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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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




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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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 conclusions.

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 treasure.

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 labour."


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 hexagons.

"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 small.


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 obstacles."


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 points.

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 hive."

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.

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