Nine Lectures on Bees – and Wasps and Ants

by Rudolf Steiner

A series of lectures for workmen on the First Goetheanum – GA 351

Lecture 6

Dornach, December 10, 1923.

HERR DOLLINGER asks a question about the honey comb. There are people who eat the wax as well as the honey, and in restaurants they used at times to serve honey in the comb. He would like to know if it was a bad thing to eat the comb.

As to the diseases of bees, he thinks these could not formerly have been as bad as they are today when the bees are over-exploited.

HERR MÜLLER said that eating comb-honey was an idiosyncrasy with some people. Naturally, these are the natural combs and not artificial ones. He does not think that bee diseases are the result of exploitation, but that formerly they were less considered. In those days there were not so many weak stocks and so one was not so much on the look out for them. A disease had appeared in Switzerland from England which had not been known in the past. Herr Erbsmehl thinks this may perhaps be owing to the use of artificial manures, even the flowers sicken as the result of this.


With regard to these two points, one might say it is quite true that the eating of honey-comb is a fancy with some people; the real question is whether it is good for them, and this can, unfortunately only be answered medically. It is only possible to answer this question when one is really able to observe these people who eat the honey-comb, thus the wax, from the point of view of their state of health. I have seen various people who eat the comb, but they always spat it out when they had sucked out the honey. I have not so far come across people who eat any considerable quantity of wax. One should take into consideration that people digest in very different ways, not everyone in the same way. There may be people who would get some kind of gastric trouble simply by eating the wax, and such persons should be advised not to take it. But there can also be people who are able to digest the wax without any trouble and get rid of the residue by excretion. With regard to these people one could certainly say that because they eat the wax with the honey, (thus leaving the honey as long as possible still in connection with the wax which has entered the body), the honey is digested more in the intestines, whereas otherwise it is not digested till it has left the intestines and has passed into the lymphatic vessels. It is a question of the state of health of the person concerned. There are people who digest more in the intestines, and others more in the lymphatic vessels; one cannot say that one way is better than the other, for one is just as good as the other. It depends on the individual. One could only speak with certainty if one took a number of people who eat honey in the comb, and others who eat it without the comb, and then investigated how these two matters are related.

With regard to bee-diseases the question is, as is usual in disease, namely, that we must take into account what Herr Müller has just said. It is so even with human beings that certain things were not much noticed formerly, whereas today they are most carefully studied. But here something essentially different comes in question. The bee-keeper of the past had really many good instincts: he did many things without being able to say just why he did them. Today these instincts no longer exist. Today people always want to know the reason why. To determine this why it is, however, necessary to study the whole matter very fundamentally. Modern knowledge is not as a rule in a position to do this.

You see, the bee-keeper of old had very good instincts as how to treat the bees, I should like to say, in quite a personal manner. For instance, you should consider that there is already a considerable difference between giving the bees the old straw skeps as in former days, and giving them wooden hives as one does today. Box-hives are made of wood, and wood is an entirely different substance to the straw of which the old skeps were made. Straw attracts quite other substances from the air than does wood, so we have already a difference in the external handling. When I add to this all the bee-keeper did in former times, and above all, the strong instincts he had to do them even if he did not always know the reason why, he would, for example, place his bee-hives on some chosen spot, where the wind would blow more often from one quarter or another, and so on. Today one sets the bee-hives wherever there is room for them, from reasons of convenience. The climatic elements are still considered, but no longer to the same degree.

HERR MÜLLER stated that he pays great attention to this; he places his hives on a ridge where they are sheltered from the north wind and the east wind, and so on.


In such matters wood is less sensitive than straw. I have no intention of agitating in favour of straw skeps; nevertheless differences do exist, and just such things as these certainly, very definitely, affect the bees with regard to their inner activities. A tremendous activity goes on in the body of the bee when it must first gather the nectar from the plants, and in absorbing it, transforms it. This is really an immense work. How does the bee accomplish it? It is accomplished through the quite special relationship between the two different fluids in the bee. One of these is the gastric juices and the other the blood-fluid. When you study the bee you find the whitish gastric juice and the reddish sap of the blood; these are the two main elements of which the bee is constituted, and all the other parts are arranged according to the workings of the gastric juice and the blood. The main point then is this definite proportion between these two fluids; they differ very considerably in themselves. The gastric juice is what one calls acid in chemistry, and the blood sap is chemically called alkaline, which means that it is not acid though it can be made so; in itself it is however, not acid. When the pepsin is insufficiently acid, something takes place within the bee which greatly disturbs its inner organism in the honey-producing process. The blood sap is only kept sufficiently strong when the necessary climatic conditions of light and warmth, etc., are present.

It will therefore be very important to take the right means of establishing the proper balance between the gastric fluid and the blood if one is to overcome the many diseases which have recently appeared among the bees. As bee-keeping can no longer be carried on as in past days, it is no longer possible to arrive at preventive methods through climatic conditions of warmth, etc., for these are no longer able to work so effectively upon the stocks of bees today; one will have to discover what will be able to work most favourably on the blood sap of the bee. It will be necessary in the future that bee-keepers take special care that the blood sap of the bee is rightly provided for. The following is important: you all know that there are years when the bees are obliged to get nectar almost exclusively from trees. In such seasons the composition of the blood sap is endangered, and the bees are much more liable to disease than at other times. It will be necessary in the future that the bee-keeper even contrives a small green-house — it need not be a large one — in which he can cultivate those plants which the bees not only like, but must have at certain times of the year. It will be necessary to have at least some small plot of flowers for the bees especially, for instance in the month of May. They will not fail to discover them for themselves whenever the plants they need have failed elsewhere. By this special cultivation of the necessary plants in the neighbourhood of the hives it will be possible to combat these diseases. These are methods I can recommend; I am giving only indications, but they will most certainly prove satisfactory for they are derived from a knowledge of bee-keeping, If they are put to the test you will find that one day they will bear very good fruit for the bee-keeper, for he will find that the diseases of bees can be prevented by these means. But if one is to proceed in a practical way all the connections mentioned above must be taken into account. I have no wish to make assertions; I only wish to say that these things arise out of the whole nature of the bees, and that it would be well to make experiments with especially cultivated plants in seasons when those most needed have failed, either partially or altogether. It should be possible in this way to considerably improve the health of the bees. I am myself quite convinced that these methods will prove successful when one is able to enter once again into these questions with a true understanding of nature. You see, it is not possible to go back to the old methods of bee-keeping. Just as little as there is any need to be reactionary in the realms of politics, or of life, is there any necessity to be a reactionary in any other domain. One must move with the times; but what really matters is that while we leave the old methods we are careful to balance this by something which will replace what we have lost. This is essential.

HERR MÜLLER stated that bee-keepers were already working in the direction of the special cultivation of certain plants. For example, the yellow crocus, which is grown in large quantities for the bees; other plants were cultivated also with similar small yellow blossoms. Indeed, more than this, for a large amount of American clover is now planted; a clover which grows six feet in height and flowers the whole year round. It is cut only in the autumn; till then the blossom is left for the bees. This might also be necessary perhaps?


Certainly, such things are no doubt done, but as a rule the right connections are not known. What Herr Müller had mentioned at first, was excellent and should be continued, but with regard to the American clover that flowers all the year round, this will in future be avoided, for this plant cannot bring about any improvement at all in the blood-sap of the bees; it acts only as a stimulant, and for a very short time. It is very much the same as trying to cure a man with alcohol, the bees are stimulated to more activity for a certain time. The very greatest care should really be taken today not to grow plants for the bees that are totally foreign to them; bees in their whole organic nature are bound up with a particular country. This is very evident, for the bees from different parts of the world differ widely from one another. There is, for instance, the mid-European bee already referred to here, the common domestic bee. The Italian bee again is quite unlike the Spanish bee, and so on. Bees are most strongly bound by their habits to their native country, and one cannot help them in any real way by giving them the nectar or honey belonging to entirely different countries. They have then, so much work to do in their own bodies that there are great disturbances there; the bees are forced to try and adapt themselves, to make their organisation as much as possible like that of the bees over there, in those countries where the clover comes from. Hard facts will prove in time that though such methods may appear successful for a few years, disastrous results will follow. It is quite true as has been said, that so far there are no definite indications of this, but it will none the less occur, and then people must abandon all such methods, or continue them as was done in the case of the vines. You will remember that in the seventies or eighties, phyloxera appeared and is destroying the vineyards of Europe, over immense areas. At the time I was able to study this matter, as I had a very good friend who was a farmer, and who also edited an agricultural paper, and gave much attention to this whole problem. People began to wonder why the American vine appeared immune to this disease. But what did it all amount to? It amounted to this, that the remedies by which the disease could be got rid of with the American vine, could not be used with the same result on the European vine. The consequence was, that even when everyone began to cultivate the American vine, they could succeed in keeping it in health, whereas the European vines died out. The cultivation of the European vine had to be given up altogether; the whole cultivation of the vineyards was Americanised, and everything has been completely changed. This has happened in many places. To think in this mechanical manner is valueless; one must be quite clear that things through their whole nature may be bound up with definite localities, and this fact must be taken into account. Otherwise though some temporary success may follow, it cannot be permanent.

Are there any other questions you would like to ask? Or are all you gentlemen content to eat honey without so much discussion about it? Perhaps some question may occur to one or another of you.

Meanwhile, I should like to say something quite briefly about the nature of this honey-making process of the bees. It is something so really wonderful that there should be these tiny little creatures that are able to transform what they have gathered from the flowers or plants in general, into the honey which is so health-giving, and which should really play a far greater part in the nourishment of men and women today. It is not realised how important the consumption of honey actually is. For example, if it were possible to influence the social medicine of today, it would be discovered that if people about to be married would eat honey as a preparation for the future, they would not have rickety children. Honey when assimilated can affect the reproductive processes, and greatly influence the building up of the body of the child. The consumption of honey by the parents, and above all by the prospective mother, works especially into the bony structure of the child. Results such as this will appear when these questions are considered in their essential aspects. In the place of the trivialities put forward in scientific journals today, it will be asked, when once we have some real knowledge of these things: “What is it best to eat at this or that time of life?” “What is best at another time of life?” Indeed, gentlemen, this will be of immense value, for the general state of health will then essentially improve, and more especially will this affect a man's vitality. Today people attach very little value to such matters. Those whose children do not suffer from rickets are naturally very pleased, but they do not think very much about it, it is taken as a matter of course. Only those complain whose children are born with rickets. It is just in the case of such most valuable social and medical methods that people remain indifferent, for it is generally taken for granted that such measures are concerned merely with what they regard as a normal condition. They have first to be persuaded that this is not the case. It should, however, be recognised that extremely favourable results would appear in this direction, and I am sure that if it could in this way be realised that through spiritual science it is possible to arrive at such conclusions, people would begin to look towards the things of the spirit. They would do this to a far greater extent than at present, when they are only told to pray that this or that may happen. Truly, gentlemen, these things which can be learnt by the spirit, and which modern science ignores, are such that one is able to know that during the times of betrothal and pregnancy, honey can be of inestimable value.

I have just said that it is a most wonderful thing that the bee should be able to gather substances from the storehouse of nature and then transform them into this honey which is of so great value to human life. You will best understand on what the origin of honey actually rests if I describe to you the sane process in the quite different form in which it appears in those relatives of the bees, if I may call them so, the wasps.

The wasps do not provide man with honey, but they prepare a substance that can be made use of medicinally, though of a very different kind to that prepared for us by the bees. In the next lecture I will also speak about the ants, but first, will we consider a certain species of wasp. There are wasps that have the peculiarity that they do not deposit their eggs at random, but place them on plants or on the leaves or bark of trees, even into the blossoms of trees. [Drawing on the blackboard.] Here for example is the branch, here an oak-leaf, and the wasp with its ovipositor which is hollow, (the sting would be here) lays its egg in the oak-leaf, or in some other part of a plant. What then happens? Where the egg has been placed the whole surrounding tissue of the leaf is changed; the leaf would have been quite different if the egg had not been laid there. Very good, let us now see what has happened.

The whole growth of the plant has been affected, and protruding from the leaf, entirely surrounding the little wasp-egg, we find the so-called gall-nut or gall-apple, those little brownish coloured nuts or apples so often seen on trees. They are there because a wasp deposited an egg at this spot, and all round the egg there is this metamorphosed plant-substance which entirely envelops it. The wasp egg would perish if it were laid in any other place; it can only exist and develop because this protective substance encloses it which the gall-wasp steals from the plant. The wasp robs the plant of this substance. You see, the bee lays its egg in the cells of the comb; the larvae develop and emerge as bees, which in their turn steal the substance of the plant, and elaborate it within themselves. The wasp does this at an earlier stage, for in the depositing of the egg the wasp already takes from the plant the substance it needs. The bee, as it were, waits a little longer, the wasp does it earlier. In the case of the higher animals, and with man, the egg is already surrounded with a protecting sheath within the body of the mother. In this instance what the wasp has to take from the plant is provided by the mother. This gall-nut is simply built up from the substance of the plant, just as the chorion is formed as a sheath round the egg in the body of the mother, and is ejected later with the after-birth. You see how close is the relationship between the wasp and the plant. In districts especially rich in wasps one can find trees almost entirely covered with these galls. The wasp lives with the trees; it depends on them, for its eggs would never develop if it could not procure this protective covering from the different trees or plants. These galls have very many and various forms, there are some which do not look like small apples, but are interwoven and hairy, but everywhere the small germ of the wasp is in the centre. At times these galls look like shaggy little nuts. We see how close is the relationship between the wasps and the plants with which they share their existence.

When the wasp has matured, it eats its way with its sharp jaws out of the gall-nut, and emerges as a wasp, and after a period of living in the outer world lays its eggs on a leaf or the bark of a tree; the egg and larval stages are always passed through as a living together with the plants.

Well, gentlemen, you may perhaps say — what has all this to do with the production of honey? It has actually a great deal to do with it, for when such things are observed in the right way one learns to know how the honey was first prepared in nature, and we find once more an instance of how the instinctive knowledge of the people in older times took these things into account.

Perhaps some of you know that in the south, and more especially in Greece, the cultivation of fig trees is of much importance. These are the so-called wild figs which are certainly rather sweet, but there are people with a still sweeter tooth, who wish to have fig trees that bear still sweeter figs than those of the wild trees. What do these people do?

Now just imagine you have a wild fig tree; this wild fig tree is a special favourite with a certain kind of wasp which lays its eggs upon it. Let us picture this tree, and on its branches a wild fig into which the wasp inserts its egg. Now the grower of the figs is in his way a clever fellow; he lets the wasps lay their eggs in the wild figs which he cultivates just for this very purpose. Later this fellow gathers two of these figs, just at the moment when the wasp eggs are not quite fully developed, when the wasps are not yet ready to creep out, and he takes a reed and ties the two figs together so that they are held firmly. And now he goes to a fig tree that he wants to improve, and he hangs the two figs he has tied together, and within which are the eggs of the wasp not yet fully developed, and binds them on to the fig-tree which he wishes to sweeten. And now the following happens: the wasps within the figs feel that something has happened, for the figs which were gathered now begin to dry up, for they are no longer supplied with the sap of the tree, and get very dry. The immature wasp inside senses this, even the egg is aware of it, and the result is that the wasp is in a terrible hurry to come out of the fig. The grower always starts this process in the spring; he first lets the wasp lay its eggs, and in the month of May he quickly gathers the two figs and carries out his plan. The little creature inside thinks, now I must hurry up, now the time has come when the figs dry up. In a terrible hurry the wasp emerges much earlier than it would otherwise have done. If the fig had remained where it was before, it would only have crept out in the late summer; now it must creep out in the early summer with the result that there is a second brood. It lays eggs in the summer which would otherwise have been laid in the following spring. Now these late eggs which are deposited on the tree that is to be further cultivated, do not reach full maturity, they only develop to a certain stage. The result of this is, that those figs into which the second brood has been placed become twice as sweet as the wild figs. This is the method of improving the figs, of making them twice as sweet.

What has actually happened here? The wasps, which though they differ from the bees are yet related to them, the wasps take just that substance from the plant which is on the way to become honey. If in the clever way of the cultivator of the fig trees, the figs of the wild tree containing the eggs of the wasp are thrown up and tied so that they remain hanging up there, and if one then is clever enough to induce the wasps to weave again into the tree what they have taken from the other tree, then honey in the form of sweetness is, as it were, filtered into these grafted fig-trees; it enters into the figs in the form of sweetness because the wasps have prepared it in an extremely fine state of dilution; Nature itself has brought it about in an indirect way.

You see, gentlemen, nothing has been taken away from Nature, the essence of the honey remains within Nature. The wasp cannot prepare the honey in the way the bee does, for its organisation is not adapted to this. But when, by this by-path, it is compelled during the stages of its growth, to carry the sweetness of the honey from one fig-tree to another, the sweetness of the grafted figs can be increased; a kind of honey-substance is then within them.

You see, gentlemen, we arrive here at something very interesting. It seems that these wasps have a body which is unable to gather the nectar, the honey-substance from Nature, and transform it into honey within itself. But man can bring it about that from one fig-tree to another a kind of honey-making takes place. The bee is therefore a creature that develops a wasp-like body so much further that it is able to accomplish this quite apart from the trees; in the case of the wasp the process must be left within the tree itself. So we must say: the bee retains within itself more of that force which the wasp only possesses at a very young stage, as long, that is, as it is in the egg, or larval state. When the wasp develops further it loses the power of producing honey; the bee retains it and can make use of it as a fully matured creature.

Just think, gentlemen, what it signifies that one can in this way look into Nature's processes, and can say to oneself: within the plants there is concealed this honey, this substance that tends towards sugar-sweetness. It is there; it shows itself, if only one follows the right path; one has only to assist Nature by seeing that the wasp comes at the right moment to the tree that is to be improved.

Here, in our country such things cannot be done, it is no longer possible today. There was once a time in the evolution of the earth when from the wasps, which as long as 2,000 years ago, and indeed, still today, could be persuaded by some clever fellow to produce a second brood as I have described. These wasps crept out and were given the opportunity of laying their eggs in the figs, which were then again and again gathered. Thus, in the course of time, it was possible that bees could be developed from these wasps.

The bee is a creature which in very ancient times was developed from the wasp. Today one can still see that it is by means of an animal activity, namely that of the wasps, that honey is first prepared in the realms of nature.

So now, you can also understand how closely related to this is the fact that the bees place their honey in the cells of the honey-comb. This comb consists mainly of wax, and wax is not only necessary in order that the bees may deposit their honey there, for the bee can only produce honey when its whole organism is active in the right way. It must therefore secrete wax.

The second fig tree in which sweetness arises of itself, is also richer in wax than the wild tree. It differs especially from the wild tree in that it is richer in wax. Nature has herself increased the wax so that the cultivated figs, the sweetened figs, grow on a tree which in a certain way, Nature has made richer in wax.

You can already see here a model, as it were, for what appears in bee-keeping.

If you now go to work very carefully, and make a cross-section from the trunk of the cultivated fig tree, you will find, if you look carefully, patterns just like the wax cells of the comb. Within the tree-trunk you find certain growths similar to the honey cells, formed from the precipitated wax of the tree. The tree that is richer in wax uses it in a kind of honey-cell formation.

So we can say: when we study this special cultivation of the fig trees we discover a kind of honey production in Nature that has not yet appeared openly, for the honey remains within the figs. The bees, if I may so express it, bring out into the open what remains still within Nature in the sweetened figs. Thus, what would otherwise have remained within the tree-trunk, forming there these natural cells, which are only less definite, less substantial than the bee cells, and fade away again, this whole wax and honey-making process is driven up into the figs, so that Nature is herself a bee-keeper. The bees have drawn it forth from Nature and have these processes within themselves.

What does the bee then do? The bee deposits its eggs within the hive, and the egg matures there. It does not need to change the substance into a gall-apple, it takes the nectar directly from the plants, neither does the bee need to go to the tree that is richer in wax, for she accomplishes in herself what takes place in the tree-trunk, and deposits in the comb the juices of the plant which she transforms into honey, which in the case of the cultivated tree, remains in the juices of the fig. One can say that what in Nature lies concealed in the tree through the wasps, now happens outwardly, and it becomes clear what it really is that we have before us, when we look into the hive with its marvellously built comb of waxen cells. It is indeed, gentlemen, a wonderful sight, is it not Herr Müller? A wonderful sight is the artistic construction of these waxen cells with the honey within them.

You have only to look at it gentlemen, and you will say to yourselves — the bees with their waxen combs really show us a kind of artistically formed tree-trunk with its many branches. The bee does not need to go to the tree to lay her eggs there, but they build for themselves a kind of picture of a tree, and in the place of the figs growing there, she puts honey into the finished cells. We find, as it were, a copy of the artificially cultivated fig tree which the bees have made.

Truly, gentlemen, this is to look into the very heart of Nature, and realise what can be learnt from her. Men have yet to learn much from Nature, but for this they must first learn to recognise the spiritual in Nature. Without this recognition of the spirit in Nature, one merely stands and gapes, and should one journey to the south and see how those clever fellows there tie the figs together, the figs pierced by the wasps, and throw then up into the trees and bind and fix them there we shall gape as tourists do, even when they are scientific gentlemen, and not know what to make of it, They do not know that he saves the bees their labour, for Nature will put the honey into the figs for him.

In those countries where figs are plentiful, they are as health-giving as honey, for it is honey at an earlier stage of development that is already in the figs. You see, these are things which we ought to know if we are to discuss a matter of such importance as bee-keeping. I believe that by such means we shall in time arrive at points of view of true value.

Thanks to the Rudolf Steiner Archive

Continued in the next issue of SCR