The Bee People  by Margaret Warner Morley


Her Tongue

M EANTIME, while we have been gossiping about Miss Apis's eyes, she has gone off.

There she is, just landing in another morning-glory blossom. She strikes the nectar guide as a shot strikes the bull's eye, then down she tumbles to the very bottom of the flower. Here are the nectar cups, five of them, filled full of sweet clear nectar, for it is early in the morning, and Miss Apis is the first to arrive. She wants this nectar to carry home and make into honey, but how is she going to get her head into the tiny openings that lead to the nectar?


You need not worry about that. She knows what to do, and all at once produces a long shining brown tongue and thrusts it deep down into her nectar.

Here is a morning-glory that must have had an X-ray turned upon it, for we can see right through it to where Miss Apis is reaching her brown tongue down to the nectar.


This tongue is almost as queer as her eyes. Not that she has twelve thousand six hundred tongues. Oh, no; one tongue like hers is quite enough, as you probably will agree when you know more about it.

It is a long tongue and a strong tongue, and curls about, lapping up the sweetness, as you can see for yourself if you catch her and give her a drop of honey.


Enjoying a drop of honey

But now she has licked the morning-glory dry and—but what has  she done with her tongue?

It was almost as long as her body a moment ago, and now it is gone.

Miss Apis, what have you done with your tongue?

Where is your tongue, Miss Apis?

Miss Apis, Miss Apis! Your Tongue, Miss Apis?

But she only looks at us out of her twelve thousand six hundred large eyes and her three small eyes, and says not a word.

Her tongue is all right, and she knows how to hold it.

There, she is going to speak! Buzz—b-u-z-z-zz. No, that is her wing music; her tongue is still silent. Off she goes and leaves us in despair concerning it. Now she has deposited herself in another flower—and sure enough—yes—there is that l-o-n-g, b-r-o-w-n tongue wriggling around in the nectar cup.

I will catch hold of it and pull it, Miss Apis, if you do not tell me what you did with it.

Will you? she seems to say, solemnly looking at us out of her twelve thousand six hundred and three eyes.

No, we will not, because it is gone again.

I think, in spite of her solemn and owl-like looks, she is laughing at us.

Saucy Miss Apis, what do  you do with your tongue?

"I know what you do with yours," she seems to say, and flies off.

But now I know. I saw her do it. She pulled it in, just as you do yours when you have put it out of your mouth. But hers is such a large tongue it could not be pulled into her mouth at all.. The best she could do was to pull it up as short as possible, and then fold it back into a nice little groove under her head.

It is a very useful tongue and a very queer one. It has to reach down into long flower-cups, and so it must be long. It has to lap up honey, and so it must be flexible. It has to find its way though very small openings, and so it must be as slender as a thread.


It often has to come into contact with the hard parts of flowers and plants, and so it must be protected.

It is protected by two hard horny sheaths,—one covering the upper side of the tongue, (T); the other covering the lower side. The lower sheath is made of two long pieces, X, X, that can be separated, as you see in the picture. Each has a little feeler F at the end. Usually they lie side by side with their edges over-lapping underneath the tongue. They make a little through in which the tongue lies, as you see in this next picture. They protect the under side of the tongue.


The upper sheath is also made of two horny pieces Y, Y that can be separated from each other. They lie side by side when not separated, and their inner edges overlap so that they form a covering to the upper side of the tongue. So, you see, when the two sheaths are in their right places they make a tube about the tongue, and the tongue is run out at the point of the sheaths when the bee wants to lick up nectar.


Miss Apis has her tongue-sheath separated into so many parts for a very good reason.

If the sheath were a closed tube, pieces of honey-comb or grains of pollen or other substances might get wedged in, when she was licking up honey or nectar, and give her a great deal of trouble. But as it is, if anything gets caught, all she has to do is to separate the parts of her tongue-sheath and clear it out.

Miss Apis's tongue is surrounded by rings of hairs which hold fast the nectar and enable her to draw it up into her mouth through the tube made by her tongue-sheaths.

The very tip of her tongue is like a little round plate and helps her to lick up the honey.

You see by now that Miss Apis's tongue is a very sweet tongue, in fact, a honeyed tongue, as we might say. We speak of poets and orators as having honeyed tongues, but I leave it to you if any of them can equal Miss Apis in this.

If you look in Miss Apis's face when she is not eating, you cannot see her tongue at all, as it is folded back under her head.


You can see her tightly closed jaws, J, J and her upper lip, but not her tongue.

Here she has opened her jaws and let her tongue down between them, but you can see only the upper sheath and the two little feelers that grow on the points of the lower sheath.


In this next picture she has pushed her tongue out below the sheaths, as she does when licking up honey or nectar that is easily reached.


If the nectar is hard to get at she needs a longer tongue, and therefore shoots the under sheath out below the upper one.


When she does this her tongue is not so well protected, but it is longer, as you can see in this next picture.

When the tongue is not in use, it is drawn up as short as possible, and then is folded back into a groove on the under-side of Miss Apis's head, something as a boy shuts his knife-blade into the handle.


Side view of Miss Apis's head with the tongue (T) folded back

Getting honey is very easy where it is in open cups, but sometimes the flower sweets are in the bottoms of the tubes too long for the bee's tongue to reach them.

What is she to do in such a case? When she smells a delicious meal which she cannot reach, shall she pass by with a sigh because she cannot get it? Sometimes she is obliged to, but sometimes she is helped by the bumble-bees.

These are much larger than honey-bees; and you will know them because they are covered all over with hair, as if they had on furry coats. Honey-bees have very little hair on the body below the waist. Bumble-bees have broad bands of yellow hairs across their bodies, and sometimes the whole thorax, or part between the head and waist, is bright yellow. Bumble-bees can always be found in red clover fields. Their horny tongue -sheaths are larger and stronger than the sheaths of the honey bee. Indeed, they make quite a strong little dagger with which Madam Bombus, the bumble-bee, can cut a hole in a flower.


Madam Bombus, the Bumble-Bee

When Madam Bombus finds a flower with sweets which she cannot reach without taking too much trouble, she goes to the spot beneath which the sweet she wants is concealed, and, with a downward blow of her convenient dagger, rips open the intervening membrane. Then she unfurls her flag in triumph. In this case her flag is her tongue, you understand. She inserts it in the hole she has made and licks out the sweet juice.

After she is gone, comes the turn of Miss Apis, who puts her tongue trough the hole that her larger and stronger friend has made, and takes her share also.

Since the nectaries of the flowers usually fill up as soon as the bees have licked them out, Miss Apis may get as much honey as though Madam Bombus had not taken any.

So you see that the bees help each other to get at their food. But I do not think Miss Honey-Bee knows who has cut open the flowers for her.

It is the flowers with spurs that Madam Bombus most often cuts into in this ungracious manner. I myself have seen her go up to a tidy little touch-me-not cup, and passing straight by the open door in front, cling to the yellow spur at the back, which holds the nectar, and with no hesitation whatever thrust her sharp little dagger into the spur, slit a hole there, and take out the nectar.


The tidy little Touch-me-not

It is difficult to believe this of a very respectable-looking being with several thousands of solemn eyes that make her look many times as wise as an owl, but it only proves how little one can rely upon appearances in this world.

It seems to be unwise for Madam Bombus to do such a thing; for by going in at the front door she would preserve the lives of the flowers that feed her.

When she goes about slitting open nectaries, she injures not only herself but all her fellow-bees; for bees carry pollen from flower to flower, as you very well know, and this pollen is necessary to the forming of the seeds. When the bees go into a flower as they ought, they carry some of the pollen that has rubbed off against their hairy bodies to the next flower they visit, which is just what the flowers need. But when they break open the nectaries from the outside, they do not get dusted with pollen, and do not carry it to other flowers. No pollen, no seeds; no seeds, no more plants; so now you understand why the bees do harm when they cut nectaries open.

The honey-bees seldom do this, because they cannot. Their dagger sheath is not strong enough. I once saw a honey-bee try very hard to cut a hole in the long tube of a purple azalea. She could not reach the nectar from the front of the flower, because the tube was too long and slender, so she tried to break in the back way. But she could not do it, and all the azalea nectar she got she sucked out of holes which the bumble bees had made in some of the flowers. The azalea did not make honey for the bees; its long and slender tube was fitted to the tongues of large moths and butterflies.


Purple Azaleas