Jean-Henri FABRE Mason-bees - Chapter VII
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SOME REFLECTIONS
UPON INSECT PSYCHOLOGY

 

The laudator temperis acti is out of favour just now: the world is on the move. Yes, but sometimes it moves backwards. When I was a boy, our twopenny textbooks told us that man was a reasoning animal; nowadays, there are learned volumes to prove to us that human reason is but a higher rung in the ladder whose foot reaches down to the bottommost depths of animal life. There is the greater and the lesser; there are all the intermediary rounds; but nowhere does it break off and start afresh. It begins with zero in the glair of a cell and ascends until we come to the mighty brain of a Newton. The noble faculty of which we were so proud is a zoological attribute. All have a larger or smaller share of it, from the live atom to the anthropoid ape, that hideous caricature of man.

It always struck me that those who held this levelling theory made facts say more than they really meant; it struck me that, in order to obtain their plain, they were lowering the mountain-peak, man, and elevating the valley, the animal. Now this levelling of theirs needed proofs, to my mind; and, as I found none in their books, or at any rate only doubtful and highly debatable ones, I did my own observing, in order to arrive at a definite conviction; I sought; I experimented.

To speak with any certainty, it behoves us not to go beyond what we really know. I am beginning to have a passable acquaintance with insects, after spending some forty years in their company. Let us question the insect, then: not the first that comes along, but the most gifted, the Hymenopteron. I am giving my opponents every advantage. Where will they find a creature more richly endowed with talent? It would seem as though, in creating it, nature had delighted in bestowing the greatest amount of industry upon the smallest body of matter. Can the bird, wonderful architect that it is, compare its work with that masterpiece of higher geometry, the edifice of the Bee? The Hymenopteron rivals man himself. We build towns, the Bee erects cities; we have servants, the Ant has hers; we rear domestic animals, she rears her sugar-yielding insects; we herd cattle, she herds her milch-cows, the Aphides; we have abolished slavery, whereas she continues her nigger-traffic.

Well, does this superior, this privileged being reason? Reader, do not smile: this is a most serious matter, well worthy of our consideration. To devote our attention to animals is to plunge at once into the vexed question of who we are and whence we come. What, then, passes in that little Hymenopteron brain? Has it faculties akin to ours, has it the power of thought? What a problem, if we could only solve it; what a chapter of psychology, if we could only write it! But, at our very first questionings, the mysterious will rise up, impenetrable: we may be convinced of that. We are incapable of knowing ourselves; what will it be if we try to fathom the intellect of others? Let us be content if we succeed in gleaning a few grains of truth.

What is reason? Philosophy would give us learned definitions. Let us be modest and keep to the simplest: we are only treating of animals. Reason is the faculty that connects the effect with its cause and directs the act by conforming it to the needs of the accidental. Within these limits, are animals capable of reasoning? Are they able to connect a 'because' with a 'why' and afterwards to regulate their behaviour accordingly? Are they able to change their line of conduct when faced with an emergency?

History has but few data likely to be of use to us here; and those which we find scattered in various authors are seldom able to withstand a severe examination. One of the most remarkable of which I know is supplied by Erasmus Darwin, in his book entitled "Zoonomia." It tells of a Wasp that has just caught and killed a big Fly. The wind is blowing; and the huntress, hampered in her flight by the great area presented by her prize, alights on the ground to amputate the abdomen, the head and the wings; she flies away, carrying with her only the thorax, which gives less hold to the wind. If we keep to the bald facts, this does, I admit, give a semblance of reason. The Wasp appears to grasp the relation between cause and effect. The effect is the resistance experienced in the flight; the cause is the dimensions of the prey contending with the air. Hence the logical conclusion: those dimensions must be lessened; the abdomen, the head and, above all, the wings must be chopped off; and the resistance will be decreased (a).

But does this concatenation of ideas, rudimentary though it be, really take place within the insect's brain? I am convinced of the contrary; and my proofs are unanswerable. In the first volume of these "Souvenirs" (1), I demonstrated by experiment that Erasmus Darwin's Wasp was but obeying her instinct, which is to cut up the captured game and to keep only the most nourishing part, the thorax. Whether the day be perfectly calm or whether the wind blow, whether she be in the shelter of a dense thicket or in the open, I see the Wasp proceed to separate the succulent from the tough; I see her reject the legs, the wings, the head and the abdomen, retaining only the breast as pap for her larvae. Then what value has this dissection as an argument in favour of the insect's reasoning-powers when the wind blows? It has no value at all, for it would take place just the same in absolutely calm weather. Erasmus Darwin jumped too quickly to his conclusion, which was the outcome of his mental bias and not of the logic of things. If he had first enquired into the Wasp's habits, he would not have brought forward as a serious argument an incident which had no connection with the important question of animal reason.

I have reverted to this case to show the difficulties that beset the man who confines himself to casual observations, however carefully carried out. One should never rely upon a lucky chance, which may not occur again. We must multiply our observations, check them one with the other; we must create incidents, looking into preceding ones, finding out succeeding ones and working out the relation between them all: then and not till then, with extreme caution, are we entitled to express a few views worthy of credence. Nowhere do I find data collected under such conditions; for which reason, however much I might wish it, it is impossible for me to bring the evidence of others in support of the few conclusions which I myself have formed.

My Mason-bees, with their nests hanging on the walls of the arch which I have mentioned, lent themselves to continuous experiment better than any other Hymenopteron. I had them there, at my house, under my eyes, at all hours of the day, as long as I wished. I was free to follow their actions in full detail and to carry out successfully any experiment, however long. Moreover, their numbers allowed me to repeat my attempts until I was perfectly convinced. The Mason-bees, therefore, shall supply me with the materials for this chapter also.

A few words, before I begin, about the works. The Mason-bee of the Sheds utilizes, first of all, the old galleries of the clay nest, a part of which she good-naturedly abandons to two Osmiae, her free tenants: the Three-horned Osmia and Latreille's Osmia. These old corridors, which save labour, are in great demand; but there are not many vacant, as the more precocious Osmiae have already taken possession of most of them; and therefore the building of new cells soon begins. These cells are cemented to the surface of the nest, which thus increases in thickness every year. The edifice of cells is not built all at once: mortar and honey alternate repeatedly. The masonry starts with a sort of little swallow's nest, a half-cup or thimble, whose circumference is completed by the wall against which it rests. Picture the cup of an acorn cut in two and stuck to the surface of the nest: there you have the receptacle in a stage sufficiently advanced to take a first instalment of honey.

The Bee thereupon leaves the mortar and busies herself with harvesting. After a few foraging-trips, the work of building is resumed; and some new rows of bricks raise the edge of the basin, which becomes capable of receiving a larger stock of provisions. Then comes another change of business: the mason once more becomes a harvester. A little later, the harvester is again a mason; and these alternations continue until the cell is of the regulation height and holds the amount of honey required for the larva's food. Thus come, turn and turn about, more or less numerous according to the occupation in hand, journeys to the dry and barren path, where the cement is gathered and mixed, and journeys to the flowers, where the Bee's crop is crammed with honey and her belly powdered with pollen.

At last comes the time for laying. We see the Bee arrive with a pellet of mortar. She gives a glance at the cell to enquire if everything is in order; she inserts her abdomen; and the egg is laid. Then and there the mother seals up the home: with her pellet of cement she closes the orifice and manages so well with the material that the lid receives its permanent form at this first sitting; it has only to be thickened and strengthened with fresh layers, a work which is less urgent and will be done by and by. What does appear to be an urgent necessity is the closing of the cell immediately after the egg has been religiously deposited therein, so that there may be no danger from evilly-disposed visitors during the mother's absence. The Bee must have serious reasons for thus hurrying on the closing of the cell. What would happen if, after laying her egg, she left the house open and went to the cement-pit to fetch the wherewithal to block the door? Some thief might drop in and substitute her own egg for the Mason-bee's. We shall see that our suspicions are not uncalled-for. One thing is certain, that the Mason never lays without having in her mandibles the pellet of mortar required for the immediate construction of the lid of the nest. The precious egg must not for a single instant remain exposed to the cupidity of marauders.

To these particulars I will add a few general observations which will make what follows easier to understand. So long as its circumstances are normal, the insect's actions are calculated most rationally in view of the object to be attained. What could be more logical, for instance, than the devices employed by the Hunting Wasp when paralysing her prey (2) so that it may keep fresh for her larva, while in no wise imperilling that larva's safety? It is preeminently rational; we ourselves could think of nothing better; and yet the Wasp's action is not prompted by reason. If she thought out her surgery, she would be our superior. It will never occur to anybody that the creature is able, in the smallest degree, to account for its skilful vivisections. Therefore, so long as it does not depart from the path mapped out for it, the insect can perform the most sagacious actions without entitling us in the least to attribute these to the dictates of reason.

What would happen in an emergency? Here we must distinguish carefully between two classes of emergency, or we shall be liable to grievous error. First, in accidents occurring in the course of the insect's occupation at the moment. In these circumstances, the creature is capable of remedying the accident; it continues, under a similar form, its actual task; it remains, in short; in the same psychic condition. In the second case, the accident is connected with a more remote occupation; it relates to a completed task with which, under normal conditions, the insect is no longer concerned. To meet this emergency, the creature would have to retrace its psychic course; it would have to do all over again what it has just finished, before turning its attention to anything else. Is the insect capable of this? Will it be able to leave the present and return to the past? Will it decide to hark back to a task that is much more pressing than the one on which it was engaged? If it did all this, then we should really have evidence of a modicum of reason. The question shall be settled by experiment.

We will begin by taking a few incidents that come under the first heading. A Mason-bee has finished the initial layer of the covering of the cell. She has gone in search of a second pellet of mortar wherewith to strengthen her work. In her absence, I prick the lid with a needle and widen the hole thus made, until it is half the size of the opening. The insect returns and repairs the damage. It was originally engaged on the lid and is merely continuing its work in mending that lid.

A second is still at her first row of bricks. The cell as yet is no more than a shallow cup, containing no provisions. I make a big hole in the bottom of the cup and the Bee hastens to stop the breach. She was busy building and turned aside a moment to do more building. Her repairs are the continuation of the work on which she was engaged.

A third has laid her egg and closed the cell. While she is gone in search of a fresh supply of cement to strengthen the door, I make a large aperture immediately below the lid, too high up to allow the honey to escape. The insect, on arriving with its mortar intended for a different task, sees its broken jar and soon puts the damage right. I have rarely witnessed such a sensible performance. Nevertheless, all things considered, let us not be too lavish of our praises. The insect was busy closing up. On its return, it sees a crack, representing in its eyes a bad join which it had overlooked; it completes its actual task by improving the join.

The conclusion to be drawn from these three instances, which I select from a large number of others, more or less similar, is that the insect is able to cope with emergencies, provided that the new action be not outside the course of its actual work at the moment. Shall we say then that reason directs it? Why should we? The insect persists in the same psychic course, it continues its action, it does what it was doing before, it corrects what to it appears but a careless flaw in the work of the moment.

Here, moreover, is something which would change our estimate entirely, if it ever occurred to us to look upon these repaired breaches as a work dictated by reason. Let us turn to the second class of emergency referred to above: let us imagine, first, cells similar to those in the second experiment, that is to say, only half-finished, in the form of a shallow cup, but already containing honey. I make a hole in the bottom, through which the provisions ooze and run to waste. Their owners are harvesting. Let us imagine, on the other hand, cells very nearly finished and almost completely provisioned. I perforate the bottom in the same way and let out the honey, which drips through gradually. The owners of these are building.

Judging by what has gone before, the reader will perhaps expect to see immediate repairs, urgent repairs, for the safety of the future larva is at stake. Let him dismiss any such illusion: more and more journeys are undertaken, now in quest of food, now in quest of mortar; but not one of the Mason-bees troubles about the disastrous breach. The harvester goes on harvesting; the busy bricklayer proceeds with her next row of bricks, as though nothing out of the way had happened. Lastly, if the injured cells are high enough and contain enough provisions, the Bee lays her eggs, puts a door to the house and passes on to another house, without doing aught to remedy the leakage of the honey. Two or three days later, those cells have lost all their contents, which now form a long trail on the surface of the nest.

Is it through lack of intelligence that the Bee allows her honey to go to waste? May it not rather be through helplessness? It might happen that the sort of mortar which the Mason has at her disposal will not set on the edges of a hole that is sticky with honey. The honey may prevent the cement from adjusting itself to the orifice, in which case the insect's inertness would merely be resignation to an irreparable evil. Let us look into the matter before drawing inferences. With my forceps, I deprive the Bee of her pellet of mortar and apply it to the hole whence the honey is escaping. My attempt at repairing meets with the fullest success, though I do not pretend to compete with the Mason in dexterity. For a piece of work done by a man's hand it is quite creditable. My dab of mortar fits nicely into the mutilated wall; it hardens as usual; and the escape of honey ceases. This is quite satisfactory. What would it be had the work been done by the insect, equipped with its tools of exquisite precision? When the Mason-bee refrains, therefore, this is not due to helplessness on her part, nor to any defect in the material employed.

Another objection presents itself. We are going too far perhaps in admitting this concatenation of ideas in the insect's mind, in expecting it to argue that the honey is running away because the cell has a hole in it and that to save it from being wasted the hole must be stopped. So much logic perhaps exceeds the powers of its poor little brain. Then, again, the hole is not seen; it is hidden by the honey trickling through. The cause of that stream of honey is an unknown cause; and to trace the loss of the liquid home to that cause, to the hole in the receptacle, is too lofty a piece of reasoning for the insect.

A cell in the rudimentary cup-stage and containing no provisions has a hole, three or four millimètres (3) wide, made in it at the bottom. A few moments later, this orifice is stopped by the Mason. We have already witnessed a similar patching. The insect, having finished, starts foraging. I reopen the hole at the same place. The pollen runs through the aperture and falls to the ground as the Bee is rubbing off her first load in the cell. The damage is undoubtedly observed. When plunging her head into the cup to take stock of what she has stored, the Bee puts her antennae into the artificial hole: she sounds it, she explores it, she cannot fail to perceive it.

I see the two feelers quivering outside the hole. The insect notices the breach in the wall: that is certain. It flies off. Will it bring back mortar from its present journey to repair the injured jar as it did just now?

Not at all. It returns with provisions, it disgorges its honey, it rubs off its pollen, it mixes the material. The sticky and almost solid mass fills up the opening and oozes through with difficulty. I roll a spill of paper and free the hole, which remains open and shows daylight distinctly in both directions. I sweep the place clear over and over again, whenever this becomes necessary because new provisions are brought; I clean the opening sometimes in the Bee's absence, sometimes in her presence, while she is busy mixing her paste. The unusual happenings in the warehouse plundered from below cannot escape her any more than the ever-open breach at the bottom of the cell. Nevertheless, for three consecutive hours, I witness this strange sight: the Bee, full of active zeal for the task in hand, omits to plug this vessel of the Danaides. She persists in trying to fill her cracked receptacle, whence the provisions disappear as soon as stored away. She constantly alternates between builder's and harvester's work; she raises the edges of the cell with fresh rows of bricks; she brings provisions which I continue to abstract, so as to leave the breach always visible. She makes thirty-two journeys before my eyes, now for mortar, now for honey, and not once does she bethink herself of stopping the leakage at the bottom of her jar.

At five o'clock in the evening, the works cease. They are resumed on the morrow. This time, I neglect to clean out my artificial orifice and leave the victuals gradually to ooze out by themselves. At length, the egg is laid and the door sealed up, without anything being done by the Bee in the matter of the disastrous breach. And yet to plug the hole were an easy matter for her: a pellet of her mortar would suffice. Besides, while the cup was still empty, did she not instantly close the hole which I had made? Why are not those early repairs of hers repeated? It clearly shows the creature's inability to retrace the course of its actions, however slightly. At the time of the first breach, the cup was empty and the insect was laying the first rows of bricks. The accident produced through my agency concerned the part of the work which occupied the Bee at the actual moment; it was a flaw in the building, such as can occur naturally in new courses of masonry, which have not had time to harden. In correcting that flaw, the Mason did not go outside her usual work.

But, once the provisioning begins, the cup is finished for good and all; and, come what may, the insect will not touch it again. The harvester will go on harvesting, though the pollen trickle to the ground through the drain. To plug the hole would imply a change of occupation of which the insect is incapable for the moment. It is the honey's turn and not the mortar's. The rule upon this point is invariable. A moment comes, presently, when the harvesting is interrupted and the masoning resumed. The edifice must be raised a storey higher. Will the Bee, once more a builder, mixing fresh cement, now attend to the leakage at the bottom? No more than before. What occupies her at present is the new floor, whose brickwork would be repaired at once, if it sustained a damage; but the bottom storey is too old a part of the business, it is ancient history; and the worker will not put a further touch to it, even though it be in serious danger.

For the rest, the present and the following storeys will all have the same fate. Carefully watched by the insect as long as they are in process of building, they are forgotten and allowed to go to ruin once they are actually built. Here is a striking instance: in a cell which has attained its full height, I make a window, almost as large as the natural opening, and place it about half-way up, above the honey. The Bee brings provisions for some time longer and then lays her egg. Through my big window, I see the egg deposited on the victuals. The insect next works at the cover, to which it gives the finishing touches with a series of little taps, administered with infinite care, while the breach remains yawning. On the lid, it scrupulously stops up every pore that could admit so much as an atom; but it leaves the great opening that places the house at the mercy of the first-comer. It goes to that breach repeatedly, puts in its head, examines it, explores it with its antennae, nibbles the edges of it. And that is all. The mutilated cell shall stay as it is, with never a dab of mortar. The threatened part dates too far back for the Bee to think of troubling about it.

I have said enough, I think, to show the insect's mental incapacity in the presence of the accidental. This incapacity is confirmed by renewing the test, an essential condition of all good experiments; therefore my notes are full of examples similar to the one which I have just described. To relate them would be mere repetition; I pass them over for the sake of brevity.

The renewal of a test is not sufficient: we must also vary our test. Let us, then, examine the insect's intelligence from another point of view, that of the introduction of foreign bodies into the cell. The Mason-bee is a housekeeper of scrupulous cleanliness, as indeed are all the Hymenoptera. Not a spot of dirt is suffered in her honey-pot; not a grain of dust is permitted on the surface of her mixture. And yet, while the jar is open, the precious Bee-bread is exposed to accidents. The workers in the cells above may inadvertently drop a little mortar into the lower cells; the owner herself, when working at enlarging the jar, runs the risk of letting a speck of cement fall into the provisions. A Gnat, attracted by the smell, may come and be caught in the honey; brawls between neighbours who are getting into each other's way may send some dust flying thither. All this refuse has to disappear and that quickly, lest afterwards the larva should find coarse fare under its delicate mandibles. Therefore the Mason-bees must be able to cleanse the cell of any foreign body. And, in point of fact, they are well able to do so.

I place on the surface of the honey five or six bits of straw a millimètre in length (4). Great astonishment on the part of the returning insect. Never before have so many sweepings accumulated in its warehouse. The Bee picks out the bits of straw, one by one, to the very last, and each time goes and gets rid of them at a distance. The effort is out of all proportion to the work: I see the Bee soar above the nearest plane-tree, to a height of thirty feet, and fly away beyond it to rid herself of her burden, a mere atom. She fears lest she should litter the place by dropping her bit of straw on the ground, under the nest. A thing like that must be carried very far away.

I place upon the honey-paste a Mason-bee's egg which I myself saw laid in an adjacent cell. The Bee picks it out and throws it away at a distance, as she did with the straws just now. There are two inferences to be drawn from this, both extremely interesting. In the first place, that precious egg, for whose future the Bee labours so indefatigably, becomes a valueless, cumbersome, hateful thing when it belongs to another. Her own egg is everything; the egg of her next door neighbour is nothing. It is flung on the dust-heap like any bit of rubbish. The individual, so zealous on behalf of her family, displays an abominable indifference for the rest of her kind. Each one for himself. In the second place, I ask myself, without as yet being able to find an answer to my question, how certain parasites go to work to give their larva the benefit of the provisions accumulated by the Mason-bee. If they decide to lay their egg on the victuals in the open cell, the Bee, when she sees it, will not fail to cast it out; if they decide to lay after the owner, they cannot do so, for she blocks up the door as soon as her laying is done. This curious problem must be reserved for future investigation. (Cf. "The Life of the Fly": chapters 2 to 4; also later chapters in the present volume (5).

Lastly, I stick into the paste a bit of straw nearly an inch long and standing well out above the rim of the cell. The insect extracts it by dint of great efforts, dragging it away from one side; or else, with the help of its wings, it drags it from above. It darts away with the honey-smeared straw and gets rid of it at a distance, after flying over the plane-tree.

This is where things begin to get complicated. I have said that, when the time comes for laying, the Mason-bee arrives with a pellet of mortar wherewith immediately to make a door to the house. The insect, with its front legs resting on the rim, inserts its abdomen in the cell; it has the mortar ready in its mouth. Having laid the egg, it comes out and turns round to block the door. I wave it away for a second, at the same time planting my straw as before, a straw sticking out nearly a centimetre (6). What will the Bee do? Will she, who is scrupulous in ridding the home of the least mote of dust, extract this beam, which would certainly prove the larva's undoing by interfering with its growth? She could, for just now we saw her drag out and throw away, at a distance, a similar beam.

She could and she doesn't. She closes the cell, cements the lid, seals up the straw in the thickness of the mortar. More journeys are taken, not a few, in search of the cement required to strengthen the cover. Each time, the mason applies the material with the most minute care, while giving the straw not a thought. In this way, I obtain, one after the other, eight closed cells whose lids are surmounted by my mast, a bit of protruding straw. What evidence of obtuse intelligence!

This result is deserving of attentive consideration. At the moment when I am inserting my beam, the insect has its mandibles engaged: they are holding the pellet of mortar intended for the blocking-operation. As the extracting-tool is not free, the extraction does not take place. I expected to see the Bee relinquish her mortar and then proceed to remove the encumbrance. A dab of mortar more or less is not a serious business. I had already noticed that it takes my Mason-bees a journey of three or four minutes to collect one. The pollen-expeditions last longer, a matter of ten or fifteen minutes. To drop her pellet, grab the straw with her mandibles, now disengaged, remove it and gather a fresh supply of cement would entail a loss of five minutes at most. The Bee decides differently. She will not, she cannot relinquish her pellet; and she uses it. No matter that the larva will perish by this untimely trowelling: the moment has come to wall up the door; the door is walled up. Once the mandibles are free, the extraction could be attempted, at the risk of wrecking the lid. But the Bee does nothing of the sort: she keeps on fetching mortar; and the lid is religiously finished.

We might go on to say that, if the Bee were obliged to depart in quest of fresh mortar after dropping the first to withdraw the straw, she would leave the egg unguarded and that this would be an extreme measure which the mother cannot bring herself to adopt. Then why does she not place the pellet on the rim of the cell? The mandibles, now free, would remove the beam; the pellet would be taken up again at once; and everything would go to perfection. But no: the insect has its mortar and, come what may, employs it on the work for which it was intended.

If any one sees a rudiment of reason in this Hymenopteron intelligence, he has eyes that are more penetrating than mine. I see nothing in it all but an invincible persistence in the act once begun. The cogs have gripped; and the rest of the wheels must follow. The mandibles are fastened on the pellet of mortar; and the idea, the wish to unfasten them will never occur to the insect until the pellet has fulfilled its purpose. And here is a still greater absurdity: the plugging once begun is very carefully finished with fresh relays of mortar! Exquisite attention is paid to a closing-up which is henceforth useless; no attention at all to the dangerous beam. O little gleams of reason that are said to enlighten the animal, you are very near the darkness, you are naught!

Another and still more eloquent fact will finally convince whoso may yet be doubting. The ration of honey stored up in a cell is evidently measured by the needs of the coming larva. There is neither too much nor too little. How does the Bee know when the proper quantity is reached? The cells are more or less constant in dimension, but they are not filled completely, only to about two-thirds of their height. A large space is therefore left empty; and the victualler has to judge of the moment when the surface of the mess has attained the right level. The honey being perfectly opaque, its depth is not apparent. I have to use a sounding-rod when I want to gauge the contents of the jar; and I find, on the average, that the honey reaches a depth of ten millimètres (7). The Bee has not this resource; she has sight, which may enable her to estimate the full section from the empty section. This presupposes the possession of a somewhat geometric eye, capable of measuring the third of a distance. If the insect did it by Euclid, that would be very brilliant of it. What a magnificent proof in favour of its little intellect: a Chalicodoma with a geometrician's eye, able to divide a straight line into three equal parts! This is worth looking into seriously.

I take five cells, which are only partly provisioned, and empty them of their honey with a wad of cotton held in my forceps. From time to time, as the Bee brings new provisions, I repeat the cleansing-process, sometimes clearing out the cell entirely, sometimes leaving a thin layer at the bottom. I do not observe any pronounced hesitation on the part of my plundered victims, even though they surprise me at the moment when I am draining the jar; they continue their work with quiet industry. Sometimes, two or three threads of cotton remain clinging to the walls of the cells: the Bees remove them carefully and dart away to a distance, as usual, to get rid of them. At last, a little sooner or a little later, the egg is laid and the lid fastened on.

I break open the five closed cells. In one, the egg has been laid on three millimètres of honey (8); in two, on one millimètre (9); and, in the two others, it is placed on the side of the receptacle drained of all its contents, or, to be more accurate, having only the glaze, the varnish left by the friction of the honey-covered cotton.

The inference is obvious: the Bee does not judge of the quantity of honey by the elevation of the surface; she does not reason like a geometrician, she does not reason at all. She accumulates so long as she feels within her the secret impulse that prompts her to go on collecting until the victualling is completed; she ceases to accumulate when that impulse is satisfied, irrespective of the result, which in this case happens to be worthless. No mental faculty, assisted by sight, informs her when she has enough, or when she has too little. An instinctive predisposition is her only guide, an infallible guide under normal conditions, but hopelessly lost when subjected to the wiles of the experimenter. Had the Bee the least glimmer of reason would she lay her egg on the third, on the tenth part of the necessary provender? Would she lay it in an empty cell? Would she be guilty of such inconceivable maternal aberration as to leave her nurseling without nourishment? I have told the story; let the reader decide.

This instinctive predisposition, which does not leave the insect free to act and, through that very fact, saves it from error, bursts forth under yet another aspect. Let us grant the Bee as much judgment as you please. Thus endowed, will she be capable of meting out the future's larva's portion? By no means. The Bee does not know what that portion is. There is nothing to tell the materfamilias; and yet, at her first attempt, she fills the honey-pot to the requisite depth. True, in her childhood she received a similar ration, but she consumed it in the darkness of a cell; and besides, as a grub, she was blind. Sight was not her informant: it did not tell her the quantity of the provisions. Did memory, the memory of the stomach that once digested them? But digestion took place a year ago; and since that distant epoch, the nurseling, now an adult insect, has changed its shape, its dwelling, its mode of life. It was a grub; it is a Bee. Does the actual insect remember that childhood's meal? No more than we remember the sups of milk drawn from our mother's breast. The Bee, therefore, knows nothing of the quantity of provisions needed by her larva, whether from memory, from example or from acquired experience. Then what guides her when she makes her estimate with such precision? Judgment and sight would leave the mother greatly perplexed, liable to provide too much or not enough. To instruct her beyond the possibility of a mistake demands a special tendency, an unconscious impulse, an instinct, an inward voice that dictates the measure to be apportioned.

 

Author's Note:

  1. I would gladly, if I were able, cancel some rather hasty lines which I allowed myself to pen in the first volume of these "Souvenirs" but scripta manent. All that I can do is to make amends now, in this note, for the error into which I fell. Relying on Lacordaire, who quotes this instance from Erasmus Darwin in his own "Introduction a l'entomologie", I believed that a Sphex was given as the heroine of the story. How could I do otherwise, not having the original text in front of me? How could I suspect that an entomologist of Lacordaire's standing should be capable of such a blunder as to substitute a Sphex for a Common Wasp? Great was my perplexity, in the face of this evidence! A Sphex capturing a Fly was an impossibility; and I blamed the British scientist accordingly. But what insect was it that Erasmus Darwin saw? Calling logic to my aid, I declared that it was a Wasp; and I could not have hit the mark more truly. Charles Darwin, in fact, informed me afterwards that his grandfather wrote 'a Wasp' in his "Zoonomia." Though the correction did credit to my intelligence, I none the less deeply regretted my mistake, for I had uttered suspicions of the observer's powers of discernment, unjust suspicions which the translator's inaccuracy led me into entertaining. May this note serve to mitigate the harshness of the strictures provoked by my overtaxed credulity! I do not scruple to attack ideas which I consider false; but Heaven forfend that I should ever attack those who uphold them!
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Translator's Notes:

  1. Cf. "Insect Life": chapter 9.
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  2. Cf. "Insect Life": chapters 3 to 12 and 15 to 17.
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  3. .11 to .15 inch.
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  4. .039 inch.
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  5. Cf. "The Life of the Fly": chapters 2 to 4; also later chapters in the present volume.
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  6. .39 inch.
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  7. .39 inch.
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  8. .117 inch.
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  9. .39 inch.
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Jean-Henri Fabre, Virgil of insects



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Chapter 8