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V

THE MASSACRE OF THE MALES

IF the skies remain pure, the air still warm, and pollen and nectar are plentiful in the flowers, the workers will endure the presence of the males for a brief space longer. The males are gross feeders, untidy in their habits, wasteful and greedy; fat and idle, perfectly content to do nothing but feast and enjoy themselves, they crowd the streets, block up the passages, and are always in the way; they are a nuisance to the workers, whom they treat with a certain good-natured arrogance, apparently never suspecting how scornfully they themselves are regarded, or the deep and ever-growing hatred to which they give rise. They are still happily unconscious of the fate in store for them.

Careless of what the workers have to do, the males invariably select the snuggest and warmest corners of the hive for their pleasant slumbers; then, having slept their fill, they stroll jauntily to the choicest cells, where the honey smells sweetest, and proceed to satisfy their appetite. From noon till three, when the radiant countryside is a-quiver beneath the blazing stare of a July or August sun, the drones will saunter on to the threshold, and bask lazily there. They are gorgeous to look at; their helmet is made of enormous black pearls, they have doublet of yellowish velvet, two towering plumes and a mantle draped in four folds. They stroll along, very pleased with themselves, full of pomp and pride; they brush past the sentry, hustle the sweepers, and get in the way of the honey-collectors as these return laden with their humble spoil. Then one by one, they lazily spread their wings, and sail off to the nearest flower, where they doze till they are awakened by the fresh afternoon breeze. Thereupon they return to the hive, with the same pomp and dignified air, sure of themselves and perfectly satisfied; they make straight for the storehouses, and plunge their head up to the neck into the vats of honey, taking in nourishment sufficient to restore their strength that has been exhausted by so much labor; afterwards, with ponderous steps, seeking the pleasant couch and giving themselves up to the good, dreamless slumber that shall fold them in its embrace till it be time for the next meal.

But bees are less patient than men; and one morning the long-expected word of command goes through the hive. And there is a sudden transformation: the workers, hitherto so gentle and peaceful, turn into judges, and executioners. We know not whence the dreadful word issues; it may be that endurance has reached its limit, and that indignation and anger have bubbled over. At any rate we find a whole portion of the bee-people giving up their visits to the flowers, and taking on themselves the administration of stern justice.

An army of furious workers suddenly attacks the great idle drones, as they lie pleasantly asleep along the honeyed walls, and ruthlessly tear them from their slumbers. The startled drones wake up, and stare round in amazement, convinced at first that they must be dreaming, and the prey of some dreadful nightmare. There must be some shocking mistake; their muddled brains grope like a stagnant pond into which a moonbeam has fallen. Their first impulse is to the nearest food-cell, to find comfort and inspiration there. But gone for them are the days of May honey, the essence of lime-trees and the fragrant ambrosia of thyme and sage, of marjoram and white clover; the path that once lay so invitingly open to the tempting reservoirs of sugar and sweets now bristles with a burning-bush of poisonous, flaming stings. The air itself is no longer the same; the dear smell of honey is gone, and in its place only now the terrible odor of poison, of which thousands of tiny drops glisten at the tip of the threatening stings. Around them is nothing but fury and hatred; and before the bewildered creatures have begun to realize that there is an end to the happy conditions of the hive, each drone is seized by three or four ministers of justice, who proceed to hack off his wings and antennae and deftly pass their sword between the rings of his armor. The huge drones are helpless; they have no sting with which to defend themselves; all they can do is to try to escape, or to oppose the mere force of their weight to the blows that rain down. Forced on to their back, with their enemies hanging on to them, they will use their powerful claws to shift them from side to side; or, with a mighty effort, will turn round in wild circles, dragging with them the relentless executioners, who never for a moment relax their hold. But exhaustion soon puts an end; and, in a very brief space, their condition is pitiful. The wings of the wretched creatures are torn off, their antennae severed, their legs hacked in two; and their magnificent eyes, now softened by suffering, reflect only anguish and bitterness. Some die at once of their wounds, and are dragged away to distant burialgrounds; others, whose injuries are less, succeed in sheltering themselves in some corner, where they lie, all huddled together, surrounded by guards, till they perish of hunger. Many will reach the gate, and escape into space, dragging their tormentors with them; but, towards evening, driven by famine and cold, they return in crowds to the hive and pray for admission. But there they will meet the merciless guard, who will not allow one to pass; and, the next morning, the workers, before they start on their journey to the flowers, will clear the threshold of the corpses that lie strewn on it; and all recollection of the idle race will disappear till the following spring.

It will often happen that, when several hives are placed close together, the massacre of the drones will take place on the same day. The richest and best-governed hives are the first to give the signal; smaller and less prosperous cities will follow a few days later. It is only the poorest and weakest colonies that will allow the males to live till the approach of winter. The execution over, work will begin again, although less strenuously, for flowers are growing scarce. The great festivals of the hive, the great tragedies, are over. The autumn honey, that will be needed for the winter, is accumulating within the hospitable walls; and the last reservoirs are sealed with the seal of white, incorruptible wax. Building ceases; there are fewer births and more deaths; the nights lengthen and days grow shorter. The rain and the wind, the mists of the morning, the twilight that comes on too soon these entrap hundreds of workers who never return to the hive; and over this sunshine-loving little people there soon hangs the cold menace of winter.

Man has already taken for himself his good share of the harvest. Every wellconducted hive has presented him with eighty or a hundred pounds of honey; there are some even which will have given twice that quantity, all gathered from the sun-lit flowers that will have been visited a thousand or two times every day. The bee-keeper gives a last look at his hives, upon which slumber now is falling. From the richest he takes some of their store, and distributes it among those that are less well-provided. He covers up the hives, half closes the doors, removes the frames that now are useless, and abandons the bees to their long winter sleep.

They huddle together on the central comb, with the queen in the midst of them, attended by her guard. Row upon row of bees surround the sealed cells, the last row forming the envelope, as it were; and when these feel the cold stealing over them, they creep into the crowd, and others at once take their places. The whole cluster hangs suspended, clinging on to each other; rising and falling as the cells are gradually emptied of their store of honey. For, contrary to what is generally believed, the life of the bee does not cease in winter; it merely becomes less active. These little lovers of sunshine contrive, through a constant and simultaneous beating of their wings, to maintain in their hive a degree of warmth that shall equal that of a day in spring. And they owe this to the honey, which is itself no more than a ray of heat which has passed through their bodies, and now gives its generous blood to the hive. The bees that are nearest the cells pass it on to their neighbors, and these in their turn to those next them. Thus it goes from mouth to mouth through the crowd, till it reaches those furthest away. And this honey, this essence of sunshine and flowers, circulates through the hive until such time as the sun itself, the glorious sun of the spring, shall thrust in its beam through the half-open door, and tell of the violets and anemones that are once more coming to life. The workers will wake, and discover that the sky again is blue in the world, and that the wheel of life has turned, and begun afresh.


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