Next> | <Prev | ToC | End

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


The Young Queens


HERE LET US CLOSE OUR HIVE, where we find that life is reassuming its circular movement, is extending and multiplying, to be again divided as soon as it shall attain the fullness of its happiness and strength; and let us for the last time reopen the mother-city, and see what is happening there after the departure of the swarm.

The tumult having subsided, the hapless city, that two-thirds of her children have abandoned forever, becomes feeble, empty, moribund; like a body from which the blood has been drained. Some thousands of bees have remained, however; and these, though a trifle languid perhaps, are still immovably faithful to the duty a precise destiny has laid upon them, still conscious of the part that they have themselves to play; they resume their labors, therefore, fill as best they can the place of those who have gone, remove all trace of the orgy, carefully house the provisions that have escaped pillage, sally forth to the flowers again, and keep scrupulous guard over the hostages of the future.

And for all that the moment may appear gloomy, hope abounds wherever the eye may turn. We might be in one of the castles of German legend, whose walls are composed of myriad phials containing the souls of men about to be born. For we are in the abode of life that goes before life. On all sides, asleep in their closely sealed cradles, in this infinite superposition of marvelous six-sided cells, lie thousands of nymphs, whiter than milk, who with folded arms and head bent forward await the hour of awakening. In their uniform tombs, that, isolated, become nearly transparent, they seem almost like hoary gnomes, lost in deep thought, or legions of virgins whom the folds of the shroud have contorted, who are buried in hexagonal prisms that some inflexible geometrician has multiplied to the verge of delirium.

Over the entire area that the vertical walls enclose, and in the midst of this growing world that so soon shall transform itself, that shall four or five times in succession assume fresh vestments, and then spin its own winding-sheet in the shadow, hundreds of workers are dancing and flapping their wings. They appear thus to generate the necessary heat, and accomplish some other object besides that is still more obscure; for this dance of theirs contains some extraordinary movements, so methodically conceived that they must infallibly answer some purpose which no observer has as yet, I believe, been able to divine.

A few days more, and the lids of these myriad urns-- whereof a considerable hive will contain from sixty to eighty thousand--will break, and two large and earnest black eyes will appear, surmounted by antennæ that already are groping at life, while active jaws are busily engaged in enlarging the opening from within. The nurses at once come running; they help the young bee to emerge from her prison, they clean her and brush her, and at the tip of their tongue present the first honey of the new life. But the bee, that has come from another world, is bewildered still, trembling and pale; she wears the feeble look of a little old man who might have escaped from his tomb, or perhaps of a traveler strewn with the powdery dust of the ways that lead unto life. She is perfect, however, from head to foot; she knows at once all that has to be known; and, like the children of the people, who learn, as it were, at their birth, that for them there shall never be time to play or to laugh, she instantly makes her way to the cells that are closed, and proceeds to beat her wings and to dance in cadence, so that she in her turn may quicken her buried sisters; nor does she for one instant pause to decipher the astounding enigma of her destiny, or her race.


The most arduous labors will, however, at first be spared her. A week must elapse from the day of her birth before she will quit the hive; she will then perform her first "cleansing flight," and absorb the air into her tracheæ which, filling, expand her body, and proclaim her the bride of space. Thereupon she returns to the hive, and waits yet one week more; and then, with her sisters born the same day as herself, she will for the first time set forth to visit the flowers. A special emotion now will lay hold of her; one that French apiarists term the "soleil d'artifice," but which might more rightly perhaps be called the "sun of disquiet." For it is evident that the bees are afraid, that these daughters of the crowd, of secluded darkness, shrink from the vault of blue, from the infinite loneliness of the light; and their joy is halting, and woven of terror. They cross the threshold and pause; they depart, they return, twenty times. They hover aloft in the air, their heads persistently turned to the home; they describe great soaring circles that suddenly sink beneath the weight of regret; and their thirteen thousand eyes will question, reflect, and retain the trees and the fountain, the gate and the walls, the neighboring windows and houses, till at last the aerial course whereon their return shall glide have become as indelibly stamped in their memory as though it were marked in space by two lines of steel.


A new mystery confronts us here, which we shall do well to challenge; for though it reply not, its silence still will extend the field of our conscious ignorance, which is the most fertile of all that our activity knows. How do the bees contrive to find their way back to the hive that they cannot possibly see, that is hidden, perhaps, by the trees, that in any event must form an imperceptible point in space? How is it that if taken in a box to a spot two or three miles from their home, they will almost invariably succeed in finding their way back?

Do obstacles offer no barrier to their sight; do they guide themselves by certain indications and landmarks; or do they possess that peculiar, imperfectly understood sense that we ascribe to the swallows and pigeons, for instance, and term the "sense of direction"? The experiments of J. H. Fabre, of Lubbock, and, above all, of Romanes (Nature, 29 Oct. 1886) seem to establish that it is not this strange instinct that guides them. I have, on the other hand, more than once noticed that they appear to pay no attention to the color or form of the hive. They are attracted rather by the ordinary appearance of the platform on which their home reposes, by the position of the entrance, and of the alighting-board. But this even is merely subsidiary; were the front of the hive to be altered from top to bottom, during the workers' absence, they would still unhesitatingly direct their course to it from out the far depths of the horizon; and only when confronted by the unrecognizable threshold would they seem for one instant to pause. Such experiments as lie in our power point rather to their guiding themselves by an extraordinarily minute and precise appreciation of landmarks. It is not the hive that they seem to remember, but its position, calculated to the minutest fraction, in its relation to neighboring objects. And so marvelous is this appreciation, so mathematically certain, so profoundly inscribed in their memory, that if, after five months' hibernation in some obscure cellar, the hive, when replaced on the platform, should be set a little to right or to left of its former position, all the workers, on their return from the earliest flowers, will infallibly steer their direct and unwavering course to the precise spot that it filled the previous year; and only after some hesitation and groping will they discover the door which stands not now where it once had stood. It is as though space had preciously preserved, the whole winter through, the indelible track of their flight: as though the print of their tiny, laborious footsteps, still lay graven in the sky.

If the hive be displaced, therefore, many bees will lose their way; except in the case of their having been carried far from their former home, and finding the country completely transformed that they had grown to know perfectly within a radius of two or three miles; for then, if care be taken to warn them, by means of a little gangway connecting with the alighting-board, at the entrance to the hive, that some change has occurred, they will at once proceed to seek new bearings and create fresh landmarks.


And now let us return to the city that is being repeopled, where myriad cradles are incessantly opening, and the solid walls even appear to be moving. But this city still lacks a queen. Seven or eight curious structures arise from the center of one of the combs, and remind us, scattered as they are over the surface of the ordinary cells, of the circles and protuberances that appear so strange on the photographs of the moon. They are a species of capsule, contrived of wrinkled wax or of inclined glands, hermetically sealed, which fills the place of three or four workers' cells. As a rule, they are grouped around the same point; and a numerous guard keep watch, with singular vigilance and restlessness, over this region that seems instinct with an indescribable prestige. It is here that the mothers are formed. In each one of these capsules, before the swarm departs, an egg will be placed by the mother, or more probably--though as to this we have no certain knowledge--by one of the workers; an egg that she will have taken from some neighboring cell, and that is absolutely identical with those from which workers are hatched.

From this egg, after three days, a small larva will issue, and receive a special and very abundant nourishment; and henceforth we are able to follow, step by step, the movements of one of those magnificently vulgar methods of nature on which, were we dealing with men, we should bestow the august name of fatality. The little larva, thanks to this regimen, assumes an exceptional development; and in its ideas, no less than in its body, there ensues so considerable a change that the bee to which it will give birth might almost belong to an entirely different race of insects.

Four or five years will be the period of her life, instead of the six or seven weeks of the ordinary worker. Her abdomen will be twice as long, her color more golden, and clearer; her sting will be curved, and her eyes have seven or eight thousand facets instead of twelve or thirteen thousand. Her brain will be smaller, but she will possess enormous ovaries, and a special organ besides, the spermatheca, that will render her almost an hermaphrodite. None of the instincts will be hers that belong to a life of toil; she will have no brushes, no pockets wherein to secrete the wax, no baskets to gather the pollen. The habits, the passions, that we regard as inherent in the bee, will be lacking in her. She will not crave for air, or the light of the sun; she will die without even once having tasted a flower. Her existence will pass in the shadow, in the midst of a restless throng; her sole occupation the indefatigable search for cradles that she must fill. On the other hand she alone will know the disquiet of love. Not even twice, it may be, in her life shall she look on the light--for the departure of the swarm is by no means inevitable; on one occasion only, perhaps, will she make use of her wings, but then it will be to fly to her lover. It is strange to see so many things--organs, ideas, desires, habits, an entire destiny--depending, not on a germ, which were the ordinary miracle of the plant, the animal, and man, but on a curious inert substance: a drop of honey. [note 1]

[note 1] It is generally admitted today that workers and queens, after the hatching of the egg, receive the same nourishment--a kind of milk, very rich in nitrogen. that a special gland in the nurses' head secretes. But after a few days the worker larvæ are weaned, and put on a coarser diet of honey and pollen; whereas the future queen, until she be fully developed, is copiously led on the precious milk known as 'royal jelly."


About a week has passed since the departure of the old queen. The royal nymphs asleep in the capsules are not all of the same age, for it is to the interest of the bees that the births should be nicely gradationed, and take place at regular intervals, in accordance with their possible desire for a second swarm, a third, or even a fourth. The workers have for some hours now been actively thinning the walls of the ripest cell, while the young queen, from within, has been simultaneously gnawing the rounded lid of her prison. And at last her head appears; she thrusts herself forward; and, with the help of the guardians who hasten eagerly to her, who brush her, caress her, and clean her, she extricates herself altogether and takes her first steps on the comb. At the moment of birth she too, like the workers, is trembling and pale, but after ten minutes or so her legs become stronger, and a strange restlessness seizes her; she feels that she is not alone, that her kingdom has yet to be conquered, that close by pretenders are hiding; and she eagerly paces the waxen walls in search of her rivals. But there intervene here the mysterious decisions and wisdom of instinct, of the spirit of the hive, or of the assembly of workers. The most surprising feature of all, as we watch these things happening before us in a hive of glass, is the entire absence of hesitation, of the slightest division of opinion. There is not a trace of discussion or discord. The atmosphere of the city is one of absolute unanimity, preordained, which reigns over all; and every one of the bees would appear to know in advance the thought of her sisters. And yet this moment is the gravest, the most vital, in their entire history. They have to choose between three or four courses whose results, in the distant future, will be totally different; which, too, the slightest accident may render disastrous. They have to reconcile the multiplication of species--which is their passion, or innate duty--with the preservation of the hive and its people. They will err at times; they will successively send forth three or four swarms, thereby completely denuding the mother-city; and these swarms, too feeble to organize, will succumb, it may be, at the approach of winter, caught unawares by this climate of ours, which is different far from their original climate, that the bees, notwithstanding all, have never forgotten. In such cases they suffer from what is known as "swarming fever," a condition wherein life, as in ordinary fever, reacting too ardently on itself, passes its aim, completes the circle, and discovers only death.


Of all the decisions before them there is none that would seem imperative; nor can man, if content to play the part of spectator only, foretell in the slightest degree which one the bees will adopt. But that the most careful deliberation governs their choice is proved by the fact that we are able to influence, or even determine it, by for instance reducing or enlarging the space we accord them; or by removing combs full of honey, and setting up, in their stead, empty combs which are well supplied with workers' cells.

The question they have to consider is not whether a second or third swarm shall be immediately launched,--for in arriving at such a decision they would merely be blindly and thoughtlessly yielding to the caprice or temptation of a favorable moment,--but the instantaneous, unanimous adoption of measures that shall enable them to issue a second swarm or "cast" three or four days after the birth of the first queen, and a third swarm three days after the departure of the second, with this first queen at their head. It must be admitted, therefore, that we discover here a perfectly reasoned system, and a mature combination of plans extending over a period considerable indeed when compared with the brevity of the bee's existence.


These measures concern the care of the youthful queens who still lie immured in their waxen prisons. Let us assume that the "spirit of the hive" has pronounced against the dispatch of a second swarm. Two courses still remain open. The bees may permit the first-born of the royal virgins, the one whose birth we have witnessed, to destroy her sister-enemies; or they may elect to wait till she has performed the perilous ceremony known as the "nuptial flight," whereon the nation's future depends. The immediate massacre will be authorized often, and often denied; but in the latter case it is of course not easy for us to pronounce whether the bees' decision be due to a desire for a second swarm, or to their recognition of the dangers attending the nuptial flight; for it will happen at times that, on account of the weather unexpectedly becoming less favorable, or for some other reason we cannot divine, they will suddenly change their mind, renounce the cast that they had decreed, and destroy the royal progeny they had so carefully preserved. But at present we will suppose that they have determined to dispense with a second swarm, and that they accept the risks of the nuptial flight. Our young queen hastens toward the large cradles, urged on by her great desire, and the guard make way before her. Listening only to her furious jealousy, she will fling herself on to the first cell she comes across, madly strip off the wax with her teeth and claws, tear away the cocoon that carpets the cell, and divest the sleeping princess of every covering. If her rival should be already recognizable, the queen will turn so that her sting may enter the capsule, and will frantically stab it with her venomous weapon until the victim perish. She then becomes calmer, appeased by the death that puts a term to the hatred of every creature; she withdraws her sting, hurries to the adjoining cell, attacks it and opens it, passing it by should she find in it only an imperfect larva or nymph; nor does she pause till, at last, exhausted and breathless, her claws and teeth glide harmless over the waxen walls.

The bees that surround her have calmly watched her fury, have stood by, inactive, moving only to leave her path clear; but no sooner has a cell been pierced and laid waste than they eagerly flock to it, drag out the corpse of the ravished nymph, or the still living larva, and thrust it forth from the hive, thereupon gorging themselves with the precious royal jelly that adheres to the sides of the cell. And finally, when the queen has become too weak to persist in her passion, they will themselves complete the massacre of the innocents; and the sovereign race, and their dwellings, will all disappear.

This is the terrible hour of the hive; the only occasion, with that of the more justifiable execution of the drones, when the workers suffer discord and death to be busy amongst them; and here, as often in nature, it is the favored of love who attract to themselves the most extraordinary shafts of violent death.

It will happen at times that two queens will be hatched simultaneously, the occurrence being rare, however, for the bees take special care to prevent it. But whenever this does take place, the deadly combat will begin the moment they emerge from their cradles; and of this combat Huber was the first to remark an extraordinary feature. Each time, it would seem that the queens, in their passes, present their chitinous cuirasses to each other in such a fashion that the drawing of the sting would prove mutually fatal; one might almost believe that, even as a god or goddess was wont to interpose in the combats of the Iliad, so a god or a goddess, the divinity of the race, perhaps, interposes here; and the two warriors, stricken with simultaneous terror, divide and fly, to meet shortly after and separate again should the double disaster once more menace the future of their people; till at last one of them shall succeed in surprising her clumsier or less wary rival, and in killing her without risk to herself. For the law of the race has called for one sacrifice only.


The cradles having thus been destroyed and the rivals all slain, the young queen is accepted by her people; but she will not truly reign over them, or be treated as was her mother before her, until the nuptial flight be accomplished; for until she be impregnated the bees will hold her but lightly, and render most passing homage. Her history, however, will rarely be as uneventful as this, for the bees will not often renounce their desire for a second swarm.

In that case, as before, quick with the same desires, the queen will approach the royal cells; but instead of meeting with docile servants who second her efforts, she will find her path blocked by a numerous and hostile guard. In her fury, and urged on by her fixed idea, she will endeavor to force her way through, or to outflank them; but everywhere sentinels are posted to protect the sleeping princesses. She persists, she returns to the charge, to be repulsed with ever increasing severity, to be somewhat roughly handled even, until at last she begins vaguely to understand that these little inflexible workers stand for a law before which that law must bend whereby she is inspired.

And at last she goes, and wanders from comb to comb, her unsatisfied wrath finding vent in a war-song, or angry complaint, that every bee-keeper knows; resembling somewhat the note of a distant trumpet of silver; so intense, in its passionate feebleness, as to be clearly audible, in the evening especially, two or three yards from the double walls of the most carefully enclosed hive.

Upon the workers this royal cry has a magical effect. It terrifies them, it induces a kind of respectful stupor; and when the queen sends it forth, as she halts in front of the cells whose approach is denied her, the guardians who have but this moment been hustling her, pushing her back, will at once desist, and wait, with bent head, till the cry shall have ceased to resound. Indeed, some believe that it is thanks to the prestige of this cry, which the Sphinx Atropos imitates, that the latter is able to enter the hive, and gorge itself with honey, without the least molestation on the part of the bees.

For two or three days, sometimes even for five, this indignant lament will be heard, this challenge that the queen addresses to her well protected rivals. And as these in their turn develop, in their turn grow anxious to see the light, they too set to work to gnaw the lids of their cells. A mighty disorder would now appear to threaten the republic. But the genius of the hive, at the time that it formed its decision, was able to foretell every consequence that might ensue; and the guardians have had their instructions: they know exactly what must be done, hour by hour, to meet the attacks of a foiled instinct, and conduct two opposite forces to a successful issue. They are fully aware that if the young queens should escape who now clamor for birth, they would fall into the hands of their elder sister, by this time irresistible, who would destroy them one by one. The workers, therefore, will pile on fresh layers of wax in proportion as the prisoner reduces, from within, the walls of her tower; and the impatient princess will ardently persist in her labor, little suspecting that she has to deal with an enchanted obstacle, that rises ever afresh from its ruin. She hears the war-cry of her rival; and already aware of her royal duty and destiny, although she has not yet looked upon life, nor knows what a hive may be, she answers the challenge from within the depths of her prison. But her cry is different; it is stifled and hollow, for it has to traverse the walls of a tomb; and, when night is falling, and noises are hushed, and high over all there reigns the silence of the stars, the apiarist who nears these marvelous cities and stands, questioning, at their entrance, recognizes and understands the dialogue that is passing between the wandering queen and the virgins in prison.


To the young princesses, however, this prolonged reclusion is of material benefit; for when they at last are freed they have grown mature and vigorous, and are able to fly. But during this period of waiting the strength of the first queen has also increased, and is sufficient now to enable her to face the perils of the voyage. The time has arrived, therefore, for the departure of the second swarm, or "cast," with the first-born of the queens at its head. No sooner has she gone than the workers left in the hive will set one of the prisoners free; and she will evince the same murderous desires, send forth the same cries of anger, until, at last, after three or four days, she will leave the hive in her turn, at the head of the tertiary swarm; and so in succession, in the case of "swarming fever," till the mother-city shall be completely exhausted.

Swammerdam cites a hive that, through its swarms and the swarms of its swarms, was able in a single season to found no less than thirty colonies.

Such extraordinary multiplication is above all noticeable after disastrous winters; and one might almost believe that the bees, forever in touch with the secret desires of nature, are conscious of the dangers that menace their race. But at ordinary times this fever will rarely occur in a strong and well-governed hive. There are many that swarm only once; and some, indeed, not at all.

After the second swarm the bees, as a rule, will renounce further division, owing either to their having observed the excessive feebleness of their stock, or to the prudence urged upon them by threatening skies. In that case they will allow the third queen to slaughter the captives; ordinary life will at once be resumed, and pursued with the more ardor for the reason that the workers are all very young, that the hive is depopulated and impoverished, and that there are great voids to fill before the arrival of winter.


The departure of the second and third swarms resembles that of the first, and the conditions are identical, with the exception that the bees are fewer in number, less circumspect, and lacking in scouts; and also that the young and virgin queen, being unencumbered and ardent, will fly much further, and in the first stage lead the swarm to a considerable distance from the hive. The conduct of these second and third migrations will be far more rash, and their future more problematical. The queen at their head, the representative of the future, has not yet been impregnated. Their entire destiny depends on the ensuing nuptial flight. A passing bird, a few drops of rain, a mistake, a cold wind--any one of these may give rise to irremediable disaster. Of this the bees are so well aware that when the young queen sallies forth in quest of her lover, they often will abandon the labors they have begun, will forsake the home of a day that already is dear to them, and accompany her in a body, dreading to let her pass out of their sight, eager, as they form closely around her, and shelter her beneath their myriad devoted wings, to lose themselves with her, should love cause her to stray so far from the hive that the as yet unfamiliar road of return shall grow blurred and hesitating in every memory.


But so potent is the law of the future that none of these uncertainties, these perils of death, will cause a single bee to waver. The enthusiasm displayed by the second and third swarms is not less than that of the first. No sooner has the mother-city pronounced its decision than a battalion of workers will flock around each dangerous young queen, eager to follow her fortunes, to accompany her on the voyage where there is so much to lose, and so little to gain beyond the desire of a satisfied instinct. Whence do they derive the energy we ourselves never possess, whereby they break with the past as though with an enemy? Who is it selects from the crowd those who shall go forth, and declares who shall remain? No special class divides those who stay from those who wander abroad; it will be the younger here and the elder there; around each queen who shall never return veteran foragers jostle tiny workers, who for the first time shall face the dizziness of the blue. Nor is the proportionate strength of a swarm controlled by chance or accident, by the momentary dejection or transport of an instinct, thought, or feeling. I have more than once tried to establish a relation between the number of bees composing a swarm and the number of those that remain; and although the difficulties of this calculation are such as to preclude anything approaching mathematical precision, I have at least been able to gather that this relation--if we take into account the brood-cells, or in other words the forthcoming births--is sufficiently constant to point to an actual and mysterious reckoning on the part of the genius of the hive.


We will not follow these swarms on their numerous, and often most complicated, adventures. Two swarms, at times, will join forces; at others, two or three of the imprisoned queens will profit by the confusion attending the moment of departure to elude the watchfulness of their guardians and join the groups that are forming. Occasionally, too, one of the young queens, finding herself surrounded by males, will cause herself to be impregnated in the swarming flight, and will then drag all her people to an extraordinary height and distance. In the practice of apiculture these secondary and tertiary swarms are always returned to the mother-hive. The queens will meet on the comb; the workers will gather around and watch their combat; and, when the stronger has overcome the weaker they will then, in their ardor for work and hatred of disorder, expel the corpses, close the door on the violence of the future, forget the past, return to their cells, and resume their peaceful path to the flowers that await them.


We will now, in order to simplify matters, return to the queen whom the bees have permitted to slaughter her sisters, and resume the account of her adventures. As I have already stated, this massacre will be often prevented, and often sanctioned, at times even when the bees apparently do not intend to issue a second swarm; for we notice the same diversity of political spirit in the different hives of an apiary as in the different human nations of a continent. But it is clear that the bees will act imprudently in giving their consent; for if the queen should die, or stray in the nuptial flight, it will be impossible to fill her place, the workers' larvæ having passed the age when they are susceptible of royal transformation. Let us assume, however, that the imprudence has been committed; and behold our first-born, therefore, unique sovereign, and recognized as such in the spirit of her people. But she is still a virgin. To become as was the mother before her, it is essential that she should meet the male within the first twenty days of her life. Should the event for some reason be delayed beyond this period, her virginity becomes irrevocable. And yet we have seen that she is not sterile, virgin though she be. There confronts us here the great mystery--or precaution--of Nature, that is known as parthenogenesis, and is common to a certain number of insects, such as the aphides, the lepidoptera of the Psyche genus, the hymenoptera of the Cynipede family, etc. The virgin queen is able to lay; but from all the eggs that she will deposit in the cells, be these large or small, there will issue males alone; and as these never work, as they live at the expense of the females, as they never go foraging except on their own account, and are generally incapable of providing for their subsistence, the result will be, at the end of some weeks, that the last exhausted worker will perish, and the colony be ruined and totally annihilated. The queen, we have said, will produce thousands of drones; and each of these will possess millions of the spermatozoa whereof it is impossible that a single one can have penetrated into the organism of the mother. That may not be more astounding, perhaps, than a thousand other and analogous phenomena; and, indeed, when we consider these problems, and more especially those of generation, the marvelous and the unexpected confront us so constantly--occurring far more frequently, and above all in far less human fashion, than in the most miraculous fairy stories--that after a time astonishment becomes so habitual with us that we almost cease to wonder. The fact, however, is sufficiently curious to be worthy of notice. But, on the other hand, how shall we explain to ourselves the aim that nature can have in thus favoring the valueless drones at the cost of the workers who are so essential? Is she afraid lest the females might perhaps be induced by their intellect unduly to limit the number of their parasites, which, destructive though they be, are still necessary for the preservation of the race? Or is it merely an exaggerated reaction against the misfortune of the unfruitful queen? Can we have here one of those blind and extreme precautions which, ignoring the cause of the evil, overstep the remedy; and, in the endeavor to prevent an unfortunate accident, bring about a catastrophe? In reality--though we must not forget that the natural, primitive reality is different from that of the present, for in the original forest the colonies might well be far more scattered than they are today--in reality the queen's unfruitfulness will rarely be due to the want of males, for these are very numerous always, and will flock from afar; but rather to the rain, or the cold, that will have kept her too long in the hive, and more frequently still to the imperfect state of her wings, whereby she will be prevented from describing the high flight in the air that the organ of the male demands. Nature, however, heedless of these more intrinsic causes, is so deeply concerned with the multiplication of males, that we sometimes find, in motherless hives, two or three workers possessed of so great a desire to preserve the race that, their atrophied ovaries notwithstanding, they will still endeavor to lay; and, their organs expanding somewhat beneath the empire of this exasperated sentiment, they will succeed in depositing a few eggs in the cells; but from these eggs, as from those of the virgin mother, there will issue only males.


Here we behold the active intervention of a superior though perhaps imprudent will, which offers irresistible obstruction to the intelligent will of a life. In the insect world such interventions are comparatively frequent, and much can be gained from their study; for this world being more densely peopled and more complex than others, certain special desires of nature are often more palpably revealed to us there; and she may even at times be detected in the midst of experiments we might almost be warranted in regarding as incomplete. She has one great and general desire, for instance, that she displays on all sides; the amelioration of each species through the triumph of the stronger. This struggle, as a rule, is most carefully organized. The hecatomb of the weak is enormous, but that matters little so long as the victor's reward be effectual and certain. But there are cases when one might almost imagine that nature had not had time enough to disentangle her combinations; cases where reward is impossible, and the fate of the victor no less disastrous than that of the vanquished. And of such, selecting an instance that will not take us too far from our bees, I know of no instance more striking than that of the triongulins of the Sitaris colletes. And it will be seen that, in many details, this story is less foreign to the history of man than might perhaps be imagined.

These triongulins are the primary larvæ of a parasite proper to a wild, obtuse-tongued, solitary bee, the Colletes, which builds its nest in subterranean galleries. It is their habit to lie in wait for the bee at the approach of these galleries; and then, to the number of three, four, five, or often of more, they will leap on her back, and bury themselves in her hair. Were the struggle of the weak against the strong to take place at this moment there would be no more to be said, and all would pass in accordance with universal law. But, for a reason we know not, their instinct requires, and nature has consequently ordained, that they should hold themselves tranquil so long as they remain on the back of the bee. They patiently bide their time while she visits the flowers, and constructs and provisions her cells. But no sooner has an egg been laid than they all spring upon it; and the innocent colletes carefully seals down her cell, which she has duly supplied with food, never suspecting that she has at the same time ensured the death of her offspring.

The cell has scarcely been closed when the triongulins grouped round the egg engage in the inevitable and salutary combat of natural selection. The stronger, more agile, will seize its adversary beneath the cuirass, and, raising it aloft, will maintain it for hours in its mandibles until the victim expire. But, while this fight is in progress, another of the triongulins, that had either no rival to meet, or already has conquered, takes possession of the egg and bursts it open. The ultimate victor has therefore this fresh enemy to subdue; but the conquest is easy, for the triongulin, deep in the satisfaction of its pre-natal hunger, clings obstinately to the egg, and does not even attempt to defend itself. It is quickly dispatched; and the other is at last alone, and possessor of the precious egg it has won so well. It eagerly plunges its head into the opening its predecessor had made; and begins the lengthy repast that shall transform it into a perfect insect. But nature, that has decreed this ordeal of battle, has, on the other hand, established the prize of victory with such miserly precision that nothing short of an entire egg will suffice for the nourishment of a single triongulin. So that, as we are informed by M. Mayet, to whom we owe the account of these disconcerting adventures, there is lacking to our conqueror the food its last victim consumed before death; and incapable therefore of achieving the first stage of its transformation, it dies in its turn, adhering to the skin of the egg, or adding itself, in the sugary liquid, to the number of the drowned.


This case, though rarely to be followed so closely, is not unique in natural history. We have here, laid bare before us, the struggle between the conscious will of the triongulin, that seeks to live, and the obscure and general will of nature, that not only desires that the triongulin should live, but is anxious even that its life should be improved, and fortified, to a degree beyond that to which its own will impels it. But, through some strange inadvertence, the amelioration nature imposes suppresses the life of even the fittest, and the Sitaris Colletes would have long since disappeared had not chance, acting in opposition to the desires of nature, permitted isolated individuals to escape from the excellent and farseeing law that ordains on all sides the triumph of the stronger.

Can this mighty power err, then, that seems unconscious to us, but necessarily wise, seeing that the life she organizes and maintains is forever proving her to be right? Can feebleness at times overcome that supreme reason, which we are apt to invoke when we have attained the limits of our own? And if that be so, by whom shall this feebleness be set right?

But let us return to that special form of her resistless intervention that we find in parthenogenesis. And we shall do well to remember that, remote as the world may seem in which these problems confront us, they do indeed yet concern ourselves very nearly. Who would dare to affirm that no interventions take place in the sphere of man-interventions that may be more hidden, but not the less fraught with danger? And in the case before us, which is right, in the end,--the insect, or nature? What would happen if the bees, more docile perhaps, or endowed with a higher intelligence, were too clearly to understand the desires of nature, and to follow them to the extreme; to multiply males to infinity, seeing that nature is imperiously calling for males? Would they not risk the destruction of their species? Are we to believe that there are intentions in nature that it is dangerous to understand too clearly, fatal to follow with too much ardor; and that it is one of her desires that we should not divine, and follow, all her desires? Is it not possible that herein there may lie one of the perils of the human race? We too are aware of unconscious forces within us, that would appear to demand the reverse of what our intellect urges. And this intellect of ours, that, as a rule, its own boundary reached, knows not whither to go--can it be well that it should join itself to these forces, and add to them its unexpected weight?


Have we the right to conclude, from the dangers of parthenogenesis, that nature is not always able to proportion the means to the end; and that what she intends to preserve is preserved at times by means of precautions she has to contrive against her own precautions, and often through foreign circumstances she has not herself foreseen? But is there anything she does foresee, anything she does intend to preserve? Nature, some may say, is a word wherewith we clothe the unknowable; and few things authorize our crediting it with intelligence, or with aim. That is true. We touch here the hermetically sealed vases that furnish our conception of the universe. Reluctant, over and over again, to label these with the inscription "UNKNOWN," that disheartens us and compels us to silence, we engrave upon them, in the degree of their size and grandeur, the words "Nature, life, death, infinite, selection, spirit of the race," and many others, even as those who went before us affixed the words "God, Providence, destiny, reward," etc. Let it be so, if one will, and no more. But, though the contents of the vases remain obscure, there is gain at least in the fact that the inscriptions today convey less menace to us, that we are able therefore to approach them and touch them, and lay our ears close to them and listen, with wholesome curiosity.

But whatever the name we attach to these vases, it is certain that one of them, at least, and the greatest--that which bears on its flank the name "Nature"--encloses a very real force, the most real of all, and one that is able to preserve an enormous and marvelous quantity and quality of life on our globe, by means so skillful that they surpass all that the genius of man could contrive. Could this quantity and quality be maintained by other means? Is it we who deceive ourselves when we imagine that we see precautions where perhaps there is truly no more than a fortunate chance, that has survived a million unfortunate chances?


That may be; but these fortunate chances teach us a lesson in admiration as valuable as those we might learn in regions superior to chance. If we let our gaze travel beyond the creatures that are possessed of a glimmer of intellect and consciousness, beyond the protozoa even, which are the first nebulous representatives of the dawning animal kingdom, we find, as has been abundantly proved by the experiments of Mr. H. J. Carter, the celebrated microscopist, that the very lowest embryos, such as the myxomycetes, manifest a will and desires and preferences; and that infusoria, which apparently have no organism whatever, give evidence of a certain cunning. The amoebæ for in-stance, will patiently lie in wait for the new-born Acinetes, as they leave the maternal ovary; being aware that these must as yet be lacking their poisonous tentacles. Now, the amoebæ have neither a nervous system nor distinguishable organs of any kind. Or if we turn to the plants, which, being motionless, would seem exposed to every fatality,--without pausing to consider carnivorous species like the Drusera, which really act as animals,--we are struck by the genius that some of our humblest flowers display in contriving that the visit of the bee shall infallibly procure them the crossed fertilization they need. See the marvelous fashion in which the Orchis Moris, our humble country orchid, combines the play of its rostellum and retinacula; observe the mathematical and automatic inclination and adhesion of its pollinia; as also the unerring double see-saw of the anthers of the wild sage, which touch the body of the visiting insect at a particular spot in order that the insect may, in its turn, touch the stigma of the neighboring flower at another particular spot; watch, too, in the case of the Pedicularis Sylvatica, the successive, calculated movements of its stigma; and indeed the entrance of the bee into any of these three flowers sets every organ vibrating, just as the skillful marksman who hits the black spot on the target will cause all the figures to move in the elaborate mechanisms we see in our village fairs.

We might go lower still, and show, as Ruskin has shown in his "Ethics of the Dust," the character, habits, and artifices of crystals; their quarrels, and mode of procedure, when a foreign body attempts to oppose their plans, which are more ancient by far than our imagination can conceive; the manner in which they admit or repel an enemy, the possible victory of the weaker over the stronger, as, for instance, when the all-powerful quartz submits to the humble and wily epidote, and allows this last to conquer it; the struggle, terrible sometimes and sometimes magnificent, between the rock-crystal and iron; the regular, immaculate expansion and uncompromising purity of one hyaline block, which rejects whatever is foul, and the sickly growth, the evident immorality, of its brother which admits corruption, and writhes miserably in the void; as we might quote also the strange phenomena of crystalline cicatrization and reintegration mentioned by Claude Bernard, etc. But the mystery here becomes too foreign to us. Let us keep to our flowers, which are the last expression of a life that has yet some kinship with our own. We are not dealing now with animals or insects, to which we attribute a special, intelligent will, thanks to which they survive. We believe, rightly or wrongly, that the flowers possess no such will; at least we cannot discover in them the slightest trace of the organs wherein will, intellect, and initiative of action, are usually born and reside. It follows, therefore, that all that acts in them in so admirable a fashion must directly proceed from what we elsewhere call nature. We are no longer concerned with the intellect of the individual; here we find the unconscious, undivided force in the act of ensnaring other forms of itself. Shall we on that account refuse to believe that these snares are pure accidents, occurring in accordance with a routine that is also incidental? We are not yet entitled to such a deduction. It might be urged that these flowers, had these miraculous combinations not been, would not have survived, but would have had their place filled by others that stood in no need of crossed fertilization; and the non-existence of the first would have been perceived by none, nor would the life that vibrates on the earth have seemed less incomprehensible to us, less diverse, or less astounding.

And yet it would be difficult not to admit that acts which bear all the appearance of acts of intelligence and prudence produce and support these fortunate chances. Whence do they issue,--from the being itself, or from the force whence that being draws life? I will not say "it matters but little," for, on the contrary, to know the answer were of supreme importance to us. But, in the meantime, and till we shall learn whether it be the flower that endeavors to maintain and perfect the life that nature has placed within it, or whether it be nature that puts forth an effort to maintain and improve the degree of existence the flower has assumed, or finally whether it be chance that ultimately governs chance, a multitude of semblances invite us to believe that something equal to our loftiest thoughts issues at times from a common source, that we are compelled to admire without knowing where it resides.

There are moments when what seems error to us comes forth from this common source. But, although we know very few things, proofs abound that the seeming error was in reality an act of prudence that we at first could not grasp. In the little circle, even, that our eyes embrace we are constantly shown that what we regarded as nature's blunder close by was due to her deeming it well to adjust the presumed inadvertence out yonder. She has placed the three flowers we mentioned under conditions of such difficulty that they are unable to fertilize themselves; she considers it beneficial, therefore, for reasons beyond our powers of perception, that they should cause themselves to be fertilized by their neighbors; and, inasmuch as she enhances the intelligence of her victims, she displays on our right the genius she failed to display on our left. The byways of this genius of hers remain incomprehensible to us, but its level is always the same. It will appear to fall into error--assuming that error be possible--thereupon rising again at once in the organ charged to repair this error. Turn where we may, it towers high over our heads. It is the circular ocean, the tideless water, whereon our boldest and most independent thoughts will never be more than mere abject bubbles. We call it Nature today; tomorrow, perhaps, we shall give it another name, softer or more alarming. In the meanwhile it holds simultaneous, impartial sway over life and death; furnishing the two irreconcilable sisters with the magnificent and familiar weapons that adorn and distract its bosom.


Does this force take measures to maintain what may be struggling on its surface, or must we say, arguing in the strangest of circles, that what floats on its surface must guard itself against the genius that has given it life? That question must be left open. We have no means of ascertaining whether it be notwithstanding the efforts of the superior will, or independently of these, or lastly because of these, that a species has been able to survive.

All we can say is that such a species exists, and that, on this point, therefore, nature would seem to be right. But who shall tell us how many others that we have not known have fallen victim to her restless and forgetful intellect? Beyond this, we can recognize only the surprising and occasionally hostile forms that the extraordinary fluid we call life assumes, in utter unconsciousness sometimes, at others with a kind of consciousness: the fluid which animates us equally with all the rest, which produces the very thoughts that judge it, and the feeble voice that attempts to tell its story.

Next> | ^Top