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THE CHILDREN’S LIFE OF THE BEE

I

ON THE THRESHOLD OF THE HIVE

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 that rejoices in brilliant flowers; a country that gladly spreads out before us, as so many pretty toys, her illuminated gables and wagons and towers; her cupboards and clocks that gleam at the end of the passage; her little trees marshaled in line along quays and canal-banks, waiting, one almost might think, for some splendid procession to pass; her boats and her barges with sculptured sterns, her flower-like doors and windows, her spotless dams and 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 that are cut into patterns of oval and lozenge and are most amazingly green.

To this spot an aged philosopher had retired, having become a little weary; and here he had built his refuge. His happiness lay all in the beauties of his garden; and best-loved, and visited most often, were the bee-hives. There were twelve of them, twelve domes of straw; and some he had painted a bright pink, and some a clear yellow, but most were a tender blue, for he had noticed the fondness of the bees for this color. 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 brass, was reflected through the open door on to the peaceful water of the canal. And the water, carrying these familiar images beneath its curtain of poplars, led one’s eyes to a calm horizon of meadows and of mills.

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 all that was happiest in nature. One was content to sit down and rest at this radiant cross-road, along which the busy and tuneful bearers of all country perfumes were incessantly passing from dawn until dusk. One heard the musical voice of the garden, whose loveliest hours seemed to rejoice and to sing of their gladness. One came here, to the school of the bees, to be taught how nature is always at work, always scheming and planning; and to learn too the lesson of whole-hearted labor which is always to benefit others.

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 labors; and then we shall meet, in their order, all the great events of the bees. These are, first of all, the formation and departure of the swarm; then, the foundation of the new city, the birth and flight of the young queens, the massacre of the males, and, last of all, the return of the sleep of winter. We will try to give the reasons for each event, and to show the laws and habits that bring it about; and so, when we have arrived at the end of the bees’ short year, which extends only from April to the last days of September, we shall have gazed on all the mysteries of the palace of honey.

Before we knock at the door, and let our inquisitive glance travel round, it need merely be said that the hive is composed of a queen, who is the mother of all her people; of thousands of female worker-bees, who are neuters or spinsters; and, finally, of some hundreds of males, who never do any work, and are known as drones.

When for the first time we take the cover off a hive we cannot help some feeling of fear, as though we were looking at something not meant for our eyes, something alarming and frightening. We have always thought of the bee as rather a dangerous creature. There is the distressful recollection of its sting, which produces so peculiar a pain that one knows not with what to compare it: a sort of dreadful dryness, as though a flame of the desert had scorched the wounded limb; and one asks oneself whether these daughters of the sun may not have distilled a dazzling poison from their father’s rays, in order to defend the treasure which they have gathered during his shining hours.

There is no doubt that if some person, who neither knows nor respects the habits of the bee, were suddenly to fling open the hive, this would turn itself immediately into a burning-bush of heroism and fury; but the slight amount of skill needed to deal with the matter can be readily acquired. Let but a little smoke be deftly applied, let us be gentle and careful in our movements, and the heavily-armed workers will permit themselves to be robbed without the least thought of using their sting. It is not the fact, as some people have stated, that the bees recognize their owner, nor have they any fear of man; but, when the smoke reaches them, when they become aware of what is happening, so quietly and without any haste or disturbance, they imagine that this is not the attack of an enemy against whom any defense is possible, but that it is some natural catastrophe, to which they will do well to submit. Instead of vainly struggling, therefore, their one thought is to safeguard their future; and they rush at once to their reserves of honey, into which they eagerly plunge themselves in order to possess the material for starting a new city immediately, no matter where, should the old one be destroyed or they compelled to abandon it.


IN THE HEART OF THE FLOWER

A person who knows nothing of bees will be a little disappointed the first time he looks into a hive. Let us say that it is an observation-hive, made of glass, with black curtains and shutters and only one comb, thus enabling the spectator to study both sides. These hives can be placed in a drawing-room or a library without any inconvenience or danger. The bees that live in the one I have in my study in Paris are able even in that great city to do their own marketing, as it were in other words, to find the food they require and to prosper. You will have been told, when you are shown this little glass box, that it is the home of a most extraordinary activity; that it is governed by a number of wise laws, that it enshrines deep mysteries; and all you will see is a mass of little, reddish groups, somewhat resembling roasted coffee-berries or bunches of raisins, all huddled up against the glass. They look more dead than alive; their movements are slow, and seem confused and without any purpose. We ask ourselves, can these be the dazzling creatures we had seen, but a moment ago, flashing and sparkling as they darted among the pearls and the gold of a thousand wide-open flowers?

Now, in the darkness, they seem to be shivering; to be numbed, suffocated, so closely are they huddled together. They look as though they were prisoners; or shall we say queens who have lost their throne, who have had their one moment of glory in the midst of their radiant garden, and are now compelled to return to the dingy misery of their poor overcrowded home.

It is with them as it is with all the real things in life; they must be studied, and we have to learn how to study them. Much is happening inside this mass that seems so inactive, but it will take you some time to grasp it and see it. The truth is that every single creature in the little groups that appear scarcely to move is hard at work, each one at its own particular trade. There is not one of them that knows what it means to be idle; and those, for instance, that seem fast asleep, as they hang in great clusters against the glass, are entrusted with the most mysterious and fatiguing task of all; it is their duty to create the marvelous wax. But we shall tell later, and in its place, precisely what each of the bees is doing; for the moment we will merely point out why it is that the different classes of workers all cluster together so strangely. The fact is that the bee, even more than the ant, is only happy when she is in the midst of a crowd; she can only live in the crowd. When she leaves the hive, which is so densely packed that she has to keep on butting with her head in order to pass, she is out of her element, away from what she loves. She will dive for an instant into flower-filled space, as the swimmer will dive into the sea that is filled with pearls; but, just as the swimmer must come to the surface and breathe the air, so must she, at regular intervals, return and breathe the crowd or she will die. Take her away from her comrades, and however abundant the food may be, however gentle the climate, she will perish in a few days, not of hunger or cold, but merely of loneliness. She needs the crowd, she needs her own city, just as she needs the honey on which she lives. This craving for companionship in some way helps us to understand the nature of the laws that govern the hive. For in these laws the individual bee, the one bee apart from the other, simply does not count. Her entire life is sacrifice, and only sacrifice, to the bees as a race; as it were, to the everlasting community, of which she forms part.

This, however, has not always been the case, for there is a lower order of bees that prefers to work alone, and very miserably too, sometimes never seeing its young, and at others, like the bumble-bee, living in the midst of its own little family. From these we arrive, through one stage after another, to the almost perfect but pitiless society of our hives, where the individual bee exists only for the republic of which it forms a part, and where that republic itself will at all times be sacrificed in the interests of the immortal city of the future.

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