The Origin of Species – Day 59 of 119

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 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 entirely 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 quite 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 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. It is even conceivable that an insect might, by fixing on a point at which to commence a cell, and then moving outside, first to one point, and then to five other points, at the proper relative distances from the central point and from each other, strike the planes of intersection, and so make an isolated hexagon: but I am not aware that any such case has been observed; nor would any good be derived from a single hexagon being built, as in its construction more materials would be required than for a cylinder.

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: 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 found that no less than from twelve to fifteen pounds of dry sugar are consumed by a hive of bees for the secretion of each 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 must be a most important element of success in any family of bees. Of course the success of any species of bee may be dependent on the number of its parasites or other enemies, or on quite distinct causes, and so be altogether independent of the quantity of honey which the bees could collect. But let us suppose that this latter circumstance determined, as it probably often does determine, the numbers of a humble-bee which could exist in a country; and let us further suppose that the community lived throughout 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 humble-bee, if a slight modification of her instinct 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 wax. Hence it would continually be more and more advantageous to our humble-bee, if she were to make her 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 other cells, and much 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 would all 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 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 economy of wax; that individual swarm which wasted least honey in the secretion of wax, having succeeded best, and having transmitted by inheritance its newly acquired economical instinct to new swarms, which in their turn will have had the best chance of succeeding in the struggle for existence.

No doubt many instincts of very difficult explanation could be opposed to the theory of natural selection,–cases, in which we cannot see how an instinct could possibly have originated; cases, in which no intermediate gradations are known to exist; cases of instinct of apparently such trifling importance, that they could hardly have been acted on by natural selection; cases of instincts almost identically the same in animals so remote in the scale of nature, that we cannot account for their similarity by inheritance from a common parent, and must therefore believe that they have been acquired by independent acts of natural selection. I will not here enter on these several cases, but will confine myself to one special difficulty, which at first appeared to me insuperable, and actually fatal to my whole theory. I allude to the neuters or sterile females in insect-communities: for these neuters often differ widely in instinct and in structure from both the males and fertile females, and yet, from being sterile, they cannot propagate their kind.

The subject well deserves to be discussed at great length, but I will here take only a single case, that of working or sterile ants. How the workers have been rendered sterile is a difficulty; but not much greater than that of any other striking modification of structure; for it can be shown that some insects and other articulate animals in a state of nature occasionally become sterile; and if such insects had been social, and it had been profitable to the community that a number should have been annually born capable of work, but incapable of procreation, I can see no very great difficulty in this being effected by natural selection. But I must pass over this preliminary difficulty. The great difficulty lies in the working ants differing widely from both the males and the fertile females in structure, as in the shape of the thorax and in being destitute of wings and sometimes of eyes, and in instinct. As far as instinct alone is concerned, the prodigious difference in this respect between the workers and the perfect females, would have been far better exemplified by the hive-bee. If a working ant or other neuter insect had been an animal in the ordinary state, I should have unhesitatingly assumed that all its characters had been slowly acquired through natural selection; namely, by an individual having been born with some slight profitable modification of structure, this being inherited by its offspring, which again varied and were again selected, and so onwards. But with the working ant we have an insect differing greatly from its parents, yet absolutely sterile; so that it could never have transmitted successively acquired modifications of structure or instinct to its progeny. It may well be asked how is it possible to reconcile this case with the theory of natural selection?

First, let it be remembered that we have innumerable instances, both in our domestic productions and in those in a state of nature, of all sorts of differences of structure which have become correlated to certain ages, and to either sex. We have differences correlated not only to one sex, but to that short period alone when the reproductive system is active, as in the nuptial plumage of many birds, and in the hooked jaws of the male salmon. We have even slight differences in the horns of different breeds of cattle in relation to an artificially imperfect state of the male sex; for oxen of certain breeds have longer horns than in other breeds, in comparison with the horns of the bulls or cows of these same breeds. Hence I can see no real difficulty in any character having become correlated with the sterile condition of certain members of insect-communities: the difficulty lies in understanding how such correlated modifications of structure could have been slowly accumulated by natural selection.

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