A Book of Natural History Part 10

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Here in their new home there is nothing--not a drop of honey nor a single landmark in the shape of a piece of wax. The bee has no data and no starting-point; he has nothing but the desolate nakedness of the walls and the roof of an immense building. The walls are round and smooth, but all is dark within.... The bee does not understand useless regrets, or if he does, he does not enc.u.mber himself with them. Far from being discouraged by the conditions which now confront him, he is more determined than ever. The hive is no sooner set up in its proper place than the disorder of the crowd begins to diminish, and one sees in the swarming mult.i.tude clear and definite divisions which take shape in a most unexpected manner. The larger part of the bees, acting precisely like an army which is obeying the definite orders of its officer, at once begins to form thick columns along the whole length of the vertical part.i.tions of the hive. The first to arrive at the top hang on to the arch by the claws of their hind legs, those who come after attach themselves to the first, and so on till long chains are formed which serve as bridges for the ever mounting crowd to pa.s.s over. Little by little these chains are multiplied with indefinite re-enforcements and interlacing each other become garlands, which, owing to the enormous and uninterrupted mounting of the bees upon them, are transformed into a thick triangular curtain, or rather into a sort of compact reversed cone, the point of which is attached to the top of the hive; the base of which is about two-thirds of the total height of the hive. Then the last bee, which would appear to be summoned by some interior voice to join this group, mounts this curtain, which is hung in the darkness, and little by little every movement among the vast crowd ceases, and this strange reversed cone remains for many hours in a silence which might be called religious, and in a statuesqueness which in such a ma.s.s of life is almost startling, waiting for the arrival of the mystery of the wax.

[Ill.u.s.tration: Cl.u.s.tER OF BEES.]

[Ill.u.s.tration: A BEE HIVE.]

While this is going on, without taking any notice of the wonderful curtain from out of whose folds so magic a gift will come, without even appearing to be tempted to attach themselves to it, the rest of the bees, that is all those who are on the floor of the hive, begin to examine the building and to undertake the work which is necessary to be done. The floor is carefully swept, dead leaves, twigs, grains of sand are transferred to a considerable distance one by one, for bees have an absolute mania for cleanliness; so much is this the case that in the winter, when the extremely cold weather prevents them from taking what bee lovers know as their "flight of cleanliness," rather than soil the interior of the hive they perish in enormous numbers, victims of a disease of the stomach.

After this cleaning up is done these same bees set themselves to work to carefully close up every opening which is round about the lower part of the hive. Finally when every crack has been carefully looked over, filled up and covered with propolis, they begin to varnish the whole of the interior sides. By this time guardians are placed at the entrance of the hive, and very soon a number of the working bees start on their first trip to the fields and begin to come back laden with nectar and pollen....

Let us now lift up, so far as we may, one of the folds of this garlanded curtain in the midst of which the swarm is beginning to produce that strange exudation which is almost as white as snow, and is lighter than the down on a bird's breast. The wax which is now being made does not resemble at all that with which we are acquainted.

It is colorless, and may be said to be imponderable. It is the very soul of the honey, which in its turn is the very spirit of the flowers, evolved by the bees in a species of silent and motionless incantation....

It is very difficult to follow the various phases of the secretion and of the manner in which the wax is evolved by the swarm which is just beginning to build. The operation takes place in the midst of a dense crowd which becomes constantly more and more dense, thus producing a temperature favorable to the exudation of the wax in its first stage.

Huber, who was the first to study these operations with marvellous patience, and sometimes not without personal danger, has written more than fifty pages on the subject, but they are very confused. For myself, as I am not writing a scientific book, I shall confine myself to describing what anybody can see if he will watch the movements of a swarm in a gla.s.s hive. At the same time I shall not fail to avail myself of Huber's studies whenever they may prove to be of service. We must admit at the very outset that the process by which the honey is transformed into wax in the bodies of this mysterious curtain of bees is still hidden in mystery. All that we know is that after about eighteen or twenty-four hours in a temperature so high that one might almost imagine there was a fire in the hive, small, white, transparent scales appear at the opening of the four little pockets which are to be found on each side of the abdomen of the bee. When the larger part of those who form the reversed cone have their abdomens decorated with these little ivory plates, one of them may be seen, as if under the influence of a sudden inspiration, to detach itself from the crowd and climb over the backs of its pa.s.sive brethren until it reaches the apex of the cupola of the hive; attaching herself firmly to the top, she immediately sets to work to brush away those of her neighbors who may interfere with her movements. Then she seizes with her mouth one of the eight scales on the side of her abdomen and chews it, clips it, draws it out, steeps it in saliva, kneads it, crushes it, and makes it again into shape as dexterously as a carpenter would handle a piece of veneering. Then when the substance has been treated so as to bring it to the desired size and to the desired consistency, it is affixed to the very summit of the interior of the dome, and thus the first stone is laid of the new city, or rather the key-stone of the new city is placed in the arch, for we are considering a city turned upside down, which descends from the sky and which does not arise from the bosom of the earth as do terrestrial cities. Then she proceeds to apply to this key-stone more of the wax which she takes from her body, and having given to the whole of her part of the work one last finis.h.i.+ng stroke, she retires as quickly as she came and is lost in the crowd; another replaces her and immediately takes up the work where she has left it off, adds her own to it, puts that right which appears to her to be not in conformity with the general plan, and disappears in her turn, while a third and a fourth and a fifth succeed her in a series of sudden and inspired apparitions, not one of whom finishes a piece of work, but all bring to it their common share.

Now there hangs from the top of the vault a small block of wax which is yet without form. As soon as it appears to be thick enough there comes out of the group another bee bearing an entirely different aspect from that of those which have preceded it. One may well believe on seeing the certainty, the determination, with which he goes about his work and the manner in which those who stand round about him look on, that he is an expert engineer who has come to construct in s.p.a.ce the place which the first cell shall occupy, the cell from which must mathematically depend everything which is afterwards constructed.

Whatever he may be, this bee belongs to a cla.s.s of the sculpturing, of chisel working bees who produce no wax and whose function seems to be to employ the materials with which the others furnish them. This bee then chooses the place of the first cell. She digs for a moment in the block of wax which has already been placed in position, and builds up the side of the cell with the wax that she picks from the cavity. Then in exactly the same way as her predecessors have done, she suddenly leaves the work she has designed; another impatient worker replaces her and carries it on another step, which is finished by a third one.

In the meantime others are working round about her according to the same method of division of labor until the outer sides of each wall is finished.

It would almost seem that an essential law of the hive was that every worker should take a pride in its work, and that all the work should be done in common, and so to speak, unanimously, in order that the fraternal spirit should not be disturbed by a sense of jealousy.

Very soon the outline of the comb may be seen. In form it is still lenticular, for the little prismatic tubes of which it is composed are unequally prolonged, and they diminish as they get away from the centre towards the extremities. At this moment it might be compared, both in form and in thickness, to a human tongue hanging down from two of the sides of the hexagonal cells which are placed back to back.

As soon as the first cells are constructed, the workers add a roof to the second and so on to the third and to the fourth. These sets of cells are divided by irregular intervals, and they are calculated in such a manner that when they are made to receive their full complement, the bees always have room enough to move about between the parallel walls of the honeycombs.

It follows then that in making their original plan the different thicknesses of every honeycomb must be fixed upon, and at the same time the alley-ways which separate each must be different in turn, and this width must be twice the height of a bee since they have to pa.s.s each other between the upright combs.

But even the bees are not infallible, and they do not always work with exact mechanical certainty. When they find themselves in a difficult place they sometimes make very great blunders. One often finds that they leave too much, and often too little, s.p.a.ce between the honeycombs, and they remedy these faults as well as they can--sometimes in finis.h.i.+ng the comb which is too near another in an oblique line, or sometimes when they have left too much s.p.a.ce they interpose a smaller comb between it.

Reamur, on this subject, says:--"Since bees sometimes make mistakes and rectify them, this must be a proof that they possess the power of reason."

[Ill.u.s.tration: QUEEN BEE.]

It is known that bees make four different kinds of cells. There are first the "royal cells" which are exceptional and are of acorn shape.

Then there are the large cells in which the male bees are reared, and in which provisions are stored when the flowers furnish forth of their abundance. Then there are the little cells which may be called the "cradles of the working bees," which are also employed as ordinary store-rooms. These generally occupy about eight-tenth's of the total surface of the combs in a hive; and finally there are a certain number of what may be called transition cells. Although these latter are inevitably irregular, the dimensions of the second or third type are so well calculated that when the decimal system was first established, and people were seeking an incontestable standard of measurement, it was the cell of the bee which was proposed first of all by Reamur. Each one of these cells is an hexagonal tube placed upon a pyramid form, and each honeycomb is formed of two strata of these tubes, base to base, in such a way that the three lozenges which make the pyramid-like base of one cell form at the same time the pyramid-like bases of the three cells on the other side.

[Ill.u.s.tration: WORKER.] [Ill.u.s.tration: DRONE.]

In these prismatic tubes the honey is stored away--and so that the honey shall not trickle out as it would be likely to do if they were built strictly horizontal--they are tilted up at the outer edge of an angle of four or five degrees.

"Besides the saving in wax," says Reamur, speaking of this marvellous building, "which is effected by this arrangement of the cells,--besides the fact that by this plan the comb may be filled without a single gap, there are other advantages in the way of the solidity thus given.... Every possible advantage in the way of the solidity of each cell is brought about by the manner of its construction, and by its place with reference to the rest of the cells in the comb."

"Students of geometry know," says Dr. Reid, "that there are only three shapes that can be employed to divide a surface into, uniform s.p.a.ces, that shall be regular in shape, and without interstices.


"They are the equilateral triangle, the square, and the regular hexagon, which latter, in the matter of cell construction, is superior to the two first both from the point of view of strength and utility, and it is just this form that the bees have adopted, precisely as though its advantages were familiar to them.

"Furthermore, the bottoms of the cells form three planes meeting at one point, and it has been demonstrated that both in economy of labor and material this system of construction is the best--again, the angle of the inclination of the planes affects this question of economy: this problem has been solved by the bees and confirmed by Maclaurin by abstruse mathematical calculations published in the "Transactions of the Royal Society of London.""

Of course I do not suppose for a moment that the bees themselves have made these calculations, but on the other hand I do not believe that chance, or accidental circ.u.mstance has brought about, these results.

The wasps, for instance, have built hexagonal cells, but they have not displayed such ingenuity as the bees have done. Their combs have only one course of cells, and they have not the foundation which serves the bees for their double rows. Hence there is less strength, more irregularity, and a loss of time, of material, and of room, which really means that a quarter of the labor employed and a third of the s.p.a.ce occupied is lost. We also find certain other domesticated bees, not so far progressed in civilization, which only build one row of cells for rearing their young, and which support horizontal combs one above another on costly columns of wax. Their food store-cells, are like a row of round pots, and the bees make but a clumsy use of the s.p.a.ces between them. Indeed, when we compare their City with the Wonderful City of the bees of which we are speaking, it is like comparing a row of huts with a modern laid out city. If the result is not charming, it is severely logical, and demonstrates the genius of the race which is forever fighting to get the most out of matter, s.p.a.ce, and time.

Buffon had a theory which has been revived once more, that the bees did not intend to make hexagonal cells, but rather round ones, and that owing to the crowding of the workers all around, the round ones became hexagonal. It is said also that crystals, fish-scales of certain kinds, soap-bubbles, etc., follow the same law, and Buffon advances this experiment to prove it. "Take a vessel and fill it full with peas or any other round grains, pour as much water upon them as will fill the s.p.a.ces between them, close the vessel tightly, and boil the water. It will be found that the round peas have become six-sided.

One sees clearly that this must be so from purely mechanical causes; each one of the round grains tends in the course of swelling as it boils to fill up the utmost s.p.a.ce that it can, and by the extension and pressure of all alike they become hexagonal. Each bee wishes to occupy as much room as possible in its allotted s.p.a.ce, therefore as the bodies of the bees are round or cylindrical, their cells become hexagonal because of the extension and pressure of all alike."

Here then we see reciprocal obstacles working a wonder, somewhat in the same way perhaps as the vices of men bring about a general virtue, so that the race odious, often so far as individuals are concerned, is tolerable in the ma.s.s. Broughman, Kirby, and Spence and others claim that the observations of soap-bubbles and peas prove nothing in this connection, for the effect of compression is only to produce irregular hexagonal forms, and does not explain the earlier form of the base of the cells.

To this one might rejoin that there are more ways than one of dealing with the blind law of necessity, for the wasp and the b.u.mble-bee and many other species in similar circ.u.mstances and with the same end in view, arrive at very different, and manifestly inferior, results.

Indeed it might be said further that even if the bee-cells did conform to the laws of crystallization as in the case of snow, or Buffon's soap-bubbles, or boiled peas, they show also in their general symmetry, in their well-determined angle of inclination, etc., that there are many other laws not followed by inert matter to which they also conform.

In order to a.s.sure myself that the hexagonal form of the cell was the outcome of the bee-brain, I cut out from the centre of a honey-comb a round piece not quite so large as a silver dollar, containing both brood-cells and honey-cells. I cut into this disc, at the point where the pyramidal bases of the cells were joined, and I fixed on the base of the section thus exposed a piece of tin of the same size, and so stout that the bees could not bend or twist it. Then I replaced the disc of comb, with the piece of tin as described. One side of the comb showed, of course, nothing extraordinary, but on the other side was to be seen a hole at the bottom of which was a round piece of tin occupying the place of about thirty cells. At first the bees were disconcerted, and came in crowds to examine and study this wonderful abyss; for some days they wandered about it in agitation without coming to any decision. But as I fed them well every evening, the time soon came when they needed more cells in which to store their provisions. Then most likely the famous engineers, the sculptors, and the waxmakers, were summoned to show the way to fill up this useless chasm.

A heavy curtain, or garland, of the wax-making bees covered the spot so as to develop the necessary heat; others went down into the hole and began the work of solidly fixing the metal in place by means of little claws of wax around its entire circ.u.mference, attaching them to the walls of the cells which surrounded it. Then they set to work to make three or four cells in the upper part of the disc, attaching them to these waxen claws. Each of these new cells was more or less unfinished at the top, so as to leave material wherewith to fasten it to the next cell, but below on the piece of tin was always three very clear, and precise angles from which would grow the three upright lines which regularly marked the outline of the first half of the next cell. After about forty-eight hours, although three or four bees at most could work at the same time in the opening, the whole surface of the piece of tin was covered with the outlines of the new cells. They were certainly somewhat less regular than those in an ordinary comb.... But they were all perfectly hexagonal; not a line was bent, not an angle out of shape; nevertheless all the ordinary conditions of bee-life were changed. The cells were not dug out of a block of wax as Huber described, nor were they made according to Darwin, circular at first, and then made into hexagons by the pressure of their neighbors.

Here was no question of reciprocal obstacles, seeing that the cells were made one by one, and these first outlines were sketched on a kind of table. It would appear therefore that the hexagonal form is not the result of any mechanical necessity, but that it forms the plan resulting from the experience, the intelligence, and the will of the bee. Another curious thing which I accidentally noticed was that the cells built upon the tin were not provided with any other floor than the tin itself. The engineers of the working party evidently reasoned that the tin was sufficient to retain the liquid honey, and that it was not necessary, therefore, to line it with wax. But a little while after, when some honey was placed in the cell, they probably found that the metal effected some change in it, for upon taking counsel together they covered the surface of the tin with a kind of diaphanous varnish.

If we wish to throw light on all the secrets of this geometrical architecture, we shall find many more interesting questions to examine--for example, that of the form of the first cells, which are attached to the roof of the hive--a form which is modified so that the cells can fit its curve and touch the roof at the greatest possible number of points.

It would be necessary to notice also, not only the direction in which the main streets of the hive run, but the alley-ways and pa.s.sages which run in and out and around the comb, as much for the circulation of the air as for the traffic; and it should be remarked that these are planned so as to avoid long detours or confusion in the traffic....

Before we leave this subject let us, only for a minute, stop to consider the wonderful and mysterious way in which the bees make their plans and work together when they are occupied in carving out their cells, on both sides of the comb, where neither can see the other.

Look through one of these transparent combs, and you will see clearly and sharply cut out in this diaphanous wax a network of prisms arranged in so perfectly fitting a manner that one might think they were stamped out of steel.

Those who have never seen the inside of a hive can have little idea of the appearance of these honeycombs. Let us take a countryman's hive in which the bee has been left free to work as he pleases. This bell-like shape is divided from top to bottom by five, six, eight, and sometimes ten, slices of wax, so to speak, perfectly parallel with each other, which take the exact shape of the curve of the walls of the hive. Between each one of these slices is a s.p.a.ce of about half an inch in which the bees move about. When they begin to build one of these slices at the top of the hive, the wall of wax is quite thick, and hides entirely the fifty or sixty bees who are working on one side from the fifty or sixty at work on the other. Unless they have a sight which can pierce the most opaque bodies, neither can see what is doing on the other side. Nevertheless, a bee on one side does not dig a hole or add a fragment of wax which does not correspond exactly with a protuberance or a cavity on the other side. How do they contrive to do this? How does it happen that one does not dig too far, and the other not far enough?

How is it that every angle coincides in such magnificent perfection?

Who tells the bee to begin here and to end there? Once again we must be satisfied with the reply that does not answer: "It is one of the mysteries of the hive." Huber has tried to explain it by saying that at certain intervals, by the pressure of their feet or their teeth, they produce a slight projection of the wax on the other side of the comb, or that they can determine the thickness of the block of wax by its flexibility, its elasticity, or some other physical property which it may possess; or, again, that their antennae are able to serve as compa.s.ses in enabling them to examine what is going on in the darkness of the other side; or, last of all, he suggests that all the cells mathematically derive their shape and dimensions from those of the first row, which is built without the need of further concert on the part of the workers. But one can easily see that these explanations are not sufficient; the first are guesses which cannot be verified; the others simply change but do not remove the mystery. But if it is good to change a mystery as often as possible, it is never good to flatter one's self that to change it means to remove it!





A Book of Natural History Part 10

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