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Living Honey Combs by Charles Morris


"Isn't it queer what dumb things animals are?" asked Harry Mason, as he looked up inquiringly into the face of his uncle. "Here's my dog Roger; why, he knows nothing except to hunt for bones, and to bark at tramps. And there are the cows, and the horses, and the pigs—what do they know that's of any account? I'd like somebody to tell me that."

"They know enough to know when dinner is ready, and I could not say that for some boys that I am acquainted with," replied his uncle, quizzically.

"Oh yes, that's me, I know," rejoined Harry, laughing. "But that's because I have something else to think of. Now they don't think of anything but their dinners. And they are always eating. That's about all they live for."

"Perhaps they think more than you imagine, Harry," said his uncle, looking down from his arm-chair which he had leaned back comfortably against a tree. "They don't talk, it is true; but they have other ways of showing their thoughts. I could tell you some stories about the good sense of animals that would open your eyes."

"Oh yes, about elephants squirting water all over a tailor, and that sort of thing," said Harry, disdainfully. "I have read all that. But I mean something else. Why can't they build themselves houses, like men do, with chimneys and fires? And why don't they have farms, and roads to travel in, and barns?"

"And cows to milk?" broke in little Willie Mason; "and somebody to work for them and to fight for them—and—and pies, and candy, and such?"

Uncle Ben looked down with a comical expression upon the eager little fellow, with his bright young face and his sparkling blue eyes.

"Perhaps they do," he said.

"Oh, now, Uncle Ben!" cried Harry and Willie in chorus. "You're only funning now. Who ever heard of cows building houses?"

"I didn't say cows," replied Uncle Ben.

"But there can't be any animal that builds houses and barns, and raises crops," persisted Harry.

"Indeed there is, then," rejoined his uncle. "And milks cows, too, and has armies and workmen, as Willie says; and builds roads and bridges, and digs tunnels, and carries umbrellas. I don't know any that bakes pies, but I could name more than one that lives on candy."

"Now I know that Uncle Ben is funning," cried Willie, gleefully; "for he has got those wrinkles about his eyes, and he never has them except when he's funning."

"What kind of animals are they, I would like to know?" asked Harry, who was determined to put his learned uncle to the test. "I never came across any of their houses, I know."

"Indeed you have, then. I have seen you, more than once, shut their front doors for them, without asking leave or license."

Uncle Ben, as he spoke, had leaned over to the ground. He now rose, with a little black travelling speck on his finger.

"Here is one of them," he said, "out for an airing."

"That!" cried Harry, contemptuously. "Why, that's only an ant. I said animals. I didn't say ants."

"Oho! Is that it? An ant is not an animal, then?"

"I guess not," broke in Willie, decidedly. "Animals eat and drink, and walk and run, and—and climb trees, and whistle, and bark. Who ever heard an ant bark?"

"Or a cow?" rejoined his uncle. "As for running, I think this little fellow can run fast enough. And he eats, too. And he can climb trees. I don't say that he can whistle, but neither can a frog. I have no doubt that our ant can talk to his comrades as easily as your dog can converse with his friends."

"But ants," said Harry, doubtfully. "Don't you forget, Uncle Ben, you said they built houses and barns, and milked cows, and made roads and bridges, and had farms, and kept soldiers and workers?—I forget the rest. Yes, you said some of them lived on candy; and that is the queerest of all. I'd just like you to tell me what kind of candy it is, and how they make it; and I'd like to see one of their houses."

"Their houses are all built under-ground," replied Uncle Ben. "There are too many boys about, with clumsy feet, for them to build their delicate palaces above-ground. But if you were only to open an ant-hill, and trace out all its entries and passages, and its rooms and granaries, and its stairways and its nurseries, you might have more respect for these little creatures. If you want to see a larger ant-house, you will have to go to Africa. There the white ants build huge houses twelve feet high, and firm enough for a dozen men to stand on."

"And full of rooms," began Harry, but he was interrupted by his eager little brother, whose curiosity ran in another direction.

"Just tell us 'bout the candy, Uncle Ben," he demanded. "I don't care nothing 'bout the houses now. I want to know 'bout the candy."

"I think that Harry has the floor," said his uncle, reprovingly.

"Well, never mind the houses, and all the other queer things," said Harry. "Not just now, I mean; I want to know about the candy too."

Uncle Ben settled himself back in his chair, crossed his legs, and prepared for a story; while Willie hung to his knee on one side, and Harry stretched himself in the grass on the other, and Roger, the dog, went off on a butterfly hunt. He evidently was not interested in natural history.

"Ants are not the only animals that live on candy," said Uncle Ben, as he pinched Willie's ear. "There are bees, and wasps, and butterflies. And even such great creatures as bears. For bears sometimes break into bees' confectionary shop, and gulp down all its contents."

The two boys looked at each other dubiously. What in the world could Uncle Ben mean?

"It isn't honey you mean?" asked Harry, wonderingly. "That isn't candy."

"It is not cooked candy, I will admit," replied his uncle. "But it is flower candy. It is the candy that Nature makes, and lays up in her pretty blossom cups to feed insects that have a sweet tooth."

"But ants don't make honey-comb," cried Willie. "It is the bees do that. Nobody ever heard of an ant honey-comb."

"Don't be too sure of that, my boy; some folks have heard of many things that have never travelled to your ears. Why, there is an ant out West that makes a living honey-comb. Some of the ants themselves are turned into honey-combs to feed the others during the long winters."

Harry rose to his feet. He could not continue to lie down lazily when such marvellous stories as these were afloat.

"Living honey-combs!" he ejaculated.

"They are from the West, you know; the land of wonders," explained his uncle. "They are found in New Mexico. And they were discovered last summer in Colorado by a Philadelphia gentleman named Dr. McCook. This gentleman examined their mode of life, and brought some of them home with him, and tells wonderful stories about them."

"But won't you tell us all about them right away, Uncle Ben?"

"Yes, right away," echoes Willie.

"Well, then," began their uncle, "they live in nests dug in a stony soil, and having a great many rooms and passages. And in some of these rooms are found the queerest creatures that were ever heard of. Little living ants, with half their bodies turned into great bags of honey. They look exactly like great amber-colored peas, with a black pin's head stuck on one side of them. This black dot is the head and forward part of the ant. All the rest of its body is converted into a great honey-bag, and is swelled out with its sweet contents until it is as big as a large pea."

"And are all the ants like that?" asked Harry.

"No, only a certain number of them. The others go out foraging for honey. When they obtain it, they come back, hold their mouths to that of the honey-bag ant, and force the honey into its body. There are some three or four hundred of these honey-bearers in each ant-hill. And that is the way the ants lay up their winter provisions. These living honey-combs do not do anything; they are too heavy for that. They only hang by their feet to the ceiling of one of the under-ground rooms. If one of them happens to drop off, one of the other ants picks him up and drags him back again. It is no light task, either, for one of these little fellows to carry a great bag of honey, fifty times his own weight, up a perpendicular wall and across a ceiling."

"I should think not indeed," cried Harry.

"But how do they use the honey?" asked Willie, curiously. "I should think when these honey-ants eat it, that would be the end of it."

"They feed it back to the others as they require it," replied Uncle Ben. "When one of the ants is hungry, he goes up to a honey-bearer, taps him to let him know what he is after, and puts his mouth to his. The honey-bearer then seems to slightly compress his bag of sweets, until some of it flows out of his mouth into that of the other. When the latter is satisfied, he walks away, and the living honey-comb takes a rest until some other hungry individual calls upon him."

"Well, that is very curious, I know," cried Harry. "And does the honey last all winter? Is that all they have to feed on?"

"Yes, so far as is known."

"I guess the honey-bags must be pretty empty by spring, then," said Willie.

"I have not quite finished the story yet," continued Uncle Ben. "We have talked about how bears feed on the honey-comb of the bees. Now men feed on these living honey-combs."

"Oh, now, Uncle Ben!"

"Yes they do. In New Mexico it is the custom to have a plate full of honey-ants on the dinner table for dessert. The poor things can not get away, of course. After dinner the folks there pick them up one by one, squeeze the bags between their teeth, and suck out the honey, throwing the empty bags away."

"I don't like such a fashion as that," cried Harry, decidedly. "Why, they are regular cannibals."

"And what do the rest of the poor ants do for their honey?" asked Willie.

"I fear they must pass a hard winter, if they do not die of hunger," replied Uncle Ben.