|The Story Book of Science|
|by Jean Henri Fabre|
|The wonders of plant and animal life told with rare literary charm by Uncle Paul in conversations with three children. Besides such stories as the ants' subterranean city, the spider's suspension bridge, and the caterpillars' processing, he unlocks the mystery behind thunder and lightning, clouds and rain, the year and its seasons, and volcanoes and earthquakes. Ages 9-12 |
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
 "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-  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
"The pollen enters into the making of honey, and
 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
"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
 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
"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
 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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