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- THE MASON-BEES - 5/32 -


for the emergence arrives, this stimulus is aroused and the insect sets to work to bore a passage. It little cares in this case whether the material to be pierced be the natural mortar, sorghum-pith, or paper: the lid that holds it imprisoned does not resist for long. Nor even does it care if the obstacle be increased in thickness and a paper wall be added outside the wall of clay: the two barriers, with no interval between them, form but one to the Bee, who passes through them because the act of getting out is still one act and one only. With the paper cone, whose wall is a little way off, the conditions are changed, though the total thickness of wall is really the same. Once outside its earthen abode, the insect has done all that it was destined to do in order to release itself; to move freely on the mortar dome represents to it the end of the release, the end of the act of boring. Around the nest a new barrier appears, the wall made by the paper bag; but, in order to pierce this, the insect would have to repeat the act which it has just accomplished, the act which it is not intended to perform more than once in its life; it would, in short, have to make into a double act that which by nature is a single one; and the insect cannot do this, for the sole reason that it has not the wish to. The Mason-bee perishes for lack of the smallest gleam of intelligence. And this is the singular intellect in which it is the fashion nowadays to see a germ of human reason! The fashion will pass and the facts remain, bringing us back to the good old notions of the soul and its immortal destinies.

Reaumur tells us how his friend Duhamel, having seized a Mason-bee with a forceps when she had half entered the cell, head foremost, to fill it with pollen-paste, carried her to a closet at some distance from the spot where he captured her. The Bee got away from him in this closet and flew out through the window. Duhamel made straight for the nest. The Mason arrived almost as soon as he did and renewed her work. She only seemed a little wilder, says the narrator, in conclusion.

Why were you not here with me, revered master, on the banks of the Aygues, which is a vast expanse of pebbles for three-fourths of the year and a mighty torrent when it rains? I should have shown you something infinitely better than the fugitive escaping from the forceps. You would have witnessed--and in so doing, would have shared my surprise--not the brief flight of the Mason who, carried to the nearest room, releases herself and forthwith returns to her nest in that familiar neighbourhood, but long journeys through unknown country. You would have seen the Bee whom I carried to a great distance from her home, to quite unfamiliar ground, find her way back with a geographical sense of which the Swallow, the Martin and the Carrier-pigeon would not have been ashamed; and you would have asked yourself, as I did, what incomprehensible knowledge of the local map guides that mother seeking her nest.

To come to facts: it is a matter of repeating with the Mason-bee of the Walls my former experiments with the Cerceris-wasps (Cf. "Insect Life": chapter 19.--Translator's Note.), of carrying the insect, in the dark, a long way from its nest, marking it and then leaving it to its own resources. In case any one should wish to try the experiment for himself, I make him a present of my manner of operation, which may save him time at the outset. The insect intended for a long journey must obviously be handled with certain precautions. There must be no forceps employed, no pincers, which might maim a wing, strain it and weaken the power of flight. While the Bee is in her cell, absorbed in her work, I place a small glass test-tube over it. The Mason, when she flies away, rushes into the tube, which enables me, without touching her, to transfer her at once into a screw of paper. This I quickly close. A tin box, an ordinary botanizing-case, serves to convey the prisoners, each in her separate paper bag.

The most delicate business, that of marking each captive before setting her free, is left to be done on the spot selected for the starting-point. I use finely-powdered chalk, steeped in a strong solution of gum arabic. The mixture, applied to some part of the insect with a straw, leaves a white patch, which soon dries and adheres to the fleece. When a particular Mason-bee has to be marked so as to distinguish her from another in short experiments, such as I shall describe presently, I confine myself to touching the tip of the abdomen with my straw while the insect is half in the cell, head downwards. The slight touch is not noticed by the Bee, who continues her work quite undisturbed; but the mark is not very deep and moreover it is in a rather bad place for any prolonged experiment, for the Bee is constantly brushing her belly to detach the pollen and is sure to rub it off sooner or later. I therefore make another one, dropping the sticky chalk right in the middle of the thorax, between the wings.

It is hardly possible to wear gloves at this work: the fingers need all their deftness to take up the restless Bee delicately and to overpower her without rough pressure. It is easily seen that, though the job may yield no other profit, you are at least sure of being stung. The sting can be avoided with a little dexterity, but not always. You have to put up with it. In any case, the Mason-bee's sting is far less painful than that of the Hive-bee. The white spot is dropped on the thorax; the Mason flies off; and the mark dries on the journey.

I start with two Mason-bees of the Walls working at their nests on the pebbles in the alluvia of the Aygues, not far from Serignan. I carry them home with me to Orange, where I release them after marking them. According to the ordnance-survey map, the distance is about two and a half miles as the crow flies. The captives are set at liberty in the evening, at a time when the Bees begin to leave off work for the day. It is therefore probable that my two Bees will spend their night in the neighbourhood.

Next morning, I go to the nests. The weather is still too cool and the works are suspended. When the dew has gone, the Masons begin work. I see one, but without a white spot, bringing pollen to one of the nests which had been occupied by the travellers whom I am expecting. She is a stranger who, finding the cell whose owner I myself had exiled untenanted, has installed herself there and made it her property, not knowing that it is already the property of another. She has perhaps been victualling it since yesterday evening. Close upon ten o'clock, when the heat is at its full, the mistress of the house suddenly arrives: her title-deeds as the original occupant are inscribed for me in undeniable characters on her thorax white with chalk. Here is one of my travellers back.

Over waving corn, over fields all pink with sainfoin, she has covered the two miles and a half; and here she is, back at the nest, after foraging on the way, for the doughty creature arrives with her abdomen yellow with pollen. To come home again from the verge of the horizon is wonderful in itself; to come home with a well-filled pollen-brush is superlative economy. A journey, even a forced journey, always becomes a foraging-expedition.

She finds the stranger in the nest:

'What's this? I'll teach you!'

And the owner falls furiously upon the intruder, who possibly was meaning no harm. A hot chase in mid-air now takes place between the two Masons. From time to time, they hover almost without movement, face to face, with only a couple of inches separating them, and here, doubtless measuring forces with their eyes, they buzz insults at each other. Then they go back and alight on the nest in dispute, first one, then the other. I expect to see them come to blows, to make them draw their stings. But my hopes are disappointed: the duties of maternity speak in too imperious a voice for them to risk their lives and wipe out the insult in a mortal duel. The whole thing is confined to hostile demonstrations and a few insignificant cuffs.

Nevertheless, the real proprietress seems to derive double courage and double strength from the feeling that she is in her rights. She takes up a permanent position on the nest and receives the other, each time that she ventures to approach, with an angry quiver of her wings, an unmistakable sign of her righteous indignation. The stranger, at last discouraged, retires from the field. Forthwith the Mason resumes her work, as actively as though she had not just undergone the hardships of a long journey.

One more word on these quarrels about property. It is not unusual, when one Mason-bee is away on an expedition, for another, some homeless vagabond, to call at the nest, take a fancy to it and set to work on it, sometimes at the same cell, sometimes at the next, if there are several vacant, which is generally the case in the old nests. The first occupier, on her return, never fails to drive away the intruder, who always ends by being turned out, so keen and invincible is the mistress' sense of ownership. Reversing the savage Prussian maxim, 'Might is right,' among the Mason-bees right is might, for there is no other explanation of the invariable retreat of the usurper, whose strength is not a whit inferior to that of the real owner. If she is less bold, this is because she has not the tremendous moral support of knowing herself in the right, which makes itself respected, among equals, even in the brute creation.

The second of my travellers does not reappear, either on the day when the first arrived or on the following days. I decide upon another experiment, on this occasion with five subjects. The starting-place is the same; and the place of arrival, the distance, the time of day, all remain unchanged. Of the five with whom I experiment, I find three at their nests next day; the two others are missing.

It is therefore fully established that the Mason-bee of the Walls, carried to a distance of two and a half miles and released at a place which she has certainly never seen before, is able to return to the nest. But why do first one out of two and then two out of five fail to join their fellows? What one can do cannot another do? Is there a difference in the faculty that guides them over unknown ground? Or is it not rather a difference in flying-power? I remember that my Bees did not all start off with the same vigour. Some were hardly out of my fingers before they darted furiously into the air, where I at once lost sight of them, whereas the others came dropping down a few yards away from me, after a short flight. The latter, it seems certain, must have suffered on the journey, perhaps from the heat concentrated in the furnace of my box. Or I may have hurt the articulation of the wings in marking them, an operation difficult to perform when you are guarding against stings. These are maimed, feeble creatures, who will linger in the sainfoin-fields close by, and not the powerful aviators required by the journey.

The experiment must be tried again, taking count only of the Bees who start off straight from between my fingers with a clean, vigorous flight. The waverers, the laggards who stop almost at once on some bush shall be left out of the reckoning. Moreover, I will do my best to estimate the time taken in returning to the nest. For an experiment of this kind, I need plenty of subjects, as the weak and the maimed, of whom there may be many, are to be disregarded. The Mason-bee of the Walls is unable to supply me with the requisite number: there are not enough of her; and I am anxious not to interfere too much with the little Aygues-side colony, for whom I have other experiments in view. Fortunately, I have at my own place, under the eaves of a shed, a magnificent nest of Chalicodoma sicula in full activity. I can draw to whatever extent I please on the populous city. The insect is small, less than half the size of C. muraria, but no matter: it will deserve all the more credit if it can traverse the two miles and a half in


THE MASON-BEES - 5/32

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