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


The Foundation of the City


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

And one fine day the industry or caprice of man will install a docile swarm in one of these disconcerting abodes. And there the little insect is expected to learn its bearings, to find its way, to establish its home; to modify the seemingiy unchangeable plans dictated by the nature of things. In this unfamiliar place it is required to determine the site of the winter storehouses, that must not extend beyond the zone of heat that issues from the half-numbed inhabitants; it must divine the exact point where the brood-cells shall concentrate, under penalty of disaster should these be too high or too low, too near to or far from the door. The swarm, it may be, has just left the trunk of a fallen tree, containing one long, narrow, depressed, horizontal gallery; and it finds itself now in a tower-shaped edifice, whose roof is lost in gioom. Or, to take a case that is more usual, perhaps, and one that will give some idea of the surprise habitually in store for the bees: after having lived for centuries past beneath the straw dome of our village hives, they are suddenly transplanted to a species of mighty cupboard, or chest, three or four times as large as the place of their birth; and installed in the midst of a confused scaffolding of superposed frames, some running parallel to the entrance and some perpendicular; the whole forming a bewildering network that obscures the surfaces of their dwelling.


And yet, for all this, there exists not a single instance of a swarm refusing its duty, or allowing itself to be baffled or discouraged by the strangeness of its surroundings, except only in the case of the new dwelling being absolutely uninhabitable, or impregnated with evil odors. And even then the bees will not be disheartened or bewildered; even then they will not abandon their mission. The swarm will simply forsake the inhospitable abode, to seek better fortune some distance away. And similarly it can never be said of them that they can be induced to undertake any illogical or foolish task. Their common sense has never been known to fail them; they have never, at a loss for definite decision, erected at haphazard structures of a wild or heterogeneous nature. Though you place the swarm in a sphere, a cube, or a pyramid, in an oval or polygonal basket, you will find, on visiting the bees a few days later, that if this strange assembly of little independent intellects has accepted the new abode, they will at once, and unhesitatingly and unanimously have known how to select the most favorable, often humanly speaking the only possible spot in this absurd habitation, in pursuance of a method whose principles may appear inflexible, but whose results are strikingly vivid.

When installed in one of the huge factories, bristling with frames, that we mentioned just now, these frames will interest them only to the extent in which they provide them with a basis or point of departure for their combs; and they very naturally pay not the slightest heed to the desires or intentions of man. But if the apiarist has taken the precaution of surrounding the upper lath of some of these frames with a narrow fillet of wax, they will be quick to perceive the advantage this tempting offer presents, and will carefully extract the fillet, using their own wax as solder, and will prolong the comb in accordance with the indicated plan. Similarly--and the case is frequent in modern apiculture--if all the frames of the hive into which the bees have been gathered be covered from top to bottom with leaves of foundation-wax, they will not waste time in erecting buildings across or beside these, or in producing useless wax, but, finding that the work is already half finished, they will be satisfied to deepen and lengthen each of the cells designed in the leaf, carefully rectifying these where there is the slightest deviation from the strictest vertical. Proceeding in this fashion, therefore, they will possess in a week a city as luxurious and well-constructed as the one they have quitted; whereas, had they been thrown on their own resources, it would have taken them two or three months to construct so great a profusion of dwellings and storehouses of shining wax.


This power of appropriation may well be considered to overstep the limit of instinct; and indeed there can be nothing more arbitrary than the distinction we draw between instinct and intelligence properly so-called. Sir John Lubbock, whose observations on ants, bees, and wasps are so interesting and so personal, is reluctant to credit the bee, from the moment it forsakes the routine of its habitual labor, with any power of discernment or reasoning. This attitude of his may be due in some measure to an unconscious bias in favor of the ants, whose ways he has more specially noted; for the entomologist is always inclined to regard that insect as the more intelligent to which he has more particularly devoted himself, and we have to be on our guard against this little personal predilection. As a proof of his theory, Sir John cites as an instance an experiment within the reach of all. If you place in a bottle half a dozen bees and the same number of flies, and lay the bottle down horizontally, with its base to the window, you will find that the bees will persist, till they die of exhaustion or hunger, in their endeavor to discover an issue through the glass; while the flies, in less than two minutes, will all have sallied forth through the neck on the opposite side. From this Sir John Lubbock concludes that the intelligence of the bee is exceedingly limited, and that the fly shows far greater skill in extricating itself from a difficulty, and finding its way. This conclusion, however, would not seem altogether flawless. Turn the transparent sphere twenty times, if you will, holding now the base, now the neck, to the window, and you will find that the bees will turn twenty times with it, so as always to face the light. It is their love of the light, it is their very intelligence, that is their undoing in this experiment of the English savant. They evidently imagine that the issue from every prison must be there where the light shines clearest; and they act in accordance, and persist in too logical action. To them glass is a supernatural mystery they never have met with in nature; they have had no experience of this suddenly impenetrable atmosphere; and, the greater their intelligence, the more inadmissible, more incomprehensible, will the strange obstacle appear. Whereas the feather-brained flies, careless of logic as of the enigma of crystal, disregarding the call of the light, flutter wildly hither and thither, and, meeting here the good fortune that often waits on the simple, who find salvation there where the wiser will perish, necessarily end by discovering the friendly opening that restores their liberty to them.

The same naturalist cites yet another proof of the bees' lack of intelligence, and discovers it in the following quotation from the great American apiarist, the venerable and paternal Langstroth:-- "As the fly was not intended to banquet on blossoms, but on substances in which it might easily be drowned, it cautiously alights on the edge of any vessel containing liquid food, and warily helps itself; while the poor bee, plunging in headlong, speedily perishes. The sad fate of their unfortunate companions does not in the least deter others who approach the tempting lure from madly alighting on the bodies of the dying and the dead, to share the same miserable end. No one can understand the extent of their infatuation until he has seen a confectioner's shop assailed by myriads of hungry bees. I have seen thousands strained out from the simps in which they had perished; thousands more alighting even on the boiling sweets; the floors covered and windows darkened with bees, some crawling, others flying, and others still so completely besmeared as to be able neither to crawl nor to fly--not one in ten able to carry home its ill-gotten spoils, and yet the air filled with new hosts of thoughtless comers."

This, however, seems to me no more conclusive than might be the spectacle of a battlefield, or of the ravages of alcoholism, to a superhuman observer bent on establishing the limits of human understanding. Indeed, less so, perhaps; for the situation of the bee, when compared with our own, is strange in this world. It was intended to live in the midst of an indifferent and unconscious nature, and not by the side of an extraordinary being who is forever disturbing the most constant laws, and producing grandiose, inexplicable phenomena. In the natural order of things, in the monotonous life of the forest, the madness Langstroth describes would be possible only were some accident suddenly to destroy a hive full of honey. But in this case, even, there would be no fatal glass, no boiling sugar or cloying sirup; no death or danger, therefore, other than that to which every animal is exposed while seeking its prey.

Should we be more successful than they in preserving our presence of mind if some strange power were at every step to ensnare our reason? Let us not be too hasty in condemning the bees for the folly whereof we are the authors, or in deriding their intellect, which is as poorly equipped to foil our artifices as our own would be to foil those of some superior creature unknown to us today, but on that account not impossible. None such being known at present, we conclude that we stand on the topmost pinnacle of life on this earth; but this belief, after all, is by no means infallible. I am not assuming that when our actions are unreasonable, or contemptible, we merely fall into the snares that such a creature has laid; though it is not inconceivable that this should one day be proved true. On the other hand, it cannot be wise to deny intelligence to the bee because it has not yet succeeded in distinguishing us from the great ape or the bear. It is certain that there are, in us and about us, influences and powers no less dissimilar whose distinction escapes us as readily.

And finally, to end this apology, wherein I seem somewhat to have fallen into the error I laid to Sir John Lubbock's charge, does not the capacity for folly so great in itself argue intelligence? For thus it is ever in the uncertain domain of the intellect, apparently the most vacillating and precarious condition of matter. The same light that falls on the intellect falls also on passion, whereof none can tell whether it be the smoke of the flame or the wick. In the case above it has not been mere animal desire to gorge themselves with honey that has urged on the bees. They could do this at their leisure in the storerooms at home. Watch them in an analogous circumstance; follow them; you will see that, as soon as their sac is filled, they will return to the hive and add their spoil to the general store; and visit the marvelous vintage, and leave it, perhaps thirty times in an hour. Their admirable labors, therefore, are inspired by a single desire: zeal to bring as much wealth as they can to the home of their sisters, which is also the home of the future. When we discover a cause as disinterested for the follies of men, we are apt to call them by another name.


However, the whole truth must be told. In the midst of the marvels of their industry, their policy, their sacrifice, one thing exists that must always check and weaken our admiration; and this is the indifference with which they regard the misfortunes or death of their comrades. There is a strange duality in the character of the bee. In the heart of the hive all help and love each other. They are as united as the good thoughts that dwell in the same soul. Wound one of them, and a thousand will sacrifice themselves to avenge its injury. But outside the hive they no longer recognize each other. Mutilate them, crush them,--or rather, do nothing of the kind; it would be useless cruelty, for the fact is established beyond any doubt,--but were you to mutilate, or crush, on a piece of comb placed a few steps from their dwelling, twenty or thirty bees that have all issued from the same hive, those you have left untouched will not even turn their heads. With their tongue, fantastic as a Chinese weapon, they will tranquilly continue to absorb the liquid they hold more precious than life, heedless of the agony whose last gestures almost are touching them, of the cries of distress that arise all around. And when the comb is empty, so great is their anxiety that nothing shall be lost, that their eagerness to gather the honey which clings to the victims will induce them tranquilly to climb over dead and dying, unmoved by the presence of the first and never dreaming of helping the others. In this case, therefore, they have no notion of the danger they run, seeing that they are wholly untroubled by the death that is scattered about them, and they have not the slightest sense of solidarity or pity. As regards the danger, the explanation lies ready to hand; the bees know not the meaning of fear, and, with the exception only of smoke, are afraid of nothing in the world. Outside the hive, they display extreme condescension and forbearance. They will avoid whatever disturbs them, and affect to ignore its existence, so long as it come not too close; as though aware that this universe belongs to all, that each one has his place there, and must needs be discreet and peaceful. But beneath this indulgence is quietly hidden a heart so sure of itself that it never dreams of protesting. If they are threatened, they will alter their course, but never attempt to escape. In the hive, however, they will not confine themselves to this passive ignoring of peril. They will spring with incredible fury on any living thing, ant or lion or man, that dares to profane the sacred ark. This we may term anger, ridiculous obstinacy, or heroism, according as our mind be disposed.

But of their want of solidarity outside the hive, and even of sympathy within it, I can find nothing to say. Are we to believe that each form of intellect possesses its own strange limitation, and that the tiny flame which with so much difficulty at last burns its way through inert matter and issues forth from the brain, is still so uncertain that if it illumine one point more strongly the others are forced into blacker darkness? Here we find that the bees (or nature acting within them) have organized work in common, the love and cult of the future, in a manner more perfect than can elsewhere be discovered. Is it for this reason that they have lost sight of all the rest? They give their love to what lies ahead of them; we bestow ours on what is around. And we who love here, perhaps, have no love left for what is beyond. Nothing varies so much as the direction of pity or charity. We ourselves should formerly have been far less shocked than we are today at the insensibility of the bees; and to many an ancient people such conduct would not have seemed blameworthy. And further, can we tell how many of the things that we do would shock a being who might be watching us as we watch the bees?

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