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THE BEES WHICH WE PASS BY.
THE common honeybee (Apis mellifica)1 is an omnipresent little creature which is always in search of honey and pollen among the roadside flowers. What is most interesting about this insect is its family history, which I will take it for granted every one knows. The marvelous economy of the beehive we have long since become familiar with through the writings of Agassiz and Langstroth;2 and as for Langstroth, we ought to be proud to know that the world is indebted to him, an American, for enlarging the science of bee culture and inventing the one perfect and ingenious hive in universal use to-day.
In late June, when the patches of raspberry brambles are in full bloom beside the road which leads northward through Campton to the Franconia Notch, we will be sure to find the Italian honeybee busily engaged there. It is always the worker bee, never any other, and we can only call her a female in a limited sense of the term, as the queen or mother bee is the one perfectly developed female in the hive; she only lays the eggs.3 The worker, we can easily see by a glass, is busy dipping her long, triple-shaped tongue in the nectar. This she draws up by the trough-shaped middle division of the tongue, and it is conducted into the honey-sac (the equivalent of a stomach); on the way it undergoes a chemical change from cane sugar to grape sugar. This is accomplished by the admixture of a salivary secretion of the bee with the flower nectar. The bee’s stomach is furnished with muscles which enable her to compress it and thus ejaculate the honey into the comb cell. We will see, therefore, that honey by the time it reaches the hive is no longer simple flower nectar any more than a raw oxhide is shoe leather.
But honey is not the only thing which the bee gathers, and Watts did not record in his familiar verses the other important part of her work; she very often collects pollen. This she carries in certain bristle-edged hollows in the sides of her hind legs, called pollen baskets. I rarely find a bee on one of my garden flowers with her baskets empty; she usually has them crammed full to overflowing with the golden dust. Dust it looks like to our dull eyes, but under the microscope it takes on the loveliest forms, several of which I have sketched. However, the bee does not gather it for æsthetic reasons; she wants it for food, not only for herself but particularly for storage in the cells of the bee mother’s brood. If both honey and pollen can be gathered from the same blossom, the industrious bee will not leave until she has collected a good load of each. Wherever she begins there she will stay, no matter if the pollen is not quite as plentiful as it is in some other flower; consequently, the contents of the baskets are nearly always one color, either yellow, orange, or brown. In fact, the bee does not care for “mixed fruit,” and it has been explained that the mixed kinds do not pack so well together. When the load of pollen is brought home it is brushed out of the baskets into the cell, packed down very carefully, covered perhaps with honey, and the cell is sealed over with wax ready for future use.
The Worker Bee and magnified Pollen.
Very early in the morning, when my ranunculus poppies are in full bloom, they are alive with thousands of bees intent upon gathering pollen. The musical hum of their wings can be heard thirty feet away, and so intent are they upon the pleasant task, that occasionally I can stroke a fuzzy, pollen besmeared back with my finger tip and meet with no sign of remonstrance. The bumblebee, however, objects; but she, too, is altogether pre-occupied, and she only demurs by kicking up her hind legs. Nearly all the bees which visit my garden are Italians. They are distinguished from the common bees by the five golden bands on their abdomen, the middle one of which should be distinctly visible; the other four are less pronounced, especially if the little creature is not stuffed full of honey. This Italian bee (Apis Ligustica) was introduced into this country in 1859 by Messrs. Wagner and Colvin, of Baltimore, and its superiority in every way to the common bee is conceded by all apiarists. It is less sensitive to cold, more peaceable, less apt to sting, more industrious, fights better against the enemies of the hive, and is more easily handled than the common bee; the latter is slate-gray in color and varies greatly in size, but is generally a trifle plumper than the Italian bee.
The Italian Bee.
The common black bee was introduced into Florida by the Spaniards some few years previous to 1763. Longfellow evidently knew that the honeybee was not indigenous to this country, for he makes Hiawatha say of the white men:
Wheresoe’er they move, before them
One of the most interesting facts about the work of the bee is the method she pursues in the manufacture of wax; this is evolved by a sort of meditative process somewhat akin to German philosophy, except that I must admit the irrelevancy of mind in this particularly case. The workers proceed to gorge themselves with honey; then they hang together in a series of chains from the roof of the hive, each one clasping hands with her neighbor and remaining in that quiescent position for twenty-four hours or so. This inactivity produces a result similar to that which follows upon the cooping up and overfeeding of a barnyard fowl; the bees begin to grow fat — that is, they exude wax in the shape of delicate scales from eight small pouches on the under side of the abdomen. Honey is therefore converted into wax in much the same way that food is converted into fat. But these wax scales are so tiny that four hundred of them would scarcely outweigh a kernel of corn; and as for the quantity of honey which the bees must consume to promote this interesting operation, that seems incredible, for it has been estimated that no less than from seven to ten pounds of it are required for the making of one pound of wax. What an expensive process!
The remarkably beautiful queen or mother bee is a veritable aristocrat. Notice how different her figure is from that of the plebeian worker or the drone. Her wings are proportionally short and as fine as gauze; her body is long and tapering, and underneath it is golden yellow. She is rarely, if ever, seen away from the hive, and then, perhaps, only when the bees are swarming. Nearly all of her life is spent indoors, and her time is quite absorbed in heavy maternal cares. In the laying of eggs the barnyard hen is not to be mentioned in the same breath with her, as in breeding time she can lay at the rate of three hundred and sixty eggs per minute, and sometimes she produces not less than thirty-five hundred in one day! If she made as much fuss about it as an ordinary hen, what an interminable racket would greet our ears from the beehive!
A, the Drone; B, the Queen Bee.
The flowers and trees which line the side of the road offer stores of honey for the bee; let me mention some of them, for they are by no means the strong-scented ones. The raspberry (it bears the finest flavored honey) stands at the head of the list, next comes white clover. Red clover is hardly eligible because the bee’s tongue is not long enough to reach down to the bottom of the blossom; so we must leave this flower to the bumblebee whose tongue is longer. Then comes the dandelion, rich in both pollen and honey, and the wild rose, melilot, Canada thistle, all fruit trees, red and sugar maples, linden, all willows (these furnish both pollen and honey), Judas tree, yellowwood, locust, tulip tree (one of the greatest honey-producing trees in the world), hawthorn, snapdragon, larkspur, borage, chamomile, mignonette, alyssum, coreopsis, sunflower, boneset, iron-weed, fireweed, rudbekia, thoroughwort, catnip, horsemint, dead nettle, basil, peas, beans, false indigo, chicory, golden-rod, aster, and, last but not least, that characteristic roadside flower, self-heal (Brunella vulgaris), a blue-violet flower which is the especial favorite of the bumblebee. I should not omit to include the common milkweed, but this is a great snare for the honeybee.
The milkweed flower’s pollen is gathered in a compact mass inclosed by a tiny sack. These sacks are connected together by threads which terminate in a single sticky gland; this adheres to the feet and the outer parts4 of the poor bee’s tongue, and she soon is so ensnarled with threads and pollen bags that she falls to the ground and perishes. The bee can, however, clean herself off if she is not too much encumbered, and under the magnifying glass it is quite amusing to watch her “tidy up.” She uses her saliva for water, cleans off her feet and legs, combs her antennæ with her fore legs, which are especially constructed for the purpose, smoothes down her wings by brushes attached to her heels, even brushes her eyes instead of wiping them, and when she has completed her toilet flies away with an evident feeling that she is now “fit to be seen.” She does not fly slowly either, for she can champion the fleetest bicyclist and the most famous race horse by a record of more than a mile in two minutes.
The bee’s life is rather short, not over thirty-five or forty days long in the busy season of summer. In winter, however, a period of comparative idleness, it is estimated to extend over a much greater length of time; but with the exception of the queen, no bee lives to be a year old.
The bumblebee or humblebee (Bombus)5 is even more commonly a searcher after honey on the roadside than the honeybee. It is scarcely possible to see a patch of red clover, or a little clump of the pretty blue Brunella vulgaris at our feet, without some one of the blossoms holding a golden-hipped, smoky-winged, clumsy visitor, one of the very best of flower friends because the most useful pollen disseminator in the world. The humblebee is so called because it builds its nest on the ground beside the grasses, or under stones. The colonies of bumblebees are small compared with those of the honeybees; sometimes there are as many as three hundred in a family, but frequently not more than fifty or sixty. In each nest there are four kinds of bees — the queens, small females, males, and workers. In autumn all except the queens die; these remain dormant in the deep seclusion of some hole near the nest until the warmth of returning spring awakens them from their winter lethargy, and prompts them to look about for some suitable spot in which to lay their eggs. The situation being duly selected, the bee goes a-foraging for honey and pollen; these she works together in a mass and on it deposits her eggs. Very soon the eggs are hatched, and the grubs after eating and growing fat finally envelop themselves in silken cocoons; then the mother bee covers the cocoons with wax. Eventually the young bees mature and emerge from their cells, full-fledged workers. This modus operandi is repeated until several broods are hatched, the small females and the males being produced about the middle of summer, and still later the queens from the final batch of eggs.
The bumblebee is a little glutton, either on the roadside clover6 or the garden sunflower. I have watched more than one cram itself so full of honey from my sunflowers that apparently it was helplessly drunk with the potent sweet. The thistle seems to produce the same effect on the greedy insect, and, despite all urgent invitations to move on, it either clings to the flower or drops to the ground with a hopeless, maudlin kind of a buzz!
There are insect characters often seen among the roadside flowers which so closely resembles in appearance the golden bumblebee that I must draw attention to the points which distinguish them apart.
One is called Eristalis flavipes. It is a near relative of the drone fly and a harmless sipper of honey. The other is called the robber fly, and its Latin name is Laphria, or Dasyllis tergissa. This bloodthirsty individual hangs about the flowers of my garden, or carries itself with innocent mein on the roadside goldenrod, as though it was bent on honey; but let a small insect approach too near and the murderous hypocrite will pounce upon it, thrust a horny bill in its side, and draw every drop of blood from its body. We can always identify him by two or three unmistakable characteristics: he has only two wings, not four like the bumblebee or any other bee; then his shoulders are dull-gold color are not humped like those of the bumblebee; besides, there is the formidable horny bill which, under a glass, bears no resemblance whatever to the bumblebee’s honey tongue. Still another robber fly (Promachus bastardi), of a wasplike figure, is frequently seen among the roadside flowers.
The Robber Fly.
One word, now, about bees’ stings. As for the bumblebee, she is good-natured beyond measure, and the honeybee very rarely stings. Of course, all male bees and wasps have no stings, so they can be handled with impunity. A little calmness in the presence of numberless bees will go a great way toward preventing a painful misunderstanding; but to thrash the air with one’s hat is to invite hostility. It is often said that if the honeybee stings once, she seals her own fate and must inevitably perish. This is not so; it altogether depends upon circumstances. The tip of her sting is not like that of a hornet, smooth and needlelike; it is barbed with a number of very tiny points set laterally, so that when she stings deeply — we will say about a fourteenth of an inch down — these catch on the flesh like the teeth of a saw, and the enraged insect, tearing herself away, or, more likely, thrust violently aside by her victim, leaves not only her sting, but her poison bag and other portions of her anatomy behind her. Under such conditions she can not continue to live. But should she sting less deeply, or strike the tender, soft flesh of a less muscular individual, she will probably escape uninjured. Should it happen that the bee’s sting enters the flesh perpendicularly, it is more likely to be safely withdrawn; but if it enters at an angle, as it usually does if the bee bends its abdomen forward, then the sting is left behind. In this event it should be instantly removed by a rapid scrape to the right or left with the nail or the point of a penknife. To withdraw the sting by pulling with the two fingers is to incur the possible risk of pinching the poison bag and injecting more poison into the wound.
The Robber Fly
1 The Italian bee (Apis Ligustica) is quite as common.
2 Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth was born in Philadelphia, December 25, 1810.
3 Very rarely, however, when a colony has been queenless for some time, a few workers are sufficiently developed to be capable of laying eggs; but these eggs only produce drones. (Langstroth.)
4 The labial palpi and maxilla, accessory parts of the tongue proper.
5 There are about forty different species.
6 See also Chap. XI, page 180.