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- Bramble-bees and Others - 40/47 -
establish themselves anywhere provided that certain conditions be fulfilled; but the others, the settlers, living in groups: do they recall their native village? Have they, like ourselves, a special affection for the place which saw their birth?
Yes, indeed they have: they remember, they recognize the maternal abode, they come back to it, they restore it, they colonize it anew. Among many other instances, let us quote that of the Zebra Halictus. She will show us a splendid example of love for one's birthplace translating itself into deeds.
The Halictus' spring family acquire the adult form in a couple of months or so; they leave the cells about the end of June. What goes on inside these neophytes as they cross the threshold of the burrow for the first time? Something, apparently, that may be compared with our own impressions of childhood. An exact and indelible image is stamped on their virgin memories. Despite the years, I still see the stone whence came the resonant notes of the little Toads, the parapet of currant-bushes, the notary's garden of Eden. These trifles make the best part of my life. The Halictus sees in the same way the blade of grass whereon she rested in her first flight, the bit of gravel which her claw touched in her first climb to the top of the shaft. She knows her native abode by heart just as I know my village. The locality has become familiar to her in one glad, sunny morning.
She flies off, seeks refreshment on the flowers near at hand and visits the fields where the coming harvests will be gathered. The distance does not lead her astray, so faithful are her impressions of her first trip; she finds the encampment of her tribe; among the burrows of the village, so numerous and so closely resembling one another, she knows her own. It is the house where she was born, the beloved house with its unforgettable memories.
But, on returning home, the Halictus is not the only mistress of the house. The dwelling dug by the solitary Bee in early spring remains, when summer comes, the joint inheritance of the members of the family. There are ten cells, or thereabouts, underground. Now from these cells there have issued none but females. This is the rule among the three species of Halicti that concern us now and probably also among many others, if not all. They have two generations in each year. The spring one consists of females only; the summer one comprises both males and females, in almost equal numbers. We shall return to this curious subject in our next chapter.
The household, therefore, if not reduced by accidents, above all if not starved by the usurping Gnat, would consist of half-a-score of sisters, none but sisters, all equally industrious and all capable of procreating without a nuptial partner. On the other hand, the maternal dwelling is no hovel; far from it: the entrance-gallery, the principal room of the house, will serve quite well, after a few odds and ends of refuse have been swept away. This will be so much gained in time, ever precious to the Bee. The cells at the bottom, the clay cabins, are also nearly intact. To make use of them, it will be enough for the Halictus to polish up the stucco with her tongue.
Well, which of the survivors, all equally entitled to the succession, will inherit the house? There are six of them, seven, or more, according to the chances of mortality. To whose share will the maternal dwelling fall?
There is no quarrel between the interested parties. The mansion is recognized as common property without dispute. The sisters come and go peacefully through the same door, attend to their business, pass and let the others pass. Down at the bottom of the pit, each has her little demesne, her group of cells dug at the cost of fresh toil, when the old ones, now insufficient in number, are occupied. In these recesses, which are private estates, each mother works by herself, jealous of her property and of her privacy. Every elsewhere, traffic is free to all.
The exits and entrances in the working fortress provide a spectacle of the highest interest. A harvester arrives from the fields, the feather-brushes of her legs powdered with pollen. If the door be open, the Bee at once dives underground. To tarry on the threshold would mean waste of time; and the business is urgent. Sometimes, several appear upon the scene at almost the same moment. The passage is too narrow for two, especially when they have to avoid any untimely contact that would make the floury burden fall to the floor. The nearest to the opening enters quickly. The others, drawn up on the threshold in order of their arrival, respectful of one another's rights, await their turn. As soon as the first disappears, the second follows after her and is herself swiftly followed by the third and then the others, one by one.
Sometimes, again, there is a meeting between a Bee about to come out and a Bee about to go in. Then the latter draws back a little and makes way for the former. The politeness is reciprocal. I see some who, when on the point of emerging from the pit, go down again and leave the passage free for the one who has just arrived. Thanks to this mutual spirit of accommodation, the business of the house proceeds without impediment.
Let us keep our eyes open. There is something better than the well- preserved order of the entrances. When an Halictus appears, returning from her round of the flowers, we see a sort of trap-door, which closed the house, suddenly fall and give a free passage. As soon as the new arrival has entered, the trap rises back into its place, almost level with the ground, and closes the entrance anew. The same thing happens when the insects go out. At a request from within, the trap descends, the door opens and the Bee flies away. The outlet is closed forthwith.
What can this valve be which, descending or ascending in the cylinder of the pit, after the fashion of a piston, opens and closes the house at each departure and at each arrival? It is an Halictus, who has become the portress of the establishment. With her large head, she makes an impassable barrier at the top of the entrance-hall. If any one belonging to the house wants to go in or out, she 'pulls the cord,' that is to say, she withdraws to a spot where the gallery becomes wider and leaves room for two. The other passes. She then at once returns to the orifice and blocks it with the top of her head. Motionless, ever on the look-out, she does not leave her post save to drive away importunate visitors.
Let us profit by her brief appearances outside to take a look at her. We recognize in her an Halictus similar to the others, which are now busy harvesting; but the top of her head is bald and her dress is dingy and thread-bare. All the nap is gone; and one can hardly make out the handsome stripes of red and brown which she used to have. These tattered, work-worn garments make things clear to us.
This Bee who mounts guard and performs the office of a portress at the entrance to the burrow is older than the others. She is the foundress of the establishment, the mother of the actual workers, the grandmother of the present grubs. In the springtime of her life, three months ago, she wore herself out in solitary labours. Now that her ovaries are dried up, she takes a well-earned rest. No, rest is hardly the word. She still works, she assists the household to the best of her power. Incapable of being a mother for a second time, she becomes a portress, opens the door to the members of her family and makes strangers keep their distance.
The suspicious Kid (In La Fontaine's fable, "Le Loup, la Chevre et le Chevreau."--Translator's Note.), looking through the chink, said to the Wolf:
'Show me a white foot, or I shan't open the door.'
No less suspicious, the grandmother says to each comer:
'Show me the yellow foot of an Halictus, or you won't be let in.'
None is admitted to the dwelling unless she be recognized as a member of the family.
See for yourselves. Near the burrow passes an Ant, an unscrupulous adventuress, who would not be sorry to know the meaning of the honeyed fragrance that rises from the bottom of the cellar.
"Be off, or you'll catch it!'says the portress, wagging her neck.
As a rule the threat suffices. The Ant decamps. Should she insist, the watcher leaves her sentry-box, flings herself upon the saucy jade, buffets her and drives her away. The moment the punishment has been administered, she returns to her post.
Next comes the turn of a Leaf-cutter (Megachile albocincta, PEREZ), which, unskilled in the art of burrowing, utilizes, after the manner of her kin, the old galleries dug by others. Those of the Zebra Halictus suit her very well, when the terrible Gnat has left them vacant for lack of heirs. Seeking for a home wherein to stack her robinia-leaf honey-pots, she often makes a flying inspection of my colonies of Halicti. A burrow seems to take her fancy; but, before she sets foot on earth, her buzzing is noticed by the sentry, who suddenly darts out and makes a few gestures on the threshold of her door. That is all. The Leaf-cutter has understood. She moves on.
Sometimes, the Megachile has time to alight and insert her head into the mouth of the pit. In a moment, the portress is there, comes a little higher and bars the way. Follows a not very serious contest. The stranger quickly recognizes the rights of the first occupant and, without insisting, goes to seek an abode elsewhere.
An accomplished marauder (Caelioxys caudata, SPIN.), a parasite of the Megachile, receives a sound drubbing under my eyes. She thought, the feather-brain, that she was entering the Leaf-Cutter's establishment! She soon finds out her mistake; she meets the door- keeping Halictus, who administers a sharp correction. She makes off at full speed. And so with the others which, through inadvertence or ambition, seek to enter the burrow.
The same intolerance exists among the different grandmothers. About the middle of July, when the animation of the colony is at its height, two sets of Halicti are easily distinguishable: the young mothers and the old. The former, much more numerous, brisk of movement and smartly arrayed, come and go unceasingly from the burrows to the fields and from the fields to the burrows. The latter, faded and dispirited, wander idly from hole to hole. They look as though they had lost their way and were incapable of finding their homes. Who are these vagabonds? I see in them afflicted ones bereft of a family through the act of the odious Gnat. Many burrows have been altogether exterminated. At the awakening of summer, the mother found herself alone. She left her empty house and went off in search of a dwelling where there were cradles to defend, a guard to mount. But those fortunate nests already have their overseer, the foundress, who, jealous of her rights, gives her unemployed neighbour a cold reception. One sentry is enough; two would merely block the narrow guard-room.
I am privileged at times to witness a fight between two grandmothers.
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