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Bee and Blossom

ISSUE:  Spring 1925

“The cloggit busy humming bees,
That never think to drone,
On flowers and flourishes of trees
Collect their liquor brown.”

They also gather pollen. Every spring the cucumber man buys my spare bees. His cucumber houses, long glass houses under tropic heat, are jungles of riotous vines by the beginning of our New England March, and breaking into starry bloom. Immediately the blossoming begins, the gardener hurries to me for bees. He must put one hive, at least, in every house, else the crop will fail. The luxuriant growth of leaf and tendril and perfect flowers is in vain without the fertilizing bees. The golden petals stand with tapers ready for the living flame, but only the bees can bring the coal from off the altar. Unless they come, the flower fades, the stem withers, the promised fruit is less than ashes.

You should hear the humming in the steamy, heavy air! The whole colony seems abroad within the low-roofed house. And a colony is required. A few bees will not suffice. There are thousands of the blossoms. The humid air is staggering. The sticky pollen is not easily disseminated, and a bee to a blossom is none too many. !Even so, the strongest colony will scarce survive the fruiting season. While yet no bluebird has been heard, nor a pussy willow seen beside the snowy brook, to step within this sweltering greenery amid the close-caught humming of a hive of bees is to feel as a shock the tremendous passage between our New England winter and the full-blown spring.

The more shocking thing to the novice, however, is the thought of this strange relationship of flower and bee: that a cucumber, if not born of a bee, is more truly brought by her than ever was a baby by a stork. From blossom to blossom she hums, collecting honey, and picking up in her thrifty way a little pollen for her brood, but she is quite unconscious of her real mission in this house of beautiful, impotent bloom. Her own needs are all-important to her. Not so in the gardener’s thought; to him the needs of the blossoms are all-important. Wrhat is prime to one is incidental to the other. In Nature’s plan, however, there is nothing incidental. All is prime, nectar, and pollen, and bee and blossom and the gardener. All are links of equal strength in the great chain of life which binds us with all creation in one interdependent, harmonious whole.

The pollen of the cucumber with its sperm cells cannot fly on the wings of the wind from flower to flower, nor, unassisted, reach the stigmas within the separate corolla cups. Do not ask me when it happened, or how it happened, that these flowers threw themselves upon the mercy of insects. We only know that it is so—that the blossom of the cucumber is helplessly dependent upon the bee. So too is the cucumber grower. He has covered acres of ground with glass houses; he employs a score of workmen; he lives in a great elm-shaded house across the road, and owns another house at the shore; and a winter home in Florida, and lands as well as houses, and the over-many things that wealth can buy—made possible for him wholly by the pollenizing bees.

Formerly he did the work with his own clumsy hand, transferring the pollen with a tiny brush from one blossom to another, an infinitely laborious and costly process. Meanwhile in the hives beneath his orchard here slept the workers, who would have been up and about the business for him with defter, faster fingers, had he but known enough to set them in out of the sleepy snow. How much superior a bee is for a bee’s work than a man! This delicate and tedious task for the gardener is a work the bee puts through with any part of her body, a quite inescapable job for her as she bumps and blunders about the blossom. Feathered from top to toe with pollen brushes, fitted out with pollen combs, and carrying a big pollen basket on each of her thighs, she is not only equipped, she is ordained to this ministry, called since the first cucumber was contemplated, to unite the helpless lovers in this golden flower, destined for each other, but dissevered by circumstances and forlorn. And it is more than a marriage. Pollen and ovule are made one. And almost as truly joined, in almost as close a compact, are flower and bee. Thus only can the bee find bread and a living. Thus only can the flower find its fulfilling.

The cucumber is what the botanists call monoecious—stamens in one flower and pistils in another on the same stem. Science is justified in saying that the separation is to avoid too close interbreeding, or, to put it positively, to enjoy the greater vitality which it is amply proved, results from cross-fertilization. Even among the “perfect” flowers, those with male and female parts in the same blossom, and thus self-fertilizing, there is required an occasional crossing of pollens to insure sustained strength generation after generation. With the cucumber, and many another flower of separate sexes, cross-fertilization is constantly essential. Some of them could not set so much as a seed except for such outside assistance. Flower must be mated to a different flower, a brokerage which, for the cucumbers, has always been handled by insects and especially by the bees.

Wedding fees are involved. The bees do not act without commissions of nectar and pollen. The fee held out by the flowers is the nectar, but quite as necessary for bee life is the “bread” which is made out of the pollen, of which the flower is nothing niggard. The excess of pollen grains over seed cells in any flower is amazing, clearly indicating the pains Nature takes to make marriage sure, and with what alarm she views the hazards of conception and birth. “Each anther of the peony has been estimated to produce 21,000 gains of pollen; and if there are 174 stamens to a flower, there would be 3,654,000 grains. In wistaria there are said to be 7,000 grains to each ovule.” What magnificent spending! What splendid wasting! But some of it is gathered by the bees. And thanks to

“The cloggit busy humming bees,”

some of it, one of those 7,000 grains, will find its destined ovule. Life will thus be saved, and all the waste forgotten!

If it is business with the bees, it is romance for the flowers, their love story with as complex and pretty a plot as ever novelist devised.

A life principle is involved in cross-fertilization, which seems almost a law of the universe, so generally is it accepted. Yet life must have been started differently. The separation of the sexes and the union of different strains came after the original plans of perfection, as if these perfect plans had failed in application. The “perfect” flower lacks the irregularity of life. Its logic is correct—were life wholly correct when it is correct and less than correct in death! The perfect flower is for a pattern. A living flower is better than a perfect one, and Nature has been put to it, wit and invention taxed, to keep life out of the embalming hands of Logic, preferring the hazards of posterity to the timeless security of the tomb. Better a broomstick cane than a coffin, however correct, is Nature’s argument.

How much less bright, less fragrant, and less clever the world would be if it lacked the chance of error, the opportunity to undo and put together in a different, wiser way! If there is wisdom, as the sages say, in our mistakes, then Nature herself was never wiser than in her first perfections. Theology agrees with Science here. The counsel of perfection is as dangerous as a conscience of the same. The first perfect pair could not endure their paradise; either they must quit the garden or each other. And how inane the children of this pair, had Nature not suspected the first mother’s perfections and spoiled them quickly! An apple we say, but more likely it was “a little red box of courage” which Eve plucked from off the family tree, disgusted with her too even cheek, and handed down to all her discontented daughters. Nature knew the need of rouge before the first rose bloomed. She taught the sweet thing how to pain her perfect heart, upset her perfect pulse and blush!

We know that cross-fertilization, for all its chance and hazards, guards both strength and beauty in its careless hold. The vast coniferous forests, folded about the shoulders of our continent, and the grasses clothing the body of the world, are pollinated by the winds. The orchids in their hanging gardens are pollinated by the insects. Life takes the risk involved. It is part of the universal law of survival, the fittest sought out and found by the careless bees 1 With the bees there comes an element of co-operation into the strife, something of give where everywhere is only take, making neither a lull nor a truce in the struggle, but introducing a new spirit and principle into conduct.

Not all of the flowers—comparatively few, indeed—depend for fertilization upon the hive bees. The brighter, the sweeter, the more irregular the blossom, however, the surer it is to be pollinated by some insect visitor, beetle, or fly, or moth, or butterfly, or bee. The honeysuckles and some other long-tubed flowers are dependent upon the hummingbirds that have feathers about the base of the bill acting as highly specialized pollen brushes. Many flowers are occasionally, or habitually, self-fertilizing. Yet even with these, with every flower, cross-fertilization occurs at necessary intervals, this being the evident purpose of Nature for all, as if a more abundant, more beautiful life might thus result, as seems beyond all question true. Giving the more highly developed to the insects, Nature has intrusted the less showy flowers to the wind, the other great go-between in this exquisite work, who carries the vital dust for most of the woodland trees, the sedges, rushes, weeds, and the common grasses, using a brush that sometimes covers the pistils of a prairie, a forest, a mountain range at a single sweep, and even leaves the blue sky stained with sulphurous pollen clouds.

When seed year returns to the cone-bearing trees the winds will carry the dry-winged pollen grains far into the air, like yellow smoke, drifting with it out to sea, where it has settled on the decks of ships a thousand miles from shore. What though the stamen and seed are in different cones? What though the thin flat ovules have neither style nor stigma to catch the passing dust? Can this fine rain fail to sift between the open scales of the pine cone and fall on the naked germ with the touch of life?

The wind is an older minister than the bees. The flower-less plants, like the conifers, were a strong people on the earth before the flowering plants, such as the cucumber, with their nurses, the bees, arrived. The pollen cloud and the blowing wind belong to a simpler, more prodigal period of life than we know now. Nature is still so lavish of nothing as of the vital element of life. Her will to live transcends all other purposes. She is an endless nuptial, marrying and giving in marriage by every minister, even by the blind and wayward breeze. The other day at a cathedral door I saw the slow, solemn procession of a funeral emerging, and as I looked, there, waiting impatiently to enter, running ahead of the clocks, as lovers will, stood a wedding party, the young bride veiled from the eyes of her lover, as if she had learned her art from the purple orchids that she wore.

No, she is self-taught. She will know what to do at the approach of her lover. The ancient pine cones know. It is interesting to see that, outside of these “flowerless” plants, like the pines, all of the true flowers that are fertilized by the wind have extended styles and stigmas, feathered, or branched, or hairy, so as readily to catch the pollen-laden breezes as they drift past; whereas the insect lovers, like the orchids and the cucumber, have knobbed, or lobed, or pointed, and generally viscid stigmas with which to lay sure, and even violent, hold of the precious dust brought on the body of the calling butterfly or bee.

Whether the visitor comes for pollen or nectar, or is hunting the flowers for prey, it can scarcely avoid contact with the fertilizing powder, or fail to carry some of it away. And the passing insects seem certainly as numerous as the flowers. Did you ever look into a blossom and not find some insect caller there? Yet many a flower is forgotten, un-mated, and dies unfruitful. There are insect enemies aplenty, but not enough friendly visitors to go around. I have known the very winds to fail in the walnut orchards of California, while among the clover fields and apple orchards here in Hingham the bees are often so few, or else the weather at blossom time is so cold, that the insects cannot fly, and as a result there will be no seed in the clover and little fruit will set and ripen on the trees.

What if the bees, in addition to the fruits and the clovers, had to visit every pine-cone scale, and all of the catkins of the oaks, and be responsible for each wheat, and oat, and rye head, and each silken pistil of every separate kernel of corn, and all of the reeds and sedges, all of the rushes and the infinite small grasses! Only the wind has wings enough and fingers enough to feel out each least, each individual, one of all these myriad multitudes, and to each bring her own and not another’s babe.

Our scientists (men of feeling) classify the plants with reference to the method, or the agent, of their pollination: the Anemophila?, for example, or wind lovers; the Ento-mophilas, or insect lovers; the Hydrophihe, or water lovers —those whose pollen is distributed by the brooks or in the drifting waters of the pond, as in the case of the curious tape grass, Vallisneria spiralis, known to duck hunters as “wild celery.”

Leaving the agent out of account, we can and do group the plants according to the shift they make, or the device they use, to insure themselves against self-fertilization. Before one goes far in beekeeping one ought to take a course in the botany of his bee pasture, studying especially the shapes and relations of corollas, stamens, pistils, and nectaries among his flowers, in order to know the part his bees are taking in the pretty, the intriguing, the tremendous play of Life, running from maplebloom to aster-time in the theater of the field.

Just what happens when a bee slips into an apple blossom? What different thing takes place on her entering a violet? or the pendant jewel of the touch-me-not? or when she lights on the tip of the mountain sage?

The typical flower consists of sepals, petals, stamens, with their filaments and anthers, and an ovary made up of seeds and style and stigma. In this typical flower the stamens stand in a ring around the pistil, and when ripe shed their vitalizing pollen over the ready stigma, whether the bees come or stay away. But this is too easy, too lazy, and so too highly dangerous to the best welfare of the race, and is not always, to be allowed—not to be tolerated at all in many a high-strung flower. Whether in plants or animals, inbreeding is almost inevitably followed by deterioration, the inbred species falling behind in strength or color or place. And while many species of flowers regularly proceed thus, regularly seem to fertilize their own flowers and survive, yet probably no species exclusively does so, its vigor and fecundity being due to an occasional unnoticed infusion of new blood by accidental cross-pollinization. Most of the self-fertilizing flowers are inconspicuous and lowly. We may not call it the law of Life, though it certainly seems to be the working principle of Life, that the perfect flower be modified so as to make self-fertilization difficult or impossible. And the shifts, the devices resorted to, seem little short of conscious tricks up Life’s sleeve to play upon herself, as if, knowing well how prone to evil is the sweet face of the flower and the human heart, she goes out to meet herself with trick for trick, separating the lovers, thwarting, delaying, and deceiving them for their good. It is almost inexplicable to see Life rearranging the perfect adjustment of pistil and stamen and stigma so as to forestall her logical, but fatal, first-perfect plan.

Here, for example, are male flowers on one plant and the female on another, as in the red maples along my meadow, the pistillate (female) trees a deep rich garnet when fully open and yielding honey for the bees, the stami-nate trees (there happens to be but one among these of mine—at the bend of the stream) a sunburst of gold in its dusty anthers, and roaring the warm day long with wings that are rushing the pollen away to the hives.

From the swamp maples down to the humble tape grass or “wild celery” of the ponds we find cases of this separation of the two kinds of flowers on different plans, the “wild celery” having no intercourse with the bees, as it is one of the plants whose marriage broker is the water; but so devious is Life in her determination to wed this flower to fresh stock that, not even in the catasetum, the most amazing of the orchids, does she show more ingenuity. The female flower of the “wild celery” unwinds on a wire-like spiral stem from the root at the bottom, up to the surface of the pond, where it rides at anchor in the sun. Meantime the male flower, while yet a mere bud, breaks free from its parental moorings below, and swimming up to the surface, floats like a drifting mine, tossed by the swirl of the pickerel, driven this way and that by the breeze, until, ripe for its thrilling work, a small wave dashing it against the anchored female flower, it explodes and the fertilizing miracle is done. Not wholly done, for now the wiry cable of the female flower, quivering with new life, begins to recoil, wound by some windlass far below, and twisting spirally downward, draws its pregnant flower back to the oozy bottom of the pond, where the fruit is matured and the wonderful cycle is complete.

There are plants, like the cucumber, having separate male and female flowers, but both sexes on the same stem; and others that, instead of separate sexes, have perfect flowers, but of two shapes: one flower with long stamens and short pistils, the other on the same plant exactly the reverse—with long pistils and short stamens. The bee, coming to the blossom with the long stamens and reaching in for honey, butts her head against the tall-standing anthers, covering it with pollen, but unable to push her dusty head down far enough in the corolla cup to touch the short stigma on its short style below, flies away without effecting fertilization ; but alighting on the next flower, she finds a tall ripe stigma exactly at the relative position of the ripe anthers of the first blossom, and going down for the nectar, bumps her pollen-covered head against the stigma and cross-fertilizes the flower—having carried the pollen from the long-stamened flowers to the flower of the long pistil, as she will carry the pollen of the short-stamened flower to the flower of the short pistil. And thus Life, between the blossom and the bee, manages to escape the net of her pretty logic, sacrificing symmetry for strength, giving up conformity for vitality, but achieving also an undreamed, almost an unparented beauty.

Life fools herself with many a curious subterfuge. Flower and bee are party to some very strange, some very human behavior. Here is Life playing with the clock, her punctuality a pose, her bold word positing one thing, her actions leading to many a different inference. In several groups of flowers like the Composite and the Umbellifera? (the parsley family), the pink, mallow, lobelia, and campanula families, the blossoms are for the most part perfect, both stamens and pistils present, and designed for each other, their mating appointed from the foundation of the world. But the clock is allowed to bring on the pistil in one flower ahead of the stamens, and the stamens in another flower ahead of the pistils, so that stamens and pistils in the same flower cannot meet and marry, the broker bees coming into the unhappy situation and arranging matters between ripe stamens on one flower and ripe pistils on another, finding them each a mate, and leaving them all living happy ever after.

Race suicide is prevented in some other families, which have perfect flowers, by lovers’ quarrels. Pistils and stamens mature at the same time in these blossoms, but deliberately turn their backs upon each other and refuse to meet, the anthers opening outward, or the stigma curling backward, so that the bee, entering the flower, does not reconcile the lovers, but marries them off to strangers further on in her nuptial round.

Far beyond these shifts Life goes in her fear of convention and the counsel of perfection. Some flowers have aborted anthers, some aborted pistils; in some, if touched with their own pollen, there is no power to accept it; in others self-pollination is poisonous and fatal unless counteracted by pollen brought from another flower, even a different variety or species of flower, by the ministering bees. Naturally there has gone on, as part of this purpose to improve the strain and vitalize the life of the plant, a great deal of change in shape, many lovely, many harsh, and even grotesque departures from the norm. Nothing in the field of botany is more absorbing than the comparative study of these modifications of flower forms in order to accomplish, through the agency of wind, or water, or insect, or bat, or bird, or snail, the constant intermingling of new blood among creatures who have neither wings nor feet, and whose life, by logic or by working plan, has been and must be, largely bisexual.

And strangely enough, if the flower has been modified for this vital end, the agents, too, and the bees particularly, though only mere agents, have undergone a series of changes in body as adjustments to the flowers, that bring blossom and bee closer together than breathing, certainly closer than hands and feet.


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