Tuesday, April 04, 2006


This month's nature notes are taken from SOME APRIL INSECTS

It was first published on 19th April 1886 in the St James Gazette and later in Field and Hedgerow.

The essay is reproduced in its entirety.

A black humble-bee came to the white hyacinths in the garden on the sunny April morning when the yellow tulip opened, and as she alighted on the flower there hovered a few inches in the rear an eager attendant, not quite so large, more grey, and hovering with the shrillest vibration close at hand. The black bee went round the other side of a bunch of hyacinths, and was hidden in the bell of a purple one. At thus temporarily losing sight of her, the follower, one might say, flew into a state of extreme excitement, and spun round and round in the air till he caught sight of her again and resumed his steady hovering. Then she went to the next bunch of hyacinths; he followed her, when, with a furious, shrill cry of swiftly beating wings, a second lover darted down, and then the two followed the lady in black velvet--buzz, buzz, buzz, pointing like hounds stationary in the air--buzz, buzz--while she without a moment's thought of them worked at the honey. By-and-by one rushed at her--a too eager caress, for she lost her balance and fell out of the flower on to the ground. Up she got and pursued him for a few angry circles, and then settled to work again. Presently the rivals darted at each other and whirled about, and in the midst of the battle off went the lady in velvet to another part of the garden, and the combatants immediately rushed after her. Every morning that the tulip opened its great yellow bell, these black humble-bees came, almost always followed by one lover, sometimes, as on the first occasion, by two. A bright row of polyanthus and oxlips seemed to be the haunt of the male bees. There they waited, some on the leaves and some on the dry clods heated by the sun, in ambush till a dark lady should come. The yellow tulip was a perfect weather-meter; if there was the least bit of harshness in the air, the least relic of the east wind, it remained folded. Sunshine alone was not sufficient to tempt it, but the instant there was any softness in the atmosphere open came the bell, and as if by a magic key all the bees and humble-bees of the place were unlocked, and forth they came with joyous note--not to visit the tulip, which is said to be a fatal cup of poison to them.

Any one delicate would do well to have a few such flowers in spring under observation, and to go out of doors or stop in according to their indications. I think there were four species of wild bee at these early flowers, including the great bombus and the small prosopis with orange-yellow head. It is difficult to scientifically identify small insects hastily flitting without capturing them, which I object to doing, for I dislike to interfere with their harmless liberty. They have all been named and classified, and I consider it a great cruelty to destroy them again without special purpose. The pleasure is to see them alive and busy with their works, and not to keep them in a cabinet. These wild bees, particularly the smaller ones, greatly resented my watching them, just the same as birds do. If I walked by they took no heed; if I stopped or stooped to get a better view they were off instantly. Without doubt they see you, and have some idea of the meaning of your various motions. The wild bees are a constant source of interest, much more so than the hive bee, which is so extremely regular in its ways. With an explosion almost like a little bomb shot out of a flower; with an immense hum, almost startling, boom! the great bombus hurls himself up in the air from under foot; well named--boom--bombus. Is it correct or is it only a generalisation, that insects like ants and hive bees, who live in great and well-organised societies, are more free from the attacks of parasites than the comparatively solitary wild bees? Ants are, indeed, troubled with some parasites, but these do not seem to multiply very greatly, and do not seriously injure the populousness of the nest. They have enemies which seize them, but an enemy is not a parasite. On the other hand, too, they have mastered a variety of insects, and use them for their delectation and profit. Hive bees are likewise fairly free from parasites, unless, indeed, their so-called dysentery is caused by some minute microbe. These epidemics, however, are rare. Take it altogether, the hive bee appears comparatively free of parasites. Enemies they have, but that is another matter.

Have these highly civilised insects arrived in some manner at a solution of the parasite problem? Have they begun where human civilisation may be said to have ended, with a diligent study of parasitic life? All our scientific men are now earnestly engaged in the study of bacteria, microbes, mycelium, and yeast, infinitesimally minute fungi of every description, while meantime the bacillus is eating away the lives of a heavy percentage of our population. Ants live in communities which might be likened to a hundred Londons dotted about England, so are their nests in a meadow, or, still more striking, on a heath. Their immense crowds, the population of China to an acre, do not breed disease. Every ant out of that enormous multitude may calculate on a certain average duration of life, setting aside risks from battle, birds, and such enemies. Microbes are unlikely to destroy her. Now this is a very extraordinary circumstance. In some manner the ants have found out a way of accommodating themselves to the facts of their existence; they have fitted themselves in with nature and reached a species of millennium. Are they then more intelligent than man? We have certainly not succeeded in doing this yet; they are very far ahead of us. Are their eyes, divided into a thousand facets, a thousand times more powerful than our most powerful microscopes, and can they see spores, germs, microbes, or bacilli where our strongest lenses find nothing? I have some doubts as to whether ants are really shut out of many flowers by hairs pointing downwards in a fringe and similar contrivances. The ant has a singularly powerful pair of mandibles: put one between your shirt and skin and try; the nip you will get will astonish you. With these they can shear off the legs or even the head of another ant in battle. I cannot see, therefore, why, if they wished, they could not nip off this fringe of hairs, or even sever the stem of the plant. Evidently they do not wish, and possibly they have reasons for avoiding some plants and flowers, which besides honey may contain spores--just as they certainly contain certain larvae, which attach themselves to the bodies of bees.

Possibly we may yet use the ants or some other clever insects to find out the origin of the fatal parasite which devours the consumptive. Some reason exists for imagining that this parasite has something to do with the flora, for phthisis ceases at a certain altitude, and it is very well known that the floras have a marked line of demarcation. Up to a certain height certain flowers will grow, but not beyond, just as if you had run a separating ditch round the mountain. With the flora the insects cease; whether the germ comes from the vegetation or from the insect that frequents the vegetation does not seem known. Still it would be worth while to make a careful examination of the plant and insect life just at the verge of the line of division. The bacillus may spring from a spore starting from a plant or starting from an insect. Most of England had an Alpine climate probably once, and some Alpine plants and animals have been stranded on the tops of our highest hills and remain there to this day. In those icy times English lungs were probably free of disease. Has formic acid ever been used for experiments on bacilli? It is the ant acid; they are full of it, and it is extracted and used for some purposes abroad. Perhaps its strong odour is repellent to parasites. To return: while the honey-bees live in comparative safety, the more or less solitary wild bees have a great struggle to repel various creatures that would eat them or their young, and, be as watchful as they may, all their efforts at nest-building are often rendered nugatory by the success of a parasite. So it is not worth while to catch them just for the purpose of identification, for they have enough enemies in the field without man and his heartless cabinets. The collector is the most terrible parasite of all. Let them go on with a happy hum, while the tulip opens in the sunshine.

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