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The Story Book of Science by  Jean Henri Fabre

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CHAPTER LXXIX

HONEY

[389]

"T
HE bee is diligent: at sunrise it is at work, far from the hive, visiting the flowers one by one. You already know what it is in flowers that attracts insects: I have told you about the nectar, that sweet liquor that oozes out at the bottom of the corolla to entice the little winged people and make them shake the anthers on the stigma. This nectar is what the bee wants. It is its great feast, the great feast also of the little ones and the queen-mother; it is the prime ingredient of honey. How carry home a liquid so that others may enjoy it? The bee possesses neither pitcher, jar, pot, nor anything of the sort. I am wrong: like the ant that carries the plant-lice's milk to the workers, it is provided with a natural can, stomach, paunch, or crop.

"The bee enters a flower, plunges to the bottom of the corolla a long and flexible trunk, a kind of tongue that laps the sweet liquor. Droplet by droplet, drawn from this flower and that, the crop is filled. The bee at the same time nibbles a few grains of pollen. Moreover, it proposes to carry a good load of it to the hive. It has special utensils for this work: first, the down of its body, then the brushes and baskets that its legs supply. The down and the brushes are used for harvesting; the baskets for carrying.

[390] "First the bee rolls delightedly among the stamens to cover itself with pollen. Then it passes and re-passes over its velvety body the extremities of its hind legs, where is found a square piece bristling on the inside with short and rough hairs which serve as a brush. The grains of pollen scattered over the down of the insect are thus gathered together into a little pellet, which the intermediary legs seize in order to place it in one or other of the baskets. They call by this name a hollow edged with hair on the outside of the hind legs, a little above the brushes. It is there the pellets of pollen are piled up as fast as the brushes gather them on the powdery down. The load does not fall, because it is held by the hairs that edge the basket; it is also stuck against the bottom. The queen and the drones have not these working implements. Utensils are useless to those who do not work."

"The little yellow masses one sees on the hind legs of bees visiting the flowers are loads of pollen contained in the baskets?" asked Jules.

"Exactly. The bee has lapped so much sweet from the corollas, has brushed its pollen-powdered sides so often, that finally the crop is full and the baskets are running over. It is time to go back to the hive, time for a flight made heavy with so much treasure.

"Let us take advantage of the time used in the return journey to inform ourselves about the origin of honey. The bee carries with it a sugary liquor in its crop, two balls of pollen in its baskets; but all that is not yet honey. Real honey the bee pre- [391] pares with the ingredients that we have just seen it gather; it cooks it, lets it simmer in its crop. Its little stomach is better than a real pot for carrying; it is an admirable alembic, in which the liquid that has been lapped up and the grains of pollen that have been nibbled are worked by digestion and converted into a delicious marmalade, which is honey. This skilful cooking finished, the content of the crop is honey.

"The bee arrives at the hive. If by good fortune the queen-mother is encountered, the workman does reverence to her and offers her, from mouth to mouth, a sip of honey, the first from its crop. Then it seeks an empty cell, inserts its head into the store-room, projects its tongue, and spits out the contents of its stomach; and there you have real honey disgorged by the bee."

"Is it all disgorged?" Emile asked.

"Not all. The crop's contents are usually divided into three parts: one for the nurses that remain in the hive to do the housework; a second for the little ones still in the nest; a third kept by the bee that has prepared the honey. Must it not have food in order to work well?"

"Then bees feed on honey?"

"Without a doubt. You imagined perhaps that bees made honey expressly for man. Undeceive yourself: bees make honey for themselves and not for us. We plunder their riches."

"What becomes of the little balls of pollen?" inquired Jules.

"The pollen enters into the making of honey, and [392] serves as nourishment for the bees. The working bee, on its return from harvesting, puts its hind legs into a cell where there is neither larva nor honey, and with the end of its middle legs it detaches the pellets and pushes them to the bottom. In repeating its trips it ends by filling both the cell in which the honey is disgorged and that in which the pollen is stored. The nurses draw on these provisions when they go from cell to cell, distributing small portions to the little ones; thence also they get their own food; in fact, the whole population finds its resources there when bad weather comes.

"Flowers do not last all the year, and, moreover, there are days of rest, rainy days when the bees cannot go out. It is necessary, therefore, to have pollen and honey in reserve, and to have a good supply. So, when flowers are plenty and the harvest exceeds immediate requirements, the workers gather honey and pollen untiringly and store it in cells, which they close, as soon as full, with a cover of wax.

"These are reserve supplies, safeguards for the future in case of scarcity. The wax cover is religiously respected; it would be a state crime to touch it prematurely. In time of want the seals are removed and each one draws from the open comb, but with restraint and sobriety. The comb exhausted, they break the seals of another."

"How are young bees fed?" was Jules's next question.

"When the cells destined to serve as nests are prepared in sufficient number by the wax-bees, the [393] queen-mother goes from one to another, dragging with much effort her fruitful womb. The nurses form a respectful retinue. One egg, one only, is laid in each cell. In a few days—from three to six—there comes from this egg a larva, a little white worm, without legs, bent like a comma. Now begins the nurses' delicate work.

"They must every day, and several times a day, distribute nourishment to the little worms, not honey or pollen in its natural state, but a preparation of increasing strength such as delicate stomachs need at first. It is, in the beginning, a liquid paste, almost tasteless; then something sweeter; and finally pure honey, nourishment at its full strength. Do we offer a slice of beef to a crying baby? No, but milk first and then pap. Bees do the same: they have honey, strong food, for the strong; and weaker nourishment, tasteless pap, for the weak. How do they prepare these more or less substantial foods? It would be hard to say. Perhaps they mix pollen and honey in different proportions.

"In six days the larvæ, called brood-comb, have attained their development. Then, like the larvæ of other insects, they retire from the world to undergo metamorphosis. In order to protect its suffering flesh at the critical moment of its transfiguration, each larva lines the inside of its cell with silk, and the working-bees close the cell with a cover of wax. In the silk-lined case the skin is cast off and the passage to the state of nymph accomplished. Twelve days later the nymph awakes from the deep sleep of the second birth; it shakes itself, tears its [394] narrow swaddling-clothes, and comes forth a bee. The wax cover is gnawed by the inclosed insect as well as by the working-bees lending a ready hand to the resuscitated; and the hive counts one more citizen. The new-born bee makes its toilet a little, dries its wings, polishes its body, and is off to work. It knows its trade without having had to learn it: wax-bee in its youth, nurse in its old age."


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