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


The Massacre of the Males


IF SKIES REMAIN CLEAR, the air warm, and pollen and nectar abound in the flowers, the workers, through a kind of forgetful indulgence, or over-scrupulous prudence perhaps, will for a short time longer endure the importunate, disastrous presence of the males. These comport themselves in the hive as did Penelope's suitors in the house of Ulysses. Indelicate and wasteful, sleek and corpulent, fully content with their idle existence as honorary lovers, they feast and carouse, throng the alleys, obstruct the passages, and hinder the work; jostling and jostled, fatuously pompous, swelled with foolish, good-natured contempt; harboring never a suspicion of the deep and calculating scorn wherewith the workers regard them, of the constantly growing hatred to which they give rise, or of the destiny that awaits them. For their pleasant slumbers they select the snuggest corners of the hive; then, rising carelessly, they flock to the open cells where the honey smells sweetest, and soil with their excrements the combs they frequent. The patient workers, their eyes steadily fixed on the future, will silently set things right. From noon till three, when the purple country trembles in blissful lassitude beneath the invincible gaze of a July or August sun, the drones will appear on the threshold. They have a helmet made of enormous black pearls, two lofty, quivering plumes, a doublet of iridescent, yellowish velvet, an heroic tuft, and a fourfold mantle, translucent and rigid. They create a prodigious stir, brush the sentry aside, overturn the cleaners, and collide with the foragers as these return laden with their humble spoil. They have the busy air, the extravagant, contemptuous gait, of indispensable gods who should be simultaneously venturing toward some destiny unknown to the vulgar. One by one they sail off into space, irresistible, glorious, and tranquilly make for the nearest flowers, where they sleep till the afternoon freshness awake them. Then, with the same majestic pomp, and still overflowing with magnificent schemes, they return to the hive, go straight to the cells, plunge their head to the neck in the vats of honey, and fill themselves tight as a drum to repair their exhausted strength; whereupon, with heavy steps, they go forth to meet the good, dreamless and careless slumber that shall fold them in its embrace till the time for the next repast.


But the patience of the bees is not equal to that of men. One morning the long-expected word of command goes through the hive; and the peaceful workers turn into judges and executioners. Whence this word issues, we know not; it would seem to emanate suddenly from the cold, deliberate indignation of the workers; and no sooner has it been uttered than every heart throbs with it, inspired with the genius of the unanimous republic. One part of the people renounce their foraging duties to devote themselves to the work of justice. The great idle drones, asleep in unconscious groups on the melliferous walls, are rudely torn from their slumbers by an army of wrathful virgins. They wake, in pious wonder; they cannot believe their eyes; and their astonishment struggles through their sloth as a moonbeam through marshy water. They stare amazedly round them, convinced that they must be victims of some mistake; and the mother-idea of their life being first to assert itself in their dull brain, they take a step toward the vats of honey to seek comfort there. But ended for them are the days of May honey, the wine-flower of lime trees and fragrant ambrosia of thyme and sage, of marjoram and white clover. Where the path once lay open to the kindly, abundant reservoirs, that so invitingly offered their waxen and sugary mouths, there stands now a burning-bush all alive with poisonous, bristling stings. The atmosphere of the city is changed; in lieu of the friendly perfume of honey, the acrid odor of poison prevails; thousands of tiny drops glisten at the end of the stings, and diffuse rancor and hatred. Before the bewildered parasites are able to realize that the happy laws of the city have crumbled, dragging down in most inconceivable fashion their own plentiful destiny, each one is assailed by three or four envoys of justice; and these vigorously proceed to cut off his wings, saw through the petiole that connects the abdomen with the thorax, amputate the feverish antennæ, and seek an opening between the rings of his cuirass through which to pass their sword. No defense is attempted by the enormous, but unarmed, creatures; they try to escape, or oppose their mere bulk to the blows that rain down upon them. Forced on to their backs, with their relentless enemies clinging doggedly to them, they will use their powerful claws to shift them from side to side; or, turning on themselves, they will drag the whole group round and round in wild circles, which exhaustion soon brings to an end. And, in a very brief space, their appearance becomes so deplorable that pity, never far from justice in the depths of our heart, quickly returns, and would seek forgiveness, though vainly, of the stern workers who recognize only nature's harsh and profound laws. The wings of the wretched creatures are torn, their antennæ bitten, the segments of their legs wrenched off; and their magnificent eyes, mirrors once of the exuberant flowers, flashing back the blue light and the innocent pride of summer, now, softened by suffering, reflect only the anguish and distress of their end. Some succumb to their wounds, and are at once borne away to distant cemeteries by two or three of their executioners. Others, whose injuries are less, succeed in sheltering themselves in some corner, where they lie, all huddled together, surrounded by an inexorable guard, until they perish of want. Many will reach the door, and escape into space dragging their adversaries with them; but, toward evening, impelled by hunger and cold, they return in crowds to the entrance of the hive to beg for shelter. But there they encounter another pitiless guard. The next morning, before setting forth on their journey, the workers will clear the threshold, strewn with the corpses of the useless giants; and all recollection of the idle race disappear till the following spring.


In very many colonies of the apiary this massacre will often take place on the same day. The richest, best-governed hive will give the signal; to be followed, some days after, by the little and less prosperous republics. Only the poorest, weakest colonies--those whose mother is very old and almost sterile--will preserve their males till the approach of winter, so as not to abandon the hope of procuring the impregnation of the virgin queen they await, and who may yet be born. Inevitable misery follows; and all the tribe-mother, parasites, workers--collect in a hungry and closely intertwined group, who perish in silence before the first snows arrive, in the obscurity of the hive.

In the wealthy and populous cities work is resumed after the execution of the drones,--although with diminishing zeal, for flowers are becoming scarce. The great festivals, the great dramas, are over. The autumn honey, however, that shall complete the indispensable provisions, is accumulating within the hospitable walls; and the last reservoirs are sealed with the seal of white, incorruptible wax. Building ceases, births diminish, deaths multiply; the nights lengthen, and days grow shorter. Rain and inclement winds, the mists of the morning, the ambushes laid by a hastening twilight, carry off hundreds of workers who never return; and soon, over the whole little people, that are as eager for sunshine as the grasshoppers of Attica, there hangs the cold menace of winter.

Man has already taken his share of the harvest. Every good hive has presented him with eighty or a hundred pounds of honey; the most remarkable will sometimes even give two hundred, which represent an enormous expanse of liquefied light, immense fields of flowers that have been visited daily one or two thousand times. He throws a last glance over the colonies, which are becoming torpid. From the richest he takes their superfluous wealth to distribute it among those whom misfortune, unmerited always in this laborious world, may have rendered necessitous. He covers the dwellings, half closes the doors, removes the useless frames, and leaves the bees to their long winter sleep. They gather in the center of the hive, contract themselves, and cling to the combs that contain the faithful urns; whence there shall issue, during days of frost, the transmuted substance of summer. The queen is in the midst of them, surrounded by her guard. The first row of the workers attach themselves to the sealed cells; a second row cover the first, a third the second, and so in succession to the last row of all, which form the envelope. When the bees of this envelope feel the cold stealing over them, they re-enter the mass, and others take their place. The suspended cluster is like a somber sphere that the walls of the comb divide; it rises imperceptibly and falls, it advances or retires, in proportion as the cells grow empty to which it clings. For, contrary to what is generally believed, the winter life of the bee is not arrested, although it be slackened. By the concerted beating of their wings-little sisters that have survived the flames of the sun--which go quickly or slowly in accordance as the temperature without may vary, they maintain in their sphere an unvarying warmth, equal to that of a day in spring. This secret spring comes from the beautiful honey, itself but a ray of heat transformed, that returns now to its first condition. It circulates in the hive like generous blood. The bees at the full cells present it to their neighbors, who pass it on in their turn. Thus it goes from hand to hand and from mouth to mouth, till it attain the extremity of the group in whose thousands of hearts one destiny, one thought, is scattered and united. It stands in lieu of the sun and the flowers, till its elder brother, the veritable sun of the real, great spring, peering through the half-open door, glides in his first softened glances, wherein anemones and violets are coming to life again; and gently awakens the workers, showing them that the sky once more is blue in the world, and that the uninterrupted circle that joins death to life has turned and begun afresh.

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