Chapter IV. The Pine Processionary: Meteoroogy

Jean-Henri Fabre The Life of the Caterpillar

pine processionary caterpillars

Pine Processionary C. (Thaumetopoea Pityocampa)

IN JANUARY a second moult occurs, leaving the caterpillar less fair to the eye, while at the same time endowing him with some very peculiar organs. When the moment has come to shed their skins, the Processionaries cluster higgledy-piggledy on the dome of the nest and there, if the weather be mild, remain motionless day and night. It would seem as though the fact of their contact, of their mutual discomfort, while thus heaped together, furnishes a resistance, a fulcrum, which favours the process of excoriation.

After this second moult, the hairs on the middle of the back are of a dull reddish colour, which is made paler still by the interposition of numerous long white hairs. But this faded costume is accompanied by the singular organs which attracted the attention of R?aumur, who was greatly perplexed as to their function. In the place originally occupied by the scarlet mosaic, eight segments of the caterpillar are now cleft by a broad transversal gash, a sort of thick-lipped mouth, which opens and gapes wide at the caterpillar's will, or closes without leaving a visible trace.

From each of these expanding mouths rises a tumour with a fine, colourless skin, as though the creature were exposing its tender inside and inflating it, for the appearance is almost that which would be presented by the viscera protruding through skin incised by the scalpel. Two large dark-brown dots occupy the front face of the protuberance. At the back are two short, flat tufts of russet bristles, which in the sunlight shine with a rich brilliancy. All around is a radiating border of long white hairs, spread almost flat.

This protuberance is extremely sensitive. At the slightest irritation it goes in again and disappears under the dark integument. In its place opens an oval crater, a sort of huge stoma, which swiftly brings its lips together, closes and entirely disappears. The long white hairs that form a moustache and imperial around this mouth follow the movements of the contracting lips. After first radiating from a centre and lying flat, these hairs rise like levelled wheat which the wind has caught from beneath and meet to form a transversal crest, perpendicular to the creature's back.

This hairy erection produces a sudden modification in the caterpillar's as­pect. The red shiny bristles have disappeared, buried under the dark skin; the white hairs, now standing on end, form a hirsute mane; an ashy tinge has crept into the general colour of the costume.

When calm is restored, as soon happens, the slits open and yawn afresh; the sensitive protuberances emerge, quick to disappear once more should any cause for alarm occur. These alternate expansions and contractions are rapidly repeated. I provoke them at will in various ways. A slight puff of tobacco-smoke immediately causes the stomata to yawn and the protuberances to emerge. One would think that the insect was putting itself on its guard and displaying some special apparatus of information. Before long the protuberances go in again. A second puff of smoke brings them out once more. But, if the smoke is too abundant, too acrid, the caterpillar wriggles and writhes without opening his apparatus.

Or else I touch one or other of these uncovered protuberances, very delicately, with a bit of straw. The pimple affected immediately contracts, draws into itself, like the horns of the Snail, and is replaced by a gaping mouth, which in its turn closes. Usually, but not always, the segment excited by the contact of my straw is imitated by the others, both front and back, which close their apparatus one by one.

When undisturbed and in repose, the caterpillar generally has his dorsal slits expanded; in moving, he sometimes opens and sometimes closes them. In either case expansion and contraction are frequently repeated. Constantly coming together and retreating under the skin, the lips of the mouth-like opening therefore end by losing their brittle moustaches of russet hairs, which break off. In this way a sort of dust collects at the bottom of the crater, a dust formed of broken hairs, which, thanks to their barbs, soon collect into little tufts. When the slit expands rather suddenly, the central projection shoots out on the insect's sides its load of hairy remnants, which the least breath blows into a cloud of golden atoms highly disagreeable to the observer. I shall have something to say presently of the itch to which he is at such times exposed.

Are these peculiar stomata designed merely to collect the adjoining bristles and to grind them to powder? Are these fine-skinned papill?, which inflate and ascend from the depths of their hiding-place, intended to get rid of the accumulation of broken hairs? Or is it the sole function of this peculiar apparatus to prepare, at the expense of the caterpillar's fle­ece, an irritant dust which shall act as a means of defence? Nothing tells us so.

Certainly the caterpillar is not armed against the enquirer who from time to time takes it into his head to come and examine him through a magnifying-glass. It is even very doubtful whether he troubles at all about those passionate caterpillar-lovers, Calosoina sycophanta large carnivorous Beetle.--Translator's Note. among insects and the Cuckoo among birds. Those who consume such fare have a stomach expressly fashioned for the purpose, a stomach that laughs at blistering hairs and possibly finds an appetizing stimulant in their sting. No, I do not see the motives that prompted the Processionary to cleave his back with so many slits, if he merely strips himself of his hair to throw an irritating dust in our eyes. There must certainly be something else in question.

R?aumur mentions these openings, of which he made a brief study. He calls them stigmata and is inclined to take them for exceptional breathing-holes. That they are not, my master; no insect contrives air-holes on its back! Moreover, the magnifying-glass reveals no channel of communication with the interior. Respiration plays no part here; the solution of the enigma must lie elsewhere.

The protuberances that rise from those expanded cavities are formed of a soft, pale, hairless membrane, which gives the impression of a visceral hernia, as though the caterpillar were wounded and exposing its delicate entrails to the air. The sensitiveness just here is great. The lightest touch with the point of a hair-pencil causes the immediate in-drawing of the protuberances and the closing of the containing lips.

The touch of a solid object even is not essential. I pick up a tiny drop of water on the point of a pin and, without shaking it off, present this drop to the sensitive projection. At the moment when contact occurs the apparatus contracts and closes up. The recoil of the Snail's horns, withdrawing the visual and olfactory organs into their sheaths, is no prompter.

Everything seems to prove that these optional tumours, appearing and disappearing at the caterpillar's will, are instruments or sensorial perception. The caterpillar exposes them to obtain information; he shelters them under his skin to preserve their delicate functions. Now what is it that they perceive? This is a difficult question, in which the habits of the Processionary alone can afford us a little guidance.

During the whole winter, the Pine Caterpillars are active only at night. In the daytime, when the weather is fine, they readily repair to the dome of the nest and there remain motionless, gathered into heaps. It is the hour of the open-air siesta, under the pale December and January sun. As yet none leaves the home. It is quite late in the evening, towards nine o'clock, when they set out, marching in an irregular procession, to browse on the leaves of the branches hard by. Their grazing is a protracted affair. The flock returns late, some time after midnight, when the temperature falls too low.

Secondly, it is in the heart of winter, during the roughest months, that the Processionary displays his full activity. Indefatigably at this time of year he spins, adding each night a new web to his silken tent; at this time, whenever the weather permits, he ventures abroad on the neighbouring boughs to feed, to grow and to renew his skein of silk.

By a very remarkable exception, the harsh season marked by inactivity and lethargic repose in other insects is for him the season of bustle and labour, on condition, of course, that the inclemencies of the weather do not exceed certain limits. If the north wind blow too violently, so that it is like to sweep the flock away; if the cold be too piercing, so that there is a risk of freezing to death; if it snow, or rain, or if the mist thicken into an icy drizzle, the caterpillars prudently stay at home, sheltering under their weatherproof tent.

It would be convenient to some extent to foresee these inclemencies. The caterpillar dreads them. A drop of rain sets him in a flutter; a snowflake exasperates him. To start for the grazing-grounds at dark of night, in uncertain weather, would be dangerous, for the procession goes some distance and travels slowly. The flock would fare ill before regaining shelter did any sudden atmospheric trouble supervene, an event of some frequency in the bad season of the year. So that he may be informed in this particular during his nocturnal winter rambles, can the Pine Caterpillar be endowed with some sort of meteorological aptitudes? Let us describe how the suspicion occurred to me.

Divulged I know not how, my rearing of caterpillars under glass acquired a certain renown. It was talked about in the village. The forest-ranger, a sworn enemy to destructive insects, wanted to see the grazing of the famous caterpillars, of whom he had retained a too poignant memory ever since the day when he gathered and destroyed their nests in a pine-wood under his charge. It was arranged that he should call the same evening.

He arrives at the appointed hour, accompanied by a friend. For a moment we sit and chat in front of the fire; then, when the clock strikes nine, the lantern is lit and we all three enter the greenhouse. The visitors are eager for the spectacle of which they have heard such wonderful things, while I am certain of satisfying their curiosity.

But, but . . . what is this? Not a caterpillar on the nests, not one on the fresh ration of branches! Last night and on the previous nights they came out in countless numbers; to-night not one reveals himself. Can it be that they are merely late in going to dinner? Can their habitual punctuality be at fault because appetite has not yet arrived? We must be patient. . . . Ten o'clock. Nothing. Eleven. Still nothing. Midnight was at hand when we abandoned our watch, convinced that it would be vain to prolong the sitting. You can imagine what an abject fool I looked at having thus to send my guests away.

Next day I thought that I dimly perceived the explanation of this disappointment. It rained in the night and again in the morning. Snow, not the earliest of the year, but so far the most abundant, whitened the brow of the Ventoux. highest mountain in the neighbourhood of S?rignan Cf. The Hunting Wasps, by J. Henri Fabre, translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos: chap. xi.--Translator's Note. Had the caterpillars, more sensitive than any of us to atmospheric changes, refused to venture forth because they anticipated what was about to happen? Had they foreseen the rain and the snow, which nothing seemed to announce, at all events to us? After all, why not? Let us continue to observe them and we shall see whether the coincidence is fortuitous or not.

On this memorable day, therefore, the 13th of December, 1895, I institute the caterpillars' meteorological observatory. I have at my disposal absolutely none of the apparatus dear to science, not even a modest thermometer, for my unlucky star continues in the ascendant, proving as unkind to-day as when I learnt chemistry with pipe-bowls for crucibles and bottles that once contained sweets for retorts. I confine myself to visiting nightly the Processionaries in the greenhouse and those in the garden. It is a hard task, especially as I have to go to the far end of the enclosure, often in weather when one would not turn a Dog out of doors. I set down the acts of the caterpillars, whether they come out or stay at home; I note the state of the sky during the day and at the moment of my evening examination.

To this list I add the meteorological chart of Europe which the Temps publishes daily. If I want more precise data, I request the Normal School at Avignon to send me, on occasions of violent disturbances, the barometrical records of its observatory. These are the only documents at my disposal.

Before we come to the results obtained, let me once more repeat that my caterpillars' meteorological institute has two stations: one in the greenhouse and one in the open air, on the pines in the enclosure. The first, protected against the wind and rain, is that which I prefer: it provides more regular and more continuous information. In fact, the open-air caterpillars often enough refuse to come out, even though the general conditions be favourable. It is enough to keep them at home if there be too strong a wind shaking the boughs, or even a little moisture dripping on the web of the nests. Saved from these two perils, the greenhouse caterpillars have only to consider atmospheric incidents of a higher order. The small variations escape them; the great alone make an impression on them: a most useful point for the observer and going a long way towards solving the problem for him. The colonies under glass, therefore, provide most of the material for my notes; the colonies in the open air add their testimony, which is not always quite clear.

Now what did they tell me, those greenhouse caterpillars who, on the 13th of December, refused to show themselves to my guest, the forest-ranger? The rain that was to fall that night could hardly have alarmed them: they were so well sheltered. The snow about to whiten Mont Ventoux was nothing to them: it was so far away. Moreover, it was neither snowing yet nor raining. Some extraordinary atmospheric event, profound and of vast extent, must have been occurring. The charts in the Temps and the bulletin of the Normal School told me as much.

A cyclonic disturbance, coming from the British Isles, was passing over our district; an atmospheric depression the like of which the season had not as yet known, had spread in our direction, reaching us on the 13th and persisting, in a more or less accentuated form, until the 22nd. At Avignon the barometer suddenly fell half an inch, to 29.1 in., on the 13th and lower still, to 29 in., on the 19th.

During this period of ten days, the garden caterpillars made no sortie on the pine-trees. True, the weather was changeable. There were a few showers of fine rain and some violent gusts of the mistral; but more frequently there were days and nights when the sky was superb and the temperature moderate. The prudent anchorites would not allow themselves to be caught. The low pressure persisted, menacing them; and so they stopped at home.

In the greenhouse things happen rather differently. Sorties take place, but the staying-in days are still more numerous. It looks as though the caterpillars, alarmed at first by the unexpected things happening overhead, had reassured themselves and resumed work, feeling nothing, in their shelter, of what they would have suffered out of doors--rain, snow and furious mistral blasts--and had then suspended their work again when the threats of bad weather increased.

There is, indeed, a fairly accurate agreement between the oscillations of the barometer and the decisions of the herd. When the column of mercury rises a little, they come out; when it falls they remain at home. Thus on the 19th, the night of the lowest pressure, 29 in., not a caterpillar ventures outside.

As the wind and rain can have no effect on my colonies under glass, one is led to suppose that atmospheric pressure, with its physiological results, so difficult to define, is here the principal factor. As for the temperature, within moderate limits there is no need to discuss it. The Processionaries have a robust constitution, as behoves spinners who work in the open air in midwinter. However piercing the cold, so long as it does not freeze, when the hour comes for working or feeding they spin on the surface of the nest or browse on the neighbouring branches.

Another example. According to the meteorological chart in the Temps, a depression whose centre is near the Iles Sanguinaires, at the entrance of the Gulf of Ajaccio, reaches my neighbourhood, with a minimum of 29.2 in., on the 9th of January. A tempestuous wind gets up. For the first time this year there is a respectable frost. The ice on the large pond in the garden is two or three inches thick. This wild weather lasts for five days. Of course, the garden caterpillars do not sally forth on the pine-trees while these are battered by such a gale.

The remarkable part of the business is that the greenhouse caterpillars do not venture out of their nests either. And yet for them there are no boughs dangerously shaken, no cold piercing beyond endurance, for it is not freezing under the glass. What keeps them in can be only the passage of that wave of depression. On the 15th the storm ceases; and the barometer remains between 29.6 and 30 in. for the rest of the month and a good part of February. During this long period there are magnificent sorties every evening, especially in the greenhouse.

On the 23rd and 24th of February, suddenly the Processionaries stop at home again, for no apparent reason. Of the six nests under cover, only two have a few rare caterpillars out on the pine-branches, while previously, in the case of all six, I used every night to see the leaves bending under the weight of an innumerable multitude. Warned by this forecast, I enter in my notes:

„Some deep depression is about to reach us.“

And I have guessed right. Two days later, sure enough, the meteorological record of the Temps gives me the following information: a minimum of 29.2 in., coming from the Bay of Biscay on the 22nd, reaches Algeria on the 23rd and spreads over the Provence coast on the 24th. There is a heavy snow-fall at Marseilles on the 25th.

„The ships,“ I read in my paper, „present a curious spectacle, with their yards and rigging white. That is how the people of Marseilles, little used to such sights, picture Spitzbergen and the North Pole.“

Here certainly is the gale which my caterpillars foresaw when they refused to go out last night and the night before; here is the centre of disturbance which revealed itself at S?rignan by a violent and icy north wind on the 25th and the following days. Again I perceive that the greenhouse caterpillars are alarmed only at the approach of the wave of atmospheric disturbance. Once the first uneasiness caused by the depression had abated, they came out again, on the 25th and the following days, in the midst of the gale. as though nothing extraordinary were happening.

From the sum of my observations it appears that the Pine Processionary is eminently sensitive to atmospheric vicissitudes, an excellent quality, having regard to his way of life in the sharp winter nights. He foresees the storm which would imperil his excursions.

His capacity for scenting bad weather very soon won the confidence of the household. When we had to go into Orange to renew our provisions, it became the rule to consult him the night before; and, according to his verdict, we went or stayed at home. His oracle never deceived us. In the same way, simple folk that we were, we used in the old days to interrogate the Dor-beetle, stercorarius, a large Dung-beetle. Cf. The Life and Love of the Insect, by J. Henri Fabre, translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos: chap. ix--Translator's Note. another doughty nocturnal worker. But, a little demoralized by imprisonment in a cage and apparently devoid of any special sensitive apparatus, performing his evolutions, moreover, in the mild autumn evenings, the celebrated Dung-beetle could never rival the Pine Caterpillar, who is active during the roughest season of the year and endowed, as everything would seem to affirm, with organs quick to perceive the great atmospheric fluctuations.

Rural lore abounds in meteorological forecasts derived from animals. The Cat, sitting in front of the fire and washing behind her ears with a saliva-smeared paw, foretells another cold snap; the Cock, crowing at unusual hours, announces the return of fine weather; the Guinea-fowl, with her screeching, as of a scythe on the grindstone, points to rain; the Hen, standing on one leg, her plumage ruffled, her head sunk on her neck, feels a hard frost coming; the pretty green Tree-frog inflates his throat like a bladder at the approach of a storm and, according to the Proven?al peasant, says:

„Plo?ra, plo?ra; it will rain, it will rain!.“

This rustic meteorology, the heritage of the centuries, does not show up so badly beside our scientific meteorology.

Are not we ourselves living barometers? Every veteran complains of his glorious scars when the weather is about to break. One man, though unwounded, suffers from insomnia or from bad dreams; another, though a brain-worker, cannot drag an idea out of his impotent head. Each of us, in his own way, is tried by the passage of those huge funnels which form in the atmosphere and hatch the storm.

Could the insect, with its exceptionally delicate organization, escape this kind of impression? It is unbelievable. The insect, an any other creature, should be an animated meteorological instrument, as truthful in its forecasts, if we knew how to read them, as the lifeless instruments of our observatories, with their mercury and their catgut. All, in different degrees, possess a general impressionability analogous to our own and exercised without the aid of specific organs. Some, better gifted because of their mode of life, might well be furnished with special meteorological apparatus.

The Pine Processionary seems to belong to this number. In his second costume, when the segments bear on their dorsal faces an elegant red mosaic, he differs apparently from other caterpillars only by a more delicate general impressionability, unless this mosaic be endowed with aptitudes unknown elsewhere. If the nocturnal spinner is still none too generously equipped, it must be remembered that the season which he passes in this condition is nearly always clement. The really formidable nights hardly set in before January. But then, as a safeguard in his peregrinations, the Pine Processionary cleaves his back with a series of mouths which yawn open to sample the air from time to time and to give a warning of the sudden storm.

Until further evidence is forthcoming, therefore, the dorsal slits are, to my mind, meteorological instruments, barometers influenced by the main fluctuations of the atmosphere. To go beyond suspicions, though these are well based, is for me impossible. I lack the equipment necessary to delve more deeply into the subject. But I have given a hint. It is for those who are better favoured in the matter of resources to find the final solution of this interesting problem.


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