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    Ch. 11: Humble Bees and other Matters

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    Chapter 12
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    Two humble-bees, Bombus thoracicus and B. violaceus, are found on the
    pampas; the first, with a primrose yellow thorax, and the extremity of
    the abdomen bright rufous, slightly resembles the English B. terrestris;
    the rarer species, which is a trifle smaller than the first, is of a
    uniform intense black, the body having the appearance of velvet, the
    wings being of a deep violaceous blue.

    A census of the humble-bees in any garden or field always shows that the
    yellow bees outnumber the black in the proportion of about seven to one;
    and I have also found their nests for many years in the same proportion;
    about seven nests of the yellow to one nest of the black species. In
    habits they are almost identical, and when two species so closely allied
    are found inhabiting the same locality, it is only reasonable to infer
    that one possesses some advantage over the other, and that the least
    favoured species will eventually disappear. In this case, where one so
    greatly outnumbers the other, it might be thought that the rarer species
    is dying out, or that, on the contrary, it is a new-comer destined to
    supplant the older more numerous species. Yet, during the twenty years I
    have observed them, there has occurred no change in their relative
    positions; though both have greatly increased in numbers during that
    time, owing to the spread of cultivation. And yet it would scarcely be
    too much to expect some marked change in a period so long as that, even
    through the slow-working agency of natural selection; for it is not as
    if there had been an exact balance of power between them. In the same
    period of time I have seen several species, once common, almost or quite
    disappear, while others, very low down as to numbers, have been exalted
    to the first rank. In insect life especially, these changes have been
    numerous, rapid, and widespread.

    In the district where, as a boy, I chased and caught tinamous, and also
    chased ostriches, but failed to catch them, the continued presence of
    our two humble-bees, sucking the same flowers and making their nests in
    the same situations, has remained a puzzle to my mind.

    The site of the nest is usually a slight depression in the soil in the
    shelter of a cardoon bush. The bees deepen the hollow by burrowing in
    the earth; and when the spring foliage sheltering it withers up, they
    construct a dome-shaped covering of small sticks, thorns, and leaves
    bitten into extremely minute pieces. They sometimes take possession of a
    small hole or cavity in the ground, and save themselves the labour of

    Their architecture closely resembles that of B. terrestris. They make
    rudely-shaped oval honey-cells, varying from half an inch to an inch and
    a half in length, the smaller ones being the first made; later in the
    season the old cocoons are utilized for storing honey. The wax is
    chocolate-coloured, and almost the only difference I can find in the
    economy of the two species is that the black bee uses a large quantity
    of wax in plastering the interior of its nest. The egg-cell of the
    yellow bee always contains from twelve to sixteen eggs; that of the
    black bee from ten to fourteen; and the eggs of this species are the
    largest though the bee is smallest. At the entrance on the edge of the
    mound one bee is usually stationed, and, when approached, it hums a
    shrill challenge, and throws itself into a menacing attitude. The sting
    is exceedingly painful.

    One summer I was so fortunate as to discover two nests of the two kinds
    within twelve yards of each other, and I resolved to watch them very
    carefully, in order to see whether the two species ever came into
    collision, as sometimes happens with ants of different species living
    close together. Several times I saw a yellow bee leave its own nest and
    hover round or settle on the neighbouring one, upon which the sentinel
    black bee would attack and drive it off. One day, while watching, I was
    delighted to see a yellow bee actually enter its neighbour's nest, the
    sentinel being off duty. In about five minutes' time it came out again
    and flew away unmolested. I concluded from this that humble-bees, like
    their relations of the hive, occasionally plunder each other's sweets.
    On another occasion I found a black bee dead at the entrance of the
    yellow bees' nest; doubtless this individual had been caught in the act
    of stealing honey, and, after it had been stung to death, it had been
    dragged out and left there as a warning to others with like felonious

    There is one striking difference between the two species. The yellow bee
    is inodorous; the black bee, when angry and attacking, emits an
    exceedingly powerful odour: curiously enough, this smell is identical in
    character with that made when angry by all the wasps of the South
    American genus Pepris--dark blue wasps with red wings. This odour at
    first produces a stinging sensation on the nerve of smell, but when
    inhaled in large measure becomes very nauseating. On one occasion, while
    I was opening a nest, several of the bees buzzing round my head and
    thrusting their stings through the veil I wore for protection, gave out
    so pungent a smell that I found it unendurable, and was compelled to

    It seems strange that a species armed with a venomous sting and
    possessing the fierce courage of the humble-bee should also have this
    repulsive odour for a protection. It is, in fact, as incongruous as it
    would be were our soldiers provided with guns and swords first, and
    after with phials of assafoatida to be uncorked in the face of an enemy.

    Why, or how, animals came to be possessed of the power of emitting
    pestiferous odours is a mystery; we only see that natural selection has,
    in some mstances, chiefly among insects, taken advantage of it to
    furnish some of the weaker, more unprotected species with a means of
    escape from their enemies. The most stinking example I know is that of a
    large hairy caterpillar I have found on dry wood in Patagonia, and
    which, when touched, emits an intensely nauseous effluvium. Happily it
    is very volatile, but while it lasts it is even more detestable than
    that of the skunk.

    The skunk itself offers perhaps the one instance amongst the higher
    vertebrates of an animal in which all the original instincts of
    self-preservation have died out, giving place to this lower kind of
    protection. All the other members of the family it belongs to are
    cunning, swift of foot, and, when overtaken, fierce-tempered and well
    able to defend themselves with their powerful well-armed jaws.

    For some occult reason they are provided with a gland charged with a
    malodorous secretion; and out of this mysterious liquor Nature has
    elaborated the skunk's inglorious weapon. The skunk alone when attacked
    makes no attempt to escape or to defend itself by biting; but, thrown by
    its agitation into a violent convulsion, involuntarily discharges its
    foetid liquor into the face of an opponent. When this animal had once
    ceased to use so good a weapon as its teeth in defending itself,
    degenerating at the same time into a slow-moving creature, without fear
    and without cunning, the strength and vileness of its odour would be
    continually increased by the cumulative process of natural selection:
    and how effective the protection has become is shown by the abundance of
    the species throughout the whole American continent. It is lucky for
    mankind--especially for naturalists and sportsmen--that other species
    have not been improved in the same direction.

    But what can we say of the common deer of the pampas (Cervus
    campestris), the male of which gives out an effluvium quite as
    far-reaching although not so abominable in character as that of the
    Mephitis? It comes in disagreeable whiffs to the human nostril when the
    perfumer of the wilderness is not even in sight. Yet it is not a
    protection; on the contrary, it is the reverse, and, like the dazzling
    white plumage so attractive to birds of prey, a direct disadvantage,
    informing all enemies for leagues around of its whereabouts. It is not,
    therefore, strange that wherever pumas are found, deer are never very
    abundant; the only wonder is that, like the ancient horse of America,
    they have not become extinct.

    The gauchos of the pampas, however, give _a reason_ for the powerful
    smell of the male deer; and, after some hesitation, I have determined to
    set it down here, for the reader to accept or reject, as he thinks
    proper. I neither believe nor disbelieve it; for although I do not put
    great faith in gaucho natural history, my own observations have not
    infrequently confirmed statements of theirs, which a sceptical person
    would have regarded as wild indeed. To give one instance: I heard a
    gaucho relate that while out riding he had been pursued for a
    considerable distance by a large spider; his hearers laughed at him for
    a romancer; but as I myself had been attacked and pursued, both when on
    foot and on horseback, by a large wolf-spider, common on the pampas, I
    did not join in the laugh. They say that the effluvium of C. campestris
    is abhorrent to snakes of all kinds, just as pyrethrum powder is to most
    insects, and even go so far as to describe its effect as fatal to them;
    according to this, the smell is therefore a protection to the deer. In
    places where venomous snakes are extremely abundant, as in the Sierra
    district on the southern pampas of Buenos Ayres, the gaucho frequently
    ties a strip of the male deer's skin, which retains its powerful odour
    for an indefinite time, round the neck of a valuable horse as a
    protection. It is certain that domestic animals are frequently lost here
    through snake-bites. The most common poisonous species--the
    Craspedo-cephalus alternatus, called _Vivora de la Cruz_ in the
    vernacular--has neither bright colour nor warning rattle to keep off
    heavy hoofs, and is moreover of so sluggish a temperament that it will
    allow itself to be trodden on before stirring, with the result that its
    fangs are not infrequently struck into the nose or foot of browsing
    beast. Considering, then, the conditions in which C. campestris is
    placed--and it might also be supposed that venomous snakes have in past
    times been much more numerous than they are now--it is not impossible to
    believe that the powerful smell it emits has been made protective,
    especially when we see in other species how repulsive odours have been
    turned to account by the principle of natural selection.

    After all, perhaps the wild naturalist of the pampas knows what he is
    about when he ties a strip of deer-skin to the neck of his steed and
    turns him loose to graze among the snakes.

    The gaucho also affirms that the deer cherishes a wonderful animosity
    against snakes; that it becomes greatly excited when it sees one, and
    proceeds at once to destroy it; _they say,_ by running round and round
    it in a circle, emitting its violent smell in larger measure, until the
    snake dies of suffocation. It is hard to believe that the effect can be
    so great; but that the deer is a snake hater and killer is certainly
    true: in North America, Ceylon, and other districts deer have been
    observed excitedly leaping on serpents, and killing them with their
    sharp cutting hoofs.
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