Chapter II. The Anthrax

Jean-Henri Fabre The Life of the Fly

Hairy Footed Flower Bee

Hairy Footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes)

I made the acquaintance of the Anthrax in 1855 at Carpentras, at the time when the life history of the oil beetles was causing me to search the tall slopes beloved of the Anthophora bees (1). Her curious pupae, so powerfully equipped to force an outlet for the perfect insect incapable of the least effort, those pupae armed with a multiple plowshare at the fore, a trident at the rear and rows of harpoons on the back wherewith to rip open the Osmia bee's cocoon and break through the hard crust of the hillside, betokened a field that was worth cultivating. The little that I said about her at the time brought me urgent entreaties: I was asked for a circumstantial chapter on the strange fly. The stern necessities of life postponed to an ever retreating future my beloved investigations, so miserably stifled. Thirty years have passed; at last, a little leisure is at hand; and here, in the harmas of my village, with an ardor that has in no wise grown old, I have resumed my plans of yore, still alive like the coal smoldering under the ashes. The Anthrax has told me her secrets, which I in my turn am going to divulge. Would that I could address all those who cheered me on this path, including first and foremost the revered Master of the Landes (2). But the ranks have thinned, many have been promoted to another world and their disciple lagging behind them can but record, in memory of those who are no more, the story of the insect clad in deepest mourning.

In the course of July, let us give a few sideward knocks to the bracing pebbles and detach the nests of the Chalicodoma of the Walls (3) from their supports. Loosened by the shock, the dome comes off cleanly, all in one piece. Moreover — and this is a great advantage — the cells come into view wide open on the base of the exposed nest, for at this point they have no other wall than the surface of the pebble. In this way, without any scraping, which would be wearisome work for the operator and dangerous to the inhabitants of the dome, we have all the cells before our eyes, together with their contents, consisting of a silky, amber-yellow cocoon, as delicate and translucent as an onion peeling. Let us split the dainty wrapper with the scissors, chamber by chamber, nest by nest. If fortune be at all propitious, as it always is to the persevering, we shall end by finding that the cocoons harbor two larvae together, one more or less faded in appearance, the other fresh and plump. We shall also find some, no less plentiful, in which the withered larva is accompanied by a family of little grubs wriggling uneasily around it.

Examination at once reveals the tragedy that is happening under the cover of the cocoon. The flacid and faded larva is the mason bee's. A month ago, in June, having finished its mess of honey, it wove its silken sheath for a bedchamber wherein to take the long sleep which is the prelude to the metamorphosis. Bulging with fat, it is a rich and defenseless morsel for whoever is able to reach it. Then, in spite of apparently insurmountable obstacles, the mortar wall and the tent without an opening, the flesh-eating larvae appeared in the secret retreat and are now glutting themselves on the sleeper. Three different species take part in the carnage, often in the same nest, in adjoining cells. The diversity of shapes informs us of the presence of more than one enemy; the final stage of the creatures will tell us the names and qualities of the three invaders.

Forestalling the secrets. of the future for the sake of greater clearness, I will anticipate the actual facts and come at once to the results produced. When it is by itself on the body of the mason bee's larva, the murderous grub belongs either to Anthrax trifasciata, MEIGEN, or to Leucospis gigas, FAB. But, if numerous little worms, often a score and more, swarm around the victim, then it is a Chalcidid's family which we have before us. Each of these ravagers shall have its biography. Let us begin with the Anthrax.

And first the grub, as it is after consuming its victim, when it remains the sole occupant of the mason bee's cocoon. It is a naked worm, smooth, legless and blind, of a creamy dead white, each segment a perfect ring, very much curved when at rest, but with the tendency to become almost straight when disturbed. Through the diaphanous skin, the lens distinguishes patches of fat, which are the cause of its characteristic coloring. When younger, as a tiny grub a few millimeters long, it is streaked with two different kinds of stains, some white, opaque and of a creamy tint, others translucent and of the palest amber. The former come from adipose masses in course of formation; the second from the nourishing fluid or from the blood which laves those masses.

Including the head, I count thirteen segments. In the middle of the body these segments are well marked, being separated by a slight groove; but in the forepart they are difficult to count. The head is small and is soft, like the rest of the body, with no sign of any mouth parts even under the close scrutiny of the lens. It is a white globule, the size of a tiny pin's head and continued at the back by a pad a little larger, from which it is separated by a scarcely appreciable crease. The whole is a sort of nipple swelling slightly on the upper surface; and its double structure is so difficult to perceive that at first we take it for the animal's head alone, though it includes both the head and the prothorax, or first segment of the thorax.

The mesothorax, or middle segment of the thorax, which is two or three times larger in diameter, is flattened in front and separated from the nipple formed by the prothorax and the head by a deep, narrow, curved fissure. On its front surface are two pale red stigmata, or respiratory orifices, placed pretty close together. The metathorax, or last segment of the thorax, is a little larger still in diameter and protrudes. These abrupt increases in circumference result in a marked hump, sloping sharply towards the front. The nipple of which the head forms part is set at the bottom of this hump.

After the metathorax, the shape becomes regular and cylindrical, while decreasing slightly in girth in the last two or three segments. Close to the line of separation of the last two rings, I am able to distinguish, not without difficulty, two very small stigmata, just a little darker in color. They belong to the last segment. In all, four respiratory orifices, two in front and two behind, as is the rule among Flies. The length of the full sized larva is 15 to 20 millimeters and its breadth 5 to 6.

Remarkable in the first place by the protuberance of its thorax and the smallness of its head, the grub of the Anthrax acquires exceptional interest by its manner of feeding. Let us begin by observing that, deprived of all, even the most rudimentary walking apparatus, the animal is absolutely incapable of shifting its position. If I disturb its rest, it curves and straightens itself in turns by a series of contractions, it tosses about violently where it lies, but does not manage to progress. It fidgets and gets no farther. We shall see later the magnificent problem raised by this inertness.

For the moment, a most unexpected fact claims all our attention. I refer to the extreme readiness with which the Anthrax' larva quits and returns to the Chalicodoma grub on which it is feeding. After witnessing flesh eating larvae at hundreds and hundreds of meals, I suddenly find myself confronted with a manner of eating that bears no relation to anything which I have seen before. I feel myself in a world that baffles my old experience. Let us recall the table manners of a larva living on prey, the Ammophila's for instance, when devouring its caterpillar. A hole is made in the victim's side; and the head and neck of the nursling dive deep into the wound, to root luxuriously among the entrails. There is never a withdrawal from the gnawed belly, never a recoil to interrupt the feast and to take breath awhile. The vivacious animal always goes forward, chewing, swallowing, digesting, until the caterpillar's skin is emptied of its contents. Once seated at table, it does not budge as long as the victuals last. To tease it with a straw is not always enough to induce it to withdraw its head outside the wound; I have to use violence. When removed by force and then left to its own devices, the creature hesitates for a long time, stretches itself and mouths around, without trying to open a passage through a new wound. It needs the attacking point that has just been abandoned. If it finds the spot, it makes its way in and resumes the work of eating; but its future is jeopardized from this time forward, for the game, now perhaps tackled at inopportune points, is liable to go bad.

With the Anthrax' grub, there is none of this mangling, none of this persistent clinging to the entrance wound. I have but to tease it with the tip of a hair pencil and forthwith it retires; and the lens reveals no wound at the abandoned spot, no such effusion of blood as there would be if the skin were perforated. When its sense of security is restored, the grub once more applies its pimple head to the fostering larva, at any point, no matter where; and, so long as my curiosity does not prevent it, keeps itself fixed there, without the least effort, or the least perceptible movement that could account for the adhesion. If I repeat the touch with the pencil, I see the same sudden retreat and, soon after, the same contact just as readily renewed.

This facility for gripping, quitting and regripping, now here, now there and always without a wound, the part of the victim whence the nourishment is drawn tells us of itself that the mouth of the Anthrax is not armed with mandibular fangs capable of digging into the skin and tearing it. If the flesh were gashed by any such pincers, one or two attempts would be necessary before they could be released or reapplied; besides, each point bitten would display a lesion. Well, there is nothing of the kind: a conscientious examination through the magnifying glass shows conclusively that the skin is intact; the grub glues its mouth to its prey or withdraws it with an ease that can only be explained by a process of simple contact. This being so, the Anthrax does not chew its food as do the other carnivorous grubs; it does not eat, it inhales.

This method of taking nourishment implies an exceptional apparatus of the mouth, into which it behooves us to inquire before continuing. My most powerful magnifying glass at last discovers, at the center of the pimple head, a small spot of an amber-russet color; and that is all. For a more exhaustive examination we will employ the microscope. I cut off the strange pimple with the scissors, wash it in a drop of water and place it on the object slide. The mouth now stands revealed as a round spot which, for hue and for the smallness of its size, may be compared with the front stigmata. It is a small conical crater, with sides of a pale yellowish-red and with faint, more or less concentric lines. At the bottom of this funnel is the opening of the gullet, itself tinted red in front and promptly spreading into a cone at the back. There is not the slightest trace of mandibular fangs, of jaws, of mouth parts for seizing and grinding. Everything is reduced to the bowl shaped opening, with a delicate lining of horny texture, as is shown by the amber hue and the concentric streaks. When I look for some term to designate this digestive entrance, of which so far I know no other example, I can find only that of a sucker or cupping glass. Its attack is a mere kiss, but what a perfidious kiss!

We know the machine; now let us see the working. To facilitate observation, I shifted the newborn Anthrax grub, together with the Chalicodoma grub, its wet nurse, from the natal cell into a glass tube. I was thus able, by employing as many tubes as I wanted, to follow from start to finish, in all its most intimate details, the strange repast which I am going to describe.

The worm is fixed by its sucker to any convenient part of the nurse, plump and fat as butter. It is ready to break off its kiss suddenly, should anything disquiet it, and to resume it as easily when tranquillity is restored. No Lamb enjoys greater liberty with its mother's teat. After three or four days of this contact of the nurse and nursling, the former, at first replete and endowed with the glossy skin that is a sign of health, begins to assume a withered aspect. Her sides fall in, her fresh color fades, her skin becomes covered with little folds and gives evidence of an appreciable shrinking in this breast which, instead of milk, yields fat and blood. A week is hardly past before the progress of the exhaustion becomes startlingly rapid. The nurse is flabby and wrinkled, as though borne down by her own weight, like a very slack object. If I move her from her place, she flops and sprawls like a half-filled water bottle over the new supporting plane. But the Anthrax' kiss goes on emptying her: soon she is but a sort of shriveled lard bag, decreasing from hour to hour, from which the sucker draws a few last oily drains. At length, between the twelfth and the fifteenth day, all that remains of the larva of the mason bee is a white granule, hardly as large as a pin's head.

This granule is the water bottle drained to the last drop, is the nurse's breast emptied of all its contents. I soften the meager remnant in water; then, keeping it still immersed, I blow into it through an extremely attenuated glass tube. The skin fills out, distends and resumes the shape of the larva, without there being an outlet anywhere for the compressed air. It is intact, therefore; it is free of any perforation, which would be forthwith revealed under the water by an escape of gas. And so, under the Anthrax' cupping glass, the oily bottle has been drained by a simple transpiration through the membrane; the substance of the nurse grub has been transfused into the body of the nursling by a process akin to that known in physics as endosmosis. What should we say to a method of being suckled by the mere application of the mouth to a teatless breast? What we see here may be compared with that: without any outlet, the milk of the Chalicodoma grub passes into the stomach of the Anthrax' larva.

Is it really an instance of endosmosis? Might it not rather be atmospheric pressure that stimulates the flow of nourishing fluids and distils them into the Anthrax' cup-shaped mouth, working, in order to create a vacuum. almost like the suckers of the Cuttlefish? All this is possible, but I shall refrain from deciding, preferring to assign a large share to the unknown in this extraordinary method of nutrition. It ought, I think, to provide physiologists with a field of research in which new views on the hydrodynamics of live fluids might well be gleaned; and this field trenches upon others that would also yield rich harvests. The brief span of my days compels me to set the problem without seeking to solve it.

And the second problem is this: the Chalicodoma grub destined to feed the Anthrax is without a wound of any kind. The mother of the tiny larva is a feeble Fly deprived of whatsoever weapon capable of injuring her offspring's prey. Moreover, she is absolutely powerless to penetrate the mason bee's fortress, powerless as a fluff of down against a rock. On this point there is no doubt: the future wet nurse of the Anthrax has not been paralyzed as are the live provisions collected by the Hunting Wasps; she has received no bite nor scratch nor contusion of any sort; she has experienced nothing out of the common: in short, she is in her normal state. The billeted nursling arrives, we shall presently see how; he arrives, scarcely visible, almost defying the scrutiny of the lens; and, having made his preparations, he installs himself, he, the atom, upon the monstrous nurse, whom he is to drain to the very husk. And she, not paralyzed by a preliminary vivisection, endowed with all her normal vitality, lets him have his way, lets herself be sucked dry, with the utmost apathy. Not a tremor in her outraged flesh, not a quiver of resistance. No corpse could show greater indifference to the bite which it receives.

Ah, but the maggot has chosen the hour of attack with traitorous cunning! Had it appeared upon the scene earlier, when the larva was consuming its store of honey, things of a surety would have gone badly with it. The assaulted one, feeling herself bled to death by that ravenous kiss, would have protested with much wriggling of body and grinding of mandibles. The position would have ceased to be tenable and the intruder would have perished. But at this hour all danger has disappeared. Enclosed in its silken tent, the larva is seized with the lethargy that precedes the metamorphosis. Its condition is not death, but neither is it life. It is an intermediary condition; it is almost the latent vitality of grain or egg. Therefore there is no sign of irritation on the larva's part under the needle with which I stir it and still less under the sucker of the Anthrax grub, which is able to drain the affluent breast in perfect safety.

This lack of resistance, induced by the torpor of the transformation, appears to me necessary, in view of the weakness of the nursling as it leaves the egg, whenever the mother is herself incapable of depriving the victim of the power of self defense. And so the nonparalyzed larvae are attacked during the period of the nymphosis. We shall soon see other instances of this.

Motionless though it be, the Chalicodoma grub is none the less alive. The primrose tint and the glossy skin are unequivocal signs of health: Were it really dead, it would, in less than twenty-four hours, turn a dirty brown and, soon after, decompose into a fluid putrescence. Now here is the marvelous thing: during the fortnight, roughly, that the Anthrax' meal lasts, the butter color of the larva, an unfailing symptom of the presence of life, continues unaltered and does not change into brown, the sign of putrefaction, until hardly anything remains; and even then the brown hue is often absent. As a rule, the look of live flesh is preserved until the final pellet, formed of the skin, the sole residue, makes its appearance. This pellet is white, with not a speck of tainted matter, proving that life persists until the body is reduced to nothing.

We here witness the transfusion of one animal into another, the change of Chalicodoma substance into Anthrax substance; and, as long as the transfusion is not complete, as long as the eaten has not disappeared altogether and become the eater, the ruined organism fights against destruction. What manner of life is this, which may be compared with the life of a night light whose extinction is not accomplished until the last drop of oil has burnt away? How is any creature able to fight against the final tragedy of corruption up to the last moment in which a nucleus of matter remains as the seat of vital energy? The forces of the living creature are here dissipated not through any disturbance of the equilibrium of those forces, but for the want of any point of application for them: the larva dies because materially there is no more of it.

Can we be in the presence of the diffusive life of the plant, a life which persists in a fragment? By no means: the grub is a more delicate organic structure. There is unity between the several parts; and none of them can be jeopardized without involving the ruin of the others. If I myself give the larva a wound, if I bruise it, the whole body very soon turns brown and begins to rot. It dies and decomposes by the mere prick of a needle; it keeps alive, or at least preserves the freshness of the live tissues, so long as it is not entirely emptied by the Anthrax' sucker. A nothing kills it; an atrocious wasting does not. No, I fail to understand the problem; and I bequeath it to others.

All that I can see by way of a glimpse — and even then I put forward my suspicions with extreme reserve — all that I am permitted to surmise is reduced to this: the substance of the sleeping larva as yet has no very definite static existence; it is like the raw materials collected for a building; it is waiting for the elaboration that is to make a bee of it. To mould those shapeless lumps of the future insect, the air, that prime adjuster of living things, circulates among them, passing through a network of ducts. To organize them, to direct the placing of them, the nervous system, the embryo of the animal, distributes its ramifications over them. Nerve and air duct, therefore, are the essentials; the rest is so much material in reserve for the process of the metamorphosis. As long as that material is not employed, as long as it has not acquired its final equilibrium, it can grow less and less; and life, though languishing, will continue all the same on the express condition that the respiratory organs and the nervous filaments be respected. It is as it were the flame of the lamp, which, whether full or empty, continues to give light so long as the wick is soaked in oil. Nothing but fluids, the plastic materials held in reserve, can be distilled by the Anthrax' sucker through the unpierced skin of the grub; no part of the respiratory and nervous systems passes. As the two essential functions remain unscathed, life goes on until exhaustion is completed. On the other hand, if I myself injure the larva, I disturb the nervous or air conducting filaments; and the bruised part spreads a taint, followed by putrefaction, all over the body.

I have elsewhere, speaking of the Scolia (4) devouring the Cetonia grub, enlarged upon this refined art of eating which consists in consuming the prey while killing it only at the last mouthfuls. The Anthrax has the same requirements as his competitors who dine off fresh viands. He needs meat of that day, taken from a single joint that has to last a fortnight without going bad. His method of consuming reaches the highest level of art: he does not cut into his prey, he sips it little by little through his sucker. In this way, any dangerous risk is averted. Whether he imbibe at this spot or at that, even if he abandon the sucking process and resume it later, by no accident can he ever attack that which it is incumbent upon him to respect lest corruption supervene. The others have a fixed position on the victim, a place at which their mandibles have to bite and enter. If they move away from it, if they miss the appointed path, they imperil their existence. The Anthrax, more highly favored, puts his mouth where it suits him; he leaves off when he pleases and when he pleases starts again.

Unless I labor under a delusion, I think that I see the necessity for this privilege. The egg of the carnivorous burrower is firmly fixed on the victim at a point which varies considerably, it is true, according to the nature of the prey, but which is uniform for the same species of prey; moreover — and this is an important condition — the point of adhesion of that egg is always the head, whereas the egg of a bee, of the Osmia, for instance, is fixed to the mess of honey by the hinder end. When hatched, the new born Wasp grub has not to choose for itself, at its risk and peril, the suitable point at which to take the first cut in the quarry without fear of killing it too quickly: all that it need do is to bite at the spot where it has just been born. The mother, with her unfailing instinct, has already made the dangerous choice; she has stuck her egg on the propitious spot and, by the very act of doing so, marked out the course for the inexperienced grub to follow. The tact of ripe age here guides the young larva's behavior at table.

The conditions are very different in the Anthrax' case. The egg is not placed upon the victuals, it is not even laid in the mason bee's cell. This is the natural consequence of the mother's feeble frame and of her lack of any instrument, such as a probe or auger, capable of piercing the mortar wall. It is for the newly hatched grub to make its own way into the dwelling. It enters, finds itself in the presence of ample provisions, the larva of the mason bee. Free of its actions, it is at liberty to attack the prey where it chooses; or rather the attacking point will be decided at haphazard by the first contact of the mouth in quest of food. Grant this mouth a set of carving tools, jaws and mandibles; in short, suppose the grub of the Fly to possess a manner of eating similar to that of the other carnivorous larvae; and the nursling is at once threatened with a speedy death. He will split open his nurse's belly, he will dig without any rule to guide him, he will bite at random, essentials as well as accessories; and, from one day to the next, he will set up gangrene in the violated mass, even as I myself do when I give it a wound. For the lack of an attacking point prescribed for him at birth, he will perish on the damaged provisions. His freedom of action will have killed him.

Certainly, liberty is a noble attribute, even in an insignificant grub; but it also has its dangers everywhere. The Anthrax escapes the peril only on the condition of being, so to speak, muzzled. His mouth is not a fierce forceps that tears asunder; it is a sucker that exhausts but does not wound. Thus restrained by this safety appliance, which changes the bite into a kiss, the grub has fresh victuals until it has finished growing, although it knows nothing of the rules of methodical consumption at a fixed point and in a predetermined direction.

The considerations which I have set forth seem to me strictly logical: the Anthrax, owing to the very fact that he is free to take his nourishment where he pleases on the body of the fostering larva, must, for his own protection, be made incapable of opening his victim's body. I am so utterly convinced of this harmonious relation between the eater and the eaten that I do not hesitate to set it up as a principle. I will therefore say this: whenever the egg of any kind of insect is not fastened to the larva destined for its food, the young grub, free to select the attacking point and to change it at will, is as it were muzzled and consumes its provisions by a sort of suction, without inflicting any appreciable wound. This restriction is essential to the maintenance of the victuals in good condition. My principle is already supported by examples many and various, whose depositions are all to the same effect. The witnesses include, after the Anthrax, the Leucospis (5) and his rivals, whose evidence we shall hear presently; the Ephialtes mediator (6), who feeds, in the dry brambles, on the larva of the Black Psen (7) ; the Myodites, that strange, fly- shaped beetle whose grub consumes the larva of the cockchafer. All — flies, ichneumon flies and beetles — scrupulously spare their foster mother; they are careful not to tear her skin, so that the vessel may keep its liquid good to the last.

The wholesomeness of the victuals is not the only condition imposed: I find a second, which is no less essential. The substance of the fostering larva must be sufficiently fluid to ooze through the unbroken skin under the action of the sucker. Well, the necessary fluidity is realized as the time of the metamorphosis draws near. When they wished Medea to restore Pelias to the vigor of youth, his daughters cut the old king's body to pieces and boiled it in a cauldron, for there can be no new existence without a prior dissolution. We must pull down before we can rebuild; the analysis of death is the first step towards the synthesis of life. The substance of the grub that is to be transformed into a bee begins, therefore, by disintegrating and dissolving into a fluid broth. The materials of the future insect are obtained by a general recasting. Even as the founder puts his old bronzes into the melting pot in order afterwards to cast them in a mould whence the metal will issue in a different shape, so life liquefies the grub, a mere digesting machine, now thrown aside, and out of its running matter produces the perfect insect, bee, butterfly or beetle, the final manifestation of the living creature.

Let us open a Chalicodoma grub under the microscope, during the period of torpor. Its contents consists almost entirely of a liquid broth, in which swim numberless oily globules and a fine dust of uric acid, a sort of off-throw of the oxidized tissues. A flowing thing, shapeless and nameless, is all that the animal is, if we add abundant ramified air ducts, some nervous filaments and, under the skin, a thin layer of muscular fibers. A condition of this kind accounts for a fatty transpiration through the skin when the Anthrax' sucker is at work. At any other time, when the larva is in the active period or else when the insect has reached the perfect stage, the firmness of the tissues would resist the transfusion and the suckling of the Anthrax would become a difficult matter, or even impossible. In point of fact, I find the grub of the fly established, in the vast majority of cases, on the sleeping larva and sometimes, but rarely, on the pupa. Never do I see it on the vigorous larva eating its honey; and hardly ever on the insect brought to perfection, as we find it enclosed in its cell all through the autumn and winter. And we can say the same of the other grub eaters that drain their victims without wounding them: all are engaged in their death dealing work during the period of torpor, when the tissues are fluidified. They empty their patient, who has become a bag of running grease with a diffused life; but not one, among those I know, reaches the Anthrax' perfection in the art of extraction.

Nor can any be compared with the Anthrax as regards the means brought into play in order to leave the cell. These others, when they become perfect insects, have implements for sapping and demolishing, stout mandibles, capable of digging the ground, of pulling down clay partition walls and even of reducing the mason bee's tough cement to powder. The Anthrax, in her final form, has nothing like this. Her mouth is a short, soft proboscis, good at most for soberly licking the sugary exudations of the flowers; her slim legs are so feeble that to move a grain of sand were an excessive task for them, enough to strain every joint; her great, stiff wings, which must remain full spread, do not allow her to slip through a narrow passage; her delicate suit of downy velvet, from which you take the bloom by merely breathing on it, could not withstand the rough contact of the gallery of a mine. Unable herself to enter the Mason bee's cell to lay her egg, she cannot leave it either, when the time comes to free herself and appear in broad daylight in her wedding dress. The larva, on its side, is powerless to prepare the way for the coming flight. That buttery little cylinder, owning no tools but a sucker so flimsy that it barely arrives at substance and so small that it is almost a geometrical point, is even weaker than the adult insect, which at least flies and walks. The Mason bee's cell represents to it a granite cave. How to get out? The problem would be insoluble to those two incapables, if nothing else played its part.

Among insects, the nymph, or pupa, the transition stage between the larval and the adult form, is generally a striking picture of every weakness of a budding organism. A sort of mummy tight bound in swaddling clothes, motionless and impassive, it awaits the resurrection. Its tender tissues flow in every direction; its limbs, transparent as crystal, are held fixed in their place, along the side, lest a movement should disturb the exquisite delicacy of the work in course of accomplishment. Even so, to secure his recovery, is a broken boned patient held captive in the surgeon's bandages. Absolute stillness is necessary in both cases, lest they be crippled or even die.

Well, here, by a strange inversion that confuses all our views on life, a Cyclopean task is laid upon the nymph of the Anthrax. It is the nymph that has to toil, to strive, to exhaust itself in efforts to burst the wall and open the way out. To the embryo falls the desperate duty, which shows no mercy to the nascent flesh; to the adult insect the joy of resting in the sun. This transposition of functions has as its result a well sinker's equipment in the nymph, an eccentric, complicated equipment which nothing suggested in the larva and which nothing recalls in the perfect insect. The set of tools includes an assortment of plowshares, gimlets, hooks and spears and of other implements that are not found in our trades nor named in our dictionaries. Let us do our best to describe the strange piercing gear.

In a fortnight at most, the Anthrax has consumed the Chalicodoma grub, whereof naught remains but the skin, gathered into a white granule. By the time that July is nearly over, it becomes rare to find any nurslings left upon their nurses. From this period until the following May, nothing fresh happens. The Anthrax retains its larval shape without any appreciable change and lies motionless in the mason bee's cocoon, beside the pellet remains. When the fine days of May arrive, the grub shrivels and casts its skin and the nymph appears, fully clad in a stout, reddish, horny hide.

The head is round and large, separated from the thorax by a strangulated furrow, crowned on top and in front with a sort of diadem of six hard, sharp, black spikes, arranged in a semicircle whose concave side faces downward. These spikes decrease slightly in length from the summit to the ends of the arch. Taken together, they suggest the radial crowns which we see the Roman emperors of the Decadence wear on the medals. This six-fold plowshare is the chief excavating tool. Lower down, on the median line, the instrument is finished off with a separate group of two small black spikes, placed close together.

The thorax is smooth, the wing cases large, folded under the body like a scarf and coming almost to the middle of the abdomen. This has nine segments, of which four, starting with the second, are armed, on the back, down the middle, with a belt of little horny arches, pale brown in color, drawn up parallel to one another, set in the skin by their convex surfaces and finishing at both ends with a hard, black point. Altogether, the belt thus forms a double row of little thorns, with a hollow in between. I count about twenty-five twin-toothed arches to one segment, which gives a total of two hundred spikes for the four rings thus armed.

The use of this rasp, or grater, is obvious: it gives the nymph a purchase on the wall of its gallery as the work proceeds. Thus anchored on a host of points, the stern pioneer is able to hit the obstacle harder with its diadem of awls. Moreover, to make it more difficult for the instrument to recoil, long, stiff bristles, pointing backwards, are scattered here and there among the climbing belts. There are some besides on the other segments, both on the ventral and the dorsal surface. On the flanks, they are thicker and arranged as it were in clusters.

The sixth segment carries a similar belt, but a much less powerful one, consisting of a single row of unassuming thorns. The belt is weaker still on the seventh segment; lastly, on the eighth, it is reduced to a mere rough brown shading. Commencing with the sixth, the rings decrease in width and the abdomen ends in a cone, the extremity of which, formed of the ninth segment, constitutes a weapon of a new kind. It is a sheaf of eight brown spikes. The last two exceed the others in length and stand out from the group in a double terminal plowshare.

There is a round air hole in front, on either side of the thorax, and similar stigmata on the flanks of each of the first seven abdominal segments. When at rest, the nymph is curved into a bow. When about to act, it suddenly unbends and straightens itself. It measures 15 to 20 millimeters long and 4 to 5 millimeters across.

Such is the strange perforating machine that is to prepare an outlet for the feeble Anthrax through the Mason bee's cement. The structural details, so difficult to explain in words, may be summed up as follows: in front, on the forehead, a diadem of spikes, the ramming and digging tool; behind, a many bladed plowshare which fits into a socket and allows the pupa to slacken suddenly in readiness for an attack on the barrier which has to be demolished; on the back, four climbing belts, or graters, which keep the animal in position by biting on the walls of the tunnel with their hundreds of teeth; and, all over the body, long, stiff bristles, pointing backwards, to prevent falls or recoils.

A similar structure exists in the other species of Anthrax with slight variations of detail. I will confine myself to one instance, that of Anthrax sinuata, who thrives at the cost of Osmia tricornis. Her nymph differs from that of Anthrax trifasciata, the Anthrax of the mason bee, in possessing less powerful armor. Its four climbing belts consist of only fifteen to seventeen double spiked arches, instead of twenty-five; also, the abdominal segments, from the sixth onwards, are supplied merely with stiff bristles, without a trace of horny spikes. If the evolution of the various Anthrax flies were better known to us, the number of these arches would, I believe, be of great service to entomology in the differentiation of species. I see it remaining constant for any given species, with marked variations between one species and another. But this is not my business: I merely call the attention of the classifiers to this field of study and pass on.

About the end of May, the coloring of the nymph, hitherto a light red, alters greatly and forecasts the coming transformation. The head, the thorax and the scarf formed by the wings become a handsome, shiny black. A dark band shows on the back of the four segments with their two rows of spikes; three spots appear on the two next rings; the anal armor becomes darker. In this manner we foresee the black livery of the coming insect. The time has arrived for the pupa to work at the exit gallery.

I was anxious to see it in action, not under natural conditions, which would be impracticable, but in a glass tube in which I confine it between two thick stoppers of sorghum pith. The space thus marked off is about the same size as the natal cell. The partitions front and back, although not so stout as the Chalicodoma's ma­sonry, are nevertheless firm enough not to yield except to prolonged efforts; on the other hand, the side walls are smooth and the toothed belts will not be able to grip them: a most unfavorable condition for the worker. No matter: in the space of a single day, the pupa pierces the front partition, three quarters of an inch thick. I see it fixing its double plowshare against the back partition, arching into a bow and then suddenly releasing itself and striking the plug in front of it with its barbed forehead. Under the impact of the spikes, the sorghum slowly crumbles to pieces. It is slow in coming away; but it comes away all the same, atom by atom. At long intervals, the method changes. With its crown of awls driven into the pith, the animal frets and fidgets, sways on the pivot of its anal armor. The work of the auger follows that of the pickaxe. Then the blows recommence, interspersed with periods of rest to recover from the fatigue. At last, the hole is made. The pupa slips into it, but does not pass through entirely: the head and thorax appear outside; the abdomen remains held in the gallery.

The glass cell, with its lack of supports at the side, has certainly perplexed my subject, which does not seem to have made use of all its methods. The hole through the sorghum is wide and irregular; it is a clumsy breach and not a gallery. When made through the mason bee's walls, it is cylindrical, fairly neat and exactly of the animal's diameter. So I hope that, under natural conditions, the pupa does not give quite so many blows with the pickaxe and prefers to work with the drill.

Narrowness and evenness in the exit tunnel are necessary to it. It always remains half caught in it and even pretty securely fixed by the graters on its back. Only the head and thorax emerge into the outer air. This is a last precaution for the final deliverance. A fixed support is, in fact, indispensable to the Anthrax for issuing from her horny sheath, unfurling her great wings and extricating her slender legs from their scabbards. All this very delicate work would be endangered by any lack of steadiness.

The pupa, therefore, remains fixed by the graters of its back in the narrow exit gallery and thus supplies the stable equilibrium essential to the new birth. All is ready. It is time now for the great act. A transversal cleft makes its appearance on the forehead, at the bottom of the perforating diadem; a second, but longitudinal slit divides the skull in two and extends down the thorax. Through this cross-shaped opening, the Anthrax suddenly appears, all moist with the humors of life's laboratory. She steadies herself upon her trembling legs, dries her wings and takes to flight, leaving at the window of the cell her nymphal slough, which keeps intact for a very long period. The sand- colored fly has five or six weeks before her, wherein to explore the clay nests amid the thyme and to take her small share of the joys of life. In July, we shall see her once more, busy this time with the entrance into the cell, which is even stranger than the exit.

Translator's No­tes:

1. Mason bees.

2. Leon Dufour.

3. A mason bee.

4. A digger wasp.

5. A parasitic insect.

6. An Ichneumon fly.

7. A digger wasp.


Links from Google

Social Statistics

Spread the word...