Pine Processionary caterpillars are interesting little creatures. They go on long treks in single file lines. One day, a botanist decided to mess with them. What resulted was a strangely inspirational death march.
Self-taught, and clearly very intelligent, Jean-Henri Fabre was a physicist, a chemist, and a botanist. That last discipline explains why he had grounds to dislike caterpillars. Among his little nemeses was the Pine Processionary, which get the first part of their name from the pine needles they like to eat, and the second part because they form little processions of a group following a single leader. They eat at night, and would go out and feast on Fabre's plants, then get back to their nests by dawn.
One day, in early February, Fabre noticed that a column of caterpillars had made their way around the rim of a potted palm. As they walked, they laid down trails of fine silk, which Fabre believed guided the caterpillars behind them. (Actually, the Pine Processionaries follow each other's scent, not the silk.) Once the caterpillars had looped around the rim of the pot, and come to their own scent again, Fabre carefully wiped down the sides of the pot, washing away the scent trail that had got them up to the rim in the first place. Then he waited.
For eight days, the caterpillars marched. Fabre, expecting them to only go around for an hour, was both surprised and disgusted, stating, "I was expecting too much of them when I accorded them that faint gleam of intelligence which the tribulations of a distressful stomach ought, one would think, to have aroused." To be fair to the Pine Processionary, no caterpillar has ever made the claim to intelligence, whether it was hungry or not.
Fabre's tale of the Pine Processionary march becomes excruciating as he talks about how they march in stifling heat, how they collapse and get back up again, how they break into independent, huddling groups to survive cold nights, only to join together again in the morning and continue their doomed march. Nothing in the caterpillar's arsenal of tricks, no behavior they understood, could help them.
But Fabre began to notice something interesting. The Pine Processionary doesn't have a "queen bee" — the leader of the group is whichever caterpillar is up front. Every time the caterpillars temporarily collapsed in exhaustion, or broke into groups to hide from the cold, or just tumbled out of line, new, disoriented leaders would take up a slightly different course. Most of those courses led right back to the loop again. Then one group of caterpillars turned inward, across the dirt of the pot and up into the palm leaves. As they couldn't eat palm leaves, they came down again, but at least it was something different. The next few digressions wandered the dirt. One bewildered leader actually started down the outside of the pot, towards home, but stopped within nine inches of the ground, despite the fact that Fabre had spread pine needles on it to lure the caterpillars down. The procession made a u-turn, went back up the side of the pot, and back into the loop.
That aborted trip proved to be the turning point. With the scent trail laid down, other caterpillars in their little groups,started following it over the side of the pot, and venturing farther each time. Slowly, different caterpillars extended the trail to the ground, and the needles. Once one was down, other groups followed. Eight days after they first made the loop, after marching about half a mile in a small circle, the caterpillars got something to eat, and somewhere to rest.
What does this tell us? First, it tells us that botanists are a cruel people. Secondly, it tells us that you can achieve things by screwing up that you could never manage by deliberate effort. Sometimes mistakes are the only way to move in the right direction.