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The Children's Life of the Bee
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WE will now leave our observation hive, and, in order to get nearer to nature, consider the different events of the swarm as they come to pass in an ordinary hive, which is about ten times larger than the other, and offers entire freedom to the bees. Here, then, they have shaken off the sluggishness of winter. The queen started laying her eggs in the very first days of February, and the workers have gone in streams to the willows and nut-trees, the gorse and violets, anemones and lungworts. Then Spring cornes upon the earth, and in the hive honey and pollen abound in cellar and attic, while each day sees the birth of thousands of bees. The overgrown males now all sally forth from their cells, and sun themselves on the combs. So crowded does the city become that hundreds of workers, coming back from the flowers in the evening, will vainly seek shelter within, and will be forced to spend the night on the threshold of the hive, where many will die from the cold.
The inhabitants of the hive become restless, and the old queen begins to stir. She feels that there is something to be done; something strange, that she has to do. So far, she has religiously fulfilled her duty as a good mother; but, to her, the accomplishment of this duty will bring no reward. An unknown power threatens her tranquillity; she will soon be forced to quit this city of hers, where she has so long reigned. But this city has been made by her. She is not its queen in the sense in which men use the word. She gives no orders; she obeys, as meekly as the humblest of her subjects, the hidden power that for the present we will call the “spirit of the hive.” But she is the mother of the city; its inhabitants are all her children. It is she who has founded it, brought it together out of nothing, triumphed over the uncertainty and poverty of its beginning; it is she who has peopled it; and those who move within its walls the workers, the males, the larvæ, the nymphs and young princesses she is the mother of them all.
What is this “spirit of the hive” where is it to be found? It is not like the special instinct that teaches the bird to build its well-planned nest, and then seek other skies when winter threatens. It is not a fixed and unchanging habit; it is not a law that deals with special cases. On the contrary, it deals with all cases; it studies them, watches them-and then gives orders for the right thing to be done-just as a faithful steward might do who had only the interests of his master at heart.
It deals unmercifully with the wealth and the happiness, the liberty and the life, of all this winged people; and yet it always acts with judgment and wisdom, as though it were itself directed by some overpowering duty. It is the “spirit of the hive” that decides how many bees shall be born every day, arranging this in accordance with the number of flowers that gladden the country-side. It is the “spirit of the hive” that warns the queen when it is time to depart, that compels her to allow the young princesses to come into the world, although these princesses shall be her own rivals. Or perhaps, when the season is on the wane, and the flowers are growing less plentiful, the spirit will instruct the workers to do away with the princesses, so that there may be no chance of disturbance, and work may once again become the sole object of all.
The spirit of the hive is prudent and wise, but never niggardly. In the glad summer days of sunshine and plenty it permits three or four hundred males to exist in the hive pompous, useless, noisy creatures, who are greedy and dirty, vulgar and arrogant; but, one morning when the flowers are beginning to close earlier and open later, the spirit will quietly issue instructions that every male shall be killed. It draws up a sort of time-table for each one of the workers, allotting them tasks in accordance with their age; it selects the nurses who attend to the larvæ, and the ladies of honor who wait on the queen and never by any chance let her out of their sight. It has given the necessary orders to the house-bees who air and warm the hive by fanning their wings, thereby also helping the honey to settle; to the architects, masons, waxworkers and sculptors who form the mysterious curtain and build the combs; to the foragers who sally forth to the flowers in search of the nectar that turns into honey, of the pollen that feeds the larvæ, and of the water and salt required by the youth of the city.
It is the spirit of the hive that has chosen the chemists whose business it is to keep the honey sweet and fresh by allowing a drop of formic acid to fall in from the end of their sting; the capsule-makers, who seal up the provision-cells when these are filled; the sweepers, who clean the streets and public places of the hive; and the guards who all day and all night keep watch on the threshold, who question all comers and goers, recognize the young bees as they return from their very first flight, scare away vagabonds, loafers and trespassers, expel all intruders, and, if need be, block up and defend the entrance to the hive.
And, last of all, it is the spirit of the hive which decides on the hour at which the bees shall swarm; the hour, that is, when we find a whole people, who have reached the very height of prosperity and power, suddenly abandoning, in favor of the generation that is to follow, all their wealth and their palaces, their homes and the fruits of their labor, content themselves to face the perils and hardships of a journey into a new and distant country. This act will always bring poverty with it and sometimes ruin; and the people who once were so happy are scattered abroad in
obedience to a law that they recognize to be greater than their own happiness. These things that happen to the bee are regarded by us in the way we regard most things that happen in the world. We note some of the bees’ habits; we say, they do this, and do that, they work in such and such a way, this is how their queens are born; we observe that the workers are all females and that they swarm at a certain time. And having said this, we think that we know them, and ask nothing more. We watch them hastening from flower to flower, we see the constant movement within the hive; and we tell ourselves that we understand all about their life. But the moment that we try to come nearer the truth, to see more clearly, we find puzzling questions confronting us, questions as to what part is played by destiny and what part by will, how much is due to intelligence and how much to nature; difficult questions, these, that are never absent even from the most simple acts of our own daily life.
Our hive, then, is preparing to swarm, making ready for the great sacrifice to the generation that is to come. In obedience to the order given by the “spirit of the hive,” sixty or seventy thousand bees out of the eighty or ninety thousand that form the whole population, will forsake their old city at a given hour. They will not be leaving it at a moment of great unhappiness; they have not suddenly made up their minds to abandon a home that has been rendered miserable by hunger or illness, or ruined by war. No; on the contrary, preparations have for a long time been made, and the hour most favorable for departure patiently awaited.
If the hive were poor, or had suffered from storm or robbery; or if some misfortune had befallen the royal family, the bees would not dream of going away. They do this only when everything is at its very best in the hive; at a time when, thanks to the enormous amount of work done in the spring, the immense palace of wax has its 120,000 well-arranged cells overflowing with honey and with the many-colored flour, known as “bees’ bread,” on which the larvæ are fed.
Never is the hive more beautiful than on the eve of its great sacrifice. Let us try to imagine it for ourselves not as it appears to the bee, for we cannot tell what it looks like to her, seen through the triple eye on her brow and the six or seven thousand facets of the eyes on her side but as it would seem to us, were we no bigger than she is. From the height of a dome greater than that of St. Peter’s at Rome waxen walls descend to the ground; and these walls, although they have all been built in the dark, are more perfect, more wonderful, than any that have been erected by human hands. Each one, smelling so fresh and so sweet, contains thousands of cells that are stored with provisions; enough, indeed, to feed the whole population for weeks. Here, too, are transparent cells filled with the pollen of every flower of spring, making brilliant splashes of red and yellow, of black and mauve. Close by, sealed with a seal to be broken only in days of distress, is the honey of April, clearest and most perfumed of all, stored in twenty thousand vats, which look like a long and beautiful embroidery of gold, with borders that hang stiff and rigid. Lower down still, the honey of May is maturing, in huge open tanks, that are fanned all the time by watchful, untiring guardians. In the center, in the warmest part of the hive, are the royal nurseries, the domain set apart for the queen and her attendants; here also are about 16,000 cells wherein the eggs repose, 15 or 16,000 chambers occupied by the youthful bees, and 40,000 rooms filled with infants in their cradles, cared for by thousands of nurses. And, last of all, in the most secret and private quarters, are the three, four, six or twelve sealed palaces, vast in size compared with the others, where the growing princesses lie who await their hour; wrapped in a kind of shroud, all of them motionless and pale, and fed in the darkness.
The appointed day arrives, the one that has been chosen by the “spirit of the hive”; and a certain part of the population will at once sally forth. In the sleeping city there remain the males, the very young bees that look after the brood-cells, and some thousands of workers who go on gathering honey, guarding the treasure, and keeping up the moral atmosphere of the hive. For i t must be understood that each hive has its own moral code; some are admirable in every respect, while others have fallen away sadly from, the paths of virtue. A careless bee-keeper will often spoil his people, and cause them to lose respect for the property of others, whereby they will become a danger to all the hives around. They will give up the hundreds of visits to neighboring flowers that are necessary in order to form one drop of honey, and will prefer to force their way into other hives, that are too weak for self-defense, and to rob these of the fruit of their labors; and it is very difficult to bring back to the paths of duty a hive that shall have become so depraved.
All things go to prove that it is not the queen, but the “spirit of the hive,” that fixes on the hour for the swarm. This queen of ours, like many a leader among men, is herself compelled to obey commands that are far more important, and far more secret, than those which she gives to her subjects. At break of dawn, or perhaps a night or two before, the word will be given; and scarcely has the sun drunk in the first drops of dew when a most unusual stir may be noticed inside and all around the buzzing hive. Sometimes, too, for day after day before the actual swarming takes place, one will find a curious excitement, for which there would seem no cause, that suddenly appears, and as suddenly vanishes, in the golden, gleaming throng. One asks oneself, has a cloud that we cannot see crept across the sky that the bees are watching; or is it their mere sorrow at the thought of leaving? Has a council of bees been summoned to consider whether they really must go? Of all this we know nothing; we do know that the “spirit of the hive” has no difficulty in letting its message be known to the multitude. Certain as it may seem that the bees are able to communicate with each other, we cannot tell whether this is done in our human fashion. It is possible that they themselves do not hear their own song, the murmur that comes to us heavily laden with perfume of honey, the joyous whisper of fairest summer days that the bee-keeper loves so well, the festival song of labor that rises and falls around the hive, and that might almost be the chant of the eager flowers, the voice of the white carnation, the marjoram, and the thyme. Certain sounds that the bees put forth, however, can be readily understood by us, sounds that convey anger, sorrow, rejoicing or threats. They have their songs of abundance, when the harvest is plentiful, their psalms of grief and the chorus they chant to the queen; and at the time when she is being chosen the young princesses will send forth long and mysterious war-cries. . . . It is quite possible that the sounds we ourselves make do not reach the bees; in any event these sounds do not seem in the least to disturb them, but are regarded by the bees perhaps as not intended for them, not in their world, and anyhow of no interest. In the same way perhaps we too only hear a very small part of the sounds that the bees produce, and there may be many of which we are ignorant. We soon shall be shown how quickly they contrive to understand each other, and how each one is told precisely the right thing to do, when, for instance, that great honey-thief, the dreadful moth that bears a death’s head on its back, forces its way into the hive, humming its own strange song. The news travels quickly from group to group; and from the guards on the threshold to the workers on the most distant combs, the whole population of the hive becomes suddenly alert and eager, and trembles with fear.
For a long time it was thought that when these clever bees, usually so prudent and well-advised, left the treasures of their kingdom and sought a future that was so full of uncertainty, they were obeying some foolish impulse, some suggestion that had no especial meaning. It is our habit, when we consider the bees, to say that all that we do not as yet understand is just due to fate, that it happens because it had to happen. But now that we have discovered two or three of the secrets of the hive, we have learned why it is that the bees swarm; the reason being merely that the generation at present in the hive has thought it its duty to sacrifice itself on behalf of the generation that is to come.
The fact that this is the case can easily be proved. If the bee-keeper chooses to destroy the young queens in their cells, to enlarge the store-houses and dormitories in the hive, all the restlessness, confusion, the stir and the worry, would at once disappear. The bees would immediately take up their work again and revisit the flowers; the old queen, having no one to fill her place, would give up her great desire for the light of the sun, and decide to remain where she was. All her doubts as to the future being now set at rest, she would peacefully continue her labors, which consist in the laying of two or three thousand eggs a day, as she passes from cell to cell, omitting none, and never pausing to rest.
This particular hive, however, that we are now watching, has not been interfered with by man; the bees have been left to do what seemed right to them. On the appointed day then, the beautiful day, whose dawn, still moist with the dew, comes nearer and nearer beneath the trees, approaching with radiant and glowing steps, the bees all become impatient, and feverishly restless. Over the whole surface of the golden corridors that divide the walls of the hive, the workers are busily making preparations for the journey. Each one will first of all provide herself with honey sufficient for five or six days. From this honey that they carry within them they will distil the wax needed to build the new home. They will take with them also some kind of solid substance with which they will afterwards block up all the holes, strengthen weak places, varnish the walls and shut out the light; for the bees love to work in complete darkness, guiding themselves with their wonderful eyes, or perhaps with their antennae, or feelers, which very possibly possess some sense, unknown to us, that enables them to triumph over the darkness.
This is the most dangerous day in the life of the bee; it is full of the most dreadful possibilities; and the bees are well aware of it. Thinking of nothing now but their mighty adventure, they will have no time to visit the gardens and meadows; and to-morrow, and after to-morrow, it may rain, or there may be wind; their wings may be frozen and the flowers refuse to open. They would soon die of hunger; no one would come to help them, and they would seek help from none. For one city knows not the other, and assistance never is given. And even if the bee-keeper place the new hive by the side of the old one, the queen and her cluster of bees would not dream of returning to the safety and wealth of the home they had left, no matter what hardships they might have to endure; and all, one by one, and down to the last of them, would perish of hunger and cold around their unhappy queen rather than go back to the hive where they were born.
This is a thing, some people might say, that men would not do; it is a proof that the bee cannot have much intelligence. Is this so certain? Other creatures may have an intelligence that is different from ours, and produces different results; and yet it does not follow that they are inferior to us. Are we so readily able to understand of what the people are thinking whom we see, perhaps, talking behind a closed window or moving about in the street? Or let us suppose that an inhabitant of Venus or Mars were to look down from the top of a mountain, and watch us, who to him would seem mere little black specks, as we come and go in the streets and squares of our towns. Would the mere sight of our movements, our buildings, machines and canals, give him any very real idea of ourselves? All he could do, like ourselves as we gaze at the hive, would be to take note of one or two facts that seem very extraordinary. And from these facts he would jump at conclusions that would be just as uncertain as those that it pleases us to form concerning the bee.
“What are they aiming at, what are they trying for?” he would wonder, after years and years of patient watching. “I can see nothing that seems to direct their actions. The little things that one day they collect and build up, the next they destroy and scatter. In a great many cases their conduct is quite extraordinary. There are some men, for instance, who seem to do no work and hardly to stir from their place. They can be told from the others by their glossier coat, and also by their being generally fatter. They live in buildings ten or twenty times bigger than those of the workers, very much richer, and full of little ingenious contrivances. They spend a great many hours every day at their meals, of which they take a great number. They appear to be held in high honor by all who come near them; and have numbers of men and women to wait on them, to feed them and look after them. It can only be assumed that these persons must be of the greatest use and service to the country, but I have so far not been able to discover what this service may be. There are others who do nothing but work, and work very hard indeed, in great sheds full of wheels that are always turning round and round, or in dark and dirty hovels, or on small plots of earth that from sunrise to sunset they are always digging and delving. It is certain that this labor must be an offense, and one which is punished. For the persons who are guilty of it are lodged in wretched little houses, in which there is absolutely no comfort at all, and very often no light and no air. They are clothed in some colorless sort of hide. They are so madly fond of the foolish things they are doing that they scarcely allow themselves time to eat or to sleep. In numbers they are to the others as a thousand to one. The curious thing is that, apart from this extraordinary craving for their work — which would seem to be very tiring they appear to be quite gentle and harmless, and satisfied with the leavings of those who are evidently the guardians, if not the saviors, of the race.”
Whatever we may think about the intelligence of the bee, we must at least admire the way in which it sacrifices itself to the one thing it seems to care for or value and that is, the future. It is the future of the race, and that only, which directs the bee’s actions, its virtues, and even its cruelties. That is its ideal, the one thing it lives for; and where shall we find one that is more sublime, where shall we look for a self-denial that is braver or more complete?
It is such a logical little republic, this one of the bees; they reason so clearly, they are so careful and wise; and yet they allow this dream of theirs, this dream that is so uncertain and full of doubt, to master them completely. Who shall tell us, oh little people, who are so deeply in earnest, who have fed on the warmth and the light and on all that is purest in nature, on the very soul of the flowers, who shall tell us why you seem to have found the answer to questions that to us are unanswerable still? Oh little city, so full of faith, and mystery, and hope, why do your thousands of workers sacrifice themselves so cheerfully? Another spring, another summer, would be theirs if only they would not waste their strength so recklessly, if only they would take a little more care of themselves and not work so dreadfully hard; but at the wonderful moment when the flowers are calling to them, the bees forget everything but their work, give themselves up to it whole-heartedly, passionately; with the result that in less than five weeks they are worn out, their wings are broken, their bodies shriveled and covered with wounds.
Why, we ask ourselves, why do they give up their sleep, the delights of honey, the leisure that their winged brother, the butterfly, enjoys so gaily? It is not because they are hungry. Two or three flowers will provide each bee with the nourishment that she requires, and in one hour she will visit two or three hundred, to gather a treasure whose sweetness she never will taste. Oh bees, we wonder, why all this toil and suffering? And the answer is that they aim at one thing only, to live, as long as the world itself, in those that come after them.
But we are forgetting the hive, where the swarming bees have begun to lose patience; the hive whose black and trembling waves are bubbling and overflowing, like melting copper beneath a hot sun. It is noon, and the heat so great that the trees around appear almost to hold back their leaves, as we hold our breath when something very solemn and wonderful is about to happen. The bees give their honey and sweet-smelling wax to the man who keeps them, but more precious gift still is their summoning him to the gladness of June, to the joy of the beautiful months; for events in which bees take part happen only when skies are pure, at the joyous hours of the year when flowers are brightest. The bees are the soul of the summer, the clock whose hands are marking the moments of plenty; they are the untiring wing on which delicate scents are floating; they are the guide of the quivering sunbeams, the song of the tranquil, gentle air. To see them in their flight recalls to us the many simple joys of the quiet hours of summer; as we look at them, we seem to hear the whisper of the good, kindly heat. To him who has known them and loved them, a summer where there are no bees becomes as sad and as empty as one without flowers or birds.
It will startle, you just a little, the first time you see the great swarm of a bee-hive. You will be almost afraid to go near it. You will wonder, can these be the same friendly, hard-working bees that you have so often watched in the past? A few minutes ago, perhaps, you may have seen them flocking in from all parts of the country, as busy as little housewives, with no thought beyond household cares. You will have watched them stream into the hive, all out of breath, tired, flurried; you will have seen the young guards at the gate salute them as they passed by. They will have rushed through, to the inner court, and have quickly handed over their harvest of honey to the workers on duty there, exchanging with these the three or four necessary words; or perhaps they will have hastened to the great vats near the brood-cells, and will have emptied the two heavy baskets of honey that hung from their thighs, then going out again without giving a thought to what might be happening in the royal palace, the work-rooms, or the nurseries, where the young bees lie asleep; without for one instant heeding the babble in the public place in front of the gate, the place where the cleaners, when the heat is very great, are accustomed to gather and gossip.
But to-day everything is changed. A certain number of workers, it is true, will quietly go of to the fields, as though nothing were happening, and will come back, clean the hive, attend to the brood-cells, and take no part whatever in the general rejoicing. These bees are the ones who are not going away with the queen. They will remain to guard the old home, to look after the nine or ten thousand eggs, the eighteen thousand young bees, and the seven or eight royal princesses who to-day will be forsaken. The order has been given, and is faithfully obeyed; and hardly ever will one of these resigned Cinderellas be found in the giddy throng of the swarm.
And yet, the temptation must seem very great. It is the festival of honey, the triumph of the race; the one day of joy, of forgetfulness and light-heartedness, the only Sunday the bees ever know. It seems, too, to be the one day on which all eat their fill, and revel, to heart’s content, in the treasure which they have amassed. They might be prisoners freed at last, suddenly led into a land overflowing with plenty. They cannot contain the joy that is in them. They come and go without aim or purpose; they depart and return, sally forth again to see if the queen is ready; they tease and play about with their sisters, and do anything to pass the time. They fly much higher than usual, and the leaves of the mighty trees round about are all quivering in reply. The bees have left all trouble behind, and all care. They no longer are fierce, suspicious, angry. On this day man can go near them and handle them, can divide the glittering curtain they form as they fly round and round in songful circles. He can take them up in his hand, he can gather them as he would a bunch of grapes; for to-day, in their gladness, possessing nothing, but full of faith in the future, they will submit to everything and injure no one, so long as they be not separated from their queen, on whom that future depends.
But the signal has not yet been given. In the hive there is the strangest confusion, a disorder which we are unable to understand. At ordinary times, each bee, as soon as she has returned to the hive, appears to forget her wings; she will do her work, scarcely making a movement, on that particular spot in the hive where her special duties lie. But to-day every bee seems bewitched; they fly in dense circles round and round the smooth walls, like a living jelly stirred by an unseen hand. There are times even when the air inside the hive will become so hot that the wax of which the buildings are made will soften, and twist out of shape.
The queen, who till now never has stirred from the center of the comb , is rushing wildly to and fro, in breathless excitement, clambering over the crowd that keeps on turning and turning. Is she hastening their departure, or trying to prevent it? Is she commanding or imploring? Is she the cause of all this emotion, or merely its victim?
There would seem reason to believe that the swarming always takes place against the wish of the queen. The workers, her daughters, are extraordinarily good to her, but it is just possible that they have not much faith in her intelligence. They treat her rather like a mother who has seen her best days. Their respect for her, their tenderness, is remarkable, and there is nothing they would not do for her. The purest honey is kept for her use. She has guardians who watch over her by day and by night, and get the cells ready in which the eggs are to be laid. She has loving attendants who pet and fondle her, who feed her and clean her. Should she meet with the slightest accident, the news will spread quickly from group to group, and the whole people will rush to and fro with loud expressions of sorrow. If she were to be taken away from the hive at a time when the bees had no hope of filling her place, the work of the city would stop in every direction. No one would look after the young; the bees would wander about looking for their mother, many of them leaving the hive. The workers who were building the comb would scatter, the gatherers of honey would no longer visit the flowers, the guards at the gate would give up their post; and the enemies of the hive, who are always watching for a chance to come in and steal, would enter and leave without any one giving a thought to the defense of the treasure which it had taken so long to collect. And poverty, little by little, would creep into the city; and the miserable inhabitants would before long all die of sorrow and hunger, though every flower of summer should be blossoming before them.
But if the queen be put back before the bees have suffered too much, before they believe her to be lost forever, they will give her the deepest, most touching welcome. They will flock eagerly round her; excited groups will crawl over each other in their anxiety to see her. They rush to offer her honey, and lead her in triumph back to the royal chamber. And order at once comes back and work starts again, from the comb gatherer of brood-cells to the furthest cells where the reserve honey is stored. And the bees go forth to the flowers, in long black files, to return, in less than three minutes sometimes, with their harvest of nectar and pollen. The streets will be swept, thieves and other enemies driven out, and in the hive will be heard the soft sounds of the strange hymn of rejoicing, which would seem to be the chant that denotes the presence of the queen.
A number of instances could be given of the absolute devotion that the workers show for their queen. Should a disaster fall on the city; should the hive or the comb collapse; should the bees suffer from hunger, from cold or disease, and die in their thousands, the queen will nearly always be found, alive and safe, beneath the bodies of her faithful daughters. They may be relied on to protect her, and help her to escape; they will keep for her the last drop of honey, the last morsel of food. And be the disaster never so great, they will not lose heart so long as the queen be alive. You may break their comb twenty times in succession, twenty times take from them their young and their food, you will still never succeed in making them despair of the future. Though they be starving, and so few in number that they scarcely can conceal their mother from the enemy’s gaze, they will set about to start the city again and to provide for what is most pressing. They will quietly accept the new conditions, and divide the work between them in accordance with these conditions; they will take up their labors again with extraordinary patience, and zeal, and intelligence.
“I have come across a colony of bees,” says Langstroth, “that was not sufficiently large to cover a comb of three inches square, and yet they tried to rear a queen. For two whole weeks did these bees cherish their hope. Finally, when their number was reduced by a half, their queen was born, but her wings were imperfect, and she was unable to fly. Incomplete as she was, her bees did not treat her with less respect. Another week, and scarcely a dozen remained alive; a few days more, and the queen had vanished, leaving only a few wretched, inconsolable insects mourning for her on the comb.”
I have more than once had queens sent to me from Italy, for the Italian species is stronger, more active and gentler than our own. It is the custom to forward them in small boxes, with holes made in the top so as to let in the air. In these boxes, some food is placed, and the queen put in, together with a certain number of workers, who are selected as far as possible from among the oldest bees in the hive. (The age of the bee can easily be told by its body, which becomes more polished, thinner and almost bald as it grows older; and more particularly by the wings, which the hard work uses and tears.) It is the mission of these worker-bees to feed the queen during the Journey, to tend her and guard her. I would frequently find, when the box arrived, that nearly every one of the workers had died. On one occasion, indeed, they had all perished of hunger; but in this instance, as in all others, the queen was alive, unharmed and full of strength. The last of her companions had probably died in the act of presenting the last drop of honey she held in her sac to the queen, who was the emblem of a life more precious and more sacred than her own.
It is probably not because of the queen herself, but of the future that she represents, that the bees show so great a devotion. For they are by no means sentimental; and should one of their number return to the hive so badly wounded that she will be unable to work again, they will unmercifully drive her away from the city. But for their mother they always show the same strong attachment. They will recognize her from among all; and even though she be old, crippled and forlorn, the guards at the gate will never allow another queen to enter the hive, however young and much needed she be.
When the queen has grown old, the bees will bring up a certain number of royal princesses to take her place. What happens then to the old queen? As to this, we have no certain knowledge; but beekeepers will occasionally find a magnificent young queen perched on the central comb of the hive, and in some dark corner, hidden away at the back, the haggard old queen who had reigned before her. In cases like this the bees will have to take the greatest care to protect her from the hatred of the powerful newcomer who longs for her death; for queen hates queen so fiercely that, were two to find themselves under the same roof, they would immediately fly at each other. One would like to believe that the bees contrive to provide a shelter for their poor old queen, in some far-away corner of the hive, where she may end her days in peace. But here we are confronted again by one of the thousand mysteries of the city of wax; and we are once more shown that the habits and actions of the bees depend on themselves, and are governed by an intelligence much greater than we are inclined to believe.
What would the bees do, if we, by force or by some trick, were to bring a second queen into the city? Though their sting is always in readiness, and they make constant use of it in fights among themselves, they will newer draw it against a queen; nor will the queen ever draw hers on man, or an animal or any ordinary bee. She will never unsheath her royal weapon — which is curved, instead of being straight, like that of the worker-bee — except only when she is opposed to, and fighting, another queen.
If a new queen were brought into the hive, the bees would at once surround her, making a ring with their bodies. They would thus form a sort of living prison in which the captive would be unable to move; and in this prison they would keep her for twenty-four hours, or longer if need be, till the victim shall have died of suffocation or hunger.
But if the reigning queen should approach, and seem anxious to attack the stranger, the living walls would at once fly open; and the bees, forming a circle around the two, will eagerly watch the strange duel, in which they themselves will take no part whatever. For it is written that against a queen-bee only another queen may draw her sting.
If the fight should last too long, or one of the rivals attempt to escape, then, no matter whether she be the reigning queen or the intruder, she will at once be seized and kept in the living prison until she again shows readiness to attack her foe. The reigning queen will almost always conquer, ‘being emboldened and encouraged perhaps by the knowledge that she is fighting in her own home, with her subjects around her. Perhaps too the bees may make some difference in their treatment of the rivals during the period of imprisonment, for their mother seems scarcely to suffer from it at all, while the stranger always appears a little weakened and bruised.
We have shown that, if the queen be taken away from the hive, her people will mourn her, and display every sign of the deepest distress. If she be put back, a few hours later, her daughters will hasten joyfully towards her, offering honey; one section will respectfully form a lane for her to pass through, while others, their heads bent low, will move in great semicircles before her, singing the song of welcome that is only heard at moments of great happiness and solemn devotion.
But if a new queen were placed in the hive, instead of the old one, the greatest trouble and disturbance would ensue. The bees would know at once that a trick had been played on them; the impostor would be seized, and immediately confined in the terrible living walls made by their bodies, and held there until she died. She will hardly ever be allowed to come out alive.
There are ways, however, of dealing with this hatred of the new-comer; and one of them is to bring her into the hive enclosed in a little cage with iron wires, which is hung between two combs. The door of the cage is made of wax and honey; the bees, after their first display of fury, will gnaw at the wax and honey, thus freeing the prisoner, who will then sometimes be allowed to go unharmed, and be subsequently accepted. There is another way, too, that is used by a bee-master at Rottingdean, who imagined that the unfavorable reception of the new queen might in some degree be caused by her own curious behavior. No sooner will she have been put into the hive than she will rush wildly to and fro, vainly trying to hide in one place or another, and generally doing all she can to make the bees suspicious. Mr. Simmins, the bee-master in question, shuts the queen up for half an hour without any food before putting her into the hive. He then carefully raises a corner of the cover, and drops her on to the top of one of the combs. She seems overjoyed at finding the bees around her, and as she is starving she gladly accepts the food that they offer her. The workers, deceived by her manner, seem to believe that she actually is their old queen who has come back to them, and welcome her joyfully. In this case, therefore, it would seem that Huber, and the other experts who declare that the bees can always recognize their own queen, are not entirely right.
And there is also this to be said about the affection the bees have for their queen. That affection is real, and certainly exists; but it is certain also that it does not last very long. If you were to put back into the hive a queen who had been away for several days, her daughters would receive her so badly that you would have to snatch her up very quickly, and take her away. The explanation is that the bees will have made their arrangements to replace her, and will have turned a dozen workers’ cells into royal cradles, thus providing for a new queen and rendering the future safe. They will therefore have nothing more to do with the old one.
The future is the bees’ one consideration, and they sacrifice everything to it. As a curious instance, one may mention the way in which they will deal with a mouse, or a slug perhaps, that shall have managed to get into the hive. They will very soon kill the intruder, but then have to consider how they will get rid of the body. If they are unable to drag it out of the hive or tear it to pieces, they will build a perfect waxen tomb round it, which will tower strangely above the ordinary monuments of the city. In one of my hives last year I found three such tombs side by side; they had been made with party-walls, like the cells of the comb, so that no wax should be wasted. The careful grave-diggers had raised these tombs over the remains of three snails that a child had dropped into the hive. Generally, in the case of snails, the bees will be satisfied to seal the opening of the shell with wax. But here it seemed that the shells were broken, and the bees had therefore thought it wiser to bury the entire snail; and so that the entrance-hall should not be blocked, they had made a number of galleries, wide enough for the male bees, which are almost twice as big as the workers, to pass through. In districts where the hideous death’s-head moth abounds, the bees erect little columns of wax at the entrance of the hive, and place them so closely together that the night-thief cannot pass through.
And now to return to our swarming hive, where the bees have already given the signal for flight. And at once, as though with one sudden impulse, every gate in the city is flung open wide; and the black throng issues, or rather pours forth, in a double or treble jet, in a throbbing, quivering stream, that quickly divides and melts into space, where the thousands of beating wings weave a tissue humming with sound. And this for some moments will hover above the hive, rustling like gossamer silk; then, like a veil of gladness, all stirring and quivering, it floats to and fro, from the flowers up to the sky. The radiant mantle will gather together its four sunlit corners; and, like the fairy carpet, will fly across space, steering its straight, direct course to the willow, the pear-tree or lime on which the queen will have settled. Around her each wave comes to rest, as though on a golden nail, and from it there hangs the tissue of pearls and of golden wings.
And then there is silence once more; and, in an instant, this mighty tumult, this bewildering golden hail that streamed upon every object near, becomes nothing more than a cluster of inoffensive and harmless bees, that wait patiently, in thousands of little motionless groups hanging down from the branch of a tree, for the scouts to return who have gone in search of a place of shelter.
This is the first stage of what is known as the “primary swarm,” at whose head the old queen is always to be found. The bees will usually settle on the shrub or the tree that is nearest the hive; for the queen, who has spent all her life in the dark and has almost forgotten the use of her wings, is afraid to venture too far.
The bee-keeper waits till the great mass of bees is all gathered together; then, having covered his head with a large straw hat (for the most inoffensive bee will think it is caught in a trap if entangled in hair, and will at once use its sting) but, if he be experienced, wearing neither mask nor veil having taken the precaution only of plunging his arms in cold water up to the elbow he proceeds to gather the swarm by vigorously shaking, over an inverted hive, the bough from which the bees are hanging. Into this hive the cluster will fall just like an over-ripe fruit. Or, if the branch be too thick, he can plunge a spoon into the mass, and ladle it out, placing the living spoonfuls wherever it pleases him, as though they were grains of corn. He need have no fear of the bees that are buzzing around him, and settling on his face and hands; and he knows that the swarm will not divide, or grow fierce, will not scatter, or try to escape. This is a day when these strange workers seem to make holiday, and to be full of a faith and a confidence that nothing can shake. They have given up the treasure which they used to guard so preciously; they no longer have enemies. They are harmless because they are happy; though why they are happy we know not, unless it be because they are doing what they feel it is right to do.
Where the queen has alighted the swarm will remain; and if she goes into the hive, the long black files of the bees will closely follow, as soon as the news shall reach them. Most of them will go eagerly in; but many will stay for an instant on the threshold of the new home, and there form themselves into solemn, ceremonious circles, which is their method of celebrating happy events. “They are beating to arms,” the French peasants say. The new home will at once be adopted, and its furthest corners explored. Its position, its shape, its color, are taken note of and never forgotten by these thousands of eager and faithful little memories, which have also duly recorded the neighboring landmarks; the new city is founded and the thought of it fills the mind and the heart of all its inhabitants; the walls resound with the song that proclaims the royal presence; and work begins.
But if the swarm be not gathered by man, its history will not end here. It will cling to the branch of the tree till the scouts return who have been flying in every direction looking for a new home. They will come back one by one, and give an account of their mission. The report of each scout will probably be very carefully considered. One of them, perhaps, will speak favorably of some hollow tree it has seen; another has something to say about a crack in a ruined wall, a hole in a grotto, or an abandoned burrow. Sometimes the assembly will stop and weigh matters over till the next morning; but at last the choice is made and agreed to by all. At a given moment the entire mass stirs, divides and sets forth; and then, in one sustained and impetuous flight that this time knows no obstacle, it steers its straight course, over hedges and cornfields, over haystack and lake, over river and village, to its fixed and always far-away goal.
It is rarely indeed that this second stage can be followed by man. The swarm returns to nature; and we know not what becomes of it.
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