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Special Instincts - Theory of evolution.
Special Instincts. We shall, perhaps, best understand how instincts in a state of nature have become modified by selection by considering a few cases. I will select only three, - namely, the instinct which leads the cuckoo to lay her eggs in other birds' nests; the slave-making instinct of certain ants; and the cell-making power of the hive-bee. These two latter instincts have generally and justly been ranked by naturalists as the most wonderful of all known instincts.
Instincts of the Cuckoo. - It is supposed by some naturalists that the more immediate cause of the instinct of the cuckoo is, that she lays her eggs, not daily, but at intervals of two or three days; so that, if she were to make her own nest and sit on her own eggs those first laid would have to be left for some time unincubated, or there would be eggs and young birds of different ages in the same nest. If this were the case, the process of laying and hatching might be inconveniently long, more especially as she migrates at a very early period; and the first hatched young would probably have to be fed by the male alone. But the American cuckoo is in this predicament; for she makes her own nest, and has eggs and young successively hatched, all at the same time. It has been both asserted and denied that the American cuckoo occasionally lays her eggs in other birds' nests; but I have lately heard from Dr. Merrell, of Iowa, that he once found in Illinois a young cuckoo together with a young jay in the nest of a Blue jay (Garrulus cristatus); and as both were nearly full feathered, there could be no mistake in their identification. I could also give several instances of various birds which have been known occasionally to lay their eggs in other birds' nests. Now let us suppose that the ancient progenitor of our European cuckoo had the habits of the American cuckoo, and that she occasionally laid an egg in another bird's nest. If the old bird profited by this occasional habit through being enabled to migrate earlier or through any other cause; or if the young were made more vigorous by advantage being taken of the mistaken instinct of another species than when reared by their own mother, encumbered as she could hardly fail to be by having eggs and young of different ages at the same time; then the old birds or the fostered young would gain an advantage. And analogy would lead us to believe, that the young thus reared would be apt to follow by inheritance the occasional and aberrant habit of their mother, and in their turn would be apt to lay their eggs in other birds' nests, and thus be more successful in rearing their young. By a continued process of this nature, I believe that the strange instinct of our cuckoo has been generated. It has, also, recently been ascertained on sufficient evidence, by Adolf Müller, that the cuckoo occasionally lays her eggs on the bare ground, sits on them, and feeds her young. This rare event is probably a case of reversion to the long-lost, aboriginal instinct of nidification.
It has been objected that I have not noticed other related instincts and adaptations of structure in the cuckoo, which are spoken of as necessarily co-ordinated. But in all cases, speculation on an instinct known to us only in a single species, is useless, for we have hitherto had no facts to guide us. Until recently the instincts of the European and of the nonparasitic American cuckoo alone were known. now, owing to Mr. Ramsay's observations, we have learnt something about three Australian species, which lay their eggs in other birds' nests. The chief points to be referred to are three: first, that the common cuckoo, with rare exceptions, lays only one egg in a nest, so that the large and voracious young bird receives ample food. Secondly, that the eggs are remarkably small, not exceeding those of the skylark, - a bird about one-fourth as large as the cuckoo. That the small size of the egg is a real cause of adaptation we may infer from the fact of the non-parasitic American cuckoo laying full-sized eggs. Thirdly, that the young cuckoo, soon after birth, has the instinct, the strength, and a properly shaped back for ejecting its foster-brothers, which then perish from cold and hunger. This has been boldly called a beneficent arrangement, in order that the young cuckoo may get sufficient food, and that its foster-brothers may perish before they had acquired much feeling!
Turning now to the Australian species; though these birds generally lay only one egg in a nest, it is not rare to find two or even three eggs in the same nest. In the bronze cuckoo the eggs vary greatly in size, from eight to ten times in length. Now if it had been of an advantage to this species to have laid eggs even smaller than those now laid, so as to have deceived certain foster-parents, or, as is more probable, to have been hatched within a shorter period (for it is asserted that there is a relation between the size of eggs and the period of their incubation), then there is no difficulty in believing that a race or species might have been formed which would have laid smaller and smaller eggs; for these would have been more safely hatched and reared. Mr. Ramsay remarks that two of the Australian cuckoos, when they lay their eggs in an open nest, manifest a decided preference for nests containing eggs similar in colour to their own. The European species apparently manifests some tendency towards a similar instinct, but not rarely departs from it, as is shown by her laying her dull and pale-coloured eggs in the nest of the Hedge-warbler with bright greenish-blue eggs. Had our cuckoo invariably displayed the above instinct, it would assuredly have been added to those which it is assumed must all have been acquired together. The eggs of the Australian bronze cuckoo vary, according to Mr. Ramsay, to an extraordinary degree in colour; so that in this respect, as well as in size, natural selection might have secured and fixed any advantageous variation.
In the case of the European cuckoo, the offspring of the foster-parents are commonly ejected from the nest within three days after the cuckoo is hatched; and as the latter at this age is in a most helpless condition, Mr. Gould was formerly inclined to believe that the act of ejection was performed by the foster-parents themselves. But he has now received a trustworthy account of a young cuckoo which was actually seen, whilst still blind and not able even to hold up its own head, in the act of ejecting its foster-brothers. One of these was replaced in the nest by the observer, and was again thrown out. With respect to the means by which this strange and odious instinct was acquired, if it were of great importance for the young cuckoo, as is probably the case, to receive as much food as possible soon after birth, I can see no special difficulty in its having gradually acquired, during successive generations, the blind desire, the strength, and structure necessary for the work of ejection; for those young cuckoos which had such habits and structure best developed would be the most securely reared. The first step towards the acquisition of the proper instinct might have been more unintentional restlessness on the part of the young bird, when somewhat advanced in age and strength; the habit having been afterwards improved, and transmitted to an earlier age. I can see no more difficulty in this, than in the unhatched young of other birds acquiring the instinct to break through their own shells; - or than in young snakes acquiring in their upper jaws, as Owen has remarked, a transitory sharp tooth for cutting through the tough egg-shell. For if each part is liable to individual variations at all ages, and the variations tend to be inherited at a corresponding or earlier age, - propositions which cannot be disputed, - then the instincts and structure of the young could be slowly modified as surely as those of the adult; and both cases must stand or fall together with the whole theory of natural selection.
Some species of Molothrus, a widely distinct genus of American birds, allied to our starlings, have parasitic habits like those of the cuckoo; and the species present an interesting gradation in the perfection of their instincts. The sexes of Molothrus badius are stated by an excellent observer, Mr. Hudson, sometimes to live promiscuously together in flocks, and sometimes to pair. They either build a nest of their own, or seize on one belonging to some other bird, occasionally throwing out the nestlings of the stranger. They either lay their eggs in the nest thus appropriated, or oddly enough build one for themselves on the top of it. They usually sit on their own eggs and rear their own young; but Mr. Hudson says it is probable that they are occasionally parasitic, for he has seen the young of this species following old birds of a distinct kind and clamouring to be fed by them. The parasitic habits of another species of Molothrus, the M. bonariensis, are much more highly developed than those of the last, but are still far from perfect. This bird, as far as it is known, invariably lays its eggs in the nests of strangers; but it is remarkable that several together sometimes commence to build an irregular untidy nest of their own, placed in singularly ill-adapted situations, as on the leaves of a large thistle. They never, however, as far as Mr. Hudson has ascertained, complete a nest for themselves. They often lay so many eggs - from fifteen to twenty - in the same foster-nest, that few or none can possibly be hatched. They have, moreover, the extraordinary habit of pecking holes in the eggs, whether of their own species or of their foster-parents, which they find in the appropriated nests. They drop also many eggs on the bare ground, which are thus wasted. A third species, the M. pecoris of North America, has acquired instincts as perfect as those of the cuckoo, for it never lays more than one egg in a foster-nest, so that the young bird is securely reared. Mr. Hudson is a strong disbeliever in evolution, but he appears to have been so much struck by the imperfect instincts of the Molothrus bonariensis that he quotes my words, and asks, Must we consider these habits, not as especially endowed or created instincts, but as small consequences of one general law, namely, transition?
Various birds, as has already been remarked, occasionally lay their eggs in the nest of other birds. This habit is not very uncommon with the Gallinaceæ, and throws some light on the singular instinct of the ostrich. In this family several hen-birds unite and lay first a few eggs in one nest and then in another; and these are hatched by the males. This instinct may probably be accounted for by the fact of the hens laying a large number of eggs, but, as with the cuckoo, at intervals of two or three days. The instinct, however, of the American ostrich, as in the case of the Molothrus bonariensis, has not as yet been perfected; for a surprising number of eggs lie strewed over the plains, so that in one day's hunting I picked up no less than twenty lost and wasted eggs.
Many bees are parasitic, and regularly lay their eggs in the nests of other kinds of bees. This case is more remarkable than that of the cuckoo; for these bees have not only had their instincts but their structure modified in accordance with their parasitic habits; for they do not possess the pollen-collecting apparatus which would have been indispensable if they had stored up food for their own young. Some species of Sphegidea (wasp-like insects) are likewise parasitic; and M. Fabre has lately shown good reason for believing that, although the Tachytes nigra generally makes its own burrow and stores it with paralysed prey for its own larvæ, yet that, when this insect finds a burrow already made and stored by another species, it takes advantage of the prize and becomes for the occasion parasitic. In this case, as with that of the Molothrus or cuckoo, I can see no difficulty in natural selection making an occasional habit permanent, if of advantage to the species, and if the insect whose nest and stored food are feloniously appropriated, be not thus exterminated.
Slave-making instinct. - This remarkable instinct was first discovered in the Formica (Polyerges) rufescens by Pierre Huber, a better observer even than his celebrated father. This ant is absolutely dependent on its slaves; without their aid, the species would certainly become extinct in a single year. The males and fertile female do no work of any kind, and the workers or sterile females, though most energetic and courageous in capturing slaves, do no other work. They are incapable of making their own nests, or of feeding their own larvæ. When the old nest is found inconvenient, and they have to migrate, it is the slaves which determine the migration, and actually carry their masters in their jaws. So utterly helpless are the masters, that when Huber shut up thirty of them without a slave, but with plenty of the food which they like best, and with their own larvæ and pupæ to stimulate them to work, they did nothing; they could not even feed themselves, and many perished of hunger. Huber then introduced a single slave (F. fusca), and she instantly set to work, fed and saved the survivors; made some cells and tended the larvæ, and put all to rights. What can be more extraordinary than these well-ascertained facts? If we had not known of any other slave-making ant, it would have been hopeless to speculate how so wonderful an instinct could have been perfected.
Another species, Formica sanguinea, was likewise first discovered by P. Huber to be a slave-making ant. This species is found in the southern parts of England, and its habits have been attended to by Mr. F. Smith, of the British Museum, to whom I am much indebted for information on this and other subjects. Although fully trusting to the statements of Huber and Mr. Smith, I tried to approach the subject in a sceptical frame of mind, as any one may well be excused for doubting the existence of so extraordinary an instinct as that of making slaves. Hence, I will give the observations which I made in some little detail. I opened fourteen nests of F. sanguinea, and found a few slaves in all. Males and fertile females of the slave species (F. fusca) are found only in their own proper communities, and have never been observed in the nests of F. sanguinea. The slaves are black and not above half the size of their red masters, so that the contrast in their appearance is great. When the nest is slightly disturbed, the slaves occasionally come out, and like their masters are much agitated and defend the nest: when the nest is much disturbed, and the larvæ and pupæ are exposed, the slaves work energetically together with their masters in carrying them away to a place of safety. Hence, it is clear, that the slaves feel quite at home. During the months of June and July, on three successive years, I watched for many hours several nests in Surrey and Sussex, and never saw a slave either leave or enter a nest. As, during these months, the slaves are very few in number, I thought that they might behave differently when more numerous; but Mr. Smith informs me that he has watched the nests at various hours during May, June, and August, both in Surrey and Hampshire, and has never seen the slaves, though present in large numbers in August, either leave or enter the nest. Hence he considers them as strictly household slaves. The masters, on the other hand, may be constantly seen bringing in materials for the nest, and food of all kinds. During the year 1860, however, in the month of July, I came across a community with an unusually large stock of slaves, and I observed a few slaves mingled with their masters leaving the nest, and marching along the same road to a tall Scotch-fir-tree, twenty-five yards distant, which they ascended together, probably in search of aphides or cocci. According to Huber, who had ample opportunities for observation, the slaves in Switzerland habitually work with their masters in making the nest, and they alone open and close the doors in the morning and evening; and, as Huber expressly states, their principal office is to search for aphides. This difference in the usual habits of the masters and slaves in the two countries, probably depends merely on the slaves being captured in greater numbers in Switzerland than in England.
One day I fortunately witnessed a migration of F. sanguinea from one nest to another, and it was a most interesting spectacle to behold the masters carefully carrying their slaves in their jaws instead of being carried by them, as in the case of F. rufescens. Another day my attention was struck by about a score of the slave-makers haunting the same spot, and evidently not in search of food; they approached and were vigorously repulsed by an independent community of the slave-species (F. fusca); sometimes as many as three of these ants clinging to the legs of the slavemaking F. sanguinea. The latter ruthlessly killed their small opponents, and carried their dead bodies as food to their nest, twenty-nine yards distant; but they were prevented from getting any pupæ to rear as slaves. I then dug up a small parcel of the pupæ of F. fusca from another nest, and put them down on a bare spot near the place of combat; they were eagerly seized and carried off by the tyrants, who perhaps fancied that, after all, they had been victorious in their late combat.
At the same time I laid on the same place a small parcel of the pupæ of another species, F. flava, with a few of these little yellow ants still clinging to the fragments of their nest. This species is sometimes, though rarely, made into slaves, as has been described by Mr. Smith. Although so small a species, it is very courageous, and I have seen it ferociously attack other ants. In one instance I found to my surprise an independent community of F. flava under a stone beneath a nest of the slavemaking F. sanguinea; and when I had accidentally disturbed both nests, the little ants attacked their big neighbours with surprising courage. Now I was curious to ascertain whether F. sanguinea could distinguish the pupæ of F. fusca, which they habitually make into slaves, from those of the little and furious F. flava, which they rarely capture, and it was evident that they did at once distinguish them; for we have seen that they eagerly and instantly seized the pupæ of F. fusca, whereas they were much terrified when they came across the pupæ or even the Earth from the nest, of F. flava, and quickly ran away; but in about a quarter of an hour, shortly after all the little yellow ants had crawled away, they took heart and carried off the pupæ.
One evening I visited another community of F. sanguinea, and found a number of these ants returning home and entering their nests, carrying the dead bodies of F. fusca (showing that it was not a migration) and numerous pupæ. I traced a long file of ants burthened with booty, for about forty yards back, to a very thick clump of heath, whence I saw the last individual of F. sanguinea emerge, carrying a pupa; but I was not able to find the desolated nest in the thick heath. The nest, however, must have been close at hand, for two or three individuals of F. fusca were rushing about in the greatest agitation, and one was perched motionless with its own pupa in its mouth on the top of a spray of heath, an image of despair over its ravaged home.
Such are the facts, though they did not need confirmation by me, in regard to the wonderful instinct of making slaves. Let it be observed what a contrast the instinctive habits of F. sanguinea present with those of the continental F. rufescens. The latter does not build its own nest, does not determine its own migrations, does not collect food for itself or its young, and cannot even feed itself: it is absolutely dependent on its numerous slaves. Formica sanguinea, on the other hand, possesses much fewer slaves, and in the early part of the summer extremely few: the masters determine when and where a new nest shall be formed, and when they migrate, the masters carry the slaves. Both in Switzerland and England the slaves seem to have the exclusive care of the larvæ, and the masters alone go on slave-making expeditions. In Switzerland the slaves and masters work together, making and bringing materials for the nest both, but chiefly the slaves, tend, and milk, as it may be called, their aphides; and thus both collect food for the community. In England the masters alone usually leave the nest to collect building materials and food for themselves, their slaves and larvæ. So that the masters in this country receive much less service from their slaves than they do in Switzerland.
By what steps the instinct of F. sanguinea originated I will not pretend to conjecture. But as ants which are not slave-makers will, as I have seen, carry off the pupæ of other species, if scattered near their nests, it is possible that such pupæ originally stored as food might become developed; and the foreign ants thus unintentionally reared would then follow their proper instincts, and do what work they could. If their presence proved useful to the species which had seized them - if it were more advantageous to this species to capture workers than to procreate them - the habit of collecting pupæ, originally for food, might by natural selection be strengthened and rendered permanent for the very different purpose of raising slaves. When the instinct was once acquired, if carried out to a much less extent even than in our British F. sanguinea, which, as we have seen, is less aided by its slaves than the same species in Switzerland, natural selection might increase and modify the instinct - always supposing each modification to be of use to the species - until an ant was formed as abjectly dependent on its slaves as is the Formica rufescens.
Cell-making instinct of the Hive-Bee. - I will not here enter on minute details on this subject, but will merely give an outline of the conclusions at which I have arrived. He must be a dull man who can examine the exquisite structure of a comb, so beautifully adapted to its end, without enthusiastic admiration. We hear from mathematicians that bees have practically solved a recondite problem, and have made their cells of the proper shape to hold the greatest possible amount of honey, with the least possible consumption of precious wax in their construction. It has been remarked that a skilful workman with fitting tools and measures, would find it very difficult to make cells of wax of the true form, though this is effected by a crowd of bees working in a dark hive. Granting whatever instincts you please, it seems at first quite inconceivable how they can make all the necessary angles and planes, or even perceive when they are correctly made. But the difficulty is not nearly so great as it at first appears: all this beautiful work can be shown, I think, to follow from a few simple instincts.
I was led to investigate this subject by Mr. Waterhouse, who has shown that the form of the cell stands in close relation to the presence of adjoining cells; and the following view may, perhaps, be considered only as a modification of this theory. Let us look to the great principle of gradation, and see whether nature does not reveal to us her method of work. At one end of a short series we have humble-bees, which use their old cocoons to hold honey, sometimes adding to them short tubes of wax, and likewise making separate and very irregular rounded cells of wax. At the other end of the series we have the cells of the hive-bee, placed in a double layer: each cell, as is well known, is an hexagonal prism, with the basal edges of its six sides bevelled so as to join an inverted pyramid, of three rhombs. These rhombs have certain angles, and the three which form the pyramidal base of a single cell on one side of the comb enter into the composition of the bases of three adjoining cells on the opposite side. In the series between the extreme perfection of the cells of the hive-bee and the simplicity of those of the humble-bee we have the cells of the Mexican Melipona domestica, carefully described and figured by Pierre Huber. The Melipona itself is intermediate in structure between the hive and humble-bee, but more nearly related to the latter; it forms a nearly regular waxen comb of cylindrical cells, in which the young are hatched, and, in addition, some large cells of wax for holding honey. These latter cells are nearly spherical and of nearly equal sizes, and are aggregated into an irregular mass. But the important point to notice is, that these cells are always made at that degree of nearness to each other that they would have intersected or broken into each other if the spheres had been completed; but this is never permitted, the bees building perfectly flat walls of wax between the spheres which thus tend to intersect. Hence, each cell consists of an outer spherical portion, and of two, three, or more flat surfaces, according as the cell adjoins two, three, or more other cells. When one cell rests on three other cells, which, from the spheres being nearly of the same size, is very frequently and necessarily the case, the three flat surfaces are united into a pyramid; and this pyramid, as Huber has remarked, is manifestly a gross imitation of the three-sided pyramidal base of the cell of the hive-bee. As in the cells of the hive-bee, so here, the three plane surfaces in any one cell necessarily enter into the construction of three adjoining cells. It is obvious that the Melipona saves wax, and what is more important, labour, by this manner of building; for the flat walls between the adjoining cells are not double, but are of the same thickness as the outer spherical portions, and yet each flat portion forms a part of two cells.
Reflecting on this case, it occurred to me that if the Melipona had made its spheres at some given distance from each other, and had made them of equal sizes and had arranged them symmetrically in a double layer, the resulting structure would have been as perfect as the comb of the hive-bee. Accordingly I wrote to Professor Miller of Cambridge, and this geometer has kindly read over the following statement, drawn up from his information, and tells me that it is strictly correct: -
If a number of equal squares be described with their centres placed in two parallel layers; with the centre of each sphere at the distance of radius x square root of 2 , or radius x 1.41421 (or at some lesser distance), from the centres of the six surrounding spheres in the same layer; and at the same distance from the centres of the adjoining spheres in the other and parallel layer; then, if planes of intersection between the several spheres in both layers be formed, there will result a double layer of hexagonal prisms united together by pyramidal bases formed of three rhombs; and the rhombs and the sides of the hexagonal prisms will have every angle identically the same with the best measurements which have been made of the cells of the hive-bee. But I hear from Prof. Wyman, who has made numerous careful measurements, that the accuracy of the workmanship of the bee has been greatly exaggerated; so much so, that whatever the typical form of the cell may be, it is rarely, if ever, realised.
Hence we may safely conclude that, if we could slightly modify the instincts already possessed by the Melipona, and in themselves not very wonderful, this bee would make a structure as wonderfully perfect as that of the hive-bee. We must suppose that Melipona to have the power of forming her cells truly spherical, and of equal sizes, and this would not be very surprising, seeing that she already does so to a certain extent, and seeing what perfectly cylindrical burrows many insects make in wood, apparently by turning round on a fixed point. We must suppose the Melipona to arrange her cells in level layers, as she already does her cylindrical cells; and we must further suppose, and this is the greatest difficulty, that she can somehow judge accurately at what distance to stand from her fellow-labourers when several are making their spheres; but she is already so far enabled to judge of distance, that she always describes her spheres so as to intersect to a certain extent; and then she unites the points of intersection by perfectly flat surfaces. By such modifications of instincts which in themselves are not very wonderful, - hardly more wonderful than those which guide a bird to make its nest, - I believe that the hive-bee has acquired, through natural selection, her inimitable architectural powers.
But this theory can be tested by experiment. Following the example of Mr. Tegetmeier, I separated two combs, and put between them a long, thick, rectangular strip of wax: the bees instantly began to excavate minute circular pits in it; and as they deepened these little pits, they made them wider and wider until they were converted into shallow basins, appearing to the eye perfectly true or parts of a sphere, and of about the diameter of a cell. It was most interesting to observe that, wherever several bees had begun to excavate these basins near together, they had begun their work at such a distance from each other, that by the time the basins had acquired the above stated width (i. e. about the width of an ordinary cell), and were in depth about one-sixth of the diameter of the sphere of which they formed a part, the rims of the basins intersected or broke into each other. As soon as this occurred, the bees ceased to excavate, and began to build up flat walls of wax on the lines of intersection between the basins, so that each hexagonal prism was built upon the scalloped edge of a smooth basin, instead of on the straight edges of a three-sided pyramid as in the case of ordinary cells.
I then put into the hive, instead of a thick, rectangular piece of wax, a thin and narrow, knife-edged ridge, coloured with vermilion. The bees instantly began on both sides to excavate little basins near to each other, in the same way as before; but the ridge of wax was so thin, that the bottoms of the basins, if they had been excavated to the same depth as in the former experiment, would have broken into each other from the opposite sides. The bees, however, did not suffer this to happen, and they stopped their excavations in due time; so that the basins, as soon as they had been a little deepened, came to have flat bases; and these flat bases, formed by thin little plates of the vermilion wax left ungnawed, were situated, as far as the eye could judge, exactly along the planes of imaginary intersection between the basins on the opposite sides of the ridge of wax. In some parts, only small portions, in other parts, large portions of a rhombic plate were thus left between the opposed basins, but the work, from the unnatural state of things, had not been neatly performed. The bees must have worked at very nearly the same rate in circularly gnawing away and deepening the basins on both sides of the ridge of vermilion wax, in order to have thus succeeded in leaving flat plates between the basins, by stopping work at the planes of intersection.
Considering how flexible thin wax is, I do not see that there is any difficulty in the bees, whilst at work on the two sides of a strip of wax, perceiving when they have gnawed the wax away to the proper thinness, and then stopping their work. In ordinary combs it has appeared to me that the bees do not always succeed in working at exactly the same rate from the opposite sides; for I have noticed half-completed rhombs at the base of a just commenced cell, which were slightly concave on one side, where I suppose that the bees had excavated too quickly, and convex on the opposed side where the bees had worked less quickly. In one well-marked instance, I put the comb back into the hive, and allowed the bees to go on working for a short time, and again examined the cell, and I found that the rhombic plate had been completed, and had become perfectly flat: it was absolutely impossible, from the extreme thinness of the little plate, that they could have effected this by gnawing away the convex side; and I suspect that the bees in such cases stand on opposite sides and push and bend the ductile and warm wax (which as I have tried is easily done) into its proper intermediate plane, and thus flatten it.
From the experiment of the ridge of vermilion wax we can see that, if the bees were to build for themselves a thin wall of wax, they could make their cells of the proper shape, by standing at the proper distance from each other, by excavating at the same rate, and by endeavouring to make equal spherical hollows, but never allowing the spheres to break into each other. Now bees, as may be clearly seen by examining the edge of a growing comb, do make a rough, circumferential wall or rim all round the comb; and they gnaw this away from the opposite sides, always working circularly as they deepen each cell. They do not make the whole three-sided pyramidal base of any one cell at the same time, but only that one rhombic plate which stands on the extreme growing margin, or the two plates, as the case may be; and they never complete the upper edges of the rhombic plates, until the hexagonal walls are commenced. Some of these statements differ from those made by the justly celebrated elder Huber, but I am convinced of their accuracy; and if I had space, I would show that they are conformable with my theory.
Huber's statement that the very first cell is excavated out of a little parallel-sided wall of wax, is not, as far as I have seen, strictly correct; the first commencement having always been a little hood of wax; but I will not here enter on details. We see how important a part excavation plays in the construction of the cells; but it would be a great error to suppose that the bees cannot build up a rough wall of wax in the proper position - that is, along the plane of intersection between two adjoining spheres. I have several specimens showing clearly that they can do this. Even in the rude circumferential rim or wall of wax round a growing comb, flexures may sometimes be observed, corresponding in position to the planes of the rhombic basal plates of future cells. But the rough wall of wax has in every case to be finished off, by being largely gnawed away on both sides. The manner in which the bees build is curious; they always make the first rough wall from ten to twenty times thicker than the excessively thin finished wall of the cell, which will ultimately be left. We shall understand how they work, by supposing masons first to pile up a broad ridge of cement, and then to begin cutting it away equally on both sides near the ground, till a smooth, very thin wall is left in the middle; the masons always piling up the cut-away cement, and adding fresh cement on the summit of the ridge. We shall thus have a thin wall steadily growing upward but always crowned by a gigantic coping. From all the cells, both those just commenced and those completed, being thus crowned by a strong coping of wax, the bees can cluster and crawl over the comb without injuring the delicate hexagonal walls. These walls, as Professor Miller has kindly ascertained for me, vary greatly in thickness; being, on an average of twelve measurements made near the border of the comb, 1/352 of an inch in thickness; whereas the basal rhomboidal plates are thicker, nearly in the proportion of three to two, having a mean thickness, from twenty-one measurements, of 1/229 of an inch. By the above singular manner of building, strength is continually given to the comb, with the utmost ultimate economy of wax.
It seems at first to add to the difficulty of understanding how the cells are made, that a multitude of bees all work together; one bee after working a short time at one cell going to another, so that, as Huber has stated, a score of individuals work even at the commencement of the first cell. I was able practically to show this fact, by covering the edges of the hexagonal walls of a single cell, or the extreme margin of the circumferential rim of a growing comb, with an extremely thin layer of melted vermilion wax; and I invariably found that the colour was most delicately diffused by the bees - as delicately as a painter could have done it with his brush - by atoms of the coloured wax having been taken from the spot on which it had been placed, and worked into the growing edges of the cells all round. The work of construction seems to be a sort of balance struck between many bees, all instinctively standing at the same relative distance from each other, all trying to sweep equal spheres, and then building up, or leaving ungnawed, the planes of intersection between these spheres. It was really curious to note in cases of difficulty, as when two pieces of comb met at an angle, how often the bees would pull down and rebuild in different ways the same cell, sometimes recurring to a shape which they had at first rejected.
When bees have a place on which they can stand in their proper positions for working, - for instance, on a slip of wood, placed directly under the middle of a comb growing downwards, so that the comb has to be built over one face of the slip - in this case the bees can lay the foundations of one wall of a new hexagon, in its strictly proper place, projecting beyond the other completed cells. It suffices that the bees should be enabled to stand at their proper relative distances from each other and from the walls of the last completed cells, and then, by striking imaginary spheres, they can build up a wall intermediate between two adjoining spheres; but, as far as I have seen, they never gnaw away and finish off the angles of a cell till a large part both of that cell and of the adjoining cells has been built. This capacity in bees of laying down under certain circumstances a rough wall in its proper place between two just-commenced cells, is important, as it bears on a fact, which seems at first subversive of the foregoing theory; namely, that the cells on the extreme margin of wasp-combs are sometimes strictly hexagonal; but I have not space here to enter on this subject. Nor does there seem to me any great difficulty in a single insect (as in the case of a queen-wasp) making hexagonal cells, if she were to work alternately on the inside and outside of two or three cells commenced at the same time, always standing at the proper relative distance from the parts of the cells just begun, sweeping spheres or cylinders, and building up intermediate planes.
As natural selection acts only by the accumulation of slight modifications of structure or instinct, each profitable to the individual under its conditions of life, it may reasonably be asked, how a long and graduated succession of modified architectural instincts, all tending towards the present perfect plan of construction, could have profited the progenitors of the hive-bee? I think the answer is not difficult: cells constructed like those of the bee or the wasp gain in strength, and save much in labour and space, and in the materials of which they are constructed. With respect to the formation of wax, it is known that bees are often hard pressed to get sufficient nectar, and I am informed by Mr. Tegetmeier that it has been experimentally proved that from twelve to fifteen pounds of dry sugar are consumed by a hive of bees for the secretion of a pound of wax; so that a prodigious quantity of fluid nectar must be collected and consumed by the bees in a hive for the secretion of the wax necessary for the construction of their combs. Moreover, many bees have to remain idle for many days during the process of secretion. A large store of honey is indispensable to support a large stock of bees during the winter; and the security of the hive is known mainly to depend on a large number of bees being supported. Hence the saving of wax by largely saving honey and the time consumed in collecting the honey must be an important element of success to any family of bees. Of course the success of the species may be dependent on the number of its enemies, or parasites, or on quite distinct causes, and so be altogether independent of the quantity of honey which the bees can collect. But let us suppose that this latter circumstance determined, as it probably often has determined, whether a bee allied to our humble-bees could exist in large numbers in any country; and let us further suppose that the community lived through the winter, and consequently required a store of honey: there can in this case be no doubt that it would be an advantage to our imaginary humble-bee if a slight modification in her instincts led her to make her waxen cells near together, so as to intersect a little; for a wall in common even to two adjoining cells would save some little labour and wax. Hence it would continually be more and more advantageous to our humble-bees, if they were to make their cells more and more regular, nearer together, and aggregated into a mass, like the cells of the Melipona; for in this case a large part of the bounding surface of each cell would serve to bound the adjoining cells, and much labour and wax would be saved. Again, from the same cause, it would be advantageous to the Melipona, if she were to make her cells closer together, and more regular in every way than at present; for then, as we have seen, the spherical surfaces would wholly disappear and be replaced by plane surfaces; and the Melipona would make a comb as perfect as that of the hive-bee. Beyond this stage of perfection in architecture, natural selection could not lead; for the comb of the hive-bee, as far as we can see, is absolutely perfect in economising labour and wax.
Thus, as I believe, the most wonderful of all known instincts, that of the hive-bee, can be explained by natural selection having taken advantage of numerous, successive, slight modifications of simpler instincts; natural selection having, by slow degrees, more and more perfectly led the bees to sweep equal spheres at a given distance from each other in a double layer, and to build up and excavate the wax along the planes of intersection; the bees, of course, no more knowing that they swept their spheres at one particular distance from each other, than they know what are the several angles of the hexagonal prisms and of the basal rhombic plates; the motive power of the process of natural selection having been the construction of cells of due strength and of the proper size and shape for the larvæ, this being effected with the greatest possible economy of labour and wax; that individual swarm which thus made the best cells with least labour, and least waste of honey in the secretion of wax, having succeeded best, and having transmitted their newly-acquired economical instincts to new swarms, which in their turn will have had the best chance of succeeding in the struggle for existence.
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