from Better Homes and Gardens
Our Friends, the Bees
by Ellis Parker Butler
Who creates beauty?
What I was thinking was that, perhaps, when you come right down to facts, the people who don't know they are doing it are the people who really create the beauty of this world while they are going about their regular jobs and attending strictly to their own business. Like the bee, you understand -- and never suspecting it. I don't have to narrow this down to the seedsman who works in his office or his field as a strictly business proposition but who, in order to sell more seeds, creates new and finer flowers and fruits. He does that, as everyone knows. But what I want to do is give the bee idea a broader slant. I want to suggest that the man who goes about his own affairs as the bee does -- maybe selling shoes or plowing corn -- and the woman who goes about her own business, whatever it is, are the bees who pollinize the world without knowing it.
I now have a radio outfit in my house and every night there are talks on "Dahlias and How to Grow Them," or "The Perennial Garden," or "Grass is Immortal." Which makes me think of the seed catalog, that interesting piece of literature that is now arriving by every mail. What I have in mind is that if I were publishing a seed catalog, and if it were the custom to print a dedication in the seed catalog as it is to print one in other books, I know what dedication I would print in my catalog. I would print "To Friend Bee, without whom this catalog would not have been possible."
Over in Russia somewhere, this spring, some millions of peasants who will only be alive next year if they get their seed grain this spring, are probably saying "Thank God for the camel!" because the railroads are out of commission and the grain has to come in on camelback, but I doubt if either the Russian peasant or the American seedsman ever thinks of thanking anyone for the bee, but if the little zipper with the stinger in the rear did not buzz around mighty lively there would be no seed grain for those peasants, and there would be mighty little interesting stuff in the seed catalog. If the bee did not zoom forth to steal an abdomen load of honey, and thereby fuss around the flowers of the world -- whether wheat or marigold -- and fumble around and pollinize the flowers, there would be no seeds. A good many paper-makers would lose the job of making paper for the seed packets and catalogs, a good many printers and proofreaders and lithographers would be out of work, and who can count the number of seedsmen and seedsmen's helpers who would be thrown out into a chilly world? I suppose the whole crowd would have to go to Holland and grow bulbs. They would almost sink that little country and, besides, who would buy all the bulbs?
I can speak flatteringly of the bee without having anyone think I am in cahoots with the bee and trying to boom our mutual business, because the bee and I are not in partnership. I don't grow much but tulips, and the tulips I plant don't need the bee -- I buy them ready bulbed, so to speak. The bees do come and do contortionist stunts in my tulips, but as far as I am concerned they merely supply me with a little light amusement -- a sort of insect acrobatic vaudeville show -- and many a bee has shown me actual enmity, sitting down on my hand with its hot-poker end and causing me to yip suddenly. If I speak of the bee in terms of praise it is because I admire the bee and not because we sleep in the same bed. As a matter of fact the bee is one of the bedfellows I do not care for. I would almost as soon sleep with a wasp, if you would call it sleeping.
But what I wanted to say about the bee was not that it deserves to be made the crest of the coat-of-arms of the Amalgamated Seedgrowers' Association of the World, or to have all the seed catalogs dedicated to it. It deserves all that, of course. And I did not stick this paper in my typewriter to say that as a producer of honey the bee is almost as successful as the glucose factory. I give the bee its due credit for its honey, but we will let that pass. And neither did I sit down to hurrah about the industry and busy habits of the bee. The bee is, I admit, a cheerful little worker. It improves each sunny hour. It gets up early in the spring and goes out into the cold air and freezes stiff and falls in the brook and gets itself eaten by the hungry little fishes, and it stays out so late in the fall that its blood coagulates and it is found walking around in circles and falling over dead with its legs in the air. Early and late the bee works, until -- honestly -- I sometimes think it has gone crazy on the work proposition. I doubt if any really sane insect would put in such long hours and so many of them. The bee has a mania for the busy business: it seems to be insane on that subject. I think the bee would live longer if it got up a labor union and insisted on union hours.
The thing that came to my mind, and which seemed so important that I felt I must shout it to a waiting world, was the fact that this poor insect -- the bee -- makes possible all the flower seeds and vegetable seeds and grain seeds, and all the apples and oranges and grapes and other fruits, and all the grain and bread, without knowing in the least that it is doing so.
As a matter of fact I don't suppose we could live on earth without the bee; there would not be enough grain to eat, or enough corn to feed the cattle, and we would starve. There could not be any more weddings, because there would be no more orange blossoms for the bride to wear in her hair.
All the beauty of the gardens would be gone, because there would be no seeding of the flowers. And the only thing that keeps all that desolation from coming to pass is this notion the bee has that it has to work overtime at its job and poke into every blossom to see that every possible drop of honey is gathered.
The next time you look at a fine many-colored garden it will not do you a bit of harm to think that it would not be there if the bee had not got a hunch -- away back toward the time of the creation -- that it had to work its head off trying to put in twenty-eight hours of labor every twenty-four hours, with only ten or twelve working hours each day at its disposal.
When John Bee -- known in the hive as Worker No. 5436 -- tightens up his belt in the morning and goes forth to hard labor he does not care a cent for making the world beautiful with flowers. His job is to hustle like a slave and bring home some honey and some pollen. He has not the least notion in his head that he is going to pollinize any blossoms. He doesn't know what pollinizing means. He doesn't know that flowers have to be pollinized in order to produce fruit and seed. He thinks it is a confounded nuisance that he has to tumble around in the cup of the bluebell and crowd uncomfortably between a lot of annoying stamens and pistils to get at the honey he wants. His idea of a lovely world would be a world with honey juice in one saucer and a little first-class pollen in another, and both of them placed about three feet from the door of the hive. If questioned he would probably say this:
"I don't mind saying for publication that if I had been consulted the flowers would have been much better made. As they are now constructed they waste a busy man's time. A great many of the blossoms are unnecessarily long and narrow; I waste a lot of time climbing down into them and climbing up out of them. The average flower has too much pollen and not enough honey, and that's a mistake. When I go into a flower I must simply wallow in pollen -- sometimes I get my coat so yellow I look like an orange. That's an awful waste of pollen; I don't need one-hundredth of it. And then, too, I cannot imagine why a sticky headed pistil has to be stuck in every flower -- sometimes a dozen in one flower, and right in the middle of it where a fellow has to maul all over it, too! If I ever get the job of making the flowers I'll leave out every pistil, for they are a detriment and of no use to any bee that ever lived. And, then, consider the short life of the flowers; that's another disadvantage. A flower no sooner opens than it withers and turns into a lot of miserably hard seeds or ungainly fat apples or one thing or another that are of no value to any bee. Yes, sir, you say for me that to an industrious bee, who has nothing in mind but laying up a store of honey and preparing a proper welcome for the queen's children, the whole flower system is an annoyance. What we need in this country is a new political party that will do away with all this pistil and stamen nonsense and eliminate the seed and fruit handicap and give us a few permanent flowers that will remain flowers. What we want is not all this color and variety nonsense -- we want honey!"
"But how about pollinizing the flowers?"
"I don't know what you are talking about. I'm Mr. Bee; perhaps you've got ahold of the wrong party?"
"No, I have not. I was sent here to interview you on the pollinization of flowers. My editor said you were the great pollinizer. He said you pollinized nine-tenths of the flowers."
"Some mistake," the bee would say, shaking his head. "You've got the wrong tip, somehow. I don't pollinize any flowers. Never pollinized a flower in my life as far as I know. I just work and attend to my own business and let it go at that."
But I'm sure my editor said it was Mr. Bee who was responsible for the creation and continuation of all the fruits and grains and flowers, for half the beauty of the world, for its gardens --"
"No, I'm not the man," the bee would say. "I don't create or continue any beauty -- I stick to my job of work. But -- hold on! Are you sure he said 'Mr. Bee?' Didn't he say 'Mr. B?' That must be it; he must have meant Mr. Bird, or Mr. Biped, or Mr. Blue-nosed-ape. I never created any beauty; I work; I stick to my job."
The reporter would probably go away puzzled and perplexed, and Mr. Bee (Worker No. 5436) would sit back and say:
"Funny the nonsense some people get into their heads! Me pollinize! Me create beauty! Common everyday work is my job!"
What I was thinking was that, perhaps, when you come right down to facts, the people who don't know they are doing it are the people who really create the beauty of this world while they are going about their regular jobs and attending strictly to their own business. Like the bee, you understand -- and never suspecting it. I don't have to narrow this down to the seedsman, who works in his office or his field as a strictly business proposition but who, in order to sell more seeds, creates new and finer flowers and fruits. He does that, as everyone knows. But what I want to do is to give the bee idea a broader slant. I want to suggest that the man who goes about his own affairs as the bee does -- maybe selling shoes or plowing corn -- and the woman who goes about her own business, whatever it is, are the bees who pollinize the world without knowing it.
Musicians and authors and artists and philosophers and dramatists and inventors and all such are fine flowers -- when they are fine flowers -- but I doubt if they would ever come to seed and fruit without something else. The bees among the people, going to and fro on their regular jobs, are what keep things going. A man sells shoes and he has no notion that he is the pollinizing bee that makes possible a great book, but when he has his nose close to his own job he gets paid for his work, and he buys a magazine with a few cents, and the magazine buys some fellow's story, and the fellow takes part of the money and puts it away -- his honey-store -- and lives on it while he writes the great book. And then, if you visited the shoe salesman, and interviewed him regarding his part in creating that book, he would answer as the bee did.
"I pollinize that book? I make that book possible? Nonsense! Why, man, I'm tied down to my job here ten hours a day. I don't know what you are talking about!"
That's putting it rather crudely, I admit, but you see what I mean. Literature and the arts and the sciences and the beautiful things could get nowhere but for the bee-people. The fine and great things of the world could no more exist without the steady-going mind-my-own business pollinizers than the flowers in your garden can come to fruit and seed without the bee. It makes no difference that the bee does not know he is doing what he is doing, and it makes no difference that the do-my-work-as-I-find-it man or woman does not know he or she is doing any such job, for the fact remains.
I can imagine the look of surprise of some man -- say the teller of a bank in Kankakee -- if he opened a book written by the Walter Scott or Thackeray of today and saw on one of the first pages: "Dedicated to John Smith of Kankakee, without whose faithful day-by-day work this novel would have been impossible." But, as I said, the bee would feel the same amazement if the seedsman's catalog were dedicated to the bee. As it ought to be.