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- THE MASON-BEES - 10/32 -


on the ground, facing the south, so that the insects may be free to take either the direction of their nest or the opposite one. I let them loose at a quarter past two. When the bags are opened, the Bees, for the most part, circle several times around me and then dart off impetuously in the direction of Serignan, as far as I can judge. It is not easy to watch them, because they fly off suddenly, after going two or three times round my body, a suspicious-looking object which they wish, apparently, to reconnoitre before starting. A quarter of an hour later, my eldest daughter, Antonia, who is on the look-out beside the nests, sees the first traveller arrive. On my return, in the course of the evening, two others come back. Total: three home on the same day, out of ten scattered abroad.

I resume the experiment next morning. I mark ten Mason-bees with red, which will enable me to distinguish them from those who returned on the day before and from those who may still return with the white spot uneffaced. The same precautions, the same rotations, the same localities as on the first occasion; only, I make no rotation on the way, confining myself to swinging my box round on leaving and on arriving. The insects are released at a quarter past eleven. I preferred the forenoon, as this was the busiest time at the works. One Bee was seen by Antonia to be back at the nest by twenty minutes past eleven. Supposing her to be the first let loose, it took her just five minutes to cover the distance. But there is nothing to tell me that it is not another, in which case she needed less. It is the fastest speed that I have succeeded in noting. I myself am back at twelve and, within a short time, catch three others. I see no more during the rest of the evening. Total: four home, out of ten.

The 4th of May is a very bright, calm, warm day, weather highly propitious for my experiments. I take fifty Chalicodomae marked with blue. The distance to be travelled remains the same. I make the first rotation after carrying my insects a few hundred steps in the direction opposite to that which I finally take; in addition, three rotations on the road; a fifth rotation at the place where they are set free. If they do not lose their bearings this time, it will not be for lack of twisting and turning. I begin to open my screws of paper at twenty minutes past nine. It is rather early, for which reason my Bees, on recovering their liberty, remain for a moment undecided and lazy; but, after a short sunbath on a stone where I place them, they take wing. I am sitting on the ground, facing the south, with Serignan on my left and Piolenc on my right. When the flight is not too swift to allow me to perceive the direction taken, I see my released captives disappear to my left. A few, but only a few, go south; two or three go west, or to right of me. I do not speak of the north, against which I act as a screen. All told, the great majority take the left, that is to say, the direction of the nest. The last is released at twenty minutes to ten. One of the fifty travellers has lost her mark in the paper bag. I deduct her from the total, leaving forty-nine.

According to Antonia, who watches the home-coming, the earliest arrivals appeared at twenty-five minutes to ten, say fifteen minutes after the first was set free. By twelve o'clock mid-day, there are eleven back; and, by four o'clock in the evening, seventeen. That ends the census. Total: seventeen, out of forty-nine.

I resolved upon a fourth experiment, on the 14th of May. The weather is glorious, with a light northerly breeze. I take twenty Mason-bees, marked in pink, at eight o'clock in the morning. Rotations at the start, after a preliminary backing in a direction opposite to that which I intend to take; two rotations on the road; a fourth on arriving. All those whose flight I am able to follow with my eyes turn to my left, that is to say, towards Serignan. Yet I had taken care to leave the choice free between the two opposite directions: in particular, I had sent away my Dog, who was on my right. To-day, the Bees do not circle round me: some fly away at once; the others, the greater number, feeling giddy perhaps after the pitching of the journey and the rolling of the sling, alight on the ground a few yards away, seem to wait until they are somewhat recovered and then fly off to the left. I perceived this to be the general flight, whenever I was able to observe at all. I was back at a quarter to ten. Two Bees with pink marks were there before me, of whom one was engaged in building, with her pellet of mortar in her mandibles. By one o'clock in the afternoon there were seven arrivals; I saw no more during the rest of the day. Total: seven out of twenty.

Let us be satisfied with this: the experiment has been repeated often enough, but it does not conclude as Darwin hoped, as I myself hoped, especially after what I had been told about the Cat. In vain, adopting the advice given, do I carry my insects first in the opposite direction to the place at which I intend to release them; in vain, when about to retrace my steps, do I twirl my sling with every complication in the way of whirls and twists that I am able to imagine; in vain, thinking to increase the difficulties, do I repeat the rotation as often as five times over: at the start, on the road, on arriving; it makes no difference: the Mason-bees return; and the proportion of returns on the same day fluctuates between thirty and forty per cent. It goes to my heart to abandon an idea suggested by so famous a man of science and cherished all the more readily inasmuch as I thought it likely to provide a final solution. The facts are there, more eloquent than any number of ingenious views; and the problem remains as mysterious as ever.

In the following year, 1881, I began experimenting again, but in a different way. Hitherto, I had worked on the level. To return to the nest, my lost Bees had only to cross slight obstacles, the hedges and spinneys of the tilled fields. To-day, I propose to add to the difficulties of distance those of the ground to be traversed. Discontinuing all my backing- and whirling-tactics, things which I recognize as useless, I think of releasing my Chalicodomae in the thick of the Serignan Woods. How will they escape from that labyrinth, where, in the early days, I needed a compass to find my way? Moreover, I shall have an assistant with me, a pair of eyes younger than mine and better-fitted to follow my insects' first flight. That immediate start in the direction of the nest has already been repeated very often and is beginning to interest me more than the return itself. A pharmaceutical student, spending a few days with my parents, shall be my eyewitness. With him, I shall feel at ease; science and he are no strangers.

The trip to the woods takes place on the 16th of May. The weather is hot and hints at a coming storm. There is a perceptible breeze from the south, but not enough to upset my travellers. Forty Mason-bees are caught. To shorten the preparations, because of the distance, I do not mark them while they are on the nests; I shall mark them at the starting-point, as I release them. It is the old method, prolific of stings; but I prefer it to-day, in order to save time. It takes me an hour to reach the place. The distance, therefore, allowing for windings, is about three miles.

The site selected must permit me to recognize the direction of the insects' first flight. I choose a clearing in the middle of the copses. All around is a great expanse of dense woods, shutting out the horizon on every side; on the south, in the direction of the nests, a curtain of hills rises to a height of some three hundred feet above the spot at which I stand. The wind is not strong, but it is blowing in the opposite direction to that which my insects will have to take in order to reach their home. I turn my back on Serignan, so that, when leaving my fingers, the Bees, to return to the nest, will be obliged to fly sideways, to right and left of me; I mark the insects and release them one by one. I begin operations at twenty minutes past ten.

One half of the Bees seem rather indolent, flutter about for a while, drop to the ground, appear to recover their spirits and then start off. The other half show greater decision. Although the insects have to fight against the soft wind that is blowing from the south, they make straight for the nest. All go south, after describing a few circles, a few loops, around us. There is no exception in the case of any of those whose departure we are able to follow. The fact is noted by myself and my colleague beyond dispute or doubt. My Mason-bees head for the south as though some compass told them which way the wind was blowing.

I am back at twelve o'clock. None of the strays is at the nest; but, a few minutes later, I catch two. At two o'clock, the number has increased to nine. But now the sky clouds over, the wind freshens and the storm is approaching. We can no longer rely on any further arrivals. Total: nine out of forty, or twenty-two per cent.

The proportion is smaller than in the former cases, when it varied between thirty and forty per cent. Must we attribute this result to the difficulties to be overcome? Can the Mason-bees have lost their way in the maze of the forest? It is safer not to give an opinion: other causes intervened which may have decreased the number of those who returned. I marked the insects at the starting-place; I handled them; and I am not prepared to say that they were all in the best of condition on leaving my stung and smarting fingers. Besides, the sky has become overcast, a storm is imminent. In the month of May, so variable, so fickle, in my part of the world, we can hardly ever count on a whole day of fine weather. A splendid morning is swiftly followed by a fitful afternoon; and my experiments with Mason-bees have often suffered by these variations. All things considered, I am inclined to think that the homeward journey across the forest and the mountain is effected just as readily as across the corn-fields and the plain.

I have one last resource left whereby to try and put my Bees out of their latitude. I will first take them to a great distance; then, describing a wide curve, I will return by another road and release my captives when I am near enough to the village, say, about two miles. A conveyance is necessary, this time. My collaborator of the day in the woods offers me the use of his gig. The two of us set off, with fifteen Mason-bees, along the road to Orange, until we come to the viaduct. Here, on the right, is the straight ribbon of the old Roman road, the Via Domitia. We take it, driving north towards the Uchaux Mountains, the classic home of superb Turonian fossils. We next turn back towards Serignan, by the Piolenc Road. A halt is made by the stretch of country known as Font-Claire, the distance from which to the village is about one mile and five furlongs. The reader can easily follow my route on the ordnance-survey map; and he will see that the loop described measures not far short of five miles and a half.

At the same time, Favier came and joined me at Font-Claire, by the direct road, the one that runs through Piolenc. He brought with him fifteen Mason-bees, intended for purposes of comparison with mine. I am therefore in possession of two sets of insects. Fifteen, marked in pink, have taken the five-mile bend; fifteen, marked in blue, have come by the straight road, the shortest road for returning to the nest. The weather is warm, exceedingly bright and very calm; I could not hope for a better day for my experiment. The insects are given their freedom at mid-day.

At five o'clock, the arrivals number seven of the pink Mason-bees, whom I thought that I had bewildered by a long and circuitous drive, and six of the blue Mason-bees, who came to Font-Claire by the direct route. The two proportions, forty-six and forty per cent., are almost equal; and the slight excess in favour of the insects that went the roundabout way is evidently an accidental result which we need not take into consideration. The bend described cannot have helped them to find their way home; but it has also certainly not hampered them.


THE MASON-BEES - 10/32

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