The strong and the weak

I've always respected nature as much as the next fellow, but when there's work to be done, I've not been easily diverted, for I was pretty sure man would still be living in caves if he had not learned that the weak had been provided for the benefit of the strong. But several weeks ago, I had an experience that shook this Darwinian concept of mine.

I had been working hard clearing brush for several hours in the mountains and decided to reward myself with a sandwich. Sitting down on a log, I unwrapped the sandwich and surveyed the rugged scenery around me. It was a familiar scene of natural beauty, but one of which I never tired. Two turbulent mountain streams joined to form a clear, deep pool before roaring down a cataract into a heavily wooded canyon. My idyll would have been perfect had it not been for my sandwich. She was of the common variety that plagues picnickers and buzzes around open garbage containers. Without thinking, I brushed her away.

Not in the least intimidated, she came back and settled on the exact spot on the sandwich that I was about to bite. This time I shook her off and batted her to the ground. Before she could recover, I ground her into the sand with my cleated boot.

A few moments later I was startled by a minor explosion of sand at my feet and my tormentor emerged from what I thought had been her final resting place with her wings buzzing furiously. This time I took no chances. I stood up and ground her into the sand with all my 210 pounds.

Satisfied that this was indeed the coup de grace,m I once more sat down to enjoy the rest of my lunch. After several minutes I became aware of a slight movement near my feet. A broken but still living bee was feebly emerging from the compacted sand.

Beguiled by her remarkable survival, I leaned down to survey the damage. As she weakly flexed her broken wings I could see that her right wing had several fragments missing from the edges, though it was relatively intact. The left wing, however, was crumpled like a crushed piece of paper and had gaping holes in it. Nevertheless, the bee kept exercising her wings slowly up and down as though she were assessing the damage. Her thorax and abdomen were still encrusted with sand and she began to groom herself.

Next she turned her attention to the crumpled left wing, rapidly smoothing it out by running her legs down the length of it. After each straightening session she buzzed her wings as if to test the improvement in the lift. This hopeless cripple thought she could still fly!

By now she had completely captured my attention, and I got down on my hands and knees to better see her futile attempts at rehabilitation. Closer scrutiny confirmed my earlier assumption; she was finished -- she mustm be finished. I reminded myself that my judgment on these matters was not to be taken lightly.After all, I was a veteran pilot myself, and know a good deal about the principle of wings. I had experienced a thousand flights beyond the understanding of her rudimentary senses.

But the bee paid no attention to my superior wisdom; if anything she seemed to be gaining strength and increasing the tempo of her repairs. By repeatedly stroking her crumpled left wing she was gradually restoring its original shape.The broken veins that stiffened the gossamer wing were nearly straight now , but I saw no way for her to restore the gaping holes. Then she did a remarkable thing. She flattened the wing out on the sand and by contorting her lower abdomen over it, began to emit a clear, viscous fluid.

Like a model-plane enthusiast doping fabric over wing spars, she carefully glazed over the missing portions of the wing. The emitted material must have dried quickly, because she began to trial-buzz her wings almost immediately. Time after time she added a bit of her special adhesive here and there to correct what she sensed was needed for strength and balance.

At last the bee felt sufficiently confident to attempt a trial flight. With an audible buzz she released her grip on the earth and flew straight into a slight rise in the sand not mroe than three inches away. She hit so hard she actually tumbled. More frantic smoothing and flexing of the wing followed. She continued to twist her stinger over the wings to deposit the fluid, but in noticeably more delicate dosage.

Once more she lifted off and flew parallel to the ground for about six inches before she hit another small mound of sand. Apparently she had regained the lift in her wings but had not mastered the unfamiliar feel of the directional controls. Each flight was straight ahead, and she hit objects that could have been easily avoided by a slight change in direction. Like a pilot learning the peculiarities of a strange airplane, she experimented with short hops that ended ignominiously in rough, unplanned landings. After each crash landing she worked furiously to correct the newly discovered deficiencies in the wing structure.

Again she took off, this time clearing the small irregularities in the sand but headed straight toward a stump. Narrowly avoiding the stump, she checked her forward speed, circled, and then drifted slowly over the mirrorlike surface of the pool as if to admire her own reflection. As she disappeared from sight, I realized that I was still on my knees, and I remained on my knees for some time.

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