The Solitary Bee
A VERY slight and fugacious hint from nature is enough to excite expectation in one who cultivates her friendship and favor. Fancy starts up, and follows the foot-marks along the earth or the wing-prints in air, — unless in-
deed it be a very dull and jaded fancy. Not long ago, as I was reading in the open air, I became conscious that some musical insect was busy in a rosebush near by. On looking up, I saw a bee just hovering in departure, a portion of green leaf folded in its embrace. In an instant the creature was gone, with a mellow touch of the “ flying harp.” At that moment the whole visible world seemed to pertain to the ingenious bee: I had been singularly favored that I had seen the insect at all, and a glimpse of the queen of fays and her “ little team of atomies ” could scarcely have surprised or pleased me more. However, I began to regret that I had not seen the leaf-cutter plying her keenedged scissors, and to wish that I might find where she went with her plunder. I examined the leaves of the rosebush, and was surprised to notice how many of them had been subjected to the scissors. The snipping had been done in two patterns, — deep, nearly circular scallops, and oblong segments with the corners rounded. The edges were left quite smooth, from which it was evident that the operant was no crude prentice hand.
After this chance introduction to the leaf-cutter (who I found bore the burdensome name Megachile), I watched the ways of my distinguished new acquaintance, and made sundry attempts to trace her from the rosebush to the laboratory in which she worked up the raw material of the leaves : this, I fancied, would be either an excavation in old wood or a burrow underground ; it proved, in the case of my acquaintance, to be neither of these.
My quest met with no success, until, one day in the vegetable garden, I observed a thick-set, dusky bee, with narrow yellow bands, entering the hollow of an onion top, two or three inches of which had been cut off. No wonder my curiosity ran high: could this be the residence of the aristocratic leaf-cutter ? Could it be, that one whom I had mentally associated with Titania herself should have no finer perception of elegant congruity than to set up housekeeping within walls of garlic, bringing thereto rose-leaf appointments ? If so, I thought it would be no slander to report the hymenopterous tribe as deficient in the sense of smell. I waited for the bee to come out, which she presently did, and then peeped into the onion top, where I discovered a cell in process of construction. As there were other cut or broken tops, I examined those also, and found several that were similarly occupied. Some stalks contained one, others two cylindrical cells about an inch long, the sides formed by overlapping oblong bits of rose-leaves, while the top and bottom were closed with circular pieces, the whole structure held together as though it had been pressed in a mould. The inner layers were united by means of a substance that acted as cement. Afterward, when I compared the pieces of which these cells were composed with the notches in the rose-leaves, it seemed not impossible that, with time and patience, the cut - out portions might be fitted in their original places. In some cases, as I split the onion stalk, the bee was still at work storing bee-bread for the support of her offspring, and could not be induced to leave until all but the inner walls of her laboratory had been torn away. Some cells were already closed, and within was the large waxenlooking larva, feeding on the provision laid up by its solicitous parent, its appetite unimpaired by the garlicky character of the flavoring.
I have yet to learn that a community of leaf-cutters (in an onion bed, too !) is a matter of ordinary occurrence ; certainly, it will cause me some surprise if the novelty should be repeated another season. To speak of a community of solitary bees would be to speak in paradox, and it should be added that these insects, though occupying the same neighborhood, apparently exchanged no social civilities. I remember to have questioned one of these independents very closely on the subject, — to have questioned and to have been answered in some such way as the following : —
Where the green leaves of the rose
Thee, as in a bud, enclose,
Solitary, do thou tell
Why thou choosest thus to dwell,
Helping build no amber comb,
Sharing no rich harvest-home! ”
“ Though an idle thing thou ask,
I will freely answer thee,
If thou, first, wilt clearly show
Something I have wished to know, —
How the hivéd honey-bee
Can forego sweet privacy!