The Life of the Bee

The Life of the Bee

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LET us now, in order to form a clearer conception of the bees' intellectual power, proceed to consider their methods of inter-communication. There can be no doubting that they understand each other; and indeed it were surely impossible for a republic so considerable, wherein the labours are so varied and so marvellously combined, to subsist amid the silence and spiritual isolation of so many thousand creatures. They must be able, therefore, to give expression to thoughts and feelings, by means either of a phonetic vocabulary or more probably of some kind of tactile language or magnetic intuition, corresponding perhaps to senses and properties of matter wholly unknown to ourselves. And such intuition well might lodge in the mysterious antennae—containing, in the case of the workers, according to Cheshire's calculation, twelve thousand tactile hairs and five thousand "smell-hollows," wherewith they probe and fathom the darkness. For the mutual understanding of the bees is not confined to their habitual labours; the extraordinary also has a name and place in their language; as is proved by the manner in which news, good or bad, normal or supernatural, will at once spread in the hive; the loss or return of the mother, for instance, the entrance of an enemy, the intrusion of a strange queen, the approach of a band of marauders, the discovery of treasure, etc. And so characteristic is their attitude, so essentially different their murmur at each of these special events, that the experienced apiarist can without difficulty tell what is troubling the crowd that moves distractedly to and fro in the shadow.

If you desire a more definite proof, you have but to watch a bee that shall just have discovered a few drops of honey on your window-sill or the corner of your table. She will immediately gorge herself with it; and so eagerly, that you will have time, without fear of disturbing her, to mark her tiny belt with a touch of paint. But this gluttony of hers is all on the surface; the honey will not pass into the stomach proper, into what we might call her personal stomach, but remains in the sac, the first stomach,—that of the community, if one may so express it. This reservoir full, the bee will depart, but not with the free and thoughtless motion of the fly or butterfly; she, on the contrary, will for some moments fly backwards, hovering eagerly about the table or window, with her head turned toward the room.

She is reconnoitring, fixing in her memory the exact position of the treasure. Thereupon she will go to the hive, disgorge her plunder into one of the provision-cells, and in three or four minutes return, and resume operations at the providential window. And thus, while the honey lasts, will she come and go, at intervals of every five minutes, till evening, if need be; without interruption or rest; pursuing her regular journeys from the hive to the window, from the window back to the hive.

[46]

Many of those who have written on bees have thought fit to adorn the truth; I myself have no such desire. For studies of this description to possess any interest, it is essential that they should remain absolutely sincere. Had the conclusion been forced upon me that bees are incapable of communicating to each other news of an event occurring outside the hive, I should, I imagine, as a set-off against the slight disappointment this discovery would have entailed, have derived some degree of satisfaction in recognising once more that man, after all, is the only truly intelligent being who inhabits our globe. And there comes too a period of life when we have more joy in saying the thing that is true than in saying the thing that merely is wonderful. Here as in every case the principle holds that, should the naked truth appear at the moment less interesting, less great and noble than the imaginary embellishment it lies in our power to bestow, the fault must rest with ourselves who still are unable to perceive the astonishing relation in which this truth always must stand to our being, and to universal law; and in that case it is not the truth, but our intellect, that needs embellishment and ennoblement.

I will frankly confess, therefore, that the marked bee often returns alone. Shall we believe that in bees there exists the same difference of character as in men; that of them too some are gossips, and others prone to silence? A friend who stood by and watched my experiment, declared that it was evidently mere selfishness or vanity that caused so many of the bees to refrain from revealing the source of their wealth, and from sharing with others the glory of an achievement that must seem miraculous to the hive....