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Instinct - Chapter VIII - Origin of Species

Page 62 Contents - 'The Origin of Species' by Charles Darwin prev page     next page

At the same time I laid on the same place a small parcel of the pupae of another species, F. flava, with a few of these little yellow ants still clinging to the fragments of their nest. This species is sometimes, though rarely, made into slaves, as has been described by Mr. Smith. Although so small a species, it is very courageous, and I have seen it ferociously attack other ants. In one instance I found to my surprise an independent community of F. flava under a stone beneath a nest of the slave-making F. sanguinea; and when I had accidentally disturbed both nests, the little ants attacked their big neighbours with surprising courage. Now I was curious to ascertain whether F. sanguinea could distinguish the pupae of F. fusca, which they habitually make into slaves, from those of the little and furious F. flava, which they rarely capture, and it was evident that they did at once distinguish them; for we have seen that they eagerly and instantly seized the pupae of F. fusca, whereas they were much terrified when they came across the pupae, or even the earth from the nest, of F. flava, and quickly ran away; but in about a quarter of an hour, shortly after all the little yellow ants had crawled away, they took heart and carried off the pupae.

One evening I visited another community of F. sanguinea, and found a number of these ants returning home and entering their nests, carrying the dead bodies of F. fusca (showing that it was not a migration) and numerous pupae. I traced a long file of ants burdened with booty, for about forty yards back, to a very thick clump of heath, whence I saw the last individual of F. sanguinea emerge, carrying a pupa; but I was not able to find the desolated nest in the thick heath. The nest, however, must have been close at hand, for two or three individuals of F. fusca were rushing about in the greatest agitation, and one was perched motionless with its own pupa in its mouth on the top of a spray of heath, an image of despair over its ravaged home.

Such are the facts, though they did not need confirmation by me, in regard to the wonderful instinct of making slaves. Let it be observed what a contrast the instinctive habits of F. sanguinea present with those of the continental F. rufescens. The latter does not build its own nest, does not determine its own migrations, does not collect food for itself or its young, and cannot even feed itself: it is absolutely dependent on its numerous slaves. Formica sanguinea, on the other hand, possesses much fewer slaves, and in the early part of the summer extremely few. The masters determine when and where a new nest shall be formed, and when they migrate, the masters carry the slaves. Both in Switzerland and England the slaves seem to have the exclusive care of the larvae, and the masters alone go on slave-making expeditions. In Switzerland the slaves and masters work together, making and bringing materials for the nest: both, but chiefly the slaves, tend and milk as it may be called, their aphides; and thus both collect food for the community. In England the masters alone usually leave the nest to collect building materials and food for themselves, their slaves and larvae. So that the masters in this country receive much less service from their slaves than they do in Switzerland.

By what steps the instinct of F. sanguinea originated I will not pretend to conjecture. But as ants which are not slave-makers, will, as I have seen, carry off pupae of other species, if scattered near their nests, it is possible that such pupae originally stored as food might become developed; and the foreign ants thus unintentionally reared would then follow their proper instincts, and do what work they could. If their presence proved useful to the species which had seized them--if it were more advantageous to this species, to capture workers than to procreate them--the habit of collecting pupae, originally for food, might by natural selection be strengthened and rendered permanent for the very different purpose of raising slaves. When the instinct was once acquired, if carried out to a much less extent even than in our British F. sanguinea, which, as we have seen, is less aided by its slaves than the same species in Switzerland, natural selection might increase and modify the instinct--always supposing each modification to be of use to the species--until an ant was formed as abjectly dependent on its slaves as is the Formica rufescens.


I will not here enter on minute details on this subject, but will merely give an outline of the conclusions at which I have arrived. He must be a dull man who can examine the exquisite structure of a comb, so beautifully adapted to its end, without enthusiastic admiration. We hear from mathematicians that bees have practically solved a recondite problem, and have made their cells of the proper shape to hold the greatest possible amount of honey, with the least possible consumption of precious wax in their construction. It has been remarked that a skilful workman, with fitting tools and measures, would find it very difficult to make cells of wax of the true form, though this is effected by a crowd of bees working in a dark hive. Granting whatever instincts you please, it seems at first quite inconceivable how they can make all the necessary angles and planes, or even perceive when they are correctly made. But the difficulty is not nearly so great as at first appears: all this beautiful work can be shown, I think, to follow from a few simple instincts.

I was led to investigate this subject by Mr. Waterhouse, who has shown that the form of the cell stands in close relation to the presence of adjoining cells; and the following view may, perhaps, be considered only as a modification of his theory. Let us look to the great principle of gradation, and see whether Nature does not reveal to us her method of work. At one end of a short series we have humble-bees, which use their old cocoons to hold honey, sometimes adding to them short tubes of wax, and likewise making separate and very irregular rounded cells of wax. At the other end of the series we have the cells of the hive-bee, placed in a double layer: each cell, as is well known, is an hexagonal prism, with the basal edges of its six sides bevelled so as to join an inverted pyramid, of three rhombs. These rhombs have certain angles, and the three which form the pyramidal base of a single cell on one side of the comb, enter into the composition of the bases of three adjoining cells on the opposite side. In the series between the extreme perfection of the cells of the hive-bee and the simplicity of those of the humble-bee, we have the cells of the Mexican Melipona domestica, carefully described and figured by Pierre Huber. The Melipona itself is intermediate in structure between the hive and humble bee, but more nearly related to the latter: it forms a nearly regular waxen comb of cylindrical cells, in which the young are hatched, and, in addition, some large cells of wax for holding honey. These latter cells are nearly spherical and of nearly equal sizes, and are aggregated into an irregular mass. But the important point to notice is, that these cells are always made at that degree of nearness to each other that they would have intersected or broken into each other if the spheres had been completed; but this is never permitted, the bees building perfectly flat walls of wax between the spheres which thus tend to intersect. Hence, each cell consists of an outer spherical portion, and of two, three, or more flat surfaces, according as the cell adjoins two, three or more other cells. When one cell rests on three other cells, which, from the spheres being nearly of the same size, is very frequently and necessarily the case, the three flat surfaces are united into a pyramid; and this pyramid, as Huber has remarked, is manifestly a gross imitation of the three-sided pyramidal base of the cell of the hive-bee. As in the cells of the hive-bee, so here, the three plane surfaces in any one cell necessarily enter into the construction of three adjoining cells. It is obvious that the Melipona saves wax, and what is more important, labour, by this manner of building; for the flat walls between the adjoining cells are not double, but are of the same thickness as the outer spherical portions, and yet each flat portion forms a part of two cells.

Reflecting on this case, it occurred to me that if the Melipona had made its spheres at some given distance from each other, and had made them of equal sizes and had arranged them symmetrically in a double layer, the resulting structure would have been as perfect as the comb of the hive-bee. Accordingly I wrote to Professor Miller, of Cambridge, and this geometer has kindly read over the following statement, drawn up from his information, and tells me that it is strictly correct:-

If a number of equal spheres be described with their centres placed in two parallel layers; with the centre of each sphere at the distance of radius x sqrt(2) or radius x 1.41421 (or at some lesser distance), from the centres of the six surrounding spheres in the same layer; and at the same distance from the centres of the adjoining spheres in the other and parallel layer; then, if planes of intersection between the several spheres in both layers be formed, there will result a double layer of hexagonal prisms united together by pyramidal bases formed of three rhombs; and the rhombs and the sides of the hexagonal prisms will have every angle identically the same with the best measurements which have been made of the cells of the hive-bee. But I hear from Professor Wyman, who has made numerous careful measurements, that the accuracy of the workmanship of the bee has been greatly exaggerated; so much so, that whatever the typical form of the cell may be, it is rarely, if ever, realised.

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