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THE FOUNDATION OF THE CITY




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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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



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

The same naturalist cites yet another proof of the bees' lack of
intelligence, and discovers it in the following quotation from the
great American apiarist, the venerable and paternal Langstroth:--

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

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

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

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



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

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





Next: THE LIFE OF THE BEE

Previous: THE SWARM



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