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LET us now, in order to form a clearer conception of the bees'

intellectual power, proceed to consider their methods of

inter-communication. There can be no doubting that they understand

each other; and indeed it were surely impossible for a republic so

considerable, wherein the labours are so varied and so marvellously

combined, to subsist amid the silence and spiritual isolation of so

many thousand creatures. They mu
t be able, therefore, to give

expression to thoughts and feelings, by means either of a phonetic

vocabulary or more probably of some kind of tactile language or

magnetic intuition, corresponding perhaps to senses and properties

of matter wholly unknown to ourselves. And such intuition well might

lodge in the mysterious antennae--containing, in the case of the

workers, according to Cheshire's calculation, twelve thousand

tactile hairs and five thousand "smell-hollows," wherewith they

probe and fathom the darkness. For the mutual understanding of the

bees is not confined to their habitual labours; the extraordinary

also has a name and place in their language; as is proved by the

manner in which news, good or bad, normal or supernatural, will at

once spread in the hive; the loss or return of the mother, for

instance, the entrance of an enemy, the intrusion of a strange

queen, the approach of a band of marauders, the discovery of

treasure, etc. And so characteristic is their attitude, so

essentially different their murmur at each of these special events,

that the experienced apiarist can without difficulty tell what is

troubling the crowd that moves distractedly to and fro in the


If you desire a more definite proof, you have but to watch a bee

that shall just have discovered a few drops of honey on your

window-sill or the corner of your table. She will immediately gorge

herself with it; and so eagerly, that you will have time, without

fear of disturbing her, to mark her tiny belt with a touch of paint.

But this gluttony of hers is all on the surface; the honey will not

pass into the stomach proper, into what we might call her personal

stomach, but remains in the sac, the first stomach,--that of the

community, if one may so express it. This reservoir full, the bee

will depart, but not with the free and thoughtless motion of the fly

or butterfly; she, on the contrary, will for some moments fly

backwards, hovering eagerly about the table or window, with her head

turned toward the room.

She is reconnoitring, fixing in her memory the exact position of the

treasure. Thereupon she will go to the hive, disgorge her plunder

into one of the provision-cells, and in three or four minutes

return, and resume operations at the providential window. And thus,

while the honey lasts, will she come and go, at intervals of every

five minutes, till evening, if need be; without interruption or

rest; pursuing her regular journeys from the hive to the window,

from the window back to the hive.

Many of those who have written on bees have thought fit to adorn the

truth; I myself have no such desire. For studies of this description

to possess any interest, it is essential that they should remain

absolutely sincere. Had the conclusion been forced upon me that bees

are incapable of communicating to each other news of an event

occurring outside the hive, I should, I imagine, as a set-off

against the slight disappointment this discovery would have

entailed, have derived some degree of satisfaction in recognising

once more that man, after all, is the only truly intelligent being

who inhabits our globe. And there comes too a period of life when we

have more joy in saying the thing that is true than in saying the

thing that merely is wonderful. Here as in every case the principle

holds that, should the naked truth appear at the moment less

interesting, less great and noble than the imaginary embellishment

it lies in our power to bestow, the fault must rest with ourselves

who still are unable to perceive the astonishing relation in which

this truth always must stand to our being, and to universal law; and

in that case it is not the truth, but our intellect, that needs

embellishment and ennoblement.

I will frankly confess, therefore, that the marked bee often returns

alone. Shall we believe that in bees there exists the same

difference of character as in men; that of them too some are

gossips, and others prone to silence? A friend who stood by and

watched my experiment, declared that it was evidently mere

selfishness or vanity that caused so many of the bees to refrain

from revealing the source of their wealth, and from sharing with

others the glory of an achievement that must seem miraculous to the

hive. These were sad vices indeed, which give not forth the sweet

odour, so fragrant and loyal, that springs from the home of the many

thousand sisters. But, whatever the cause, it often will also happen

that the bee whom fortune has favoured will return to the honey

accompanied by two or three friends. I am aware that Sir John

Lubbock, in the appendix to his book on "Ants, Bees, and Wasps,"

records the results of his investigations in long and minute tables;

and from these we are led to infer that it is a matter of rarest

occurrence for a single bee to follow the one who has made the

discovery. The learned naturalist does not name the race of bees

which he selected for his experiments, or tell us whether the

conditions were especially unfavourable. As for myself I only can

say that my own tables, compiled with great care,--and every

possible precaution having been taken that the bees should not be

directly attracted by the odour of the honey,--establish that on an

average one bee will bring others four times out of ten.

I even one day came across an extraordinary little Italian bee,

whose belt I had marked with a touch of blue paint. In her second

trip she brought two of her sisters, whom I imprisoned, without

interfering with her. She departed once more, and this time returned

with three friends, whom I again confined, and so till the end of

the afternoon, when, counting my prisoners, I found that she had

told the news to no less than eighteen bees.

In fact you will find, if you make this experiment yourself, that

communication, if not general, at least is frequent. The possession

of this faculty is so well known to American bee-hunters that they

trade upon it when engaged in searching for nests. Mr. Josiah Emery

remarks on this head (quoted by Romanes in his "Intellect of Animals

"): "Going to a field or wood at a distance from tame bees with

their box of honey, they gather up from the flowers and imprison one

or more bees, and after they have become sufficiently gorged, let

them out to return to their home with their easily gotten load.

Waiting patiently a longer or shorter time, according to the

distance of the bee-tree, the hunter scarcely ever fails to see the

bee or bees return accompanied by other bees, which are in like

manner imprisoned till they in turn are filled; then one or more are

let out at places distant from each other, and the direction in

which the bee flies noted; and thus, by a kind of triangulation, the

position of the bee-tree proximately ascertained."

You will notice too in your experiments that the friends who appear

to obey the behests of good fortune do not always fly together, and

that there will often be an interval of several seconds between the

different arrivals. As regards these communications, therefore, we

must ask ourselves the question that Sir John Lubbock has solved as

far as the ants are concerned.

Do the comrades who flock to the treasure only follow the bee that

first made the discovery, or have they been sent on by her, and do

they find it through following her indications, her description of

the place where it lies? Between these two hypotheses, that refer

directly to the extent and working of the bee's intellect, there is

obviously an enormous difference. The English savant has succeeded,

by means of an elaborate and ingenious arrangement of gangways,

corridors, moats full of water, and flying bridges, in establishing

that the ants in such cases do no more than follow in the track of

the pioneering insect. With ants, that can be made to pass where one

will, such experiments are possible; but for the bee, whose wings

throw every avenue open, some other expedient must of necessity be

contrived. I imagined the following, which, though it gave no

definite result, might yet, under more favourable conditions, and if

organised more carefully, give rise to definite and satisfactory


My study in the country is on the first floor, above a somewhat

lofty room; sufficiently high, therefore, to be out of the ordinary

range of the bees' flight, except at times when the chestnuts and

lime trees are in bloom. And for more than a week before I started

this experiment I had kept on my table an open comb of honey,

without the perfume having attracted, or induced the visit of, a

single bee. Then I went to a glass hive that was close to the house,

took an Italian bee, brought her to my study, set her on the comb,

and marked her while she was feeding.

When satisfied, she flew away and returned to the hive. I followed,

saw her pass over the surface of the crowd, plunge her head into an

empty cell, disgorge her honey, and prepare to set forth again. At

the door of the hive I had placed a glass box, divided by a trap

into two compartments. The bee flew into this box; and as she was

alone, and no other bee seemed to accompany or follow her, I

imprisoned her and left her there. I then repeated the experiment on

twenty different bees in succession. When the marked bee reappeared

alone, I imprisoned her as I had imprisoned the first. But eight of

them came to the threshold of the hive and entered the box

accompanied by two or three friends. By means of the trap I was able

to separate the marked bee from her companions, and to keep her a

prisoner in the first compartment. Then, having marked her

companions with a different colour, I threw open the second

compartment and set them at liberty, myself returning quickly to my

study to await their arrival. Now it is evident that if a verbal or

magnetic communication had passed, indicating the place, describing

the way, etc., a certain number of the bees, having been furnished

with this information, should have found their way to my room. I am

compelled to admit that there came but a single one. Was this mere

chance, or had she followed instructions received? The experiment

was insufficient, but circumstances prevented me from carrying it

further. I released the "baited" bees, and my study soon was

besieged by the buzzing crowd to whom they had taught the way to the


We need not concern ourselves with this incomplete attempt of mine,

for many other curious traits compel us to recognise the existence

among the bees of spiritual communications that go beyond a mere

"yes" or "no," and that are manifest in cases where mere example or

gesture would not be sufficient. Of such, for instance, are the

remarkable harmony of their work in the hive, the extraordinary

division of labour, the regularity with which one worker will take

the place of another, etc. I have often marked bees that went

foraging in the morning, and found that, in the afternoon, unless

flowers were specially abundant, they would be engaged in heating

and fanning the brood-cells, or perhaps would form part of the

mysterious, motionless curtain in whose midst the wax-makers and

sculptors would be at work. Similarly I have noticed that workers

whom I have seen gathering pollen for the whole of one day, will

bring no pollen back on the morrow, but will concern themselves

exclusively with the search for nectar, and vice-versa.

And further, we might mention what M. Georges de Layens, the

celebrated French apiarist, terms the "Distribution of Bees over

Melliferous Plants." Day after day, at the first hour of sunrise,

the explorers of the dawn return, and the hive awakes to receive the

good news of the earth. "The lime trees are blossoming to-day on the

banks of the canal." "The grass by the roadside is gay with white

clover." "The sage and the lotus are about to open." "The

mignonette, the lilies are overflowing with pollen." Whereupon the

bees must organise quickly, and arrange to divide the work. Five

thousand of the sturdiest will sully forth to the lime trees, while

three thousand juniors go and refresh the white clover. Those who

yesterday were absorbing nectar from the corollas will to-day repose

their tongue and the glands of their sac, and gather red pollen from

the mignonette, or yellow pollen from the tall lilies; for never

shall you see a bee collecting or mixing pollen of a different

colour or species; and indeed one of the chief pre-occupations of

the hive is the methodical bestowal of these pollens in the

store-rooms, in strict accordance with their origin and colour. Thus

does the hidden genius issue its commands. The workers immediately

sally forth, in long black files, whereof each one will fly straight

to its allotted task. "The bees," says De Layens, "would seem to be

perfectly informed as to the locality, the relative melliferous

value, and the distance of every melliferous plant within a certain

radius from the hive.

"If we carefully note the different directions in which these

foragers fly, and observe in detail the harvest they gather from the

various plants around, we shall find that the workers distribute

themselves over the flowers in proportion not only to the numbers of

flowers of one species, but also to their melliferous value. Nay,

more--they make daily calculations as to the means of obtaining the

greatest possible wealth of saccharine liquid. In the spring, for

instance, after the willows have bloomed, when the fields still are

bare, and the first flowers of the woods are the one resource of the

bees, we shall see them eagerly visiting gorse and violets,

lungworts and anemones. But, a few days later, when fields of

cabbage and colza begin to flower in sufficient abundance, we shall

find that the bees will almost entirely forsake the plants in the

woods, though these be still in full blossom, and will confine their

visits to the flowers of cabbage and colza alone. In this fashion

they regulate, day by day, their distribution over the plants, so as

to collect the greatest value of saccharine liquid in the least

possible time.

"It may fairly be claimed, therefore, for the colony of bees that,

in its harvesting labours no less than in its internal economy, it

is able to establish a rational distribution of the number of

workers without ever disturbing the principle of the division of


But what have we to do, some will ask, with the intelligence of the

bees? What concern is it of ours whether this be a little less or a

little more? Why weigh, with such infinite care, a minute fragment

of almost invisible matter, as though it were a fluid whereon

depended the destiny of man? I hold, and exaggerate nothing, that

our interest herein is of the most considerable. The discovery of a

sign of true intellect outside ourselves procures us something of

the emotion Robinson Crusoe felt when he saw the imprint of a human

foot on the sandy beach of his island. We seem less solitary than we

had believed. And indeed, in our endeavour to understand the

intellect of the bees, we are studying in them that which is most

precious in our own substance: an atom of the extraordinary matter

which possesses, wherever it attach itself, the magnificent power of

transfiguring blind necessity, of organising, embellishing, and

multiplying life; and, most striking of all, of holding in suspense

the obstinate force of death, and the mighty, irresponsible wave

that wraps almost all that exists in an eternal unconsciousness.

Were we sole possessors of the particle of matter that, when

maintained in a special condition of flower or incandescence, we

term the intellect, we should to some extent be entitled to look on

ourselves as privileged beings, and to imagine that in us nature

achieved some kind of aim; but here we discover, in the hymenoptera,

an entire category of beings in whom a more or less identical aim is

achieved. And this fact, though it decide nothing perhaps, still

holds an honourable place in the mass of tiny facts that help to

throw light on our position in this world. It affords even, if

considered from a certain point of view, a fresh proof of the most

enigmatic part of our being; for the superpositions of destinies

that we find in the hive are surveyed by us from an eminence loftier

than any we can attain for the contemplation of the destinies of

man. There we see before us, in miniature, the large and simple

lines that in our own disproportionate sphere we never have the

occasion to disentangle and follow to the end. Spirit and matter are

there, the race and the individual, evolution and permanence, life

and death, the past and the future; all gathered together in a

retreat that our hand can lift and one look of our eye embrace. And

may we not reasonably ask ourselves whether the mere size of a body,

and the room that it fills in time and space, can modify to the

extent we imagine the secret idea of nature; the idea that we try to

discover in the little history of the hive, which in a few days

already is ancient, no less than in the great history of man, of

whom three generations overlap a long century?

Let us go on, then, with the story of our hive; let us take it up

where we left it; and raise, as high as we may, a fold of the

festooned curtain in whose midst a strange sweat, white as snow and

airier than the down of a wing, is beginning to break over the

swarm. For the wax that is now being born is not like the wax that

we know; it is immaculate, it has no weight; seeming truly to be the

soul of the honey, that itself is the spirit of flowers. And this

motionless incantation has called it forth that it may serve us,

later--in memory of its origin, doubtless, wherein it is one with

the azure sky, and heavy with perfumes of magnificence and

purity--as the fragrant light of the last of our altars.

To follow the various phases of the secretion and employment of wax

by a swarm that is beginning to build, is a matter of very great

difficulty. All comes to pass in the blackest depths of the crowd,

whose agglomeration, growing denser and denser, produces the

temperature needful for this exudation, which is the privilege of

the youngest bees. Huber, who was the first to study these

phenomena, bringing incredible patience to bear and exposing himself

at times to very serious danger, devotes to them more than two

hundred and fifty pages; which, though of considerable interest, are

necessarily somewhat confused. But I am not treating this subject

technically; and while referring when necessary to Huber's admirable

studies, I shall confine myself generally to relating what is patent

to any one who may gather a swarm into a glass hive.

We have to admit, first of all, that we know not yet by what process

of alchemy the honey transforms itself into wax in the enigmatic

bodies of our suspended bees. We can only say that they will remain

thus suspended for a period extending from eighteen to twenty-four

hours, in a temperature so high that one might almost believe that a

fire was burning in the hollow of the hive; and then white and

transparent scales will appear at the opening of four little pockets

that every bee has underneath its abdomen.

When the bodies of most of those who form the inverted cone have

thus been adorned with ivory tablets, we shall see one of the bees,

as though suddenly inspired, abruptly detach herself from the mass,

and climb over the backs of the passive crowd till she reach the

inner pinnacle of the cupola. To this she will fix herself solidly,

dislodging, with repeated blows of her head, such of her neighbours

as may seem to hamper her movements. Then, with her mouth and claws,

she will seize one of the eight scales that hang from her abdomen,

and at once proceed to clip it and plane it, extend it, knead it

with her saliva, bend it and flatten it, roll it and straighten it,

with the skill of a carpenter handling a pliable panel. When at last

the substance, thus treated, appears to her to possess the required

dimensions and consistency, she will attach it to the highest point

of the dome, thus laying the first, or rather the keystone of the

new town; for we have here an inverted city, hanging down from the

sky, and not rising from the bosom of earth like a city of men.

To this keystone, depending in the void, she will add other

fragments of wax that she takes in succession from beneath her rings

of horn; and finally, with one last lick of the tongue, one last

wave of antennae, she will go as suddenly as she came, and disappear

in the crowd. Another will at once take her place, continue the work

at the point where the first one has left it, add on her own, change

and adjust whatever may seem to offend the ideal plan of the tribe,

then vanish in her turn, to be succeeded by a third, a fourth, and a

fifth, all appearing unexpectedly, suddenly, one after the other,

none completing the work, but each bringing her share to the task in

which all combine.

A small block of wax, formless as yet, hangs down from the top of

the vault. So soon as its thickness may be deemed sufficient, we

shall see another bee emerge from the mass, her physical appearance

differing appreciably from that of the foundresses who preceded her.

And her manner displays such settled conviction, her movements are

followed so eagerly by all the crowd, that we almost might fancy

that some illustrious engineer had been summoned to trace in the

void the site of the first cell of all, from which every other must

mathematically depend. This bee belongs to the sculptor or carver

class of workers; she produces no wax herself and is content to deal

with the materials others provide. She locates the first cell,

scoops into the block for an instant, lays the wax she has removed

from the cavity on the borders around it; and then, like the

foundresses, abruptly departs and abandons her model. Her place is

taken at once by an impatient worker, who continues the task that a

third will finish, while others close by are attacking the rest of

the surface and the opposite side of the wall; each one obeying the

general law of interrupted and successive labour, as though it were

an inherent principle of the hive that the pride of toil should be

distributed, and every achievement be anonymous and common to all,

that it might thereby become more fraternal.

The outline of the nascent comb may soon be divined. In form it will

still be lenticular, for the little prismatic tubes that compose it

are unequal in length, and diminish in proportion as they recede

from the centre to the extremities. In thickness and appearance at

present it more or less resembles a human tongue whose sides might

be formed of hexagonal cells, contiguous, and placed back to back.

The first cells having been built, the foundresses proceed to add a

second block of wax to the roof; and so in gradation a third and a

fourth. These blocks follow each other at regular intervals so

nicely calculated that when, at a much later period, the comb shall

be fully developed, there will be ample space for the bees to move

between its parallel walls.

Their plan must therefore embrace the final thickness of every comb,

which will be from eighty-eight to ninety-two hundredths of an inch,

and at the same time the width of the avenues between, which must be

about half an inch, or in other words twice the height of a bee,

since there must be room to pass back to back between the combs.

The bees, however, are not infallible, nor does their certainty

appear mechanical. They will commit grave errors at times, when

circumstances present unusual difficulty. They will often leave too

much space, or too little, between the combs. This they will remedy

as best they can, either by giving an oblique twist to the comb that

too nearly approaches the other, or by introducing an irregular comb

into the gap. "The bees sometimes make mistakes," Reaumur remarks on

this subject," and herein we may find yet another fact which appears

to prove that they reason."

We know that the bees construct four kinds of cells. First of all,

the royal cells, which are exceptional, and contrived somewhat in

the shape of an acorn; then the large cells destined for the rearing

of males and storing of provisions when flowers super-abound; and

the small cells, serving as workers' cradles and ordinary

store-rooms, which occupy normally about four-fifths of the

built-over surface of the hive. And lastly, so as to connect in

orderly fashion the larger cells with the small, the bees will erect

a certain number of what are known as transition cells. These must

of necessity be irregular in form; but so unerringly accurate are

the dimensions of the second and third types that, at the time when

the decimal system was established, and a fixed measure sought in

nature to serve as a starting-point and an incontestable standard,

it was proposed by Reaumur to select for this purpose the cell of

the bee.*

*It was as well, perhaps, that this standard was not adopted. For

although the diameter of the cells is admirably regular, it is, like

all things produced by a living organism, not _mathematically_

invariable in the same hive. Further, as M. Maurice Girard has

pointed out, the apothem of the cell varies among different races of

bees, so that the standard would alter from hive to hive, according

to the species of bee that inhabited it.

Each of the cells is an hexagonal tube placed on a pyramidal base;

and two layers of these tubes form the comb, their bases being

opposed to each other in such fashion that each of the three rhombs

or lozenges which on one side constitute the pyramidal base of one

cell, composes at the same time the pyramidal base of three cells on

the other. It is in these prismatic tubes that the honey is stored;

and to prevent its escaping during the period of maturation,--which

would infallibly happen if the tubes were as strictly horizontal as

they appear to be,--the bees incline them slightly, to an angle of 4

deg or 5 deg.

"Besides the economy of wax," says Reaumur, when considering this

marvellous construction in its entirety," besides the economy of wax

that results from the disposition of the cells, and the fact that

this arrangement allows the bees to fill the comb without leaving a

single spot vacant, there are other advantages also with respect to

the solidity of the work. The angle at the base of each cell, the

apex of the pyramidal cavity, is buttressed by the ridge formed by

two faces of the hexagon of another cell. The two triangles, or

extensions of the hexagon faces which fill one of the convergent

angles of the cavity enclosed by the three rhombs, form by their

junction a plane angle on the side they touch; each of these angles,

concave within the cell, supports, on its convex side, one of the

sheets employed to form the hexagon of another cell; the sheet,

pressing on this angle, resists the force which is tending to push

it outwards; and in this fashion the angles are strengthened. Every

advantage that could be desired with regard to the solidity of each

cell is procured by its own formation and its position with

reference to the others."

"There are only," says Dr. Reid, "three possible figures of the

cells which can make them all equal and similar, without any useless

interstices. These are the equilateral triangle, the square, and the

regular hexagon. Mathematicians know that there is not a fourth way

possible in which a plane shall be cut into little spaces that shall

be equal, similar, and regular, without useless spaces. Of the three

figures, the hexagon is the most proper for convenience and

strength. Bees, as if they knew this, make their cells regular


"Again, it has been demonstrated that, by making the bottoms of the

cells to consist of three planes meeting in a point, there is a

saving of material and labour in no way inconsiderable. The bees, as

if acquainted with these principles of solid geometry, follow them

most accurately. It is a curious mathematical problem at what

precise angle the three planes which compose the bottom of a cell

ought to meet, in order to make the greatest possible saving, or the

least expense of material and labour.* This is one of the problems

which belong to the higher parts of mathematics. It has accordingly

been resolved by some mathematicians, particularly by the ingenious

Maclaurin, by a fluctionary calculation which is to be found in the

Transactions of the Royal Society of London. He has determined

precisely the angle required, and he found, by the most exact

mensuration the subject would admit, that it is the very angle in

which the three planes at the bottom of the cell of a honey comb do

actually meet."

*Reaumur suggested the following problem to the celebrated

mathematician Koenig: "Of all possible hexagonal cells with

pyramidal base composed of three equal and similar rhombs, to find

the one whose construction would need the least material." Koenig's

answer was, the cell that had for its base three rhombs whose large

angle was 109 deg 26', and the small 70 deg 34'. Another savant,

Maraldi, had measured as exactly as possible the angles of the

rhombs constructed by the bees, and discovered the larger to be 109

deg 28', and the other 70 deg 32'. Between the two solutions there

was a difference, therefore, of only 2'. It is probable that the

error, if error there be, should be attributed to Maraldi rather

than to the bees; for it is impossible for any instrument to measure

the angles of the cells, which are not very clearly defined, with

infallible precision.

The problem suggested to Koenig was put to another mathematician,

Cramer, whose solution came even closer to that of the bees, viz.,

109 deg 28 1/2' for the large angle, and 70 deg 31 1/2' for the


I myself do not believe that the bees indulge in these abstruse

calculations; but, on the other hand, it seems equally impossible to

me that such astounding results can be due to chance alone, or to

the mere force of circumstance. The wasps, for instance, also build

combs with hexagonal cells, so that for them the problem was

identical, and they have solved it in a far less ingenious fashion.

Their combs have only one layer of cells, thus lacking the common

base that serves the bees for their two opposite layers. The wasps'

comb, therefore, is not only less regular, but also less

substantial; and so wastefully constructed that, besides loss of

material, they must sacrifice about a third of the available space

and a quarter of the energy they put forth. Again, we find that the

trigonae and meliponae, which are veritable and domesticated bees,

though of less advanced civilisation, erect only one row of

rearing-cells, and support their horizontal, superposed combs on

shapeless and costly columns of wax. Their provision-cells are

merely great pots, gathered together without any order; and, at the

point between the spheres where these might have intersected and

induced a profitable economy of space and material, the meliponae

clumsily insert a section of cells with flat walls. Indeed, to

compare one of their nests with the mathematical cities of our own

honey-flies, is like imagining a hamlet composed of primitive huts

side by side with a modern town; whose ruthless regularity is the

logical, though perhaps somewhat charmless, result of the genius of

man, that to-day, more fiercely than ever before, seeks to conquer

space, matter, and time.

There is a theory, originally propounded by Buffon and now revived,

which assumes that the bees have not the least intention of

constructing hexagons with a pyramidal base, but that their desire

is merely to contrive round cells in the wax; only, that as their

neighbours, and those at work on the opposite side of the comb, are

digging at the same moment and with the same intentions, the points

where the cells meet must of necessity become hexagonal. Besides, it

is said, this is precisely what happens to crystals, the scales of

certain kinds of fish, soap-bubbles, etc., as it happens in the

following experiment that Buffon suggested. "If," he said, "you fill

a dish with peas or any other cylindrical bean, pour as much water

into it as the space between the beans will allow, close it

carefully and then boil the water, you will find that all these

cylinders have become six-sided columns. And the reason is evident,

being indeed purely mechanical; each of the cylindrical beans tends,

as it swells, to occupy the utmost possible space within a given

space; wherefore it follows that the reciprocal compression compels

them all to become hexagonal. Similarly each bee seeks to occupy the

utmost possible space within a given space, with the necessary

result that, its body being cylindrical, the cells become hexagonal

for the same reason as before, viz., the working of reciprocal


These reciprocal obstacles, it would seem, are capable of marvellous

achievement; on the same principle, doubtless, that the vices of man

produce a general virtue, whereby the human race, hateful often in

its individuals, ceases to be so in the mass. We might reply, first

of all, with Brougham, Kirby and Spence, and others, that

experiments with peas and soap-bubbles prove nothing; for the reason

that in both cases the pressure produces only irregular forms, and

in no wise explains the existence of the prismatic base of the

cells. But above all we might answer that there are more ways than

one of dealing with rigid necessity; that the wasp, the humble-bee,

the trigonae and meliponae of Mexico and Brazil achieve very

different and manifestly inferior results, although the

circumstances, and their own intentions, are absolutely identical

with those of the bees. It might further be urged that if the bee's

cell does indeed follow the law that governs crystals, snow,

soap-bubbles, as well as Buffon's boiled peas, it also, through its

general symmetry, disposition in opposite layers, and angle of

inclination, obeys many other laws that are not to be found in

matter. May we not say, too, of man that all his genius is comprised

in his fashion of handling kindred necessities? And if it appear to

us that his manner of treating these is the best there can possibly

be, the reason only can lie in the absence of a judge superior to

ourselves. But it is well that argument should make way for fact;

and indeed, to the objection based on an experiment, the best reply

of all must be a counter-experiment.

In order to satisfy myself that hexagonal architecture truly was

written in the spirit of the bee, I cut off and removed one day a

disc of the size of a five-franc piece from the centre of a comb, at

a spot where there were both brood-cells and cells full of honey. I

cut into the circumference of this disc, at the intersecting point

of the pyramidal cells; inserted a piece of tin on the base of one

of these sections, shaped exactly to its dimensions, and possessed

of resistance sufficient to prevent the bees from bending or

twisting it. Then I replaced the slice of comb, duly furnished with

its slab of tin, on the spot whence I had removed it; so that, while

one side of the comb presented no abnormal feature, the damage

having been repaired, the other displayed a sort of deep cavity,

covering the space of about thirty cells, with the piece of tin as

its base. The bees were disconcerted at first; they flocked in

numbers to inspect and examine this curious chasm; day after day

they wandered agitatedly to and fro, apparently unable to form a

decision. But, as I fed them copiously every evening, there came a

moment when they had no more cells available for the storage of

provisions. Thereupon they probably summoned their great engineers,

distinguished sculptors, and wax-workers, and invited them to turn

this useless cavity to profitable account.

The wax-makers having gathered around and formed themselves into a

dense festoon, so that the necessary heat might be maintained, other

bees descended into the hole and proceeded solidly to attach the

metal, and connect it with the walls of adjacent cells, by means of

little waxen hooks which they distributed regularly over its

surface. In the upper semicircle of the disc they then began to

construct three or four cells, uniting these to the hooks. Each of

these transition, or accommodation, cells was more or less deformed

at the top, to allow of its being soldered to the adjoining cell on

the comb; but its lower portion already designed on the tin three

very clear angles, whence there ran three little straight lines that

correctly indicated the first half of the following cell.

After forty-eight hours, and notwithstanding the fact that only

three bees at a time were able to work in the cavity, the entire

surface of the tin was covered with outlined cells. These were less

regular, certainly, than those of an ordinary comb; wherefore the

queen, having inspected them, wisely declined to lay any eggs there,

for the generation that would have arisen therefrom would

necessarily have been deformed. Each cell, however, was a perfect

hexagon; nor did it contain a single crooked line, a single curved

figure or angle. And yet the ordinary conditions had all been

changed; the cells had neither been scooped out of a block,

according to Huber's description, nor had they been designed within

a waxen hood, and, from being circular at first, been subsequently

converted into hexagons by the pressure of adjoining cells, as

explained by Darwin. Neither could there be question here of

reciprocal obstacles, the cells having been formed one by one, and

their first lines traced on what practically was a bare table. It

would seem incontestable, therefore, that the hexagon is not merely

the result of mechanical necessities, but that it has its true place

in the plans, the experience, the intellect and will of the bee. I

may relate here another curious instance of the workers' sagacity:

the cells they built on the tin had no other base than the metal

itself. The engineers of the corps had evidently decided that the

tin could adequately retain the honey; and had considered that, the

substance being impermeable, they need not waste the material they

value so highly by covering the metal with a layer of wax. But, a

short time after, some drops of honey having been placed in two of

these cells, the bees discovered, in tasting it, that the contact of

the metal had a deteriorating effect. Thereupon they reconsidered

the matter, and covered over with wax the entire surface of the tin.

Were it our desire to throw light upon all the secrets of this

geometric architecture, we should have more than one curious

question still to consider; as for instance the shape of the first

cells, which, being attached to the roof, are modified in such a

manner as to touch the roof at the greatest possible number of


The design of the principal thoroughfares is determined by the

parallelism of the combs; but we must admire the ingenious

construction of alleys and gangways through and around the comb, so

skilfully contrived as to provide short cuts in every direction and

prevent congestion of traffic, while ensuring free circulation of

air. And finally we should have to study the construction of

transition cells, wherein we see a unanimous instinct at work that

impels the bees at a given moment to increase the size of their

dwellings. Three reasons may dictate this step: an extraordinary

harvest may call for larger receptacles, the workers may consider

the population to be sufficiently numerous, or it may have become

necessary that males should be born. Nor can we in such cases

refrain from wondering at the ingenious economy, the unerring,

harmonious conviction, with which the bees will pass from the small

to the large, from the large to the small; from perfect symmetry to,

where unavoidable, its very reverse, returning to ideal regularity

so soon as the laws of a live geometry will allow; and all the time

not losing a cell, not suffering a single one of their numerous

structures to be sacrificed, to be ridiculous, uncertain, or

barbarous, or any section thereof to become unfit for use. But I

fear that I have already wandered into many details that will have

but slender interest for the reader, whose eyes perhaps may never

have followed a flight of bees; or who may have regarded them only

with the passing interest with which we are all of us apt to regard

the flower, the bird or the precious stone, asking of these no more

than a slight superficial assurance, and forgetting that the most

trivial secret of the non-human object we behold in nature connects

more closely perhaps with the profound enigma of our origin and our

end, than the secret of those of our passions that we study the most

eagerly and the most passionately.

And I will pass over too--in my desire that this essay shall not

become too didactic--the remarkable instinct that induces the bees

at times to thin and demolish the extremity of their combs, when

these are to be enlarged or lengthened; though it must be admitted

that in this case the "blind building instinct" fails signally to

account for their demolishing in order that they may rebuild, or

undoing what has been done that it may be done afresh, and with more

regularity. I will content myself also with a mere reference to the

remarkable experiment that enables us, with the aid of a piece of

glass, to compel the bees to start their combs at a right angle;

when they most ingeniously contrive that the enlarged cells on the

convex side shall coincide with the reduced cells on the concave

side of the comb.

But before finally quitting this subject let us pause, though it be

but for an instant, and consider the mysterious fashion in which

they manage to act in concert and combine their labour, when

simultaneously carving two opposite sides of a comb, and unable

therefore to see each other. Take a finished comb to the light, fix

your eyes on the diaphanous wax; you will see, most clearly

designed, an entire network of sharply cut prisms, a whole system of

concordances so infallible that one might almost believe them to be

stamped on steel.

I wonder whether those who never have seen the interior of a hive

can form an adequate conception of the arrangement and aspect of the

combs. Let them imagine--we will take a peasant's hive, where the

bee is left entirely to its own resources--let them imagine a dome

of straw or osier, divided from top to bottom by five, six, eight,

sometimes ten, strips of wax, resembling somewhat great slices of

bread, that run in strictly parallel lines from the top of the dome

to the floor, espousing closely the shape of the ovoid walls.

Between these strips is contrived a space of about half an inch, to

enable the bees to stand and to pass each other. At the moment when

they begin to construct one of these strips at the top of the hive,

the waxen wall (which is its rough model, and will later be thinned

and extended) is still very thick, and completely excludes the fifty

or sixty bees at work on its inner face from the fifty or sixty

simultaneously engaged in carving the outer, so that it is wholly

impossible for one group to see the other, unless indeed their sight

be able to penetrate opaque matter. And yet there is not a hole that

is scooped on the inner surface, not a fragment of wax that is

added, but corresponds with mathematical precision to a protuberance

or cavity on the outer surface, and vice versa. How does this

happen? How is it that one does not dig too deep, another not deep

enough? Whence the invariable magical coincidence between the angles

of the lozenges? What is it tells the bees that at this point they

must begin, and at that point stop? Once again we must content

ourselves with the reply, that is no reply: "It is a mystery of the


Huber has sought to explain this mystery by suggesting that the

pressure of the bees' hooks and teeth may possibly produce slight

projections, at regular intervals, on the opposite side of the comb;

or that they may be able to estimate the thickness of the block by

the flexibility, elasticity, or some other physical quality of the

wax; or again, that their antennae, which seem so well adapted for

the questioning of the finer, less evident side of things, may serve

as a compass in the invisible; or, lastly, that the position of

every cell may derive mathematically from the arrangement and

dimensions of the cells on the first row, and thus dispense with the

need for further measurement. But these explanations are evidently

insufficient; the first are mere hypotheses that cannot be verified,

the others do no more than transplant the mystery. And useful as it

may be to transplant mystery as often as we possibly can, it were

not wise to imagine that a mystery has ceased to be because we have

shifted its home.

Now let us leave these dreary building grounds, this geometrical

desert of cells. The combs have been started, and are becoming

habitable. Though it be here the infinitely little that, without

apparent hope, adds itself to the infinitely little; though our eye

with its limited vision look and see nothing, the work of wax,

halting neither by day nor by night, will advance with incredible

quickness. The impatient queen already has more than once paced the

stockades that gleam white in the darkness; and no sooner is the

first row of dwellings complete than she takes possession with her

escort of counsellors, guardians, or servants--for we know not

whether she lead or be led, be venerated or supervised. When the

spot has been reached that she, or her urgent advisers, may regard

as favourable, she arches her back, bends forward, and introduces

the extremity of her long spindle-shaped abdomen into one of the

cells; the-little eager heads of her escort meanwhile forming a

passionate circle around her, watching her with their enormous black

eyes, supporting her, caressing her wings, and waving their feverish

antennae as though to encourage, incite, or congratulate. You may

easily discover the spot where the queen shall be found by the sort

of starry cockade, or oval brooch perhaps of the imposing kind our

grandmothers used to wear, of which she forms the central stone. And

one may mention here the curious fact that the workers always avoid

turning their back on the queen. No sooner has she approached a

group than they will invariably arrange themselves so as to face her

with eyes and antennae, and to walk backwards before her. It is a

token of respect, or of solicitude, that, unlikely as it may seem,

is nevertheless constant and general. But to return to the queen.

During the slight spasm that visibly accompanies the emission of an

egg, one of her daughters will often throw her arms round her and

appear to be whispering to her, brow pressed to brow and mouth to

mouth. But the queen, in no wise disturbed by this somewhat bold

demonstration, takes her time, tranquilly, calmly, wholly absorbed

by the mission that would seem amorous delight to her rather than

labour. And after some seconds she will rise, very quietly, take a

step back, execute a slight turn on herself, and proceed to the next

cell, into which she will first, before introducing her abdomen, dip

her head to make sure that all is in order and that she is not

laying twice in the same cell; and in the meanwhile two or three of

her escort will have plunged into the cell she has quitted to see

whether the work be duly accomplished, and to care for, and tenderly

house, the little bluish egg she has laid.

From this moment, up to the first frosts of autumn, she does not

cease laying; she lays while she is being fed, and even in her

sleep, if indeed she sleeps at all, she still lays. She represents

henceforth the devouring force of the future, which invades every

corner of the kingdom. Step by step she pursues the unfortunate

workers who are exhaustedly, feverishly erecting the cradles her

fecundity demands. We have here the union of two mighty instincts;

and their workings throw into light, though they leave unresolved,

many an enigma of the hive.

It will happen, for instance, that the workers will distance her,

and acquire a certain start; whereupon, mindful of their duties as

careful housewives to provide for the bad days ahead, they hasten to

fill with honey the cells they have wrested from the avidity of the

species. But the queen approaches; material wealth must give way to

the scheme of nature; and the distracted workers are compelled with

all speed to remove the importunate treasure.

But assume them to be a whole comb ahead, and to have no longer

before them her who stands for the tyranny of days they shall none

of them see; we find then that they eagerly, hurriedly, build a zone

of large cells, cells for males; whose construction is very much

easier, and far more rapid. When the queen in her turn attains this

unthankful zone, she will regretfully lay a few eggs there, then

cease, pass beyond, and clamour for more workers' cells. Her

daughters obey; little by little they reduce the cells; and then the

pursuit starts afresh, till at last the insatiable mother shall have

traversed the whole circumference of the hive, and have returned to

the first cells. These, by this time, will be empty; for the first

generation will have sprung into life, soon to go forth, from their

shadowy corner of birth, disperse over the neighbouring blossoms,

people the rays of the sun and quicken the smiling hours; and then

sacrifice themselves in their turn to the new generations that are

already filling their place in the cradles.

And whom does the queen-bee obey? She is ruled by nourishment given

her; for she does not take her own food, but is fed like a child by

the very workers whom her fecundity harasses. And the food these

workers deal out is nicely proportioned to the abundance of flowers,

to the spoil brought back by those who visit the calyces. Here,

then, as everywhere else in the world, one part of the circle is

wrapped in darkness; here, as everywhere, it is from without, from

an unknown power, that the supreme order issues; and the bees, like

ourselves, obey the nameless lord of the wheel that incessantly

turns on itself, and crushes the wills that have set it in motion.

Some little time back, I conducted a friend to one of my hives of

glass, and showed him the movements of this wheel, which was as

readily perceptible as the great wheel of a clock; showed him, in

all its bareness, the universal agitation on every comb, the

perpetual, frantic, bewildered haste of the nurses around the

brood-cells; the living gangways and ladders formed by the makers of

wax, the abounding, unceasing activity of the entire population, and

their pitiless, useless effort; the ardent, feverish coming and

going of all, the general absence of sleep save in the cradles

alone, around which continuous labour kept watch; the denial of even

the repose of death in a home which permits no illness and accords

no grave; and my friend, his astonishment over, soon turned his eyes

away, and in them I could read the signs of I know not what saddened


And truly, underlying the gladness that we note first of all in the

hive, underlying the dazzling memories of beautiful days that render

it the storehouse of summer's most precious jewels, underlying the

blissful journeys that knit it so close to the flowers and to

running water, to the sky, to the peaceful abundance of all that

makes for beauty and happiness--underlying all these exterior joys,

there reposes a sadness as deep as the eye of man can behold. And

we, who dimly gaze on these things with our own blind eyes, we know

full well that it is not they alone that we are striving to see, not

they alone that we cannot understand, but that before us there lies

a pitiable form of the great power that quickens us also.

Sad let it be, as all things in nature are sad, when our eyes rest

too closely upon them. And thus it ever shall be so long as we know

not her secret, know not even whether secret truly there be. And

should we discover some day that there is no secret, or that the

secret is monstrous, other duties will then arise that, as yet,

perhaps, have no name. Let our heart, if it will, in the meanwhile

repeat, "It is sad;" but let our reason be content to add, "Thus it

is." At the present hour the duty before us is to seek out that

which perhaps may be hiding behind these sorrows; and, urged on by

this endeavour, we must not turn our eyes away, but steadily,

fixedly, watch these sorrows and study them, with a courage and

interest as keen as though they were joys. It is right that before

we judge nature, before we complain, we should at least ask every

question that we can possibly ask.

We have seen that the workers, when free for the moment from the

threatening fecundity of the queen, hasten to erect cells for

provisions, whose construction is more economical and capacity

greater. We have seen, too, that the queen prefers to lay in the

smaller cells, for which she is incessantly clamouring. When these

are wanting, however, or till they be provided, she resigns herself

to laying her eggs in the large cells she finds on her road.

These eggs, though absolutely identical with those from which

workers are hatched, will give birth to males, or drones. Now,

conversely to what takes place when a worker is turned into queen,

it is here neither the form nor the capacity of the cell that

produces this change; for from an egg laid in a large cell and

afterwards transferred to that of a worker (a most difficult

operation, because of the microscopic minuteness and extreme

fragility of the egg, but one that I have four or five times

successfully accomplished) there will issue an undeniable male,

though more or less atrophied. It follows, therefore, that the queen

must possess the power, while laying, of knowing or determining the

sex of the egg, and of adapting it to the cell over which she is

bending. She will rarely make a mistake. How does she contrive, from

among the myriad eggs her ovaries contain, to separate male from

female, and lower them, at will, into the unique oviduct?

Here, yet again, there confronts us an enigma of the hive; and in

this case one of the most unfathomable. We know that the virgin

queen is not sterile; but the eggs that she lays will produce only

males. It is not till after the impregnation of the nuptial flight

that she can produce workers or drones at will. The nuptial flight

places her permanently in possession, till death, of the spermatozoa

torn from her unfortunate lover. These spermatozoa, whose number Dr.

Leuckart estimates at twenty-five millions, are preserved alive in a

special gland known as the spermatheca, that is situate under the

ovaries, at the entrance to the common oviduct. It is imagined that

the narrow aperture of the smaller cells, and the manner in which

the form of this aperture compels the queen to bend forward,

exercise a certain pressure upon the spermatheca, in consequence of

which the spermatozoa spring forth and fecundate the egg as it

passes. In the large cells this pressure would not take place, and

the spermatheca would therefore not open. Others, again, believe

that the queen has perfect control over the muscles that open and

close the spermatheca on the vagina; and these muscles are certainly

very numerous, complex, and powerful. For myself, I incline to the

second of these hypotheses, though I do not for a moment pretend to

decide which is the more correct; for indeed, the further we go and

the more closely we study, the more plainly is it brought home to us

that we merely are waifs shipwrecked on the ocean of nature; and

ever and anon, from a sudden wave that shall be more transparent

than others, there leaps forth a fact that in an instant confounds

all we imagined we knew. But the reason of my preferring the second

theory is that, for one thing, the experiments of a Bordeaux

bee-keeper, M. Drory, have shown that in cases where all the large

cells have been removed from the hive, the mother will not hesitate,

when the moment for laying male eggs has come, to deposit these in

workers' cells; and that, inversely, she will lay workers' eggs in

cells provided for males, if she have no others at her disposal.

And, further, we learn from the interesting observations of M. Fabre

on the Osmiae, which are wild and olitary bees of the Gastrilegidae

family, that not only does the Osmia know in advance the sex of the

egg she will lay, but that this sex is "optional for the mother, who

decides it in accordance with the space of which she disposes; this

space being often governed by chance and not to be modified; and she

will deposit a male egg here and a female there." I shall not enter

into the details of the great French entomologist's experiments, for

they are exceedingly minute, and would take us too far. But

whichever be the hypothesis we prefer to accept, either will serve

to explain the queen's inclination to lay her eggs in workers'

cells, without it being necessary to credit her with the least

concern for the future.

It is not impossible that this slave-mother, whom we are inclined to

pity, may be indeed a great amorist, a great voluptuary, deriving a

certain enjoyment, an after-taste, as it were, of her one

marriage-flight, from the union of the male and female principle

that thus comes to pass in her being. Here again nature, never so

ingenious, so cunningly prudent and diverse, as when contriving her

snares of love, will not have failed to provide a certain pleasure

as a bait in the interest of the species. And yet let us pause for a

moment, and not become the dupes of our own explanation. For indeed,

to attribute an idea of this kind to nature, and regard that as

sufficient, is like flinging a stone into an unfathomable gulf we

may find in the depths of a grotto, and imagining that the sounds it

creates as it falls shall answer our every question, or reveal to us

aught beside the immensity of the abyss.

When we say to ourselves, "This thing is of nature's devising;

she has ordained this marvel; those are her desires that we see

before us!" the fact is merely that our special attention has been

drawn to some tiny manifestation of life upon the boundless surface

of matter that we deem inactive, and choose to describe, with

evident inaccuracy, as nothingness and death. A purely fortuitous

chain of events has allowed this special manifestation to attract

our attention; but a thousand others, no less interesting, perhaps,

and informed with no less intelligence, have vanished, not meeting

with a like good-fortune, and have lost for ever the chance of

exciting our wonder. It were rash to affirm aught beside; and all

that remains, our reflections, our obstinate search for the final

cause, our admiration and hopes--all these in truth are no more than

our feeble cry as, in the depths of the unknown, we clash against

what is more unknowable still; and this feeble cry declares the

highest degree of individual existence attainable for us on this

mute and impenetrable surface, even as the flight of the condor, the

song of the nightingale, reveal to them the highest degree of

existence their species allows. But the evocation of this feeble

cry, whenever opportunity offers, is none the less one of our most

unmistakable duties; nor should we let ourselves be discouraged by

its apparent futility.