Excerpt from War & Peace

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Excerpt from War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy (1869), 145 years ago


Meanwhile Moscow was empty. There were still people in it, perhaps a
fiftieth part of its former inhabitants had remained, but it was empty.
It was empty in the sense that a dying queenless hive is empty.

In a queenless hive no life is left though to a superficial glance it
seems as much alive as other hives.

The bees circle round a queenless hive in the hot beams of the midday
sun as gaily as around the living hives; from a distance it smells of
honey like the others, and bees fly in and out in the same way. But one
has only to observe that hive to realize that there is no longer any
life in it. The bees do not fly in the same way, the smell and the sound
that meet the beekeeper are not the same. To the beekeeper’s tap on the
wall of the sick hive, instead of the former instant unanimous humming
of tens of thousands of bees with their abdomens threateningly
compressed, and producing by the rapid vibration of their wings an
aerial living sound, the only reply is a disconnected buzzing from
different parts of the deserted hive. From the alighting board, instead
of the former spirituous fragrant smell of honey and venom, and the warm
whiffs of crowded life, comes an odor of emptiness and decay mingling
with the smell of honey. There are no longer sentinels sounding the
alarm with their abdomens raised, and ready to die in defense of the
hive. There is no longer the measured quiet sound of throbbing activity,
like the sound of boiling water, but diverse discordant sounds of
disorder. In and out of the hive long black robber bees smeared with
honey fly timidly and shiftily. They do not sting, but crawl away from
danger. Formerly only bees laden with honey flew into the hive, and they
flew out empty; now they fly out laden. The beekeeper opens the lower
part of the hive and peers in. Instead of black, glossy bees–tamed by
toil, clinging to one another’s legs and drawing out the wax, with a
ceaseless hum of labor–that used to hang in long clusters down to the
floor of the hive, drowsy shriveled bees crawl about separately in
various directions on the floor and walls of the hive. Instead of a
neatly glued floor, swept by the bees with the fanning of their wings,
there is a floor littered with bits of wax, excrement, dying bees
scarcely moving their legs, and dead ones that have not been cleared

The beekeeper opens the upper part of the hive and examines the super.
Instead of serried rows of bees sealing up every gap in the combs and
keeping the brood warm, he sees the skillful complex structures of the
combs, but no longer in their former state of purity. All is neglected
and foul. Black robber bees are swiftly and stealthily prowling about
the combs, and the short home bees, shriveled and listless as if they
were old, creep slowly about without trying to hinder the robbers,
having lost all motive and all sense of life. Drones, bumblebees, wasps,
and butterflies knock awkwardly against the walls of the hive in their
flight. Here and there among the cells containing dead brood and honey
an angry buzzing can sometimes be heard. Here and there a couple of
bees, by force of habit and custom cleaning out the brood cells, with
efforts beyond their strength laboriously drag away a dead bee or
bumblebee without knowing why they do it. In another corner two old bees
are languidly fighting, or cleaning themselves, or feeding one another,
without themselves knowing whether they do it with friendly or hostile
intent. In a third place a crowd of bees, crushing one another, attack
some victim and fight and smother it, and the victim, enfeebled or
killed, drops from above slowly and lightly as a feather, among the heap
of corpses. The keeper opens the two center partitions to examine the
brood cells. In place of the former close dark circles formed by
thousands of bees sitting back to back and guarding the high mystery of
generation, he sees hundreds of dull, listless, and sleepy shells of
bees. They have almost all died unawares, sitting in the sanctuary they
had guarded and which is now no more. They reek of decay and death. Only
a few of them still move, rise, and feebly fly to settle on the enemy’s
hand, lacking the spirit to die stinging him; the rest are dead and fall
as lightly as fish scales. The beekeeper closes the hive, chalks a mark
on it, and when he has time tears out its contents and burns it clean.

So in the same way Moscow was empty when Napoleon, weary, uneasy, and
morose, paced up and down in front of the Kammer-Kollezski rampart,
awaiting what to his mind was a necessary, if but formal, observance of
the proprieties–a deputation.

In various corners of Moscow there still remained a few people aimlessly
moving about, following their old habits and hardly aware of what they
were doing.

When with due circumspection Napoleon was informed that Moscow was
empty, he looked angrily at his informant, turned away, and silently
continued to walk to and fro.

“My carriage!” he said.

He took his seat beside the aide-de-camp on duty and drove into the
suburb. “Moscow deserted!” he said to himself. “What an incredible

He did not drive into the town, but put up at an inn in the Dorogomilov

The coup de theatre had not come off.

This excerpt was sent to RPBBA from Harlan, which was sent to him from his dad, Art:

To: Harlan

From: Art

“You may want to share this with other beeks.  It was published 145 years ago, but the author has a keen eye and a way with words.  Interesting Leo Tolstoy would use a dying beehive to describe the evacuation of Moscow before Napoleon could reach it.”