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


The Life of the Bee


LET US NOW, in order to form a clearer conception of the bees' intellectual power, proceed to consider their methods of intercommunication. There can be no doubting that they understand each other; and indeed it were surely impossible for a republic so considerable, wherein the labors are so varied and so marvelously combined, to subsist amid the silence and spiritual isolation of so many thousand creatures. They must be able, therefore, to give expression to thoughts and feelings, by means either of a phonetic vocabulary or more probably of some kind of tactile language or magnetic intuition, corresponding perhaps to senses and properties of matter wholly unknown to ourselves. And such intuition well might lodge in the mysterious antennæ--containing, in the case of the workers, according to Cheshire's calculation, twelve thousand tactile hairs and five thousand "smell-hollows," wherewith they probe and fathom the darkness. For the mutual understanding of the bees is not confined to their habitual labors; the extraordinary also has a name and place in their language; as is proved by the manner in which news, good or bad, normal or supernatural, will at once spread in the hive; the loss or return of the mother, for instance, the entrance of an enemy, the intrusion of a strange queen, the approach of a band of marauders, the discovery of treasure, etc. And so characteristic is their attitude, so essentially different their murmur at each of these special events, that the experienced apiarist can without difficulty tell what is troubling the crowd that moves distractedly to and fro in the shadow.

If you desire a more definite proof, you have but to watch a bee that shall just have discovered a few drops of honey on your window-sill or the corner of your table. She will immediately gorge herself with it; and so eagerly, that you will have time, without fear of disturbing her, to mark her tiny belt with a touch of paint. But this gluttony of hers is all on the surface; the honey will not pass into the stomach proper, into what we might call her personal stomach, but remains in the sac, the first stomach,--that of the community, if one may so express it. This reservoir full, the bee will depart, but not with the free and thoughtless motion of the fly or butterfly; she, on the contrary, will for some moments fly backwards, hovering eagerly about the table or window, with her head turned toward the room.

She is reconnoitering, fixing in her memory the exact position of the treasure. Thereupon she will go to the hive, disgorge her plunder into one of the provision-cells, and in three or four minutes return, and resume operations at the providential window. And thus, while the honey lasts, will she come and go, at intervals of every five minutes, till evening, if need be; without interruption or rest; pursuing her regular journeys from the hive to the window, from the window back to the hive.


Many of those who have written on bees have thought fit to adorn the truth; I myself have no such desire. For studies of this description to possess any interest, it is essential that they should remain absolutely sincere. Had the conclusion been forced upon me that bees are incapable of communicating to each other news of an event occurring outside the hive, I should, I imagine, as a set-off against the slight disappointment this discovery would have entailed, have derived some degree of satisfaction in recognizing once more that man, after all, is the only truly intelligent being who inhabits our globe. And there comes too a period of life when we have more joy in saying the thing that is true than in saying the thing that merely is wonderful. Here as in every case the principle holds that, should the naked truth appear at the moment less interesting, less great and noble than the imaginary embellishment it lies in our power to bestow, the fault must rest with ourselves who still are unable to perceive the astonishing relation in which this truth always must stand to our being, and to universal law; and in that case it is not the truth, but our intellect, that needs embellishment and ennoblement.

I will frankly confess, therefore, that the marked bee often returns alone. Shall we believe that in bees there exists the same difference of character as in men; that of them too some are gossips, and others prone to silence? A friend who stood by and watched my experiment, declared that it was evidently mere selfishness or vanity that caused so many of the bees to refrain from revealing the source of their wealth, and from sharing with others the glory of an achievement that must seem miraculous to the hive. These were sad vices indeed, which give not forth the sweet odor, so fragrant and loyal, that springs from the home of the many thousand sisters. But, whatever the cause, it often will also happen that the bee whom fortune has favored will return to the honey accompanied by two or three friends. I am aware that Sir John Lubbock, in the appendix to his book on "Ants, Bees, and Wasps," records the results of his investigations in long and minute tables; and from these we are led to infer that it is a matter of rarest occurrence for a single bee to follow the one who has made the discovery. The learned naturalist does not name the race of bees which he selected for his experiments, or tell us whether the conditions were especially unfavorable. As for myself I only can say that my own tables, compiled with great care,--and every possible precaution having been taken that the bees should not be directly attracted by the odor of the honey,--establish that on an average one bee will bring others four times out of ten.

I even one day came across an extraordinary little Italian bee, whose belt I had marked with a touch of blue paint. In her second trip she brought two of her sisters, whom I imprisoned, without interfering with her. She departed once more, and this time returned with three friends, whom I again confined, and so till the end of the afternoon, when, counting my prisoners, I found that she had told the news to no less than eighteen bees.

In fact you will find, if you make this experiment yourself, that communication, if not general, at least is frequent. The possession of this faculty is so well known to American bee-hunters that they trade upon it when engaged in searching for nests. Mr. Josiah Emery remarks on this theme (quoted by Romanes in his "Intellect of Animals"): "Going to a field or wood at a distance from tame bees with their box of honey, they gather up from the flowers and imprison one or more bees, and after they have become sufficiently gorged, let them out to return to their home with their easily gotten load. Waiting patiently a longer or shorter time, according to the distance of the bee-tree, the hunter scarcely ever fails to see the bee or bees return accompanied by other bees, which are in like manner imprisoned till they in turn are filled; then one or more are let out at places distant from each other, and the direction in which the bee flies noted; and thus, by a kind of triangulation, the position of the bee-tree proximately ascertained."


You will notice too in your experiments that the friends who appear to obey the behests of good fortune do not always fly together, and that there will often be an interval of several seconds between the different arrivals. As regards these communications, therefore, we must ask ourselves the question that Sir John Lubbock has solved as far as the ants are concerned.

Do the comrades who flock to the treasure only follow the bee that first made the discovery, or have they been sent on by her, and do they find it through following her indications, her description of the place where it lies? Between these two hypotheses, that refer directly to the extent and working of the bee's intellect, there is obviously an enormous difference. The English savant has succeeded, by means of an elaborate and ingenious arrangement of gangways, corridors, moats full of water, and flying bridges, m establishing that the ants in such cases do no more than follow in the track of the pioneering insect. With ants, that can be made to pass where one will, such experiments are possible; but for the bee, whose wings throw every avenue open, some other expedient must of necessity be contrived. I imagined the following, which, though it gave no definite result, might yet, under more favorable conditions, and if organized more carefully, give rise to definite and satisfactory conclusions.

My study in the country is on the first floor, above a somewhat lofty room; sufficiently high, therefore, to be out of the ordinary range of the bees' flight, except at times when the chestnuts and lime trees are in bloom. And for more than a week before I started this experiment I had kept on my table an open comb of honey, without the perfume having attracted, or induced the visit of, a single bee. Then I went to a glass hive that was close to the house, took an Italian bee, brought her to my study, set her on the comb, and marked her while she was feeding.

When satisfied, she flew away and returned to the hive. I followed, saw her pass over the surface of the crowd, plunge her head into an empty cell, disgorge her honey, and prepare to set forth again. At the door of the hive I had placed a glass box, divided by a trap into two compartments. The bee flew into this box; and as she was alone, and no other bee seemed to accompany or follow her, I imprisoned her and left her there. I then repeated the experiment on twenty different bees in succession. When the marked bee reappeared alone, I imprisoned her as I had imprisoned the first. But eight of them came to the threshold of the hive and entered the box accompanied by two or three friends. By means of the trap I was able to separate the marked bee from her companions, and to keep her a prisoner in the first compartment. Then, having marked her companions with a different color, I threw open the second compartment and set them at liberty, myself returning quickly to my study to await their arrival. Now it is evident that if a verbal or magnetic communication had passed, indicating the place, describing the way, etc., a certain number of the bees, having been furnished with this information, should have found their way to my room. I am compelled to admit that there came but a single one. Was this mere chance, or had she followed instructions received? The experiment was insufficient, but circumstances prevented me from carrying it further. I released the "baited" bees, and my study soon was besieged by the buzzing crowd to whom they had taught the way to the treasure.

We need not concern ourselves with this incomplete attempt of mine, for many other curious traits compel us to recognize the existence among the bees of spiritual communications that go beyond a mere "yes" or "no," and that are manifest in cases where mere example or gesture would not be sufficient. Of such, for instance, are the remarkable harmony of their work in the hive, the extraordinary division of labor, the regularity with which one worker will take the place of another, etc. I have often marked bees that went foraging in the morning, and found that, in the afternoon, unless flowers were specially abundant, they would be engaged in heating and fanning the brood-cells, or perhaps would form part of the mysterious, motionless curtain in whose midst the wax-makers and sculptors would be at work. Similarly I have noticed that workers whom I have seen gathering pollen for the whole of one day, will bring no pollen back on the morrow, but will concern themselves exclusively with the search for nectar and vice versa.


And further, we might mention what M. Georges de Layens, the celebrated French apiarist, terms the "Distribution of Bees over Melliferous Plants." Day after day, at the first hour of sunrise, the explorers of the dawn return, and the hive awakes to receive the good news of the earth. "The lime trees are blossoming today on the banks of the canal." "The grass by the roadside is gay with white clover." "The sage and the lotus are about to open." "The mignonette, the lilies are overflowing with pollen." Whereupon the bees must organize quickly, and arrange to divide the work. Five thousand of the sturdiest will sally forth to the lime trees, while three thousand juniors go and refresh the white clover. Those who yesterday were absorbing nectar from the corollas will today repose their tongue and the glands of their sac, and gather red pollen from the mignonette, or yellow pollen from the tall lilies; for never shall you see a bee collecting or mixing pollen of a different color or species; and indeed one of the chief preoccupations of the hive is the methodical bestowal of these pollens in the storerooms, in strict accordance with their origin and color. Thus does the hidden genius issue its commands. The workers immediately sally forth, in long black files, whereof each one will fly straight to its allotted task. "The bees," says De Layens, "would seem to be perfectly informed as to the locality, the relative melliferous value, and the distance of every melliferous plant within a certain radius from the hive.

"If we carefully note the different directions in which these foragers fly, and observe in detail the harvest they gather from the various plants around, we shall find that the workers distribute themselves over the flowers in proportion not only to the numbers of flowers of one species, but also to their melliferous value. Nay, more--they make daily calculations as to the means of obtaining the greatest possible wealth of saccharine liquid. In the spring, for instance, after the willows have bloomed, when the fields still are bare, and the first flowers of the woods are the one resource of the bees, we shall see them eagerly visiting gorse and violets, lungworts and anemones. But, a few days later, when fields of cabbage and colza begin to flower in sufficient abundance, we shall find that the bees will almost entirely forsake the plants in the woods, though these be still in full blossom, and will confine their visits to the flowers of cabbage and colza alone. In this fashion they regulate, day by day, their distribution over the plants, so as to collect the greatest value of saccharine liquid in the least possible time.

"It may fairly be claimed, therefore, for the colony of bees that, in its harvesting labors no less than its internal economy, it is able to establish a rational distribution of the number of workers without ever disturbing the principle of the division of labor."


But what have we to do, some will ask, with the intelligence of the bees? What concern is it of ours whether this be a little less or a little more? Why weigh, with such infinite care, a minute fragment of almost invisible matter, as though it were a fluid whereon depended the destiny of man? I hold, and exaggerate nothing, that our interest herein is of the most considerable. The discovery of a sign of true intellect outside ourselves procures us something of the emotion Robinson Crusoe felt when he saw the imprint of a human foot on the sandy beach of his island. We seem less solitary than we had believed. And indeed, in our endeavor to understand the intellect of the bees, we are studying in them that which is most precious in our own substance: an atom of the extraordinary matter which possesses, wherever it attach itself, the magnificent power of transforming blind necessity, of organizing, embellishing, and multiplying life; and, most striking of all, of holding in suspense the obstinate force of death, and the mighty, irresponsible wave that wraps almost all that exists in an eternal unconsciousness.

Were we sole possessors of the particle of matter that, when maintained in a special condition of flower or incandescence, we term the intellect, we should to some extent be entitled to look on ourselves as privileged beings, and to imagine that in us nature achieved some kind of aim; but here we discover, in the hymenoptera, an entire category of beings in whom a more or less identical aim is achieved. And this fact, though it decide nothing perhaps, still holds an honorable place in the mass of tiny facts that help to throw light on our position in this world. It affords even, if considered from a certain point of view, a fresh proof of the most enigmatic part of our being; for the superpositions of destinies that we find in the hive are surveyed by us from an eminence loftier than any we can attain for the contemplation of the destinies of man. There we see before us, in miniature, the large and simple lines that in our own disproportionate sphere we never have the occasion to disentangle and follow to the end. Spirit and matter are there, the race and the individual, evolution and permanence, life and death, the past and the future; all gathered together in a retreat that our hand can lift and one look of our eye embrace. And may we not reasonably ask ourselves whether the mere size of a body, and the room that it fills in time and space, can modify to the extent we imagine the secret idea of nature; the idea that we try to discover in the little history of the hive, which in a few days already is ancient, no less than in the great history of man, of whom three generations overlap a long century?


Let us go on, then, with the story of our hive; let us take it up where we left it; and raise, as high as we may, a fold of the festooned curtain in whose midst a strange sweat, white as snow and airier than the down of a wing, is beginning to break over the swarm. For the wax that is now being born is not like the wax that we know; it is immaculate, it has no weight; seeming truly to be the soul of the honey, that itself is the spirit of flowers. And this motionless incantation has called it forth that it may serve us, later--in memory of its origin, doubtless, wherein it is one with the azure sky, and heavy with perfumes of magnificence and purity--as the fragrant light of the last of our altars.


To follow the various phases of the secretion and employment of wax by a swarm that is beginning to build, is a matter of very great difficulty. All comes to pass in the blackest depths of the crowd, whose agglomeration, growing denser and denser, produces the temperature needful for this exudation, which is the privilege of the youngest bees. Huber, who was the first to study these phenomena, bringing incredible patience to bear and exposing himself at times to very serious danger, devotes to them more than two hundred and fifty pages; which, though of considerable interest, are necessarily somewhat confused. But I am not treating this subject technically; and while referring when necessary to Huber's admirable studies, I shall confine myself generally to relating what is patent to any one who may gather a swarm into a glass hive.

We have to admit, first of all, that we know not yet by what process of alchemy the honey transforms itself into wax in the enigmatic bodies of our suspended bees. We can only say that they will remain thus suspended for a period extending from eighteen to twenty-four hours, in a temperature so high that one might almost believe that a fire was burning in the hollow of the hive; and then white and transparent scales will appear at the opening of four little pockets that every bee has underneath its abdomen.

When the bodies of most of those who form the inverted cone have thus been adorned with ivory tablets, we shall see one of the bees, as though suddenly inspired, abruptly detach herself from the mass, and climb over the backs of the passive crowd till she reach the inner pinnacle of the cupola. To this she will fix herself solidly, dislodging, with repeated blows of her head, such of her neighbors as may seem to hamper her movements. Then, with her mouth and claws, she will seize one of the eight scales that hang from her abdomen, and at once proceed to clip it and plane it, extend it, knead it with her saliva, bend it and flatten it, roll it and straighten it, with the skill of a carpenter handling a pliable panel. When at last the substance, thus treated, appears to her to possess the required dimensions and consistency, she will attach it to the highest point of the dome, thus laying the first, or rather the keystone of the new town; for we have here an inverted city, hanging down from the sky, and not rising from the bosom of earth like a city of men.

To this keystone, depending in the void, she will add other fragments of wax that she takes in succession from beneath her rings of horn; and finally, with one last lick of the tongue, one last wave of antennæ, she will go as suddenly as she came, and disappear in the crowd. Another will at once take her place, continue the work at the point where the first one left it, add on her own, change and adjust whatever may seem to offend the ideal plan of the tribe, then vanish in her turn, to be succeeded by a third, a fourth, and a fifth, all appearing unexpectedly, suddenly, one after the other, none completing the work, but each bringing her share to the task in which all combine.


A small block of wax, formless as yet, hangs down from the top of the vault. So soon as its thickness may be deemed sufficient, we shall see another bee emerge from the mass, her physical appearance differing appreciably from that of the foundresses who preceded her. And her manner displays such settled conviction, her movements are followed so eagerly by all the crowd, that we almost might fancy that some illustrious engineer had been summoned to trace in the void the site of the first cell of all, from which every other must mathematically depend. This bee belongs to the sculptor or carver class of workers; she produces no wax herself and is content to deal with the materials others provide. She locates the first cell, scoops into the block for an instant, lays the wax she has removed from the cavity on the borders around it; and then, like the foundresses, abruptly departs and abandons her model. Her place is taken at once by an impatient worker, who continues the task that a third will finish, while others close by are attacking the rest of the surface and the opposite side of the wall; each one obeying the general law of interrupted and successive labor, as though it were an inherent principle of the hive that the pride of toil should be distributed, and every achievement be anonymous and common to all, that it might thereby become more fraternal.


The outline of the nascent comb may soon be divined. In form it will still be lenticular, for the little prismatic tubes that compose it are unequal in length, and diminish in proportion as they recede from the center to the extremities. In thickness and appearance at present it more or less resembles a human tongue whose sides might be formed of hexagonal cells, contiguous, and placed back to back.

The first cells having been built, the foundresses proceed to add a second block of wax to the roof; and so in gradation a third and a fourth. These blocks follow each other at regular intervals so nicely calculated that when, at a much later period, the comb shall be fully developed, there will be ample space for the bees to move between its parallel walls.

Their plan must therefore embrace the final thickness of every comb, which will be from eighty-eight to ninety-two hundredths of an inch, and at the same time the width of the avenues between, which must be about half an inch, or in other words twice the height of a bee, since there must be room to pass back to back between the combs.

The bees, however, are not infallible, nor does their certainty appear mechanical. They will commit grave errors at times, when circumstances present unusual difficulty. They will often leave too much space, or too little, between the combs. This they will remedy as best they can, either by giving an oblique twist to the comb that too nearly approaches the other, or by introducing an irregular comb into the gap. "The bees sometimes make mistakes," Réaumur remarks on this subject, "and herein we may find yet another fact which appears to prove that they reason."


We know that the bees construct four kinds of cells. First of all, the royal cells, which are exceptional, and contrived somewhat in the shape of an acorn; then the large cells destined for the rearing of males and storing of provisions when flowers super-abound; and the small cells, serving as workers' cradles and ordinary storerooms, which occupy normally about four-fifths of the built-over surface of the hive. And lastly, so as to connect in orderly fashion the larger cells with the small, the bees will erect a certain number of what are known as transition cells. These must of necessity be irregular in form; but so unerringly accurate are the dimensions of the second and third types that, at the time when the decimal system was established, and a fixed measure sought in nature to serve as a starting-point and an incontestable standard, it was proposed by Réaumur to select for this purpose the cell of the bee. [note 1]

Each of the cells is an hexagonal tube placed on a pyramidal base; and two layers of these tubes form the comb, their bases being opposed to each other in such fashion that each of the three rhombs or lozenges which on one side constitute the pyramidal base of one cell, composes at the same time the pyramidal base of three cells on the other. It is in these prismatic tubes that the honey is stored; and to prevent its escaping during the period of maturation,-- which would infallibly happen if the tubes were as strictly horizontal as they appear to be,--the bees incline them slightly, to an angle of 4 degrees or 5 degrees.

"Besides the economy of wax," says Réaumur, when considering this marvelous construction in its entirety, "besides the economy of wax that results from the disposition of the cells, and the fact that this arrangement allows the bees to fill the comb without leaving a single spot vacant, there are other advantages also with respect to the solidity of the work. The angle at the base of each cell, the apex of the pyramidal cavity, is buttressed by the ridge formed by two faces of the hexagon of another cell. The two triangles, or extensions of the hexagon faces which fill one of the convergent angles of the cavity enclosed by the three rhombs, form by their junction a plane angle on the side they touch; each of these angles, concave within the cell, supports, on its convex side, one of the sheets employed to form the hexagon of another cell; the sheet, pressing on this angle, resists the force which is tending to push it outwards; and in this fashion the angles are strengthened. Every advantage that could be desired with regard to the solidity of each cell is procured by its own formation and its position with reference to the others."

[note 1] It was as well, perhaps, that this standard was not adopted. For although the diameter of a cell is admirably regular, it is, like all things preduced by a living organism, not mathematically invariable in the same hive. Further, as M. Maurice Girard has pointed out, the apothem of the cell varies among different races of bees, so that the standard would alter from hive to hive, according to the species of bee that inhabited it.


"There are only," says Dr. Reid, "three possible figures of the cells which can make them all equal and similar, without any useless interstices. These are the equilateral triangle, the square, and the regular hexagon. Mathematicians know that there is not a fourth way possible in which a plane shall be cut into little spaces that shall be equal, similar, and regular, without useless spaces. Of the three figures, the hexagon is the most proper for convenience and strength. Bees, as if they knew this, make their cells regular hexagons.

"Again, it has been demonstrated that, by making the bottoms of the cells to consist of three planes meeting in a point, there is a saving of material and labor in no way inconsiderable. The bees, as if acquainted with these principles of solid geometry, follow them most accurately. It is a curious mathematical problem at what precise angle the three planes which compose the bottom of a cell ought to meet, in order to make the greatest possible saving, or the least expense of material and labor. [note 2] This is one of the problems which belong to the higher parts of mathematics. It has accordingly been resolved by some mathematicians, particularly by the ingenious Maclaurin, by a fluctionary calculation which is to be found in the Transactions of the Royal Society of London. He has determined precisely the angle required, and he found, by the most exact mensuration the subject would admit, that it is the very angle in which the three planes at the bottom of the cell of a honey comb do actually meet."

[note 2] Réaumur suggested the following problem to the, celebrated mathematician Koenig: "Of all possible hexagonal cells with pyramidal base composed of three equal and similar rhombs, to find the one whose construction would need the least material." Koenig's answer was, the cell that had for its base three rhombs whose large angle was 109 degrees 26", and the small 70 degrees 34". Another savant. Maraldi, had measured as exactly as possible the angles of the rhombs constructed by the bees, and discovered the larger to be 109 degrees 28", and the other 70 degrees 32". Between the two solutions there was a difference, therefore, of only 2". It is probable that the error, if error there be, should be attributed to Maraldi rather than to the bees; for it is impossible for any instrument to measure the angles of the cells, which are not very clearly defined, with infallible precision.

The problem suggested to Koenig was put to another mathematician, Cramer, whose solution came even closer to that of the bees, viz., 109 degrees 28 1/2" for the large angle, and 70' 31 1/2" for the small.


I myself do not believe that the bees indulge in these abstruse calculations; but, on the other hand, it seems equally impossible to me that such astounding results can be due to chance alone, or to the mere force of circumstance. The wasps, for instance, also build combs with hexagonal cells, so that for them the problem was identical, and they have solved it in a far less ingenious fashion. Their combs have only one layer of cells, thus lacking the common base that serves the bees for their two opposite layers. The wasps' comb, therefore, is not only less regular, but also less substantial; and so wastefully constructed that, besides loss of material, they must sacrifice about a third of the available space and a quarter of the energy they put forth. Again, we find that the trigonæ and meliponæ, which are veritable and domesticated bees, though of less advanced civilization, erect only one row of rearing-cells, and support their horizontal, superposed combs on shapeless and costly columns of wax. Their provision cells are merely great pots, gathered together without any order; and, at the point between the spheres where these might have intersected and induced a profitable economy of space and material, the meliponæ clumsily insert a section of cells with flat walls. Indeed, to compare one of their nests with the mathematical cities of our own honey-flies, is like imagining a hamlet composed of primitive huts side by side with a modern town; whose ruthless regularity is the logical, though perhaps somewhat charmless, result of the genius of man, that today, more fiercely than ever before, seeks to conquer space, matter, and time.


There is a theory, originally propounded by Buffon and now revived, which assumes that the bees have not the least intention of constructing hexagons with a pyramidal base, but that their desire is merely to contrive round cells in the wax; only, that as their neighbors, and those at work on the opposite side of the comb, are digging at the same moment and with the same intentions, the points where the cells meet must of necessity become hexagonal. Besides, it is said, this is precisely what happens to crystals, the scales of certain kinds of fish, soap-bubbles, etc., as it happens in the following experiment that Buffon suggested. "If," he said, "you fill a dish with peas or any other cylindrical bean, pour as much water into it as the space between the beans will allow, close it carefully and then boil the water, you will find that all these cylinders have become six-sided columns. And the reason is evident, being indeed purely mechanical; each of the cylindrical beans tends, as it swells, to occupy the utmost possible space within a given space; wherefore it follows that the reciprocal compression compels them all to become hexagonal. Similarly each bee seeks to occupy the utmost possible space within a given space, with the necessary result that, its body being cylindrical, the cells become hexagonal for the same reason as before, viz., the working of reciprocal obstacles."


These reciprocal obstacles, it would seem, are capable of marvelous achievement; on the same principle, doubtless, that the vices of man produce a general virtue, whereby the human race, hateful often in its individuals, ceases to be so in the mass. We might reply, first of all, with Brougham, Kirby and Spence, and others, that experiments with peas and soap-bubbles prove nothing; for the reason that in both cases the pressure produces only irregular forms, and in no wise explains the existence of the prismatic base of the cells. But above all we might answer that there are more ways than one of dealing with rigid necessity; that the wasp, the humble-bee, the trigonæ and meliponæ of Mexico and Brazil achieve very different and manifestly inferior results, although the circumstances, and their own intentions, are absolutely identical with those of the bees. It might further be urged that if the bee's cell does indeed follow the law that governs crystals, snow, soap-bubbles, as well as Buffon's boiled peas, it also, through its general symmetry, disposition in opposite layers, and angle of inclination, obeys many other laws that are not to be found in matter. May we not say, too, of man that all his genius is comprised in his fashion of handling kindred necessities? And if it appear to us that his manner of treating these is the best there can possibly be, the reason only can lie in the absence of a judge superior to ourselves. But it is well that argument should make way for fact; and indeed, to the objection based on an experiment, the best reply of all must be a counter-experiment.

In order to satisfy myself that hexagonal architecture truly was written in the spirit of the bee, I cut off and removed one day a disc of the size of a five-franc piece from the center of a comb, at a spot where there were both brood-cells and cells full of honey. I cut into the circumference of this disc, at the intersecting point of the pyramidal cells; inserted a piece of tin on the base of one of these sections, shaped exactly to its dimensions, and possessed of resistance sufficient to prevent the bees from bending or twisting it. Then I replaced the slice of comb, duly furnished with its slab of tin, on the spot whence I had removed it; so that, while one side of the comb presented no abnormal feature, the damage having been repaired, the other displayed a sort of deep cavity, covering the space of about thirty cells, with the piece of tin as its base. The bees were disconcerted at first; they flocked in numbers to inspect and examine this curious chasm; day after day they wandered agitatedly to and fro, apparently unable to form a decision. But, as I fed them copiously every evening, there came a moment when they had no more cells available for the storage of provisions. Thereupon they probably summoned their great engineers, distinguished sculptors, and wax-workers, and invited them to turn this useless cavity to profitable account.

The wax-makers having gathered around and formed themselves into a dense festoon, so that the necessary heat might be maintained, other bees descended into the hole and proceeded solidly to attach the metal, and connect it with the walls of adjacent cells, by means of little waxen hooks which they distributed regularly over its surface. In the upper semicircle of the disc they then began to construct three or four cells, uniting these to the hooks. Each of these transition, or accommodation, cells was more or less deformed at the top, to allow of its being soldered to the adjoining cell on the comb; but its lower portion already designed on the tin three very clear angles, whence there ran three little straight lines that correctly indicated the first half of the following cell.

After forty-eight hours, and notwithstanding the fact that only three bees at a time were able to work in the cavity, the entire surface of the tin was covered with outlined cells. These were less regular, certainly, than those of an ordinary comb; wherefore the queen, having inspected them, wisely declined to lay any eggs there, for the generation that would have arisen therefrom would necessarily have been deformed. Each cell, however, was a perfect hexagon; nor did it contain a single crooked line, a single curved figure or angle. And yet the ordinary conditions had all been changed; the cells had neither been scooped out of a block, according to Huber's description, nor had they been designed within a waxen hood, and, from being circular at first, been subsequently converted into hexagons by the pressure of adjoining cells, as explained by Darwin. Neither could there be question here of reciprocal obstacles, the cells having been formed one by one, and their first lines traced on what practically was a bare table. It would seem incontestable, therefore, that the hexagon is not merely the result of mechanical necessities, but that it has its true place in the plans, the experience, the intellect and will of the bee. I may relate here another curious instance of the workers' sagacity: the cells they built on the tin had no other base than the metal itself. The engineers of the corps had evidently decided that the tin could adequately retain the honey; and had considered that, the substance being impermeable, they need not waste the material they value so highly by covering the metal with a layer of wax. But, a short time after, some drops of honey having been placed in two of these cells, the bees discovered, in tasting it, that the contact of the metal had a deteriorating effect. Thereupon they reconsidered the matter, and covered over with wax the entire surface of the tin.


Were it our desire to throw light upon all the secrets of this geometric architecture, we should have more than one curious question still to consider; as for instance the shape of the first cells, which, being attached to the roof, are modified in such a manner as to touch the roof at the greatest possible number of points.

The design of the principal thoroughfares is determined by the parallelism of the combs; but we must admire the ingenious construction of alleys and gangways through and around the comb, so skillfully contrived as to provide short cuts in every direction and prevent congestion of traffic, while ensuring free circulation of air. And finally we should have to study the construction of transition cells, wherein we see a unanimous instinct at work that impels the bees at a given moment to increase the size of their dwellings. Three reasons may dictate this step: an extraordinary harvest may call for larger receptacles, the workers may consider the population to be sufficiently numerous, or it may have become necessary that males should be born. Nor can we in such cases refrain from wondering at the ingenious economy, the unerring, harmonious conviction, with which the bees will pass from the small to the large, from the large to the small; from perfect symmetry to, where unavoidable, its very reverse, returning to ideal regularity so soon as the laws of a live geometry will allow; and all the time not losing a cell, not suffering a single one of their numerous structures to be sacrificed, to be ridiculous, uncertain, or barbarous, or any section thereof to become unfit for use. But I fear that I have already wandered into many details that will have but slender interest for the reader, whose eyes perhaps may never have followed a flight of bees; or who may have regarded them only with the passing interest with which we are all of us apt to regard the flower, the bird, or the precious stone, asking of these no more than a slight superficial assurance, and forgetting that the most trivial secret of the non-human object we behold in nature connects more closely perhaps with the profound enigma of our origin and our end, than the secret of those of our passions that we study the most eagerly and the most passionately.


And I will pass over too--in my desire that this essay shall not become too didactic--the remarkable instinct that induces the bees at times to thin and demolish the extremity of their combs, when these are to be enlarged or lengthened; though it must be admitted that in this case the "blind building instinct" fails signally to account for their demolishing in order that they may rebuild, or undoing what has been done that it may be done afresh, and with more regularity. I will content myself also with a mere reference to the remarkable experiment that enables us, with the aid of a piece of glass, to compel the bees to start their combs at a right angle; when they most ingeniously contrive that the enlarged cells on the convex side shall coincide with the reduced cells on the concave side of the comb.

But before finally quitting this subject let us pause, though it be but for an instant, and consider the mysterious fashion in which they manage to act in concert and combine their labor, when simultaneously carving two opposite sides of a comb, and unable therefore to see each other. Take a finished comb to the light, fix your eyes on the diaphanous wax; you will see, most clearly designed, an entire network of sharply cut prisms, a whole system of concordances so infallible that one might almost believe them to be stamped on steel.

I wonder whether those who never have seen the interior of a hive can form an adequate conception of the arrangement and aspect of the combs. Let them imagine--we will take a peasant's hive, where the bee is left entirely to its own resources--let them imagine a dome of straw or osier, divided from top to bottom by five, six, eight, sometimes ten, strips of wax, resembling somewhat great slices of bread, that run in strictly parallel lines from the top of the dome to the floor, espousing closely the shape of the ovoid walls. Between these strips is contrived a space of about half an inch, to enable the bees to stand and to pass each other. At the moment when they begin to construct one of these strips at the top of the hive, the waxen wall (which is its rough model, and will later be thinned and extended) is still very thick, and completely excludes the fifty or sixty bees at work on its inner face from the fifty or sixty simultaneously engaged in carving the outer, so that it is wholly impossible for one group to see the other, unless indeed their sight be able to penetrate opaque matter. And yet there is not a hole that is scooped on the inner surface, not a fragment of wax that is added, but corresponds with mathematical precision to a protuberance or cavity on the outer surface, and vice versa. How does this happen? How is it that one does not dig too deep, another not deep enough? Whence the invariable magical coincidence between the angles of the lozenges? What is it tells the bees that at this point they must begin, and at that point stop? Once again we must content ourselves with the reply, that is no reply: "It is a mystery of the hive."

Huber has sought to explain this mystery by suggesting that the pressure of the bees' hooks and teeth may possibly produce slight projections, at regular intervals, on the opposite side of the comb; or that they may be able to estimate the thickness of the block by the flexibility, elasticity, or some other physical quality of the wax; or again, that their antennæ, which seem so well adapted for the questioning of the finer, less evident side of things, may serve as a compass in the invisible; or, lastly, that the position of every cell may derive mathematically from the arrangement and dimensions of the cells on the first row, and thus dispense with the need for further measurement. But these explanations are evidently insufficient; the first are mere hypotheses that cannot be verified, the others do no more than transplant the mystery. And useful as it may be to transplant mystery as often as we possibly can, it were not wise to imagine that a mystery has ceased to be because we have shifted its home.


Now let us leave these dreary building grounds, this geometrical desert of cells. The combs have been started, and are becoming habitable. Though it be here the infinitely little that, without apparent hope, adds itself to the infinitely little; though our eye with its limited vision look and see nothing, the work of wax, halting neither by day nor by night, will advance with incredible quickness. The impatient queen already has more than once paced the stockades that gleam white in the darkness; and no sooner is the first row of dwellings complete than she takes possession with her escort of counselors, guardians, or servants--for we know not whether she lead or be led, be venerated or supervised. When the spot has been reached that she, or her urgent advisers, may regard as favorable, she arches her back, bends forward, and introduces the extremity of her long spindle-shaped abdomen into one of the cells; the little eager heads of her escort meanwhile forming a passionate circle around her, watching her with their enormous black eyes, supporting her, caressing her wings, and waving their feverish antennæ as though to encourage, incite, or congratulate.

You may easily discover the spot where the queen shall be found by the sort of starry cockade, or oval brooch perhaps of the imposing kind our grandmothers used to wear, of which she forms the central stone. And one may mention here the curious fact that the workers always avoid turning their back on the queen. No sooner has she approached a group than they will invariably arrange themselves so as to face her with eyes and antennæ, and to walk backwards before her. It is a token of respect, or of solicitude, that, unlikely as it may seem, is nevertheless constant and general. But to return to the queen. During the slight spasm that visibly accompanies the emission of an egg, one of her daughters will often throw her arms round her and appear to be whispering to her, brow pressed to brow and mouth to mouth. But the queen, in no wise disturbed by this somewhat bold demonstration, takes her time, tranquilly, calmly, wholly absorbed by the mission that would seem amorous delight to her rather than labor.

And after some seconds she will rise, very quietly, take a step back, execute a slight turn on herself, and proceed to the next cell, into which she will first, before introducing her abdomen, dip her head to make sure that all is in order and that she is not laying twice in the same cell; and in the meanwhile two or three of her escort will have plunged into the cell she has quitted to see whether the work be duly accomplished, and to care for, and tenderly house, the little bluish egg she has laid.

From this moment, up to the first frosts of autumn, she does not cease laying; she lays while she is being fed, and even in her sleep, if indeed she sleeps at all, she still lays. She represents henceforth the devouring force of the future, which invades every corner of the kingdom. Step by step she pursues the unfortunate workers who are exhaustedly, feverishly erecting the cradles her fecundity demands. We have here the union of two mighty instincts; and their workings throw into light, though they leave unresolved, many an enigma of the hive.

It will happen, for instance, that the workers will distance her, and acquire a certain start; whereupon, mindful of their duties as careful, housewives to provide for the bad days ahead, they will hasten to fill with honey the cells they have wrested from the avidity of the species. But the queen approaches; material wealth must give way to the scheme of nature; and the distracted workers are compelled with all speed to remove the importunate treasure.

But assume them to be a whole comb ahead, and to have no longer before them her who stands for the tyranny of days they shall none of them see; we find then that they eagerly, hurriedly, build a zone of large cells, cells for males; whose construction is very much easier, and far more rapid. When the queen in her turn attains this unthankful zone, she will regretfully lay a few eggs there, then cease, pass beyond, and clamor for more workers' cells. Her daughters obey; little by little they reduce the cells; and then the pursuit starts afresh, till at last the insatiable mother shall have traversed the whole circumference of the hive, and have returned to the first cells. These, by this time, will be empty; for the first generation will have sprung into life, soon to go forth, from their shadowy corner of birth, disperse over the neighboring blossoms, people the rays of the sun and quicken the smiling hours; and then sacrifice themselves in their return to the new generations that are already filling their place in the cradles.


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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