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


The Progress of the Race


BEFORE CLOSING THIS BOOK--as we have closed the hive on the torpid silence of winter--I am anxious to meet the objection invariably urged by those to whom we reveal the astounding industry and policy of the bees. Yes, they will say, that is all very wonderful; but then, it has never been otherwise. The bees have for thousands of years dwelt under remarkable laws, but during those thousands of years the laws have not varied. For thousands of years they have constructed their marvelous combs, whereto we can add nothing, wherefrom we can take nothing,--combs that unite in equal perfection the science of the chemist, the geometrician, the architect, and the engineer; but on the sarcophagi, on Egyptian stones and papyri, we find drawings of combs that are identical in every particular. Name a single fact that will show the least progress, a single instance of their having contrived some new feature or modified their habitual routine, and we will cheerfully yield, and admit that they not only possess an admirable instinct, but have also an intellect worthy to approach that of man, worthy to share in one knows not what higher destiny than awaits unconscious and submissive matter.

This language is not even confined to the profane; it is made use of by entomologists of the rank of Kirby and Spence, in order to deny the bees the possession of intellect other than may vaguely stir within the narrow prison of an extraordinary but unchanging instinct. "Show us," they say, "a single case where the pressure of events has inspired them with the idea, for instance, of substituting clay or mortar for wax or propolis; show us this, and we will admit their capacity for reasoning."

This argument, that Romanes refers to as the "question-begging argument," and that might also be termed the "insatiable argument," is exceedingly dangerous, and, if applied to man, would take us very far. Examine it closely, and you will find that it emanates from the "mere common sense," which is often so harmful; the "common sense" that replied to Galileo: "The earth does not turn, for I can see the sun move in the sky, rise in the morning and sink in the evening; and nothing can prevail over the testimony of my eyes." Common sense makes an admirable, and necessary, background for the mind; but unless it be watched by a lofty disquiet ever ready to remind it, when occasion demand, of the infinity of its ignorance, it dwindles into the mere routine of the baser side of our intellect. But the bees have themselves answered the objection Messrs. Kirby and Spence advanced. Scarcely had it been formulated when another naturalist, Andrew Knight, having covered the bark of some diseased trees with a kind of cement made of turpentine and wax, discovered that his bees were entirely renouncing the collection of propolis, and exclusively using this unknown matter, which they had quickly tested and adopted, and found in abundant quantities, ready prepared, in the vicinity of their dwelling.

And indeed, one-half of the science and practice of apiculture consists in giving free rein to the spirit of initiative possessed by the bees, and in providing their enterprising intellect with opportunities for veritable discoveries and veritable inventions. Thus, for instance, to aid in the rearing of the larvæ and nymphs, the beekeeper will scatter a certain quantity of flour close to the hive when the pollen is scarce of which these consume an enormous quantity. In a state of nature, in the heart of their native forests in the Asiatic valleys, where they existed probably long before the tertiary epoch, the bees can evidently never have met with a substance of this kind. And yet, if care be taken to "bait" some of them with it, by placing them on the flour, they will touch it and test it, they will perceive that its properties more or, less resemble those possessed by the dust of the anthers; they will spread the news among their sisters, and we shall soon find every forager hastening to this unexpected, incomprehensible food, which, in their hereditary memory, must be inseparable from the calyx of flowers where their flight, for so many centuries past, has been sumptuously and voluptuously welcomed.


It is a little more than a hundred years ago that Huber's researches gave the first serious impetus to our study of the bees, and revealed the elementary important truths that allowed us to observe them with fruitful result. Barely fifty years have passed since the foundation of rational, practical apiculture was rendered possible by means of the movable combs and frames devised by Dzierzon and Langstroth, and the hive ceased to be the inviolable abode wherein all came to pass in a mystery from which death alone stripped the veil. And lastly, less than fifty years have elapsed since the improvements of the microscope, of the entomologist's laboratory, revealed the precise secret of the principal organs of the workers, of the mother, and the males. Need we wonder if our knowledge be as scanty as our experience? The bees have existed many thousands of years; we have watched them for ten or twelve lusters. And if it could even be proved that no change has occurred in the hive since we first opened it, should we have the right to conclude that nothing had changed before our first questioning glance? Do we not know that in the evolution of species a century is but as a drop of rain that is caught in the whirl of the river, and that millenaries glide as swiftly over the life of universal matter as single years over the history of a people?


But there is no warrant for the statement that the habits of the bees are unchanged. If we examine them with an unbiased eye, and without emerging from the small area lit by our actual experience, we shall, on the contrary, discover marked variations. And who shall tell how many escape us? Were an observer of a hundred and fifty times our height and about seven hundred and fifty thousand times our importance (these being the relations of stature and weight in which we stand to the humble honey-fly), one who knew not our language, and was endowed with senses totally different from our own; were such an one to have been studying us, he would recognize certain curious material transformations in the course of the last two thirds of the century, but would be totally unable to form any conception of our moral, social, political, economic or religious evolution.

The most likely of all the scientific hypotheses will presently permit us to connect our domestic bee with the great tribe of the "Apiens," which embraces all wild bees, and where its ancestors are probably to be found. We shall then perceive physiological, social, economic, industrial, and architectural transformations more extraordinary than those of our human evolution. But for the moment we will limit ourselves to our domestic bee properly so called. Of these, sixteen fairly distinct species are known; but, essentially, whether we consider the Apis Dorsata, the largest known to us, or the Apis Florea, which is the smallest, the insect is always exactly the same, except for the slight modifications induced by the climate and by the conditions whereto it has had to conform. [note 1] The difference between these various species is scarcely greater than that between an Englishman and a Russian, a Japanese and a European. In these preliminary remarks, therefore, we will confine ourselves to what actually lies within the range of our eyes, refusing the aid of hypothesis, be this never so probable or so imperious. We shall mention no facts that are not susceptible of immediate proof; and of such facts we will only rapidly refer to some of the more significant.

[note 1] The scientific classification of the domestic bee is as follows:

Class Insecta

Order Hymenoptera

Family Apidæ

Genus Apis

species Mellifica

The term "Mellifica" is that of the Linnæan classification. It is not of the happiest, for all the Apidæ, with the exception of certain parasites perhaps, are producers of honey. Scopoli uses the term "Cerifera"; Réaumur "Domestics"; Geoffroy "Gregaria." The "Apis Ligustica," the Italian bee, is another variety of the "Mellifica."


Let us consider first of all the most important and most radical improvement, one that in the case of man would have called for prodigious labor: the external protection of the community.

The bees do not, like ourselves, dwell in towns free to the sky, and exposed to the caprice of rain and storm, but in cities entirely covered with a protecting envelope. In a state of nature, however, in an ideal climate, this is not the case. If they listened only to their essential instinct, they would construct their combs in the open air. In the Indies, the Apis Dorsata will not eagerly seek hollow trees, or a hole in the rocks. The swarm will hang from the crook of a branch; and the comb will be lengthened, the queen lay her eggs, provisions be stored, with no shelter other than that which the workers' own bodies provide. Our Northern bees have at times been known to revert to this instinct, under the deceptive influence of a too gentle sky; and swarms have been found living in the heart of a bush.

But even in the Indies, the result of this habit, which would seem innate, is by no means favorable. So considerable a number of the workers are compelled to remain on one spot, occupied solely with the maintenance of the heat required by those who are moulding the wax and rearing the brood, that the Apis Dorsata, hanging thus from the branches, will construct but a single comb; whereas if she have the least shelter she will erect four or five, or more, and will proportionately increase the prosperity and the population of the colony. And indeed we find that all species of bees existing in cold and temperate regions have abandoned this primitive method. The intelligent initiative of the insect has evidently received the sanction of natural selection, which has allowed only the most numerous and best protected tribes to survive our winters. What had been merely an idea, therefore, and opposed to instinct, has thus by slow degrees become an instinctive habit. But it is none the less true that in forsaking the vast light of nature that was so dear to them and seeking shelter in the obscure hollow of a tree or a cavern, the bees have followed what at first was an audacious idea, based on observation, probably, on experience and reasoning. And this idea might be almost declared to have been as important to the destinies of the domestic bee as was the invention of fire to the destinies of man.


This great progress, not the less actual for being hereditary and ancient, was followed by an infinite variety of details which prove that the industry, and even the policy, of the hive have not crystallized into infrangible formulæ. We have already mentioned the intelligent substitution of flour for pollen, and of an artificial cement for propolis. We have seen with what skill the bees are able to adapt to their needs the occasionally disconcerting dwellings into which they are introduced, and the surprising adroitness wherewith they turn combs of foundation-wax to good account. They display extraordinary ingenuity in their manner of handling these marvelous combs, which are so strangely useful, and yet incomplete. In point of fact, they meet man half-way. Let us imagine that we had for centuries past been erecting cities, not with stones, bricks, and lime, but with some pliable substance painfully secreted by special organs of our body. One day an all-powerful being places us in the midst of a fabulous city. We recognize that it is made of a substance similar to the one that we secrete, but, as regards the rest, it is a dream, whereof what is logical is so distorted, so reduced, and as it were concentrated, as to be more disconcerting almost than had it been incoherent. Our habitual plan is there; in fact, we find everything that we had expected; but all has been put together by some antecedent force that would seem to have crushed it, arrested it in the mould, and to have hindered its completion. The houses whose height must attain some four or five yards are the merest protuberances, that our two hands can cover. Thousands of walls are indicated by signs that hint at once of their plan and material. Elsewhere there are marked deviations, which must be corrected; gaps to be filled and harmoniously joined to the rest, vast surfaces that are unstable and will need support. The enterprise is hopeful, but full of hardship and danger. It would seem to have been conceived by some sovereign intelligence, that was able to divine most of our desires, but has executed them clumsily, being hampered by its very vastness. We must disentangle, therefore, what now is obscure, we must develop the least intentions of the supernatural donor; we must build in a few days what would ordinarily take us years; we must renounce organic habits, and fundamentally alter our methods of labor. It is certain that all the attention man could devote would not be excessive for the solution of the problems that would arise, or for the turning to fullest account the help thus offered by a magnificent providence. Yet that is, more or less, what the bees are doing in our modern hives. [note 2]

[note 2] As we are now concerned with the construction of the bee, we may note, in passing, a strange peculiarity of the Apis Florea. Certain walls of its cells for males are cylindrical instead of hexagonal. Apparently she has not yet succeeded in passing from one form to the other, and indefinitely adopting the better.


I have said that even the policy of the bees is probably subject to change. This point is the obscurest of all, and the most difficult to verify. I shall not dwell on their various methods of treating the queens, or the laws as to swarming that are peculiar to the inhabitants of every hive, and apparently transmitted from generation to generation, etc.; but by the side of these facts which are not sufficiently established are others so precise and unvarying as to prove that the same degree of political civilization has not been attained by all races of the domestic bee, and that, among some of them, the public spirit still is groping its way, seeking perhaps another solution of the royal problem. The Syrian bee, for instance, habitually rears 120 queens and often more, whereas our Apis Mellifica will rear ten or twelve at most. Cheshire tells of a Syrian hive, in no way abnormal, where 120 dead queen-mothers were found, and 90 living, unmolested queens. This may be the point of departure, or the point of arrival, of a strange social evolution, which it would be interesting to study more thoroughly. We may add that as far as the rearing of queens is concerned, the Cyprian bee approximates to the Syrian. And finally, there is yet another fact which establishes still more clearly that the customs and prudent organization of the hive are not the results of a primitive impulse, mechanically followed through different ages and climates, but that the spirit which governs the little republic is fully as capable of taking note of new conditions and turning these to the best advantage, as in times long past it was capable of meeting the dangers that hemmed it around. Transport our black bee to California or Australia, and her habits will completely alter. Finding that summer is perpetual and flowers forever abundant, she will after one or two years be content to live from day to day, and gather sufficient honey and pollen for the day's consumption; and, her thoughtful observation of these new features triumphing over hereditary experience, she will cease to make provision for the winter. [note 3] In fact it becomes necessary, in order to stimulate her activity, to deprive her systematically of the fruits of her labor.

[note 3] Büchner cites an analogous fact. In the Barbados, the bees whose hives are in the midst of the refineries, where they find sugar in abundance during the whole year, will entirely abandon their visits to the flowers.


So much for what our own eyes can see. It will be admitted that we have mentioned some curious facts, which by no means support the theory that every intelligence is arrested, every future clearly defined, save only the intelligence and future of man.

But if we choose to accept for one moment the hypothesis of evolution, the spectacle widens, and its uncertain, grandiose light soon attains our own destinies. Whoever brings careful attention to bear will scarcely deny, even though it be not evident, the presence in nature of a will that tends to raise a portion of matter to a subtler and perhaps better condition, and to penetrate its substance little by little with a mystery-laden fluid that we at first term life, then instinct, and finally intelligence; a will that, for an end we know not, organizes, strengthens, and facilitates the existence of all that is. There can be no certainty, and yet many instances invite us to believe that, were an actual estimate possible, the quantity of matter that has raised itself from its beginnings would be found to be ever increasing. A fragile remark, I admit, but the only one we can make on the hidden force that leads us; and it stands for much in a world where confidence in life, until certitude to the contrary reach us, must remain the first of all our duties, at times even when life itself conveys no encouraging clearness to us.

I know all that may be urged against the theory of evolution. In its favor are numerous proofs and most powerful arguments, which yet do not carry irresistible conviction. We must beware of abandoning ourselves unreservedly to the prevailing truths of our time. A hundred years hence, many chapters of a book instinct today with this truth, will appear as ancient as the philosophical writings of the eighteenth century seem to us now, full as they are of a too perfect and non-existing man, or as so many works of the seventeenth century, whose value is lessened by their conception of a harsh and narrow god.

Nevertheless, when it is impossible to know what the truth of a thing may be, it is well to accept the hypothesis that appeals the most urgently to the reason of men at the period when we happen to have come into the world. The chances are that it will be false; but so long as we believe it to be true it will serve a useful purpose by restoring our courage and stimulating research in a new direction. It might at the first glance seem wiser, perhaps, instead of advancing these ingenious suppositions, simply to say the profound truth, which is that we do not know. But this truth could only be helpful were it written that we never shall know. In the meanwhile it would induce a state of stagnation within us more pernicious than the most vexatious illusions. We are so constituted that nothing takes us further or leads us higher than the leaps made by our errors. In point of fact we owe the little we have learned to hypotheses that were always hazardous and often absurd, and, as a general rule, less discreet than they are today. They were unwise, perhaps, but they kept alive the ardor for research. To the traveler, shivering with cold, who reaches the human Hostelry, it matters little whether he by whose side he seats himself, he who has guarded the hearth, be blind or very old. So long as the fire still burn that he has been watching, he has done as much as the best could have done. Well for us if we can transmit this ardor, not as we received it, but added to by ourselves; and nothing will add to it more than this hypothesis of evolution, which goads us to question with an ever severer method and ever increasing zeal all that exists on the earth's surface and in its entrails, in the depths of the sea and expanse of the sky. Reject it, and what can we set up against it, what can we put in its place? There is but the grand confession of scientific ignorance, aware of its knowing nothing--but this is habitually sluggish, and calculated to discourage the curiosity more needful to man than wisdom--or the hypothesis of the fixity of the species and of divine creation, which is less demonstrable than the other, banishes for all time the living elements of the problem, and explains nothing.


Of wild bees approximately 4500 varieties are known. It need scarcely be said that we shall not go through the list. Some day, perhaps, a profound study, and searching experiments and observations of a kind hitherto unknown, that would demand more than one lifetime, will throw a decisive light upon the history of the bee's evolution. All that we can do now is to enter this veiled region of supposition, and, discarding all positive statement, attempt to follow a tribe of hymenoptera in their progress toward a more intelligent existence, toward a little more security and comfort, lightly indicating the salient features of this ascension that is spread over many thousands of years. The tribe in question is already known to us; it is that of the "Apiens," whose essential characteristics are so distinct and well-marked that one is inclined to credit all its members with one common ancestor. [note 4]

The disciples of Darwin, Hermann Müller among others, consider a little wild bee, the Prosopis, which is to be found all over the universe, as the actual representative of the primitive bee whence all have issued that are known to us today.

The unfortunate Prosopis stands more or less in the same relation to the inhabitants of our hives as the cave-dwellers to the fortunate who live in our great cities. You will probably more than once have seen her fluttering about the bushes, in a deserted corner of your garden, without realizing that you were carelessly watching the venerable ancestor to whom we probably owe most of our flowers and fruits (for it is actually estimated that more than a hundred thousand varieties of plants would disappear if the bees did not visit them) and possibly even our civilization, for in these mysteries all things intertwine. She is nimble and attractive, the variety most common in France being elegantly marked with white on a black background. But this elegance hides an inconceivable poverty. She leads a life of starvation. She is almost naked, whereas her sisters are clad in a warm and sumptuous fleece. She has not, like the Apidæ, baskets to gather the pollen, nor, in their default, the tuft of the Andrenæ, nor the ventral brush of the Gastrilegidæ. Her tiny claws must laboriously gather the powder from the calices, which powder she needs must swallow in order to take it back to her lair. She has no implements other than her tongue, her mouth and her claws; but her tongue is too short, her legs are feeble, and her mandibles without strength. Unable to produce wax, bore holes through wood, or dig in the earth, she contrives clumsy galleries in the tender pith of dry berries; erects a few awkward cells, stores these with a little food for the offspring she will never see; and then, having accomplished this poor task of hers, that tends she knows not whither and of whose aim we are no less ignorant, she goes off and dies in a corner, as solitarily as she had lived.

[note 4] It is important that the terms we shall successively employ, adopting the classification of M. Émile Blanchard,--"APIENS, APIDÆ and APITÆ,"--should not be confounded. The tribe of the Apiens comprises all families of bees. The Apidæ constitute the first of these families, and are subdivided into three groups: the Meliponæ, the Apitæ, and the Bombi (humble-bees). And, finally, the Apitæ include all the different varieties of our domestic bees.


We shall pass over many intermediary species, wherein we may see the gradual lengthening of the tongue, enabling more nectar to be extracted from the cups of corollas, and the dawning formation and subsequent development of the apparatus for collecting pollen,--hairs, tufts, brushes on the tibia, on the tarsus, and abdomen,--as also claws and mandibles becoming stronger, useful secretions being formed, and the genius that presides over the construction of dwellings seeking and finding extraordinary improvement in every direction. Such a study would need a whole volume. I will merely outline a chapter of it, less than a chapter, a page, which shall show how the hesitating endeavors of the will to live and be happier result in the birth, development, and affirmation of social intelligence.

We have seen the unfortunate Prosopis silently bearing her solitary little destiny in the midst of this vast universe charged with terrible forces. A certain number of her sisters, belonging to species already more skillful and better supplied with utensils, such as the well-clad Colletes, or the marvelous cutter of rose leaves, the Megachile Centuncularis, live in an isolation no less profound; and if by chance some creature attach itself to them, and share their dwelling, it will either be an enemy, or, more often, a parasite.

For the world of bees is peopled with phantoms stranger than our own; and many a species will thus have a kind of mysterious and inactive double, exactly similar to the victim it has selected, save only that its immemorial idleness has caused it to lose one by one its implements of labor, and that it exists solely at the expense of the working type of its race. [note 5]

Among the bees, however, which are somewhat too arbitrarily termed the "solitary Apidæ," the social instinct already is smoldering, like a flame crushed beneath the overwhelming weight of matter that stifles all primitive life. And here and there, in unexpected directions, as though reconnoitering, with timid and sometimes fantastic outbursts, it will succeed in piercing the mass that oppresses it, the pyre that some day shall feed its triumph.

If in this world all things be matter, this is surely its most immaterial movement. Transition is called for from a precarious, egotistic and incomplete life to a life that shall be fraternal, a little more certain, a little more happy. The spirit must ideally unite that which in the body is actually separate; the individual must sacrifice himself for the race, and substitute for visible things the things that cannot be seen. Need we wonder that the bees do not at the first glance realize that we have not yet disentangled, we who find ourselves at the privileged spot whence instinct radiates from all sides into our consciousness? And it is curious too, almost touching, to see how the new idea gropes its way, at first, in the darkness that enfolds all things that come to life on this earth. It emerges from matter, it is still quite material. It is cold, hunger, fear, transformed into something that as yet has no shape. It crawls vaguely around great dangers, around the long nights, the approach of winter, of an equivocal sleep which almost is death. . . .

[note 5] The humble-bee,, for instance, have the Psithyri as parasites, while the Stelites live on the Anthidia. "As regards the frequent identity of the parasite with its victim," M. J. Perez very justly remarks in his book "The Bees," "one must necessarily admit that the two genera are only different forms of the same type, and are united to each other by the closest affinity. And to naturalists who believe in the theory of evolution this relationship is not purely ideal, but real. The parasitic genes must be regarded as merely a branch of the foraging genus, having lost its foraging organs because of its adaptation to parasitic life."


The Xylocoplæ are powerful bees which worm their nest in dry wood. Their life is solitary always. Toward the end of summer, however, some individuals of a particular species, the Xylocopa Cyanescens, may be found huddled together in a shivering group, on a stalk of asphodel, to spend the winter in common. Among the Xylocopæ this tardy fraternity is exceptional, but among the Ceratinæ, which are of their nearest kindred, it has become a constant habit. The idea is germinating. It halts immediately; and hitherto has not succeeded, among the Xylocopæ, in passing beyond this first obscure line of love.

Among other Apiens, this groping idea assumes other forms. The Chalicodomæ of the out-houses, which are building-bees, the Dasypodæ and Halicti, which dig holes in the earth, unite in large colonies to construct their nests. But it is an illusory crowd composed of solitary units, that possess no mutual understanding, and do not act in common. Each one is profoundly isolated in the midst of the multitude, and builds a dwelling for itself alone, heedless of its neighbor. "They are," M. Perez remarks, "a mere congregation of individuals, brought together by similar tastes and habits, but observing scrupulously the maxim of each one for itself; in fact, a mere mob of workers, resembling the swarm of a hive only as regards their number and zeal. Such assemblies merely result from a great number of individuals inhabiting the same locality."

But when we come to the Panurgi, which are cousins to the Dasypodæ, a little ray of light suddenly reveals the birth of a new sentiment in this fortuitous crowd. They collect in the same way as the others, and each one digs its own subterranean chambers; but the entrance is common to all, as also the gallery which leads from the surface of the ground to the different cells. "And thus," M. Perez adds, "as far as the work of the cells is concerned, each bee acts as though she were alone; but all make equal use of the gallery that conducts to the cells, so that the multitude profit by the labors of an individual, and are spared the time and trouble required for the construction of separate galleries. It would be interesting to discover whether this preliminary work be not executed in common, by relays of females, relieving each other in turn."

However this may be, the fraternal idea has pierced the wall that divided two worlds. It is no longer wild and unrecognizable, wrested from instinct by cold and hunger, or by the fear of death; it is prompted by active life. But it halts once more; and in this instance arrives no further. No matter, it does not lose courage; it will seek other channels. It enters the humble-bee, and, maturing there, becomes embodied in a different atmosphere, and works its first decisive miracles.


The humble-bees, the great hairy, noisy creatures that all of us know so well, so harmless for all their apparent fierceness, lead a solitary life at first. At the beginning of March the impregnated female who has survived the winter starts to construct her nest, either underground or in a bush, according to the species to which she belongs. She is alone in the world, in the midst of awakening spring. She chooses a spot, clears it, digs it and carpets it. Then she erects her somewhat shapeless waxen cells, stores these with honey and pollen, lays and hatches the eggs, tends and nourishes the larvæ that spring to life, and soon is surrounded by a troop of daughters who aid her in all her labors, within the nest and without, while some of them soon begin to lay in their turn. The construction of the cells improves; the colony grows, the comfort increases. The foundress is still its soul, its principal mother, and finds herself now at the head of a kingdom which might be the model of that of our honey-bee. But the model is still in the rough. The prosperity of the humble-bees never exceeds a certain limit, their laws are ill-defined and ill-obeyed, primitive cannibalism and infanticide reappear at intervals, the architecture is shapeless and entails much waste of material; but the cardinal difference between the two cities is that the one is permanent, and the other ephemeral. For, indeed, that of the humble-bee will perish in the autumn; its three or four hundred inhabitants will die, leaving no trace of their passage or their endeavors; and but a single female will survive, who, the next spring, in the same solitude and poverty as her mother before her, will recommence the same useless work. The idea, however, has now grown aware of its strength. Among the humble-bees it goes no further than we have stated, but, faithful to its habits and pursuing its usual routine, it will immediately undergo a sort of unwearying metempsychosis, and reincarnate itself, trembling with its last triumph, rendered all powerful now and nearly perfect, in another group, the last but one of the race, that which immediately precedes our domestic bee wherein it attains its crown; the group of the Meliponitæ, which comprises the tropical Meliponæ and Trigonæ.


Here the organization is as complete as in our hives. There is an unique mother, there are sterile workers and males. Certain details even seem better devised. The males, for instance, are not wholly idle; they secrete wax. The entrance to the hive is more carefully guarded; it has a door that can be closed when nights are cold, and when these are warm a kind of curtain will admit the air.

But the republic is less strong, general life less assured, prosperity more limited, than with our bees; and wherever these are introduced, the Meliponitæ tend to disappear before them. In both races the fraternal idea has undergone equal and magnificent development, save in one point alone, wherein it achieves no further advance among the Meliponitæ than among the limited offspring of the humble-bees. In the mechanical organization of distributed labor, in the precise economy of effort; briefly, in the architecture of the city, they display manifest inferiority. As to this I need only refer to what I said in section 42 of this book, while adding that, whereas in the hives of our apitæ all the cells are equally available for the rearing of the brood and the storage of provisions, and endure as long as the city itself, they serve only one of these purposes among the Meliponitæ, and the cells employed as cradles for the nymphs are destroyed after these have been hatched. [note 6] It is in our domestic bees, therefore, that the idea, of whose movements we have given a cursory and incomplete picture, attains its most perfect form. Are these movements definitely, and for all time, arrested in each one of these species, and does the connecting-line exist in our imagination alone? Let us not be too eager to establish a system in this ill-explored region. Let our conclusions be only provisional, and preferentially such as convey the utmost hope, for, were a choice forced upon us, occasional gleams would appear to declare that the inferences we are most desirous to draw will prove to be truest. Besides, let us not forget that our ignorance still is profound. We are only learning to open our eyes. A thousand experiments that could be made have as yet not even been tried. If the Prosopes, for instance, were imprisoned, and forced to cohabit with their kind, would they, in course of time, overstep the iron barrier of total solitude, and be satisfied to live the common life of the Dasypodæ, or to put forth the fraternal effort of the Panurgi? And if we imposed abnormal conditions upon the Panurgi, would these, in their turn, progress from a general corridor to general cells? If the mothers of the humble-bees were compelled to hibernate together, would they arrive at a mutual understanding, a mutual division of labor? Have combs of foundation-wax been offered to the Meliponitæ? Would they accept them, would they make use of them, would they conform their habits to this unwonted architecture? Questions, these, that we put to very tiny creatures; and yet they contain the great word of our greatest secrets. We cannot answer them, for our experience dates but from yesterday. Starting with Réaumur, about a hundred and fifty years have elapsed since the habits of wild bees first received attention. Réaumur was acquainted with only a few of them; we have since then observed a few more; but hundreds, thousands, perhaps, have hitherto been noticed only by hasty and ignorant travelers. The habits of those that are known to us have undergone no change since the author of the "Memoirs" published his valuable work; and the humble-bees, all powdered with gold, and vibrant as the sun's delectable murmur, that in the year 1730 gorged themselves with honey in the gardens of Charenton, were absolutely identical with those that tomorrow, when April returns, will be humming in the woods of Vincennes, but a few yards away. From Réaumur's day to our own, however, is but as the twinkling of an eye; and many lives of men, placed end to end, form but a second in the history of Nature's thought.

[note 6] It is not certain that the principle of unique royalty, or maternity, is strictly observed among the Meliponitæ. Blanchard remarks very justly, that as they possess no sting and are consequently less readily able than the mothers of our own bees to kill each other, several queens wilt probably live together in the same hive. But certainty on this point has hitherto been unattainable owing to the great resemblance that exists between queens and workers, as also to the impossibility of rearing the Meliponitæ in our climate.


Although the idea that our eyes have followed attains its supreme expression in our domestic bees, it must not be inferred therefrom that the hive reveals no faults. There is one masterpiece, the hexagonal cell, that touches absolute perfection,--a perfection that all the geniuses in the world, were they to meet in conclave, could in no way enhance. No living creature, not even man, has achieved, in the center of his sphere, what the bee has achieved in her own; and were some one from another world to descend and ask of the earth the most perfect creation of the logic of life, we should needs have to offer the humble comb of honey.

But the level of this perfection is not maintained throughout. We have already dealt with a few faults and shortcomings, evident sometimes and sometimes mysterious, such as the ruinous superabundance and idleness of the males, parthenogenesis, the perils of the nuptial flight, excessive swarming, the absence of pity, and the almost monstrous sacrifice of the individual to society. To these must be added a strange inclination to store enormous masses of pollen, far in excess of their needs; for the pollen, soon turning rancid, and hardening, encumbers the surface of the comb; and further, the long sterile interregnum between the date of the first swarm and the impregnation of the second queen, etc., etc.

Of these faults the gravest, the only one which in our climates is invariably fatal, is the repeated swarming. But here we must bear in mind that the natural selection of the domestic bee has for thousands of years been thwarted by man. From the Egyptian of the time of Pharaoh to the peasant of our own day, the bee-keeper has always acted in opposition to the desires and advantages of the race. The most prosperous hives are those which throw only one swarm after the beginning of summer. They have fulfilled their maternal duties, assured the maintenance of the stock and the necessary renewal of queens; they have guaranteed the future of the swarm, which, being precocious and ample in numbers, has time to erect solid and well-stored dwellings before the arrival of autumn. If left to themselves, it is clear that these hives and their offshoots would have been the only ones to survive the rigors of winter, which would almost invariably have destroyed colonies animated by different instincts; and the law of restricted swarming would therefore by slow degrees have established itself in our northern races. But it is precisely these prudent, opulent, acclimatized hives that man has always destroyed in order to possess himself of their treasure. He has permitted only--he does so to this day in ordinary practice--the feeblest colonies to survive; degenerate stock, secondary or tertiary swarms, which have just barely sufficient food to subsist through the winter, or whose miserable store he will supplement perhaps with a few droppings of honey. The result is probably, that the race has grown feebler, that the tendency to excessive swarming has been hereditarily developed, and that today almost all our bees, particularly the black ones, swarm too often. For some years now the new methods of "movable" apiculture have gone some way toward correcting this dangerous habit; and when we reflect how rapidly artificial selection acts on most of our domestic animals, such as oxen, dogs, pigeons, sheep and horses, it is permissible to believe that we shall before long have a race of bees that will entirely renounce natural swarming and devote all their activity to the collection of honey and pollen.


But for the other faults: might not an intelligence that possessed a clearer consciousness of the aim of common life emancipate itself from them? Much might be said concerning these faults, which emanate now from what is unknown to us in the hive, now from swarming and its resultant errors, for which we are partly to blame. But let every man judge for himself, and, having seen what has gone before, let him grant or deny intelligence to the bees, as he may think proper. I am not eager to defend them. It seems to me that in many circumstances they give proof of understanding, but my curiosity would not be less were all that they do done blindly. It is interesting to watch a brain possessed of extraordinary resources within itself wherewith it may combat cold and hunger, death, time, space, and solitude, all the enemies of matter that is springing to life; but should a creature succeed in maintaining its little profound and complicated existence without overstepping the boundaries of instinct, without doing anything but what is ordinary, that would be very interesting too, and very extraordinary. Restore the ordinary and the marvelous to their veritable place in the bosom of nature, and their values shift; one equals the other. We find that their names are usurped; and that it is not they, but the things we cannot understand or explain that should arrest our attention, refresh our activity, and give a new and juster form to our thoughts and feelings and words. There is wisdom in attaching oneself to nought beside.


And further, our intellect is not the proper tribunal before which to summon the bees, and pass their faults in review. Do we not find, among ourselves, that consciousness and intellect long will dwell in the midst of errors and faults without perceiving them, longer still without effecting a remedy? If a being exist whom his destiny calls upon most specially, almost organically, to live and to organize common life in accordance with pure reason, that being is man. And yet see what he makes of it, compare the mistakes of the hive with those of our own society. How should we marvel, for instance, were we bees observing men, as we noted the unjust, illogical distribution of work among a race of creatures that in other directions appear to manifest eminent reason! We should find the earth's surface, unique source of all common life, insufficiently, painfully cultivated by two or three tenths of the whole population; we should find another tenth absolutely idle, usurping the larger share of the products of this first labor; and the remaining seven-tenths condemned to a life of perpetual half-hunger, ceaselessly exhausting themselves in strange and sterile efforts whereby they never shall profit, but only shall render more complex and more inexplicable still the life of the idle. We should conclude that the reason and moral sense of these beings must belong to a world entirely different from our own, and that they must obey principles hopelessly beyond our comprehension. But let us carry this review of our faults no further. They are always present in our thoughts, though their presence achieves but little. From century to century only will one of them for a moment shake off its slumber, and send forth a bewildered cry; stretch the aching arm that supported its head, shift its position, and then lie down and fall asleep once more, until a new pain, born of the dreary fatigue of repose, awaken it afresh.


The evolution of the Apiens, or at least of the Apitæ, being admitted, or regarded as more probable than that they should have remained stationary, let us now consider the general, constant direction that this evolution takes. It seems to follow the same roads as with ourselves. It tends palpably to lessen the struggle, insecurity, and wretchedness of the race, to augment authority and comfort, and stimulate favorable chances. To this end it will unhesitatingly sacrifice the individual, bestowing general strength and happiness in exchange for the illusory and mournful independence of solitude. It is as though Nature were of the opinion with which Thucydides credits Pericles: viz., that individuals are happier in the bosom of a prosperous city, even though they suffer themselves, than when individually prospering in the midst of a languishing state. It protects the hard-working slave in the powerful city, while those who have no duties, whose association is only precarious, are abandoned to the nameless, formless enemies who dwell in the minutes of time, in the movements of the universe, and in the recesses of space. This is not the moment to discuss the scheme of nature, or to ask ourselves whether it would be well for man to follow it; but it is certain that wherever the infinite mass allows us to seize the appearance of an idea, the appearance takes this road whereof we know not the end. Let it be enough that we note the persistent care with which nature preserves, and fixes in the evolving race, all that has been won from the hostile inertia of matter. She records each happy effort, and contrives we know not what special and benevolent laws to counteract the inevitable recoil. This progress, whose existence among the most intelligent species can scarcely be denied, has perhaps no aim beyond its initial impetus, and knows not whither it goes. But at least, in a world where nothing save a few facts of this kind indicates a precise will, it is significant enough that we should see certain creatures rising thus, slowly and continuously; and should the bees have revealed to us only this mysterious spiral of light in the overpowering darkness, that were enough to induce us not to regret the time we have given to their little gestures and humble habits, which seem so far away and are yet so nearly akin to our grand passions and arrogant destinies.


It may be that these things are all vain; and that our own spiral of light, no less than that of the bees, has been kindled for no other purpose save that of amusing the darkness. So, too, is it possible that some stupendous incident may suddenly surge from without, from another world, from a new phenomenon, and either inform this effort with definitive meaning, or definitively destroy it. But we must proceed on our way as though nothing abnormal could ever befall us. Did we know that tomorrow some revelation, a message, for instance, from a more ancient, more luminous planet than ours, were to root up our nature, to suppress the laws, the passions, and radical truths of our being, our wisest plan still would be to devote the whole of today to the study of these passions, these laws, and these truths, which must blend and accord in our mind; and to remain faithful to the destiny imposed on us, which is to subdue, and to some extent raise within and around us the obscure forces of life. None of these, perhaps, will survive the new revelation; but the soul of those who shall up to the end have fulfilled the mission that is pre-eminently the mission of man, must inevitably be in the front rank of all to welcome this revelation; and should they learn therefrom that indifference, or resignation to the unknown, is the veritable duty, they will be better equipped than the others for the comprehension of this final resignation and indifference, better able to turn these to account.


But such speculations may well be avoided. Let not the possibility of general annihilation blur our perception of the task before us: above all, let us not count on the miraculous aid of chance. Hitherto, the promises of our imagination notwithstanding, we have always been left to ourselves, to our own resources. It is to our humblest efforts that every useful, enduring achievement of this earth is due. It is open to us, if we choose, to await the better or worse that may follow some alien accident, but on condition that such expectation shall not hinder our human task. Here again do the bees, as Nature always, provide a most excellent lesson. In the hive there has truly been prodigious intervention. The bees are in the hands of a power capable of annihilating or modifying their race, of transforming their destinies; the bees' thraldom is far more definite than our own. Therefore none the less do they perform their profound and primitive duty. And, among them, it is precisely those whose obedience to duty is most complete who are able most fully to profit by the supernatural intervention that today has raised the destiny of their species. And indeed, to discover the unconquerable duty of a being is less difficult than one imagines. It is ever to be read in the distinguishing organs, whereto the others are all subordinate. And just as it is written in the tongue, the stomach, and mouth of the bee that it must make honey, so is it written in our eyes, our ears, our nerves, our marrow, in every lobe of our head, that we must make cerebral substance; nor is there need that we should divine the purpose this substance shall serve. The bees know not whether they will eat the honey they harvest, as we know not who it is shall reap the profit of the cerebral substance we shall have formed, or of the intelligent fluid that issues therefrom and spreads over the universe, perishing when our life ceases or persisting after our death. As they go from flower to flower collecting more honey than themselves and their offspring can need, let us go from reality to reality seeking food for the incomprehensible flame, and thus, certain of having fulfilled our organic duty, preparing ourselves for whatever befall. Let us nourish this flame on our feelings and passions, on all that we see and think, that we hear and touch, on its own essence, which is the idea it derives from the discoveries, experience and observation that result from its every movement. A time then will come when all things will turn so naturally to good in a spirit that has given itself to the loyal desire of this simple human duty, that the very suspicion of the possible aimlessness of its exhausting effort will only render the duty the clearer, will only add more purity, power, disinterestedness, and freedom to the ardor wherewith it still seeks.

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