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- THE MASON-BEES - 2/32 -


for the fields. It was a regular holiday. The boys disputed for the honour of carrying the stakes, divided into bundles of three; and more than one shoulder, as we walked through the town, felt the reflected glory of those erudite rods. I myself--why conceal the fact?--was not without a certain satisfaction as I piously carried that most delicate and precious apparatus, the historic five-franc graphometer. The scene of operations was an untilled, flinty plain, a harmas, as we call it in the district. (Cf. "The Life of the Fly", by J. Henri Fabre, translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos: chapter 1.--Translator's Note.) Here, no curtain of green hedges or shrubs prevented me from keeping an eye upon my staff; here--an indispensable condition--I had not the irresistible temptation of the unripe apricots to fear for my scholars. The plain stretched far and wide, covered with nothing but flowering thyme and rounded pebbles. There was ample scope for every imaginable polygon; trapezes and triangles could be combined in all sorts of ways. The inaccessible distances had ample elbow-room; and there was even an old ruin, once a pigeon-house, that lent its perpendicular to the graphometer's performances.

Well, from the very first day, my attention was attracted by something suspicious. If I sent one of the boys to plant a stake, I would see him stop frequently on his way, bend down, stand up again, look about and stoop once more, neglecting his straight line and his signals. Another, who was told to pick up the arrows, would forget the iron pin and take up a pebble instead; and a third deaf to the measurements of angles, would crumble a clod of earth between his fingers. Most of them were caught licking a bit of straw. The polygon came to a full stop, the diagonals suffered. What could the mystery be?

I enquired; and everything was explained. A born searcher and observer, the scholar had long known what the master had not yet heard of, namely, that there was a big black Bee who made clay nests on the pebbles in the harmas. These nests contained honey; and my surveyors used to open them and empty the cells with a straw. The honey, although rather strong-flavoured, was most acceptable. I acquired a taste for it myself and joined the nest-hunters, putting off the polygon till later. It was thus that I first saw Reaumur's Mason-bee, knowing nothing of her history and nothing of her historian.

The magnificent Bee herself, with her dark-violet wings and black- velvet raiment, her rustic edifices on the sun-blistered pebbles amid the thyme, her honey, providing a diversion from the severities of the compass and the square, all made a great impression on my mind; and I wanted to know more than I had learnt from the schoolboys, which was just how to rob the cells of their honey with a straw. As it happened, my bookseller had a gorgeous work on insects for sale. It was called "Histoire naturelle des animaux articules", by de Castelnau (Francis Comte de Castelnau de la Porte (1812-1880), the naturalist and traveller. Castelnau was born in London and died at Melbourne.-- Translator's Note.), E. Blanchard (Emile Blanchard (born 1820), author of various works on insects, Spiders, etc.--Translator's Note.) and Lucas (Pierre Hippolyte Lucas (born 1815), author of works on Moths and Butterflies, Crustaceans, etc.--Translator's Note.), and boasted a multitude of most attractive illustrations; but the price of it, the price of it! No matter: was not my splendid income supposed to cover everything, food for the mind as well as food for the body? Anything extra that I gave to the one I could save upon the other; a method of balancing painfully familiar to those who look to science for their livelihood. The purchase was effected. That day my professional emoluments were severely strained: I devoted a month's salary to the acquisition of the book. I had to resort to miracles of economy for some time to come before making up the enormous deficit.

The book was devoured; there is no other word for it. In it, I learnt the name of my black Bee; I read for the first time various details of the habits of insects; I found, surrounded in my eyes with a sort of halo, the revered names of Reaumur, Huber (Francois Huber (1750-1831), the Swiss naturalist, author of "Nouvelles observations sur les abeilles." He early became blind from excessive study and conducted his scientific work thereafter with the aid of his wife.--Translator's Note.) and Leon Dufour (Jean Marie Leon Dufour (1780-1865), an army surgeon who served with distinction in several campaigns, and subsequently practised as a doctor in the Landes, where he attained great eminence as a naturalist. Fabre often refers to him as the Wizard of the Landes. Cf. "The Life of the Spider", by J. Henri Fabre, translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos: chapter 1; and "The Life of the Fly": chapter 1.--Translator's Note.); and, while I turned over the pages for the hundredth time, a voice within me seemed to whisper:

'You also shall be of their company!'

Ah, fond illusions, what has come of you? (The present essay is one of the earliest in the "Souvenirs Entomologiques."--Translator's Note.)

But let us banish these recollections, at once sweet and sad, and speak of the doings of our black Bee. Chalicodoma, meaning a house of pebbles, concrete or mortar, would be a most satisfactory title, were it not that it has an odd sound to any one unfamiliar with Greek. The name is given to Bees who build their cells with materials similar to those which we employ for our own dwellings. The work of these insects is masonry; only it is turned out by a rustic mason more used to hard clay than to hewn stone. Reaumur, who knew nothing of scientific classification--a fact which makes many of his papers very difficult to understand--named the worker after her work and called our builders in dried clay Mason-bees, which describes them exactly.

We have two of them in our district: the Chalicodoma of the Walls (Chalicodoma muraria), whose history Reaumur gives us in a masterly fashion; and the Sicilian Chalicodoma (C. sicula) (For reasons that will become apparent after the reader has learnt their habits, the author also speaks of the Mason-bee of the Walls and the Sicilian Mason-bee as the Mason-bee of the Pebbles and the Mason-bee of the Sheds respectively. Cf. Chapter 4 footnote.--Translator's Note.), who is not peculiar to the land of Etna, as her name might suggest, but is also found in Greece, in Algeria and in the south of France, particularly in the department of Vaucluse, where she is one of the commonest Bees to be seen in the month of May. In the first species the two sexes are so unlike in colouring that a novice, surprised at observing them come out of the same nest, would at first take them for strangers to each other. The female is of a splendid velvety black, with dark-violet wings. In the male, the black velvet is replaced by a rather bright brick-red fleece. The second species, which is much smaller, does not show this contrast of colour: the two sexes wear the same costume, a general mixture of brown, red and grey, while the tips of the wings, washed with violet on a bronzed ground, recall, but only faintly, the rich purple of the first species. Both begin their labours at the same period, in the early part of May.

As Reaumur tells us, the Chalicodoma of the Walls in the northern provinces selects a wall directly facing the sun and one not covered with plaster, which might come off and imperil the future of the cells. She confides her buildings only to solid foundations, such as bare stones. I find her equally prudent in the south; but, for some reason which I do not know, she here generally prefers some other base to the stone of a wall. A rounded pebble, often hardly larger than one's fist, one of those cobbles with which the waters of the glacial period covered the terraces of the Rhone Valley, forms the most popular support. The extreme abundance of these sites might easily influence the Bee's choice: all our less elevated uplands, all our arid, thyme-clad grounds are nothing but water-worn stones cemented with red earth. In the valleys, the Chalicodoma has also the pebbles of the mountain-streams at her disposal. Near Orange, for instance, her favourite spots are the alluvia of the Aygues, with their carpets of smooth pebbles no longer visited by the waters. Lastly, if a cobble be wanting, the Mason-bee will establish her nest on any sort of stone, on a mile-stone or a boundary-wall.

The Sicilian Chalicodoma has an even greater variety of choice. Her most cherished site is the lower surface of the projecting tiles of a roof. There is not a cottage in the fields, however small, but shelters her nests under the eaves. Here, each spring, she settles in populous colonies, whose masonry, handed down from one generation to the next and enlarged year by year, ends by covering considerable surfaces. I have seen some of these nests, under the tiles of a shed, spreading over an area of five or six square yards. When the colony was hard at work, the busy, buzzing crowd was enough to make one giddy. The under side of a balcony also pleases the Mason-bee, as does the embrasure of a disused window, especially if it is closed by a blind whose slats allow her a free passage. But these are popular resorts, where hundreds and thousands of workers labour, each for herself. If she be alone, which happens pretty often, the Sicilian Mason-bee instals herself in the first little nook handy, provided that it supplies a solid foundation and warmth. As for the nature of this foundation, she does not seem to mind. I have seen her build on the bare stone, on bricks, on the wood of a shutter and even on the window-panes of a shed. One thing only does not suit her: the plaster of our houses. She is as prudent as her kinswoman and would fear the ruin of her cells, if she entrusted them to a support which might possibly fall.

Lastly, for reasons which I am still unable to explain to my own satisfaction, the Sicilian Mason-bee often changes the position of her building entirely, turning her heavy house of clay, which would seem to require the solid support of a rock, into an aerial dwelling. A hedge-shrub of any kind whatever--hawthorn, pomegranate, Christ's thorn--provides her with a foundation, usually as high as a man's head. The holm-oak and the elm give her a greater altitude. She chooses in the bushy clump a twig no thicker than a straw; and on this narrow base she constructs her edifice with the same mortar that she would employ under a balcony or the ledge of a roof. When finished, the nest is a ball of earth, bisected by the twig. It is the size of an apricot when the work of a single insect and of one's fist if several have collaborated; but this latter case is rare.

Both Bees use the same materials: calcareous clay, mingled with a little sand and kneaded into a paste with the mason's own saliva. Damp places, which would facilitate the quarrying and reduce the expenditure of saliva for mixing the mortar, are scorned by the Mason- bees, who refuse fresh earth for building even as our own builders refuse plaster and lime that have long lost their setting-properties. These materials, when soaked with pure moisture, would not hold properly. What is wanted is a dry dust, which greedily absorbs the disgorged saliva and forms with the latter's albuminous elements a sort of readily-hardening Roman cement, something in short resembling the cement which we obtain with quicklime and white of egg.

The mortar-quarry which the Sicilian Mason-bee prefers to work is a frequented highway, whose metal of chalky flints, crushed by the passing wheels, has become a smooth surface, like a continuous flagstone. Whether settling on a twig in a hedge or fixing her abode under the eaves of some rural dwelling, she always goes for her building-materials to the nearest path or road, without allowing herself to be distracted from her business by the constant traffic of people and cattle. You should see the active Bee at work when the road is dazzling white under the rays of a hot sun. Between the adjoining farm, which is the building-yard, and the road, in which the mortar is prepared, we hear the deep hum of the Bees perpetually crossing one another as they go to and fro. The air seems traversed by incessant trails of smoke, so straight and rapid is the worker's flight. Those on the way to the nest carry tiny pellets of mortar, the size of small


THE MASON-BEES - 2/32

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