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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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

[ 76 ]

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


Have we the right to conclude, from the dangers of parthenogenesis, that nature is not always able to proportion the means to the end; and that what she intends to preserve is preserved at times by means of precautions she has to contrive against her own precautions, and often through foreign circumstances she has not herself foreseen? But is there anything she does foresee, anything she does intend to preserve? Nature, some may say, is a word wherewith we clothe the unknowable; and few things authorise our crediting it with intelligence, or with aim. That is true. We touch here the hermetically sealed vases that furnish our conception of the universe. Reluctant, over and over again, to label these with the inscription "UNKNOWN," that disheartens us and compels us to silence, we engrave upon them, in the degree of their size and grandeur, the words "Nature, life, death, infinite, selection, spirit of the race," and many others, even as those who went before us affixed the words "God, Providence, destiny, reward," etc. Let it be so, if one will, and no more. But, though the contents of the vases remain obscure, there is gain at least in the fact that the inscriptions to-day convey less menace to us, that we are able therefore to approach them and touch them, and lay our ears close to them and listen, with wholesome curiosity.

But whatever the name we attach to these vases, it is certain that one of them, at least, and the greatest—that which bears on its flank the name "Nature"—encloses a very real force, the most real of all, and one that is able to preserve an enormous and marvellous quantity and quality of life on our globe, by means so skilful that they surpass all that the genius of man could contrive. Could this quantity and quality be maintained by other means? Is it we who deceive ourselves when we imagine that we see precautions where perhaps there is truly no more than a fortunate chance, that has survived a million unfortunate chances?


That may be; but these fortunate chances teach us a lesson in admiration as valuable as those we might learn in regions superior to chance. If we let our gaze travel beyond the creatures that are possessed of a glimmer of intellect and consciousness, beyond the protozoa even, which are the first nebulous representatives of the dawning animal kingdom, we find, as has been abundantly proved by the experiments of Mr. H. J. Carter, the celebrated microscopist, that the very lowest embryos, such as the myxomycetes, manifest a will and desires and preferences; and that infusoria, which apparently have no organism whatever, give evidence of a certain cunning. The Amoebae, for instance, will patiently lie in wait for the new-born Acinetes, as they leave the maternal ovary; being aware that these must as yet be lacking their poisonous tentacles. Now, the Amoebae have neither a nervous system nor distinguishable organs of any kind. Or if we turn to the plants, which, being motionless, would seem exposed to every fatality,—without pausing to consider carnivorous species like the Drusera, which really act as animals,—we are struck by the genius that some of our humblest flowers display in contriving that the visit of the bee shall infallibly procure them the crossed fertilisation they need. See the marvellous fashion in which the Orchis Moris, our humble country orchid, combines the play of its rostellum and retinacula; observe the mathematical and automatic inclination and adhesion of its pollinia; as also the unerring double seesaw of the anthers of the wild sage, which touch the body of the visiting insect at a particular spot in order that the insect may, in its turn, touch the stigma of the neighbouring flower at another particular spot; watch, too, in the case of the Pedicularis Sylvatica, the successive, calculated movements of its stigma; and indeed the entrance of the bee into any one of these three flowers sets every organ vibrating, just as the skilful marksman who hits the black spot on the target will cause all the figures to move in the elaborate mechanisms we see in our village fairs.

We might go lower still, and show, as Ruskin has shown in his "Ethics of the Dust," the character, habits, and artifices of crystals; their quarrels, and mode of procedure, when a foreign body attempts to oppose their plans, which are more ancient by far than our imagination can conceive; the manner in which they admit or repel an enemy, the possible victory of the weaker over the stronger, as, for instance, when the all-powerful quartz submits to the humble and wily epidote, and allows this last to conquer it; the struggle, terrible sometimes and sometimes magnificent, between the rock-crystal and iron; the regular, immaculate expansion and uncompromising purity of one hyaline block, which rejects whatever is foul, and the sickly growth, the evident immorality, of its brother, which admits corruption, and writhes miserably in the void; as we might quote also the strange phenomena of crystalline cicatrisation and reintegration mentioned by Claude Bernard, etc. But the mystery here becomes too foreign to us. Let us keep to our flowers, which are the last expression of a life that has yet some kinship with our own. We are not dealing now with animals or insects, to which we attribute a special, intelligent will, thanks to which they survive. We believe, rightly or wrongly, that the flowers possess no such will; at least we cannot discover in them the slightest trace of the organs wherein will, intellect, and initiative of action, are usually born and reside. It follows, therefore, that all that acts in them in so admirable a fashion must directly proceed from what we elsewhere call nature. We are no longer concerned with the intellect of the individual; here we find the un conscious, undivided force in the act of ensnaring other forms of itself. Shall we on that account refuse to believe that these snares are pure accidents, occurring in accordance with a routine that is also incidental? We are not yet entitled to such a deduction. It might be urged that these flowers, had these miraculous combinations not been, would not have survived, but would have had their place filled by others that stood in no need of crossed fertilisation; and the non-existence of the first would have been perceived by none, nor would the life that vibrates on the earth have seemed less incomprehensible to us, less diverse, or less astounding.

And yet it would be difficult not to admit that acts which bear all the appearance of acts of intelligence and prudence produce and support these fortunate chances. Whence do they issue,—from the being itself, or from the force whence that being draws life? I will not say "it matters but little," for, on the contrary, to know the answer were of supreme importance to us. But, in the meantime, and till we shall learn whether it be the flower that endeavours to maintain and perfect the life that nature has placed within it, or whether it be nature that puts forth an effort to maintain and improve the degree of existence the flower has assumed, or finally whether it be chance that ultimately governs chance, a multitude of semblances invite us to believe that something equal to our loftiest thoughts issues at times from a common source, that we are compelled to admire without knowing where it resides.

There are moments when what seems error to us comes forth from this common source. But, although we know very few things, proofs abound that the seeming error was in reality an act of prudence that we at first could not grasp. In the little circle, even, that our eyes embrace we are constantly shown that what we regarded as nature's blunder close by was due to her deeming it well to adjust the presumed inadvertence out yonder. She has placed the three flowers we mentioned under conditions of such difficulty that they are unable to fertilise themselves; she considers it beneficial, therefore, for reasons beyond our powers of perception, that they should cause themselves to be fertilised by their neighbours; and, inasmuch as she enhances the intelligence of her victims, she displays on our right the genius she failed to display on our left. The byways of this genius of hers remain incomprehensible to us, but its level is always the same. It will appear to fall into error—assuming that error be possible—thereupon rising again at once in the organ charged to repair this error. Turn where we may, it towers high over our heads. It is the circular ocean, the tideless water, whereon our boldest and most independent thoughts will never be more than mere abject bubbles. We call it Nature to-day; to-morrow, perhaps, we shall give it another name, softer or more alarming. In the meanwhile it holds simultaneous, impartial sway over life and death; furnishing the two irreconcilable sisters with the magnificent and familiar weapons that adorn and distract its bosom.


Does this force take measures to maintain what may be struggling on its surface, or must we say, arguing in the strangest of circles, that what floats on its surface must guard itself against the genius that has given it life? That question must be left open. We have no means of ascertaining whether it be notwithstanding the efforts of the superior will, or independently of these, or lastly because of these, that a species has been able to survive.

All we can say is that such a species exists, and that, on this point, therefore, nature would seem to be right. But who shall tell us how many others that we have not known have fallen victim to her restless and forgetful intellect? Beyond this, we can recognise only the surprising and occasionally hostile forms that the extraordinary fluid we call life assumes, in utter unconsciousness sometimes, at others with a kind of consciousness: the fluid which animates us equally with all the rest, which produces the very thoughts that judge it, and the feeble voice that attempts to tell its story.



WE will now consider the manner in which the impregnation of the queen-bee comes to pass. Here again nature has taken extraordinary measures to favour the union of males with females of a different stock; a strange law, whereto nothing would seem to compel her; a caprice, or initial inadvertence, perhaps, whose reparation calls for the most marvellous forces her activity knows.

If she had devoted half the genius she lavishes on crossed fertilisation and other arbitrary desires to making life more certain, to alleviating pain, to softening death and warding off horrible accidents, the universe would probably have presented an enigma less incomprehensible, less pitiable, than the one we are striving to solve. But our consciousness, and the interest we take in existence, must grapple, not with what might have been, but with what is.

Around the virgin queen, and dwelling with her in the hive, are hundreds of exuberant males, forever drunk on honey; the sole reason for their existence being one act of love. But, notwithstanding the incessant contact of two desires that elsewhere invariably triumph over every obstacle, the union never takes place in the hive, nor has it been possible to bring about the impregnation of a captive queen.*

*Professor McLain has recently succeeded in causing a few queens to be artificially impregnated; but this has been the result of a veritable surgical operation, of the most delicate and complicated nature. Moreover, the fertility of the queens was restricted and ephemeral.

While she lives in their midst the lovers about her know not what she is. They seek her in space, in the remote depths of the horizon, never suspecting that they have but this moment quitted her, have shared the same comb with her, have brushed against her, perhaps, in the eagerness of their departure. One might almost believe that those wonderful eyes of theirs, that cover their head as though with a glittering helmet, do not recognise or desire her save when she soars in the blue. Each day, from noon till three, when the sun shines resplendent, this plumed horde sallies forth in search of the bride, who is indeed more royal, more difficult of conquest, than the most inaccessible princess of fairy legend; for twenty or thirty tribes will hasten from all the neighbouring cities, her court thus consisting of more than ten thousand suitors; and from these ten thousand one alone will be chosen for the unique kiss of an instant that shall wed him to death no less than to happiness; while the others will fly helplessly round the intertwined pair, and soon will perish without ever again beholding this prodigious and fatal apparition.


I am not exaggerating this wild and amazing prodigality of nature. The best-conducted hives will, as a rule, contain four to five hundred males. Weaker or degenerate ones will often have as many as four or five thousand; for the more a hive inclines to its ruin, the more males will it produce. It may be said that, on an average, an apiary composed of ten colonies will at a given moment send an army of ten thousand males into the air, of whom ten or fifteen at most will have the occasion of performing the one act for which they were born.

In the meanwhile they exhaust the supplies of the city; each one of the parasites requiring the unceasing labour of five or six workers to maintain it in its abounding and voracious idleness, its activity being indeed solely confined to its jaws. But nature is always magnificent when dealing with the privileges and prerogatives of love. She becomes miserly only when doling out the organs and instruments of labour. She is especially severe on what men have termed virtue, whereas she strews the path of the most uninteresting lovers with innumerable jewels and favours. "Unite and multiply; there is no other law, or aim, than love," would seem to be her constant cry on all sides, while she mutters to herself, perhaps: "and exist afterwards if you can; that is no concern of mine." Do or desire what else we may, we find, everywhere on our road, this morality that differs so much from our own. And note, too, in these same little creatures, her unjust avarice and insensate waste. From her birth to her death, the austere forager has to travel abroad in search of the myriad flowers that hide in the depths of the thickets. She has to discover the honey and pollen that lurk in the labyrinths of the nectaries and in the most secret recesses of the anthers. And yet her eyes and olfactory organs are like the eyes and organs of the infirm, compared with those of the male. Were the drones almost blind, had they only the most rudimentary sense of smell, they scarcely would suffer. They have nothing to do, no prey to hunt down; their food is brought to them ready prepared, and their existence is spent in the obscurity of the hive, lapping honey from the comb. But they are the agents of love; and the most enormous, most useless gifts are flung with both hands into the abyss of the future. Out of a thousand of them, one only, once in his life, will have to seek, in the depths of the azure, the presence of the royal virgin. Out of a thousand one only will have, for one instant, to follow in space the female who desires not to escape. That suffices. The partial power flings open her treasury, wildly, even deliriously. To every one of these unlikely lovers, of whom nine hundred and ninety-nine will be put to death a few days after the fatal nuptials of the thousandth, she has given thirteen thousand eyes on each side of their head, while the worker has only six thousand. According to Cheshire's calculations, she has provided each of their antennae with thirty-seven thousand eight hundred olfactory cavities, while the worker has only five thousand in both. There we have an instance of the almost universal disproportion that exists between the gifts she rains upon love and her niggardly doles to labour; between the favours she accords to what shall, in an ecstasy, create new life, and the indifference wherewith she regards what will patiently have to maintain itself by toil. Whoever would seek faithfully to depict the character of nature, in accordance with the traits we discover here, would design an extraordinary figure, very foreign to our ideal, which nevertheless can only emanate from her. But too many things are unknown to man for him to essay such a portrait, wherein all would be deep shadow save one or two points of flickering light.


Very few, I imagine, have profaned the secret of the queen-bee's wedding, which comes to pass in the infinite, radiant circles of a beautiful sky. But we are able to witness the hesitating departure of the bride-elect and the murderous return of the bride.

However great her impatience, she will yet choose her day and her hour, and linger in the shadow of the portal till a marvellous morning fling open wide the nuptial spaces in the depths of the great azure vault. She loves the moment when drops of dew still moisten the leaves and the flowers, when the last fragrance of dying dawn still wrestles with burning day, like a maiden caught in the arms of a heavy warrior; when through the silence of approaching noon is heard, once and again, a transparent cry that has lingered from sunrise.

Then she appears on the threshold—in the midst of indifferent foragers, if she have left sisters in the hive; or surrounded by a delirious throng of workers, should it be impossible to fill her place.

She starts her flight backwards; returns twice or thrice to the alighting-board; and then, having definitely fixed in her mind the exact situation and aspect of the kingdom she has never yet seen from without, she departs like an arrow to the zenith of the blue. She soars to a height, a luminous zone, that other bees attain at no period of their life. Far away, caressing their idleness in the midst of the flowers, the males have beheld the apparition, have breathed the magnetic perfume that spreads from group to group till every apiary near is instinct with it. Immediately crowds collect, and follow her into the sea of gladness, whose limpid boundaries ever recede. She, drunk with her wings, obeying the magnificent law of the race that chooses her lover, and enacts that the strongest alone shall attain her in the solitude of the ether, she rises still; and, for the first time in her life, the blue morning air rushes into her stigmata, singing its song, like the blood of heaven, in the myriad tubes of the tracheal sacs, nourished on space, that fill the centre of her body. She rises still. A region must be found unhaunted by birds, that else might profane the mystery. She rises still; and already the ill-assorted troop below are dwindling and falling asunder. The feeble, infirm, the aged, unwelcome, ill-fed, who have flown from inactive or impoverished cities, these renounce the pursuit and disappear in the void. Only a small, indefatigable cluster remain, suspended in infinite opal. She summons her wings for one final effort; and now the chosen of incomprehensible forces has reached her, has seized her, and bounding aloft with united impetus, the ascending spiral of their intertwined flight whirls for one second in the hostile madness of love.


Most creatures have a vague belief that a very precarious hazard, a kind of transparent membrane, divides death from love; and that the profound idea of nature demands that the giver of life should die at the moment of giving. Here this idea, whose memory lingers still over the kisses of man, is realised in its primal simplicity. No sooner has the union been accomplished than the male's abdomen opens, the organ detaches itself, dragging with it the mass of the entrails; the wings relax, and, as though struck by lightning, the emptied body turns and turns on itself and sinks down into the abyss.

The same idea that, before, in parthenogenesis, sacrificed the future of the hive to the unwonted multiplication of males, now sacrifices the male to the future of the hive.

This idea is always astounding; and the further we penetrate into it, the fewer do our certitudes become. Darwin, for instance, to take the man of all men who studied it the most methodically and most passionately, Darwin, though scarcely confessing it to himself, loses confidence at every step, and retreats before the unexpected and the irreconcilable. Would you have before you the nobly humiliating spectacle of human genius battling with infinite power, you have but to follow Darwin's endeavours to unravel the strange, incoherent, inconceivably mysterious laws of the sterility and fecundity of hybrids, or of the variations of specific and generic characters. Scarcely has he formulated a principle when numberless exceptions assail him; and this very principle, soon completely overwhelmed, is glad to find refuge in some corner, and preserve a shred of existence there under the title of an exception.

For the fact is that in hybridity, in variability (notably in the simultaneous variations known as correlations of growth), in instinct, in the processes of vital competition, in geologic succession and the geographic distribution of organised beings, in mutual affinities, as indeed in every other direction, the idea of nature reveals itself, in one and the same phenomenon and at the very same time, as circumspect and shiftless, niggard and prodigal, prudent and careless, fickle and stable, agitated and immovable, one and innumerable, magnificent and squalid. There lay open before her the immense and virgin fields of simplicity; she chose to people them with trivial errors, with petty contradictory laws that stray through existence like a flock of blind sheep. It is true that our eye, before which these things happen, can only reflect a reality proportionate to our needs and our stature; nor have we any warrant for believing that nature ever loses sight of her wandering results and causes.

In any event she will rarely permit them to stray too far, or approach illogical or dangerous regions. She disposes of two forces that never can err; and when the phenomenon shall have trespassed beyond certain limits, she will beckon to life or to death—which arrives, re-establishes order, and unconcernedly marks out the path afresh.


She eludes us on every side; she repudiates most of our rules and breaks our standards to pieces. On our right she sinks far beneath the level of our thoughts, on our left she towers mountain-high above them. She appears to be constantly blundering, no less in the world of her first experiments than in that of her last, of man. There she invests with her sanction the instincts of the obscure mass, the unconscious injustice of the multitude, the defeat of intelligence and virtue, the uninspired morality which urges on the great wave of the race, though manifestly inferior to the morality that could be conceived or desired by the minds composing the small and the clearer wave that ascends the other. And yet, can such a mind be wrong if it ask itself whether the whole truth—moral truths, therefore, as well as non-moral—had not better be sought in this chaos than in itself, where these truths would seem comparatively clear and precise?

The man who feels thus will never attempt to deny the reason or virtue of his ideal, hallowed by so many heroes and sages; but there are times when he will whisper to himself that this ideal has perhaps been formed at too great a distance from the enormous mass whose diverse beauty it would fain represent. He has, hitherto, legitimately feared that the attempt to adapt his morality to that of nature would risk the destruction of what was her masterpiece. But to-day he understands her a little better; and from some of her replies, which, though still vague, reveal an unexpected breadth, he has been enabled to seize a glimpse of a plan and an intellect vaster than could be conceived by his unaided imagination; wherefore he has grown less afraid, nor feels any longer the same imperious need of the refuge his own special virtue and reason afford him. He concludes that what is so great could surely teach nothing that would tend to lessen itself. He wonders whether the moment may not have arrived for submitting to a more judicious examination his convictions, his principles, and his dreams.

Once more, he has not the slightest desire to abandon his human ideal. That even which at first diverts him from this ideal teaches him to return to it. It were impossible for nature to give ill advice to a man who declines to include in the great scheme he is endeavouring to grasp, who declines to regard as sufficiently lofty to be definitive, any truth that is not at least as lofty as the truth he himself desires. Nothing shifts its place in his life save only to rise with him; and he knows he is rising when he finds himself drawing near to his ancient image of good. But all things transform themselves more freely in his thoughts; and he can descend with impunity, for he has the presentiment that numbers of successive valleys will lead him to the plateau that he expects. And, while he thus seeks for conviction, while his researches even conduct him to the very reverse of that which he loves, he directs his conduct by the most humanly beautiful truth, and clings to the one that provisionally seems to be highest. All that may add to beneficent virtue enters his heart at once; all that would tend to lessen it remaining there in suspense, like insoluble salts that change not till the hour for decisive experiment. He may accept an inferior truth, but before he will act in accordance therewith he will wait, if need be for centuries, until he perceive the connection this truth must possess with truths so infinite as to include and surpass all others.

In a word, he divides the moral from the intellectual order, admitting in the former that only which is greater and more beautiful than was there before. And blameworthy as it may be to separate the two orders in cases, only too frequent in life, where we suffer our conduct to be inferior to our thoughts, where, seeing the good, we follow the worse—to see the worse and follow the better, to raise our actions high over our idea, must ever be reasonable and salutary; for human experience renders it daily more clear that the highest thought we can attain will long be inferior still to the mysterious truth we seek. Moreover, should nothing of what goes before be true, a reason more simple and more familiar would counsel him not yet to abandon his human ideal. For the more strength he accords to the laws which would seem to set egoism, injustice, and cruelty as examples for men to follow, the more strength does be at the same time confer on the others that ordain generosity, justice, and pity; and these last laws are found to contain something as profoundly natural as the first, the moment he begins to equalise, or allot more methodically, the share he attributes to the universe and to himself.


Let us return to the tragic nuptials of the queen. Here it is evidently nature's wish, in the interests of crossed fertilisation, that the union of the drone and the queen-bee should be possible only in the open sky. But her desires blend network-fashion, and her most valued laws have to pass through the meshes of other laws, which, in their turn, the moment after, are compelled to pass through the first.

In the sky she has planted so many dangers—cold winds, storm-currents, birds, insects, drops of water, all of which also obey invincible laws—that she must of necessity arrange for this union to be as brief as possible. It is so, thanks to the startlingly sudden death of the male. One embrace suffices; the rest all enacts itself in the very flanks of the bride.

She descends from the azure heights and returns to the hive, trailing behind her, like an oriflamme, the unfolded entrails of her lover. Some writers pretend that the bees manifest great joy at this return so big with promise—Buchner, among others, giving a detailed account of it. I have many a time lain in wait for the queen-bee's return, and I confess that I have never noticed any unusual emotion except in the case of a young queen who had gone forth at the head of a swarm, and represented the unique hope of a newly founded and still empty city. In that instance the workers were all wildly excited, and rushed to meet her. But as a rule they appear to forget her, even though the future of their city will often be no less imperilled. They act with consistent prudence in all things, till the moment when they authorise the massacre of the rival queens. That point reached, their instinct halts; and there is, as it were, a gap in their foresight.—They appear to be wholly indifferent. They raise their heads; recognise, probably, the murderous tokens of impregnation; but, still mistrustful, manifest none of the gladness our expectation had pictured. Being positive in their ways, and slow at illusion, they probably need further proofs before permitting themselves to rejoice. Why endeavour to render too logical, or too human, the feelings of little creatures so different from ourselves? Neither among the bees nor among any other animals that have a ray of our intellect, do things happen with the precision our books record. Too many circumstances remain unknown to us. Why try to depict the bees as more perfect than they are, by saying that which is not? Those who would deem them more interesting did they resemble ourselves, have not yet truly realised what it is that should awaken the interest of a sincere mind. The aim of the observer is not to surprise, but to comprehend; and to point out the gaps existing in an intellect, and the signs of a cerebral organisation different from our own, is more curious by far than the relating of mere marvels concerning it.

But this indifference is not shared by all; and when the breathless queen has reached the alighting-board, some groups will form and accompany her into the hive; where the sun, hero of every festivity in which the bees take part, is entering with little timid steps, and bathing in azure and shadow the waxen walls and curtains of honey. Nor does the new bride, indeed, show more concern than her people, there being not room for many emotions in her narrow, barbarous, practical brain. She has but one thought, which is to rid herself as quickly as possible of the embarrassing souvenirs her consort has left her, whereby her movements are hampered. She seats herself on the threshold, and carefully strips off the useless organs, that are borne far away by the workers; for the male has given her all he possessed, and much more than she requires. She retains only, in her spermatheca, the seminal liquid where millions of germs are floating, which, until her last day, will issue one by one, as the eggs pass by, and in the obscurity of her body accomplish the mysterious union of the male and female element, whence the worker-bees are born. Through a curious inversion, it is she who furnishes the male principle, and the drone who provides the female. Two days after the union she lays her first eggs, and her people immediately surround her with the most particular care. From that moment, possessed of a dual sex, having within her an inexhaustible male, she begins her veritable life; she will never again leave the hive, unless to accompany a swarm; and her fecundity will cease only at the approach of death.


Prodigious nuptials these, the most fairylike that can be conceived, azure and tragic, raised high above life by the impetus of desire; imperishable and terrible, unique and bewildering, solitary and infinite. An admirable ecstasy, wherein death supervening in all that our sphere has of most limpid and loveliest, in virginal, limitless space, stamps the instant of happiness in the sublime transparence of the great sky; purifying in that immaculate light the something of wretchedness that always hovers around love, rendering the kiss one that can never be forgotten; and, content this time with moderate tithe, proceeding herself, with hands that are almost maternal, to introduce and unite, in one body, for a long and inseparable future, two little fragile lives.

Profound truth has not this poetry, but possesses another that we are less apt to grasp, which, however, we should end, perhaps, by understanding and loving. Nature has not gone out of her way to provide these two "abbreviated atoms," as Pascal would call them, with a resplendent marriage, or an ideal moment of love. Her concern, as we have said, was merely to improve the race by means of crossed fertilisation. To ensure this she has contrived the organ of the male in such a fashion that he can make use of it only in space. A prolonged flight must first expand his two great tracheal sacs; these enormous receptacles being gorged on air will throw back the lower part of the abdomen, and permit the exsertion of the organ. There we have the whole physiological secret—which will seem ordinary enough to some, and almost vulgar to others—of this dazzling pursuit and these magnificent nuptials.


"But must we always, then," the poet will wonder, "rejoice in regions that are loftier than the truth?"

Yes, in all things, at all times, let us rejoice, not in regions loftier than the truth, for that were impossible, but in regions higher than the little truths that our eye can seize. Should a chance, a recollection, an illusion, a passion,—in a word, should any motive whatever cause an object to reveal itself to us in a more beautiful light than to others, let that motive be first of all dear to us. It may only be error, perhaps; but this error will not prevent the moment wherein this object appears the most admirable to us from being the moment wherein we are likeliest to perceive its real beauty. The beauty we lend it directs our attention to its veritable beauty and grandeur, which, derived as they are from the relation wherein every object must of necessity stand to general, eternal, forces and laws, might otherwise escape observation. The faculty of admiring which an illusion may have created within us will serve for the truth that must come, be it sooner or later. It is with the words, the feelings, and ardour created by ancient and imaginary beauties, that humanity welcomes today truths which perhaps would have never been born, which might not have been able to find so propitious a home, had these sacrificed illusions not first of all dwelt in, and kindled, the heart and the reason whereinto these truths should descend. Happy the eyes that need no illusion to see that the spectacle is great! It is illusion that teaches the others to look, to admire, and rejoice. And look as high as they will, they never can look too high. Truth rises as they draw nearer; they draw nearer when they admire. And whatever the heights may be whereon they rejoice, this rejoicing can never take place in the void, or above the unknown and eternal truth that rests over all things like beauty in suspense.


Does this mean that we should attach ourselves to falsehood, to an unreal and factitious poetry, and find our gladness therein for want of anything better? Or that in the example before us—in itself nothing, but we dwell on it because it stands for a thousand others, as also for our entire attitude in face of divers orders of truths—that here we should ignore the physiological explanation, and retain and taste only the emotions of this nuptial flight, which is yet, and whatever the cause, one of the most lyrical, most beautiful acts of that suddenly disinterested, irresistible force which all living creatures obey and are wont to call love? That were too childish; nor is it possible, thanks to the excellent habits every loyal mind has today acquired.

The fact being incontestable, we must evidently admit that the exsertion of the organ is rendered possible only by the expansion of the tracheal vesicles. But if we, content with this fact, did not let our eyes roam beyond it; if we deduced therefrom that every thought that rises too high or wanders too far must be of necessity wrong, and that truth must be looked for only in the material details; if we did not seek, no matter where, in uncertainties often far greater than the one this little explanation has solved, in the strange mystery of crossed fertilisation for instance, or in the perpetuity of the race and life, or in the scheme of nature; if we did not seek in these for something beyond the current explanation, something that should prolong it, and conduct us to the beauty and grandeur that repose in the unknown, I would almost venture to assert that we should pass our existence further away from the truth than those, even, who in this case wilfully shut their eyes to all save the poetic and wholly imaginary interpretation of these marvellous nuptials. They evidently misjudge the form and colour of the truth, but they live in its atmosphere and its influence far more than the others, who complacently believe that the entire truth lies captive within their two hands. For the first have made ample preparations to receive the truth, have provided most hospitable lodging within them; and even though their eyes may not see it, they are eagerly looking towards the beauty and grandeur where its residence surely must be.

We know nothing of nature's aim, which for us is the truth that dominates every other. But for the very love of this truth, and to preserve in our soul the ardour we need for its search, it behoves us to deem it great. And if we should find one day that we have been on a wrong road, that this aim is incoherent and petty, we shall have discovered its pettiness by means of the very zeal its presumed grandeur had created within us; and this pettiness once established, it will teach us what we have to do. In the meanwhile it cannot be unwise to devote to its search the most strenuous, daring efforts of our heart and our reason. And should the last word of all this be wretched, it will be no little achievement to have laid bare the inanity and the pettiness of the aim of nature.

"There is no truth for us yet," a great physiologist of our day remarked to me once, as I walked with him in the country; "there is no truth yet, but there are everywhere three very good semblances of truth. Each man makes his own choice, or rather, perhaps, has it thrust upon him; and this choice, whether it be thrust upon him, or whether, as is often the case, he have made it without due reflection, this choice, to which he clings, will determine the form and the conduct of all that enters within him. The friend whom we meet, the woman who approaches and smiles, the love that unlocks our heart, the death or sorrow that seals it, the September sky above us, this superb and delightful garden, wherein we see, as in Corneille's 'Psyche,' bowers of greenery resting on gilded statues, and the flocks grazing yonder, with their shepherd asleep, and the last houses of the village, and the sea between the trees,—all these are raised or degraded before they enter within us, are adorned or despoiled, in accordance with the little signal this choice of ours makes to them. We must learn to select from among these semblances of truth. I have spent my own life in eager search for the smaller truths, the physical causes; and now, at the end of my days, I begin to cherish, not what would lead me from these, but what would precede them, and, above all, what would somewhat surpass them." We had attained the summit of a plateau in the "pays de Caux," in Normandy, which is supple as an English park, but natural and limitless. It is one of the rare spots on the globe where nature reveals herself to us unfailingly wholesome and green. A little further to the north the country is threatened with barrenness, a little further to the south, it is fatigued and scorched by the sun. At the end of a plain that ran down to the edge of the sea, some peasants were erecting a stack of corn. "Look," he said, "seen from here, they are beautiful. They are constructing that simple and yet so important thing, which is above all else the happy and almost unvarying monument of human life taking root—a stack of corn. The distance, the air of the evening, weave their joyous cries into a kind of song without words, which replies to the noble song of the leaves as they whisper over our heads. Above them the sky is magnificent; and one almost might fancy that beneficent spirits, waving palm-trees of fire, had swept all the light towards the stack, to give the workers more time. And the track of the palms still remains in the sky. See the humble church by their side, overlooking and watching them, in the midst of the rounded lime trees and the grass of the homely graveyard, that faces its native ocean. They are fitly erecting their monument of life underneath the monuments of their dead, who made the same gestures and still are with them. Take in the whole picture. There are no special, characteristic features, such as we find in England, Provence, or Holland. It is the presentment, large and ordinary enough to be symbolic, of a natural and happy life. Observe how rhythmic human existence becomes in its useful moments. Look at the man who is leading the horses, at that other who throws up the sheaves on his fork, at the women bending over the corn, and the children at play. . . . They have not displaced a stone, or removed a spadeful of earth, to add to the beauty of the scenery; nor do they take one step, plant a tree or a flower, that is not necessary. All that we see is merely the involuntary result of the effort that man puts forth to subsist for a moment in nature; and yet those among us whose desire is only to create or imagine spectacles of peace, deep thoughtfulness, or beatitude, have been able to find no scene more perfect than this, which indeed they paint or describe whenever they seek to present us with a picture of beauty or happiness. Here we have the first semblance, which some will call the truth."


"Let us draw nearer. Can you distinguish the song that blended so well with the whispering of the leaves? It is made up of abuse and insult; and when laughter bursts forth, it is due to an obscene remark some man or woman has made, to a jest at the expense of the weaker,—of the hunchback unable to lift his load, the cripple they have knocked over, or the idiot whom they make their butt.

"I have studied these people for many years. We are in Normandy; the soil is rich and easily tilled. Around this stack of corn there is rather more comfort than one would usually associate with a scene of this kind. The result is that most of the men, and many of the women, are alcoholic. Another poison also, which I need not name, corrodes the race. To that, to the alcohol, are due the children whom you see there: the dwarf, the one with the hare-lip, the others who are knock-kneed, scrofulous, imbecile. All of them, men and women, young and old, have the ordinary vices of the peasant. They are brutal, suspicious, grasping, and envious; hypocrites, liars, and slanderers; inclined to petty, illicit profits, mean interpretations, and coarse flattery of the stronger. Necessity brings them together, and compels them to help each other; but the secret wish of every individual is to harm his neighbour as soon as this can be done without danger to himself. The one substantial pleasure of the village is procured by the sorrows of others. Should a great disaster befall one of them, it will long be the subject of secret, delighted comment among the rest. Every man watches his fellow, is jealous of him, detests and despises him. While they are poor, they hate their masters with a boiling and pent-up hatred because of the harshness and avarice these last display; should they in their turn have servants, they profit by their own experience of servitude to reveal a harshness and avarice greater even than that from which they have suffered. I could give you minutest details of the meanness, deceit, injustice, tyranny, and malice that underlie this picture of ethereal, peaceful toil. Do not imagine that the sight of this marvellous sky, of the sea which spreads out yonder behind the church and presents another, more sensitive sky, flowing over the earth like a great mirror of wisdom and consciousness—do not imagine that either sea or sky is capable of lifting their thoughts or widening their minds. They have never looked at them. Nothing has power to influence or move them save three or four circumscribed fears, that of hunger, of force, of opinion and law, and the terror of hell when they die. To show what they are, we should have to consider them one by one. See that tall fellow there on the right, who flings up such mighty sheaves. Last summer his friends broke his right arm in some tavern row. I reduced the fracture, which was a bad and compound one. I tended him for a long time, and gave him the wherewithal to live till he should be able to get back to work. He came to me every day. He profited by this to spread the report in the village that he had discovered me in the arms of my sister-in-law, and that my mother drank. He is not vicious, he bears me no ill-will; on the contrary, see what a broad, open smile spreads over his face as he sees me. It was not social animosity that induced him to slander me. The peasant values wealth far too much to hate the rich man. But I fancy my good corn-thrower there could not understand my tending him without any profit to myself. He was satisfied that there must be some underhand scheme, and he declined to be my dupe. More than one before him, richer or poorer, has acted in similar fashion, if not worse. It did not occur to him that he was lying when he spread those inventions abroad; he merely obeyed a confused command of the morality he saw about him. He yielded unconsciously, against his will, as it were, to the all-powerful desire of the general malevolence. . . . But why complete a picture with which all are familiar who have spent some years in the country? Here we have the second semblance that some will call the real truth. It is the truth of practical life. It undoubtedly is based on the most precise, the only, facts that one can observe and test."

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