WE reached home quickly and were making our way along the combs, when I was accosted by a pretentious bee.
"It's your turn to nurse. Come with me. This shall be your section. These little ones are to be fed to-night."
"Well, with what shall I feed them?" I asked, impulsively, somewhat irritated to think that I, a honeygatherer, should be set at such a task.
In answer to my question I got only a look; but I shall not forget it it was withering. I felt ashamed of myself; and I resolved never again to question an assignment of duty.
Immediately I set about my task. Without thinking, I peeped into two or three cells and found that the bees allotted to me were but four days old. Miraculous as it may seem, while I knew nothing about preparing food for the young, I fell to it with zest. Taking a supply of honey from one cell, I sought one stored with pollen; and there, without ceremony, I began to mix honey and bread, making a thin paste to which I had to add ever so little water. Then I placed the least bit of it in each of the cells of my section. The tiny wormlike bees began to wriggle, so I knew at once that I had succeeded in my task.
Several days now rolled away in comparative idleness. The great storm had completely washed out the supplies of honey, leaving the flowers draggled and broken. We busied ourselves with chores about the hive and with flights into the fields, ever on the scout for sweets. For my part, I was set to filling up a hole in the uppermost corner of the hive. At the moment it was serving as a ventilator. A little stream of air was constantly flowing out of it ; but the cold v/eather was on its way and the time had come to stop the hole. With winter once fallen, it would be too late.
"The mesquite-trees are full of gum," said the dear old fellow who set me to my task. "Hurry and bring home a good supply. I hear you are a capital hand at this sort of thing."
So I went swiftly forth, and soon I found a crystal drop of gum on a mesquite-tree. I bit off scraps of it quite easily, and soon had my basket-legs filled with the gum; and it required only a moment to return and pack it in the hole in the hive.
"You're a clever fellow," said the old director. "But I see bits of gum have fallen on the bottomboard and already there are accumulations which afford excellent hiding-places for web-worms. Go and clean them out, if you please."
I went promptly, and sure enough, chips from my patching and from many others and scraps of comb had gathered in the corner, and I found myself facing a considerable undertaking. Time after time I seized scraps in my mandibles and flew away with them, dropping them outside.
I was far from the end of my labors when suddenly the ugliest thing I had ever seen burst out on me. It was a long, white-brown worm, which I had uncovered in the debris. It wriggled away as though aware of danger.
I was standing by, irresolute, when I heard a call, from I knew not what source.
"Why don't you seize him, coward!"
I was not a coward, but I could not make up my mind what to do. But the little rascal that had scolded me knew, and fell upon the monster manfully. Over and over the worm turned, writhing like a beast in torment, and suddenly it twisted itself quite out of the clutches of its enemy and made for a cell in the nearest comb.
Up to this point I had taken no hand in the fight, but now I joined in the pursuit. In the mean time the worm had escaped and was trying to hide in a cell. We stopped for a moment, the two of us, peering at him, wondering what next to do. At least I was wondering, when my mentor spoke out sharply.
" You're a poor excuse for a bee! If you had helped we should have done for him by this time. We have still a chance to save ourselves. Now, when I dive in upon him, he will probably rush out, throwing me from the combs. Then you must do your work. Hold him until I come, and between us we can manage him."
"Shall I sting him?" Tasked.
"No, you idiot! It's not so desperate as that. You ought to know that only in a great emergency should a bee sacrifice his life. Now mind you; here I go!"
With that he lurched forward, and instantly back he came, the worm plunging along with him. I also seized the intruder, and the three of us dropped to the floor. Round and round we were thrown until I thought I was about to be beaten to death, but I had made up my mind to die rather than have fresh slurs cast upon my courage. I am doubtful whether we could have won the battle if two other active bees had not come to our assistance. The four of us soon had the breath out of the worm's wriggling body, and then we dragged him to the front of the hive. After vain efforts to fly away with him in the burial fashion of our people, we found the best we could do was to drop him to the ground from the edge of our board. I was quite out of breath, and stood panting on the spot, when, lo! from the clouds dropped Crip.
"What's the matter?" he inquired.
"Nothing much. We've just captured a great worm one of our enemies. There he lies on the ground."
Crip walked to the edge of the board and looked down. "Why, he isn't dead."
I looked, and, sure enough, he seemed to be alive. But on closer inspection I saw that a multitude of small black creatures had taken possession of the body.
"He is dead for certain," I said. "Some bugs have seized him for prey."
Crip looked again. "Why, those are black army ants," he exclaimed; "one of the worst enemies a bee can meet. Sometimes, when they are hungry, they rush into the hive and help themselves. It is most difficult to deal with them. They nab you by the leg, when they do not sting you, and you cannot free yourself from their deadly grip."
I looked at Crip in silence. Was there no end to perils ?
"Let us hope they'll travel on," he added. "There's plenty of food abroad for them. But tell me, where did you find that worm?"
"Back in the far corner. Come with me. I was cleaning out the debris when I came upon him." "Well, did you finish your task?"
I had quite forgotten it. I had been so absorbed in the fight that the original undertaking had gone out of mind.
" Then come on. I'll help you."
With that Crip led off, limpingly. I followed by his side, amazed at his speed. Soon we came to the place. Each of us seized a bit of the debris, and away we went to deposit it far from the entrance to our home.
"I see where your worm came from," Crip observed.
"There's a hole in the board, and he found it, then crept in stealthily and hid in this little heap of rubbish. I'm a bad guesser, or we'll find another here any minute."
And sure enough. Crip seized a piece of comb, and, upon dragging it away, out sprang another worm, even more forbidding than the other.
Crip was the first to spy him, and, valiant warrior that he was, seized him instantly. I attacked him, also, with all my might. But the worm, a full-grown one, and twice as big as both of us, simply flung us about and thrashed us unmercifully. He quite knocked me to bits; but I never relaxed my hold, nor did Crip. It was a poor showing that we were making, when several guards rushed to our assistance. The fight was soon over and the monster lay still.
"He's dead," said one of the new-comers. "Out with him."
We all fell to, dragging him along. It took the combined energies of four of us to move his huge form. At last we arrived at the edge of our alighting-board, and down we dropped him to the tender mercies of the black ants, who immediately swarmed over him. One could almost imagine that they thanked us for the delicacy we had tossed them. I wondered what the ants thought of us, if they thought at all. I had become particularly interested in those big red ones that ran along the tiny trail skirting our home.
I was looking down at the worm, covered with the little black ants, when, in a final paroxysm, he flounced violently, scattering the little army that beset him. But once again they fell upon him, and presently they had cut him entirely to pieces, carrying away every scrap for a feast.
In the economy of things, these worms had grown and fattened on the refuse of our hive, and now they had become food in their turn for a host of tiny creatures which roamed the earth below, all this seemingly in accordance with some unknown law.
I stood there watching them for some time, until the last ant made off, following with unerring aim the trail of his fellows. Soon they were lost to sight. It seemed to me that this last one disappeared under a log where the Master often sat. I wondered what relation there might be between them, if in some mysterious way they worked together, for I remembered that Crip had told me that not only the Master, but even the ants, sometimes raided our hives, taking our honey. I turned to ask him to explain, but he was not to be seen among the bees swarming upon the board. I must find him.