I T was not necessary to remind Uncle Paul of his promise. He took advantage of the first leisure moment to tell the children the story of the bees.
"A well-peopled hive contains from twenty to thirty thousand bees. That is about the population of our secondary towns. In a town all cannot follow the same trade. Bakers make bread, masons houses, carpenters furniture, tailors clothes; in short, there are artisans for every occupation. In like manner, in the social economy of the beehive, there are various divisions; namely, that of the mothers, that of the fathers, and that of the workers.
"For the first, there is only one bee in each hive. This bee, mother of the whole population, is called the queen. She is distinguished from the workers by a large body and the absence of working implements. Her business is to lay eggs. She has as many as twelve hundred at a time in her body, and others keep on forming as fast as the first are laid. What a formidable business is the queen's! But then, what respectful attentions, what tender care the other bees show to their common mother! They feed the noble mother by the mouthful; they give her of the best, for she has not time to gather for herself, and, to tell the truth, would not know how to do it if she had. To lay and lay is her one and only function.
"The business of father falls to six or eight hundred idlers called drones. They are larger than the workers and smaller than the queen. Their large bulging eyes join together on the top of the head. They have no sting. Only the queen and the workers have the right to carry the poisoned stiletto. The drones are deprived of this weapon. One asks, what use are they? One day they form a retinue of honor to the queen, who takes a fancy to fly through the air; then hardly anything more is heard of them. They perish miserably in the open, or, if they return to the hive, are coldly received by the workers, who look at them unkindly for exhausting the provisions without ever adding to them. At first they treat them to some smart blows to show them that idlers are not wanted in a working society; and if they fail to understand, a resolution is taken. One fine morning they kill every one of them. The bodies are swept out of the hive, and that's the end of it.
"Now come the workers, about twenty or thirty thousand bees to one queen. These are called working bees. They are the ones you see in the garden flying from one flower to another, gathering the harvest. Other workers, a little older and consequently more experienced, remain in the hive to look after the housekeeping and to distribute nourishment to the nurslings hatched from the eggs laid by the queen. There are, then, two bodies of workers to be distinguished: the wax-bees, younger, which make wax and gather the materials for honey; the nurses, older, which stay at home to bring up the family. These two kinds of workers are not mutually exclusive. When young, full of ardor, adventurous, the bee follows the trade of wax-maker. It goes to the fields, seeking viands, visits the flowers, or sometimes is forced to assert itself and unsheath its sting, to put to flight some evil-intentioned aggressor; it sweats wax to make the storehouse and the little rooms where the brood of young ones is kept. Growing older, it gains experience, but loses its first ardor. Then it stays at home, turns nurse, and occupies itself with the delicate task of rearing the young."
This preamble of Uncle Paul's, defining the three industrial classes of the bees, appeared to interest the children greatly, and they were surprised to find that insects have such marvelously elaborate social laws. At the very first opportunity Jules began questioning his uncle. The impatient child wanted to know everything at once.
"You say the wax-bees make wax. I thought they found it ready-made in flowers."
"They do not find it ready-made. They make it, sweat it, that is the word, as the oyster sweats the stone of his shell, as the meleagrina sweats the substance of its mother-of-pearl and its pearls.
"If you look closely at a bee's stomach, you will see it is composed of several pieces or rings fitting into each other. The stomach of all insects has, moreover, the same formation. This arrangement of several parts fitted endwise is found in the horns or antennæ, as well as in the legs, of all insects without exception. It is precisely to this division into separate pieces fitted endwise that the word insect alludes, its meaning being cut in pieces. Is not the body of an insect composed, in fact, of a series of pieces placed end to end?
"Let us come back to the bee's stomach. In the fold separating one ring from the next there is found, underneath, in the middle of the stomach, the wax-producing mechanism. There, little by little, the waxy matter oozes out, just as with us sweat oozes through the skin. This matter accumulates in a thin layer which the insect detaches by rubbing the stomach with its legs. There are eight of these wax-producers. When one is idle, another is working; so that the bee always has some layer of wax at its disposal."
"And what does the bee do with its wax?"
"It builds cells, that is to say storehouses, where the honey is preserved, and little rooms where the young bees in the form of larvæ are raised."
"It builds its house, then," put in Emile, "with the layers of wax taken from the folds of its stomach. And there, you see, the bee shows a very original and inventive mind. It is as if, in order to build a house, we should rub our sides so as to get from them the blocks of cut stone we needed."
"The snail," concluded Uncle Paul, "has already accustomed us to these original ideas of animals. It sweats the stone for its shell."