Bees and Ants by Albany Poyntz

Dull must be the blockhead, who could reproach La Fontaine with ignorance of Natural History, and pronounce the fable of the “Ant and the Grasshopper” bad, because the fabulist has not shown himself a rigid naturalist. The great fault charged against La Fontaine, by the critics, is having made the grasshopper sing. Its cry is considered by most people far from melodious.

The bee possesses a thousand poetical associations derived from our early conversancy with the Georgics. From the remotest periods of antiquity, bees have been recognised as attached to monarchical government, though not to the Salique law. A hive has been compared to the palace of a Czarina of Muscovy.

The queen bee reigns over hundreds of male subjects with the despotism of a Sultan; with the additional privilege of peopling her own dominions. When the queen is on the point of increasing her numerous subjects, the females invade the seraglio of their sovereign, and with their stings exterminate all the male admirers of her majesty. The fecundity of a queen is such, that she can produce sixty thousand of her species annually. The males are easily recognized, being the sleekest and best formed of the hive; and all its labours are carried on by them. To gather honey, and bring back every day to the common exchequer the fruits of the plunder, separate the honey from the wax, and with the latter construct their cell, distil the honey, and die, constitute the duties of the bee.

It has been asserted that the queen bee has no sting, which is an error. Another error prevails, that after a bee has stung, it dies, leaving its sting in the wound. Some one probably crushed a bee, and found the sting in his finger, from which isolated fact a general conclusion has been made.

Réaumur applied himself to the study of bees; not, however, so devoutly as the philosopher, Aristomachus, who consecrated fifty-eight years to it; or the philosopher, Hytiscus, who conceived so great a passion for bees, that he retired into the Desart, the better to observe them. He simply cleared the way of errors, and discountenanced old traditions; but all was conjecture with regard to bees, till the invention of glass hives; when the government of those interesting insects became no longer a secret. The devotion of the working bees to their queen is now well-known. When in danger, or the hive is attacked, they rush to her aid; and even form a mass to conceal her, and die in her defence.

Réaumur relates the following anecdote of which he was a witness. A queen bee, and some of her attendants were apparently drowned in a brook. He took them out of the water, and found that neither the queen bee, nor her attendants were quite dead. Réaumur exposed them to a gentle heat, by which they were revived. The plebeian bees recovered first. The moment they saw signs of animation in their queen, they approached her, and bestowed upon her all the care in their power, licking and rubbing her; and when the queen had acquired sufficient force to move, they hummed aloud, as if in triumph!

It has been thought that bees were prejudicial to the fructification of plants, by robbing them of their pollen. This is not only an error, but naturalists worthy of faith, are of opinion that their movement in a blossom tends to sprinkle the pollen, and promote fecundity.

Bees are of twofold service to the human race, by furnishing us with the most refined means of lighting our houses, and of brightening our furniture; to say nothing of their aromatic honey, surpassing the sweetness of sugar.

Little is known of the republics or monarchies of ants; or indeed of their precise form of government. From the most remote period, however, it has been the custom to represent the ant as the symbol of industry.

The industrious habits of the ant cannot be questioned; but their much vaunted foresight, as described by Boileau, and Addison’s Spectator, is now recognized as fabulous.

According to naturalists, the ant is not without a certain analogy with the bee; seeing that they have not one queen to each swarm, but a certain number of queens for the reproduction of the species; there being productive and unproductive ants. The working class is of a neutral sex. The female ant deposits an egg, whence proceeds a worm, which becomes the ant. As architects, also, to ants must be assigned the precedence over bees; their cellular formations resulting from instinct, and not from calculation. In the stupendous ant-hills so frequently seen in forests, what a series of galleries, dormitories, corridors, and magazines is contained; so that the numerous occupants find ample means of circulation. But the ant cannot pretend to the gratitude of man in the same degree as the bee.

The following is a curious and well-attested fact. After the death of the illustrious Lagrange, Parseval Deschênes, his coadjutor in his scientific pursuits, who announced the coming of Pallas ten years previous to the discovery of that planet—renounced his mathematical researches; and from long habits of study acquired fresh occupation for his mind.

While spending the summer with his friend, M. d’Aubusson de la Feuillade, in the course of one of his rambles in the woods, he found an immense ant-hill, and immediately resolved to make ants his study. He went every day early enough to the ant-hill to see the first ant issue forth; and followed it from the moment of its departure to that of its return.

“About four o’clock in the afternoon,” says he, “I saw my own particular ant arrive heavily laden at the foot of the diminutive mountain; and, finding it impossible to carry its burthen up the hill, deposit it and look around for a confederate. None being at hand, it set forth again; and about fifteen steps on its progress I saw my ant meet another equally loaded. Both halted, and seemed to hold council; after which, they proceeded together to the foot of the ant-hill. Then began the most interesting scene I ever witnessed. The second ant disembarrassed itself of its burthen; and, having provided themselves with a blade of grass, they slipped it under the overweighted load, and, by their united efforts, conveyed it over the hillock, and entered their respective cells!

“After abandoning the study of mathematics as too abstruse,” observes Parseval, “I found the lever of Archimedes in use in an ant-hill.”