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preserve the race that, their atrophied ovaries notwithstanding,
they will still endeavour to lay; and, their organs expanding
somewhat beneath the empire of this exasperated sentiment, they will
succeed in depositing a few eggs in the cells; but from these eggs,
as from those of the virgin mother, there will, issue only males.


Here we behold the active intervention of a superior though perhaps
imprudent will, which offers irresistible obstruction to the
intelligent will of a life. In the insect world such interventions
are comparatively frequent, and much can be gained from their study;
for this world being more densely peopled and more complex than
others, certain special desires of nature are often more palpably
revealed to us there; and she may even at times be detected in the
midst of experiments we might almost be warranted in regarding as
incomplete. She has one great and general desire, for instance, that
she displays on all sides; the amelioration of each species through
the triumph of the stronger. This struggle, as a rule, is most
carefully organised. The hecatomb of the weak is enormous, but that
matters little so long as the victors' reward be effectual and
certain. But there are cases when one might almost imagine that
nature had not had time enough to disentangle her combinations;
cases where reward is impossible, and the fate of the victor no less
disastrous than that of the vanquished. And of such, selecting an
instance that will not take us too far from our bees, I know of no
instance more striking than that of the triongulins of the _Sitaris
colletes._ And it will be seen that, in many details, this story is
less foreign to the history of man than might perhaps be imagined.

These triongulins are the primary larvae of a parasite proper to a
wild, obtuse-tongued, solitary bee, the Colletes, which builds its
nest in subterranean galleries. It is their habit to lie in wait for
the bee at the approach to these galleries; and then, to the number
of three, four, five, or often of more, they will leap on her back,
and bury themselves in her hair. Were the struggle of the weak
against the strong to take place at this moment there would be no
more to be said, and all would pass in accordance with universal
law. But, for a reason we know not, their instinct requires, and
nature has consequently ordained, that they should hold themselves
tranquil so long as they remain on the back of the bee. They
patiently bide their time while she visits the flowers, and
constructs and provisions her cells. But no sooner has an egg been
laid than they all spring upon it; and the innocent colletes
carefully seals down her cell, which she has duly supplied with
food, never suspecting that she has at the same time ensured the
death of her offspring.

The cell has scarcely been closed when the triongulins grouped round
the egg engage in the inevitable and salutary combat of natural
selection. The stronger, more agile, will seize its adversary
beneath the cuirass, and, raising it aloft, will maintain it for
hours in its mandibles until the victim expire. But, while this
fight is in progress, another of the triongulins, that had either no
rival to meet, or already has conquered, takes possession of the egg
and bursts it open. The ultimate victor has therefore this fresh
enemy to subdue; but the conquest is easy, for the triongulin, deep
in the satisfaction of its pre-natal hunger, clings obstinately to
the egg, and does not even attempt to defend itself. It is quickly
despatched; and the other is at last alone, and possessor of the
precious egg it has won so well. It eagerly plunges its head into
the opening its predecessor had made; and begins the lengthy repast
that shall transform it into a perfect insect. But nature, that has
decreed this ordeal of battle, has, on the other hand, established
the prize of victory with such miserly precision that nothing short
of an entire egg will suffice for the nourishment of a single
triongulin. So that, as we are informed by M. Mayet, to whom we owe
the account of these disconcerting adventures, there is lacking to
our conqueror the food its last victim consumed before death; and
incapable therefore of achieving the first stage of its
transformation, it dies in its turn, adhering to the skin of the
egg, or adding itself, in the sugary liquid, to the number of the


This case, though rarely to be followed so closely, is not unique in
natural history. We have here, laid bare before us, the struggle
between the conscious will of the triongulin, that seeks to live,
and the obscure and general will of nature, that not only desires
that the triongulin should live, but is anxious even that its life
should be improved, and fortified, to a degree beyond that to which
its own will impels it. But, through some strange inadvertence, the
amelioration nature imposes suppresses the life of even the fittest,
and the Sitaris Colletes would have long since disappeared had not
chance, acting in opposition to the desires of nature, permitted
isolated individuals to escape from the excellent and far-seeing law
that ordains on all sides the triumph of the stronger.

Can this mighty power err, then, that seems unconscious to us, but
necessarily wise, seeing that the life she organises and maintains
is forever proving her to be right? Can feebleness at times overcome
that supreme reason, which we are apt to invoke when we have
attained the limits of our own? And if that be so, by whom shall
this feebleness be set right?

But let us return to that special form of her resistless
intervention that we find in parthenogenesis. And we shall do well
to remember that, remote as the world may seem in which these
problems confront us, they do indeed yet concern ourselves very
nearly. Who would dare to affirm that no interventions take place in
the sphere of man - interventions that may be more hidden, but not
the less fraught with danger? And in the case before us, which is
right, in the end, - the insect, or nature? What would happen if the
bees, more docile perhaps, or endowed with a higher intelligence,
were too clearly to understand the desires of nature, and to follow
them to the extreme; to multiply males to infinity, seeing that
nature is imperiously calling for males? Would they not risk the
destruction of their species? Are we to believe that there are
intentions in nature that it is dangerous to understand too clearly,
fatal to follow with too much ardour; and that it is one of her
desires that we should not divine, and follow, all her desires? Is
it not possible that herein there may lie one of the perils of the
human race? We too are aware of unconscious forces within us, that
would appear to demand the reverse of what our intellect urges. And
this intellect of ours, that, as a rule, its own boundary reached,
knows not whither to go - can it be well that it should join itself
to these forces, and add to them its unexpected weight?


Have we the right to conclude, from the dangers of parthenogenesis,
that nature is not always able to proportion the means to the end;
and that what she intends to preserve is preserved at times by means
of precautions she has to contrive against her own precautions, and
often through foreign circumstances she has not herself foreseen?
But is there anything she does foresee, anything she does intend to
preserve? Nature, some may say, is a word wherewith we clothe the
unknowable; and few things authorise our crediting it with
intelligence, or with aim. That is true. We touch here the
hermetically sealed vases that furnish our conception of the
universe. Reluctant, over and over again, to label these with the
inscription "UNKNOWN," that disheartens us and compels us to
silence, we engrave upon them, in the degree of their size and
grandeur, the words "Nature, life, death, infinite, selection,
spirit of the race," and many others, even as those who went before
us affixed the words "God, Providence, destiny, reward," etc. Let it
be so, if one will, and no more. But, though the contents of the
vases remain obscure, there is gain at least in the fact that the
inscriptions to-day convey less menace to us, that we are able
therefore to approach them and touch them, and lay our ears close to
them and listen, with wholesome curiosity.

But whatever the name we attach to these vases, it is certain that
one of them, at least, and the greatest - that which bears on its
flank the name "Nature" - encloses a very real force, the most real
of all, and one that is able to preserve an enormous and marvellous
quantity and quality of life on our globe, by means so skilful that
they surpass all that the genius of man could contrive. Could this
quantity and quality be maintained by other means? Is it we who
deceive ourselves when we imagine that we see precautions where
perhaps there is truly no more than a fortunate chance, that has
survived a million unfortunate chances?


That may be; but these fortunate chances teach us a lesson in
admiration as valuable as those we might learn in regions superior
to chance. If we let our gaze travel beyond the creatures that are
possessed of a glimmer of intellect and consciousness, beyond the
protozoa even, which are the first nebulous representatives of the
dawning animal kingdom, we find, as has been abundantly proved by
the experiments of Mr. H. J. Carter, the celebrated microscopist,
that the very lowest embryos, such as the myxomycetes, manifest a
will and desires and preferences; and that infusoria, which
apparently have no organism whatever, give evidence of a certain
cunning. The Amoebae, for instance, will patiently lie in wait for
the new-born Acinetes, as they leave the maternal ovary; being aware
that these must as yet be lacking their poisonous tentacles. Now,
the Amoebae have neither a nervous system nor distinguishable organs
of any kind. Or if we turn to the plants, which, being motionless,
would seem exposed to every fatality, - without pausing to consider
carnivorous species like the Drusera, which really act as
animals, - we are struck by the genius that some of our humblest
flowers display in contriving that the visit of the bee shall
infallibly procure them the crossed fertilisation they need. See the
marvellous fashion in which the Orchis Moris, our humble country
orchid, combines the play of its rostellum and retinacula; observe
the mathematical and automatic inclination and adhesion of its
pollinia; as also the unerring double seesaw of the anthers of the
wild sage, which touch the body of the visiting insect at a
particular spot in order that the insect may, in its turn, touch the
stigma of the neighbouring flower at another particular spot; watch,
too, in the case of the Pedicularis Sylvatica, the successive,
calculated movements of its stigma; and indeed the entrance of the
bee into any one of these three flowers sets every organ vibrating,
just as the skilful marksman who hits the black spot on the target
will cause all the figures to move in the elaborate mechanisms we
see in our village fairs.

We might go lower still, and show, as Ruskin has shown in his
"Ethics of the Dust," the character, habits, and artifices of
crystals; their quarrels, and mode of procedure, when a foreign body
attempts to oppose their plans, which are more ancient by far than
our imagination can conceive; the manner in which they admit or
repel an enemy, the possible victory of the weaker over the
stronger, as, for instance, when the all-powerful quartz submits to
the humble and wily epidote, and allows this last to conquer it; the
struggle, terrible sometimes and sometimes magnificent, between the
rock-crystal and iron; the regular, immaculate expansion and
uncompromising purity of one hyaline block, which rejects whatever
is foul, and the sickly growth, the evident immorality, of its
brother, which admits corruption, and writhes miserably in the void;
as we might quote also the strange phenomena of crystalline
cicatrisation and reintegration mentioned by Claude Bernard, etc.
But the mystery here becomes too foreign to us. Let us keep to our
flowers, which are the last expression of a life that has yet some
kinship with our own. We are not dealing now with animals or
insects, to which we attribute a special, intelligent will, thanks
to which they survive. We believe, rightly or wrongly, that the
flowers possess no such will; at least we cannot discover in them
the slightest trace of the organs wherein will, intellect, and
initiative of action, are usually born and reside. It follows,
therefore, that all that acts in them in so admirable a fashion must
directly proceed from what we elsewhere call nature. We are no
longer concerned with the intellect of the individual; here we find
the un conscious, undivided force in the act of ensnaring other
forms of itself. Shall we on that account refuse to believe that
these snares are pure accidents, occurring in accordance with a
routine that is also incidental? We are not yet entitled to such a
deduction. It might be urged that these flowers, had these
miraculous combinations not been, would not have survived, but would
have had their place filled by others that stood in no need of
crossed fertilisation; and the non-existence of the first would have
been perceived by none, nor would the life that vibrates on the
earth have seemed less incomprehensible to us, less diverse, or less

And yet it would be difficult not to admit that acts which bear all
the appearance of acts of intelligence and prudence produce and
support these fortunate chances. Whence do they issue, - from the
being itself, or from the force whence that being draws life? I will
not say "it matters but little," for, on the contrary, to know the
answer were of supreme importance to us. But, in the meantime, and
till we shall learn whether it be the flower that endeavours to
maintain and perfect the life that nature has placed within it, or
whether it be nature that puts forth an effort to maintain and
improve the degree of existence the flower has assumed, or finally
whether it be chance that ultimately governs chance, a multitude of
semblances invite us to believe that something equal to our loftiest
thoughts issues at times from a common source, that we are compelled
to admire without knowing where it resides.

There are moments when what seems error to us comes forth from this
common source. But, although we know very few things, proofs abound
that the seeming error was in reality an act of prudence that we at
first could not grasp. In the little circle, even, that our eyes
embrace we are constantly shown that what we regarded as nature's
blunder close by was due to her deeming it well to adjust the
presumed inadvertence out yonder. She has placed the three flowers
we mentioned under conditions of such difficulty that they are
unable to fertilise themselves; she considers it beneficial,
therefore, for reasons beyond our powers of perception, that they
should cause themselves to be fertilised by their neighbours; and,
inasmuch as she enhances the intelligence of her victims, she
displays on our right the genius she failed to display on our left.
The byways of this genius of hers remain incomprehensible to us, but
its level is always the same. It will appear to fall into
error - assuming that error be possible - thereupon rising again at
once in the organ charged to repair this error. Turn where we may,
it towers high over our heads. It is the circular ocean, the
tideless water, whereon our boldest and most independent thoughts
will never be more than mere abject bubbles. We call it Nature
to-day; to-morrow, perhaps, we shall give it another name, softer or
more alarming. In the meanwhile it holds simultaneous, impartial
sway over life and death; furnishing the two irreconcilable sisters
with the magnificent and familiar weapons that adorn and distract
its bosom.


Does this force take measures to maintain what may be struggling on
its surface, or must we say, arguing in the strangest of circles,
that what floats on its surface must guard itself against the genius
that has given it life? That question must be left open. We have no
means of ascertaining whether it be notwithstanding the efforts of
the superior will, or independently of these, or lastly because of
these, that a species has been able to survive.

All we can say is that such a species exists, and that, on this
point, therefore, nature would seem to be right. But who shall tell
us how many others that we have not known have fallen victim to her
restless and forgetful intellect? Beyond this, we can recognise only
the surprising and occasionally hostile forms that the extraordinary
fluid we call life assumes, in utter unconsciousness sometimes, at
others with a kind of consciousness: the fluid which animates us
equally with all the rest, which produces the very thoughts that
judge it, and the feeble voice that attempts to tell its story.


WE will now consider the manner in which the impregnation of the
queen-bee comes to pass. Here again nature has taken extraordinary
measures to favour the union of males with females of a different
stock; a strange law, whereto nothing would seem to compel her; a
caprice, or initial inadvertence, perhaps, whose reparation calls
for the most marvellous forces her activity knows.

If she had devoted half the genius she lavishes on crossed
fertilisation and other arbitrary desires to making life more
certain, to alleviating pain, to softening death and warding off
horrible accidents, the universe would probably have presented an
enigma less incomprehensible, less pitiable, than the one we are
striving to solve. But our consciousness, and the interest we take
in existence, must grapple, not with what might have been, but with
what is.

Around the virgin queen, and dwelling with her in the hive, are
hundreds of exuberant males, forever drunk on honey; the sole reason
for their existence being one act of love. But, notwithstanding the
incessant contact of two desires that elsewhere invariably triumph
over every obstacle, the union never takes place in the hive, nor
has it been possible to bring about the impregnation of a captive

*Professor McLain has recently succeeded in causing a few
queens to be artificially impregnated; but this has been the
result of a veritable surgical operation, of the most
delicate and complicated nature. Moreover, the fertility of
the queens was restricted and ephemeral.

While she lives in their midst the lovers about her know not what
she is. They seek her in space, in the remote depths of the horizon,
never suspecting that they have but this moment quitted her, have
shared the same comb with her, have brushed against her, perhaps, in
the eagerness of their departure. One might almost believe that
those wonderful eyes of theirs, that cover their head as though with
a glittering helmet, do not recognise or desire her save when she
soars in the blue. Each day, from noon till three, when the sun
shines resplendent, this plumed horde sallies forth in search of the
bride, who is indeed more royal, more difficult of conquest, than
the most inaccessible princess of fairy legend; for twenty or thirty
tribes will hasten from all the neighbouring cities, her court thus
consisting of more than ten thousand suitors; and from these ten
thousand one alone will be chosen for the unique kiss of an instant
that shall wed him to death no less than to happiness; while the
others will fly helplessly round the intertwined pair, and soon will
perish without ever again beholding this prodigious and fatal


I am not exaggerating this wild and amazing prodigality of nature.
The best-conducted hives will, as a rule, contain four to five
hundred males. Weaker or degenerate ones will often have as many as
four or five thousand; for the more a hive inclines to its ruin, the
more males will it produce. It may be said that, on an average, an
apiary composed of ten colonies will at a given moment send an army
of ten thousand males into the air, of whom ten or fifteen at most
will have the occasion of performing the one act for which they were

In the meanwhile they exhaust the supplies of the city; each one of
the parasites requiring the unceasing labour of five or six workers
to maintain it in its abounding and voracious idleness, its activity
being indeed solely confined to its jaws. But nature is always
magnificent when dealing with the privileges and prerogatives of
love. She becomes miserly only when doling out the organs and
instruments of labour. She is especially severe on what men have
termed virtue, whereas she strews the path of the most uninteresting
lovers with innumerable jewels and favours. "Unite and multiply;
there is no other law, or aim, than love," would seem to be her
constant cry on all sides, while she mutters to herself, perhaps:
"and exist afterwards if you can; that is no concern of mine." Do or
desire what else we may, we find, everywhere on our road, this
morality that differs so much from our own. And note, too, in these
same little creatures, her unjust avarice and insensate waste. From
her birth to her death, the austere forager has to travel abroad in
search of the myriad flowers that hide in the depths of the
thickets. She has to discover the honey and pollen that lurk in the
labyrinths of the nectaries and in the most secret recesses of the
anthers. And yet her eyes and olfactory organs are like the eyes and
organs of the infirm, compared with those of the male. Were the
drones almost blind, had they only the most rudimentary sense of
smell, they scarcely would suffer. They have nothing to do, no prey
to hunt down; their food is brought to them ready prepared, and
their existence is spent in the obscurity of the hive, lapping honey
from the comb. But they are the agents of love; and the most
enormous, most useless gifts are flung with both hands into the
abyss of the future. Out of a thousand of them, one only, once in
his life, will have to seek, in the depths of the azure, the
presence of the royal virgin. Out of a thousand one only will have,
for one instant, to follow in space the female who desires not to
escape. That suffices. The partial power flings open her treasury,
wildly, even deliriously. To every one of these unlikely lovers, of
whom nine hundred and ninety-nine will be put to death a few days
after the fatal nuptials of the thousandth, she has given thirteen
thousand eyes on each side of their head, while the worker has only
six thousand. According to Cheshire's calculations, she has provided
each of their antennae with thirty-seven thousand eight hundred
olfactory cavities, while the worker has only five thousand in both.
There we have an instance of the almost universal disproportion that
exists between the gifts she rains upon love and her niggardly doles
to labour; between the favours she accords to what shall, in an
ecstasy, create new life, and the indifference wherewith she regards
what will patiently have to maintain itself by toil. Whoever would
seek faithfully to depict the character of nature, in accordance
with the traits we discover here, would design an extraordinary
figure, very foreign to our ideal, which nevertheless can only
emanate from her. But too many things are unknown to man for him to
essay such a portrait, wherein all would be deep shadow save one or
two points of flickering light.


Very few, I imagine, have profaned the secret of the queen-bee's
wedding, which comes to pass in the infinite, radiant circles of a
beautiful sky. But we are able to witness the hesitating departure
of the bride-elect and the murderous return of the bride.

However great her impatience, she will yet choose her day and her
hour, and linger in the shadow of the portal till a marvellous
morning fling open wide the nuptial spaces in the depths of the
great azure vault. She loves the moment when drops of dew still
moisten the leaves and the flowers, when the last fragrance of dying
dawn still wrestles with burning day, like a maiden caught in the
arms of a heavy warrior; when through the silence of approaching
noon is heard, once and again, a transparent cry that has lingered
from sunrise.

Then she appears on the threshold - in the midst of indifferent
foragers, if she have left sisters in the hive; or surrounded by a
delirious throng of workers, should it be impossible to fill her

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Online LibraryMaurice MaeterlinckThe Life of the Bee → online text (page 10 of 15)