The Mother Hive

(notes edited by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)


First published in Collier’s Weekly in the United States of America on 28 November 1908, and in the Windsor Magazine for December 1908 in the United Kingdom as “Adventures of Melissa” ( Norman Page, p.109). It was collected in Actions and Reactions in 1909, where it was accompanied by the verses “The Bees and the Flies”.

It is included in the Sussex Edition (Volume VIII) Burwash Edition (Volume VIII) and Scribners’ Edition (Volume XXIV) , was first entitled “The Adventures of Melissa” and was accompanied in Collier’s by a four-line verse beginning:

And since bees share with man one common fate
[from Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s Georgics IV, 366-369].

The story

This is one of Kipling’s political fables, in which he preaches the need for steadfast disciplined defence against false ‘progressive’ ideas which endanger the very existence of the realm.

A beehive is humming with purposeful activity, with all the bees doing their duty. The myriad workers are gathering honey outside the hive, making wax, building the combs in careful hexagons, looking after the young grubs, and feeding the Queen. At the gate there are guards against interlopers. But, through a moment’s inattention, a Wax Moth slips into the hive, befriends the young bees with sweet insincere pledges of affection, persuades them that all this activity is unnecessary, and covertly lays her eggs.

Before long the new grubs are growing into ‘oddities’ rather than proper worker bees, and there are burrows through the combs, ruining the vital honey and killing the young grubs. The hive is wrecked, and before long the beekeepers themselves destroy the rotten combs in a fearsome ‘Day of Judgement’.

Fortunately a small group of loyal bees have secretly raised a new Queen, and swarm away with her to build anew, so all is not lost.


This tale reflects the fascination that bees have had for many writers, including Kipling. Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949), like Kipling a winner of the Nobel prize for Literature (in 1911), wrote La vie des abeilles translated as The Life of the Bee which is a classic.

ORG, unfortunately, has taken this flight of fancy rather too seriously, providing a wealth of information from the sizeable literature available. but a knowledge of bee-keeping is not required as sufficient information emerges as the story unfolds. Suffice it to say that bees appear to have a strong and effective work ethic, but that hives can be destroyed if they are invaded by Wax Moths.

Kipling became an enthusiastic bee-keeper at Bateman’s. (Charles Carrington, p. 407)

Some critical comments

Angus Wilson, in a chapter entitled “Folly and Misrule” discusses this and other animal fables underlining Kipling’s dislike of the Liberals and their policies (pp.247-8):

Here the menace to the British Imperial civilisation is not so much Tory old-guardism, as it had been when Balfour ruled in 1902. The new enemies were progressivism, liberal individualism, pacifism, cosmopolitanism, egalitarianism, little Englandism, class division – all the elements in the Liberal Government’s rule that worked against a cohesive, well-armed Empire ready both physically and psychologically to resist the growing German menace to the English world-civilising mission.

This corrupting enemy is represented in the fable by the Wax Moth, a deadly progressive female who enters the beehive, and, laying her eggs, sets up an internal rot. It is notable that this destructive stranger “dodged into a brood frame, where youngsters who had not seen the winds blow or the flowers nod, discussed life. Here she was safe, for young bees will tolerate any sort of stranger.” It is the susceptibility of the young to new ideas that allows the progressivist Wax Moth to spread her deadly eggs.

André Maurois (pseudonym of Emile Hertzog 1885-1967) French novelist and Honorary Vice-President of the Kipling Society, delivered a paper to the Society in 1934 which was published in KJ 30/12, and collected in 1971 in Kipling The Critical Heritage, Ed. R L Green (p. 380) :

Sentimental talk and its consequences is seen in the story “The Mother Hive”, the young bees become contemptuous of the other bees who respect the Law, feed the Queen Bee and have a healthy fear of the Wax-moth. All this ends in the loss of the stored honey and the ruin of the hive. But it would be inaccurate to say that Kipling is anti-liberal minded., For him, liberty is essentially the daughter of Discipline and Law.

See also “The Vortex” (A Diversity of Creatures) and the accompanying verse “ The Song of Seven Cities”; also “The Bees and the Flies”, and “The Bee-Boy’s Song.”

[J H McG/J.R]

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe  2006 All rights reserved