The Fairy-Land Of Science Lecture 10 – Part 1

Lecture X  Bees And Flowers

10 openingWhatever thoughts each one of you may have brought to the lecture to-day, I want you to throw them all aside and fancy yourself to be in a pretty country garden on a hot summer’s morning. Perhaps you have been walking, or reading, or playing, but it is getting too hot now to do anything; and so you have chosen the shadiest nook under the old walnut-tree, close to the flower-bed on the lawn, and would almost like to go to sleep if it were not too early in the day.

As you lie there thinking of nothing in particular, except how pleasant it is to be idle now and then, you notice a gentle buzzing close to you, and you see that on the flower-bed close by, several bees are working busily among the flowers. They do not seem to mind the heat, nor to wish to rest; and they fly so lightly and look so happy over their work that it does not tire you to look at theweem.

That great humble-bee takes it leisurely enough as she goes lumbering along, poking her head into the larkspurs, and remaining so long in each you might almost think she had fallen asleep. The brown hive-bee on the other hand, moves busily and quickly among the stocks, sweet peas, and mignonette. She is evidently out on active duty, and means to get all she can from each flower, so as to carry a good load back to the hive. In some blossoms she does not stay a moment, but draws her head back directly she has popped it in, as if to say “No honey there.” But over the full blossoms she lingers a little, and then scrambles out again with her drop of honey, and goes off to seek more in the next flower.

Let us watch her a little more closely. There are plenty of different plants growing in the flower-bed, but, curiously enough, she does not go first to one kind and then to another; but keeps to one, perhaps the mignonette, the whole time till she flies away. Rouse yourself up to follow her, and you will see she takes her way back to the hive. She may perhaps stop to visit a stray plant of mignonette on her way, but no other flower will tempt her till she has taken her load home.

Then when she comes back again she may perhaps go to another kind of flower, such as the sweet peas, for instance, and keep to them during the next journey, but it is more likely that she will be true to her old friend the mignonette for the whole day.

We all know why she makes so many journeys between the garden and the hive, and that she is collecting drops of honey from each flower, and carrying it to be stored up in the honeycomb for winter’s food. How she stores it, and how she also gathers pollen-dust for her bee-bread, we saw in the last lecture; to-day we will follow her in her work among the flowers, and see, while they are so useful to her, what she is doing for them in return.

We have already learnt from the life of a primrose that plants can make better and stronger seeds when they can get pollen-dust from another plant, than when they are obliged to use that which grows in the same flower; but I am sure you will be very much surprised to hear that the more we study flowers the more we find that their colours, their scent, and their curious shapes are all so many baits and traps set by nature to entice insects to come to the flowers, and carry this pollen-dust from one to the other.

So far as we know, it is entirely for this purpose that the plants form honey in different parts of the flower, sometimes in little bags or glands, as in the petals of the buttercup flower, sometimes in clear drops, as in the tube of the honeysuckle. This food they prepare for the insects, and then they have all sorts of contrivances to entice them to come and fetch it.

You will remember that the plants of the coal had no bright or conspicuous flowers. Now we can understand why this was, for there were no flying insects at that time to carry the pollen- dust from flower to flower, and therefore there was no need of coloured flowers to attract them. But little by little, as flies, butterflies, moths and bees began to live in the world, flowers too began to appear, and plants hung out these gay- coloured signs, as much as to say, “Come to me, and I will give you honey if you will bring me pollen-dust in exchange, so that my seeds may grow healthy and strong.”

We cannot stop to inquire to-day how this all gradually came about, and how the flowers gradually put on gay colours and curious shapes to tempt the insects to visit them; but we will learn something about the way they attract them now, and how you may see it for yourselves if you keep your eyes open.

For example, if you watch the different kinds of grasses, sedges and rushes, which have such tiny flowers that you can scarcely see them, you will find that no insects visit them. Neither will you ever find bees buzzing round oak-trees, nut-trees, willows, elms or birches. But on the pretty and sweet-smelling apple- blossoms, or the strongly scented lime-trees, you will find bees, wasps, and plenty of other insects.

The reason of this is that grasses, sedges, rushes, nut-trees, willow, and the others we have mentioned, have all of them a great deal of pollen-dust, and as the wind blows them to and fro, it wafts the dust from one flower to another, and so these plants do not want the insects, and it is not worth their while to give out honey, or to have gaudy or sweet-scented flowers to attract them.

But wherever you see bright or conspicuous flowers you may be quite sure that the plants want the bees or some other winged insect to come and carry their pollen for them. Snowdrops hanging their white heads among their green leaves, crocuses with their violet and yellow flowers, the gaudy poppy, the large- flowered hollyhock or the sunflower, the flaunting dandelion, the pretty pink willow-herb, the clustered blossoms of the mustard and turnip flowers, the bright blue forget-me-not and the delicate little yellow trefoil, all these are visited by insects, which easily catch sight of them as they pass by and hasten to sip their honey.

Sir John Lubbock has shown that bees are not only attracted by bright colours, but that they even know one colour from another. He put some honey on slips of glass with coloured papers under them, and when he had accustomed the bees to find the honey always on the blue glass, he washed this glass clean, and put the honey on the red glass instead. Now if the bees had followed only the smell of the honey, they would have flown to the red glass, but they did not. They went first to the blue glass, expecting to find the honey on the usual colour, and it was only when they were disappointed that they went off to the red.

Is it not beautiful to think that the bright pleasant colours we love so much in flowers, are not only ornamental, but that they are useful and doing their part in keeping up healthy life in our world?

Neither must we forget what sweet scents can do. Have you never noticed the delicious smell which comes from beds of mignonette, thyme, rosemary, mint, or sweet alyssum, from the small hidden bunches of laurustinus blossom, or from the tiny flowers of the privet? These plants have found another way of attracting the insects; they have no need of bright colours, for their scent is quite as true and certain a guide. You will be surprised if you once begin to count them up, how many white and dull or dark- looking flowers are sweet-scented, while gaudy flowers, such as tulip, foxglove and hollyhock, have little or no scent. And then, just as in the world we find some people who have everything to attract others to them, beauty and gentleness, cleverness, kindliness, and loving sympathy, so we find some flowers, like the beautiful lily, the lovely rose, and the delicate hyacinth, which have colour and scent and graceful shapes all combined.

Go to Lecture 10-Part 2 here.