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   Chapter 5 THE MINING BEES

Insect Adventures By Jean-Henri Fabre Characters: 18491

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

These Bees are generally longer and slighter than the Bee of our hives. They are of different sizes, some larger than the Common Wasp, others even smaller than the House-fly, but all have a mark that shows the family. This is a smooth and shiny line, at the back of the tip-end of the abdomen, a groove along which the sting slides up and down when the insect is on the defensive. The particular species I am going to tell you about is called the Zebra Bee, because the female is beautifully belted around her long abdomen with alternate black and pale-russet scarfs; a simple and pretty dress. She is about the size of the Common Wasp.

She builds her galleries in firm soil, where there is no danger of landslides. The well-leveled paths in my garden suit her to perfection. Every spring she takes possession of them, never alone, but in gangs whose number varies greatly, amounting sometimes to as many as a hundred. In this way she founds what may be described as small townships.

Each Bee has her home, a house which no one but the owner has the right to enter. A good beating would soon call to order any adventuress Bee who dared to make her way into another's dwelling. Let each keep to her own place and perfect peace will reign in this new-formed society.

Operations begin in April, very quietly, the only sign of the underground works being the little mounds of fresh earth. The laborers show themselves very seldom, so busy are they at the bottom of their pits. At moments, here and there, the summit of a tiny mole-hill begins to totter and tumbles down the slopes of the cone: it is a worker coming up with her armful of rubbish and shooting it outside, without showing herself in the open.

May arrives, gay with flowers and sunshine. The diggers of April have turned themselves into harvesters. At every moment I see them settling, all befloured with yellow, on top of the mole-hills now turned into craters.

The Bee's home underneath consists first of a nearly vertical shaft, which goes down into the ground from eight to twelve inches. This is the entrance hall. It is about as thick around as a thick lead-pencil.

At the foot of this shaft, in what we might call the basement of the house, are the cells. They are oval hollows, three quarters of an inch long, dug out of the clay. They end in a short bottle-neck that widens into a graceful mouth. All of them open into the passage.

The inside of these little cells is beautifully polished. It is marked with faint, diamond-shaped marks, the traces of the polishing tool that has given the last finish to the work. What can this polisher be? None other than the tongue. The Bee has made a trowel of her tongue and licked the wall daintily and carefully in order to polish it.

I fill a cell with water. The liquid remains in it quite well, without a trace of soaking through. The Bee has varnished the clay of her cell with the saliva applied by her tongue. No wet or damp can reach the Bee-baby, even when the ground is soaked with rain.

The Bee-grub's rooms are made ready long beforehand, during the bad weather at the end of March and in April, when there are few flowers. The mother works alone at the bottom of her shaft, using her jaws to spade the earth, and her feet, armed with tiny claws, for rakes. She collects the dirt and then, moving backwards with her fore-legs closed over the load, she lifts it up through the shaft and flings it outside, upon the mole-hill, as we have seen. Then she puts the finishing touches with her tongue, and when May comes, with its radiant sunshine and wealth of flowers, everything is ready.

The fields are gay now with dandelions, rock-roses, tansies, daisies, and other flowers, among which the harvesting Bee rolls gleefully, covering herself with pollen. With her crop full of honey and the brushes of her legs all floury with pollen, the Bee returns to her village. Flying very low, almost level with the ground, she hesitates, with sudden turns and bewildered movements. It appears as if she were having trouble to find her own burrow among so many which look exactly alike. But no, there are certain signs known to the insect alone. After carefully examining the neighborhood, the Bee finds her home, alights on the threshold, and dives into it quickly.

What happens at the bottom of the pit must be the same thing that happens in the case of the other Wild Bees. The harvester enters a cell backwards; she first brushes herself and drops her load of pollen; then, turning round, she empties the honey in her crop upon the floury mass. This done, the unwearied one leaves the burrow and flies away, back to the flowers. After many journeys, she has collected enough provisions in the cell. Now is the time to make them up into food, or bake the cake, as we might say.

The mother Bee kneads her flour, mixing with it a little honey. She makes the dough into a round loaf, the size of a pea. Unlike our own loaves, this one has the crust inside and the soft part outside. The middle of the loaf, the food which will be eaten last, when the grub has gained strength, consists of almost nothing but dry pollen. The Bee keeps the softest, nicest part for the outside, from which the feeble grub is to take its first mouthfuls. Here it is all soft crumb, a delicious sandwich with plenty of honey.

She now lays an egg, bent like a bow, upon the round mass of food. If she were like most Honeybees, she would close the house now. But the Zebra Wild Bee is different. She leaves the cells opening into the burrow, so that she can look into them daily and see how her family is getting on. I imagine that from time to time she gives more food to the grub, for the original loaf appears to me a very small amount compared with that served by the other Bees.

At last the grubs, close-watched and well-fed, have grown fat; they are ready for the second stage of Bee life. They are about to weave their wrappers, or cocoons, and change into chrysales. Then, and not till then, the cells are closed; a big clay stopper is built by the mother into the spreading mouth of the cells. Henceforth her cares are over. The rest will come of itself.

If all goes well, the Zebra Bee's spring family grows up in a couple of months or so; they leave the cells about the end of June, flying off to seek refreshment on the flowers as their mother has done before them.


Sometimes all does not go well with the Bee's family. There are brigands about. One of them is an insignificant Gnat, who is, nevertheless, a bold robber of the Bee.

What does the Gnat look like? She is a Fly, less than one fifth of an inch long. Eyes, dark-red; face, white. Corselet, pearl-gray, with five rows of fine black dots, which are the roots of stiff bristles pointing backwards. Grayish abdomen. Black legs. That is her picture.

There are many of these Gnats in the colony of Bees I am watching. Crouching in the sun, near a burrow, the Gnat waits. As soon as the Bee arrives from her harvesting, her legs yellow with pollen, the Gnat darts forth and pursues her, keeping behind in all the turns of her wavering flight. At last, the Bee suddenly dives indoors. No less suddenly the Gnat settles on the mole-hill, quite close to the entrance. Motionless, with her head turned towards the door of the house, she waits for the Bee to finish her business. The latter reappears at last and, for a few seconds, stands on the threshold, with her head and neck outside the hole. The Gnat, on her side, does not stir.

Often they are face to face, separated by a space no wider than a finger's breadth. Neither of them shows the least excitement. The Bee, this amiable giantess, could, if she liked, rip up with her claw the tiny bandit who ruins her home; she could crunch her with her jaws, run her through with her sting. She does nothing of the sort, but leaves the robber in peace. The latter does not seem in the least afraid. She remains quite motionless in the presence of the Bee who could crush her with one blow.

The Bee flies off. At once the Gnat walks in, with no more ceremony than if she were entering her own place. She now chooses among the victualed cells, for they are all open, as I have said; she leisurely places her eggs in one of them. No one will disturb her until the Bee's return, and by that time she has made off. In some favorable spot, not far from the burrow, she waits for a chance to do the same thing over again.

Some weeks after, let us dig up the pollen loaves of the Bee. We shall find them crumbled up, frittered away. We shall see two or three little worms, with pointed mouths, moving in the yellow flour scattered over the floor of the cell. These are the Gnat's children. With them we sometimes find the lawful owner, the grub-worm of the Bee, but stunted and thin with fasting. His greedy companions, without otherwise hurting him, deprive him of the best of everything. The poor creature dwindles, shrivels up and soon disappears from view. The Gnat-worms make of his corpse one mouthful the more.

The Bee mother, though she is free to visit her grubs at any moment, does not appear to notice what is going on. She never kills the strange gr

ubs, or even turns them out of doors. She seals up the cells in which the Gnat children have feasted just as carefully as if her own grubs were in it. By this time the Gnat grubs have left. The cells are quite empty.


The Zebra Bee's spring family, when no accident such as we have been describing has happened, consists of about ten young Bees, all sisters. They save time by using the mother's house, all of them together, without dispute. They come and go peacefully through the same door, attend to their business, pass and let the others pass. Down at the bottom of the pit, each Bee has her little home, a group of cells which she has dug for herself. Here she works alone; but the passage way is free to all the sisters.

Let us watch them as they go to and fro. A harvester comes back from the fields, the feather-brushes of her legs powdered with pollen. If the door be open, the Bee at once dives underground. She is very busy, and she does not waste time on the threshold. Sometimes several appear upon the scene at almost the same moment. The passage is too narrow for two, especially when they have to avoid jostling each other and so making the floury burden fall to the floor. The one nearest to the opening enters quickly. The others, drawn up on the threshold in the order of their arrival, respectful of one another's rights, await their turn. As soon as the first disappears, the second follows after her, and is herself swiftly followed by the third and then the others, one by one.

Sometimes a Bee about to come out meets a Bee about to go in. Then the latter draws back a little and makes way for the other. Each Bee tries to outdo the other in politeness. I see some who, when on the point of coming out from the pit, go down again and leave the passage free for the one who has just arrived. Thanks to this accommodating spirit on the part of all, the business of the house goes on without delay.

Let us keep our eyes open. There is something even better than this to see. When a Bee appears, returning from her round of the flowers, we see a sort of trap door, which closes the house, suddenly fall and give a free passage. As soon as the new arrival has entered, the trap rises back into its place, almost level with the ground, and closes the entrance again. The same thing happens when the insects go out. At a request from within, the trap descends, the door opens and the Bee flies away. The opening is closed at once.

What can this thing be, which works like the piston of a pump, and opens and closes the door at each departure and each arrival? It is a Bee, who has become the doorkeeper of the establishment. With her large head she stops up the top of the entrance hall. If any one belonging to the house wants to go in or out, she "pulls the cord," that is to say, she withdraws to a spot where the gallery becomes wider and leaves room for two. When the other has passed she returns to the opening and blocks it with the top of her head. Motionless, ever on the lookout, she does not leave her post except to drive away persistent visitors.

When she does come outside, let us take a look at her. We recognize in her a Bee similar to the others except that the top of her head is bald and her dress is dingy and threadbare. All the nap is gone; and one can hardly make out the handsome stripes of red and brown which she used to have. These tattered, work-worn garments make things clear to us.

This Bee who mounts guard and does the work of a doorkeeper is older than the others. She is in fact the foundress of the establishment, the mother of the actual workers, the grandmother of the present grubs. When she was young, three months ago, she wore herself out making her nest all by herself. Now she is taking a well-earned rest, but hardly a rest, for she is helping the household to the best of her power.

You remember the suspicious Kid, in La Fontaine's fable, who, looking through the chink of the door, said to the Wolf:

"Show me a white foot, or I shan't open the door."

The grandmother Bee is no less suspicious. She says to each comer:

"Show me the yellow foot of a Wild Honey-bee, or you won't be let in."

None is admitted to the dwelling unless she be recognized as a member of the family.

See for yourselves. Near the burrow passes an Ant, an unscrupulous adventuress, who would not be sorry to know the meaning of the honeyed fragrance that rises from the bottom of the cellar.

"Be off, or you'll catch it!" says the doorkeeping Bee, with a movement of her neck.

Usually the threat is enough. The Ant leaves at once. Should she insist, the grandmother leaves her sentry-box, flings herself upon the saucy Ant, beats her, and drives her away. The moment she has given her punishment, she returns to her post.

"'Be off, or you'll catch it!' says the doorkeeping bee."

Next comes the turn of the Leaf-cutting Bee, who, unskilled in the art of burrowing, uses the old galleries dug by others. Those of the Zebra Bee suit her very well, when the terrible Gnat has left them vacant for lack of heirs. Seeking for a home wherein to stack her Robinia-leaf honey-pots, she often makes a flying visit to my colonies of Wild Bees. A burrow seems to take her fancy; but, before she sets foot on earth, her buzzing is noticed by the sentry, who suddenly darts out and makes a few gestures on the threshold of her door. That is all. The Leaf-cutter has understood. She moves on.

Sometimes the Leaf-cutting Bee has time to alight and stick her head into the mouth of the pit. In a moment the grandmother is there, comes a little higher, and bars the way. Follows a not very serious contest. The stranger quickly recognizes the rights of the first occupant and, without insisting, goes to seek a home elsewhere.

A clever burglar, the parasite of the Leaf-cutting Bee, receives a sound whipping under my eyes. She thought, the featherbrain, that she was entering the Leaf-cutter's house! She soon finds out her mistake; she meets the grandmother Bee, who punishes her severely. She makes off at full speed. And so with the others who, through carelessness or ambition, try to enter the burrow.

Sometimes the doorkeeping Bee has an encounter with another grandmother. About the middle of July, when the Bee colony is at its busiest, there appear to be two distinct sets of Bees: the young mothers and the old. The young ones, much more numerous, brisk in movement and smartly arrayed, come and go unceasingly from the burrows to the fields and from the fields to the burrows. The older ones, faded and dispirited, wander idly from hole to hole. They look as though they had lost their way and could not find their homes. Who are these vagabonds? I see in them afflicted ones who have lost a family through the act of the hateful Gnat. At the awakening of summer, the poor mother Bee found herself alone. She left her empty house and went off in search of a dwelling where there were cradles to defend, a guard to keep. But those fortunate nests already have their overseer, the grandmother, who is jealous and gives her unemployed neighbor a cold reception. One sentry is enough; two would merely block the narrow passage.

Sometimes the grandmothers actually fight. When the tramp looking for employment appears outside the door, the one on guard does not move from her post, does not withdraw into the passage, as she would before a young Bee returning from the fields. Instead of that, she threatens the intruder with her feet and jaws. The other retaliates and tries to force her way in notwithstanding. They come to blows. The fight ends by the defeat of the stranger, who goes off to pick a quarrel elsewhere.

What becomes of the poor grandmothers who have no homes? They grow rarer and more languid from day to day; then they disappear for good. The little Gray Lizard had his eye on them, they are easily snapped up.

As for the one on guard, she seems never to rest. In the cool hours of the early morning, she is at her post. She is there also towards noon, when the harvesting is in full swing and there are many Bees going in and out. In the afternoon, when the heat is great and the working Bees do not go to the fields, but stay indoors instead, preparing the new cells, the grandmother is still upstairs, stopping the door with her bald head. She takes no nap during the stifling hours: the safety of the household requires her to forego it. At nightfall, or even later, she is just as busy as in the day. The others are resting, but not she, for fear, apparently, of night dangers known to herself alone.

Guarded in this manner, the burrow is safe from such a misfortune as overtook it in May. Let the Gnat come now, if she dare, to steal the Bee's loaves! She will be put to flight at once. She will not come, because, until spring returns, she is underground in the pupa state, that is, wrapped up in her cocoon. But in her absence there is no lack, among the Fly rabble, of other parasites. And yet, for all my daily visits, I never catch one of these in the neighborhood of the summer burrows. How well the rascals know their trade! How well aware are they of the guard who keeps watch at the Bees' door!

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