The Bee People: Chapters 17 & 18

Chapter 17: The Family Exodus

One cannot go on adding several thousand members a week to one’s family without sooner or later being obliged to enlarge the house – or move out. The Apis people move out. As soon as a young queen comes out of her cell, the old queen packs up, so to speak and prepares to depart […] she merely gathers up her thousands of eyes, her shortish, but still valuable tongue, her basketless legs and other personal possessions and starts off, taking with her most of the old bees in the hive and leaving behind the young queen with the young bees and the honey-comb, and the brood comb full of eggs and larvae and pupae […] Away she goes, with her faithful followers surrounding her in a dense swarm.

The whole swarm goes careering though the air like a small cyclone and I for one should not like to stand in its path. Some say the bees send out scouts to find a good place before the swarm starts, either a hollow tree or some other convenient shelter, or else they go into a nice new hive is somebody has been watching and has one ready. They build new combs, make new honey and beebread and just as soon as the cells are ready the queen continues her egg laying.

Chapter 18: The New Queen

Meantime all is not fair weather in the old hive. The new queen although just out o her cell understand her business perfectly, and is quite capable of going about it, but there are complications. Hers was not the only queen cell in that hive.

There were others. And now, just as she has ascended the throne with the old queen peaceable out of the way, the success being accomplished without opposition, lo and behold! She hears a sound – a sound that probably sends the blood to her heart and causes her toes to tingle […] the piping of another young queen just about to come forth from its cell. The throne is not secure, after all […] Of course there are ways of disposing of rivals to the throne, or there used to be […] You may smother them in a tower or poison them or do something of that sort.

Bees know how to smother bees that they hate, and they know how to poison them, but queen bees prefer to fight like queens for their throne, and not get them by stealth or by striking in the dark […]

If a second queen hatches out of her cell before the first young queen finder her, there is a fight. The workers stand around and watch the conflict, but they never interfere, nor have I ever heard that they take sides and cheer their own candidate. The combatants seize each other with their jaws […] trying in every way to thrust the fatal poisoned dagger into a vital part […] At length the fatal thrust is given: one the queens is victor; the other lies dead upon the field of battle. The workers carry out the dead body, but whether they mourn I cannot say. Certainly they do not have a grand funeral. I suppose it would not be exactly polite to the victorious queen to show too much sorrow for the vanquished one.

Evidently our queen considers one such display of courage quite enough to establish her royal character, for she does not waste time fighting any more queens, but goes to the remaining queen cells, pulls off the caps where the bottled-p queen babies lied, and sticks her dagger right into their poor, soft, helpless little bodies. After she has stung all the baby queens she puts up her dagger, very likely determined never to put anything so valuable to such a use again, for you remember her sting is also her ovipositor […]

When all is serene within the hive, if the day is fair, the young queen takes an airing […] Huber was the first to discover that she flies up into the blue sky, where she meets a drone, who is her mate. He fills her pocket […] with pollen, no flower-pollen, but bee-pollen. This pollen lasts as long as she lives and she uses it to fertilize the queen and worker eggs.

So you see the drone is not so useless as he seems. Indeed, if it were note for him, there could be no workers and no queens […] As the season wears on […] the queen, of course, must be taken care of and so must the workers; but there are the drones, perhaps hundreds or even thousands of them. They are no longer of any use: they bring in honey; they do not work; they only endanger the lives of the whole family by eating up the winter food, so these little brown workers, on the plea of necessity, send the drones to the happy hunting grounds.

Whether they are sorry about it or not I do not know; but, in any event, they fall upon their poor brothers and sting them to death, or else drive them from the hive, where they soon die from cold, exposure and hunger. In late summer you will sometimes see a disconsolate drone sitting on a flower, very likely grieving at the bitterness of his lot.

Miss Apis it seems to us very cruel of you to treat your brothers so. But we must remember that bees are not people, and that what would be very wicked in us may be perfectly right in them.

The worker bees labor very hard through the summer, so that sometimes they wear themselves out in a few weeks and die. Those hatched later in the season live through the winter, and are all ready to begin work as soon as the flowers come in the spring. Bees spend the winter clustered together in the hive and are then so inactive that they seem to be scarcely alive.

Key Points:

  • It’s a tough life in the hive but having a good queen is key to control and production
  • There are no nursing homes or public assistance programs
  • You guessed it that male bees (drones) hang around all day, don’t work and hope to mate with a virgin queen
  • The book didn’t tell you that the males ejaculate and then dies because their “depositor” gets ripped out.

I share with you words and illustrations from the public domain M. Morely book – The Bee People. Published 1899; designed for third to fifth grade readers with goal to learn “how to observe” but plenty for adults to learn as well. Life lesson, bee truths and a gauge to see if we have made progress over the last century. If you find something interesting take 5 minutes and do some extra research. Bees are amazing creatures!

Excerpts –