The Life of the Bee

Naturalists just don’t write with the same style and imaginative power as they did 100 years ago, as in this excerpt from “The Life of the Bee” (Maurice Maeterlinck, 1901).

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“The queen started laying again in the first days of February. The workers have flocked to the willows and nut-trees, gorse and violets, anemones and lungworts. Then spring invades the earth, and cellar and stream with honey and pollen, while each day beholds the birth of thousands of bees. The overgrown males now all sally forth from their cells, and disport themselves on the combs; and so crowded does the too prosperous city become that hundreds of belated workers, coming back from the flowers towards evening, will vainly seek shelter within, and will be forced to spend the night on the threshold, where they will be decimated by the cold. Restlessness seizes the people, and the old queen begins to stir. She feels that a new destiny is being prepared. She has religiously fulfilled her duty as a good creatress; and from this duty done there result only tribulation and sorrow; she will soon be forced to quit this city of hers, where she has reigned. But this city is her work, it is she, herself . . . . She has peopled it with her own substance; and all who move within its walls – workers, males, larvae, nymphs, and the young princesses whose approaching birth will hasten her own departure …

“What is this ‘spirit of the hive’ . . . that after the queen’s impregnation, when flowers begin to close sooner … will coldly decree the simultaneous and general massacre of every male? It allots their task to the nurses who tend the nymphs and the larvae, the ladies of honour who wait on the queen and never allow her out of their sight; the house-bees who air, refresh, or heat the hive by fanning their wings, and hasten the evaporation of the honey that may be too highly charged with water, the architects, masons, wax-workers, and sculptors who form the chain and construct the combs, the foragers who sally forth to the flowers in search of the nectar that turns into honey, of the pollen that feeds the nymphs and the larvae, the propolis that welds and strengthens the buildings of the city, or the water and salt required by the youth of the nation. Its orders have gone to the chemists who ensure the preservation of the honey by letting a drop of formic acid fall in from the end of their sting; to the capsule-makers who seal down the cells when the treasure is ripe, to the sweepers who maintain public places and streets most irreproachably clean, to the bearers whose duty it is to remove the corpses, and to the amazons of the guard who keep watch on the threshold by night and by day . . . .

“Finally, it is the spirit of the hive that fixes the hour of the great annual sacrifice to the genius of the race: the hour, that is, of the swarm; when we find a whole people, who have attained the topmost pinnacle of prosperity and power, suddenly abandoning to the generation to come their wealth and their palaces, their homes and the fruits of their labour; themselves content to encounter the hardships and perils of a new and distant country.”

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