Web Text-ures Logo
Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
1999-2005

(Return to Web Text-ures)
Click Here to return to
The Children's Life of the Bee
Content Page

Return to the Previous Chapter

Kellscraft Studio Logo
(HOME)

IV

THE YOUNG QUEENS

LET us now leave the new hive, which we find to be already beginning to work as before, and go back to the old one, the mother-city, which the swarm had left. Here, at the start, all looks forlorn, and dreary, and empty. Two-thirds of the population have gone, have departed forever. But thousands of bees remain; and these, whatever their feelings may be, still are faithful to the duty that lies on them, and have not forgotten what they have to do. They set to work, therefore, and try their best to fill the places of those who have joined the swarm. They start cleaning the city, look to the store-cells and put things in order there, attend to what is necessary in the hive, and despatch their bands of worker-bees to collect fresh food from the flowers.

And if the outlook at first appear rather gloomy, there still are signs of hope wherever the eye may turn. One might almost fancy oneself in one of the castles they tell of in fairy-stories, where there are millions of tiny phials along the walls containing the souls of men about to be born. For here, too, are lives that have not yet come to life. On all sides, asleep in their closely-sealed cradles, in their thousands of waxen cells, lie the larvæ, the baby bees, whiter than milk, their arms folded and their head bent forward as they wait for the hour to awake. Around them hundreds of bees are dancing and flapping their wings. The object of this seems to be to increase the temperature, and procure the heat that is needed or perhaps there may be some reason that is still more obscure; for this dance of theirs combines some very extraordinary movements whose meaning no observer has as yet been able to understand.

In another few days the lids of these thousands of urns of which there will be from sixty to eighty thousand in a hive will break, and two large, earnest black eyes will peer forth, while active jaws will be busily gnawing away at the lid, to enlarge the opening. The nurses at once come running; they help the young bee out of her prison, they clean her and brush her, and with the tip of their tongue they give her the first drop of honey that ushers in the new life. But the bee that has come so strangely from another world is still trembling and pale, and stares wildly around; she has something of the look of a tiny old man who might have been buried alive, and has made his escape from his tomb. She is perfect, however, from head to foot; and she loses no time, but hastens at once to other cells that have not yet opened, and there joins in the dance and starts beating her wings with the others, so that she may help in quickening the birth of her sisters who have not yet come to life.

The most arduous labors, however, will at first be spared her. She will not leave the hive till a week has passed since the day of her birth. She will then undertake her first flight, known as the “cleansing-flight,” and absorb the air into her lungs, which will fill and expand her body; and thenceforward she becomes the mistress of space. The first flight accomplished, she returns to the hive, and waits yet one week more; and then, with her sisters, who were born the same day as herself, she will for the first time sally forth and visit the flowers. A special emotion, now, will lay hold of her; a kind of shrinking, almost of fear. For it is evident that the bees are afraid; that these daughters of the crowd, of secluded darkness, shrink from the vault of blue, from the infinite loneliness of the light; and their joy is halting, and woven of terror. They cross the threshold, and pause; they depart, they return twenty times. They hover aloft in the air, their heads turned towards their home; they describe great soaring circles, their thirteen thousand eyes taking in, registering and recording, the trees and the fountain, the gate and the walls, the neighboring windows and houses, till at last the outside world becomes familiar to them, and they know that they will be able to find their way back to the hive.

It is curious how they are able to accomplish this; to return to a home that they cannot see, that is hidden perhaps by the trees, and that in any event must form so tiny a point in space. Put some of them into a box and set them free at a place that is two or three miles from their hive, they will almost invariably succeed in discovering their way home. Have they landmarks by which they guide themselves, or do they possess the instinct, the sense of direction, that is common among swallows and pigeons? Different experiments that have been made appear to show that this latter is not the case. I have, however, on more than one occasion noticed that the bees seem to pay no attention to the color or shape of the hive. It is rather the platform on which the hive rests that attracts them, the position of the entrance-gate and of the alighting-board.

When the winter comes on, a hive may be taken away and put perhaps into some dark cellar where it will remain till the spring; if then it should be set a little to right or to left of its former position an the platform, all the bees, on their first return from visiting the flowers, will steer their straight, direct, unhesitating course to the precise spot which the hive had occupied in the preceding year; and it will only be after much hesitating and groping that they will find the door whose place has now been shifted. And some will be unable to do this, or will be altogether lost.

In the old hive thousands of cradles are stirring and the larvæ coming to life; such bustle and movement is there that the solid walls seem to shake. But the city still lacks a queen. In the center of one of the combs you may notice seven or eight curious structures, each one about three or four times as large as the ordinary worker’s cell; they look something like the circles and hillocks that we see on the photographs of the moon. These dwellings are surrounded by guards who never leave them, and are always watchful and alert. They know that they are protecting the home of the queen that is to be.

In these cells eggs will have been placed by the old queen, or more probably perhaps by one of the workers, before the departure of the swarm; the eggs will have been taken from some cell that was near, and will be exactly the same as those from which the ordinary worker-bee is hatched. And yet the bee that will in due time come out is so unlike the others that she might almost belong to an entirely different race. Her life will last four or five years, instead of the six or seven weeks that are the portion of her worker-sister. Her body will be twice as long, her color clearer, and more golden; her sting will be curved, and her eyes have only seven or eight thousand facets instead of twelve or thirteen thousand. Her brain will be smaller, and she will have no brushes, no pockets in which to secrete the wax, no baskets to gather the pollen. She will not crave for air, or the light of the sun; she will die without once having sipped at a flower. She will spend her life in the darkness, in the midst of an ever-moving crowd; and her one thought, her one idea, will be the constant search for cradles in which she can lay her eggs. It is probable that she will not, twice in her life, look on the light of day; and as a rule she will only once make use of her wines.

A week has passed, let us say, since the old queen has gone, at the head of the swarm. The royal princesses who still are asleep in their cots are not all of the same age; for the bees prefer that there should be an interval between the birth of each one. The time of the eldest princess draws near; she is already astir, and has begun eagerly to gnaw at the rounded lid of her cradle, whose walls the workers have already for several hours been thinning, so as to make it easier for her to get out. And at last she thrusts her head through the lid; the workers at once rush eagerly to her, and help her to get clear; they brush her, caress her and clean her, and soon she is able to take her first trembling steps on the comb. At first, her food will be the same as that given to the ordinary workers, but after a very few days she is nourished on the choicest and purest milk, which is known as “royal Jelly.”

The princess, at the moment of birth, is weak and pale; but in a very few minutes she gets her strength, and then a strange restlessness comes over her; she seems to know that other princesses are near, that her kingdom has yet to be won, that close by rivals are hiding; and she eagerly paces the waxen walls in search of her enemies.

This is the gravest and most serious moment in the history of the hive. The bees have to consider how many swarms they intend to send out; at times they make mistakes, and leave the mother-city too empty, at times also the swarms themselves are not sufficiently strong. These are matters that the “spirit of the hive” has to settle; it has to decide whether another queen will be required, in addition to the young one who has just come to birth, in order that she may head a swarm in the future. On this decision rests the whole prosperity of the hive; and very rarely will the judgment of the bees go astray.

But let us assume that here the spirit of the hive has decided against a second swarm. The young princess, who has just come to life, will be allowed to destroy the rivals who are still asleep in their cradles. She will hasten towards them, and the guard will respectfully make way. She will fling herself furiously on to the first cell she comes across, strip off the wax with teeth and claws, tear away the cocoon and dart her sting into the victim whom she has laid bare. She will stab her to death and then go, with the same passionate fury, to the next cell, and then the next, again uncovering the cradle and killing her rival, till at last, breathless and exhausted, she has destroyed all her sleeping sisters.

The watchful circle of bees who surround her have stood by, inactive and calm, and have not interfered; they have merely moved out of her way and have let her indulge her fury; and no sooner has a cell been laid waste than they rush to it, drag out the body, and greedily lap up the precious royal Jelly that clings to the sides of the cell. And if the queen should be too weak or too tired to carry out her dreadful purpose to the end, the bees will themselves complete this massacre of the innocent princesses, and the royal race, and their dwellings, will all disappear. This is the terrible hour of the hive.

At times it will happen that two queens will come to life together, though this occurrence is rare, as the bees take special pains to prevent it. But should such a case arise, the deadly combat would start the very moment the rivals come out of their cradles. Afraid of each other, and yet filled with fury, they attack and retreat, retreat and attack, till at last one of them succeeds in taking her less adroit, or less active, rival by surprise, and in killing her without risk to herself. For the law of the race has demanded one sacrifice only.

But let us suppose that the spirit of the hive has decided that there shall be a second swarm. In this case, as before, the queen will advance threateningly towards the royal cells; but instead of finding herself surrounded by obsequious servants, her way will be blocked by a guard of stern and unflinching workers. In her mad fury, she will try to force her way through, or to get round them; but in every direction sentinels have been posted to protect the sleeping princesses. The queen will not be denied; she returns again and again to the charge, puts forth every effort; but each time she will be driven back, hustled even, till at last it begins to dawn upon her that behind these little workers there stands a law that does not yield even to a queen. And at last she goes, and wanders unhappily from comb to comb, giving voice to her thwarted fury in the war-song that every bee-keeper knows well; a note like that of a far-away silver trumpet, and so clear that one may hear it, at evening especially, two or three yards away from the double walls of the hive.

This cry, this war-song, has the strangest effect on the workers. It fills them with terror, it has an almost paralyzing influence upon them. When she sends it forth, the guards, who the moment before may have been treating her rather roughly, will at once cease all opposition, and will wait, with bent heads, in meekest submission, till the dreadful song shall have stopped.

For two or three days, sometimes even for five, the queen’s lament will be heard, the fierce challenge to her well-guarded rivals. And these, in their turn, are coming to life; they are beginning to gnaw at the lids of their cradles. Should they emerge from them while the angry queen is still near, with her one desire to destroy them, a mighty confusion would spread itself over the city.

But the spirit of the hive has taken its precautions, and the guards have received the necessary instructions. They know exactly what must be done, and when to do it. They are well aware that if the princesses were to come out of their lodging too soon, they would fall into the hands of their furious elder sister, who would destroy them one by one. To avoid this, therefore, the workers keep on adding layers of wax to the cells as fast as the princesses within are stripping it away; so that all their gnawing and eagerness are of no avail, and the captives must bide their time. One of them perhaps will hear the war-cry of her enemy; and although she has not yet come into contact with life, nor knows what a hive may be, she answers the challenge from within the depths of her prison. But her song is different; it is hollow and stifled, for it has to pass through the walls of a tomb; and when night is falling and noises are hushed, while high over all is the silence of the stars, the bee-keeper is able to distinguish, and recognize, this exchange of challenges between the restlessly wandering queen and the young princesses still in their prison.

The young queens will have benefited by the long stay in their cradles, for when at last they come out they are big and strong, and able to fly. But this period of waiting has also given strength to the firstborn queen, who is now able to face the perils of the voyage. The time has come, therefore, for the second swarm, called the “cast,” to depart, with the eldest queen at its head. No sooner has she gone than the workers left in the hive will release one of the princesses from her cradle; she will at once proceed to show the same murderous desires, to send forth the same cries of anger, as her sister had done before her, till at last, after another three or four days, she will leave the hive in her turn, at the head of the third swarm, to build a new home far away. A case has been known where a hive, through its swarms and the swarms of its swarms, was able in a single season to send forth no less than thirty colonies.

This excessive eagerness, which is known as “swarming-fever,” usually follows a severe winter; and one might almost believe that the bees, always in touch with the secrets of nature, are conscious of the dangers that threaten their race. But at ordinary times, when the seasons have been normal, this “fever” will rarely occur in a strong and well-governed hive; many will swarm only once, and some, indeed, not at all.

The second swarm will in any event generally be the last, as the bees will be afraid of unduly impoverishing their city, or it may be that prudence will be urged upon them by the threatening skies. They will then allow the third queen to kill the princesses in their cradles; whereupon the ordinary duties of the hive will at once be resumed, and the bees will have to work harder than ever in order to provide food for the larvæ and generally to replenish the storehouses before the arrival of winter.

The second and third swarms will sally forth in the same way as the first, with the difference only that the bees will be fewer in number, and that, owing perhaps to less scouts being available, operations will not be conducted with quite as much prudence and forethought. Also, the younger queen will be more active and vigorous than her sister, and will therefore fly much further away, leading the swarm to a considerable distance from the hive. As a consequence, these second and third swarms will have greater difficulties to meet, and their fate will be more uncertain.

So all-powerful, however, is the law of the future, that none of these perils will induce the queen to show the least hesitation. The bees of the second and third swarms display the same eagerness, the same enthusiasm, as those of the first; the workers flock round the fierce young queen, as she gropes her way out of her cell, and there is not one of them that shrinks from accompanying her on the voyage where there is so much to lose and so little to gain. Why, one asks, do they show this amazing zeal; what makes them so cheerfully abandon all their present happiness? Who is it selects from the crowd those who shall stay behind, and dictates who are to go? The exiles would seem to belong to no special class; around the queen who is never to return, veteran foragers jostle tiny worker-bees who will for the first time be facing the dizziness of the skies.

We will not attempt to relate the many adventures that these different swarms will encounter. At times, two of them will join forces; at others, two or three of the imprisoned princesses will contrive to join the groups that are forming. The bee-keeper of to-day takes steps to ensure that the second and third swarms shall always return to the mother-hive. In that case, the rival queens will face each other on the comb; the workers will gather around and watch the combat; and, when the stronger has overcome the weaker, they will remove the bodies, forget the past, return to their cells and their storehouses, and resume their peaceful path to the flowers that are awaiting and inviting them.

Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.