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THE WRATH OF THE BEE

I

     SINCE the publication of "The Life of the Bee," I have often been asked to throw light upon one of the most dreaded mysteries of the hive, namely, the psychology of its inexplicable, sudden and sometimes mortal wrath. A crowd of cruel and unjust legends, in fact, hovers around the abode of the yellow fairies of the honey. The bravest among the guests who visit the garden slacken their pace and lapse into involuntary silence as they approach the enclosure, blooming with clover and mignonette, where buzz the daughters of the light. Doting mothers keep their children away from it, as they would keep them away from a smouldering fire or a nest of adders; nor does the bee-keeping novice, gloved in leather, veiled in gauze, surrounded by clouds of smoke, face the mystic citadel without that little unavowed shiver which men feel before a great battle.

     How much reason is there at the bottom of these traditional fears? Is the bee really dangerous? Does she allow herself to be tamed? Is there a risk in approaching the hives? Ought we to flee or to face their wrath? Has the bee-keeper some secret or some talisman that preserves him from being stung? These are the questions that are anxiously put by all those who have started a timid hive and who are beginning their apprenticeship.

II

     The bee, in general, is neither ill-disposed nor aggressive, but appears somewhat capricious. She has an unconquerable antipathy to certain people; she also has days of enervation – for instance, when a storm is at hand – on which she shows herself extremely irritable. She has a most subtle and susceptible sense of smell; she tolerates no perfume and detests, above all, the scent of human sweat and of alcohol. She is not to be tamed, in the proper sense of the word; but, whereas the hives which we seldom visit become crabbed and distrustful, those which we surround with our daily cares soon grow accustomed to the discreet and prudent presence of man. Lastly, to enable us to handle the bees almost without impunity, there exist a certain number of little expedients which vary according to circumstances and which can be learnt by practice alone. But it is time to reveal the great secret of their wrath.

III

     The bee, essentially so pacific, so long-suffering, the bee, which never stings (unless you crush her) when looting among the flowers, once she has returned to her kingdom with the waxen monuments, retains her mild and tolerant character, or grows violent and deadly dangerous, according as her maternal city be opulent or poor. Here again, as often happens when we study the manners of this spirited and mysterious little people, the provisions of human logic are utterly at fault. It would be natural that the bees should defend desperately treasures so laboriously amassed, a city such as we find in good apiaries, where the nectar, overflowing the numberless cells that represent thousands of casks piled from cellar to garret, streams in golden stalactites along the rustling walls and sends far afield, in glad response to the ephemeral perfumes of calyces that are opening, the more lasting perfume of the honey that keeps alive the memory of calyces which time has closed. Now this is not the case. The richer their abode, the less eagerness they display to fight around it. Open or turn over a wealthy hive; if you take care to drive the sentries from the entrance with a puff of smoke, it will be extremely rare for the other bees to contend with you for the liquid booty conquered from the smiles, from all the charms of the beautiful azure months. Try the experiment; I promise you impunity, if you touch only the heavier hives. You can turn them over and empty them; those throbbing flagons are perfectly harmless. What does it mean? Have the fierce amazons lost courage? Has abundance unnerved them, and have they, after the manner of the too fortunate inhabitants of luxurious towns, delegated the dangerous duties to the unhappy mercenaries who keep watch at the gates? No, it has never been observed that the greatest good fortune relaxes the valour of the bee. On the contrary, the more the republic prospers, the more harshly and severely are its laws applied, and the worker in a hive where superfluity accumulates labours much more zealously than her sister in an indigent hive. There are other reasons which we cannot wholly fathom, but which are likely reasons, if only we take into account the wild interpretation which the poor bee must needs place upon our monstrous doings. Seeing suddenly her huge dwelling-place upheaved, overturned, half-opened, she probably imagines that an inevitable, a natural catastrophe is occurring against which it were madness to struggle. She no longer resists, but neither does she flee. Admitting the ruin, it looks as though already, in her instinct, she saw the future dwelling which she hopes to build with the materials taken from the gutted town. She leaves the present defenceless in order to save the hereafter. Or else, perhaps, does She, like the dog in the fable, "the dog that carried his master's dinner round his neck," knowing that all is irreparably lost, prefer to die taking her share of the pillage and to pass from life to death in one prodigious orgy? We do not know for certain. How should we penetrate the motives of the bee, when those of the simplest actions of our brothers are beyond our ken?

IV

     Still, the fact is that, at each great proof to which the city is put, at each trouble that appears to the bees to possess an inevitable character, no sooner has the infatuation spread from one to the other among the densely quivering people than the bees fling themselves upon their combs, violently tear the sacred lids from the provisions for the winter, topple head foremost and plunge their whole bodies into the sweet-smelling vats, imbibe with long draughts the chaste wine of the flowers, gorge themselves with it, intoxicate themselves with it, till their bronze-ringed forms lengthen and distend like compressed leather bottles. Now the bee, when swollen with honey, can no longer curve her abdomen at the angle required to draw her sting. She becomes, so to speak, mechanically harmless from that moment. It is generally imagined that the beekeeper employs the fumigator to stun, to half-asphyxiate the warriors that gather their treasure in the blue and thus to effect an entrance by favour of a defenceless slumber into the palace of the innumerous sleeping amazons. This is a mistake: the smoke serves first to drive back the guardians of the threshold, who are ever on the alert and extremely quarrelsome; then, two or three puffs come to spread panic among the workers: the panic provokes the mysterious orgy, and the orgy helplessness. Thus is the fact explained that, with bare arms and unprotected face, one can open the most populous hives, examine their combs, shake off the bees, spread them at one's feet, heap them up, pour them out like grains of corn and quietly gather the honey, in the midst of the deafening cloud of ousted workers, without having to suffer a single sting.

V

     But woe to whoso touches the poor hives! Keep away from the abodes of want! Here, smoke has lost its spell, and you shall scarce have emitted the first pulis before twenty thousand acrid and enraged demons will dart from within the walls, overwhelm your hands, blind your eyes and blacken your face. No living being, except, they say, the bear and the Sphinx Atropos, can resist the rage of the mailed legions. Above all, do not struggle: the fury would overtake the neighbouring colonies; and the smell of the spilt venom would enrage all the republics around. There is no means of safety other than instant flight through the bushes. The bee is less rancorous, less implacable than the wasp and rarely pursues her enemy. If flight be impossible, absolute immobility alone might calm her or put her off the scent. She fears and attacks any too sudden movement, but at once forgives that which no longer stirs.

     The poor hives live, or rather die from day to day, and it is because they have no honey in their cellars that smoke makes no impression on them. They cannot gorge themselves like their sisters that belong to happier tribes; the possibilities of a future city are not there to divert their ardour. Their only thought is to perish on the outraged threshold, and, lean, shrunk, nimble, unrestrained, they defend it with unheard of heroism and desperation. Therefore, the cautious beekeeper never displaces the indigent hives without making a preliminary sacrifice to the hungry Furies. His offering is a honey-comb. They come hastening up and then, the smoke assisting, they distend and intoxicate themselves: behold them reduced to helplessness like the rich burgesses of the plentiful cells.

VI

     One could find much more to tell of the wrath of the bees and their singular antipathies. These antipathies are often so strange that they were for long attributed, that they are still attributed, by the peasants, to moral causes, to profound and mystic intuitions. There is the conviction, for instance, that the vestal vintagers cannot endure the approach of the unchaste, above all of the adulterous. It would be surprising if the most rational beings that live with us on this incomprehensible globe were to attach so much importance to a trespass that is often very harmless. In reality, they give it no thought; but they, whose whole life sways to the nuptial and sumptuous breath of the flowers, abhor the perfumes which we steal from them. Are we to believe that chastity exhales fewer odours than love? Is this the origin of the rancour of the jealous bees and of the legend that avenges virtues as jealous as they? Be this as it may, the legend must be classed with the many others that pretend to do great honour to the phenomena of nature by ascribing human feelings to them. It would be better, on the contrary, to mix our petty human psychology as little as possible with all that we do not easily understand, to seek our explanations only without, on this side of man or on that side; for it is probably there that lie the positive revelations which we are still awaiting.

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