an ebook published by Project Gutenberg Australia
Title: Bridget And The Bees
Author: Dorothy Wall
eBook No.: 2301061h.html
Date first posted: 2023
Most recent update: 2023
This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore
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Chapter 1. - Bridget Meets Ginger Pop
Chapter 2. - Inside The Hive
Chapter 3. - The Cells
Chapter 4. - The Bees Swarm
Chapter 5. - The New Home
Chapter 6. - About Queens
Chapter 7. - Home Again
There was once a little girl called Bridget. She had blue eyes and curly hair, and she lived in a house in the country with a big garden. People used to call her ‘Busy Bee’ because she never kept still for an instant but was always doing something very important, such as taking her dolls for a walk, or putting them to bed, or playing at tea-parties, or picking flowers, or chasing butterflies. Bridget did not like this name at all, and when people called her by it she used to stamp her foot and have hurt feelings.
‘Don’t call me that,’ she would say. ‘I hate bees. They sting.’ And then she would run off to the farthest end of the garden and cry until her feelings had stopped being hurt.
One day she cried so hard that she could not see where she was going, and she wandered right out of the garden into the open country. She would probably have gone on for miles and miles if a wild rose-bush had not caught at her frock with one of its branches and pulled her up. This seemed annoying at the time, but as it turned out it was a great piece of luck, because if it had not happened she might never have met Ginger Pop. For as she stood there trying to tug her frock free from the thorns, she heard a shrill voice saying:
‘Hullo-ullo-ullo! What’s the trouble?’
And turning round she saw a little man standing close beside her. He was much odder than anybody she had ever seen before. For one thing he was smaller than she was, which endeared him to her from the start; he had huge pointed ears and an untidy mop of flaming red hair; his short checked jacket and his long striped trousers were all rags, tatters and brightly coloured patches; his shoes, which looked like green bags tied round his feet, were so worn out that his toes came poking through the ends of them: but he had a kind face and Bridget felt at once that she had found a friend.
‘What’s your name?’ she asked.
‘People call me Ginger Pop,’ said the little man, ‘because of the colour of my hair.’
‘How rude of them,’ said Bridget. ‘I do hate being given nicknames, don’t you?’
‘Not a bit,’ replied Ginger Pop cheerfully, ‘so long as they’re nice nicknames.’
‘But some of them aren’t,’ said Bridget. ‘The name they call me by is so horrid that I simply couldn’t bear it any more. That’s why I ran away from home and got lost.’
‘Whatever can it have been?’ asked Ginger Pop.
‘They c-call me B-Busy Bee,’ wailed Bridget, bursting into fresh tears. ‘And I hate bees—they’re n-nasty noisy things and they s-sting!’
To her great surprise Ginger Pop began roaring with laughter.
‘Bless my soul!’ he cried. ‘What a silly thing to be offended about! Why, you ought to feel as proud as Punch. I can quite see that you don’t know anything at all about bees. Would you care to come with me and see what they are really like?’
‘Y-yes,’ said Bridget, drying her eyes. She had not the least idea what she was in for, but she felt that in Ginger Pop’s company any adventure would be fun.
So Ginger Pop unhitched her frock from the rosebush, and off they went together hand in hand.
They walked along for some time until they came to a meadow which was even more full of flowers than the ones they had already passed through. And there standing on the grass were some funny little houses, round, with pointed tops and tiny doorways.
‘There,’ said Ginger Pop, ‘those are the bees’ houses. Aren’t they nice?’
‘Oh yes!’ cried Bridget, delighted. ‘How I wish we could go inside one!’
‘All right, we will,’ said Ginger Pop.
‘But we’re much too big.’
‘Pooh! You mustn’t let a thing like that worry you. It can easily be put right with a bit of magic.’
‘Can you do magic?’ asked Bridget, round-eyed.
‘A little,’ said Ginger Pop modestly.
‘Then are you a fairy?’
‘Ah,’ said Ginger Pop in a maddening kind of way, ‘that would be telling. Shut your eyes.’ Then he clapped his hands three times, turned three somersaults forwards and three backwards, and said, ‘Now then!’
Bridget opened her eyes: and lo and behold! she and Ginger Pop were about ten sizes smaller than they had been before. Only of course it seemed to her that the hives had grown into quite big houses, and the grass into hay, and the humming of the bees into a loud, beautiful noise like a church organ.
Ginger Pop went up to the nearest hive, which was guarded, as they all were, by a ring of policeman bees. When they saw him they got very excited, whisking their stings in the air and singing in fierce voices:
‘Halt! Halt! Who goes there
With the big green shoes and the bright red hair?
Is it a beggar that’s asking for money
Or is it a thief come after our honey?
Whichever it is he’d better look out,
For our stings are sharp and our hearts are stout.’
‘I am neither a beggar nor a thief,’ said Ginger Pop, bowing low. ‘My name is Ginger Pop, and I am a very old friend of the bees. In fact, I knew your great-great-grandparents.’
‘Beg pardon, sir,’ said the head policeman, ‘but we have to be so careful nowadays. And who might the young lady be, if I may ask?’
‘A great friend of mine, who is most anxious to see how the bees really live. May we come in?’
‘Very good, sir, by all means. You know the regulations, of course, about clean shoes and not talking above a whisper?’
‘Oh yes,’ said Ginger Pop. ‘You can trust us to behave all right.’
So they dusted their shoes carefully on two blades of grass and tiptoed through the doorway.
Inside it was all warm and sweet-smelling and dark— so dark that at first Bridget clung to Ginger Pop, rather frightened. But when her eyes had got used to it she could see thousands of bees bustling about with brooms and dusters cleaning the inside of the hive; and as they worked they sang:
‘Sweep and polish and dust and rub,
Give each corner an extra scrub;
Work, Sisters, work with a will—
No good bee should ever sit still,’
‘They can’t all be each other’s sisters,’ whispered Bridget.
‘Oh yes, they can. You see, there is one mother bee who is called the queen, and she has thousands and thousands of children. Most of them are tremendously hard workers, as you can see; but there are a few hundred, called drones, who do no work at all— they just laze about the whole day eating honey.’
‘I think it would be rather fun to be a drone,’ said Bridget.
‘You wouldn’t think so,’ returned Ginger Pop dryly, ‘if you knew what happened to them in the end. You see, they are so lazy and greedy and untidy that after a while the worker bees lose patience with them and kill them.’
‘Poor things,’ said Bridget. ‘It seems a great pity that they are ever born at all, if nobody likes them and they aren’t any use.’
‘Well,’ said Ginger Pop, ‘the only point of them is that as soon as the queen is old enough to be married she has to choose one of them for a husband.’
‘How on earth does she choose between them?’ asked Bridget, staring at a bunch of drones who were huddled up asleep in a corner. They all look exactly alike to me,’
‘Ah, that’s where the queen is so clever. One beautiful fine day when the sun is shining she flies straight up into the sky with all the drones racing after her. She goes up higher and higher—farther than any bird you ever saw—and one by one the drones who are old or sick or feeble have to turn back exhausted, so that it is only the finest, strongest one of all who catches her and marries her at last.’
‘And do they live happily ever after?’ inquired Bridget anxiously.
‘Well, no, I’m afraid not. As a matter of fact, the drone dies at once. There, there, Bridget, don’t cry—remember, the other bees would have killed him anyhow later on.’
‘But the queen—doesn’t she mind?’
‘Not a bit. She flies straight back to the hive to tell the workers that she has been married, and they are so happy about it that they caress her and brush her wings and look after her most lovingly. Then she rests for two days, as she is very tired after her long flight. And after that she begins to lay her eggs. Perhaps you’ll see her doing it later on.’
At this moment he caught sight of something interesting at the other side of the hive and hurried Bridget over to look at it.
At first Bridget thought it must be a dancing class, for a lot of the bees were dancing round and round, flapping their wings so quickly that you could hardly see them move. But Ginger Pop shook his head and told her to guess again.
‘Well, then, is it a sort of game?’
‘Goodness, no! Bees are so busy that they never have time for any games.’
‘Poor little things,’ said Bridget. ‘Well, what are they doing, then?’
‘Two things,’ said Ginger Pop. ‘First of all, they are fanning the honey, because sometimes it gets too much water in it and has to be made drier. And secondly, they are fanning the air, to keep the inside of the hive cool and fresh. If you come to think of it, it must be very difficult to keep your house aired when you haven’t got any windows to open.’
Bridget stood for several minutes watching the whirring, dancing bees.
‘How tired they’ll be by this evening!’ she said.
‘I wonder what time they go to bed?’
‘They never go to bed and they never sleep. They just work and work and work for the whole of their lives.’
‘Oh, poor little things,’ said Bridget again. ‘How perfectly awful for them!’
‘They like it,’ said Ginger Pop, smiling. ‘It’s their idea of fun. Come along, let’s go and have a look at the nurseries.’ And he led her over to where several nurse-bees were guarding and fanning the babies’ cells.
‘I love babies,’ said Bridget. ‘Do you think they would let me look right inside?’
‘I’m afraid not. The babies would catch cold and die. Besides, you might let some dust in, and then the nurses would be very cross, because it is their job to keep the cells clean. But look! Here is something really exciting—the queen bee herself!’
Bridget turned round—and there, sure enough, was the queen. She was bigger and more beautiful than the other bees, and she was surrounded by respectful ladies-in-waiting. Some of these were brushing and polishing her wings till they shone like silver, while others were feeding her.
‘Look how fond they are of their mother,’ said Ginger Pop. ‘They always feed her on extra special food, much better than the kind they eat themselves.’
‘Bees must have very nice natures,’ Bridget thought. But at that moment there was a tremendous buzzing and commotion, and several bees were seen pushing their way through the crowd towards the door of the hive. They were carrying out another bee who had just died, and they seemed to be in a great hurry to get rid of her.
‘You see,’ explained Ginger Pop quite calmly, ‘they can’t bear to have anything dead or wounded in the hive. If a piece of honeycomb happens to get crushed and the workers on it are hurt, the other bees just carry them outside, leave them to die, and rush to gather up the spilled honey.’
‘Oh, how cruel!’ Bridget was horrified.
‘They don’t mean to be cruel. It’s simply that nothing matters to them except their work. They are so busy that they haven’t got a moment to spare for looking after the sick.’
‘Bees must have rather nasty natures,’ thought Bridget. And then she remembered that only a few minutes ago she had been thinking the exact opposite. It was all very muddling…
While Bridget was still trying to make up her mind what she thought about the things she had already seen, she felt Ginger Pop dragging at her sleeve again, eager to show her yet another sight.
Dozens of bees were flying in at the door of the hive with little bags of gold fastened to their legs. There were a few who had an air of importance and who seemed to be more or less in charge of the rest.
‘Those are the explorers,’ whispered Ginger Pop. ‘They go first and show the others where to find nectar and pollen.’
‘Who are Nectar and Pollen?’ asked Bridget timidly. She thought it sounded like the name of a shop.
‘They are stuff which comes out of flowers,’ said Ginger Pop. ‘Nectar is a kind of sweet juice, and pollen is a powdery dust.’
‘Is pollen what makes your shoes yellow when you walk through buttercups?’
‘That’s it. And your nose orange when you smell arum lilies. Well, you can imagine what ages it must take to fill even those little pockets with it. They have probably been out since daybreak, flying from flower to flower and taking a tiny scrap from each. Now they have brought it home for the babies’ food.’
‘Do the same bees gather the pollen every day?’
‘No. They all like a change of work, just as we do, so a bee who has been out gathering pollen in the morning will probably make wax in the afternoon, or mind the babies, or help to fan the cells.’
‘Do the drones gather the pollen too?’
‘How lazy of them,’ said Bridget.
‘Oh, well,’ said Ginger Pop, ‘it’s not really their fault. You see, they haven’t any pockets on their legs, so they couldn’t even if they wanted to.’
Meanwhile other bees were taking the nectar and pollen from the workers and storing it away in special cells until it all looked like a house of gold. As each cell was filled, yet another bee came along and dipped her sting into it before it was sealed up with wax.
‘She is the chemist-bee,’ said Ginger Pop. ‘On the end of her sting is a drop of stuff called formic acid, which keeps the pollen and nectar always fresh. Now then, we’ll walk along and see the other cells.’
Ginger Pop was certainly a very thorough guide. He showed Bridget the royal cells where the baby queens were born; and he showed her the drone cells; and he showed her the cells for storing away spare pollen, with the colours all carefully separated, the red in one place, the yellow in another and so on; and he showed her the honey cells, hundreds and hundreds of them, where the thrifty bees were careful to keep a huge store of food for cold wet days when they could not go out and collect any fresh provisions.
‘They’re so sensible,’ said Ginger Pop. ‘That’s what I like about bees.’
By this time Bridget’s eyes were quite dazzled by looking at so many shining golden cells, and she was glad when the queen came along again. The ladies-in-waiting seemed even more loving and attentive now than they had been before: they were putting their arms round the queen and kissing her, and Bridget noticed that they were careful never to turn their backs on her for an instant.
‘Look!’ said Ginger Pop presently. ‘She is starting to lay her eggs.’
‘How? Where? Has she got a nest?’
‘You watch,’ said Ginger Pop. So Bridget watched. The ladies-in-waiting were flying from one cell to another to make sure that everything was in order. Then the queen herself had a good look in each cell, entered it tail first, laid an egg, and came out again. One of the attendants stood on guard to see that nobody came along and stole the egg, while the queen moved on to the next cell.
‘How many eggs does she lay in a day?’ Bridget asked.
‘Oh, thousands. If there aren’t enough cells ready for her, the attendants rush off and empty the honey cells. Then, if she still wants more, she has to use the drone cells; but she doesn’t like that at all.’
While they had been talking a queer change had come over the hive. An atmosphere of gaiety and excitement had sprung up. The bees had grown more active than ever: they were hurrying and scurrying here and there, jumping and dancing and pushing one another about. The noise of their buzzing grew so loud that Bridget was almost deafened.
‘What is the matter with them?’ she shouted above the din.
‘They’re going to SWARM!’ Ginger Pop yelled back. ‘We are in luck’s way!’
Bridget stood staring in amazement at the antics of the bees. It was the first time she had seen them look really happy, instead of just busy. They were singing an absurd little song as they whirled round and round:
‘Hurray, bees, hurray!
It’s time to swarm to-day;
So pack up your stings
And open your wings—
We’re going to swarm to-day!’
By now they were moving so quickly that the hive became quite hot and the wafer walls began to melt. Then suddenly dozens of them flew on to Ginger Pop; they crawled all over his hands and arms, on to his red hair and inside his black-and-white jacket.
‘They’ll sting you!’ cried Bridget in alarm.
‘Oh no, they won’t—they’re much too happy to-day,’ said Ginger Pop, and gathering up a handful of them he showed her how he could pet and caress them without any danger.
‘You see, it’s their one great holiday. They are going to fly away and find themselves a new home.’
‘But surely they won’t leave the babies? And all that lovely honey?’
‘They’ll take enough honey to eat on the journey, and enough to make wax for the new home. The rest they’ll leave for the babies—and, of course, some of the nurse-bees will stay here to take care of them. Look— they’re off now! Would you like to go too?’
‘Oh yes!’ said Bridget eagerly; and together they rushed out of the door of the hive.
The bees were already flying up into the sky in a thin misty line. In the middle, protected from all harm, was the queen; she was flying rather feebly and looking a little dazed, for it was a long time since she had been out in the brilliant sunlight.
Ginger Pop and Bridget had their work cut out to keep up, for chasing a swarm of bees on a hot day is no joke; so they were glad when the bees settled on the bough of an apple-tree, all piled up together in a big bunch.
‘Thank goodness!’ gasped Ginger Pop, mopping his brow. ‘Now we can have a bit of a rest. The scout-bees have gone on ahead to look for a new home.’ But it seemed only a minute or two before the scouts returned, and the rest of the bees began to rise in the air again.
‘Oh dear,’ groaned Bridget. ‘I’m still most awfully tired. I do wish I had a pair of wings like a bee.’
‘Bees have four wings really,’ said Ginger Pop, who never could resist giving free information. ‘You can only see two when they’re in the hive, because they hook one pair on to the other so as not to damage them when they come in through the doorway.’
‘For goodness’ sake.’ said Bridget, not very politely because she was so tired, ‘stop telling me things for a minute and do a bit more of that magic of yours. I want some wings, I tell you. One pair’ll be quite enough. ’
‘All right,’ said Ginger Pop good-humouredly. He clapped his hands seven times, then turned seven somersaults forwards and seven backwards: and at once they each had a beautiful pair of wings. Bridget’s were pale yellow, while his own were black with white spots.
‘Now then, off we go, or we’ll never catch up with those bees.’ He took her hand and soared into the air.
Bridget thought flying was the loveliest thing she had ever done. She found the steering difficult at first, and collided rather heavily with an elderly dragon-fly, who was not at all good-tempered about it; but by the time they had caught up with the swarm she could fly so well that she did not even have to hold Ginger Pop’s hand. In fact, she was quite sorry when the bees at last reached their new home and it was time to come down to earth again. They both took off their wings, laid them down very carefully among the daisies and walked over to look at the new hive.
‘Well, I don’t think much of that,’ said Bridget. ‘It’s only an old box.’ It was, in fact, an empty butter-box with notices painted on it in large black letters. One side said ‘BUTTER—WITH CARE ’; another, ‘THIS SIDE UP’; a third, ‘KEEP COOL’, and a fourth, ‘STOW AWAY FROM BOILERS’.
‘The bees seem pleased enough with it,’ said Ginger Pop, ‘and that’s the main thing.’ For they were all dancing round it in a ring, singing happily. Bridget and Ginger Pop walked round the box till they came to the doorway, and squeezed through. Almost immediately Bridget heard a crash close beside her, and peering through the half-darkness she saw that Ginger Pop had fallen over a huge empty snail-shell and was lying flat on the ground with a look of comical surprise on his face.
‘Well, I’m blessed!’ he exclaimed. ‘That’s a funny thing to find inside a butter-box.’
The noise of his fall had attracted the bees, and now dozens of them came pouring into the hive. When they saw the snail-shell they crawled all over it, stinging at it savagely to make sure that it was nothing alive.
‘I’m afraid it’ll be dreadfully in their way,’ said Bridget. ‘What will they do about it?’
‘You wait and see,’ said Ginger Pop. ‘There aren’t many difficulties that they can’t get over. That’s what I like about bees.’
In a far corner of the hive, under the direction of a few planning-bees, the work of making the wax had already begun. Hundreds of bees were climbing rapidly up the walls.
‘Aren’t they fat!’ whispered Bridget.
‘That’s because they are so full of honey. Now watch what they are going to do next.’
As soon as the bees had reached the ceiling a second lot climbed up and hung on to the first ones, and then a third layer came and hung on to the second, and so on, until there were dozens of long chains hanging from the ceiling to the floor, each made entirely of bees. When these were all joined together the whole thing looked like a beautiful golden curtain, fluttering gently all the time with the movement of the bees’ wings.
Bridget stood there spell-bound. She would have liked to watch it for ever, but the heat was growing almost unbearable.
‘Oh dear,’ she said suddenly, ‘I’m so frightfully hot, I can hardly breathe. Couldn’t they let some more air in?’
‘I’m afraid not. You see, they have to keep the hive very warm while they are making the wax. But let’s go over to the other side—it’s cooler.’
They moved over to the door to watch another detachment of bees who were energetically cleaning out the new house. Some were sweeping, their big eyes nearly popping out of their heads in their efforts to see that nothing escaped them; others were carrying out grains of sand or tugging at withered leaves several sizes larger than themselves. They had many hard struggles, but after a while everything was cleared away except the snail-shell, which no amount of tugging or pushing would shift.
‘They’re beaten!’ Bridget whispered. ‘I thought you said—’
‘Wait and see,’ interrupted Ginger Pop with a chuckle.
‘Oh, look!’ cried Bridget presently. ‘They’re painting the walls.’
‘Not exactly painting—they’re varnishing them with propolis.’
‘It’s the sticky stuff you find on your fingers after you’ve been playing with flower-buds or young leaves. The bees collect it and use it for all sorts of things— look at them now.’
The bees were slapping and dabbing propolis into every crack they could find, so as to keep both sunlight and rain from coming into the hive. And when they had finished doing that, to Bridget’s immense surprise, they went up to the old snail-shell and covered that with propolis too, laying it on so thick that soon there was nothing to be seen but a big sticky mound.
‘There!’ exclaimed Ginger Pop triumphantly. ‘Now there will be no nasty smell, and by the wintertime that old snail-shell will be as hard as stone.’
Bridget agreed that this was a very ingenious idea; but she was really more interested in the magical golden curtain, which she was longing to go and look at again.
‘The wax won’t be made for ages yet,’ said Ginger Pop. ‘Why don’t you lie down and go to sleep for a bit? You must be tired after all you’ve done to-day.’
He took off his coat and spread it on the floor of the hive for her to lie on. Bridget was not at all sorry to do as he suggested, and in a few minutes she was fast asleep. But Ginger Pop himself did not dare to close his eyes for a moment: he kept a careful watch on her in case the bees should take it into their heads to come and cover her with propolis, like the snail-shell.
When she woke up she could not make out at first where she was, for the warm, dark box looked so different from her own cool night-nursery; but she soon remembered and jumped eagerly to her feet.
‘Is the wax made yet?’
‘I expect so,’ said Ginger Pop. ‘Let’s go and see.’ He stretched his arms and legs, for he had grown quite stiff with watching over her.
They tiptoed across to the other corner, and Bridget’s eyes opened wide with wonder at the beauty of what she saw. Over all the bees there hung a white mist, as light and fine as a spider’s web. While they stood watching, a young bee began to climb up the golden curtain, pushing the others out of the way to make herself a pathway. When she arrived at the top, she fastened herself to the ceiling with the sticky fluid on her feet and very carefully pulled out of her pocket a little scale of wax.
‘You see,’ whispered Ginger Pop, ‘the wax pockets are not on their legs like the honey ones, but on their sides. They keep one scale of wax in each pocket.’
By this time the bee was working on the wax scale, mixing it with saliva until it was the right softness, then pulling and smoothing and clipping it into shape with her hands and feet. When it was done she fixed it to the ceiling and then did the same thing to each of her other scales. One by one the other bees followed suit, adding their scales to hers until a little lump of wax hung down from the ceiling. At this point a new and quite different-looking bee came along and climbed up to the wax.
‘Watch her closely,’ said Ginger Pop. ‘She is one of the clever bees who shape the cells.’ And sure enough, she was scooping wax out of the middle of the lump and placing it round the edge until gradually the shape of the cell appeared. Then other shaping-bees came along and did the same thing, and the honey-comb grew and grew.
Presently Ginger Pop reminded Bridget that if she wanted to go back and see the babies in the other hive it was high time to be off. So after saluting the guards at the doorway they scrambled out once more into the sunshine, put on their wings and flew back to the old hive.
This time the head policeman seemed quite pleased to see them.
‘You’ve come at the right moment,’ he said, shifting his weight from side to side exactly like a real policeman. ‘The little ’uns are about due to hatch out. Walk right in.’
Although the nurses were still fanning the cells and the babies were still invisible, there was a distinct feeling of excitement in the air, as though something important was about to happen. This is the song the nurses were singing:
‘Baby bees, baby bees, wake up to-day,
Out of the cradle-cells nibble your way;
Baby bees, baby bees, open your eyes—
We’re waiting to feed you on fresh honey-pies.’
‘You see,’ said Ginger Pop, ‘first of all the eggs turn into larvae—a larva is a kind of grub—and then the larvae turn into nymphs, which are half-way between grubs and bees; and after that they grow legs and arms, and then they are ready to eat their way out and be born.’
Suddenly one of the cells burst open and a tiny head came poking out, its large black eyes gazing this way and that in bewilderment. Several nurses rushed to help the baby bee out of her cradle; when she was quite free of it they brushed her, cleaned her, and gave her her first taste of food—little drops of honey from the end of their tongues.
‘Isn’t she sweet!’ whispered Bridget. ‘I’d like to take her home and keep her as a pet.’
The baby looked very frail; she was trembling all over, and her tiny legs seemed hardly able to support her: but in a wonderfully short time she grew strong enough to dance away with the nurses and to begin flapping her wings in front of the other cells.
‘Surely they won’t allow her to work already!’ Bridget exclaimed indignantly. ‘Why, she’s only five minutes old!’
‘She won’t have any hard work to do at first. For a whole week she will just fly about in the sunshine and play among the flowers and perhaps help the nurses a little when she gets home; but the following week she will have to fly away with the other babies and begin collecting pollen.’
‘Don’t they ever get lost?’
‘Not often. You see, they are very clever: when they start in the morning they look out for a daisy-patch near the hive, or a white stone, or a fallen twig, and on their way back they use that as a landmark.’
‘What are those great long cells which hang down and look different from the others?’ Bridget asked.
‘Those are the queen-cells. You see, the bees will need a new queen now that the old one has left.’
‘Supposing,’ said Bridget, ‘that the old queen had forgotten to lay any eggs in the queen-cells? They’d have to get on without one then, wouldn’t they?’
‘Not a bit of it. They’d simply take the eggs out of the ordinary cells, put them in the queen-cells, and turn them into queens.’
‘Well, as soon as the eggs became larvae the nurses would feed them on special milk called royal jelly, which comes from a gland in their head. You couldn’t help turning into a queen, could you, if you were fed on royal jelly?’
‘No,’ said Bridget doubtfully, for she thought it sounded almost too simple.
‘Look! The queen will be out soon.’ One of the guards was scraping at a royal cell to make the wall thinner, while from inside came the tiny sound of the young queen gnawing her way out. Presently she appeared: she was larger and prettier, of course, than the other babies; her sting was curved, and she had no pockets on her legs, for she would never have to do such a humble job as pollen-gathering. There was a great shout of ‘The queen! The queen!’ as nurses and guards crowded forward to caress her and to pay their respects.
‘How lovely she is!’ whispered Bridget. ‘She looks so beautiful that she ought to live for ever.’
‘She’ll live for three or four years,’ said Ginger Pop. ‘Much longer than the workers, who die in six or seven weeks.’
‘Poor little things,’ said Bridget. ‘I wish they didn’t work so hard.’
‘They’d probably die of boredom if they didn’t,’ said Ginger Pop. ‘A short life and a busy one, that’s their motto. Oh dear, oh dear, that young queen is fighting already. What jealous creatures queens are, to be sure!’
‘Why, who can she want to fight with?’
‘Well, you see, there’s only room for one queen at a time in a hive; so as soon as a young queen is born she goes round the royal cells and stings all the other royal babies to death.’
‘How horrible of her!’ cried Bridget with tears in her eyes.
‘Oh, well, it’s all for the good of the hive. But occasionally it happens that two baby queens hatch out at the same moment, and when they meet each other, that’s when the fur begins to fly. I’m afraid that’s what must have happened this time.’
It certainly had. When Bridget and Ginger Pop managed to push their way through the crowd they saw two young queens engaged in a life-and-death struggle. They were jumping round and round, banging their heads together, stabbing at each other with their stings and altogether behaving in a most savage and undignified manner. Bridget was deeply shocked; her opinion of queen-bees fell with a bump. But she could not help being a little bit glad when the smaller of the two queens—the one they had seen hatching out—won the battle, and the larger one fell down dead.
‘I’m glad our one wasn’t killed, anyhow,’ said Bridget. ‘And please, Ginger Pop, I think I ought to be getting home now.’
‘All right. Make your curtsey to the queen and come along.’
Bridget curtseyed, Ginger Pop bowed, and they both backed out of the hive.
‘Well,’ said Ginger Pop as they flew homewards across the flowery meadows, ‘do you like bees any better than you did?’
‘I’m all in a muddle,’ Bridget confessed after a minute or two’s thought. ‘Some bits I liked and some I didn’t. I hated the queens fighting and the drones having to be killed and the way they treat each other when they’re ill or hurt. But I liked them looking after the babies so well and being so fond of their queen; and I loved the swarming and the wax-making and the bags of pollen and the propolis and the golden curtain—oh, I think the golden curtain was the loveliest thing of all!’
‘So do I,’ agreed Ginger Pop. ‘But you’ve got to remember this about bees: they think that the most important thing in the world is their work. Nothing matters to them except making more honey to feed more bees to make more honey to feed more bees to make more honey—’
‘Stop!’ cried Bridget. ‘You’re making me feel quite giddy.’
‘Well, to cut a long story short, they believe that the hive is more important than the people who live in it, and they’ll sacrifice anything or anybody, themselves or each other, for the good of the hive.’
‘And are they right to do that?’ Bridget asked.
‘That’s as may be,’ said Ginger Pop. ‘But if they didn’t, you’d never have honey to eat.’
And at that moment they came down to earth at Bridget’s garden gate; only of course it looked to her as though it was the gate of a giant’s castle, made of enormous oak beams. So Ginger Pop clapped his hands nine times, turned nine forward somersaults and nine backward ones—and immediately the beams shrank into ordinary wooden bars again, and Bridget was an ordinary little girl about four feet high.
‘Oh!’ she sighed. ‘How I wish I could have kept my wings!’
‘They’d be too small for you now,’ said Ginger Pop’s voice; but when she turned to look at him he was nowhere to be seen.
‘Ginger Pop!’ she cried. ‘Ginger Pop! Don’t go away—I haven’t said good-bye to you properly.’
But all the answer that she got was her mother’s voice calling from inside the garden:
‘Bridget! Where have you been to, darling? Come along quick—there’s honey for tea.’
Project Gutenberg Australia