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IT is not my intention to write a treatise on apiculture, or on

practical bee-keeping. Excellent works of the kind abound in all

civilised countries, and it were useless to attempt another. France

has those of Dadant, Georges de Layens and Bonnier, Bertrand, Hamet,

Weber, Clement, the Abbe Collin, etc. English-speaking countries

have Langstroth, Bevan, Cook, Cheshire, Cowan, Root, etc. Germany

has Dzierzon, Van Berlesp
ch, Pollmann, Vogel, and many others.

Nor is this book to be a scientific monograph on Apis Mellifica,

Ligustica, Fasciata, Dorsata, etc., or a collection of new

observations and studies. I shall say scarcely anything that those

will not know who are somewhat familiar with bees. The notes and

experiments I have made during my twenty years of beekeeping I shall

reserve for a more technical work; for their interest is necessarily

of a special and limited nature, and I am anxious not to over-burden

this essay. I wish to speak of the bees very simply, as one speaks

of a subject one knows and loves to those who know it not. I do not

intend to adorn the truth, or merit the just reproach Reaumur

addressed to his predecessors in the study of our honey-flies, whom

he accused of substituting for the marvellous reality marvels that

were imaginary and merely plausible. The fact that the hive contains

so much that is wonderful does not warrant our seeking to add to its

wonders. Besides, I myself have now for a long time ceased to look

for anything more beautiful in this world, or more interesting, than

the truth; or at least than the effort one is able to make towards

the truth. I shall state nothing, therefore, that I have not

verified myself, or that is not so fully accepted in the text-books

as to render further verification superfluous. My facts shall be as

accurate as though they appeared in a practical manual or scientific

monograph, but I shall relate them in a somewhat livelier fashion

than such works would allow, shall group them more harmoniously

together, and blend them with freer and more mature reflections. The

reader of this book will not learn therefrom how to manage a hive;

but he will know more or less all that can with any certainty be

known of the curious, profound, and intimate side of its

inhabitants. Nor will this be at the cost of what still remains to

be learned. I shall pass over in silence the hoary traditions that,

in the country and many a book, still constitute the legend of the

hive. Whenever there be doubt, disagreement, hypothesis, when I

arrive at the unknown, I shall declare it loyally; you will find

that we often shall halt before the unknown. Beyond the appreciable

facts of their life we know but little of the bees. And the closer

our acquaintance becomes, the nearer is our ignorance brought to us

of the depths of their real existence; but such ignorance is better

than the other kind, which is unconscious, and satisfied.

Does an analogous work on the bee exist? I believe I have read

almost all that has been written on bees; but of kindred matter I

know only Michelet's chapter at the end of his book "The Insect,"

and Ludwig Buchner's essay in his "Mind in Animals." Michelet merely

hovers on the fringe of his subject; Buchner's treatise is

comprehensive enough, but contains so many hazardous statements, so

much long-discarded gossip and hearsay, that I suspect him of never

having left his library, never having set forth himself to question

his heroines, or opened one of the many hundreds of rustling,

wing-lit hives which we must profane before our instinct can be

attuned to their secret, before we can perceive the spirit and

atmosphere, perfume and mystery, of these virgin daughters of toil.

The book smells not of the bee, or its honey; and has the defects of

many a learned work, whose conclusions often are preconceived, and

whose scientific attainment is composed of a vast array of doubtful

anecdotes collected on every side. But in this essay of mine we

rarely shall meet each other; for our starting-point, our aim, and

our point of view are all very different.

The bibliography of the bee (we will begin with the books so as to

get rid of them as soon as we can and go to the source of the books)

is very extensive. From the beginning this strange little creature,

that lived in a society under complicated laws and executed

prodigious labours in the darkness, attracted the notice of men.

Aristotle, Cato, Varro, Pliny, Columella, Palladius all studied the

bees; to say nothing of Aristomachus, who, according to Cicero,

watched them for fifty-eight years, and of Phyliscus, whose writings

are lost. But these dealt rather with the legend of the bee; and all

that we can gather therefrom--which indeed is exceedingly little--we

may find condensed in the fourth book of Virgil's Georgics.

The real history of the bee begins in the seventeenth century, with

the discoveries of the great Dutch savant Swammerdam. It is well,

however, to add this detail, but little known: before Swammerdam a

Flemish naturalist named Clutius had arrived at certain important

truths, such as the sole maternity of the queen and her possession

of the attributes of both sexes, but he had left these unproved.

Swammerdam founded the true methods of scientific investigation; he

invented the microscope, contrived injections to ward off decay, was

the first to dissect the bees, and by the discovery of the ovaries

and the oviduct definitely fixed the sex of the queen, hitherto

looked upon as a king, and threw the whole political scheme of the

hive into most unexpected light by basing it upon maternity. Finally

he produced woodcuts and engravings so perfect that to this day they

serve to illustrate many books on apiculture. He lived in the

turbulent, restless Amsterdam of those days, regretting "Het Zoete

Buiten Leve "--The Sweet Life of the Country--and died, worn-out

with work, at the age of forty-three. He wrote in a pious, formal

style, with beautiful, simple outbursts of a faith that, fearful of

falling away, ascribed all things to the glory of the Creator; and

embodied his observations and studies in his great work "Bybel der

Natuure," which the doctor Boerhave, a century later, caused to be

translated from the Dutch into Latin under the title of "Biblia

Naturae." (Leyden, 1737.)

Then came Reaumur, who, pursuing similar methods, made a vast number

of curious experiments and researches in his gardens at Charenton,

and devoted to the bees an entire volume of his "Notes to Serve for

a History of Insects." One may read it with profit to-day, and

without fatigue. It is clear, direct, and sincere, and possessed of

a certain hard, arid charm of its own. He sought especially the

destruction of ancient errors; he himself was responsible for

several new ones; he partially understood the formation of swarms

and the political establishment of queens; in a word, he discovered

many difficult truths, and paved the way for the discovery of more.

He fully appreciated the marvellous architecture of the hive; and

what he said on the subject has never been better said. It is to

him, too, that we owe the idea of the glass hives, which, having

since been perfected, enable us to follow the entire private life of

these fierce insects, whose work, begun in the dazzling sunshine,

receives its crown in the darkness. To be comprehensive, one should

mention also the somewhat subsequent works and investigations of

Charles Bonnet and Schirach (who solved the enigma of the royal

egg); but I will keep to the broad lines, and pass at once to

Francois Huber, the master and classic of contemporary apiarian


Huber was born in Geneva in 1750, and fell blind in his earliest

youth. The experiments of Reaumur interested him; he sought to

verify them, and soon becoming passionately absorbed in these

researches, eventually, with the assistance of an intelligent and

faithful servant, Francois Burnens, devoted his entire life to the

study of the bee. In the annals of human suffering and human triumph

there is nothing more touching, no lesson more admirable, than the

story of this patient collaboration, wherein the one who saw only

with immaterial light guided with his spirit the eyes and hands of

the other who had the real earthly vision; where he who, as we are

assured, had never with his own eyes beheld a comb of honey, was yet

able, notwithstanding the veil on his dead eyes that rendered double

the veil in which nature enwraps all things, to penetrate the

profound secrets of the genius that had made this invisible comb; as

though to teach us that no condition in life can warrant our

abandoning our desire and search for the truth. I will not enumerate

all that apiarian science owes to Huber; to state what it does not

owe were the briefer task. His "New Observations on Bees," of which

the first volume was written in 1789, in the form of letters to

Charles Bonnet, the second not appearing till twenty years later,

have remained the unfailing, abundant treasure into which every

subsequent writer has dipped. And though a few mistakes may be found

therein, a few incomplete truths; though since his time considerable

additions have been made to the micrography and practical culture of

bees, the handling of queens, etc., there is not a single one of his

principal statements that has been disproved, or discovered in

error; and in our actual experience they stand untouched, and indeed

at its very foundation.

Some years of silence followed these revelations; but soon a German

clergyman, Dzierzon, discovered parthenogenesis, _i. e._ the

virginal parturition of queens, and contrived the first hive with

movable combs, thereby enabling the bee-keeper henceforth to take

his share of the harvest of honey, without being forced to destroy

his best colonies and in one instant annihilate the work of an

entire year. This hive, still very imperfect, received masterly

improvement at the hands of Langstroth, who invented the movable

frame properly so called, which has been adopted in America with

extraordinary success. Root, Quinby, Dadant, Cheshire, De Layens,

Cowan, Heddon, Howard, etc., added still further and precious

improvement. Then it occurred to Mehring that if bees were supplied

with combs that had an artificial waxen foundation, they would be

spared the labour of fashioning the wax and constructing the cells,

which costs them much honey and the best part of their time; he

found that the bees accepted these combs most readily, and adapted

them to their requirements.

Major de Hruschka invented the Honey-Extractor, which enables the

honey to be withdrawn by centrifugal force without breaking the

combs, etc. And thus, in a few years, the methods of apiculture

underwent a radical change. The capacity and fruitfulness of the

hives were trebled. Great and productive apiaries arose on every

side. An end was put to the useless destruction of the most

industrious cities, and to the odious selection of the least fit

which was its result. Man truly became the master of the bees,

although furtively, and without their knowledge; directing all

things without giving an order, receiving obedience but not

recognition. For the destiny once imposed by the seasons he has

substituted his will. He repairs the injustice of the year, unites

hostile republics, and equalises wealth. He restricts or augments

the births, regulates the fecundity of the queen, dethrones her and

instals another in her place, after dexterously obtaining the

reluctant consent of a people who would be maddened at the mere

suspicion of an inconceivable intervention. When he thinks fit, he

will peacefully violate the secret of the sacred chambers, and the

elaborate, tortuous policy of the palace. He will five or six times

in succession deprive the bees of the fruit of their labour, without

harming them, without their becoming discouraged or even

impoverished. He proportions the store-houses and granaries of their

dwellings to the harvest of flowers that the spring is spreading

over the dip of the hills. He compels them to reduce the extravagant

number of lovers who await the birth of the royal princesses. In a

word he does with them what he will, he obtains what he will,

provided always that what he seeks be in accordance with their laws

and their virtues; for beyond all the desires of this strange god

who has taken possession of them, who is too vast to be seen and too

alien to be understood, their eyes see further than the eyes of the

god himself; and their one thought is the accomplishment, with

untiring sacrifice, of the mysterious duty of their race.

Let us now, having learned from books all that they had to teach us

of a very ancient history, leave the science others have acquired

and look at the bees with our own eyes. An hour spent in the midst

of the apiary will be less instructive, perhaps; but the things we

shall see will be infinitely more stimulating and more actual.

I have not yet forgotten the first apiary I saw, where I learned to

love the bees. It was many years ago, in a large village of Dutch

Flanders, the sweet and pleasant country whose love for brilliant

colour rivals that of Zealand even, the concave mirror of Holland; a

country that gladly spreads out before us, as so many pretty,

thoughtful toys, her illuminated gables, and waggons, and towers;

her cupboards and clocks that gleam at the end of the passage; her

little trees marshalled in line along quays and canal-banks,

waiting, one almost might think, for some quiet, beneficent

ceremony; her boats and her barges with sculptured poops, her

flower-like doors and windows, immaculate dams, and elaborate,

many-coloured drawbridges; and her little varnished houses, bright

as new pottery, from which bell-shaped dames come forth, all

a-glitter with silver and gold, to milk the cows in the white-hedged

fields, or spread the linen on flowery lawns, cut into patterns of

oval and lozenge, and most astoundingly green.

To this spot, where life would seem more restricted than

elsewhere--if it be possible for life indeed to become restricted--a

sort of aged philosopher had retired; an old man somewhat akin to


"Man equal to kings, and approaching the gods;"

whereto Lafontaine might have added,--

"And, like the gods, content and at rest."

Here had he built his refuge, being a little weary; not disgusted,

for the large aversions are unknown to the sage; but a little weary

of interrogating men, whose answers to the only interesting

questions one can put concerning nature and her veritable laws are

far less simple than those that are given by animals and plants. His

happiness, like the Scythian philosopher's, lay all in the beauties

of his garden; and best-loved and visited most often, was the

apiary, composed of twelve domes of straw, some of which he had

painted a bright pink, and some a clear yellow, but most of all a

tender blue; having noticed, long before Sir John Lubbock's

demonstrations, the bees' fondness for this colour.

These hives stood against the wall of the house, in the angle formed

by one of those pleasant and graceful Dutch kitchens whose

earthenware dresser, all bright with copper and tin, reflected

itself through the open door on to the peaceful canal. And the

water, burdened with these familiar images beneath its curtain of

poplars, led one's eyes to a calm horizon of mills and of meadows.

Here, as in all places, the hives lent a new meaning to the flowers

and the silence, the balm of the air and the rays of the sun. One

seemed to have drawn very near to the festival spirit of nature. One

was content to rest at this radiant crossroad, where the aerial ways

converge and divide that the busy and tuneful bearers of all country

perfumes unceasingly travel from dawn unto dusk. One heard the

musical voice of the garden, whose loveliest hours revealed their

rejoicing soul and sang of their gladness. One came hither, to the

school of the bees, to be taught the preoccupations of all-powerful

nature, the harmonious concord of the three kingdoms, the

indefatigable organisation of life, and the lesson of ardent and

disinterested work; and another lesson too, with a moral as good,

that the heroic workers taught there, and emphasised, as it were,

with the fiery darts of their myriad wings, was to appreciate the

somewhat vague savour of leisure, to enjoy the almost unspeakable

delights of those immaculate days that revolved on themselves in the

fields of space, forming merely a transparent globe, as void of

memory as the happiness without alloy.

In order to follow, as simply as possible, the life of the bees

through the year, we will take a hive that awakes in the spring and

duly starts on its labours; and then we shall meet, in their natural

order, all the great episodes, viz.: the formation and departure of

the swarm, the foundation of the new city, the birth, combat and

nuptial flight of the young queens, the massacre of the males, and

finally, the return of the sleep of winter. With each of these

episodes there will go the necessary explanations as to the laws,

habits, peculiarities and events that produce and accompany it; so

that, when arrived at the end of the bee's short year, which extends

only from April to the last days of September, we shall have gazed

upon all the mysteries of the palace of honey. Before we open it,

therefore, and throw a general glance around, we only need say that

the hive is composed of a queen, the mother of all her people; of

thousands of workers or neuters who are incomplete and sterile

females; and lastly of some hundreds of males, from whom one shall

be chosen as the sole and unfortunate consort of the queen that the

workers will elect in the future, after the more or less voluntary

departure of the reigning mother.

The first time that we open a hive there comes over us an emotion

akin to that we might feel at profaning some unknown object, charged

perhaps with dreadful surprise, as a tomb. A legend of menace and

peril still clings to the bees. There is the distressful

recollection of her sting, which produces a pain so characteristic

that one knows not wherewith to compare it; a kind of destroying

dryness, a flame of the desert rushing over the wounded limb, as

though these daughters of the sun had distilled a dazzling poison

from their father's angry rays, in order more effectively to defend

the treasure they gather from his beneficent hours.

It is true that were some one who neither knows nor respects the

customs and character of the bee suddenly to fling open the hive, it

would turn at once into a burning bush of heroism and anger; but the

slight amount of skill needed to handle it with impunity can be most

readily acquired. Let but a little smoke be deftly applied, much

coolness and gentleness be shown, and our well-armed workers will

suffer themselves to be despoiled without dreaming of drawing their

sting. It is not the fact, as some have maintained, that the bees

recognise their master; nor have they any fear of man; but at the

smell of the smoke, at the large slow gestures that traverse their

dwellings without threatening them, they imagine that this is not

the attack of an enemy against whom defence is possible, but that it

is a force or a natural catastrophe whereto they do well to submit.

Instead of vainly struggling, therefore, they do what they can to

safeguard the future; and, obeying a foresight that for once is in

error, they fly to their reserves of honey, into which they eagerly

dip in order to possess within themselves the wherewithal to start a

new city, immediately and no matter where, should the ancient one be

destroyed or they be compelled to forsake it.

The first impression of the novice before whom an observation-hive*

is opened will be one of some disappointment. He had been told that

this little glass case contained an unparalleled activity, an

infinite number of wise laws, and a startling amalgam of mystery,

experience, genius, calculation, science, of various industries, of

certitude and prescience, of intelligent habits and curious feelings

and virtues. All that he sees is a confused mass of little reddish

groups, somewhat resembling roasted coffee-berries, or bunches of

raisins piled against the glass. They look more dead than alive;

their movements are slow, incoherent, and incomprehensible. Can

these be the wonderful drops of light he had seen but a moment ago,

unceasingly flashing and sparkling, as they darted among the pearls

and the gold of a thousand wide-open calyces?

By observation-hive is meant a hive of glass, furnished with black

curtains or shutters. The best kind have only one comb, thus

permitting both faces to be studied. These hives can be placed in a

drawing-room, library, etc., without inconvenience or danger. The

bees that inhabit the one I have in my study in Paris are able even

in the stony desert of that great city, to find the wherewithal to

nourish themselves and to prosper.

They appear to be shivering in the darkness, to be numbed,

suffocated, so closely are they huddled together; one might fancy

they were ailing captives, or queens dethroned, who have had their

one moment of glory in the midst of their radiant garden, and are

now compelled to return to the shameful squalor of their poor

overcrowded home.

It is with them as with all that is deeply real; they must be

studied, and one must learn how to study them. The inhabitant of

another planet who should see men and women coming and going almost

imperceptibly through our streets, crowding at certain times around

certain buildings, or waiting for one knows not what, without

apparent movement, in the depths of their dwellings, might conclude

therefrom that they, too, were miserable and inert. It takes time to

distinguish the manifold activity contained in this inertia.

And indeed every one of the little almost motionless groups in the

hive is incessantly working, each at a different trade. Repose is

unknown to any; and such, for instance, as seem the most torpid, as

they hang in dead clusters against the glass, are intrusted with the

most mysterious and fatiguing task of all: it is they who secrete

and form the wax. But the details of this universal activity will be

given in their place. For the moment we need only call attention to

the essential trait in the nature of the bee which accounts for the

extraordinary agglomeration of the various workers. The bee is above

all, and even to a greater extent than the ant, a creature of the

crowd. She can live only in the midst of a multitude. When she

leaves the hive, which is so densely packed that she has to force

her way with blows of her head through the living walls that enclose

her, she departs from her proper element. She will dive for an

instant into flower-filled space, as the swimmer will dive into the

sea that is filled with pearls, but under pain of death it behoves

her at regular intervals to return and breathe the crowd as the

swimmer must return and breathe the air. Isolate her, and however

abundant the food or favourable the temperature, she will expire in

a few days not of hunger or cold, but of loneliness. From the crowd,

from the city, she derives an invisible aliment that is as necessary

to her as honey. This craving will help to explain the spirit of the

laws of the hive. For in them the individual is noting, her

existence conditional only, and herself, for one indifferent moment,

a winged organ of the race. Her whole life is an entire sacrifice to

the manifold, everlasting being whereof she forms part. It is

strange to note that it was not always so. We find even to-day,

among the melliferous hymenoptera, all the stages of progressive

civilisation of our own domestic bee. At the bottom of the scale we

find her working alone, in wretchedness, often not seeing her

offspring (the Prosopis, the Colletes, etc.); sometimes living in

the midst of the limited family that she produces annually (as in

the case of the humble-bee). Then she forms temporary associations (the

Panurgi, the Dasypodoe, the Hacliti, etc.) and at last we arrive,

through successive stages, at the almost perfect but pitiless society of

our hives, where the individual is entirely merged in the republic, and

the republic in its turn invariably sacrificed to the abstract and

immortal city of the future.

Let us not too hastily deduce from these facts conclusions that

apply to man. He possesses the power of withstanding certain of

nature's laws; and to know whether such resistance be right or wrong

is the gravest and obscurest point in his morality. But it is deeply

interesting to discover what the will of nature may be in a

different world; and this will is revealed with extraordinary

clearness in the evolution of the hymenoptera, which, of all the

inhabitants of this globe, possess the highest degree of intellect

after that of man. The aim of nature is manifestly the improvement

of the race; but no less manifest is her inability, or refusal, to

obtain such improvement except at the cost of the liberty, the

rights, and the happiness of the individual. In proportion as a

society organises itself, and rises in the scale, so does a

shrinkage enter the private life of each one of its members. Where

there is progress, it is the result only of a more and more complete

sacrifice of the individual to the general interest. Each one is

compelled, first of all, to renounce his vices, which are acts of

independence. For instance, at the last stage but one of apiarian

civilisation, we find the humble-bees, which are like our cannibals.

The adult workers are incessantly hovering around the eggs, which

they seek to devour, and the mother has to display the utmost

stubbornness in their defence. Then having freed himself from his

most dangerous vices, each individual has to acquire a certain

number of more and more painful virtues. Among the humble-bees, for

instance, the workers do not dream of renouncing love, whereas our

domestic bee lives in a state of perpetual chastity. And indeed we

soon shall show how much more she has to abandon, in exchange for

the comfort and security of the hive, for its architectural,

economic, and political perfection; and we shall return to the

evolution of the hymenoptera in the chapter devoted to the progress

of the species.