Jean-Henri FABRE Mason-bees - Chapter III
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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 (1) have already led us to a like conclusion. When the nest is laid open, these Wasps become wholly indifferent to the family, to the grub writhing in agony in the sun. They do not recognize it. What they do recognize, what they seek and find with marvellous precision, is the site of the entrance-door of which nothing at all is left, not even the threshold.

If any doubts remained as to the incapacity of the Mason-bee of the Walls to know her nest other than by the place which the pebble occupies on the ground, here is something to remove them: for the nest of one Mason-bee, I substitute that of another, resembling it as closely as possible in respect to both masonry and storage. This exchange and those of which I shall speak presently are of course made in the owner's absence. The Bee settles without hesitation in this nest which is not hers, but which stands where the other did. If she was building, I offer her a cell in process of building. She continues the masonry with the same care and the same zeal as if the work already done were her own work. If she was fetching honey and pollen, I offer her a partly-provisioned cell. She continues her journeys, with honey in her crop and pollen under her belly, to finish filling another's warehouse. The Bee, therefore, does not suspect the exchange; she does not distinguish between what is her property and what is not; she imagines that she is still working at the cell which is really hers.

After leaving her for a time in possession of the strange nest, I give her back her own. This fresh change passes unperceived by the Bee: the work is continued in the cell restored to her at the point which it had reached in the substituted cell. I once more replace it by the strange nest; and again the insect persists in continuing its labour. By thus constantly interchanging the strange nest and the proper nest, without altering the actual site, I thoroughly convinced myself of the Bee's inability to discriminate between what is her work and what is not. Whether the cell belong to her or to another, she labours at it with equal zest, so long as the basis of the edifice, the pebble, continues to occupy its original position.

The experiment receives an added interest if we employ two neighbouring nests the work on which is about equally advanced. I move each to where the other stood. They are not much more than thirty inches a part. In spite of their being so near to each other that it is quite possible for the insects to see both homes at once and choose between them, each Bee, on arriving, settles immediately on the substituted nest and continues her work there. Change the two nests as often as you please and you shall see the two Mason-bees keep to the site which they selected and labour in turn now at their own cell and now at the other's.

One might think that the cause of this confusion lies in a close resemblance between the two nests, for at the start, little expecting the results which I was to obtain, I used to choose the nests which I interchanged as much alike as possible, for fear of disheartening the Bees. I need not have taken this precaution: I was giving the insect credit for a perspicacity which it does not possess. Indeed, I now take two nests which are extremely unlike each other, the only point of resemblance being that, in each case, the toiler finds a cell in which she can continue the work which she is actually doing. The first is an old nest whose dome is perforated with eight holes, the apertures of the cells of the previous generation. One of these cells has been repaired; and the Bee is busy storing it. The second is a nest of recent construction, which has not received its mortar dome and consists of a single cell with its stucco covering. Here too the insect is busy hoarding pollen-paste. No two nests could present greater differences: one with its eight empty chambers and its spreading clay dome; the other with its single bare cell, at most the size of an acorn.

Well, the two Mason-bees do not hesitate long in front of these exchanged nests, not three feet away from each other. Each makes for the site of her late home. One, the original owner of the old nest, finds nothing but a solitary cell. She rapidly inspects the pebble and, without further formalities, first plunges her head into the strange cell, to disgorge honey, and then her abdomen, to deposit pollen. And this is not an action due to the imperative need of ridding herself as quickly as possible, no matter where, of an irksome load, for the Bee flies off and soon comes back again with a fresh supply of provender, which she stores away carefully. This carrying of provisions to another's larder is repeated as often as I permit it. The other Bee, finding instead of her one cell a roomy structure consisting of eight apartments, is at first not a little embarrassed. Which of the eight cells is the right one? In which is the heap of paste on which she had begun? The Bee therefore visits the chambers one by one, dives right down to the bottom and ends by finding what she seeks, that is to say, what was in her nest when she started on her last journey, the nucleus of a store of food. Thenceforward she behaves like her neighbour and goes on carrying honey and pollen to the warehouse which is not of her constructing.

Restore the nests to their original places, exchange them yet once again and both Bees, after a short hesitation which the great difference between the two nests is enough to explain, will pursue the work in the cell of her own making and in the strange cell alternately. At last the egg is laid and the sanctuary closed, no matter what nest happens to be occupied at the moment when the provisioning reaches completion. These incidents are sufficient to show why I hesitate to give the name of memory to the singular faculty that brings the insect back to her nest with such unerring precision and yet does not allow her to distinguish her work from some one else's, however great the difference may be.

We will now experiment with Chalicodoma muraria from another psychological point of view. Here is a Mason-bee building; she is at work on the first course of her cell. I give her in exchange a cell not only finished as a structure, but also filled nearly to the top with honey. I have just stolen it from its owner, who would not have been long before laying her egg in it. What will the Mason do in the presence of this munificent gift, which saves her the trouble of building and harvesting? She will leave the mortar no doubt, finish storing the Bee-bread, lay her egg and seal up. A mistake, an utter mistake: our logic is not the logic of the insect, which obeys an inevitable, unconscious prompting. It has no choice as to what it shall do; it cannot discriminate between what is and what is not advisable; it glides, as it were, down an irresistible slope prepared beforehand to bring it to a definite end. This is what the facts that still remain to be stated proclaim with no uncertain voice.

The Bee who was building and to whom I offer a cell ready-built and full of honey does not lay aside her mortar for that. She was doing mason's work; and, once on that tack, guided by the unconscious impulse, she has to keep masoning, even though her labour be useless, superfluous and opposed to her interests. The cell which I give her is certainly perfect, looked upon as a building, in the opinion of the master-builder herself, since the Bee from whom I took it was completing the provision of honey. To touch it up, especially to add to it, is useless and, what is more, absurd. No matter: the Bee who was masoning will mason. On the aperture of the honey-store she lays a first course of mortar, followed by another and yet another, until at last the cell is a third taller then the regulation height. The masonry-task is now done, not as perfectly, it is true, as if the Bee had gone on with the cell whose foundations she was laying at the moment when I exchanged the nests, but still to an extent which is more than enough to prove the overpowering impulse which the builder obeys. Next comes the victualling, which is also cut short, lest the honey-store swelled by the joint contributions of the two Bees should overflow. Thus the Mason-bee who is beginning to build and to whom we give a complete cell, a cell filled with honey, makes no change in the order of her work: she builds first and then victuals. Only she shortens her work, her instinct warning her that the height of the cell and the quantity of honey are beginning to assume extravagant proportions.

The converse is equally conclusive. To a Mason-bee engaged in victualling I give a nest with a cell only just begun and not at all fit to receive the paste. This cell, with its last course still wet with its builder's saliva, may or may not be accompanied by other cells recently closed up, each with its honey and its egg. The Bee, finding this in the place of her half-filled honey-store, is greatly perplexed what to do when she comes with her harvest to this unfinished, shallow cup, in which there is no place to put the honey. She inspects it, measures it with her eyes, tries it with her antennae and recognizes its insufficient capacity. She hesitates for a long time, goes away, comes back, flies away again and soon returns, eager to deposit her treasure. The insect's embarrassment is most evident; and I cannot help saying, inwardly:

'Get some mortar, get some mortar and finish making the warehouse. It will only take you a few moments; and you will have a cupboard of the right depth.'

The Bee thinks differently: she was storing her cell and she must go on storing, come what may. Never will she bring herself to lay aside the pollen-brush for the trowel; never will she suspend the foraging which is occupying her at this moment to begin the work of construction which is not yet due. She will rather go in search of a strange cell, in the desired condition, and slip in there to deposit her honey, at the risk of meeting with a warm reception from the irate owner. She goes off, in fact, to try her luck. I wish her success, being myself the cause of this desperate act. My curiosity has turned an honest worker into a robber.

Things may take a still more serious turn, so invincible, so imperious is the desire to have the booty stored in a safe place without delay. The uncompleted cell which the Bee refuses to accept instead of her own finished warehouse, half-filled with honey, is often, as I said, accompanied by other cells, not long closed, each containing its Bee-bread and its egg. In this case, I have sometimes, though not always, witnessed the following: when once the Bee realises the shortcomings of the unfinished nest, she begins to gnaw the clay lid closing one of the adjoining cells. She softens a part of the mortar cover with saliva and patiently, atom by atom, digs through the hard wall. It is very slow work. A good half-hour elapses before the tiny cavity is large enough to admit a pin's head. I wait longer still. Then I lose patience; and, fully convinced that the Bee is trying to open the store-room, I decide to help her to shorten the work. The upper part of the cell comes away with it, leaving the edges badly broken. In my awkwardness, I have turned an elegant vase into a wretched cracked pot.

I was right in my conjecture: the Bee's intention was to break open the door. Straight away, without heeding the raggedness of the orifice, she settles down in the cell which I have opened for her. Time after time, she fetches honey and pollen, though the larder is already fully stocked. Lastly, she lays her egg in this cell which already contains an egg that is not hers, having done which she closes the broken aperture to the best of her ability. So this purveyor had neither the knowledge nor the power to bow to the inevitable. I had made it impossible for her to go on with her purveying, unless she first completed the unfinished cell substituted for her own. But she did not retreat before that impossible task. She accomplished her work, but in the absurdest way: by injuriously trespassing upon another's property, by continuing to store provisions in a cupboard already full to overflowing, by laying her egg in a cell in which the real owner had already laid and lastly by hurriedly closing an orifice that called for serious repairs. What better proof could be wished of the irresistible propensity which the insect obeys?

Lastly, there are certain swift and consecutive actions so closely interlinked that the performance of the second demands a previous repetition of the first, even when this action has become useless. I have already described how the Yellow-winged Sphex (2) persists in descending into her burrow alone, after depositing at its edge the Cricket whom I maliciously at once remove. Her repeated discomfitures do not make her abandon the preliminary inspection of the home, an inspection which becomes quite useless when renewed for the tenth or twentieth time. The Mason-bee of the Walls shows us, under another form, a similar repetition of an act which is useless in itself, but which is the compulsory preface to the act that follows. When arriving with her provisions, the Bee performs a twofold operation of storing. First, she dives head foremost into the cell, to disgorge the contents of her crop; next, she comes out and at once goes in again backwards, to brush her abdomen and rub off the load of pollen. At the moment when the insect is about to enter the cell tail first, I push her aside gently with a straw. The second act is thus prevented. The Bee now begins the whole performance over again, that is to say, she once more dives head first to the bottom of the cell, though she has nothing left to disgorge, as her crop has just been emptied. When this is done, it is the belly's turn. I instantly push her aside again. The insect repeats its proceedings, still entering head first; I also repeat my touch of the straw. And this can go on as long as the observer pleases. Pushed aside at the moment when she is about to insert her abdomen into the cell, the Bee goes back to the opening and persists in going down head first to begin with. Sometimes, she descends to the bottom, sometimes only half-way, sometimes again she only pretends to descend, just bending her head into the aperture; but, whether completed or not, this action, for which there is no longer any motive, since the honey has already been disgorged, invariably precedes the entrance backwards to deposit the pollen. It is almost the movement of a machine whose works are only set going when the driving-wheel begins to revolve.


Translator's Notes:

  1. Cf. "Insect Life": chapters 16 to 19.

  2. Cf. "Insect Life": chapters 6 to 9.

Jean-Henri Fabre, Virgil of insects

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