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Denizens Of The Desert:
 Mason Bees

 Desert Bighorn And Near Relatives

 Don Coyote

 Battle Of The Reptiles

 Phainopepla

 Latrodectus, The Poisonous

 Le Conte Thrasher

 Gnatcatchers And Verdins

 Desert Lynx

 Desert White–crowned Sparrow

 Read More Articles About: Denizens Of The Desert

Mason Bees

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

(Anthophora sp.)

As I turned into the little trail and climbed the steep, rock-strewn slope that leads up to the entrance of the precipitous cañon behind my house, the herb-scented winds that blew so steadily from off the warm sands bore to me the hum of industrious bees. Turning expectantly, I walked back to my right a short distance, and there at the base of an enormous rock I found the dry, bare, hard-baked ground covered deep with small pellets of earth resembling worm castings, and riddled with the holes of solitary bees. So many were the burrows that the ground looked like the top of an enormous pepper-box. Above were thousands of busy in-sects flying about - a bedazzling, buzzing cloud of industry that almost made me bewildered as I looked at it. I took it for granted that the bees were tolerant creatures and too busy to give me much attention with their stings, and in this confidence I was not disappointed. In order to see them to greatest ad-vantage I got right down on my hands and knees, and much of the time held my face and magnifying-glass within a few inches of the openings of the burrows.

I soon succeeded in locating among the cloud of diligent bees one that was trying to find a site for her nest. In making this determination she was aided by her antennae, with which she was stroking the adamantine earth. She seemed restless, and often made circling flights above the place she was inspecting. When once she had decided upon a site, she began immediate operations on the burrow by squirting saliva from her proboscis upon the ground in much the same fashion that a Chinaman squirts water from his mouth when sprinkling clothes at the laundry. This gave her a sort of human look that was most amusing. With the aid of the dexterous mandibles she took up the soil, quickly made it into small pellets, and then clawed these out with the forefeet. Again she squirted saliva - several jets of it - and more earth was scraped out.

The work of throwing out the earthen pellets seemed to be an easy task for her until the hole was over " bee deep." But after the hole grew deeper our excavator found the task so difficult that she had to adopt new tactics. So now she began throwing the earth beneath her and out of the hole with her rear legs. One could not help comparing her motions with those of a dog digging an animal from its hole. To keep the tube well rounded I could see her constantly turning her body this way and that, as she worked now on .one side and then on the other. The edges of the burrow and of the cylindrical tubular case itself were smoothed and made firm by the constant application of wax, secreted from glands on her own body, and squirting on of saliva. When the tube was completed, she built about the orifice a small circular collar of mortar which she compounded of particles of earth, minute pieces of gravel, and her own saliva, " so that the hollow, cistern-like cell looked very much like an old-fashioned well with its round curb, or coaming, about the opening. Ten minutes after it was made, I was amazed to find that this cement had set so hard and had become so rigid that, although I did my best to crush the little collar between my thumb and forefinger, I found it impossible; and the circular curb was less than an eighth of an inch thick ! The bee's success as a cement-maker must ever remain a recurring wonder to man.

All the time our mason was working on her cell she had to be on the lookout for the lazy bees who were trying to snatch an opportunity to get possession of a cell without doing the necessary work of making it. The sense of proprietorship was very strongly developed in this bee, and, when any other bee came too near her domicile, she hustled her off her premises in a hurry. Often she jumped upon the trespasser and with stinging arguments engaged her in a rough-and-tumble fight, the two bees rolling over and over in the dust while it was going on.

When complete, the mason's burrow was about two inches deep. It went straight down-ward at first for about an inch and then curved slightly to one side. This last part, which was to hold the honey and the egg, was a little larger than the tube above it and much resembled a small pocket.

That most beautiful of all our salvias, the thistle sage, was growing plentifully in the vicinity and spreading abroad over the desert the glory of its ethereal, lilac-blue blossoms. To these honey-laden flowers the mother bee now made constant trips, for from these she must get the sweet nectar and pollen that make the molasses-like paste on which the grubs are fed. Thousands of other bees were engaged in the same necessary industry and the air about was filled with the humming of the zealous workers. The mother early provisioned her cell with a store of honey and pollen, mixing the paste according to the " inveterate and fixed routine of her ancestors "; always the honey was disgorged from the mouth, and then the pollen brushed off the hairs beneath the body, and the two substances mixed. The paste filled the burrow almost half full, and on this the minute egg was laid.

Now began the work of sealing up the cell. This was accomplished by laying in a thick concave plug of pure hard wax. This complete, the bee began, to my surprise, excavating all about underneath the little earthen collar about the entrance of the hole - the collar, which at such an expense of care and labor, she had built but a few minutes before. Never did she leave her exertions until the beautiful coaming, now undermined, fell into the pit she had made, broken forever. In the case of some of the other bees I watched, the small ring of mortar was loosened and carried off in sections just before it caved in.

The time was now ripe for making a final filling of the opening above the wax plug; for not a sign of the burrow must remain to lure parasites to the precious honey treasure beneath. The mother bee accordingly went about the edge of the hole and scraped earth into it until full. Again so near were her motions like those of a dog burying his bone that it was hard to realize that this small creature was an insect and not some diminutive mammal.

This was but one of several burrows that this mother and her consorts made in similar manner. Hour after hour for several days the industry of burrow excavating, provisioning, and sealing was plied, and never ceased until the sun sank low beyond the mountains and the last rays of the evening lights tinted with their afterglow the desert plain and its bordering hills.

Weary with the arduous labors of the day those bees whose domiciles were not yet complete, corked the entrances to their burrows with their own bodies, placing them in upside down position with only the tip of their abdomens protruding. Thus did they guard their honey treasures from the night marauders and noxious parasites.

As soon as the sunshine of the morning came to warm up their chilled and stiffened bodies, they were again at work. Those who had completed their cells the night before were now fashioning new ones, and those who had incomplete burrows were busy putting on the finishing touches. Each bee lays from eight to ten eggs, and for every egg a cell was made and pro-visioned with the honey paste.

After the third day the burrows were all complete and the adamantine ground looked almost as it had before. The bees had abandoned the scene of their labors and doubtless were never to see it again, nor the offspring that should later emerge to take their turn at the brief space of life allotted to the solitary bees.

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