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From The Life of the Bee,
by Maurice Maeterlinck, 1901


On the Threshold of the Hive


IT IS NOT MY INTENTION to write a treatise on apiculture, or on practical bee-keeping. Excellent works of the kind abound in all civilized countries, and it were useless to attempt another. France has those of Dadant, Georges de Layens and Bonnier, Bertrand, Hamet, Weber, Clement, the Abbé Collin, etc. English-speaking countries have Langstroth, Bevan, Cook, Cheshire, Cowan, Root, etc. Germany has Dzierzon, Van Berlespoch, Pollmann, Vogel, and many others.

Nor is this book to be a scientific monograph on Apis Mellifica, Ligustica, Fasciata, Dorsata, etc., or a collection of new observations and studies. I shall say scarcely anything that those will not know who are somewhat familiar with bees. The notes and experiments I have made during my twenty years of bee-keeping I shall reserve for a more technical work; for their interest is necessarily of a special and limited nature, and I am anxious not to over-burden this essay. I wish to speak of the bees very simply, as one speaks of a subject one knows and loves to those who know it not. I do not intend to adorn the truth, or merit the just reproach Réaumur addressed to his predecessors in the study of our honey-flies, whom he accused of substituting for the marvelous reality marvels that were imaginary and merely plausible. The fact that the hive contains so much that is wonderful does not warrant our seeking to add to its wonders. Besides, I myself have now for a long time ceased to look for anything more beautiful in this world, or more interesting, than the truth; or at least than the effort one is able to make toward the truth. I shall state nothing, therefore, that I have not verified myself, or that is not so fully accepted in the textbooks as to render further verification superfluous. My facts shall be as accurate as though they appeared in a practical manual or scientific monograph, but I shall relate them in a somewhat livelier fashion than such works would allow, shall group them more harmoniously together, and blend them with freer and more mature reflections. The reader of this book will not learn therefrom how to manage a hive; but he will know more or less all that can with any certainty be known of the curious, profound, and intimate side of its inhabitants. Nor will this be at the cost of what still remains to be learned. I shall pass over in silence the hoary traditions that, in the country and many a book, still constitute the legend of the hive. Whenever there be doubt, disagreement, hypothesis, when I arrive at the unknown, I shall declare it loyally; you will find that we often shall halt before the unknown. Beyond the appreciable facts of their life we know but little of the bees. And the closer our acquaintance becomes, the nearer is our ignorance brought to us of the depths of their real existence; but such ignorance is better than the other kind, which is unconscious, and satisfied.

Does an analogous work on the bee exist? I believe I have read almost all that has been written on bees; but of kindred matter I know only Michelet's chapter at the end of his book "The Insect," and Ludwig Büchner's essay in his "Mind in Animals." Michelet merely hovers on the fringe of his subject; Büchner's treatise is comprehensive enough, but contains so many hazardous statements, so much long-discarded gossip and hearsay, that I suspect him of never having left his library, never having set forth himself to question his heroines, or opened one of the many hundreds of rustling, wing-lit hives which we must profane before our instinct can be attuned to their secret, before we can perceive the spirit and atmosphere, perfume and mystery, of these virgin daughters of toil. The book smells not of the bee, or its honey; and has the defects of many a learned work, whose conclusions often are preconceived, and whose scientific attainment is composed of a vast array of doubtful anecdotes collected on every side. But in this essay of mine we rarely shall meet each other; for our starting-point, our aim, and our point of view are all very different.


The bibliography of the bee (we will begin with the books so as to get rid of them as soon as we can and go to the source of the books) is very extensive. From the beginning this strange little creature, that lived in a society under complicated laws and executed prodigious labors in the darkness, attracted the notice of men. Aristotle, Cato, Varro, Pliny, Columella, Palladius all studied the bees; to say nothing of Aristomachus, who, according to Cicero, watched them for fifty-eight years, and of Phyliscus, whose writings are lost. But these dealt rather with the legend of the bee; and all that we can gather therefrom--which indeed is exceedingly little--we may find condensed in the fourth book of Virgil's "Georgics."

The real history of the bee begins in the seventeenth century, with the discoveries of the great Dutch savant Swammerdam. It is well, however, to add this detail, but little known: before Swammerdam a Flemish naturalist named Clutius had arrived at certain important truths, such as the sole maternity of the queen and her possession of the attributes of both sexes, but he had left these unproved. Swammerdam founded the true methods of scientific investigation; he invented the microscope, contrived injections to ward off decay, was the first to dissect the bees, and by the discovery of the ovaries and the oviduct definitely fixed the sex of the queen, hitherto looked upon as a king, and threw the whole political scheme of the hive into most unexpected light by basing it upon maternity. Finally he produced woodcuts and engravings so perfect that to this day they serve to illustrate many books on apiculture. He lived in the turbulent, restless Amsterdam of those days, regretting "Het Zoete Buiten Leve"---The Sweet Life of the Country-- and died, worn out with work, at the age of forty-three. He wrote in a pious, formal style, with beautiful, simple outbursts of a faith that, fearful of falling away, ascribed all things to the glory of the Creator; and embodied his observations and studies in his great work "Bybel der Natuure," which the doctor Boerhave, a century later, caused to be translated from the Dutch into Latin under the title of "Biblia Naturæ." (Leyden, 1737.)

Then came Réaumur, who, pursuing similar methods, made a vast number of curious experiments and researches in his gardens at Charenton, and devoted to the bees an entire volume of his "Notes to Serve for a History of Insects." One may read it with profit today, and without fatigue. It is clear, direct, and sincere, and possessed of a certain hard, arid charm of its own. He sought especially the destruction of ancient errors; he himself was responsible for several new ones; he partially understood the formations of swarms and the political establishment of queens; in a word, he discovered many difficult truths, and paved the way for the discovery of more. He fully appreciated the marvelous architecture of the hive; and what he said on the subject has never been better said. It is to him, too, that we owe the idea of the glass hives, which, having since been perfected, enable us to follow the entire private life of these fierce insects, whose work, begun in the dazzling sunshine, receives its crown in the darkness. To be comprehensive, one should mention also the somewhat subsequent works and investigations of Charles Bonnet and Schirach (who solved the enigma of the royal egg); but I will keep to the broad lines, and pass at once to François Huber, the master and classic of contemporary apiarian science.

Huber was born in Geneva in 1750, and fell blind in his earliest youth. The experiments of Réaumur interested him; he sought to verify them, and soon becoming passionately absorbed in these researches, eventually, with the assistance of an intelligent and faithful servant, François Burnens, devoted his entire life to the study of the bee. In the annals of human suffering and human triumph there is nothing more touching, no lesson more admirable, than the story of this patient collaboration, wherein the one who saw only with immaterial light guided with his spirit the eyes and hands of the other who had the real earthly vision; where he who, as we are assured, had never with his own eyes beheld a comb of honey, was yet able, notwithstanding the veil on his dead eyes that rendered double the veil in which nature enwraps all things, to penetrate the profound secrets of the genius that had made this invisible comb; as though to teach us that no condition in life can warrant our abandoning our desire and search for the truth.

I will not enumerate all that apiarian science owes to Huber; to state what it does not owe were the briefer task. His "New Observation on Bees," of which the first volume was written in 1789, in the form of letters to Charles Bonnet, the second not appearing till twenty years later, have remained the unfailing, abundant treasure into which every subsequent writer has dipped. And though a few mistakes may be found therein, a few incomplete truths; though since his time considerable additions have been made to the micrography and practical culture of bees, the handling of queens, etc., there is not a single one of his principal statements that has been disproved, or discovered in error; and in our actual experience they stand untouched, and indeed at its very foundation.


Some years of silence followed these revelations; but soon a German clergyman, Dzierzon, discovered parthenogenesis, i. e. the virginal parturition of queens, and contrived the first hive with movable combs, thereby enabling the bee-keeper henceforth to take his share of the harvest of honey, without being forced to destroy the best colonies and in one instant annihilate the work of an entire year. This hive, still very imperfect, received masterly improvement at the hands of Langstroth, who invented the movable frame properly so called, which has been adopted in America with extraordinary success. Root, Quinby, Dadant, Cheshire, De Layens, Cowan, Heddon, Howard, etc., added still further and precious improvement. Then it occurred to Mehring that if bees were supplied with combs that had an artificial waxen foundation, they would be spared the labor of fashioning the wax and constructing the cells, which costs them much honey and the best part of their time; he found that the bees accepted these combs most readily, and adapted them to their requirements.

Major de Hruschka invented the Honey-Extractor, which enables the honey to be withdrawn by centrifugal force without breaking the combs, etc. And thus, in a few years, the methods of apiculture underwent a radical change. The capacity and fruitfulness of the hives were trebled. Great and productive apiaries arose on every side. An end was put to the useless destruction of the most industrious cities, and to the odious selection of the least fit which was its result. Man truly became the master of the bees, although furtively, and without their knowledge; directing all things without giving an order, receiving obedience but not recognition. For the destiny once imposed by the seasons he has substituted his will. He repairs the injustice of the year, unites hostile republics, and equalizes wealth. He restricts or augments the births, regulates the fecundity of the queen, dethrones her and installs another in her place, after dexterously obtaining the reluctant consent of a people who would be maddened at the mere suspicion of an inconceivable intervention. When he thinks fit, he will peacefully violate the secret of the sacred chambers, and the elaborate, tortuous policy of the palace. He will five or six times in succession deprive the bees of the fruit of their labor, without harming them, without their becoming discouraged or even impoverished. He proportions the storehouses and granaries of their dwellings to the harvest of flowers that the spring is spreading over the dip of the hills. He compels them to reduce the extravagant number of lovers who await the birth of the royal princesses. In a word he does with them what he will, he obtains what he will, provided always that what he seeks be in accordance with their laws and their virtues; for beyond all the desires of this strange god who has taken possession of them, who is too vast to be seen and too alien to be understood, their eyes see further than the eyes of the god himself; and their one thought is the accomplishment, with untiring sacrifice, of the mysterious duty of their race.


Let us now, having learned from books all that they had to teach us of a very ancient history, leave the science others have acquired and look at the bees with our own eyes. An hour spent in the midst of the apiary will be less instructive, perhaps; but the things we shall see will be infinitely more stimulating and more actual.

I have not yet forgotten the first apiary I saw, where I learned to love the bees. It was many years ago, in a large village of Dutch Flanders, the sweet and pleasant country whose love for brilliant color rivals that of Zealand even, the concave mirror of Holland; a country that gladly spreads out before us, as so many pretty, thoughtful toys, her illuminated gables, and wagons, and towers; her cupboards and clocks that gleam at the end of the passage; her little trees marshaled in line along quays and canalbanks, waiting, one almost might think, for some quiet, beneficent ceremony; her boats and her barges with sculptured poops, her flower-like doors and windows, immaculate dams, and elaborate, many-colored drawbridges; and her little varnished houses, bright as new pottery, from which bell-shaped dames come forth, all a-glitter with silver and gold, to milk the cows in the white-hedged fields, or spread the linen on flowery lawns, cut into patterns of oval and lozenge, and most astoundingly green.

To this spot, where life would seem more restricted than elsewhere--if it be possible for life indeed to become restricted--a sort of aged philosopher had retired; an old man somewhat akin to Virgil's-- "Man equal to kings, and approaching the gods;" whereto Lafontaine might have added,-- "And, like the gods, content and at rest."--

Here had he built his refuge, being a little weary; not disgusted, for the large aversions are unknown to the sage; but a little weary of interrogating men, whose answers to the only interesting questions one can put concerning nature and her veritable laws are far less simple than those that are given by animals and plants. His happiness, like the Scythian philosopher's, lay all in the beauties of his garden; and best-loved and visited most often, was the apiary, composed of twelve domes of straw, some of which he had painted a bright pink, and some a clear yellow, but most of all a tender blue; having noticed, long before Sir John Lubbock's demonstrations, the bees' fondness for this color.

These hives stood against the wall of the house, in the angle formed by one of those pleasant and graceful Dutch kitchens whose earthenware dresser, all bright with copper and tin, reflected itself through the open door on to the peaceful canal. And the water, burdened with these familiar images beneath its curtain of poplars, led one's eyes to a calm horizon of mills and of meadows.

Here, as in all places, the hives lent a new meaning to the flowers and the silence, the balm of the air and the rays of the sun. One seemed to have drawn very near to the festival spirit of nature. One was content to rest at this radiant crossroad, where the aerial ways converge and divide that the busy and tuneful bearers of all country perfumes unceasingly travel from dawn unto dusk. One heard the musical voice of the garden, whose loveliest hours revealed their rejoicing soul and sang of their gladness. One came hither, to the school of the bees, to be taught the preoccupations of all-powerful nature, the harmonious concord of the three kingdoms, the indefatigable organization of life, and the lesson of ardent and disinterested work; and another lesson too, with a moral as good, that the heroic workers taught there, and emphasized, as it were, with the fiery darts of the myriad wings, was to appreciate the somewhat vague savor of leisure, to enjoy the almost unspeakable delights of those immaculate days that revolved on themselves in the fields of space, forming merely a transparent globe, as void of memory as the happiness without alloy.


In order to follow, as simply as possible, the life of the bees through the year, we will take a hive that awakes in the spring and duly starts on its labors; and then we shall meet, in their natural order, all the great episodes, viz.: the formation and departure of the swarm, the foundation of the new city, the birth, combat and nuptial flight of the young queens, the massacre of the males, and finally, the return of the sleep of winter. With each of these episodes there will go the necessary explanations as to the laws, habits, peculiarities and events that produce and accompany it; so that, when arrived at the end of the bee's short year, which extends only from April to the last days of September, we shall have gazed upon all the mysteries of the palace of honey. Before we open it, therefore, and throw a general glance around, we only need say that the hive is composed of a queen, the mother of all her people; of thousands of workers or neuters who are incomplete and sterile females; and lastly of some hundreds of males, from whom one shall be chosen as the sole and unfortunate consort of the queen that the workers will elect in the future, after the more or less voluntary departure of the reigning mother.


The first time that we open a hive there comes over us an emotion akin to that we might feel at profaning some unknown object, charged perhaps with dreadful surprise, as a tomb. A legend of menace and peril still clings to the bees. There is the distressful recollection of her sting, which produces a pain so characteristic that one knows not wherewith to compare it; a kind of destroying dryness, a flame of the desert rushing over the wounded limb, as though these daughters of the sun had distilled a dazzling poison from their father's angry rays, in order more effectively to defend the treasure they gather from his beneficent hours.

It is true that were some one who neither knows nor respects the customs and character of the bee suddenly to fling open the hive, it would turn at once into a burning bush of heroism and anger; but the slight amount of skill needed to handle it with impunity can be most readily acquired. Let but a little smoke be deftly applied, much coolness and gentleness be shown, and our well-armed workers will suffer themselves to be despoiled without dreaming of drawing their sting. It is not the fact, as some have maintained, that the bees recognize their master; nor have they any fear of man; but at the smell of the smoke, at the large slow gestures that traverse their dwellings without threatening them, they imagine that this is not the attack of an enemy against whom defense is possible, but that it is a force or a natural catastrophe whereto they do well to submit.

Instead of vainly struggling, therefore, they do what they can to safeguard the future; and, obeying a foresight that for once is in error, they fly to their reserves of honey, into which they eagerly dip in order to possess within themselves the wherewithal to start a new city, immediately and no matter where, should the ancient one be destroyed or they be compelled to forsake it.


The first impression of the novice before whom an observation-hive [note] is opened will be one of some disappointment. He had been told that this little glass case contained an unparalleled activity, an infinite number of wise laws, and a startling amalgam of mystery, experience, genius, calculation, science, of various industries, of certitude and prescience, of intelligent habits and curious feelings and virtues. All that he sees is a confused mass of little reddish groups somewhat resembling roasted coffee-berries, or bunches of raisins piled against the glass. They look more dead than alive; their movements are slow, incoherent, and incomprehensible. Can these be the wonderful drops of light he had seen but a moment ago, unceasingly flashing and sparkling, as they darted among the pearls and the gold of a thousand wide-open calyces?

They appear to be shivering in the darkness, to be numbed, suffocated, so closely are they huddled together; one might fancy they were ailing captives, or queens dethroned, who have had their one moment of glory in the midst of their radiant garden, and are now compelled to return to the shameful squalor of their poor overcrowded home.

It is with them as with all that is deeply real; they must be studied, and one must learn how to study them. The inhabitant of another planet who should see men and women coming and going almost imperceptibly through our streets, crowding at certain times around certain buildings, or waiting for one knows not what, without apparent movement, in the depths of their dwellings, might conclude therefrom that they, too, were miserable and inert. It takes time to distinguish the manifold activity contained in this inertia.

And indeed every one of the little almost motionless

[note] By observation-hive is meant a hive of glass, furnished with black curtains or shutters. The best kind have only one comb, thus permitting both faces to be studied. These hives can be placed in a drawing-room, library, etc., without inconvenience or danger. The bees that inhabit the one I have in my study in Paris are able even in the stony desert of that great city, to find the wherewithal to nourish themselves and to prosper.

groups in the hive is incessantly working, each at a different trade. Repose is unknown to any; and such, for instance, as seem the most torpid, as they hang in dead clusters against the glass, are intrusted with the most mysterious and fatiguing task of all: it is they who secrete and form the wax. But the details of this universal activity will be given in their place. For the moment we need only call attention to the essential trait in the nature of the bee which accounts for the extraordinary agglomeration of the various workers. The bee is above all, and even to a greater extent than the ant, a creature of the crowd. She can live only in the midst of a multitude. When she leaves the hive, which is so densely packed that she has to force her way with blows of her head through the living walls that enclose her, she departs from her proper element. She will dive for an instant into flower-filled space, as the swimmer will dive into the sea that is filled with pearls, but under pain of death it behooves her at regular intervals to return and breathe the crowd as the swimmer must return and breathe the air. Isolate her, and however abundant the food or favorable the temperature, she will expire in a few days not of hunger or cold, but of loneliness. From the crowd, from the city, she derives an invisible aliment that is as necessary to her as honey. This craving will help to explain the spirit of the laws of the hive. For in them the individual is nothing, her existence conditional only, and herself, for one indifferent moment, a winged organ of the race. Her whole life is an entire sacrifice to the manifold, everlasting being whereof she forms part. It is strange to note that it was not always so. We find even today, among the melliferous hymenoptera, all the stages of progressive civilization of our own domestic bee. At the bottom of the scale we find her working alone, in wretchedness, often not seeing her offspring (the Prosopis, the Colletes, etc.); sometimes living in the midst of the limited family that she produces annually (as in the case of the bumblebee). Then she forms temporary associations (the Panurgi, the Dasypodoe, the Hacliti, etc.) and at last we arrive, through successive stages, at the almost perfect but pitiless society of our hives, where the individual is entirely merged in the republic, and the republic in its turn invariably sacrificed to the abstract and immortal city of the future.


Let us not too hastily deduce from these facts conclusions that apply to man. He possesses the power of withstanding certain of nature's laws; and to know whether such resistance be right or wrong is the gravest and obscurest point in his morality. But it is deeply interesting to discover what the will of nature may be in a different world; and this will is revealed with extraordinary clearness in the evolution of the hymenoptera, which, of all the inhabitants of this globe, possess the highest degree of intellect after that of man. The aim of nature is manifestly the improvement of the race; but no less manifest is her inability, or refusal, to obtain such improvement except at the cost of the liberty, the rights, and the happiness of the individual. In proportion as a society organizes itself, and rises in the scale, so does a shrinkage enter the private life of each one of its members. Where there is progress, it is the result only of a more and more complete sacrifice of the individual to the general interest. Each one is compelled, first of all, to renounce his vices, which are acts of independence. For instance, at the last stage but one of apiarian civilization, we find the humble-bees, which are like our cannibals. The adult workers are incessantly hovering around the eggs, which they seek to devour, and the mother has to display the utmost stubbornness in their defense. Then having freed himself from his most dangerous vices, each individual has to acquire a certain number of more and more painful virtues. Among the humble-bees, for instance, the workers do not dream of renouncing love, whereas our domestic bee lives in a state of perpetual chastity. And indeed we soon shall show how much more she has to abandon, in exchange for the comfort and security of the hive, for its architectural, economic, and political perfection; and we shall return to the evolution of the hymenoptera in the chapter devoted to the progress of the species.

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