"I had almost finished the hole, when my ears caught a humming, gradually growing louder. I looked down. Several yards below hung a black mass about as big as a nail-keg. It was a nest of wild bees swarming.
"At first I felt curious, interested. Then I noticed that the bunch was rising directly toward me, and I began to feel alarmed, as I remembered their fearful stings. If they attacked me I should be in a bad fix.
"Slowly, with a revolving motion and an intense, spiteful _sszzzzz_-ing, the irregular mass kept rising. Its center seemed so solid that I wondered how the wings had room to beat. Its outside frayed off into separate bees, drawn inward by a common attraction.
"It was not a yard under me now. I dared not move, for I knew what concentrated misery the swarm held for the man who angered it. As I watched it floating nearer, my skin crept and my; brain was fascinated by that monotonous buzzing. Perhaps, if I sat perfectly quiet, it would pass and leave me unharmed.
"For a moment, apparently undecided, the ball hovered under me.
Then with a quickened motion, up it came, straight for my feet.
"I grew hot and cold. My flesh quivered with the imaginary stings of thousands of poisoned needles, as the fearful mass melted apart and settled in thick clusters on my shoes and legs!
"As I watched the crawling thousands come to rest, I simply choked with terror. What could I do? If I made the slightest motion to get up, they would swarm over me like lightning, and sting me to death.
"Twenty feet behind me one of my mates began to hammer, shaking the beam with his blows. I was afraid the jar might anger the bees into an attack.
"'Stop that pounding, Jim!' I begged huskily, as he ceased for a moment. The hammering stopped.
"Then exclamations of alarm and sympathy fell upon my ears, and presently all work on the steel was suspended. I could hear feet shuffling quietly back to the bank. Soon I was left alone on the truss, threatened with a death ten times more horrible than any tiger or snake could inflict.
"Not daring to move a muscle, not even to turn my head, I sat, as it seemed to me, for hours, perfectly rigid, staring straight forward at the red-painted end of the opposite beam, wavering in the heat fifty feet away. My brain was clear as glass, my senses keen. Low, excited voices babbled behind me. I could smell onions boiling in the cook's quarters, and hear his pans and dishes rattling.
"Every little while I turned my eyes downward, hoping to see the bees getting ready to leave. But my shoes and trousers were still buried inches deep under the sluggishly clinging black bodies.
"The brassy alarm-clock in the mess tent clanged out eleven. I had been sitting there only half an hour.
"The sun struck fiercely down on my head, scantily protected by my thin cap. A filmy white feather from some passing bird dropped before my face. I followed it past the hideous furry swelling on my feet, straight down through the breezeless air, till it dwindled to a white speck above the ledges two hundred feet below. That was where I should strike if I fell; but what torments I should suffer before I struck!
"The beam was hard and hot. I could not sit quiet forever. I stirred uneasily. An angry hum rose, and I stiffened. Some of the bees were above my knees. Suppose I should crush one between my leg and the steel! Suppose they should creep up and cover my body and head!
"A banging of pans began on the bank. Somebody had borrowed the cook's tinware in the hope of starting the swarm. A wave of unrest ran over the insects; but soon they settled into quiet again.
"The heat was affecting my head. I felt fretful, irritable. Why didn't somebody do something to help me? But what? My teeth chattered, a nervous chill shook me, and the bees buzzed at my shaking.
"The voices behind me stopped. Something was about to happen. I listened. Feet came stealing cautiously along the beam. What was going on?
"'Sit perfectly still.'
"It was Lancy's voice. What was he trying to do? I felt a consuming curiosity, but dared not turn my head. His voice came again:
"'Take a full breath; then shut your mouth.'
"What in the world had my mouth got to do with it? But I obeyed.
"A penetrating sulphurous scent stole through the thick air. Then right under my bee-swollen feet swung a small black kettle, suspended by a chain round its bail, and filled with a yellowish substance, burning bluely. It was brimstone, of which we had a supply for fastening bolts in the rocks. Lancy was trying to smoke the bees off.
"Back oscillated the kettle out of my sight. But the swarm had got the benefit of its contents and didn't like them. An ominous buzzing rose. Their wings lifted, then settled back. The scent was not strong enough to start them.
"I took another full breath. To me the strangling fumes had been sweet for the relief they promised. Once more the kettle swung under me, this time remaining a little longer. The smell was strong; with difficulty I repressed a coughing that threatened to shake me.
"This time the outer layer of bees rose slightly and hovered over the others. Some flew wildly and angrily about. A few dropped, stupefied. It would evidently take but little more to start the whole swarm. Lancy moved up close behind me.
"Again he swung the kettle under the bees. They had had enough. The entire mass left my legs. The greater number dropped down and hung a few feet below, but stray skirmishers flew confusedly about.
"So far, however, not a single bee had touched either of us. It looked as if we were to escape unharmed.
"Suddenly an unexpected disaster happened. One end of the bail pulled out, allowing the kettle to tilt down sidewise. Out fell the sulphur in a blue-burning, smoky stream. A moment later the chain slipped entirely off the bail; the kettle shot downward, leaving only a vanishing scent and a swarm of infuriated bees.
"Lancy grabbed my shoulder.
"'Quick! For your life!'
"I didn't need any urging; but I was stiff and slightly dizzy from the fumes, and it took me several seconds to get to my feet on the beam. Unfortunately, too, I crushed three or four bees that Were crawling stupidly on the steel.
"Then it seemed as if the whole swarm struck me at once. The sulphur may have half-stupefied them, but they hadn't forgotten how to sting.
"I'll never forget my walk along that narrow beam to the bank. The bees were all over me in a moment. My hands and face felt as if they were being punctured with red-hot splinters. Before I'd gone ten steps my eyes were closed so tight I couldn't see.
"I'd have gone off the beam head first if it hadn't been for Lancy.
He had on gloves, and mosquito-netting over his head. But they crawled up his sleeves and down his neck, and stung him bad. Yet he didn't falter. With one hand stretched back and grasping mine, he walked cool and straight for the bank, as if he'd been on solid ground, instead of two hundred feet in the air.
"Blind and almost crazy from the stings, I stumbled along behind him. Every step was agony. I was almost tempted to jump from the beam and go down to be crushed to pulp on the boulders. The only thing that saved me was Lancy's hand, cool, firm and strong.
"'Steady! Steady!' he kept saying. I heard him through the shooting, burning pains, and it saved my reason. At last it didn't seem as if I could take another step.
"'Let go!' I cried, trying to get my hand loose; but he dragged me on.
"'In a minute,' said he; and all at once I felt the earth under my feet.
"I wasn't so far gone but I gave the hand I'd been holding a grip that squeezed the fingers together. It was all the thanks I could offer just then. Lancy squeezed back. Then everybody turned to and helped fight the bees off us.
"It was weeks before I got over those stings. Lancy had suffered, too, but of course not so badly. I don't know that he ever knew why I gripped his hand so hard. I was too much ashamed to tell him of the grudge I'd held. But I do know that after that I looked on him as one of my best friends. He'd saved my life, and a friend can't do much more for you than that."
THE INTELLIGENCE OF ANTS
By Sir John Lubbock
The subject of ants is a wide one, for there are at least a thousand species of ants, no two of which have the same habits. In this country (England) we have rather more than thirty, most of which I have kept in confinement. Their life is comparatively long: I have had working ants which were seven years old, and a queen ant lived in one of my nests for fifteen years. The community consists, in addition to the young, of males, which do no work, of wingless workers, and one or more queen mothers, who have at first wings, which, however, after one marriage flight, they throw off, as they never leave the nest again, and in it wings would of course be useless. The workers do not, except occasionally, lay eggs, but carry on all the affairs of the community. Some of them, and especially the younger ones, remain in the nest, excavate chambers and tunnels, and tend the young, which are sorted up according to age, so that my nests often had the appearance of a school, with the children arranged in classes. In our English ants the workers in each species are all similar except in size, but among foreign species there are some in which there are two or even more classes of workers, differing greatly not only in size, but also in form.
The differences are not the result of age nor of race, but are adaptations to different functions, the nature of which, however, is not yet well understood. Among the Termites, those of one class certainly seem to act as soldiers, and among the true ants also some have comparatively immense heads and powerful jaws. It is doubtful, however, whether they form a real army. Bates observed that on a foraging expedition the large-headed individuals did not walk in the regular ranks, nor on the return did they carry any of the booty, but marched along at the side, and at tolerably regular intervals, "like subaltern officers in a marching regiment."
Solomon was, so far as we yet know, quite correct in describing ants as having "neither guide, overseer, nor ruler." The so-called queens are really mothers. Nevertheless it is true, and it is curious, that the working ants and bees always turn their heads towards the queen. It seems as if the sight of her gives them pleasure. On one occasion, while moving some ants from one nest into another for exhibition at the Royal Institution, I unfortunately crushed the queen and killed her. The others, however, did not desert her, or draw her out as they do dead workers, but on the contrary carried her into the new nest, and subsequently into a larger one with which I supplied them, congregating round her for weeks just as if she had been alive. One could hardly help fancying that they were mourning her loss, or hoping anxiously for her recovery.
The communities of ants are sometimes very large, numbering even up to 500,000 individuals; and it is a lesson to us, that no one has ever yet seen a quarrel between any two ants belonging to the same community. On the other hand, it must be admitted that they are in hostility, not only with most other insects, including ants of different species, but even with those of the same species if belonging to different communities. I have over and over again introduced ants from one of my nests into another nest of the same species, and they were invariably attacked, seized by a leg or an antenna, and dragged out.
It is evident therefore that the ants of each community all recognize one another, which is very remarkable. But more than this, I several times divided a nest into two halves, and found that even after a separation of a year and nine months they recognized one another, and were perfectly friendly; while they at once attacked ants from a different nest, although of the same species.
It has been suggested that the ants of each nest have some sign or password by which they recognize one another. To test this I made some insensible. First I tried chloroform, but this was fatal to them; and as therefore they were practically dead, I did not consider the test satisfactory. I decided therefore to intoxicate them. This was less easy than I had expected. None of my ants would voluntarily degrade themselves by getting drunk. However, I got over the difficulty by putting them into whisky for a few moments.