The eggs destined to give birth to queensby@jeanhenrifabre
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The eggs destined to give birth to queens

by Jean-Henri FabreAugust 14th, 2023
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“THE eggs destined to give birth to queens are laid in special cells, much more spacious and solid than those where the working-bees hatch. Their shape is, in a general way, that of a thimble. They are fastened to the edge of the combs and are called royal cells.” “When she lays in a large or small cell,” asked Jules, “does the queen know whether the egg is that of a queen or of a working-bee?”

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The Story-book of Science by Jean-Henri Fabre, is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. THE QUEEN BEE


“The eggs destined to give birth to queens are laid in special cells, much more spacious and solid than those where the working-bees hatch. Their shape is, in a general way, that of a thimble. They are fastened to the edge of the combs and are called royal cells.”

“When she lays in a large or small cell,” asked Jules, “does the queen know whether the egg is that of a queen or of a working-bee?”

Queen Bee

“She does not know, she does not need to know. There is no difference between the queen-eggs and working-bee-eggs. Its treatment alone decides the issue for the egg. Treated in a certain manner, the young larva becomes a queen, on whom depends the future prosperity of the hive; treated in another way, it becomes one of the working people and is furnished with brushes and baskets. Bees make their queens at will; the first egg laid would suffice to fill the royal functions worthily, if treated with that end in view. And what does not treatment, or education, accomplish with us in our tender years? It does not make us kings or peasants, but honest people, which is better; and scoundrels, which is worse.

“It need not be said that the bees’ pedagogic methods are not the same as ours. Man, as much mind as matter, if not more, turns his attention above all to the generous impulses of the heart, the noble aspirations of the soul. With bees education is purely animal, and is governed by the dictates of the belly. The kind of food makes either the queen or the working-bee. For the larvæ that are to discharge the functions of royalty the nurses prepare a special pap, a royal dish of which only they know the secret. Whoever eats of it is consecrated queen.

“This strengthening nourishment brings about a greater development than usual; for that reason, as I told you, the larvæ destined for royalty are lodged in spacious cells. For these noble cradles wax is used with prodigality. No more hexagonal, parsimonious forms, no thin partitions; a large and sumptuously thick thimble. Economy is silent where queens are concerned.”

“It is, then, without the actual queen’s knowledge that bees make other queens?”

“Yes, my friend. The queen is excessively jealous, she cannot endure in the hive any bee whose presence may bring the slightest diminution to her royal prerogatives. Woe to the pretenders that should get in her way! ‘Ah! you come to supplant me, to steal from me the love of my subjects!’ Ah, this! Ah, that! It would be something horrible, my children. Read the history of mankind, and you will see what disasters crowned heads, brought to bay, can inflict upon nations. But the working-bees are strong-minded, they know that nothing lasts in this world, not even queens. They treat the reigning sovereign with the greatest respect, without losing sight of the future, which demands other queens. They must have them to perpetuate the race; they will have them, whether or no. To this end the royal pap is served to the larvæ in the large cells.

“Now, in the spring, when the working-bees and drones are already hatched, a loud rustling is heard in the royal cells. They are the young queens trying to get out of their wax prisons. The nurses and wax-bees are there, standing guard in a dense battalion. They keep the young queens in their cells by force; to prevent their getting out, they reinforce the wax inclosures, they mend the broken covers. ‘It is not time for you to show yourselves,’ they seem to say; ‘there is danger!’ And very respectfully they resort to violence. Impatient, the young queens renew their rustling.

“The queen-mother has heard them. She hastens up in a passion. She stamps with rage on the royal cells, she sends pieces of the wax covers flying and, dragging the pretenders from their cells, she pitilessly tears them to pieces. Several succumb under her blows; but the people surround her, encircle her closely, and little by little draw her away from the scene of carnage. The future is saved: there are still some queens left.

“In the meantime wrath is excited and civil war breaks out. Some lean to the old queen, others to the young ones. In this conflict of opinions disorder and tumult succeed to peaceful activity. The hive is filled with menacing buzzings, the well-filled storehouses are given over to pillage. There is an orgy of feasting with no thought of the morrow. Dagger-thrusts are exchanged. The queen decides on a master-stroke: she abandons the ungrateful country, the country that she founded and that now raises up rivals against her. ‘Let them that love me follow me!’ And behold her proudly rushing out of the hive, never to enter it again. Her partizans fly away with her. The emigrating troop forms a swarm, which goes forth to found a new colony elsewhere.

“To restore order, the working-bees that were away during the tumult come and join the bees left in the hive. Two young queens set up their rights. Which of them shall reign? A duel to the death shall decide it. They come out of their cells. Hardly have they caught sight of each other when they join in shock of battle, rear upright, seize with their mandibles each an antenna of the other, and hold themselves head to head, breast to breast. In this position, each would only have to bend the end of its stomach a little to plunge its poisoned sting into its rival’s body. But that would be a double death, and their instinct forbids them a mode of assault in which both would perish. They separate and retire. But the people gathered around them prevent their getting away: one of them must succumb. The two queens return to the attack. The more skilful one, at a moment when the other is off guard, jumps on its rival’s back, seizes it where the wing joins the body, and stings it in the side. The victim stretches its legs and dies. All is over. Royal unity is restored, and the hive proceeds to resume its accustomed order and work.”

“The bees are very naughty to force the queens to kill one another until there is only one left,” commented Emile.

“It is necessary, my little friend; their instinct demands it. Otherwise civil war would rage unceasingly in the hive. But this hard necessity does not make them forget for one moment the respect due to royal dignity. What is to prevent their getting rid of the superfluous queens themselves, even as they so unceremoniously get rid of the drones? But this they are very careful not to do. What one of their number would dare to draw the sword against their sovereigns, even when they are a serious encumbrance? The saving of life not being in their power, they save honor by letting the pretenders fight it out among themselves.

“There is always the possibility that the queen, at a time when she is reigning alone and supreme, may perish by accident or die of old age. The bees press respectfully around the deceased; they brush her tenderly, offer her honey as if to revive her; turn her over, feel her lovingly, and treat her with all the regard they gave to her when alive. It takes several days for them to understand, at last, that she is dead, quite dead, and that all their attentions are useless. Then there is general mourning. Every evening for two or three days a lugubrious humming, a sort of funeral dirge, is heard in the hive.

“The mourning over, they think about replacing the queen. A young larva is chosen from those in the common cells. It was born to be a wax-bee, but circumstances are going to confer royalty upon it. The working-bees begin by destroying the cells adjacent to the one occupied by the sacred larva, the queen that is to be by unanimous consent. The rearing of royalty requires more space. This being secured, the remaining cell is enlarged and shaped like a thimble, as willed by the high destiny of the nursling it contains. For several days the larva is fed with royal paste, that sugary pap that makes queens, and the miracle is accomplished. The queen is dead, long live the queen!”

“The story of the bees is the best you have told us,” declared Jules.

“I think so too,” his uncle assented; “that is why I kept it till the last.”

“What—the last?” cried Jules.

“You are not going to tell us any more stories?” asked Claire.

“Never, never?” Emile put in.

“As many as you wish, my dear children, but later. The grain is ripe, and the harvest will take up my time. Let us embrace, and finish for the present.”

Since Uncle Paul, occupied with his duties in the harvest-field, no longer tells stories in the evening, Emile has gone back to his Noah’s Ark. He found the hind and the elephant moldy! From the time of the story of the ants the child had suspended his visits.


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This book is part of the public domain. Jean-Henri Fabre (2018). The Story-book of Science. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved

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