen and her acolytes; about 10,000 cells wherein the eggs repose, 15,000 or 16,000 chambers tenanted by larvae, 40,000 dwellings inhabited by white nymphs to whom thousands of nurses minister.* And finally, in the holy of holies of these partss are the three, four, six, or twelve sealed palaces, vast in size compared with the others, where the adolescent princesses lie who await their hour, wrapped in a kind of shroud, all of them motionless and pale, and fed in the darkness.
*The figures given here are scrupulously exact. They are those of a well-filled hive in full prosperity.
On the day, then, that the Spirit of the Hive has ordained, a certain part of the population will go forth, selected in accordance with sure and immovable laws, and make way for hopes that as yet are formless. In the sleeping city there remain the males, from whose ranks the royal lover shall come, the very young bees that tend the brood-cells, and some thousands of workers who continue to forage abroad, to guard the accumulated treasure, and preserve the moral traditions of the hive. For each hive has its own code of morals. There are some that are very virtuous and some that are very perverse; and a careless bee-keeper will often corrupt his people, destroy their respect for the property of others, incite them to pillage, and induce in them habits of conquest and idleness which will render them sources of danger to all the little republics around. These things result from the bee's discovery that work among distant flowers, whereof many hundreds must be visited to form one drop of honey, is not the only or promptest method of acquiring wealth, but that it is easier to enter ill-guarded cities by stratagem, or force her way into others too weak for self-defence. Nor is it easy to restore to the paths of duty a hive that has become thus depraved.
All things go to prove that it is not the queen, but the spirit of the hive, that decides on the swarm. With this queen of ours it happens as with many a chief among men, who though he appear to give orders, is himself obliged to obey commands far more mysterious, far more inexplicable, than those he issues to his subordinates. The hour once fixed, the spirit will probably let it be known at break of dawn, or the previous night, if indeed not two nights before; for scarcely has the sun drunk in the first drops of dew when a most unaccustomed stir, whose meaning the bee-keeper rarely will fail to grasp, is to be noticed within and around the buzzing city. At times one would almost appear to detect a sign of dispute, hesitation, recoil. It will happen even that for day after day a strange emotion, apparently without cause, will appear and vanish in this transparent, golden throng. Has a cloud that we cannot see crept across the sky that the bees are watching; or is their intellect battling with a new regret? Does a winged council debate the necessity of the departure? Of this we know nothing; as we know nothing of the manner in which the spirit conveys its resolution to the crowd. Certain as it may seem that the bees communicate with each other, we know not whether this be done in human fashion. It is possible even that their own refrain may be inaudible to them: the murmur that comes to us heavily laden with perfume of honey, the ecstatic whisper of fairest summer days that the bee-keeper loves so well, the festival song of labour that rises and falls around the hive in the crystal of the hour, and might almost be the chant of the eager flowers, hymn of their gladness and echo of their soft fragrance, the voice of the white carnations, the marjoram, and the thyme. They have, however, a whole gamut of sounds that we can distinguish, ranging from profound delight to menace, distress, and anger; they have the ode of the queen, the song of abundance, the psalms of grief, and, lastly, the long and mysterious war-cries the adolescent princesses send forth during the combats and massacres that precede the nuptial flight. May this be a fortuitous music that fails to attain their inward silence? In any event they seem not the least disturbed at the noises we make near the hive; but they regard these perhaps as not of their world, and possessed of no interest for them. It is possible that we on our side hear only a fractional part of the sounds that the bees produce, and that they have many harmonies to which our ears are not attuned. We soon shall see with what startling rapidity they are able to understand each other, and adopt concerted measures, when, for instance, the great honey thief, the huge sphinx atropos, the sinister butterfly that bears a death's head on its back, penetrates into the hive, humming its own strange note, which acts as a kind of irresistible incantation; the news spreads quickly from group to group, and from the guards at the threshold to the workers on the furthest combs, the whole population quivers.
It was for a long time believed that when these wise bees, generally so prudent, so far-sighted and economical, abandoned the treasures of their kingdom and flung themselves upon the uncertainties of life, they were yielding to a kind of irresistible folly, a mechanical impulse, a law of the species, a decree of nature, or to the force that for all creatures lies hidden in the revolution of time. It is our habit, in the case of the bees no less than our own, to regard as fatality all that we do not as yet understand. But now that the hive has surrendered two or three of its material secrets, we have discovered that this exodus is neither instinctive nor inevitable. It is not a blind emigration, but apparently the well-considered sacrifice of the present generation in favour of the generation to come. The bee-keeper has only to destroy in their cells the young queens that still are inert, and, at the same time, if nymphs and larvae abound, to enlarge the store-houses and dormitories of the nation, for this unprofitable tumult instantaneously to subside, for work to be at once resumed, and the flowers revisited; while the old queen, who now is essential again, with no successor to hope for, or perhaps to fear, will renounce for this year her desire for the light of the sun. Reassured as to the future of the activity that will soon spring into life, she will tranquilly resume her maternal labours, which consist in the laying of two or three thousand eggs a day, as she passes, in a methodical spiral, from cell to cell, omitting none, and never pausing to rest.
Where is the fatality here, save in the love of the race of to-day for the race of to-morrow? This fatality exists in the human species also, but its extent and power seem infinitely less. Among men it never gives rise to sacrifices as great, as unanimous, or as complete. What far-seeing fatality, taking the place of this one, do we ourselves obey? We know not; as we know not the being who watches us as we watch the bees.
But the hive that we have selected is disturbed in its history by no interference of man; and as the beautiful day advances with radiant and tranquil steps beneath the trees, its ardour, still bathed in dew, makes the appointed hour seem laggard. Over the whole surface of the golden corridors that divide the parallel walls the workers are busily making preparation for the journey. And each one will first of all burden herself with provision of honey sufficient for five or six days. From this honey that they bear within them they will distil, by a chemical process still unexplained, the wax required for the immediate construction of buildings. They will provide themselves also with a certain amount of propolis, a kind of resin with which they will seal all the crevices in the new dwelling, strengthen weak places, varnish the walls, and exclude the light; for the bees love to work in almost total obscurity, guiding themselves with their many-faceted eyes, or with their antennae perhaps, the seat, it would seem, of an unknown sense that fathoms and measures the darkness.
They are not without prescience, therefore, of what is to befall them on this the most dangerous day of all their existence. Absorbed by the cares, the prodigious perils of this mighty adventure, they will have no time now to visit the gardens and meadows; and to-morrow, and after tomorrow, it may happen that rain may fall, or there may be wind; that their wings may be frozen or the flowers refuse to open. Famine and death would await them were it not for this foresight of theirs. None would come to their help, nor would they seek help of any. For one city knows not the other, and assistance never is given. And even though the bee-keeper deposit the hive, in which he has gathered the old queen and her attendant cluster of bees, by the side of the abode they have but this moment quitted, they would seem, be the disaster never so great that shall now have befallen them, to have wholly forgotten the peace and the happy activity that once they had known there, the abundant wealth and the safety that had then been their portion; and all, one by one, and down to the last of them, will perish of hunger and cold around their unfortunate queen rather than return to the home of their birth, whose sweet odour of plenty, the fragrance, indeed, of their own past assiduous labour, reaches them even in their distress.
That is a thing, some will say, that men would not do,—a proof that the bee, notwithstanding the marvels of its organisation, still is lacking in intellect and veritable consciousness. Is this so certain? Other beings, surely, may possess an intellect that differs from ours, and produces different results, without therefore being inferior. And besides, are we, even in this little human parish of ours, such infallible judges of matters that pertain to the spirit? Can we so readily divine the thoughts that may govern the two or three people we may chance to see moving and talking behind a closed window, when their words do not reach us? Or let us suppose that an inhabitant of Venus or Mars were to contemplate us from the height of a mountain, and watch the little black specks that we form in space, as we come and go in the streets and squares of our towns. Would the mere sight of our movements, our buildings, machines, and canals, convey to him any precise idea of our morality, intellect, our manner of thinking, and loving, and hoping,—in a word, of our real and intimate self? All he could do, like ourselves when we gaze at the hive, would be to take note of some facts that seem very surprising; and from these facts to deduce conclusions probably no less erroneous, no less uncertain, than those that we choose to form concerning the bee.
This much at least is certain; our "little black specks "would not reveal the vast moral direction, the wonderful unity, that are so apparent in the hive. "Whither do they tend, and what is it they do? "he would ask, after years and centuries of patient watching. "What is the aim of their life, or its pivot? Do they obey some God? I can see nothing that governs their actions. The little things that one day they appear to collect and build up, the next they destroy and scatter. They come and they go, they meet and disperse, but one knows not what it is they seek. In numberless cases the spectacle they present is altogether inexplicable. There are some, for instance, who, as it were, seem scarcely to stir from their place. They are to be distinguished by their glossier coat, and often too by their more considerable bulk. They occupy buildings ten or twenty times larger than ordinary dwellings, and richer, and more ingeniously fashioned. Every day they spend many hours at their meals, which sometimes indeed are prolonged far into the night. They appear to be held in extraordinary honour by those who approach them; men come from the neighbouring houses, bringing provisions, and even from the depths of the country, laden with presents. One can only assume that these persons must be indispensable to the race, to which they render essential service, although our means of investigation have not yet enabled us to discover what the precise nature of this service may be. There are others, again, who are incessantly engaged in the most wearisome labour, whether it be in great sheds full of wheels that forever turn round and round, or close by the shipping, or in obscure hovels, or on small plots of earth that from sunrise to sunset they are constantly delving and digging. We are led to believe that this labour must be an offence, and punishable. For the persons guilty of it are housed in filthy, ruinous, squalid cabins. They are clothed in some colourless hide. So great does their ardour appear for this noxious, or at any rate useless activity, that they scarcely allow themselves time to eat or to sleep. In numbers they are to the others as a thousand to one. It is remarkable that the species should have been able to survive to this day under conditions so unfavourable to its development. It should be mentioned, however, that apart from this characteristic devotion to their wearisome toil, they appear inoffensive and docile; and satisfied with the leavings of those who evidently are the guardians, if not the saviours, of the race."
Is it not strange that the hive, which we vaguely survey from the height of another world, should provide our first questioning glance with so sure and profound a reply? Must we not admire the manner in which the thought or the god that the bees obey is at once revealed by their edifices, wrought with such striking conviction, by their customs and laws, their political and economical organisation, their virtues, and even their cruelties? Nor is this god, though it be perhaps the only one to which man has as yet never offered serious worship, by any means the least reasonable or the least legitimate that we can conceive. The god of the bees is the future. When we, in our study of human history, endeavour to gauge the moral force or greatness of a people or race, we have but one standard of measurement—the dignity and permanence of their ideal, and the abnegation wherewith they pursue it. Have we often encountered an ideal more conformable to the desires of the universe, more widely manifest, more disinterested or sublime; have we often discovered an abnegation more complete and heroic?
Strange little republic, that, for all its logic and gravity, its matured conviction and prudence, still falls victim to so vast and precarious a dream! Who shall tell us, O little people that are so profoundly in earnest, that have fed on the warmth and the light and on nature's purest, the soul of the flowers, wherein matter for once seems to smile, and put forth it? most wistful effort towards beauty and happiness,—who shall tell us what problems you have resolved, but we not yet, what certitudes you have acquired that we still have to conquer? And if you have truly resolved these problems, and acquired these certitudes, by the aid of some blind and primitive impulse and not through the intellect, then to what enigma, more insoluble still, are you not urging us on? Little city abounding in faith and mystery and hope, why do your myriad virgins consent to a task that no human slave has ever accepted? Another spring might be theirs, another summer, were they only a little less wasteful of strength, a little less self-forgetful in their ardour for toil; but at the magnificent moment when the flowers all cry to them, they seem to be stricken with the fatal ecstasy of work; and in less than five weeks they almost all perish, their wings broken, their bodies shrivelled and covered with wounds.
"Tantus amor florum, et generandi gloria mellis!"
cries Virgil in the fourth book of the Georgics, wherein he devotes himself to the bees, and hands down to us the charming errors of the ancients, who looked on nature with eyes still dazzled by the presence of imaginary gods.
Why do they thus renounce sleep, the delights of honey and. love, and the exquisite leisure enjoyed, for instance, by their winged brother, the butterfly? Why will they not live as he lives? It is not hunger that urges them on. Two or three flowers suffice for their nourishment, and in one hour they will visit two or three hundred, to collect a treasure whose sweetness they never will taste. Why all this toil and distress, and whence comes this mighty assurance? Is it so certain, then, that the new generation whereunto you offer your lives will merit the sacrifice; will be more beautiful, happier, will do something you have not done? Your aim is clear to us, clearer far than our own; you desire to live, as long as the world itself, in those that come after; but what can the aim be of this great aim; what the mission of this existence eternally renewed?
And yet may it not be that these questions are idle, and we who are putting them to you mere childish dreamers, hedged round with error and doubt? And, indeed, had successive evolutions installed you all-powerful and supremely happy; had you gained the last heights, whence at length you ruled over nature's laws; nay, were you immortal goddesses, we still should be asking you what your desires might be, your ideas of progress; still wondering where you imagined that at last you would rest and declare your wishes fulfilled. We are so made that nothing contents us; that we can regard no single thing as having its aim self-contained, as simply existing, with no thought beyond existence. Has there been, to this day, one god out of all the multitude man has conceived, from the vulgarest to the most thoughtful, of whom it has not been required that he shall be active and stirring, that he shall create countless beings and things, and have myriad aims outside himself? And will the time ever come when we shall be resigned for a few hours tranquilly to represent in this world an interesting form of material activity; and then, our few hours over, to assume, without surprise and without regret, that other form which is the unconscious, the unknown, the slumbering, and the eternal?
But we are forgetting the hive wherein the swarming bees have begun to lose patience, the hive whose black and vibrating waves are bubbling and overflowing, like a brazen cup beneath an ardent sun. It is noon; and the heat so great that the assembled trees would seem almost to hold back their leaves, as a man holds his breath before something very tender but very grave. The bees give their honey and sweet-smelling wax to the man who attends them; but more precious gift still is their summoning him to the gladness of June, to the joy of the beautiful months; for events in which bees take part happen only when skies are pure, at the winsome hours of the year when flowers keep holiday. They are the soul of the summer, the clock whose dial records the moments of plenty; they are the untiring wing on which delicate perfumes float; the guide of the quivering light-ray, the song of the slumberous, languid air; and their flight is the token, the sure and melodious note, of all the myriad fragile joys that are born in the heat and dwell in the sunshine. They teach us to tune our ear to the softest, most intimate whisper of these good, natural hours. To him who has known them and loved them, a summer where there are no bees becomes as sad and as empty as one without flowers or birds.
The man who never before has beheld the swarm of a populous hive must regard this riotous, bewildering spectacle with some apprehension and diffidence. He will be almost afraid to draw near; he will wonder can these be the earnest, the peace-loving, hard-working bees whose movements he has hitherto followed? It was but a few moments before he had seen them troop in from all parts of the country, as pre-occupied, seemingly, as little housewives might be, with no thoughts beyond household cares. He had watched them stream into the hive, imperceptibly almost, out of breath, eager, exhausted, full of discreet agitation; and had seen the young amazons stationed at the gate salute them, as they passed by, with the slightest wave of antennae. And then, the inner court reached, they had hurriedly given their harvest of honey to the adolescent portresses always stationed within, exchanging with these at most the three or four probably indispensable words; or perhaps they would hasten themselves to the vast magazines that encircle the brood-cells, and deposit the two heavy baskets of pollen that depend from their thighs, thereupon at once going forth once more, without giving a thought to what might be passing in the royal palace, the work-rooms, or the dormitory where the nymphs lie asleep; without for one instant joining in the babel of the public place in front of the gate, where it is the wont of the cleaners, at time of great heat, to congregate and to gossip.
To-day this is all changed. A certain number of workers, it is true, will peacefully go to the fields, as though nothing were happening; will come back, clean the hive, attend to the brood-cells, and hold altogether aloof from the general ecstasy. These are the ones that will not accompany the queen; they will remain to guard the old home, feed the nine or ten thousand eggs, the eighteen thousand larvae, the thirty-six thousand nymphs and seven or eight royal princesses, that to-day shall all be abandoned. Why they have been singled out for this austere duty, by what law, or by whom, it is not in our power to divine. To this mission of theirs they remain inflexibly, tranquilly faithful; and though I have many times tried the experiment of sprinkling a colouring matter over one of these resigned Cinderellas, that are moreover easily to be distinguished in the midst of the rejoicing crowds by their serious and somewhat ponderous gait, it is rarely indeed that I have found one of them in the delirious throng of the swarm.
And yet, the attraction must seem irresistible. It is the ecstasy of the perhaps unconscious sacrifice the god has ordained; it is the festival of honey, the triumph of the race, the victory of the future: the one day of joy, of forgetfulness and folly; the only Sunday known to the bees. It would appear to be also the solitary day upon which all eat their fill, and revel, to heart's content, in the delights of the treasure themselves have amassed. It is as though they were prisoners to whom freedom at last had been given, who had suddenly been led to a land of refreshment and plenty. They exult, they cannot contain the joy that is in them. They come and go aimlessly,—they whose every movement has always its precise and useful purpose—they depart and return, sally forth once again to see if the queen be ready, to excite their sisters, to beguile the tedium of waiting. They fly much higher than is their wont, and the leaves of the mighty trees round about all quiver responsive. They have left trouble behind, and care. They no longer are meddling and fierce, aggressive, suspicious, untamable, angry. Man—the unknown master whose sway they never acknowledge, who can subdue them only by conforming to their every law, to their habits of labour, and following step by step the path that is traced in their life by an intellect nothing can thwart or turn from its purpose, by a spirit whose aim is always the good of the morrow—on this day man can approach them, can divide the glittering curtain they form as they fly round and round in songful circles; he can take them up in his hand, and gather them as he would a bunch of grapes; for to-day, in their gladness, possessing nothing, but full of faith in the future, they will submit to everything and injure no one, provided only they be not separated from the queen who bears that future within her.
But the veritable signal has not yet been given. In the hive there is indescribable confusion; and a disorder whose meaning escapes us. At ordinary times each bee, once returned to her home, would appear to forget her possession of wings; and will pursue her active labours, making scarcely a movement, on that particular spot in the hive that her special duties assign. But to-day they all seem bewitched; they fly in dense circles round and round the polished walls like a living jelly stirred by an invisible hand. The temperature within rises rapidly,—to such a degree, at times, that the wax of the buildings will soften, and twist out of shape. The queen, who ordinarily never will stir from the centre of the comb, now rushes wildly, in breathless excitement, over the surface of the vehement crowd that turn and turn on themselves. Is she hastening their departure, or trying to delay it? Does she command, or haply implore? Does this prodigious emotion issue from her, or is she its victim? Such knowledge as we possess of the general psychology of the bee warrants the belief that the swarming always takes place against the old sovereign's will. For indeed the ascetic workers, her daughters, regard the queen above all as the organ of love, indispensable, certainly, and sacred, but in herself somewhat unconscious, and often of feeble mind. They treat her like a mother in her dotage. Their respect for her, their tenderness, is heroic and boundless. The purest honey, specially distilled and almost entirely assimilable, is reserved for her use alone. She has an escort that watches over her by day and by night, that facilitates her maternal duties and gets ready the cells wherein the eggs shall be laid; she has loving attendants who pet and caress her, feed her and clean her, and even absorb her excrement. Should the least accident befall her the news will spread quickly from group to group, and the whole population will rush to and fro in loud lamentation. Seize her, imprison her, take her away from the hive at a time when the bees shall have no hope of filling her place, owing, it may be, to her having left no predestined descendants, or to there being no larvae less than three days old (for a special nourishment is capable of transforming these into royal nymphs, such being the grand democratic principle of the hive, and a counterpoise to the prerogatives of maternal predestination), and then, her loss once known, after two or three hours, perhaps, for the city is vast; work will cease in almost every direction. The young will no longer be cared for; part of the inhabitants will wander in every direction, seeking their mother, in quest of whom others will sally forth from the hive; the workers engaged in constructing the comb will fall asunder and scatter, the foragers no longer will visit the flowers, the guard at the entrance will abandon their post; and foreign marauders, all the parasites of honey, forever on the watch for opportunities of plunder, will freely enter and leave without any one giving a thought to the defence of the treasure that has been so laboriously gathered. And poverty, little by little, will steal into the city; the population will dwindle; and the wretched inhabitants soon will perish of distress and despair, though every flower of summer burst into bloom before them.
But let the queen be restored before her loss has become an accomplished, irremediable fact, before the bees have grown too profoundly demoralised,—for in this they resemble men: a prolonged regret, or misfortune, will impair their intellect and degrade their character,—let her be restored but a few hours later, and they will receive her with extraordinary, pathetic welcome. They will flock eagerly round her; excited groups will climb over each other in their anxiety to draw near; as she passes among them they will caress her with the long antennae that contain so many organs as yet unexplained; they will present her with honey, and escort her tumultuously back to the royal chamber. And order at once is restored, work resumed, from the central comb of the brood-cells to the furthest annex where the surplus honey is stored; the foragers go forth, in long black files, to return, in less than three minutes sometimes, laden with nectar and pollen; streets are swept, parasites and marauders killed or expelled; and the hive soon resounds with the gentle, monotonous cadence of the strange hymn of rejoicing, which is, it would seem, the hymn of the royal presence.
There are numberless instances of the absolute attachment and devotion that the workers display towards their queen. Should disaster befall the little republic; should the hive or the comb collapse, should man prove ignorant, or brutal; should they suffer from famine, from cold or disease, and perish by thousands, it will still be almost invariably found that the queen will be safe and alive, beneath the corpses of her faithful daughters. For they will protect her, help her to escape; their bodies will provide both rampart and shelter; for her will be the last drop of honey, the wholesomest food. And be the disaster never so great, the city of virgins will not lose heart so long as the queen be alive. Break their comb twenty times in succession, take twenty times from them their young and their food, you still shall never succeed in making them doubt of the future; and though they be starving, and their number so small that it scarcely suffices to shield their mother from the enemy's gaze, they will set about to reorganize the laws of the colony, and to provide for what is most pressing; they will distribute the work in accordance with the new necessities of this disastrous moment, and thereupon will immediately re-assume their labours with an ardour, a patience, a tenacity and intelligence not often to be found existing to such a degree in nature, true though it be that most of its creatures display more confidence and courage than man.
But the presence of the queen is not even essential for their discouragement to vanish and their love to endure. It is enough that she should have left, at the moment of her death or departure, the very slenderest hope of descendants. "We have seen a colony," says Langstroth, one of the fathers of modern apiculture, "that had not bees sufficient to cover a comb of three inches square, and yet endeavoured to rear a queen. For two whole weeks did they cherish this hope; finally, when their number was reduced by one-half, their queen was born, but her wings were imperfect, and she was unable to fly. Impotent as she was, her bees did not treat her with the less respect. A week more, and there remained hardly a dozen bees; yet a few days, and the queen had vanished, leaving a few wretched, inconsolable insects upon the combs."
There is another instance, and one that reveals most palpably the ultimate gesture of filial love and devotion. It arises from one of the extraordinary ordeals that our recent and tyrannical intervention inflicts on these hapless, unflinching heroines. I, in common with all amateur bee-keepers, have more than once had impregnated queens sent me from Italy; for the Italian species is more prolific, stronger, more active, and gentler than our own. It is the custom to forward them in small, perforated boxes. In these some food is placed, and the queen enclosed, together with a certain number of workers, selected as far as possible from among the oldest bees in the hive. (The age of the bee can be readily told by its body, which gradually becomes more polished, thinner, and almost bald; and more particularly by the wings, which hard work uses and tears.) It is their mission to feed the queen during the journey, to tend her and guard her. I would frequently find, when the box arrived, that nearly every one of the workers was dead. On one occasion, indeed, they had all perished of hunger; but in this instance as in all others the queen was alive, unharmed, and full of vigour; and the last of her companions had probably passed away in the act of presenting the last drop of honey she held in her sac to the queen, who was symbol of a life more precious, more vast than her own.
This unwavering affection having come under the notice of man, he was able to turn to his own advantage the qualities to which it gives rise, or that it perhaps contains: the admirable political sense, the passion for work, the perseverance, magnanimity, and devotion to the future. It has allowed him, in the course of the last few years, to a certain extent to domesticate these intractable insects, though without their knowledge; for they yield to no foreign strength, and in their unconscious servitude obey only the laws of their own adoption. Man may believe, if he choose, that, possessing the queen, he holds in his hand the destiny and soul of the hive. In accordance with the manner in which he deals with her—as it were, plays with her—he can increase and hasten the swarm or restrict and retard it; he can unite or divide colonies, and direct the emigration of kingdoms. And yet it is none the less true that the queen is essentially merely a sort of living symbol, standing, as all symbols must, for a vaster although less perceptible principle; and this principle the apiarist will do well to take into account, if he would not expose himself to more than one unexpected reverse. For the bees are by no means deluded. The presence of the queen does not blind them to the existence of their veritable sovereign, immaterial and everlasting, which is no other than their fixed idea. Why inquire as to whether this idea be conscious or not? Such speculation can have value only if our anxiety be to determine whether we should more rightly admire the bees that have the idea, or nature that has planted it in them. Wherever it lodge, in the vast unknowable body or in the tiny ones that we see, it merits our deepest attention; nor may it be out of place here to observe that it is the habit we have of subordinating our wonder to accidents of origin or place, that so often causes us to lose the chance of deep admiration; which of all things in the world is the most helpful to us.
These conjectures may perhaps be regarded as exceedingly venturesome, and possibly also as unduly human. It may be urged that the bees, in all probability, have no idea of the kind; that their care for the future, love of the race, and many other feelings we choose to ascribe to them, are truly no more than forms assumed by the necessities of life, the fear of suffering or death, and the attraction of pleasure. Let it be so; look on it all as a figure of speech; it is a matter to which I attach no importance. The one thing certain here, as it is the one thing certain in all other cases, is that, under special circumstances, the bees will treat their queen in a special manner. The rest is all mystery, around which we only can weave more or less ingenious and pleasant conjecture. And yet, were we speaking of man in the manner wherein it were wise perhaps to speak of the bee, is there very much more we could say? He too yields only to necessity, the attraction of pleasure, and the fear of suffering; and what we call our intellect has the same origin and mission as what in animals we choose to term instinct. We do certain things, whose results we conceive to be known to us; other things happen, and we flatter ourselves that we are better equipped than animals can be to divine their cause; but, apart from the fact that this supposition rests on no very solid foundation, events of this nature are rare and infinitesimal, compared with the vast mass of others that elude comprehension; and all, the pettiest and the most sublime, the best known and the most inexplicable, the nearest and the most distant, come to pass in a night so profound that our blindness may well be almost as great as that we suppose in the bee.
"All must agree," remarks Buffon, who has a somewhat amusing prejudice against the bee,—" all must agree that these flies, individually considered, possess far less genius than the dog, the monkey, or the majority of animals; that they display far less docility, attachment, or sentiment; that they have, in a word, less qualities that relate to our own; and from that we may conclude that their apparent intelligence derives only from their assembled multitude; nor does this union even argue intelligence, for it is governed by no moral considerations, it being without their consent that they find themselves gathered together. This society, therefore, is no more than a physical assemblage ordained by nature, and independent either of knowledge, or reason, or aim. The mother-bee produces ten thousand individuals at a time, and in the same place; these ten thousand individuals, were they a thousand times stupider than I suppose them to be, would be compelled, for the mere purpose of existence, to contrive some form of arrangement; and, assuming that they had begun by injuring each other, they would, as each one possesses the same strength as its fellow, soon have ended by doing each other the least possible harm, or, in other words, by rendering assistance. They have the appearance of understanding each other, and of working for a common aim; and the observer, therefore, is apt to endow them with reasons and intellect that they truly are far from possessing. He will pretend to account for each action, show a reason behind every movement; and from thence the gradation is easy to proclaiming them marvels, or monsters, of innumerable ideas. Whereas the truth is that these ten thousand individuals, that have been produced simultaneously, that have lived together, and undergone metamorphosis at more or less the same time, cannot fail all to do the same thing, and are compelled, however slight the sentiment within them, to adopt common habits, to live in accord and union, to busy themselves with their dwelling, to return to it after their journeys, etc., etc. And on this foundation arise the architecture, the geometry, the order, the foresight, love of country,—in a word, the republic; all springing, as we have seen, from the admiration of the observer." There we have our bees explained in a very different fashion. And if it seem more natural at first, is it not for the very simple reason that it really explains almost nothing? I will not allude to the material errors this chapter contains; I will only ask whether the mere fact of the bees accepting a common existence, while doing each other the least possible harm, does not in itself argue a certain intelligence. And does not this intelligence appear the more remarkable to us as we more closely examine the fashion in which these "ten thousand individuals" avoid hurting each other, and end by giving assistance? And further, is this not the history of ourselves; and does not all that the angry old naturalist says apply equally to every one of our human societies? And yet once again: if the bee is indeed to be credited with none of the feelings or ideas that we have ascribed to it, shall we not very willingly shift the ground of our wonder? If we must not admire the bee, we will then admire nature; the moment must always come when admiration can be no longer denied us, nor shall there be loss to us through our having retreated, or waited.
However these things may be, and without abandoning this conjecture of ours, that at least has the advantage of connecting in our mind certain actions that have evident connection in fact, it is certain that the bees have far less adoration for the queen herself than for the infinite future of the race that she represents. They are not sentimental; and should one of their number return from work so severely wounded as to be held incapable of further service, they will ruthlessly expel her from the hive. And yet it cannot be said that they are altogether incapable of a kind of personal attachment towards their mother. They will recognise her from among all. Even when she is old, crippled, and wretched, the sentinels at the door will never allow another queen to enter the hive, though she be young and fruitful. It is true that this is one of the fundamental principles of their polity, and never relaxed except at times of abundant honey, in favour of some foreign worker who shall be well laden with food.
When the queen has become completely sterile, the bees will rear a certain number of royal princesses to fill her place. But what becomes of the old sovereign? As to this we have no precise knowledge; but it has happened, at times, that apiarists have found a magnificent queen, in the flower of her age, on the central comb of the hive; and in some obscure corner, right at the back, the gaunt, decrepit "old mistress," as they call her in Normandy. In such cases it would seem that the bees have to exercise the greatest care to protect her from the hatred of the vigorous rival who longs for her death; for queen hates queen so fiercely that two who might happen to be under the same roof would immediately fly at each other. It would be pleasant to believe that the bees are thus providing their ancient sovereign with a humble shelter in a remote corner of the city, where she may end her days in peace. Here again we touch one of the thousand enigmas of the waxen city; and it is once more proved to us that the habits and the policy of the bees are by no means narrow, or rigidly predetermined; and that their actions have motives far more complex than we are inclined to suppose.
But we are constantly tampering with what they must regard as immovable laws of nature; constantly placing the bees in a position that may be compared to that in which we should ourselves be placed were the laws of space and gravity, of light and heat, to be suddenly suppressed around us. What are the bees to do when we, by force or by fraud, introduce a second queen into the city? It is probable that, in a state of nature, thanks to the sentinels at the gate, such an event has never occurred since they first came into the world. But this prodigious conjuncture does not scatter their wits; they still contrive to reconcile the two principles that they appear to regard in the light of divine commands. The first is that of unique maternity, never infringed except in the case of sterility in the reigning queen, and even then only very exceptionally; the second is more curious still, and, although never transgressed, susceptible of what may almost be termed a Judaic evasion. It is the law that invests the person of a queen, whoever she be, with a sort of inviolability. It would be a simple matter for the bees to pierce the intruder with their myriad envenomed stings; she would die on the spot, and they would merely have to remove the corpse from the hive. But though this sting is always held ready to strike, though they make constant use of it in their fights among themselves, they will never draw it against a queen; nor will a queen ever draw hers on a man, an animal, or an ordinary bee. She will never unsheath her royal weapon—curved, in scimeter fashion, instead of being straight, like that of the ordinary bee—save only in the case of her doing battle with an equal: in other words, with a sister queen.
No bee, it would seem, dare take on herself the horror of direct and bloody regicide. Whenever, therefore, the good order and prosperity of the republic appear to demand that a queen shall die, they endeavour to give to her death some semblance of natural decease, and by infinite subdivision of the crime, to render it almost anonymous.
They will, therefore, to use the picturesque expression of the apiarist, "ball "the queenly intruder; in other words, they will entirely surround her with their innumerable interlaced bodies. They will thus form a sort of living prison wherein the captive is unable to move; and in this prison they will keep her for twenty-four hours, if need be, till the victim die of suffocation or hunger.
But if, at this moment, the legitimate queen draw near, and, scenting a rival, appear disposed to attack her, the living walls of the prison will at once fly open; and the bees, forming a circle around the two enemies, will eagerly watch the strange duel that will ensue, though remaining strictly impartial, and taking no share in it. For it is written that against a mother the sting may be drawn by a mother alone; only she who bears in her flanks close on two million lives appears to possess the right with one blow to inflict close on two million deaths.
But if the combat last too long, without any result, if the circular weapons glide harmlessly over the heavy cuirasses, if one of the queens appear anxious to make her escape, then, be she the legitimate sovereign or be she the stranger, she will at once be seized and lodged in the living prison until such time as she manifest once more the desire to attack her foe. It is right to add, however, that the numerous experiments that have been made on this subject have almost invariably resulted in the victory of the reigning queen, owing perhaps to the extra courage and ardour she derives from the knowledge that she is at home, with her subjects around her, or to the fact that the bees, however impartial while the fight is in progress, may possibly display some favouritism in their manner of imprisoning the rivals; for their mother would seem scarcely to suffer from the confinement, whereas the stranger almost always emerges in an appreciably bruised and enfeebled condition.
There is one simple experiment which proves the readiness with which the bees will recognise their queen, and the depth of the attachment they bear her. Remove her from the hive, and there will soon be manifest all the phenomena of anguish and distress that I have described in a preceding chapter. Replace her, a few hours later, and all her daughters will hasten towards her, offering honey. One section will form a lane, for her to pass through; others, with head bent low and abdomen high in the air, will describe before her great semicircles throbbing with sound; hymning, doubtless, the chant of welcome their rites dictate for moments of supreme happiness or solemn respect.
But let it not be imagined that a foreign queen may with impunity be substituted for the legitimate mother. The bees will at once detect the imposture; the intruder will be seized, and immediately enclosed in the terrible, tumultuous prison, whose obstinate walls will be relieved, as it were, till she dies; for in this particular instance it hardly ever occurs that the stranger emerges alive.
And here it is curious to note to what diplomacy and elaborate stratagem man is compelled to resort in order to delude these little sagacious insects, and bend them to his will. In their unswerving loyalty, they will accept the most unexpected events with touching courage, regarding them probably as some new and inevitable fatal caprice of nature. And, indeed, all this diplomacy notwithstanding, in the desperate confusion that may follow one of these hazardous expedients, it is on the admirable good sense of the bee that man always, and almost empirically, relies; on the inexhaustible treasure of their marvellous laws and customs, on their love of peace and order, their devotion to the public weal, and fidelity to the future; on the adroit strength, the earnest disinterestedness, of their character, and, above all, on the untiring devotion with which they fulfil their duty. But the enumeration of such procedures belongs rather to technical treatises on apiculture, and would take us too far.*
*The stranger queen is usually brought into the hive enclosed in a little cage, with iron wires, which is hung between two combs. The cage has a door made of wax and honey, which the workers, their anger over, proceed to gnaw, thus freeing the prisoner, whom they will often receive without any ill-will. Mr. Simmins, manager of the great apiary at Rottingdean, has recently discovered another method of introducing a queen, which, being extremely simple and almost invariably successful, bids fair to be generally adopted by apiarists who value their art. It is the behaviour of the queen that usually makes her introduction a matter of so great difficulty. She is almost distracted, flies to and fro, hides, and generally comports herself as an intruder, thus arousing the suspicions of the bees, which are soon confirmed by the workers' examination. Mr. Simmins at first completely isolates the queen he intends to introduce, and lets her fast for half an hour. He then lifts a corner of the inner cover of the orphaned hive, and places the strange queen on the top of one of the combs. Her former isolation having terrified her, she is delighted to find herself in the midst of the bees; and being famished she eagerly accepts the food they offer her. The workers, deceived by her assurance, do not examine her, but probably imagine that their old queen has returned, and welcome her joyfully. It would seem, therefore, that, contrary to the opinion of Huber and all other investigators, the bees are not capable of recognising their queen. In any event, the two explanations, which are both equally plausible—though the truth may lurk, perhaps, in a third, that is not yet known to us—only prove once again how complex and obscure is the psychology of the bee. And from this, as from all questions that deal with life, we can draw one conclusion only: that, till better obtain, curiosity still must rule in our heart.