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The Children's Life of the Bee
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IT is as well, before ending this book as we have ended the story of the hive with the silence that winter brings to add a few words about the extraordinary industry of the bees. People are apt to say, while admitting that it is very wonderful, that it has always been the same from the very beginning of time. Have the bees not, for thousands of years, built their combs, their marvelous combs, in just the same way; these combs that combine the most perfect science of chemist and architect, mathematician and engineer; combs in which it would be impossible for us to suggest a single improvement? Where shall we find any instance of progress, of the bees having discovered some new method or change in the old; show us that, and we will gladly admit that the bees, besides their instinct, possess also an intellect worthy of being compared with that of man!

This method of reasoning is not without its perils. It is the same kind of “mere common sense” that the people of Galileo’s time displayed when they refused to believe that the earth revolved in space. “The earth cannot possibly turn,” they would say, “for we can see the sun move in the sky, see it rise in the morning and set in the evening. Nothing can deceive our eyes.” Common-sense is all very well; but it is not a sure guide unless it go hand in hand with a certain reflection and judgment.

The bees give abundant proof that they are capable of reason. As an instance, we may mention that Andrew Knight, a well-known student of insect life, once covered the bark of some diseased trees with a kind of cement which he had made out of turpentine and wax. Some time after he noticed that the bees round about were making use of this mixture, which they had tried and adopted; they had found it close to their hive, and appeared to prefer it to their own. As a fact, the science of beekeeping consists largely in giving the bees the opportunity of developing the spirit of initiative that they undoubtedly possess. Thus the bee-keeper, when pollen is scarce and it is important that there should be food for the larvæ, will scatter a quantity of flour near to the hive. This is a substance that the bees, in a state of nature, in their native forests in Asia, can never have met with, or known. And yet, if care be taken to tempt them with it. if one or two be placed on the flour, and induced to touch it and try it, they will quickly realize that it more or less resembles the pollen of which they are in need; they will spread the news among their sisters, and we shall soon find every forager. bee hurrying to gather this strange food, and supplying it to the infant-bees in place of the accustomed pollen.

It is only during the last hundred years that the bees have been seriously studied by man; only fifty years ago that the movable frames and combs were designed by means of which we were able to watch their movements. Need we wonder, then, if our knowledge is still somewhat limited? The bees have existed many thousands of years; we have observed them only for what is relatively a very short time. And if it could be proved that, during that time, no change has taken place in the hive, should we be right in assuming that there had been no change before our first questioning glance? Remember that a century is no more than a drop of rain that falls into the river; that a thousand years glide over the history of nature as a single one over the life of man.

It is of interest to compare the honeybee of the hive with the great tribe of “Apiens,” which includes all the wild bees. We shall discover differences more extraordinary than those that exist among men. But let us merely, for the moment, consider what is known as the domestic bee, of which there are sixteen different kinds, all, the largest as the smallest, exactly alike, except for the slight modifications caused by the climate or the conditions in which they exist. The difference between them, in appearance, is no greater than between an Englishman and a Russian, a European or a Japanese.

Bees do not, like ourselves, dwell in towns that are open to the sky and exposed to the caprice of rain and storm, but in cities that are entirely covered with a protecting envelope. If they were guided solely by their instinct, they would build their combs in the air. In the Indies we find that they do not even seek a hollow tree or a cleft in the rocks. The swarm will hang down from the branch of a tree, and the comb will be lengthened, the queen’s eggs laid, provisions stored, with no shelter other than that which the workers’ own bodies provide. Our Northern bees have at times been known to do this, deceived perhaps by a too gentle sky; and swarms have been found living in the center of a bush.

But even in the Indies this exposure to all weathers is by no means an advantage. So many workers are compelled to remain always on one spot, in order to keep up the heat that is required for those who are molding the wax and rearing the brood, that they are unable to erect more than a single comb; whereas, if they have the least shelter, they will build four or five more, thereby increasing the wealth and population of the hive. And so we find that every species of bee that lives in cold and temperate regions has given up building its hive in exposed places. Its intelligence has decided that it is better to select more sheltered spots. But it is none the less true that, in forsaking the open sky that was so dear to them, and seeking shelter in the hollow of a tree or a cave, the bees have been guided by what was at first a daring idea, which came to them through their observation, experience and reasoning.

There can be no doubt that they have made great progress. We have already mentioned the intelligence they show in using flour instead of pollen, cement in place of wax. We have seen with what skill they are able to adapt a new building to their requirements, and the amazing cleverness they display in the matter of combs made of foundation wax. They handle these marvelous combs, which are so curiously useful and yet so incomplete, in the most ingenious fashion, and actually contrive to meet interfering man half-way.

Imagine for a moment that we had for centuries past been building our cities, not with bricks, stones and lime, but with a substance as soft as is the wax secreted by the bees. One day an all-powerful being lifts us into the air and places us in the midst of a fairy city. We recognize that it is made of a substance resembling the wax that we have been using; but, as regards all the rest, we are merely lost and bewildered. We are called upon to make this city suit our requirements. Each of the houses in it is so small that our two hands can cover it. We can distinguish the beginnings of thousands of incomplete walls. There are many things that we have never come across before; there are gaps to be filled and joined up with the rest, there are many parts that have to be propped up and supported. We see a chance of getting things right, but around us there is nothing but hardship and danger. Some superior intellect, able to guess at most of our desires, has evidently been at work, but has been baffled and confused by the vastness and variety of the necessary details.

It becomes our business, therefore, to disentangle this confusion, to induce order where now is disorder; we must find out what this superior intellect wanted us to do; we must build in a few days what would normally have taken us years; we must alter our methods of labor, we must change these in accordance with the work that has already been done. In the meanwhile we must deal with all the problems that arise, we must meet all the difficulties that the superior intellect had not foreseen; we must learn how to make the fullest use of the wonderful opportunities that have been provided. This is more or less what the bees are doing to-day in our modern hives.

What one may call the local self-government, the bees’ methods of dealing with their own affairs -such as the swarm, for instance, or the treatment of queens these vary in every hive. Syrian hives have been known to produce 120 queens, whereas our own will never rear more than ten or twelve. In one hive in Syria 120 dead queen-mothers were found, together with ninety living ones. The bee is capable, too, of altering her ways, should conditions require it; of changing her methods. Take one of them to California or Australia, and her habits will become quite other than when she was in Europe. Having discovered that summer always abides in the land and that flowers never are absent, she will, after a time, be content to live from day to day, and gather only honey and pollen sufficient for her immediate requirements; and her observation of the new conditions will teach her that it is not necessary to make provision for the winter. All this she will learn in a year or two; and in fact it becomes necessary for the bee-keeper to deprive her of the fruits of her labor, in order to maintain her activity. Similarly it is said that, in the Barbadoes, the bees in such hives as are close to the sugar-refineries will entirely cease visiting the flowers, but will gather their store from the vast quantity of sweets that surround them.


Of wild bees no less than 4500 varieties are known. Some naturalists believe that the “Prosopis,” a little wild bee that is found all over the world, is the original kind from which all the others have sprung. This unfortunate little insect is to our domestic bee more or less what a cave-dweller would be to a highly-civilized man of to-day. You will probably more than once have seen it, hovering over the bushes in a deserted corner of your garden, and it will never have occurred to you that there, fluttering before you, was the first-comer of those to whom we probably owe most of our flowers and plants; for it is a fact that more than a hundred varieties of plants would disappear if they were not regularly visited by the bees.

The prosopis is nimble and not unattractive, the French variety being elegantly marked with white over a black background. She leads a miserable life of starvation and solitude. Her body is almost bare; she has not the warm and sumptuous fleece of her happier sisters. She has no baskets in which to gather the pollen, no brushes, no towering plumes. With her tiny claws she must scratch away the powder from the cups of the flowers; and she must swallow this powder in order to bring it home. She has no tools to work with, nothing but her tongue, her mouth and her claws; and her tongue is short, her claws are feeble and her jaws without strength. Unable to form any wax, to bore holes through wood or dig in the earth, she builds clumsy galleries in the soft pith of dry berries; she puts up a few shapeless cells, and stores these with a little food for the young whom she never will see. And then, having done all this as best she can, she goes off and dies in some hidden corner, as lonely now at the end as she has been through all her poor life.

As the bees progress from wildness to civilization, we note that their tongue gradually lengthens, thus enabling more nectar to be drawn from the flowers; hairs and tufts grow and develop, and brushes for collecting the pollen; mandibles and claws become firmer and stronger and the bees acquire the intellect that enables them to make improvements in their dwellings. To relate all the different changes would require a whole volume; I will merely dwell on one or two instances of their development.

We have seen the unhappy prosopis living her lonely little life in the midst of this vast and indifferent universe. Some of her more civilized sisters, who have tools of their own and are skilled in the use of them, still exist in absolute solitude. If by chance some creature attach itself to them and share their dwelling, it will be an enemy or, more often, what is known as a parasite. For the world of bees contains many strange phantoms; and there are some species which will have a kind of indolent double, a creature exactly similar to the victim it has chosen to live with, save only that its uninterrupted idleness has caused it to lose one by one its implements of labor. It never works, or tries to work, it collects no food itself, but lives on that which is painfully got together by the unfortunate bee on whom it has fastened.

Little by little, by slow degrees and slow stages, the bees advance in civilization and intellect till we find them dwelling together in the regular life of a city. They have abandoned their solitude, their isolation; their existence, formerly so narrow and incomplete, has now become more assured, more concerned with the existence of those round about them. Instead of thinking only of their own offspring, they have learned that they must devote themselves to the race, that they must live and work together in order to make the future sure and safe.

There are certain building-bees which dig holes in the earth, and unite in large colonies to construct their nests. Between the individual members of the crowd, however, there is no communication and no understanding; they join together in a common task, but each one thinks only of her own particular interest. A little higher up in the scale we come to a race of bees, known as the Panurgi, who seem to have recognized the advantage of living and working as one community. They build in the same haphazard fashion as the others, each one digging its own underground chambers, but the entrance is common to all, as is also the gallery which winds from the surface to the different cells below. Here we find the idea of fellowship beginning to penetrate into the life of the bee, and it progresses with their civilization. As this increases, their manners and methods soften; what was formerly a mere instinct, due to the fear of cold and hunger, has become an active intelligence, working in the interests of life.

The bumble-bees, the great, hairy creatures that are so familiar to us all, so inoffensive although they appear so fierce, begin their life in solitude. In the first days of March the mother-bee, who has survived the winter, will start to construct her nest, either underground or in a bush, according to the species to which she belongs. She is alone in the world, and around her is only the miracle of awakening spring. She chooses a spot that seems favorable; she clears the rubbish away, digs down and builds her cells. Into these, which will have no special shape of their own, she will store the honey and pollen that she collects, and here she will lay and hatch her eggs; soon a troop of daughters will surround her, and these will all help in the work within the nest and without. More cells will be added, and the construction of these will be better; the colony grows, and there are signs of some prosperity. The old mother finds herself now at the head of a little kingdom which might serve as the model on which that of our honey-bee was formed. But the model is still in the rough. The good fortune of the humble-bee never lasts. If they have laws, they do not obey them; the elder bees will at times devour the larvæ, the buildings still are far from perfect and much material has been wasted in putting them up; but the most remarkable and essential difference between the two is that the honey-bees’ city will endure forever while the poor shelter that the humble-bees have raised will disappear when the winter comes, its two or three hundred inhabitants all perishing, with the exception of one single female. The others have vanished, and left no trace behind; she, when next spring comes, will begin again, in the same solitude and poverty as her mother before her, and with the same useless result.

Yet another stage up, and we find a more civilized class of bee, whose organization is as complete as in our own hives. The males of this race, which are known as the “Meliponitæ,” are not wholly idle, and they help in the secretion of wax. The entrance to the hive is carefully guarded; it has a door that can be closed when nights are cold, and a sort of curtain that will let air in when the heat is oppressive. But still there is not the same good government, the same security and general prosperity, as among the honeybees. Labor is not so well distributed; much less skill is shown in the designing of the city, and the spirit of the hive is not so fully developed.

It is only about a hundred and ninety years ago that people first began to study the habits of wild bees; at that time few were known, and although since then many others have been observed, there may be hundreds, possibly thousands, of whom we know very little. It was in the year 1730 that the first book on the subject was published; and the humble-bees, all powdered with gold, that were feasting then on the flowers, were precisely the same, as regards their habits and ways, as those that to-morrow will be noisily buzzing in the woods round about you. A hundred and ninety years, however, are but as the twinkling of an eye; and many lives of men, placed end to end, form but a second in the history of Nature.

Although the highest type of bee-life is found in our domestic hives, it must not be imagined that these reveal no faults. They contain one masterpiece, the six-sided cell, which displays absolute perfection; a perfection that all the geniuses in the world, were they to meet in council, could in no way improve. No living creature, not even man, has achieved in his sphere what the bee has achieved in her own; and if some one from another world were to descend on this globe and to ask what was the most perfect thing that unaided reason had produced here below, we should have to offer the humble comb of honey.

But such perfection as the honey-comb reveals is not shown in all the works of the bee. We have already drawn attention to some shortcomings, such as the vast number of males and their persistent idleness, the excessive swarming, the entire absence of pity, and the almost monstrous sacrifice that each individual is called upon to make to the community. To these must be added a curious inclination to store enormous masses of pollen, often far in excess of what is required; with the result that the pollen soon turns rancid and goes solid, blocking up the surface of the comb.

Of these defects the most serious is the repeated swarming. But here we must bear in mind that for thousands of years the bee has been interfered with by man. From the Egyptian of the time of Pharaoh down to the peasant of our own day the bee-keeper has always disregarded the desires and the intentions of the bees. The most prosperous hives are those which send out only one swarm after the beginning of summer. They have done their duty; they have safeguarded the future of the swarm, which is composed of so large a number of bees that they will have ample time to erect solid and well-provisioned dwellings before the arrival of autumn. If man had not come in the way, it is clear that these first swarms and their colonies would have been the only ones to survive the hardships of winter, which would have destroyed the others, owing to their weakness and poverty; and the bees would gradually have learned the folly of swarming so frequently, and would have acted accordingly. But it is precisely these prudent, careful hives that man has always destroyed in order to possess himself of the honey which they contained. He allowed only the feeblest colonies to survive; the second or third swarms, which had barely sufficient food to endure through the winter. The result will probably have been that the habit of excessive swarming fastened itself on the bees, in whom, particularly in the black varieties, it is much too general. For some years, however, modern and scientific bee-keeping has done much to correct this dangerous habit; and it is possible, perhaps, that in time the bees themselves will learn to abandon it.

As for the other faults which we have noticed, they are probably due to causes unknown to us, that still remain the secrets of the hive. As for the bees’ intelligence, their power of reasoning, let every one judge for himself. To me, many actions of theirs appear to prove that they do possess this power; but, were it otherwise, if it could be conclusively established that all that they do is directed by some blind instinct, my interest in them would not be one whit the less. We are taught by them at least that there are many things in nature that we cannot understand and cannot explain, and this induces us to look with more eagerness on the things around us, and is not without its effect on our thoughts and our feelings, and on all that we try to say.

And, further, I am not at all sure that our own intellect is the proper tribunal to judge the bees and pass a verdict upon their mistakes. Do we not ourselves live in the midst of errors and blunders without being aware of them; and even when aware of them, are we so quick at finding a remedy? The bees might have much to say if they passed us in review, and criticized our world as we do theirs; they would find a good deal to puzzle them in our own reason and moral sense, and would be compelled to admit that we seemed to be governed by principles quite beyond their understanding.

I have referred to the way in which man interferes with the bees; and truly they do here provide a most admirable lesson. No matter to what extent their own plans have been thwarted, they will none the less do what they know to be their profound and primitive duty. And as to what this duty may be they are never in doubt. It is written in their tongue, in their mouth, over every organ of their body, that they are in this world to make honey; as it is written in our eyes, our ears, our nerves, in every lobe of our brain, that we have been created to think, to reason, to understand, to improve our sense of justice, our knowledge, to cultivate our soul. The bees know not who will eat the honey they harvest, as we know not who shall profit by the spiritual treasure we gather. As they go from flower to flower absorbing nectar beyond what they or their hive will need, so let us go from thought to thought, forever seeking the truth. And let the knowledge that this is our duty quicken the zeal, the ardor and purity with which our soul turns to the light.


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