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The Life of the Bee
Maurice Maeterlinck

First Published in 1901
Translated by Alfred Sutro
Published by Century/UK in 2001

A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2005


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It may be understood from the title why someone who cares about bees should read this book, but why should someone who doesn't care about bees read this book? This is an important question because there would seem be many more people who don't care about bees thant do in our society. Maeterlinck explains that in studying even the most trivial aspect of nature we may find answers we seek elsewhere to no avail.

[page 134, 135] But I fear that I have already wandered into many details that will have but slender interest for the reader, whose eyes perhaps may never have followed a flight of bees; or who may have regarded them only with the passing interest with which we are all of us apt to regard the flower, the bird or theprecious stone, asking of these no more than a slight superficial assurance, and forgetting that the most trivial secret of the non-human object we behold in nature connects more closely perhaps with the profound enigma of our origin and our end, than the secret of those of our passions that we study the most eagerly and the most passionately.

This is a book (1) about life not just about bees. He begins his book with this sentence, " It is not my intention to write a treatise on apiculture, or on practical bee-keeping." And he says that he shall "say scarcely anything that those will not know who are somewhat familiar with bees." And yet what he does say about bees is written in such a lyrical fashion that must put to shame all the other volumes devoted to the subject. If you will read only one book on bees make this the book. You will find more about life and truth in this book than in many books devoted to the subjects.

Maeterlinck gives ample references to other books on bees, such as this one to the work of François Huber:

[page 9] I will not enumerate all that apiarian sceince 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 until twenty years later, have remained the unfailing, abundant treasure into which every subsequent writer has dipped.

When a beekeeper approaches a hive with his smoke preceding him, Maeterlinck tells us that the bees see this not as an attack by an enemy, but rather as a "force or a natural catastrophe whereto they do well to submit."

[page 17] 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 not matter where, should the ancient one be destroyed or they be compelled to forsake it.

In this passage one can get a flavor of Maeterlinck's reluctance to draw conclusions from the bee society as to human society while he makes important points about how freedom shrinks as society grows.

[page 21, 22] Let us not too hastily deduce from these facts conclusions that apply to man. He possesses the power of withstanding certain of nature's laws; and to know whether such resistance be right or wrong is the gravest and obscurest point in his morality. But it is deeply interesting to discover what the will of nature may be in a different world; and this will is revealed with extraordinary clearness in the evolution of the hymenoptera, which, of all the inhabitants of this globe, possess the highest degree of intellect after that of man. The aim of nature is manifestly the improvement of the race; but no less manifest is her inability, or refusal, to obtain such improvement except at the cost of the liberty, the rights, and the happiness of the individual. In proportion as a society organizes itself, and rises in the scale, so does a shrinkage enter the private life of each one of its members. Where there is progress, it is the result only of a more and more complete sacrifice of the individual to the general interest. Each one is compelled, first of all, to renounce his vices, which are acts of independence. For instance, at the last stage but one of apiarian civilization, we find the humble-bees, which are like our cannibals. The adult workers are incessantly hovering around the eggs, which they seek to devour, and the mother has to display the utmost stubbornness in their defense. Then having freed himself from his most dangerous vices, each individual has to acquire a certain number of more and more painful virtues. Among the humble-bees, for instance, the workers do not dream of renouncing love, whereas our domestic bee lives in a state of perpetual chastity. And indeed we soon shall show how much more she has to abandon, in exchange for the comfort and security of the hive, for its architectural, economic, and political perfection; and we shall return to the evolution of the hymenoptera in the chapter devoted to the progress of the species.

In his chapter on "The Swarm" he explains the division of labor in the hive and in this passage he notes how the honey is preserved by a drop of formic acid from the stinger into each capsule of honey. No doubt this accounts for honey being known as a food which lasts indefinitely has no expiration date.

[page 28, 29] But after the queen's impregnation, when flowers begin to close sooner, and open later, the spirit one morning will coldly decree the simultaneous and general massacre of every male. It regulates the workers' labors, with due regard to their age; it allots their task to the nurses who tend the nymphs and the larvæ, the ladies of honor 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 larvæ, 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, question comers and goers, recognize the novices who return from their very first flight, scare away vagabonds, marauders and loiterers, expel all intruders, attack redoubtable foes in a body, and, if need be, barricade the entrance.

In the study of the current stage of the evolution of humankind, it becomes clear that humans have a physical body composed of minerals, a life body or etheric similar to plants, an astral body similar to animals, and an Ego. Analysis of the first three bodies makes it clear that plants cannot reproduce if no beings with astral bodies (animals, humans) visit the plants when they reach their maturity. They pollinate the plants, but more importantly impart with astral energy a holographic image of the plant at maturity, a morphogenetic field, if you will, that is attached to the seed and into which the seed will grow to maturity in its turn. Without humans, without the birds and bees there would perforce be no flowers. In this next passage Maeterlinck sings a paean to the bees of summer.

[page 47] They are the soul of the summer, the clock whose dial records the moments of plenty; they are the untiring wing on which delicate perfumes float; the guide of the quivering light-ray, the song of the slumberous, languid air; and their flight is the token, the sure and melodious note, of all the myriad fragile joys that are born in the heat and dwell in the sunshine. They teach us to tune our ear to the softest, most intimate whisper of these good, natural hours. To him who has known them and loved them, a summer where there are no bees becomes as sad and as empty as one without flowers or birds.

This next passage describes the bees's only Sunday, their only day of rest, or more accurately their one day of joy. Led by what Maeterlinck calls the "Spirit of the Hive" the bees eat their full and swarm in ecstasy into the sky. It is Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday of the bees when they gorge themselves on food and fun before the serious days of their Lenten observance begin.

[page 49, 51] It is the ecstasy of the perhaps unconscious sacrifice the god has ordained; it is the festival of honey, the triumph of the race, the victory of the future: the one day of joy, of forgetfulness and folly; the only Sunday known to the bees. It would appear to be also the solitary day upon which all eat their fill, and revel, to heart's content, in the delights of the treasure they themselves have amassed. It is as though they were prisoners to whom freedom at last had been given, who had suddenly been led to a land of refreshment and plenty. They exult, they cannot contain the joy that is in them. They come and go aimlessly, -- they whose every movement has always its precise and useful purpose they depart and return, sally forth once again to see if the queen be ready, to excite their sisters, to beguile the tedium of waiting. They fly much higher than is their wont, and the leaves of the mighty trees round about all quiver. responsive. They have left trouble behind, and care. They no longer are meddling and fierce, aggressive, suspicious, untamable, angry. Man the unknown master whose sway they never acknowledge, who can subdue them only by conforming to their every law, to their habits of labor, and following step by step the path that is traced in their life by an intellect nothing can thwart or. turn from its purpose, by a spirit whose aim is always the good of the morrow on this day man can approach them, can divide the glittering curtain they form as they fly round and round in songful circles; he can take them up in his hand, and gather. them as he would a bunch of grapes; for today, in their gladness, possessing nothing, but full of faith in the future, they will submit to everything and injure no one, provided only they be not separated from their queen who bears that future within her.

The bees are meticulously clean in their hives and quickly expel any sign of corruption. If a dead body is too large to remove from the hive, they hermetically seal the body in a wax tomb. If a night raider threatens the hive, they will construct a barrier to keep it out as in this example:

[page 73] They have a very nice sense of proportion, and of the space required for the movement of bodies. In the regions where the hideous death's-head sphinx, the acherontia atropos, abounds, they construct little pillars of wax at the entrance of the hive, so restricting the dimension as to prevent the passage of the nocturnal marauder's enormous abdomen.

Finally he describes how the swarm of bees moves as it leaves the hive, comparing it to the magical flying carpet of legend.

[page 77, 78] And now to return to our swarming hive, where the bees have already given the signal for departure, without waiting for these reflections of ours to come to an end. At the moment this signal is given, it is as though one sudden mad impulse had simultaneously flung open wide every single gate in the city; and the black throng issues, or rather pours forth in a double, or treble, or quadruple jet, as the number of exits may be; in a tense, direct, vibrating, uninterrupted stream that at once dissolves and melts into space, where the myriad transparent, furious wings weave a tissue throbbing with sound. And this for some moments will quiver right over the hive, with prodigious rustle of gossamer silks that countless electrified hands might be ceaselessly rending and stitching; it floats undulating, it trembles and flutters like a veil of gladness invisible fingers support in the sky, and wave to and fro, from the flowers to the blue, expecting sublime advent or departure. And at last one angle declines, another is lifted; the radiant mantle unites its four sunlit corners; and like the wonderful carpet the fairy-tale speaks of, that flits across space to obey its master's command, it steers its straight course, bending forward a little as though to hide in its folds the sacred presence of the future, toward the willow, the pear-tree, or lime whereon the queen has alighted; and round her each rhythmical wave comes to rest, as though on a nail of gold, and suspends its fabric of pearls and of luminous wings.

Once more Maeterlinck's description of the swarm in motion evokes in my mind the scene of the New Orleans Mardi Gras when the great and the small, the rich and the poor, meet in the streets in moments of blind happiness.

[page 80] This is a day, I repeat, when a spirit of holiday would seem to animate these mysterious workers, a spirit of confidence, that apparently nothing can trouble. They have detached themselves from the wealth they had to defend, and they no longer recognize their enemies. They become inoffensive because of their happiness, though why they are happy we know not, except it be because they are obeying their law. A moment of such blind happiness is accorded by nature at times to every living thing, when she seeks to accomplish her end.

Maeterlinck describes the bees but does not attempt to explain. He offers us the explanations of Huber and others as to how, e.g., the bees are able to construct their hives so mathematically accurate, and comments about such explanations.

[page 138] But these explanations are evidently insufficient; the first are mere hypotheses that cannot be verified, the others do no more than transplant the mystery. And useful as it may be to transplant mystery as often as we possibly can, it were not wise to imagine that a mystery has ceased to be because we have shifted its home.

In another flight of fancy Maeterlinck describes the nuptial flight of the Queen Bee who attracts the male drones to her as she flies higher and higher towards the Sun till at last one male, huffing and puffing reaches her and impregnates her with enough semen to fertilize all the thousands of eggs she will lay during her lifetime. The Queen has a special organ which holds the sperms and allows a sperm to fertilize each egg and its rolls by before it is deposited into its waiting honeycomb cubicle. To ensure cross-breeding the mating must be done in the air at the end of an arduous flight because of the structure of the drone's sexual organs. Unless their tracheal passages have been enlarged from strenuous flying their penile erection cannot reach into the Queen's body to deposit semen. This structure by Nature ensures that the Queen cannot be impregnated by the drones hanging around her hive and requires the nuptial flight, with all its hazards, in order for a successful breeding of the new Queen. In other words, the male bees get no erection without first a lot chest-puffing.

[page 198, 199] She starts her flight backwards, returns twice or thrice to the alighting-board; and then, having definitely fixed in her mind the exact situation and aspect of the kingdom she has never yet seen from without, she departs like an arrow to the zenith of the blue. She soars to a height, a luminous zone, that other bees attain at no period of their life. Far away, caressing their idleness in the midst of the flowers, the males have beheld the apparition, have breathed the magnetic perfume that spreads from group to group till every apiary near is instinct with it. Immediately crowds collect, and follow her into the sea of gladness, whose limpid boundaries ever recede. She, drunk with her wings, obeying the magnificent law of the race that chooses her lover, and enacts that the strongest alone shall attain her in the solitude of the ether, she rises still; and, for the first time in her life, the blue morning air rushes into her stigmata singing its song, like the blood of heaven, in the myriad tubes of the tracheal sacs, nourished on space, that fill the center of her body. She rises still. A region must be found unhaunted by birds, that else might profane the mystery. She rises still; and already the ill-assorted troop below are dwindling and falling asunder. The feeble, infirm, the aged, unwelcome, ill-fed, who have flown from inactive or impoverished cities, these renounce the pursuit and disappear in the void. Only a small, indefatigable cluster remain, suspended in infinite opal. She summons her wings for one final effort; and now the chosen of incomprehensible forces has reached her, has seized her, and bounding aloft with united impetus, the ascending spiral of their intertwined flight whirls for one second in the hostile madness of love.

[page 209, 210] Nature has not gone out of her way to provide these two "abbreviated atoms," as Pascal would call them, with a resplendent marriage, or an ideal moment of love. Her concern, as we have said, was merely to improve the race by means of crossed fertilization. To ensure this she has contrived the organ of the male in such a fashion that he can make use of it only in space. A prolonged flight must first expand his two great tracheal sacs; these enormous receptacles being gorged on air will throw back the lower part of the abdomen, and permit the exsertion of the organ. There we have the whole physiological secret which will seem ordinary enough to some, and almost vulgar to others of this dazzling pursuit and these magnificent nuptials.

To close out this review on "The Life of the Bee" I'd like to share some research I came across about a dozen years ago. Some researchers from a university were interested in how the honey bees located flowers. They developed a patch of flowers on a large movable platform which they placed in an area with few other flowers. After the bees located the flowers, the researchers moved the flowers overnight to a new location and waited for the bees to arrive. Each day they kept records of how long it took for the bees to locate the flowers One day they went out and found the bees waiting at the place they were moving the flowers to. It doesn't seem possible that the brain of a single honeybee could make such a calculation, but somehow the "Spirit of the Hive" had calculated where the flowers were being moved to.

Perhaps we humans have a Great Spirit residing in each of us which has made its calculation and brought to this spot we are today where I am sitting typing, where you are sitting reading. And perhaps, we are here waiting for our flowers to arrive.

---------------------------- Footnotes -----------------------------------------

Footnote 1. This book may be read on-line here:

Return to text directly before Footnote 1.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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