Bee Intelligence and Instinct


Intellect in Man and Animals as Related to Immortality—Memory—Judgment—Instances of Attention—Prevision—Provision—Instinct—Manifestations—Bearing on Evolution.

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There has been a singular unwillingness on the part of many religious writers to acknowledge among animals inferior to man the possession of true intellectual faculties. This has arisen, partly from the desire to keep man on a pedestal immensely exalted above the rest of the creatures more or less allied to him, and partly from the fear that the concession of high faculties might seem to imply the immortality of all living beings or of none.

The first of these reasons which have influenced writers may be dismissed with the remark, that the position of superiority which man has held, and more than ever holds, depends, not entirely upon his powers of mind, but upon a combination of faculties, physical, mental, moral, and, above all, spiritual; so that there need be no grudging of endowments of intellect to other creatures on earth beside ourselves. As to the second point, we see no necessity to consider that it supplies a dilemma.

Man and all other animals may be immortal, for aught we know; or man may, according to current opinion, stand alone in this respect; but the yea or nay of the question need not rest upon the foundation of the gift of intellect. We know, indeed, so little of the actual connection between mind and body, the senses and the intellect, that it becomes quite unsafe to base upon our knowledge any theories as to the conscious possession of power when the body ceases to live.

The discussion of this subject must rest on other and higher grounds altogether, and so will lie outside the limits of our work. But we may well inquire how far true intellectual processes go on in bees. And the best way to do this will be to take some of the strictly intellectual faculties, and see whether they really exist among these insects.

Firstly, with regard to memory. Without entering upon theories as to the simple or complex nature of the means by which we recall feelings, events, sensations, or ideas, we may take it for granted that memory is a sign and an attribute of considerable mental endowment.

Now that bees distinctly remember, there can be not the slightest doubt. Whatever may be our opinion as to the faculty by which they find their way back to their hives from long distances, there is clear evidence of their recollecting particular places, in the circumstance that, for a day or two after the securing of a swarm, certain bees will hover round the spot from which the hiving took place.

Again, it is possible to train these insects to come day after day to a particular place, by supplying them with food under conditions in which their senses of sight and smell would not inform them of its continued presence. Moreover, after being seriously disturbed, a stock appears to remember, for many days, the molestation, and to be eager to resent further intrusion, unless peaceable behaviour is strongly enforced by smoke or an anæsthetic.

Secondly, as to judgment. This involves the previous conception of two ideas at least, the comparison of these, or their connection, at all events, and a decision founded on their connection. That these processes take place in the bee-mind, we are apparently warranted in concluding from several circumstances to which allusion has already been made.

Let us recall, for instance, the fact that if, owing to an unusual influx of honey, the attachments of the combs seem insufficiently strong to bear the weight dependent on them, the workers proceed to make a new connecting layer, at the top of the hive, and of greater holding power. This they do by gnawing away the original one, and replacing it, one side at a time, by new work, the security of which is assured before the other side is proceeded with. Now, in this case there is a perception of an unusual, or, at least, an unexpected influx of stores, as well as of a certain strength being required to sustain the weight of them.

Furthermore, there is a calculation, or comparison, founded on the two perceptions or conceptions, and an act of decision resulting from such comparison—apparently a clear case of judgment.

Again, let us revert to the manufacture of queens by the workers. If at the time of the removal or loss of the mother-bee in any way, there should be unhatched princesses in the hive, no attempt will be made to follow the course adopted in the absence of such royal progeny. In the latter case—i.e. when there is no royal brood—there must be a distinct conception, first of their bereavement; secondly, of the hopelessness of a sovereign appearing in the ordinary way.

Then a judgment is formed of the proceedings necessary for making a queen, and action immediately follows. Not only so, but, as if to secure themselves against the repetition of their calamity, they prepare not one queen only, but several, so that, if the first which comes to maturity be lost, there may be others in reserve.

A further act of definite judgment appears in this; for, if one only were produced and lost, they would be powerless to repeat the process, as all the rest of the worker brood would, in the mean time, have advanced far beyond the stage at which its transformation would be possible. The bees, then, with admirable prevision, forbear to risk all the future of their community on one hope of a queen.

Once more, we may notice the remarkable fact that, if a queen be removed or lost late in the summer, at the time when the destruction of the drones is drawing to a close, the males of that particular hive will be spared as long as there is any hope that a royal spouse may be needed. In this instance, too, we have what seems a distinct judgment of the necessity that there should be drones spared for the renewal of the progeny of the stock, and their consequent immunity from the death or banishment they would have undergone in a community possessing a fertile sovereign.

Again, in the late summer, when supplies of honey from the fields begin to fail, the workers, even in a flourishing hive, will not only worry to death, or drive away to destruction, all the males which are adult, but will pull out of the cells the immature drones, and carry them from the hive.

In this case we have two independent judgments. First, that, having a fertile queen, but no probability of further swarming, no raison d’être exists for the males among them; and secondly, that the unhatched males would, on emerging from the cells, be useless consumers of precious stores, and consequently are better destroyed.

Numerous other evidences of judgment might be adduced, such, for instance, as building drone-comb, i.e. cells of large size, when unusual space is required for quick storing of food, the different expedients for repairing, refixing, and giving direction to combs, in view of various difficulties to be encountered. But we have said, we believe, sufficient to make good the special point in question.

We might, perhaps, with advantage, have spoken of the faculty of attentioni.e. the direction of the mental powers to a particular end by the determinate action of the will. At every moment we may see, in a busy hive, evidences of this power. Indeed, in so complex a community, where so many operations are constantly going forward, where so many stages of social development are being passed through, where so many separate interests have to be regarded, and where the harmonious co-operation of individuals is of supreme importance to the general welfare, it is impossible that this faculty of attention should be wanting or unexercised.

We have hinted at the prevision shown by bees. Now, if this really exists in them, we must acknowledge it to be one of the very highest endowments of intellect It is that which in man removes him from the sport of circumstances, and gives him large control over his own earthly destinies.

It is that which, when applied to events more or less unascertainable by the majority of men, proportionately awakes their astonishment, and creates a reputation for ability and high endowment. Now, that the faculty is possessed by bees is, we think, evident from many considerations. When, for instance, a hive has lost its queen, and has no hope of a successor, despair comes over the community, as the workers feel they have no longer an object in their toil. They seem to foresee the speedy end of their colony, and the consequent uselessness of collecting stores, or proceeding with comb-building.

Again, the destruction of the drones and drone-brood, when no longer of possible service, implies a knowledge that the males, if spared, will produce a scarcity of food, by uselessly consuming the stores, while the preservation, to a late period, of drones in a hive whose queen is lost near the end of summer, indicates a foresight of the possible need of males to mate with a young queen, whose advent is hoped for.

Without much risk of straining this line of argument, we might consider the storage of honey and bee-bread as a prevision, and not merely as a provision for the needs of winter. In like manner, the encasing in propolis of slugs, mice, or other intruders, when dead in the hives, may be looked upon as a safeguard against expected putrefaction.

The cessation from grief for loss of a queen, when new royal cells are preparing, may be regarded as evidence of anticipated joy in a coming monarch. We acknowledge, however, that here the dividing line between reason and instinct becomes very narrow, and it is exceedingly difficult to determine the strict limits of either.

At this point, also, comes in the remarkable question of heredity. The causes and determining circumstances of this quality are at present very imperfectly understood; nor is it probable that anything like a complete explanation of the subject will be forthcoming. That it is, however, a most potent element in the subject of mental, as well as physical, characters cannot be disputed. To it, in fact, the possession of what we call instinct must be entirely referred, though it leaves untouched the actual nature of this endowment.

The definition of instinct is not a very simple matter, but we may consider it as a power, appearing in generation after generation of animals, by which, without instruction, they perform certain actions, or series of actions, tending to the welfare of the individual or of the race.

We usually regard the purely intellectual operations as improvable by education. Instinct, on the other hand, neither requires, nor, in general, is aided by teaching. It is true that man has taken advantage of certain qualities, apparently instinctive, in particular animals, and has seemed to improve them by schooling them, as, for instance, in the case of pointers and setters among dogs; but it is rather, as it appears to us, the mental processes of the creature, which have been controlled and modified, and then the tendency to the reproduction of these has been transmitted by heredity.

Pure instinct we, therefore, continue to regard as outside the plane of education.

The faculty as exhibited by bees is most astonishing. We have already enumerated many circumstances, which evidently have had their origin in this power, but we may well recall certain of these in illustration of this point.

Firstly, then, the shaping of the cells with definite and constantly repeated angles of the sides; the arrangement of them, so that the base of each is formed by the junction of the bottoms of three cells on the opposite side of the comb; the preparation of abodes suitable in size, and in other special respects, for the larvæ of queens, drones, and workers; and the careful transition from one to the other of the last two—all these and other circumstances connected with the construction of their dwellings, attest the possession of an innate faculty needing no instruction from the elders of the hive.

Again, the gathering, in due proportion and according to varying needs, of honey, pollen, and propolis, must be attributed to this same occult endowment. The proper admixture of the different kinds of food, adapted to the varying ages of the larvæ; the preparation and administration of the “royal jelly,” necessary for the development of queen-larvæ; the covering of the cells with waxen lids of different shapes, according to the nature of their contents convex on the male cells, nearly flat on those of workers, and somewhat concave on the honey stores—are other manifestations of an internal guide towards useful labour.

Once more, the series of remarkable facts connected with their respect and attention and service to their sovereign; their treatment of queens introduced into hives possessing a queen, or without one; the permission, and even urging, of rival monarchs to fight à outrance; the expedients adopted to repair, if by any means it is possible, the loss of a queen—all these facts point, still further, to a power, by whose almost unerring operation extraordinary results are secured for the well-being and the very continuance of the race.

Nor is it easy to see how, on the principles of evolution alone, this faculty can have been acquired; for the remarkable point, and one apparently inexplicable on the development-theory, is this, that the two portions of the community alone concerned in the actual propagation of the race are absolutely without the special endowment of which we have been speaking, at least so far as the particular directions of its manifestation just mentioned enable us to conclude.

The queen among bees, unlike her representative among wasps, is quite unable to perform any of the processes preliminary to egg-laying. She cannot secrete wax or build comb. She cannot fly abroad to collect honey. She has no means of gathering pollen. She can neither procure nor use propolis. So helpless, indeed, is she, that, bereft of attendants, she is unable to feed herself sufficiently to maintain life.

The drones, if not so absolutely helpless, are equally incapable of all constructive work, of the power of collecting honey, making wax, building comb, guarding the stores against robbers, or even tending and nurturing the young brood. We see, then, the endowments of instinct in all their higher manifestations are conferred alone on the members of the community who cannot transmit them to posterity.

Nor does the fact of the occasional appearance of fertile workers at all explain away the difficulty; for, as has been shown, such abnormal mothers produce only male offspring, which never inherit the special faculties of the undeveloped females, and consequently cannot transmit what they have never possessed.

If asked what solution of the difficulty we are prepared to offer, we confess, with satisfaction, to the retention of the undisproved theory that the Creator has, in His own inscrutable, but all-beneficent, way, specially gifted these insects with powers of a kind adapted to the highest welfare of their race, as we also believe He has given to other orders of beings, from the ant up to man, and on to angels, faculties to be used, not only for the benefit of the individual, the species, or the genus, but for the harmonious working of the universe He has called into being.

To those, at least, who rejoice to believe in a personal God, who find an atheistic cosmos the most unthinkable of notions; who see a thousand mysteries inexplicable on any theory of unintelligent “natural selection,” the study of the honey-bee provides reason for, and evokes the sentiment of, sublime adoration of an infinite First Cause, i.e. the Deity.

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