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Produced by Steve Solomon


By Maurice Maeterlinck

Translated By Alfred Sutro



_Published May, 1901_













IT is not my intention to write a treatise on apiculture, or on
practical bee-keeping. Excellent works of the kind abound in all
civilised countries, and it were useless to attempt another. France
has those of Dadant, Georges de Layens and Bonnier, Bertrand, Hamet,
Weber, Clement, the Abbe Collin, etc. English-speaking countries
have Langstroth, Bevan, Cook, Cheshire, Cowan, Root, etc. Germany
has Dzierzon, Van Berlespoch, Pollmann, Vogel, and many others.

Nor is this book to be a scientific monograph on Apis Mellifica,
Ligustica, Fasciata, Dorsata, etc., or a collection of new
observations and studies. I shall say scarcely anything that those
will not know who are somewhat familiar with bees. The notes and
experiments I have made during my twenty years of beekeeping I shall
reserve for a more technical work; for their interest is necessarily
of a special and limited nature, and I am anxious not to over-burden
this essay. I wish to speak of the bees very simply, as one speaks
of a subject one knows and loves to those who know it not. I do not
intend to adorn the truth, or merit the just reproach Reaumur
addressed to his predecessors in the study of our honey-flies, whom
he accused of substituting for the marvellous reality marvels that
were imaginary and merely plausible. The fact that the hive contains
so much that is wonderful does not warrant our seeking to add to its
wonders. Besides, I myself have now for a long time ceased to look
for anything more beautiful in this world, or more interesting, than
the truth; or at least than the effort one is able to make towards
the truth. I shall state nothing, therefore, that I have not
verified myself, or that is not so fully accepted in the text-books
as to render further verification superfluous. My facts shall be as
accurate as though they appeared in a practical manual or scientific
monograph, but I shall relate them in a somewhat livelier fashion
than such works would allow, shall group them more harmoniously
together, and blend them with freer and more mature reflections. The
reader of this book will not learn therefrom how to manage a hive;
but he will know more or less all that can with any certainty be
known of the curious, profound, and intimate side of its
inhabitants. Nor will this be at the cost of what still remains to
be learned. I shall pass over in silence the hoary traditions that,
in the country and many a book, still constitute the legend of the
hive. Whenever there be doubt, disagreement, hypothesis, when I
arrive at the unknown, I shall declare it loyally; you will find
that we often shall halt before the unknown. Beyond the appreciable
facts of their life we know but little of the bees. And the closer
our acquaintance becomes, the nearer is our ignorance brought to us
of the depths of their real existence; but such ignorance is better
than the other kind, which is unconscious, and satisfied.

Does an analogous work on the bee exist? I believe I have read
almost all that has been written on bees; but of kindred matter I
know only Michelet's chapter at the end of his book "The Insect,"
and Ludwig Buchner's essay in his "Mind in Animals." Michelet merely
hovers on the fringe of his subject; Buchner's treatise is
comprehensive enough, but contains so many hazardous statements, so
much long-discarded gossip and hearsay, that I suspect him of never
having left his library, never having set forth himself to question
his heroines, or opened one of the many hundreds of rustling,
wing-lit hives which we must profane before our instinct can be
attuned to their secret, before we can perceive the spirit and
atmosphere, perfume and mystery, of these virgin daughters of toil.
The book smells not of the bee, or its honey; and has the defects of
many a learned work, whose conclusions often are preconceived, and
whose scientific attainment is composed of a vast array of doubtful
anecdotes collected on every side. But in this essay of mine we
rarely shall meet each other; for our starting-point, our aim, and
our point of view are all very different.


The bibliography of the bee (we will begin with the books so as to
get rid of them as soon as we can and go to the source of the books)
is very extensive. From the beginning this strange little creature,
that lived in a society under complicated laws and executed
prodigious labours in the darkness, attracted the notice of men.
Aristotle, Cato, Varro, Pliny, Columella, Palladius all studied the
bees; to say nothing of Aristomachus, who, according to Cicero,
watched them for fifty-eight years, and of Phyliscus, whose writings
are lost. But these dealt rather with the legend of the bee; and all
that we can gather therefrom - which indeed is exceedingly little - we
may find condensed in the fourth book of Virgil's Georgics.

The real history of the bee begins in the seventeenth century, with
the discoveries of the great Dutch savant Swammerdam. It is well,
however, to add this detail, but little known: before Swammerdam a
Flemish naturalist named Clutius had arrived at certain important
truths, such as the sole maternity of the queen and her possession
of the attributes of both sexes, but he had left these unproved.
Swammerdam founded the true methods of scientific investigation; he
invented the microscope, contrived injections to ward off decay, was
the first to dissect the bees, and by the discovery of the ovaries
and the oviduct definitely fixed the sex of the queen, hitherto
looked upon as a king, and threw the whole political scheme of the
hive into most unexpected light by basing it upon maternity. Finally
he produced woodcuts and engravings so perfect that to this day they
serve to illustrate many books on apiculture. He lived in the
turbulent, restless Amsterdam of those days, regretting "Het Zoete
Buiten Leve " - The Sweet Life of the Country - and died, worn-out
with work, at the age of forty-three. He wrote in a pious, formal
style, with beautiful, simple outbursts of a faith that, fearful of
falling away, ascribed all things to the glory of the Creator; and
embodied his observations and studies in his great work "Bybel der
Natuure," which the doctor Boerhave, a century later, caused to be
translated from the Dutch into Latin under the title of "Biblia
Naturae." (Leyden, 1737.)

Then came Reaumur, who, pursuing similar methods, made a vast number
of curious experiments and researches in his gardens at Charenton,
and devoted to the bees an entire volume of his "Notes to Serve for
a History of Insects." One may read it with profit to-day, and
without fatigue. It is clear, direct, and sincere, and possessed of
a certain hard, arid charm of its own. He sought especially the
destruction of ancient errors; he himself was responsible for
several new ones; he partially understood the formation of swarms
and the political establishment of queens; in a word, he discovered
many difficult truths, and paved the way for the discovery of more.
He fully appreciated the marvellous architecture of the hive; and
what he said on the subject has never been better said. It is to
him, too, that we owe the idea of the glass hives, which, having
since been perfected, enable us to follow the entire private life of
these fierce insects, whose work, begun in the dazzling sunshine,
receives its crown in the darkness. To be comprehensive, one should
mention also the somewhat subsequent works and investigations of
Charles Bonnet and Schirach (who solved the enigma of the royal
egg); but I will keep to the broad lines, and pass at once to
Francois Huber, the master and classic of contemporary apiarian

Huber was born in Geneva in 1750, and fell blind in his earliest
youth. The experiments of Reaumur interested him; he sought to
verify them, and soon becoming passionately absorbed in these
researches, eventually, with the assistance of an intelligent and
faithful servant, Francois Burnens, devoted his entire life to the
study of the bee. In the annals of human suffering and human triumph
there is nothing more touching, no lesson more admirable, than the
story of this patient collaboration, wherein the one who saw only
with immaterial light guided with his spirit the eyes and hands of
the other who had the real earthly vision; where he who, as we are
assured, had never with his own eyes beheld a comb of honey, was yet
able, notwithstanding the veil on his dead eyes that rendered double
the veil in which nature enwraps all things, to penetrate the
profound secrets of the genius that had made this invisible comb; as
though to teach us that no condition in life can warrant our
abandoning our desire and search for the truth. I will not enumerate
all that apiarian science owes to Huber; to state what it does not
owe were the briefer task. His "New Observations on Bees," of which
the first volume was written in 1789, in the form of letters to
Charles Bonnet, the second not appearing till twenty years later,
have remained the unfailing, abundant treasure into which every
subsequent writer has dipped. And though a few mistakes may be found
therein, a few incomplete truths; though since his time considerable
additions have been made to the micrography and practical culture of
bees, the handling of queens, etc., there is not a single one of his
principal statements that has been disproved, or discovered in
error; and in our actual experience they stand untouched, and indeed
at its very foundation.


Some years of silence followed these revelations; but soon a German
clergyman, Dzierzon, discovered parthenogenesis, _i. e._ the
virginal parturition of queens, and contrived the first hive with
movable combs, thereby enabling the bee-keeper henceforth to take
his share of the harvest of honey, without being forced to destroy
his best colonies and in one instant annihilate the work of an
entire year. This hive, still very imperfect, received masterly
improvement at the hands of Langstroth, who invented the movable
frame properly so called, which has been adopted in America with
extraordinary success. Root, Quinby, Dadant, Cheshire, De Layens,
Cowan, Heddon, Howard, etc., added still further and precious
improvement. Then it occurred to Mehring that if bees were supplied
with combs that had an artificial waxen foundation, they would be
spared the labour of fashioning the wax and constructing the cells,
which costs them much honey and the best part of their time; he
found that the bees accepted these combs most readily, and adapted
them to their requirements.

Major de Hruschka invented the Honey-Extractor, which enables the
honey to be withdrawn by centrifugal force without breaking the
combs, etc. And thus, in a few years, the methods of apiculture
underwent a radical change. The capacity and fruitfulness of the
hives were trebled. Great and productive apiaries arose on every
side. An end was put to the useless destruction of the most
industrious cities, and to the odious selection of the least fit
which was its result. Man truly became the master of the bees,
although furtively, and without their knowledge; directing all
things without giving an order, receiving obedience but not
recognition. For the destiny once imposed by the seasons he has
substituted his will. He repairs the injustice of the year, unites
hostile republics, and equalises wealth. He restricts or augments
the births, regulates the fecundity of the queen, dethrones her and
instals another in her place, after dexterously obtaining the
reluctant consent of a people who would be maddened at the mere
suspicion of an inconceivable intervention. When he thinks fit, he
will peacefully violate the secret of the sacred chambers, and the
elaborate, tortuous policy of the palace. He will five or six times
in succession deprive the bees of the fruit of their labour, without
harming them, without their becoming discouraged or even
impoverished. He proportions the store-houses and granaries of their
dwellings to the harvest of flowers that the spring is spreading
over the dip of the hills. He compels them to reduce the extravagant
number of lovers who await the birth of the royal princesses. In a
word he does with them what he will, he obtains what he will,
provided always that what he seeks be in accordance with their laws
and their virtues; for beyond all the desires of this strange god
who has taken possession of them, who is too vast to be seen and too
alien to be understood, their eyes see further than the eyes of the
god himself; and their one thought is the accomplishment, with
untiring sacrifice, of the mysterious duty of their race.


Let us now, having learned from books all that they had to teach us
of a very ancient history, leave the science others have acquired
and look at the bees with our own eyes. An hour spent in the midst
of the apiary will be less instructive, perhaps; but the things we
shall see will be infinitely more stimulating and more actual.

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 whose love for brilliant
colour rivals that of Zealand even, the concave mirror of Holland; a
country that gladly spreads out before us, as so many pretty,
thoughtful toys, her illuminated gables, and waggons, and towers;
her cupboards and clocks that gleam at the end of the passage; her
little trees marshalled in line along quays and canal-banks,
waiting, one almost might think, for some quiet, beneficent
ceremony; her boats and her barges with sculptured poops, her
flower-like doors and windows, immaculate dams, and elaborate,
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, cut into patterns of
oval and lozenge, and most astoundingly green.

To this spot, where life would seem more restricted than
elsewhere - if it be possible for life indeed to become restricted - a
sort of aged philosopher had retired; an old man somewhat akin to
Virgil's -

"Man equal to kings, and approaching the gods;"

whereto Lafontaine might have added, -

"And, like the gods, content and at rest."

Here had he built his refuge, being a little weary; not disgusted,
for the large aversions are unknown to the sage; but a little weary
of interrogating men, whose answers to the only interesting
questions one can put concerning nature and her veritable laws are
far less simple than those that are given by animals and plants. His
happiness, like the Scythian philosopher's, lay all in the beauties
of his garden; and best-loved and visited most often, was the
apiary, composed of twelve domes of straw, some of which he had
painted a bright pink, and some a clear yellow, but most of all a
tender blue; having noticed, long before Sir John Lubbock's
demonstrations, the bees' fondness for this colour.

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 tin, reflected
itself through the open door on to the peaceful canal. And the
water, burdened with these familiar images beneath its curtain of
poplars, led one's eyes to a calm horizon of mills and of meadows.

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 the festival spirit of nature. One
was content to rest at this radiant crossroad, where the aerial ways
converge and divide that the busy and tuneful bearers of all country
perfumes unceasingly travel from dawn unto dusk. One heard the
musical voice of the garden, whose loveliest hours revealed their
rejoicing soul and sang of their gladness. One came hither, to the
school of the bees, to be taught the preoccupations of all-powerful
nature, the harmonious concord of the three kingdoms, the
indefatigable organisation of life, and the lesson of ardent and
disinterested work; and another lesson too, with a moral as good,
that the heroic workers taught there, and emphasised, as it were,
with the fiery darts of their myriad wings, was to appreciate the
somewhat vague savour of leisure, to enjoy the almost unspeakable
delights of those immaculate days that revolved on themselves in the
fields of space, forming merely a transparent globe, as void of
memory as the happiness without alloy.


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 labours; and then we shall meet, in their natural
order, all the great episodes, viz.: the formation and departure of
the swarm, the foundation of the new city, the birth, combat and
nuptial flight of the young queens, the massacre of the males, and
finally, the return of the sleep of winter. With each of these
episodes there will go the necessary explanations as to the laws,
habits, peculiarities and events that produce and accompany it; so
that, when arrived at the end of the bee's short year, which extends
only from April to the last days of September, we shall have gazed
upon all the mysteries of the palace of honey. Before we open it,
therefore, and throw a general glance around, we only need say that
the hive is composed of a queen, the mother of all her people; of
thousands of workers or neuters who are incomplete and sterile
females; and lastly of some hundreds of males, from whom one shall
be chosen as the sole and unfortunate consort of the queen that the
workers will elect in the future, after the more or less voluntary
departure of the reigning mother.


The first time that we open a hive there comes over us an emotion
akin to that we might feel at profaning some unknown object, charged
perhaps with dreadful surprise, as a tomb. A legend of menace and
peril still clings to the bees. There is the distressful
recollection of her sting, which produces a pain so characteristic
that one knows not wherewith to compare it; a kind of destroying
dryness, a flame of the desert rushing over the wounded limb, as
though these daughters of the sun had distilled a dazzling poison
from their father's angry rays, in order more effectively to defend
the treasure they gather from his beneficent hours.

It is true that were some one who neither knows nor respects the
customs and character of the bee suddenly to fling open the hive, it
would turn at once into a burning bush of heroism and anger; but the
slight amount of skill needed to handle it with impunity can be most
readily acquired. Let but a little smoke be deftly applied, much
coolness and gentleness be shown, and our well-armed workers will
suffer themselves to be despoiled without dreaming of drawing their
sting. It is not the fact, as some have maintained, that the bees
recognise their master; nor have they any fear of man; but at the
smell of the smoke, at the large slow gestures that traverse their
dwellings without threatening them, they imagine that this is not
the attack of an enemy against whom defence is possible, but that it
is a force or a natural catastrophe whereto they do well to submit.

Instead of vainly struggling, therefore, they do what they can to
safeguard the future; and, obeying a foresight that for once is in
error, they fly to their reserves of honey, into which they eagerly
dip in order to possess within themselves the wherewithal to start a
new city, immediately and no matter where, should the ancient one be
destroyed or they be compelled to forsake it.


The first impression of the novice before whom an observation-hive*
is opened will be one of some disappointment. He had been told that
this little glass case contained an unparalleled activity, an
infinite number of wise laws, and a startling amalgam of mystery,
experience, genius, calculation, science, of various industries, of
certitude and prescience, of intelligent habits and curious feelings
and virtues. All that he sees is a confused mass of little reddish
groups, somewhat resembling roasted coffee-berries, or bunches of
raisins piled against the glass. They look more dead than alive;
their movements are slow, incoherent, and incomprehensible. Can
these be the wonderful drops of light he had seen but a moment ago,
unceasingly flashing and sparkling, as they darted among the pearls
and the gold of a thousand wide-open calyces?

By observation-hive is meant a hive of glass, furnished with black
curtains or shutters. The best kind have only one comb, thus
permitting both faces to be studied. These hives can be placed in a
drawing-room, library, etc., without inconvenience or danger. The
bees that inhabit the one I have in my study in Paris are able even
in the stony desert of that great city, to find the wherewithal to
nourish themselves and to prosper.

They appear to be shivering in the darkness, to be numbed,
suffocated, so closely are they huddled together; one might fancy
they were ailing captives, or queens dethroned, who have had their
one moment of glory in the midst of their radiant garden, and are
now compelled to return to the shameful squalor of their poor
overcrowded home.

It is with them as with all that is deeply real; they must be
studied, and one must learn how to study them. The inhabitant of
another planet who should see men and women coming and going almost
imperceptibly through our streets, crowding at certain times around
certain buildings, or waiting for one knows not what, without
apparent movement, in the depths of their dwellings, might conclude
therefrom that they, too, were miserable and inert. It takes time to
distinguish the manifold activity contained in this inertia.

And indeed every one of the little almost motionless groups in the
hive is incessantly working, each at a different trade. Repose is
unknown to any; and such, for instance, as seem the most torpid, as
they hang in dead clusters against the glass, are intrusted with the
most mysterious and fatiguing task of all: it is they who secrete
and form the wax. But the details of this universal activity will be
given in their place. For the moment we need only call attention to
the essential trait in the nature of the bee which accounts for the
extraordinary agglomeration of the various workers. The bee is above
all, and even to a greater extent than the ant, a creature of the
crowd. She can live only in the midst of a multitude. When she
leaves the hive, which is so densely packed that she has to force
her way with blows of her head through the living walls that enclose
her, she departs from her proper element. She will dive for an
instant into flower-filled space, as the swimmer will dive into the
sea that is filled with pearls, but under pain of death it behoves
her at regular intervals to return and breathe the crowd as the
swimmer must return and breathe the air. Isolate her, and however
abundant the food or favourable the temperature, she will expire in
a few days not of hunger or cold, but of loneliness. From the crowd,
from the city, she derives an invisible aliment that is as necessary
to her as honey. This craving will help to explain the spirit of the
laws of the hive. For in them the individual is nothing, her
existence conditional only, and herself, for one indifferent moment,
a winged organ of the race. Her whole life is an entire sacrifice to
the manifold, everlasting being whereof she forms part. It is
strange to note that it was not always so. We find even to-day,
among the melliferous hymenoptera, all the stages of progressive
civilisation of our own domestic bee. At the bottom of the scale we
find her working alone, in wretchedness, often not seeing her
offspring (the Prosopis, the Colletes, etc.); sometimes living in
the midst of the limited family that she produces annually (as in
the case of the humble-bee). Then she forms temporary associations (the
Panurgi, the Dasypodoe, the Hacliti, etc.) and at last we arrive,

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