image via Journey Round My Skull
In honor of the 4th annual celebration of Pollinator Week, we bring you an excerpt from Ernst Jünger's prescient novel, The Glass Bees. In this section, the book's narrator, called to a job interview at the house of industrialist/entertainer Zapparoni (imagine Walt Disney with a sideline in weapons of mass destruction), notices an odd buzz in the air.
(Jünger, by the way, fought during World War I, and died only in 1998—he saw some action during the Second World War as well, and a little later, in hanging out with Albert Hofmann, the inventor of LSD.)
The bees seemed to have finished their siesta; the air was filled with their humming. They were searching for food in the meadow, sweeping in clouds over the foaming flood of whiteness which stood high over the grass, or dipping into its colorful depth. They hung in clusters on the white jasmine which bordered the path; and out of the blossoming maple beside the pavilion their swarming sounded as if it came from the interior of some huge bell which reverberates for a long time after its midday peal. There was no lack of blossoms; it was one of those years when beekeepers say that “the fenceposts give honey.”
And yet there was something strange in these peaceful activities.... As I sat there, watching the swarms, I sometimes saw creatures flying past which seemed to differ in an odd way from the usual types. I can rely on my eyesight: I have tested it—and not only when hunting game birds. Now, it wasn’t difficult for me to follow one of these creatures until it descended upon a flower. Then I saw, with the help of my field glasses, that I had not been deceived.Although, as I said before, I know only a few insects, I at once had the impression of something undreamed-of, something extremely bizarre—the impression, let us say, of an insect from the moon. A demiurge from a distant realm, who had once heard of bees, might have created it.
I had plenty of time to examine this creature, and similar ones were now arriving from all directions like workmen at the gate of a factory when a siren blows. At first I was struck by the large size of these bees. Although they were not as big as those which Gulliver met in Brobdingnag—he defended himself against them with his little sword—they were considerably larger than a normal bee or even a hornet. They were about the size of a walnut still encased in its green shell. The wings were not movable like the wings of birds or insects, but were arranged around their bodies in a rigid band, and acted as stabilizing and supporting surfaces.Their large size was less striking than one might think, since they were completely transparent. Indeed, my idea of them was derived mainly from the glitter of their movements as seen in the sunlight. When the creature I now watched hovered before the blossom of a convolvulus whose calyx it tapped with a tongue shaped like a glass probe, it was almost invisible.
This sight fascinated me to such a degree that I forgot time and place. We are gripped by a similar astonishment when we see a machine which reveals a new concept in form and function. Suppose that a person from the early nineteenth century could be transported magically to one of our traffic intersections: for a moment the confusion and hurry would fill him with bewilderment, but after a short interval of perplexity, a certain understanding—some vague notion of the principles involved—would dawn upon him. He would see, for example, the difference between motorcycles, passenger cars, and trucks.
Time passed quickly while I feasted my eyes on this spectacle. Little by little I began to grasp the construction of the system. The beehives were placed in one long row along the wall. Some of them showed the customary shape; others were transparent and apparently made from the same material as the bees. The old hives were inhabited by natural bees, which served perhaps as a measure of the magnitude of Zapparoni’s triumph over nature. He had certainly seen to it that calculations were made of the quantity of nectar which one colony of bees gathered per day, hour, and second. Then he had installed this colony next to the automatons.
I had the impression that he had upset these little natural bees with their antediluvian economic system, because I frequently saw one of them approach a blossom which had been previously touched by a competitor of glass and immediately fly away. If, on the other hand, a true bee had sucked first from the calyx, at least a dessert remained. It would seem, then, that Zapparoni’s creatures proceeded more economically; that is, they drained the flower more thoroughly. Or, could it be that the vital force of the flowers was exhausted after they had been touched by the glass probe?
In any case, to all appearances here was another of Zapparoni’s fantastic inventions. I now saw that the comings and goings near the glass hives betrayed a high degree of methodical planning. It has taken centuries, I believe, to discover the secret of the bees. But I gained a definite notion of Zapparoni’s invention after having watched it from my chair for scarcely an hour.