Apian Psychology and Sociology

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CERTAIN insects of the order Hymenoptera, to which the honey-bee has won attention, present, in evidence of their fellowship with us in the great spiritual commonwealth, a sociability ennobled by the sentiment of devotion toward their queen-mother, feminine soul of the hive, and who represents for it the ideas of the species, of corporate unity, and of the future life, attained by continuity of generations.

Anatomy, which denies sensibility to the mimosa, because no plant reveals a sensorium to the scalpel, long begrudged to the insect those attributes of self-conscious, intelligent will which in man, beasts, birds, and reptiles employ a true brain as their organ. Now, science withdraws this objection. A few years ago one of its distinguished professors, M. Felix Dujardin, of Rheims, verified in the nervous system of insects a centre of true brain, above the throat, imbedded among air tubes, salivary glands, and fat. Hardened by alcohol or spirits of turpentine, its form and structure appeared, beneath the microscope, in regular convolutions, like those of our own cerebral hemispheres, and the outside pulp removed, left nerve tracts winding into a whiter and firmer substance, like the nucleus of the white in vertebrata.

Pulpy matter alone constitutes the thoracic and abdominal ganglia, seats of instinctive functions that persist after the head is cut off, and which conduce to self-preservation, nutrition, and propagation. The more a generalizing intellect and social sentiment transcend the narrow limitations of individual life, the larger are the masses formed by the white substance in question relatively to the whole weight of the body. These, in the social bee, constitute -^^, but in moths only TnrfW

The neuter ant, incased in its shell of mail, has fewer personal wants or liabilities to injury. The cortical pulp of its brain is proportionally reduced, and its parts insulated, these little brains amounting to about half tho brain substance; whereas in the social bee they compose but a fifth part of it.

This structure gives a key to those marvels of the social life of ants witnessed by Bonnet, Huber, Latreille, Lacordaire, and many others, in which they exhibit a specialized intelligence, without superfluous accessories, such as complicate the problem of human behavior with interests beyond our reach in this life, and perhaps, indeed, in any other.

For studying the ways of bees M. Dujardin used Beauvoy's hives, arranged for daily inspection. Lito two of these, containing bits of honey-comb, he introduced two swarms, and placed them side by side. The first problem examined was whether the bee, like man, brings study to the aid of instinct in noting places and directions. When a pigeon, a swallow, or a bee is carried far away from its home in a basket, and on being let go, strikes a "bee line" to return, we ascribe to the animal a kind of geographical conscience deficient in ourselves, and which we supply by scientific instruments. But the bee seems to be heedful of the Horatian admonition:

"Xe Dens interslt niei (ligntis vindico nodus."

It does not employ its transcendent co-spherical intuitions in the small details of domestic life.

When a swarm is placed in a new hive a few come out at first, and soon re-enter; then a few more, or the same issue again, and fly but a little way off, keeping their heads turned in the direction of their dwelling, as if studying its aspect, so as to recognize it on their return from pasture; then they explore the surrounding objects, and finally take a bold flight in quest of booty.

One of the hives, ill provided with honeycombs, had no royal cells constructed as the fall advanced. Its sparse, population might not withstand the winter without aid. M. Dujardin accustomed the bees to take moistened sugar and honey from his hand. They would alight on him as on a flower in the garden, and eagerly run over his hands. He then tested their power of deliberate observation and that of communicating to each other the knowledge of places and facts. About twenty-five yards from the hives he made a hole behind a vine trellis, and placed in it a saucer of moist sugar. Then, enticing with some sirup on a little stick a bee in another part of the garden, he carried it while feeding to his cachetic, and left it on the sugar. When it had filled itself it buzzed about in the hole, then here and there before the trellis, with its head always turned toward the hole. At last it took flight for its hive, and went inside. A quarter of an hour passed without any bee coming to the hole, then thirty came in succession, exploring the locality, seeking and finding the entry to the hole, and making afterward, apparently, the same little tour of observation as the first bee.

On the following day the bees of the same hive came in still greater numbers, but none from the other hive, as was carefully verified—the flight of the first being directed exclusively between their hive and the hole in the wall, while the bees of the other hive took an opposite course over the walls to the gardens adjacent. When the sugar had become dry its privileged customers abandoned it; yet, from time to time, one would come to inspect, and whenever it had been moistened, the bee that found this out would, after sacking it and returning home, be presently followed back by many others to the saucer in the hole.

The virtual communication of facts, as well as of emotions, by the antennal touch<ref>For details consult cases of Nancy Hazard, etc, Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, v. x., nos. 4 and 8; and New York Medical Repository, hex. 4, vol L, art.1.</ref> is a feature of insect psychology too well confirmed to need more than mere allusion to it here. It may be the better conceived of by those who have witnessed, as we have, the intelligent, touch of Laura Bridgman— sole avenue to her consciousness of impressions which in other organisms take the sense-channels of sight and of hearing. The annals of catalepsy abound in illustrations of this catholic touch ;* and mesmerism has shown that, while spontaneous in its exercise, it is capable, like other faculties, of a much greater development by culture. It receives this among some species and individuals, while others neglect it under the distractions of the eye and ear.

From the little object lesson, so easily repeated, and which every apiarian can match with parallel instances, let us proceed to evidence of analytic faculty in the apian mind. To plaster and varnish the joints and cracks of their dwellings something riscous is needed, and this the bees usually get from the fragrant resins of plants; but their fragrance, as well as their color and taste, are indifferent to the purpose in view.

It puzzled our professor to guess of what substance were the little white shreds of irregular shape with which he saw his bees flying laden. At last he discovered them in the act of pulling away these shreds from a coating of white-lead upon a third hive which had been newly painted. Now stickiness was the sole point of resemblance between this white-lead and the substances usually employed by bees. They could insulate the perception of this essential quality from its accessories.

Passing now from the sphere of peaceful industry to that of military enterprise, we shall find not merely the blind courage with which self-preservation inspires individuals to resist aggression, but a reflective enthusiasm and methodical combination for movements offensive and defensive. Mr. Crevecoeur (American Cultivator) is the observer. One day he saw a bee-eater perched on a branch near the hive, and seizing the bees one by one, as they rose, with a snap of his pointed bill. This bird had already devoured a good many citizens, when some one, avoiding the danger, seemed to have given tho alarm within the hive; for Mr. Crevecceur soon saw a number of bees come out, flying tumultuously, as though disposed to swarm. They formed in mass, and darted like a cannon-ball against their enemy, who, frightened, with good cause, "vamosed the ranch."

The apian phalanx, it appears, however well suited to a charge, was not adequate to a prolonged fight. The bees failed to follow up their victory, and their enemy onto out of sight, they dispersed. Soon afterward the bird resumed its perch of prey, and Mr. Crevecceur had to bring his artillery to the rescue.

In this case a rather complex idea or narrative of facts concerning the nature and direction of their danger, and of the means of averring it, must have been communicated. One or a few bees witness the aggression, note the quality of their big neighbor's affectionate interest in them, and rather object to it. They concert means of obviating this fact, of resisting this tariff upon industry, of frustrating this stratagem. Bird, they will fly at it; foe, they will fight it; monster, they will oppose to its magnitude their consolidated phalanx and devoted unison. A mutual consciousness of danger enkindles the corporate spirit of the legion, which collective friendship marshals, and the fire of indignation hurls upon their foe. Is the deliberate purpose of patriotic ambition less evident here than at Thermopylae or Marathon?

But this enthusiasm explodes; this prowess, like most human prowess, evaporates in the vain fumes of glory. Their object escapes them; and the same injurious provocation to their civic heart meets not a second time that organized resentment which it should have met invariably were that blind notion of our conceit yclept " animal instinct" a true version of the facts, or were the bee a " machine of God" in any other sense than as we all may be. The reflection implied in this extraordinary corporate enterprise reveals, less elaborately, indeed, than their architecture, but with the improvised charm of spontaneity, the faculty of strategic combination. Here passion reasons, as there mathematics becomes sociable. Their emotional impressibility touches our sympathies more than their skill in departments where wo have introduced that formidable slave of genius and despot of humanity, the machine. We may undervalue their perseverance, their geometrical constructions, and division of functions, which we carry so much farther, and apply so disastrously to the artisan or to the soldier; but we frankly admire their ability to meet new contingencies by varied devices.

The geometrical order of apian architecture is too admirable not to have been cited by the "animal machine" philosophy against the mind of its authors. This assuredly, they opined, was the nodus digitus vindice Dei. We, on the contrary, see no justice nor reason save in ascribing to each being the merit of its works. If the bee is a mathematical machine, then why not Zerah Colburn and so many others who have a special talent only in this line f To each his due.

The hive bees, moreover, like the woodborer, will forego their mechanical labors if they find empty combs or suitable holes prepared for them, and the economy of manufacturing gutta-percha combs, that may be taken out, emptied, and replaced, is now being discussed in apiarian councils. Then honey, instead of wax, will be made by the bees dining the first weeks of the season of flowers. The bees do what is most convenient. This is the secret of their geometry,' as Buffon guessed in watching them at work. The arrangement of the combs appears to us a much simpler affair than the hexagonal cell; but not having, like the latter, a natural measure in the apian body, the normal space of half an inch for the lane between two combs is often missed. The essential point is that two bees, walking each upon one of the combs, shall be able to pass each other without touching. This space allows of ventilation; but as too much air is worse than too little, so, if the base of a second comb proves to be too far away from the first, we find the bees shaping it obliquely, I so as gradually to approach the first, as it is J built up. Dr. Brown cites a case in which the centre comb of a hive, filled with honey, had swung from its fastenings and obstructed the passage. The next inspection showed two horizontal beams constructed of wax be! tween the two combs, while honey and wax enough had been removed from above to admit passage, and the comb detached had been secured by another beam, and fastened to the window of the hive with spare wax. They i next proceeded to remove the two now useless horizontal beams.

The bee cell is often spoken of as if it were 'a hexagon of always the same size; but besides the deviation from this model for the queen cells and the drone cells, those which are reserved for storage are deeper than the rest, sometimes eight-tenths of an inch, with I a diameter of one-fifth of an inch. When the honey harvest is ample, old cells are lengthened and new ones made larger; conversely, when Huber had often interrupted his bees in their work, they shortened their cells and lessened their diameter, gradually adapting them to the moral pressure of circumstances, as, in our own res angustias, the mansion contracts to the cabin.

It has been averred that the bee on West Indian plantations, seduced by the favors of fortune, has renounced industry, to I share with man the treasures of the sugarhouse, where it becomes a troublesome guest. It may fairly be inferred from the known habits and character of the bee that superficial observers have only seen there the same accidents as occur in our sugar refineries here. I Abandoned to the passion for sweets, intoxicated perhaps by their aroma, thousand after thousand alight upon the hot sirup, which is i for them a crater; and apiarians, to save their bees, have been obliged to wire-gauze the windows of these factories. Then the bees, disappointed of their sweet death, to which the vapors of the caldron powerfully attract them, are seen buzzing with rage against the window; and for a long time, like the besotted frequenters of our dram-shops, or gamblers fanaticized by the excitement of risking all for rapid gains, remain insensible to the gentle voice of Nature recalling them to moderate and wholesome rural labors.

All artists' souls are subject to the tyranny of completeness. Le mieux, says the French adage, eat Vennemi du bien, and the ideal often kills the actual. The tension of enthusiasm is too close a neighbor of intemperance for the votaries of one not to slip sometimes into the other. The bee is no exception to this rule. It has even the same passion for certain narcotics as Coleridge or De Quincey, and many bees perish in the fields of Hindostan alter their long spree over the cups of the poppy, because when it has done blooming they can not reconcile themselves to more insipid flowers—can not forego their cherished dreams. Apiarians court their favor by sprinkling them with sweetened anise-water. These refined tastes, and the odors with which they arc associated, border, like the musical sense, on the regions of ideality and sentiment.

The following observations suggest that, while emotion may paralyze their ordinary faculties, they know their own weakness, and plan to avert a catastrophe which overcomes their moral force. A formidable problem for the beo is the Sphinx atropos, the death's-head moth, that sips in the evening the honey of flowers, and is partial to the same when already collected. Hence its plunder of the bee-hive, where, although unarmed and unmailed as to its body, it inspires such a superstitious terror that it escapes the poisoned dart. Bees have even abandoned their hive, like a ghost-haunted mansion, to this intruding moth. What can the bees, which do not hesitate to sacrifice their individual lives upon the slightest motive of resentment—what can they fear from a soft thief that can not wound or even irritate them; M. Frairiere suggests the resemblance of certain sounds with their emotional association. In the evening stillness of the swarming season the queen's note is distinct and peculiar. As when at the muezzin's sound all true Mohammedans fall upon their knees, so at the first thrill of this weird chant all work is stilled in the hush of emotion.

Now, when we take hold of a Sphinx atropos, it usually gives forth a kind of cry or sound very like that of the young queen's, and, moreover, it produces a sort of electrical numbness by vibrating its body in a very queer way; so that to seize It, even through a fold of muslin, you must overcome squeamishness: such are its sensible means of intimidation. To the bees it is an enemy of their specie*, which borrows the voice of their beloved young queens, and those very tones which thrill their apian heart with passive emotion. Glamour and witchery await not idle hours; they attack the bee, as well as the Yankee, in the midst of multifarious industries. Nervous impressibility suffices. In order to sip honey unmolested, the sphinx needs but to utter its awful note. And yet these bees do not passively await a second or third visit from the lepidopterous conjurer. Their civil engineer corps defends the entry of the hive with waxen walls, leaving holes only large enough to admit the body of a bee. Other hives oppose little bastions that can be turned only by a zigzag course. Each apian tribo invents some indirect expedient of its own, but none dare face the music, or take the butterfly by the horns, in propria persona.

In 1806 the Sphinx atropos abounded, and broke the combs up with their heavy bodies. At first the bees seemed to be confounded and demoralized, but soon began to raise waxen bulwarks which left space only for themselves to pass in single file. This expedient was renewed in defense against the same enemy in 1809. This method also serves them against others, Mr. Jesse shows a fort built of propolis with which one of his families of bees withstood the attacks of wasps. By narrowing tho entrance, a few bees could effectually defend it. Concerning the emotional effect of certain sounds, Langstroth observes (page 137) that swarming bees make a singular hissing or whispering that often causes other bees in the apiary to swarm, and this even when unprepared, as they had only miniature queens in their hive. Elsewhere he notes the queen's challenge!—a quick, shrill, angry succession of sounds like peep, peep, to which one or more of the unhatched queens will respond in a somewhat hoarser key. These piping notes, which may be heard at some little distance from the hive, ho regards as almost infallible indications that a second swarm will soon issue; generally tho second or third day after, though sometimes as late as the fifth.

For the emotions, it is hardly true that

"Segnius Irritant per aures quam per oculos dlniittuntur,"

although tho procession of tin pans in swarming season can make but an apocryphal impression of our musical genius on the apian tympanum. M. Antoiue, of Rheinis, has refined upon the old plan, as follows: On May 30,1858, at four P.M., committees of the societies of Acclimatation and Protection of Animals witnessed the experiment on a hivo estimated to contain about 30,000 bees. M. Antoine approached this with certain ceremonial incantations which apiarians will divine, raised it in his arms, turned it round, and sot it upside down in the open head of a barrel. Its inhabitants appeared to be quietly collected in the upper part of the hive, except a few at the base of the combs, and none were disposed either to fly or to sting. An empty hive of equal size, set edge to edge upon the first, was raised on one side by a block, so that the passage of the bees could be witnessed. Upon tapping with the hands at the apex of the full hive below, and then upward toward its base, the bees mounted in good order and in close groups. In eight minutes all had left the combs, and were collected in the upper hive. A breath' was sufficient to prevent any of them from coming out at the opening left for the spectators.

The transfer was complete, the honey captured; not a bee had perished, or had stung, or had escaped. They allowed themselves to be freely handled by the committee. The mother hive, robbed, was put back near the new one. The working bees sped on the wings of attraction to their melliferous duties, while others, returning laden with the spoils of the garden, field, and forest, alit at either hive, and entered without hesitation either the old or the new dwelling. M. Antoine now explained to us that, after removing the straw apron, he had tapped with his bent finger gently near the top of the hive; then louder and with gradually increased frequency; then with the flat of the hand, and after half a minute with both hands together, leaving the bees no time to recover from their astonishment. Two minutes of this crescendo movement having sufficed to obtain their descent, he raised the hive without shock, and struck about twenty more little taps at the top, after which he reversed the hive, with the effect mentioned. His drumming was a gong that sent the bees to dinner, probably. Honey always makes them sweet-tempered; and of all the Gospel, what suits best their religious idiosyncrasy is the parable of the "loaves and fishes." Not prona, tamen, rcntri obedientia.

The bee may have taught the Egyptian the art of embalming. Should a large, heavy snail intrude within their precincts, and, withdrawn beneath its shell of mail, defy their sting, they glue it down with resin, and it perishes immured. But if its body have been accessible to their stings, then, after killing it, and finding its bulk unmanageable, they plaster it over with layer after layer of that aromatic resin which is found upon the buds of many plants, and which they employ like the essences and aloes of the Thebald.

In view of such varied and ingenious combinations, who will persist, with Malebranche and the old scholastics, in considering the insect as an automaton, which fatally accomplishes a series of acts predetermined by its mechanism? These Cartesians, under the pretext of reverence for God and distinction in favor of man, alone made in his image, would belittle the rest of creation to a level in principle with Vaucanson's mechanical flute - player, or with his artificial duck, which ate and digested its food in presence of spectators.

Of bee life the arcanum is the impassioned loyalty of the individual offspring to the ideas of the species and corporate unity incarnate in their queen-mother. These economical laborers, whose virtue is its own reward, spare neither space nor wax in their queen palace cells. They eat up the excess of neuter eggs like sugar-plums, but prepare for the development of numerous queens, as well as male larvae, destined soon to perish—the queens either by infanticide or else in mortal combat, the duello being in this species an appanage of feminine sovereignty. To the worker larvae, pittances are stingily doled out. Whine and fuss as they may in their procrustean cradles, their step-sister nurses are inflexible; and when the critical moment for sexual evolution arrives, they are fatally imprisoned in barriers, at once material and organic, that say, "Thus big, no bigger, shalt thou grow."

But let some accident, human or other, remove the queen from her adoring people, they are deeply enough versed in the mysteries of existence to know that, as the sphere, such will bo the life that comes to fill it. Byprivation and confinement they have frustrated for neuters that luxury of passion which permits the finite individual to touch the infinite by the species. Now upon the border of a comb they pile ample materials, and build a royal cell fifty times larger than others. Into this they bear the humble larva from a worker cell, then lavish on1 it food more succulent and stimulating, under the influence of which its organs of fecundity appear, and it is born a queen. Our friend Toussenel finds the bee and the ant repeat, after the flowers, the lesson of ovarian pre-eminence. The bee-hive is one of the few true republics where productive labor brings prosperity to the working neuters, no farther removed from the estate of true femininity, perhaps, than our own classes of working-women in the field or the factory.

The male in the apian republic is a political myth, and is pensioned for a short term only by connivance with the interests of the species. The wealth and contentment of the hive, which have cost neither blood nor tears to any one outside, attest the high wisdom of a feminine policy; but the term queen, so indiscreetly borrowed from the Old-World royalties of Europe, and which savors of court fuss and feathers, derogates from the honor of maternal creation. The "queen bee" who lays 20,000 eggs this spring is but the first of her subject* under the constitution of Use and Charm, and those argus body-guards of hers pet, brush, adulate, and feed her—for her. eggs. The hive has borrowed several ideas from the Harmonian Phalanx. Both are founded on attractive labor; both exclude idlers and non-producers.

The foresight which characterizes the bee seems, indeed, an especial attribute of maternity much more than of paternity in all creatures. No general wealth without attractive labor, no attractive labor without feminine pre-eminence: behold the formula of the bee!

Is it not well known that if the queenmother die her republic is overwhelmed with woe and consternation; that labor ceases to attract, and the workshops suspend; that in the prolonged absence of a queen, who in herself is femininity and the species, anarchy succeeds to order, and the demoralized laborers plunder the stores of capital T Males, even males, could not do worse. We can hardly deny the advantageous results of the policy adopted by the honey-bee. Yet the males of all species may well protest against the sorry lot assigned by it to their sex. All the bee males, stigmatized as drones, are destined for the aerial harem of the sultanamother. Three or four hundred rivals await her caprice, and the first favor granted by this royal coquette to one of her aspirants, besides being mortal to his own person, gives the signal for destroying all the others. When reproached with their indelicate procedure toward these unfortunate helots of love, the worker bees, as pitiless as sexless, reply that the males are accustomed to perish, like our Hindoo wives, when their social mission is fulfilled, and that, familiar with the idea of this sacrifice, they run to meet it, and solicit it from pure ennui and satiety. Our rulers who make war, and the politicians who accredit wars, reason not otherwise about their peoples, born material of cannon-fodder. We do not precisely advocate the philanthropy of stabbing folks to keep them from malingering, not even surplus husbands, who are sometimes so obstinately inclined to live. Tho lesson which the beehive teaches is not personal but economical, it means the suppression of supernumerary agents in commerce and of parasites on industry. The bee-hive is a laboratory where order reigns with liberty, equality, and solidarity; where the love of labor is carried to enthusiasm; where the enjoyment of life is made visible and audible, and happiness is proportional to feminine pre-eminence.

If these admirable results have been secured by a few sacrifices, that only shows that insects are not perfect, and that it is difficult to make an omelet without breaking some eggs. These males were unproductive consumers, inapt alike for labor and for battle, and who formed but an insignificant fraction of the population. Ah, did the men who have ridden women rough-shod, or kept them in the fetters of ignorance and prejudice so many centuries, only justify by their own welfare, as the bees do, their conduct with respect to their mothers and daughters!

The bee is a synonym for industry, and yet, irrespective of the occasional wars of hive on hive for booty, individual bees do notoriously lapse into dishonest habits. Langstroth distinguishes loafing and pilfering bees by their darker and dingier coat. Between hive and hive, as between town and town, or family and family, lie those differences of energy, of health, of morality, and of success, that foot the balance-sheet of the account between free-will and fate.


  • Marx Edgeworth Lazarus, “Apian Psychology and Sociology,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 44, no. 259 (December 1871): 118-123.