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- THE MASON-BEES - 6/32 -
store for it and find its way back to the nest. I take forty Bees, isolating them, as usual, in screws of paper.
In order to reach the nest, I place a ladder against the wall: it will be used by my daughter Aglae and will enable her to mark the exact moment of the return of the first Bee. I set the clock on the mantelpiece and my watch at the same time, so that we may compare the instant of departure and of arrival. Things being thus arranged, I carry off my forty captives and go to the identical spot where C. muraria works, in the pebbly bed of the Aygues. The trip will have a double object: to observe Reaumur's Mason and to set the Sicilian Mason at liberty. The latter, therefore, will also have two and a half miles to travel home.
At last my prisoners are released, all of them being first marked with a big white dot in the middle of the thorax.
You do not come off scot-free when handling one after the other forty wrathful Bees, who promptly unsheathe and brandish their poisoned stings. The stab is but too often given before the mark is made. My smarting fingers make movements of self-defence which my will is not always able to control. I take hold with greater precaution for myself than for the insect; I sometimes squeeze harder than I ought to if I am to spare my travellers. To experiment so as to lift, if possible, a tiny corner of the veil of truth is a fine and noble thing, a mighty stimulant in the face of danger; but still one may be excused for displaying some impatience when it is a matter of receiving forty stings in one's fingers at one short sitting. If any man should reproach me for being too careless with my thumbs, I would suggest that he should have a try: he can then judge for himself the pleasures of the situation.
To cut a long story short, either through the fatigue of the journey, or through my fingers pressing too hard and perhaps injuring some articulations, only twenty out of my forty Bees start with a bold, vigorous flight. The others, unable to keep their balance, wander about on the nearest bit of grass or remain on the osier-shoots on which I have placed them, refusing to fly even when I tickle them with a straw. These weaklings, these cripples, these incapables injured by my fingers must be struck off my list. Those who started with an unhesitating flight number about twenty. That is ample.
At the actual moment of departure, there is nothing definite about the direction taken, none of that straight flight to the nest which the Cerceris-wasps once showed me in similar circumstances. As soon as they are liberated, the Mason-bees flee as though scared, some in one direction, some in exactly the opposite direction. Nevertheless, as far as their impetuous flight allows, I seem to perceive a quick return on the part of those Bees who have started flying towards a point opposite to their home; and the majority appear to me to be making for those blue distances where their nest lies. I leave this question with certain doubts which are inevitable in the case of insects which I cannot follow with my eyes for more than twenty yards.
Hitherto, the operation has been favoured by calm weather; but now things become complicated. The heat is stifling and the sky becomes stormy. A stiff breeze springs up, blowing from the south, the very direction which my Bees must take to return to the nest. Can they overcome this opposing current and cleave the aerial torrent with their wings? If they try, they will have to fly close to the ground, as I now see the Bees do who continue their foraging; but soaring to lofty regions, whence they can obtain a clear view of the country, is, so it seems to me, prohibited. I am therefore very apprehensive as to the success of my experiment when I return to Orange, after first trying to steal some fresh secret from the Aygues Mason-bee of the Pebbles.
I have scarcely reached the house before Aglae greets me, her cheeks flushed with excitement:
'Two!' she cries. 'Two came back at twenty minutes to three, with a load of pollen under their bellies!'
A friend of mine had appeared upon the scene, a grave man of the law, who on hearing what was happening, had neglected code and stamped paper and insisted upon also being present at the arrival of my Carrier-pigeons. The result interested him more than his case about a party-wall. Under a tropical sun, in a furnace heat reflected from the wall of the shed, every five minutes he climbed the ladder bare- headed, with no other protection against sunstroke than his thatch of thick, grey locks. Instead of the one observer whom I had posted, I found two good pairs of eyes watching the Bees' return.
I had released my insects at about two o'clock; and the first arrivals returned to the nest at twenty minutes to three. They had therefore taken less than three-quarters of an hour to cover the two miles and a half, a very striking result, especially when we remember that the Bees did some foraging on the road, as was proved by the yellow pollen on their bellies, and that, on the other hand, the travellers' flight must have been hindered by the wind blowing against them. Three more came home before my eyes, each with her load of pollen, an outward and visible sign of the work done on the journey. As it was growing late, our observations had to cease. When the sun goes down, the Mason-bees leave the nest and take refuge somewhere or other, perhaps under the tiles of the roofs, or in little corners of the walls. I could not reckon on the arrival of the others before work was resumed, in the full sunshine.
Next day, when the sun recalled the scattered workers to the nest, I took a fresh census of Bees with a white spot on the thorax. My success exceeded all my hopes: I counted fifteen, fifteen of the transported prisoners of the day before, storing their cells or building as though nothing out of the way had happened. The weather had become more and more threatening; and now the storm burst and was followed by a succession of rainy days which prevented me from continuing.
The experiment suffices as it stands. Of some twenty Bees who had seemed fit to make the long journey when I released them, fifteen at least had returned: two within the first hour, three in the course of the evening and the rest next morning. They had returned in spite of having the wind against them and--a graver difficulty still--in spite of being unacquainted with the locality to which I had transported them. There is, in fact, no doubt that they were setting eyes for the first time on those osier-beds of the Aygues which I had selected as the starting-point. Never would they have travelled so far afield of their own accord, for everything that they want for building and victualling under the roof of my shed is within easy reach. The path at the foot of the wall supplies the mortar; the flowery meadows surrounding my house furnish nectar and pollen. Economical of their time as they are, they do not go flying two miles and a half in search of what abounds at a few yards from the nest. Besides, I see them daily taking their building-materials from the path and gathering their harvest on the wild-flowers, especially on the meadow sage. To all appearance, their expeditions do not cover more than a radius of a hundred yards or so. Then how did my exiles return? What guided them? It was certainly not memory, but some special faculty which we must content ourselves with recognizing by its astonishing effects without pretending to explain it, so greatly does it transcend our own psychology.
CHAPTER 3. EXCHANGING THE NESTS.
Let us continue our series of tests with the Mason-bee of the Walls. Thanks to its position on a pebble which we can move at will, the nest of this Bee lends itself to most interesting experiments. Here is the first: I shift a nest from its place, that is to say, I carry the pebble which serves as its support to a spot two yards away. As the edifice and its base form but one, the removal is performed without the smallest disturbance of the cells. I lay the boulder in an exposed place where it is well in view, as it was on its original site. The Bee returning from her harvest cannot fail to see it.
In a few minutes, the owner arrives and goes straight to where the nest stood. She hovers gracefully over the vacant site, examines and alights upon the exact spot where the stone used to lie. Here she walks about for a long time, making persistent searches; then the Bee takes wing and flies away to some distance. Her absence is of short duration. Here she is back again. The search is resumed, walking and flying, and always on the site which the nest occupied at first. A fresh fit of exasperation, that is to say, an abrupt flight across the osier-bed, is followed by a fresh return and a renewal of the vain search, always upon the mark left by the shifted pebble. These sudden departures, these prompt returns, these persevering inspections of the deserted spot continue for a long time, a very long time, before the Mason is convinced that her nest is gone. She has certainly seen it, has seen it over and over again in its new position, for sometimes she has flown only a few inches above it; but she takes no notice of it. To her, it is not her nest, but the property of another Bee.
Often the experiment ends without so much as a single visit to the boulder which I have moved two or three yards away: the Bee goes off and does not return. If the distance be less, a yard for instance, the Mason sooner or later alights on the stone which supports her abode. She inspects the cell which she was building or provisioning a little while before, repeatedly dips her head into it, examines the surface of the pebble step by step and, after long hesitations, goes and resumes her search on the site where the home ought to be. The nest that is no longer in its natural place is definitely abandoned, even though it be but a yard away from the original spot. Vainly does the Bee settle on it time after time: she cannot recognize it as hers. I was convinced of this on finding it, several days after the experiment, in just the same condition as when I moved it. The open cell half-filled with honey was still open and was surrendering its contents to the pillaging Ants; the cell that was building had remained unfinished, with not a single layer added to it. The Bee, obviously, may have returned to it; but she had not resumed work upon it. The transplanted dwelling was abandoned for good and all.
I will not deduce the strange paradox that the Mason-bee, though capable of finding her nest from the verge of the horizon, is incapable of finding it at a yard's distance: I interpret the occurrence as meaning something quite different. The proper inference appears to me to be this: the Bee retains a rooted impression of the site occupied by the nest and returns to it with unwearying persistence even when the nest is gone. But she has only a very vague notion of the nest itself. She does not recognize the masonry which she herself has erected and kneaded with her saliva; she does not know the pollen-paste which she herself has stored. In vain she inspects her cell, her own handiwork; she abandons it, refusing to acknowledge it as hers, once the spot whereon the pebble rests is changed.
Insect memory, it must be confessed, is a strange one, displaying such lucidity in its general acquaintance with locality and such limitations in its knowledge of the dwelling. I feel inclined to call it topographical instinct: it grasps the map of the country and not the beloved nest, the home itself. The Bembex-wasps (Cf. "Insect Life": chapters 16 to 19.--Translator's Note.) have already led us to a like conclusion. When the nest is laid open, these Wasps become
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