Produced by Sue Asscher
By J. Henri Fabre
Translated By Alexander Teixeira De Mattos
This volume contains all the essays on the Chalicodomae, or Mason-bees
proper, which so greatly enhance the interest of the early volumes of
the "Souvenirs entomologiques." I have also included an essay on the
author's Cats and one on Red Ants - the only study of Ants comprised
in the "Souvenirs" - both of which bear upon the sense of direction
possessed by the Bees. Those treating of the Osmiae, who are also
Mason-Bees, although not usually known by that name, will be found in
a separate volume, which I have called "Bramble-bees and Others" and
in which I have collected all that Fabre has written on such other Wild
Bees as the Megachiles, or Leaf-cutters, the Cotton-bees, the Resin-bees
and the Halicti.
The essays entitled "The Mason-bees, Experiments" and "Exchanging the
Nests" form the last three chapters of "Insect Life", translated by the
author of "Mademoiselle Mori" and published by Messrs. Macmillan, who,
with the greatest courtesy and kindness have given me their permission
to include a new translation of these chapters in the present volume.
They did so without fee or consideration of any kind, merely on my
representation that it would be a great pity if this uniform edition
of Fabre's Works should be rendered incomplete because certain essays
formed part of volumes of extracts previously published in this country.
Their generosity is almost unparalleled in my experience; and I wish
to thank them publicly for it in the name of the author, of the French
publishers and of the English and American publishers, as well as in my
Some of the chapters have appeared in England in the "Daily Mail", the
"Fortnightly Review" and the "English Review"; some in America in "Good
Housekeeping" and the "Youth's Companion"; others now see the light in
English for the first time.
I have again to thank Miss Frances Rodwell for the invaluable assistance
which she has given me in the work of translation and in the less
interesting and more tedious department of research.
ALEXANDER TEIXEIRA DE MATTOS.
CHAPTER 1. THE MASON-BEES.
CHAPTER 2. EXPERIMENTS.
CHAPTER 3. EXCHANGING THE NESTS.
CHAPTER 4. MORE ENQUIRIES INTO MASON-BEES.
CHAPTER 5. THE STORY OF MY CATS.
CHAPTER 6. THE RED ANTS.
CHAPTER 7. SOME REFLECTIONS UPON INSECT PSYCHOLOGY.
CHAPTER 8. PARASITES.
CHAPTER 9. THE THEORY OF PARASITISM.
CHAPTER 10. THE TRIBULATIONS OF THE MASON-BEE.
CHAPTER 11. THE LEUCOPSES.
CHAPTER 1. THE MASON-BEES.
Reaumur (Rene Antoine Ferchault de Reaumur (1683-1757), inventor of the
Reaumur thermometer and author of "Memoires pour servir a l'histoire
naturelle des insectes." - Translator's Note.) devoted one of his
papers to the story of the Chalicodoma of the Walls, whom he calls
the Mason-bee. I propose to go on with the story, to complete it and
especially to consider it from a point of view wholly neglected by that
eminent observer. And, first of all, I am tempted to tell how I made
this Bee's acquaintance.
It was when I first began to teach, about 1843. I had left the normal
school at Vaucluse some months before, with my diploma and all the
simple enthusiasm of my eighteen years, and had been sent to Carpentras,
there to manage the primary school attached to the college. It was
a strange school, upon my word, notwithstanding its pompous title of
'upper'; a sort of huge cellar oozing with the perpetual damp engendered
by a well backing on it in the street outside. For light there was the
open door, when the weather permitted, and a narrow prison-window, with
iron bars and lozenge panes set in lead. By way of benches there was a
plank fastened to the wall all round the room, while in the middle was a
chair bereft of its straw, a black-board and a stick of chalk.
Morning and evening, at the sound of the bell, there came rushing in
some fifty young imps who, having shown themselves hopeless dunces with
their Cornelius Nepos, had been relegated, in the phrase of the day,
to 'a few good years of French.' Those who had found mensa too much for
them came to me to get a smattering of grammar. Children and strapping
lads were there, mixed up together, at very different educational
stages, but all incorrigibly agreed to play tricks upon the master, the
boy master who was no older than some of them, or even younger.
To the little ones I gave their first lessons in reading; the
intermediate ones I showed how they should hold their pen to write a
few lines of dictation on their knees; to the big ones I revealed the
secrets of fractions and even the mysteries of Euclid. And to keep this
restless crowd in order, to give each mind work in accordance with its
strength, to keep attention aroused and lastly to expel dullness from
the gloomy room, whose walls dripped melancholy even more than dampness,
my one resource was my tongue, my one weapon my stick of chalk.
For that matter, there was the same contempt in the other classes for
all that was not Latin or Greek. One instance will be enough to show
how things then stood with the teaching of physics, the science which
occupies so large a place to-day. The principal of the college was a
first-rate man, the worthy Abbe X., who, not caring to dispense beans
and bacon himself, had left the commissariat-department to a relative
and had undertaken to teach the boys physics.
Let us attend one of his lessons. The subject is the barometer. The
establishment happens to possess one, an old apparatus, covered with
dust, hanging on the wall beyond the reach of profane hands and bearing
on its face, in large letters, the words stormy, rain, fair.
'The barometer,' says the good abbe, addressing his pupils, whom, in
patriarchal fashion, he calls by their Christian names, 'the barometer
tells us if the weather will be good or bad. You see the words written
on the face - stormy, rain - do you see, Bastien?'
'Yes, I see,' says Bastien, the most mischievous of the lot.
He has been looking through his book and knows more about the barometer
than his teacher does.
'It consists,' the abbe continues, 'of a bent glass tube filled with
mercury, which rises and falls according to the weather. The shorter
leg of this tube is open; the other...the other...well, we'll see. Here,
Bastien, you're the tallest, get up on the chair and just feel with your
finger if the long leg is open or closed. I can't remember for certain.'
Bastien climbs on the chair, stands as high as he can on tip-toe and
fumbles with his finger at the top of the long column. Then, with a
discreet smile spreading under the silky hairs of his dawning moustache:
'Yes,' he says, 'that's it. The long leg is open at the top. There, I
can feel the hole.'
And Bastien, to confirm his mendacious statement, keeps wriggling
his forefinger at the top of the tube, while his fellow-conspirators
suppress their enjoyment as best they can.
'That will do,' says the unconscious abbe. 'You can get down, Bastien.
Take a note of it, boys: the longer leg of the barometer is open; take a
note of it. It's a thing you might forget; I had forgotten it myself.'
Thus was physics taught. Things improved, however: a master came and
came to stay, one who knew that the long leg of the barometer is closed.
I myself secured tables on which my pupils were able to write instead
of scribbling on their knees; and, as my class was daily increasing
in numbers, it ended by being divided into two. As soon as I had an
assistant to look after the younger boys, things assumed a different
Among the subjects taught, one in particular appealed to both masters
and pupils. This was open-air geometry, practical surveying. The college
had none of the necessary outfit; but, with my fat pay - seven hundred
francs a year, if you please! - I could not hesitate over the expense.
A surveyor's chain and stakes, arrows, level, square and compass were
bought with my money. A microscopic graphometer, not much larger than
the palm of one's hand and costing perhaps five francs, was provided
by the establishment. There was no tripod to it; and I had one made. In
short, my equipment was complete.
And so, when May came, once every week we left the gloomy school-room
for the fields. It was a regular holiday. The boys disputed for the
honour of carrying the stakes, divided into bundles of three; and more
than one shoulder, as we walked through the town, felt the reflected
glory of those erudite rods. I myself - why conceal the fact? - was not
without a certain satisfaction as I piously carried that most delicate
and precious apparatus, the historic five-franc graphometer. The scene
of operations was an untilled, flinty plain, a harmas, as we call it in
the district. (Cf. "The Life of the Fly", by J. Henri Fabre, translated
by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos: chapter 1. - Translator's Note.) Here,
no curtain of green hedges or shrubs prevented me from keeping an
eye upon my staff; here - an indispensable condition - I had not the
irresistible temptation of the unripe apricots to fear for my scholars.
The plain stretched far and wide, covered with nothing but flowering
thyme and rounded pebbles. There was ample scope for every imaginable
polygon; trapezes and triangles could be combined in all sorts of ways.
The inaccessible distances had ample elbow-room; and there was even
an old ruin, once a pigeon-house, that lent its perpendicular to the
Well, from the very first day, my attention was attracted by something
suspicious. If I sent one of the boys to plant a stake, I would see him
stop frequently on his way, bend down, stand up again, look about and
stoop once more, neglecting his straight line and his signals. Another,
who was told to pick up the arrows, would forget the iron pin and take
up a pebble instead; and a third deaf to the measurements of angles,
would crumble a clod of earth between his fingers. Most of them were
caught licking a bit of straw. The polygon came to a full stop, the
diagonals suffered. What could the mystery be?
I enquired; and everything was explained. A born searcher and observer,
the scholar had long known what the master had not yet heard of, namely,
that there was a big black Bee who made clay nests on the pebbles in the
harmas. These nests contained honey; and my surveyors used to open
them and empty the cells with a straw. The honey, although rather
strong-flavoured, was most acceptable. I acquired a taste for it myself
and joined the nest-hunters, putting off the polygon till later. It
was thus that I first saw Reaumur's Mason-bee, knowing nothing of her
history and nothing of her historian.
The magnificent Bee herself, with her dark-violet wings and black-velvet
raiment, her rustic edifices on the sun-blistered pebbles amid the
thyme, her honey, providing a diversion from the severities of the
compass and the square, all made a great impression on my mind; and I
wanted to know more than I had learnt from the schoolboys, which was
just how to rob the cells of their honey with a straw. As it happened,
my bookseller had a gorgeous work on insects for sale. It was called
"Histoire naturelle des animaux articules", by de Castelnau (Francis
Comte de Castelnau de la Porte (1812-1880), the naturalist
and traveller. Castelnau was born in London and died at
Melbourne. - Translator's Note.), E. Blanchard (Emile Blanchard (born
1820), author of various works on insects, Spiders, etc. - Translator's
Note.) and Lucas (Pierre Hippolyte Lucas (born 1815), author of works
on Moths and Butterflies, Crustaceans, etc. - Translator's Note.), and
boasted a multitude of most attractive illustrations; but the price of
it, the price of it! No matter: was not my splendid income supposed
to cover everything, food for the mind as well as food for the body?
Anything extra that I gave to the one I could save upon the other; a
method of balancing painfully familiar to those who look to science for
their livelihood. The purchase was effected. That day my professional
emoluments were severely strained: I devoted a month's salary to the
acquisition of the book. I had to resort to miracles of economy for some
time to come before making up the enormous deficit.
The book was devoured; there is no other word for it. In it, I learnt
the name of my black Bee; I read for the first time various details of
the habits of insects; I found, surrounded in my eyes with a sort of
halo, the revered names of Reaumur, Huber (Francois Huber (1750-1831),
the Swiss naturalist, author of "Nouvelles observations sur les
abeilles." He early became blind from excessive study and conducted
his scientific work thereafter with the aid of his wife. - Translator's
Note.) and Leon Dufour (Jean Marie Leon Dufour (1780-1865), an
army surgeon who served with distinction in several campaigns, and
subsequently practised as a doctor in the Landes, where he attained
great eminence as a naturalist. Fabre often refers to him as the
Wizard of the Landes. Cf. "The Life of the Spider", by J. Henri Fabre,
translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos: chapter 1; and "The Life of
the Fly": chapter 1. - Translator's Note.); and, while I turned over the
pages for the hundredth time, a voice within me seemed to whisper:
'You also shall be of their company!'
Ah, fond illusions, what has come of you? (The present essay is one of
the earliest in the "Souvenirs Entomologiques." - Translator's Note.)
But let us banish these recollections, at once sweet and sad, and speak
of the doings of our black Bee. Chalicodoma, meaning a house of pebbles,
concrete or mortar, would be a most satisfactory title, were it not that
it has an odd sound to any one unfamiliar with Greek. The name is given
to Bees who build their cells with materials similar to those which we
employ for our own dwellings. The work of these insects is masonry; only
it is turned out by a rustic mason more used to hard clay than to hewn
stone. Reaumur, who knew nothing of scientific classification - a fact
which makes many of his papers very difficult to understand - named the
worker after her work and called our builders in dried clay Mason-bees,
which describes them exactly.
We have two of them in our district: the Chalicodoma of the Walls
(Chalicodoma muraria), whose history Reaumur gives us in a masterly
fashion; and the Sicilian Chalicodoma (C. sicula) (For reasons that will
become apparent after the reader has learnt their habits, the author
also speaks of the Mason-bee of the Walls and the Sicilian Mason-bee
as the Mason-bee of the Pebbles and the Mason-bee of the Sheds
respectively. Cf. Chapter 4 footnote. - Translator's Note.), who is not
peculiar to the land of Etna, as her name might suggest, but is also
found in Greece, in Algeria and in the south of France, particularly in
the department of Vaucluse, where she is one of the commonest Bees to
be seen in the month of May. In the first species the two sexes are so
unlike in colouring that a novice, surprised at observing them come out
of the same nest, would at first take them for strangers to each other.
The female is of a splendid velvety black, with dark-violet wings. In
the male, the black velvet is replaced by a rather bright brick-red
fleece. The second species, which is much smaller, does not show this
contrast of colour: the two sexes wear the same costume, a general
mixture of brown, red and grey, while the tips of the wings, washed with
violet on a bronzed ground, recall, but only faintly, the rich purple of
the first species. Both begin their labours at the same period, in the
early part of May.
As Reaumur tells us, the Chalicodoma of the Walls in the northern
provinces selects a wall directly facing the sun and one not covered
with plaster, which might come off and imperil the future of the cells.
She confides her buildings only to solid foundations, such as bare
stones. I find her equally prudent in the south; but, for some reason
which I do not know, she here generally prefers some other base to the
stone of a wall. A rounded pebble, often hardly larger than one's fist,
one of those cobbles with which the waters of the glacial period covered
the terraces of the Rhone Valley, forms the most popular support.
The extreme abundance of these sites might easily influence the Bee's
choice: all our less elevated uplands, all our arid, thyme-clad grounds
are nothing but water-worn stones cemented with red earth. In the
valleys, the Chalicodoma has also the pebbles of the mountain-streams
at her disposal. Near Orange, for instance, her favourite spots are the
alluvia of the Aygues, with their carpets of smooth pebbles no longer
visited by the waters. Lastly, if a cobble be wanting, the Mason-bee
will establish her nest on any sort of stone, on a mile-stone or a
The Sicilian Chalicodoma has an even greater variety of choice. Her most
cherished site is the lower surface of the projecting tiles of a roof.
There is not a cottage in the fields, however small, but shelters
her nests under the eaves. Here, each spring, she settles in populous
colonies, whose masonry, handed down from one generation to the next and
enlarged year by year, ends by covering considerable surfaces. I have
seen some of these nests, under the tiles of a shed, spreading over an
area of five or six square yards. When the colony was hard at work, the
busy, buzzing crowd was enough to make one giddy. The under side of a
balcony also pleases the Mason-bee, as does the embrasure of a disused
window, especially if it is closed by a blind whose slats allow her
a free passage. But these are popular resorts, where hundreds and
thousands of workers labour, each for herself. If she be alone, which
happens pretty often, the Sicilian Mason-bee instals herself in the
first little nook handy, provided that it supplies a solid foundation
and warmth. As for the nature of this foundation, she does not seem to
mind. I have seen her build on the bare stone, on bricks, on the wood
of a shutter and even on the window-panes of a shed. One thing only
does not suit her: the plaster of our houses. She is as prudent as her
kinswoman and would fear the ruin of her cells, if she entrusted them to
a support which might possibly fall.
Lastly, for reasons which I am still unable to explain to my own
satisfaction, the Sicilian Mason-bee often changes the position of her
building entirely, turning her heavy house of clay, which would seem
to require the solid support of a rock, into an aerial dwelling. A
hedge-shrub of any kind whatever - hawthorn, pomegranate, Christ's
thorn - provides her with a foundation, usually as high as a man's head.
The holm-oak and the elm give her a greater altitude. She chooses in the
bushy clump a twig no thicker than a straw; and on this narrow base she
constructs her edifice with the same mortar that she would employ under
a balcony or the ledge of a roof. When finished, the nest is a ball of
earth, bisected by the twig. It is the size of an apricot when the work
of a single insect and of one's fist if several have collaborated; but
this latter case is rare.
Both Bees use the same materials: calcareous clay, mingled with a little
sand and kneaded into a paste with the mason's own saliva. Damp places,
which would facilitate the quarrying and reduce the expenditure of
saliva for mixing the mortar, are scorned by the Mason-bees, who refuse
fresh earth for building even as our own builders refuse plaster and
lime that have long lost their setting-properties. These materials, when
soaked with pure moisture, would not hold properly. What is wanted is a
dry dust, which greedily absorbs the disgorged saliva and forms with the
latter's albuminous elements a sort of readily-hardening Roman cement,
something in short resembling the cement which we obtain with quicklime
and white of egg.
The mortar-quarry which the Sicilian Mason-bee prefers to work is a
frequented highway, whose metal of chalky flints, crushed by the passing
wheels, has become a smooth surface, like a continuous flagstone.
Whether settling on a twig in a hedge or fixing her abode under the
eaves of some rural dwelling, she always goes for her building-materials
to the nearest path or road, without allowing herself to be distracted
from her business by the constant traffic of people and cattle. You
should see the active Bee at work when the road is dazzling white
under the rays of a hot sun. Between the adjoining farm, which is the
building-yard, and the road, in which the mortar is prepared, we hear
the deep hum of the Bees perpetually crossing one another as they go
to and fro. The air seems traversed by incessant trails of smoke, so
straight and rapid is the worker's flight. Those on the way to the nest
carry tiny pellets of mortar, the size of small shot; those who return
at once settle on the driest and hardest spots. Their whole body
aquiver, they scrape with the tips of their mandibles and rake with
their front tarsi to extract atoms of earth and grains of sand, which,
rolled between their teeth, become impregnated with saliva and form
a solid mass. The work is pursued so vigorously that the worker lets
herself be crushed under the feet of the passers-by rather than abandon
On the other hand, the Mason-bee of the Walls, who seeks solitude,
far from human habitations, rarely shows herself on the beaten paths,
perhaps because these are too far from the places where she builds. So
long as she can find dry earth, rich in small gravel, near the pebble
chosen as the site of her nest, that is all she asks.
The Bee may either build an entirely new nest on a site as yet
unoccupied, or she may use the cells of an old nest, after repairing
them. Let us consider the former case first. After selecting her pebble,
the Mason-bee of the Walls arrives with a little ball of mortar in her
mandibles and lays it in a circular pad on the surface of the stone.
The fore-legs and above all the mandibles, which are the mason's chief
tools, work the material, which is kept plastic by the salivary fluid as
this is gradually disgorged. In order to consolidate the clay, angular
bits of gravel, the size of a lentil, are inserted separately, but only
on the outside, in the as yet soft mass. This is the foundation of the
structure. Fresh layers follow, until the cell has attained the desired
height of two or three centimetres. (Three-quarters of an inch to one
inch. - Translator's Note.)
Man's masonry is formed of stones laid one above the other and cemented
together with lime. The Chalicodoma's work can bear comparison with
ours. To economise labour and mortar, the Bee employs coarse materials,
big pieces of gravel, which to her represent hewn stones. She chooses
them carefully one by one, picks out the hardest bits, generally with
corners which, fitting one into the other, give mutual support and
contribute to the solidity of the whole. Layers of mortar, sparingly
applied, hold them together. The outside of the cell thus assumes
the appearance of a piece of rustic architecture, in which the stones
project with their natural irregularities; but the inside, which
requires a more even surface in order not to hurt the larva's tender
skin, is covered with a coat of pure mortar. This inner whitewash,
however, is put on without any attempt at art, indeed one might say
that it is ladled on in great splashes; and the grub takes care, after
finishing its mess of honey, to make itself a cocoon and hang the rude
walls of its abode with silk. On the other hand, the Anthophorae and
the Halicti, two species of Wild Bees whose grubs weave no cocoon,
delicately glaze the inside of their earthen cells and give them the
gloss of polished ivory.
The structure, whose axis is nearly always vertical and whose orifice
faces upwards so as not to let the honey escape, varies a little
in shape according to the supporting base. When set on a horizontal
surface, it rises like a little oval tower; when fixed against an
upright or slanting surface, it resembles the half of a thimble divided
from top to bottom. In this case, the support itself, the pebble,
completes the outer wall.
When the cell is finished, the Bee at once sets to work to victual it.
The flowers round about, especially those of the yellow broom (Genista
scoparia), which in May deck the pebbly borders of the mountain streams
with gold, supply her with sugary liquid and pollen. She comes with her
crop swollen with honey and her belly yellowed underneath with pollen