Jean-Henri FABRE Bramble-Bees and others - Chap. VI

 

INSTINCT AND DISCERNMENT

 

The Pelopaeus (1) gives us a very poor idea of her intellect when she plasters up the spot in the wall where the nest which I have removed used to stand, when she persists in cramming her cell with Spiders for the benefit of an egg no longer there and when she dutifully closes a cell which my forceps has left empty, extracting alike germ and provisions. The Mason-bees (2), the caterpillar of the Great Peacock Moth (3) and many others, when subjected to similar tests, are guilty of the same illogical behaviour: they continue, in the normal order, their series of industrious actions, though an accident has now rendered them all useless. Just like millstones unable to cease revolving though there be no corn left to grind, let them once be given the compelling power and they will continue to perform their task despite its futility. Are they then machines? Far be it from me to think anything so foolish.

It is impossible to make definite progress on the shifting sands of contradictory facts: each step in our interpretation may find us embogged. And yet these facts speak so loudly that I do not hesitate to translate their evidence as I understand it. In insect mentality, we have to distinguish two very different domains. One of these is INSTINCT properly so called, the unconscious impulse that presides over the most wonderful part of what the creature achieves. Where experience and imitation are of absolutely no avail, instinct lays down its inflexible law. It is instinct and instinct alone that makes the mother build for a family which she will never see; that counsels the storing of provisions for the unknown offspring; that directs the sting towards the nerve-centres of the prey and skilfully paralyses it, so that the game may keep good; that instigates, in fine, a host of actions wherein shrewd reason and consummate science would have their part, were the creature acting through discernment.

This faculty is perfect of its kind from the outset, otherwise the insect would have no posterity. Time adds nothing to it and takes nothing from it. Such as it was for a definite species, such it is to-day and such it will remain, perhaps the most settled zoological characteristic of them all. It is not free nor conscious in its practice, any more than is the faculty of the stomach for digestion or that of the heart for pulsation. The phases of its operations are predetermined, necessarily entailed one by another; they suggest a system of clock-work wherein one wheel set in motion brings about the movement of the next. This is the mechanical side of the insect, the fatum, the only thing which is able to explain the monstrous illogicality of a Pelopaeus when misled by my artifices. Is the Lamb when it first grips the teat a free and conscious agent, capable of improvement in its difficult art of taking nourishment? The insect is no more capable of improvement in its art, more difficult still, of giving nourishment.

But, with its hide-bound science ignorant of itself, pure insect, if it stood alone, would leave the insect unarmed in the perpetual conflict of circumstances. No two moments in time are identical; though the background remain the same, the details change; the unexpected rises on every side. In this bewildering confusion, a guide is needed to seek, accept, refuse and select; to show preference for this and indifference to that; to turn to account, in short, anything useful that occasion may offer. This guide the insect undoubtedly possesses, to a very manifest degree. It is the second province of its mentality. Here it is conscious and capable of improvement by experience. I dare not speak of this rudimentary faculty as intelligence, which is too exalted a title: I will call it DISCERNMENT. The insect, in exercising its highest gifts, discerns, differentiates between one thing and another, within the sphere of its business, of course; and that is about all.

As long as we confound acts of pure instinct and acts of discernment under the same head, we shall fall back into those endless discussions which embitter controversy without bringing us one step nearer to the solution of the problem. Is the insect conscious of what it does? Yes and no. No, if its action is in the province of instinct; yes, if the action is in that of discernment. Are the habits of an insect capable of modification? No, decidedly not, if the habit in question belongs to the province of instinct; yes, if it belongs to that of discernment. Let us state this fundamental distinction more precisely by the aid of a few examples.

The Pelopaeus builds her cells with earth already softened, with mud. Here we have instinct, the unalterable characteristic of the worker. She has always built in this way and always will. The passing ages will never teach her, neither the struggle for life nor the law of selection will ever induce her to imitate the Mason-bee and collect dry dust for her mortar. This mud nest needs a shelter against the rain. The hiding-place under a stone suffices at first. But should she find something better, the potter takes possession of that something better and instals herself in the home of man (4). There we have discernment, the source of some sort of capacity for improvement.

The Pelopaeus supplies her larvae with provisions in the form of Spiders. There you have instinct. The climate, the longitude or latitude, the changing seasons, the abundance or scarcity of game introduce no modification into this diet, though the larva shows itself satisfied with other fare provided by myself. Its forebears were brought up on Spiders; their descendants consumed similar food; and their posterity again will know no other. Not a single circumstance, however favourable, will ever persuade the Pelopaeus that young Crickets, for instance, are as good as Spiders and that her family would accept them gladly. Instinct binds her down to the national diet.

But, should the Epeira (5), the favourite prey, be lacking, must the Pelopaeus therefore give up foraging? She will stock her warehouses all the same, because any Spider suits her. There you have discernment, whose elasticity makes up, in certain circumstances, for the too-great rigidity of instinct. Amid the innumerable variety of game, the huntress is able to discern between what is Spider and what is not; and, in this way, she is always prepared to supply her family, without quitting the domain of her instinct.

The Hairy Ammophila gives her larva a single caterpillar, a large one, paralysed by as many pricks of her sting as it has nervous centres in its thorax and abdomen. Her surgical skill in subduing the monster is instinct displayed in a form which makes short work of any inclination to see in it an acquired habit. In an art that can leave no one to practise it in the future unless that one be perfect at the outset, of what avail are happy chances, atavistic tendencies, the mellowing hand of time? But the grey caterpillar, sacrificed one day, may be succeeded on another day by a green, yellow or striped caterpillar. There you have discernment, which is quite capable of recognizing the regulation prey under very diverse garbs.

The Megachiles build their honey-jars with disks cut out of leaves; certain Anthidia make felted cotton wallets; others fashion pots out of resin. There you have instinct. Will any rash mind ever conceive the singular idea that the Leaf-cutter might very well have started working in cotton, that the cotton-wool-worker once thought or will one day think of cutting disks out of the leaves of the lilac- and the rose-tree, that the resin-kneader began with clay? Who would dare to indulge in any such theories? Each Bee has her art, her medium, to which she strictly confines herself. The first has her leaves; the second her wadding; the third her resin. None of these guilds has ever changed trades with another; and none ever will. There you have instinct, keeping the workers to their specialities. There are no innovations in their workshops, no recipes resulting from experiment, no ingenious devices, no progress from indifferent to good, from good to excellent. To-day's method is the facsimile of yesterday's; and to-morrow will know no other.

But, though the manufacturing-process is invariable, the raw material is subject to change. The plant that supplies the cotton differs in species according to the locality; the bush out of whose leaves the pieces will be cut is not the same in the various fields of operation; the tree that provides the resinous putty may be a pine, a cypress, a juniper, a cedar or a spruce, all very different in appearance. What will guide the insect in its gleaning? Discernment.

These, I think, are sufficient details of the fundamental distinction to be drawn in the insect's mentality; the distinction, that is, between instinct and discernment. If people confuse these two provinces, as they nearly always do, any understanding becomes impossible; the last glimmer of light disappears behind the clouds of interminable discussions. From an industrial point of view, let us look upon the insect as a worker thoroughly versed from birth in a craft whose essential principles never vary; let us grant that unconscious worker a gleam of intelligence which will permit it to extricate itself from the inevitable conflict of attendant circumstances; and I think that we shall have come as near to the truth as the state of our knowledge will allow for the moment.

Having thus assigned a due share both to instinct and the aberrations of instinct when the course of its different phases is disturbed, let us see what discernment is able to do in the selection of a site for the nest and materials for building it; and, leaving the Pelopaeus, upon whom it is useless to dwell any longer, let us consider other examples, picked from among those richest in variations.

The Mason-bee of the Sheds (Chalicodoma rufitarsis, PEREZ) well deserves the name which I have felt justified in giving her from her habits: she settles in numerous colonies in our sheds, on the lower surface of the tiles, where she builds huge nests which endanger the solidity of the roof. Nowhere does the insect display a greater zeal for work than in one of these colossal cities, an estate which is constantly increasing as it passes down from one generation to another; nowhere does it find a better workshop for the exercise of its industry. Here it has plenty of room: a quiet resting-place, sheltered from damp and from excess of heat or cold.

But the spacious domain under the tiles is not within the reach of all: sheds with free access and the proper sunny aspect are pretty rare. These sites fall only to the favoured of fortune. Where will the others take up their quarters? More or less everywhere. Without leaving the house in which I live, I can enumerate stone, wood, glass, metal, paint and mortar as forming the foundation of the nests. The green-house with its furnace heat in the summer and its bright light, equalling that outside, is fairly well-frequented. The Mason-bee hardly ever fails to build there each year, in squads of a few dozen apiece, now on the glass panes, now on the iron bars of the framework. Other little swarms settle in the window embrasures, under the projecting ledge of the front door or in the cranny between the wall and an open shutter. Others again, being perhaps of a morose disposition, flee society and prefer to work in solitude, one in the inside of a lock or of a pipe intended to carry the rain-water from the leads; another in the mouldings of the doors and windows or in the crude ornamentation of the stone-work. In short, the house is made use of all round, provided that the shelter be an out-of-door one; for observe that the enterprising invader, unlike the Pelopaeus, never penetrates inside our dwellings. The case of the conservatory is an exception more apparent than real: the glass building, standing wide open throughout the summer, is to the Mason-bee but a shed a little lighter than the others. There is nothing here to arouse the distrust with which anything indoors or shut up inspires her. To build on the threshold of an outer door, or to usurp its lock, a hiding-place to her fancy, is all that she allows herself; to go any farther is an adventure repugnant to her taste.

Lastly, in the case of all these dwellings, the Mason-bee is man's free tenant; her industry makes use of the products of our own industry. Can she have no other establishments? She has, beyond a doubt; she possesses some constructed on the ancient plan. On a stone the size of a man's fist, protected by the shelter of a hedge, sometimes even on a pebble in the open air, I see her building now groups of cells as large as a walnut, now domes emulating in size, shape and solidity those of her rival, the Mason-bee of the Walls.

The stone support is the most frequent, though not the only one. I have found nests, but sparsely inhabited it is true, on the trunks of trees, in the seams of the rough bark of oaks. Among those whose support was a living plant, I will mention two that stand out above all the others. The first was built in the lobe of a torch-thistle as thick as my leg; the second rested on a stalk of the opuntia, the Indian fig. Had the fierce armour of these two stout cactuses attracted the attention of the insect, which looked upon their tufts of spikes as furnishing a system of defence for its nest? Perhaps so. In any case, the attempt was not imitated; I never saw another installation of the kind. There is one definite conclusion to be drawn from my two discoveries. Despite the oddity of their structure, which is unparalleled among the local flora, the two American importations did not compel the insect to go through an apprenticeship of groping and hesitation. The one which found itself in the presence of those novel growths, and which was perhaps the first of its race to do so, took possession of their lobes and stalks just as it would have done of a familiar site. From the start, the fleshy plants from the New World suited it as well as the trunk of a native tree.

The Mason-bee of the Pebbles (Chalicodoma parietina) has none of this elasticity in the choice of a site. In her case, the smooth stone of the parched uplands is the almost invariable foundation of her structures. Elsewhere, under a less clement sky, she prefers the support of a wall, which protects the nest against the prolonged snows. Lastly, the Mason-bee of the Shrubs (Chalicodoma rufescens, PEREZ) fixes her ball of clay to a twig of any ligneous plant, from the thyme, the rock-rose and the heath to the oak, the elm and the pine. The list of the sites that suit her would almost form a complete catalogue of the ligneous flora.

The variety of places wherein the insect instals itself, so eloquent of the part played by discernment in their selection, becomes still more remarkable when it is accompanied by a corresponding variety in the architecture of the cells. This is more particularly the case with the Three-horned Osmia, who, as she uses clayey materials very easily affected by the rain, requires, like the Pelopaeus, a dry shelter for her cells, a shelter which she finds ready-made and uses just as it is, after a few touches by way of sweeping and cleansing. The homes which I see her adopt are especially the shells of Snails that have died under the stone-heaps and in the low, unmortared walls which support the cultivated earth of the hills in shelves or terraces. The use of Snail-shells is accompanied by the no less active use of the old cells of both the Mason-bee of the Sheds and of certain Anthophorae (A. pilipes, A. parietina and A. personata).

We must not forget the reed, which is highly appreciated when — a rare find — it appears under the requisite conditions. In its natural state, the plant with the mighty hollow cylinders is of no possible use to the Osmia, who knows nothing of the art of perforating a woody wall. The gallery of an internode has to be wide open before the insect can take possession of it. Also, the clean-cut stump must be horizontal, otherwise the rain would soften the fragile edifice of clay and soon lay it low; also, the stump must not be lying on the ground and must be kept at some distance from the dampness of the soil. We see therefore that, without the intervention of man, involuntary in the vast majority of cases and deliberate only on the experimenter's part, the Osmia would hardly ever find a reed-stump suited to the installation of her family. It is to her a casual acquisition, a home unknown to her race before men took it into their heads to cut reeds and make them into hurdles for drying figs in the sun.

How did the work of man's pruning-knife bring about the abandonment of the natural lodging? How was the spiral staircase of the Snail-shell replaced by the cylindrical gallery of the reed? Was the change from one kind of house to another effected by gradual transitions, by attempts made, abandoned, resumed, becoming more and more definite in their results as generation succeeded generation? Or did the Osmia, finding the cut reed that answered her requirements, instal herself there straightway, scorning her ancient dwelling, the Snail-shell? These questions called for a reply; and they have received one. Let us describe how things happened.

Near Serignan are some great quarries of coarse limestone, characteristic of the miocene formation of the Rhone valley. These have been worked for many generations. The ancient public buildings of Orange, notably the colossal frontage of the theatre whither all the intellectual world once flocked to hear Sophocles' "Oedipus Tyrannus," derive most of their material from these quarries. Other evidence confirms what the similarity of the hewn stone tells us. Among the rubbish that fills up the spaces between the tiers of seats, they occasionally discover the Marseilles obol, a bit of silver stamped with the four-spoked wheel, or a few bronze coins bearing the effigy of Augustus or Tiberius. Scattered also here and there among the monuments of antiquity are heaps of refuse, accumulations of broken stones in which various Hymenoptera, including the Three-horned Osmia in particular, take possession of the dead Snail-shell.

The quarries form part of an extensive plateau which is so arid as to be nearly deserted. In these conditions, the Osmia, at all times faithful to her birth-place, has little or no need to emigrate from her heap of stones and leave the shell for another dwelling which she would have to go and seek at a distance. Since there are heaps of stone there, she probably has no other dwelling than the Snail-shell. Nothing tells us that the present-day generations are not descended in the direct line from the generations contemporary with the quarryman who lost his as or his obol at this spot. All the circumstances seem to point to it: the Osmia of the quarries is an inveterate user of Snail-shells; so far as heredity is concerned, she knows nothing whatever of reeds. Well, we must place her in the presence of these new lodgings.

I collect during the winter about two dozen well-stocked Snail-shells and instal them in a quiet corner of my study, as I did at the time of my enquiries into the distribution of the sexes. The little hive with its front pierced with forty holes has bits of reed fitted to it. At the foot of the five rows of cylinders I place the inhabited shells and with these I mix a few small stones, the better to imitate the natural conditions. I add an assortment of empty Snail-shells, after carefully cleaning the interior so as to make the Osmia's stay more pleasant. When the time comes for nest-building, the stay-at-home insect will have, close beside the house of its birth, a choice of two habitations: the cylinder, a novelty unknown to its race; and the spiral staircase, the ancient ancestral home.

The nests were finished at the end of May and the Osmiae began to answer my list of questions. Some, the great majority, settled exclusively in the reeds; the others remained faithful to the Snail-shell or else entrusted their eggs partly to the spirals and partly to the cylinders. With the first, who were the pioneers of cylindrical architecture, there was no hesitation that I could perceive: after exploring the stump of reed for a time and recognizing it as serviceable, the insect instals itself there and, an expert from the first touch, without apprenticeship, without groping, without any tendencies bequeathed by the long practice of its predecessors, builds its straight row of cells on a very different plan from that demanded by the spiral cavity of the shell which increases in size as it goes on.

The slow school of the ages, the gradual acquisitions of the past, the legacies of heredity count for nothing therefore in the Osmia's education. Without any novitiate on its own part or that of its forebears, the insect is versed straight away in the calling which it has to pursue; it possesses, inseparable from its nature, the qualities demanded by its craft: some which are invariable and belong to the domain of instinct; others, flexible, belonging to the province of discernment. To divide a free lodging into chambers by means of mud partitions; to fill those chambers with a heap of pollen-flour, with a few sups of honey in the central part where the egg is to lie; in short, to prepare board and lodging for the unknown, for a family which the mothers have never seen in the past and will never see in the future: this, in its essential features, is the function of the Osmia's instinct. Here, everything is harmoniously, inflexibly, permanently preordained; the insect has but to follow its blind impulse to attain the goal. But the free lodging offered by chance varies exceedingly in hygienic conditions, in shape and in capacity. Instinct, which does not choose, which does not contrive, would, if it were alone, leave the insect's existence in peril. To help her out of her predicament, in these complex circumstances, the Osmia possesses her little stock of discernment, which distinguishes between the dry and the wet, the solid and the fragile, the sheltered and the exposed; which recognizes the worth or the worthlessness of a site and knows how to sprinkle it with cells according to the size and shape of the space at disposal. Here, slight industrial variations are necessary and inevitable; and the insect excels in them without any apprenticeship, as the experiment with the native Osmia of the quarries has just proved.

Animal resources have a certain elasticity, within narrow limits. What we learn from the animals' industry at a given moment is not always the full measure of their skill. They possess latent powers held in reserve for certain emergencies. Long generations can succeed one another without employing them; but, should some circumstance require it, suddenly those powers burst forth, free of any previous attempts, even as the spark potentially contained in the flint flashes forth independently of all preceding gleams. Could one who knew nothing of the Sparrow but her nest under the eaves suspect the ball-shaped nest at the top of a tree? Would one who knew nothing of the Osmia save her home in the Snail-shell expect to see her accept as her dwelling a stump of reed, a paper funnel, a glass tube? My neighbour the Sparrow, impulsively taking it into her head to leave the roof for the plane-tree, the Osmia of the quarries, rejecting her natal cabin, the spiral of the shell, for my cylinder, alike show us how sudden and spontaneous are the industrial variations of animals.


Translator's Notes:

  1. A Mason-wasp forming the subject of essays which have not yet been published in English.
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  2. Cf. "The Mason-bees": chapter 7.
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  3. Cf. "Social Life in the Insect World" by J.H. Fabre, translated by Bernard Miall: chapter 14.
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  4. The Pelopaeus builds in the fire-places of houses.
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  5. The Weaving or Garden Spider. Cf. "The Life of the Spider" by J. Henri Fabre translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos; chapters 9 to 14 and appendix.
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Jean-Henri Fabre, Virgil of insects



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