Chapter IV. The Tachytes
Jean-Henri Fabre More Hunting Wasp
The Praying Mantis
The family of Wasps whose name I inscribe at the head of this chapter has not hitherto, so far as I know, made much noise in the world. Its annals are limited to methodical classifications, which make very poor reading. The happy nations, men say, are those which have no history. I accept this, but I also admit that it is possible to have a history without ceasing to be happy. In the conviction that I shall not disturb its prosperity, I will try to substitute the living, moving insect for the insect impaled in a cork-bottomed box.
It has been adorned with a learned name, derived from the Greek Tachytes, meaning rapidity, suddenness, speed. The creature's godfather, as we see, had a smattering of Greek; its denomination is none the less unfortunate: intended to instruct us by means of a characteristic feature, the name leads us astray. Why is speed mentioned in this connection? Why a label which prepares the mind for an exceptional velocity and announces a race of peerless coursers? Nimble diggers of burrows and eager hunters the Tachytes are, to be sure, but they are no better than a host of rivals. Not the Sphex, nor the Ammophila, nor the Bembex, nor many another would admit herself beaten in either flying or running. At the nesting-season, all this tiny world of huntresses is filled with astounding activity. The quality of a speedy worker being common to all, none can boast of it to the exclusion of the rest.
Had I had a vote when the Tachytes was christened, I should have suggested a short, harmonious, well-sounding name, meaning nothing else than the thing meant. What better, for example, than the term Sphex? The ear is satisfied and the mind is not corrupted by a prejudice, a source of error to the beginner. I have not nearly as much liking for Ammophila, which represents as a lover of the sands an animal whose establishments call for compact soil. In short, if I had been forced, at all costs, to concoct a barbarous appellation out of Latin or Greek in order to recall the creature's leading characteristic, I should have attempted to say, a passionate lover of the Locust.
Love of the Locust, in the broader sense of the Orthopteron, an exclusive, intolerant love, handed down from mother to daughter with a fidelity which the centuries fail to impair, this, yes, this indeed depicts the Tachytes with greater accuracy than a name smacking of the race-course. The Englishman has his roast-beef; the German his sauerkraut; the Russian his caviare; the Neapolitan his macaroni; the Piedmontese his polenta; the man of Carpentras his tian. The Tachytes has her Locust. Her national dish is also that of the Sphex, with whom I boldly associate her. The methodical classifier, who works in cemeteries and seems to fly the living cities, keeps the two families far removed from each other because of considerations and attaching to the nervures of the wings and the joints of the palpi. At the risk of passing for a heretic, I bring them together at the suggestion of the menu-card.
To my own knowledge, my part of the country possesses five species, one and all addicted to a diet of Orthoptera. Panzer's Tachytes (T. Panzeri, VAN DER LIND), girdled with red at the base of the abdomen, must be pretty rare. I surprise her from time to time working on the hard roadside banks and the trodden edges of the footpaths. There, to a depth of an inch at most, she digs her burrows, each isolated from the rest. Her prey is an adult, medium-sized Acridian (1), such as the White-banded Sphex pursues. The captive of the one would not be despised by the other. Gripped by the antennae, according to the ritual of the Sphex, the victim is trailed along on foot and laid beside the nest, with the head pointing towards the opening. The pit, prepared in advance, is closed for the time being with a tiny flagstone and some bits of gravel, in order to avoid either the invasion of a passer-by or obstruction by landslips during the huntress' absence. A like precaution is taken by the White-banded Sphex. Both observe the same diet and the same customs.
The Tachytes clears the entrance to the home and goes in alone. She returns, puts out her head and, seizing her prey by the antennae, warehouses it by dragging backwards. I have repeated, at her expense, the tricks which I used to play on the Sphex For the author's experiments with the Languedocian, the Yellow-winged and the White-edged Sphex, cf. „The Hunting Wasps“: chapter 11. (2). While the Tachytes is underground, I move the game away. The insect comes up again and sees nothing at its door; it comes out and goes to fetch its Locust, whom it places in position as before. This done, it goes in again by itself. In its absence I once more pull back the prey. Fresh emergence of the Wasp, who puts things to rights and persists in going down again, still by herself, however often I repeat the experiment. Yet it would be very easy for her to put an end to my teasing: she would only have to descend straightway with her game, instead of leaving it for a moment on her doorstep. But, faithful to the usages of her race, she behaves as her ancestors behaved before her, even though the ancient custom happen to be unprofitable. Like the Yellow-winged Sphex, whom I have teased so often during her cellaring-operations, she is a narrow conservative, learning nothing and forgetting nothing.
Let us leave her to do her work in peace. The Locust disappears underground and the egg is laid upon the breast of the paralysed insect. That is all: one carcase for each cell, no more. The entrance is stopped at last, first with stones, which will prevent the trickling of the embankment into the chamber; next with sweepings of dust, under which every vestige of the subterranean house disappears. It is now done: the Tachytes will come here no more. Other burrows will occupy her, distributed at the whim of her vagabond humour.
A cell provisioned before my eyes on the 22nd of August, in one of the walls in the harmas, contained the finished cocoon a week later (3). I have not noted many examples of so rapid a development. This cocoon recalls, in its shape and texture, that of the Bembex-wasps. It is hard and mineralized, this is to say, the warp and woof of silk are hidden by a thick encrustation of sand. This composite structure seems to me characteristic of the family; at all events I find it in the three species whose cocoons I know. If the Tachytes are nearly related to the Spheges in diet, they are far removed from them in the industry of their larvae. The first are workers in mosaic, encrusting a network of silk and sand; the second weave pure silk.
Of smaller size and clad in black with trimmings of silvery down on the edge of the abdominal segments, the Tarsal Tachytes frequents the ledges of soft limestone in fairly populous colonies (T. tarsina, LEP.) (a1). August and September are the season of her labours. Her burrows, very close to one another when an easily-worked vein presents itself, afford an ample harvest of cocoons once the site is discovered. In a certain gravel-pit in the neighbourhood, with vertical walls visited by the sun, I have been able within a short space of time to collect enough to fill the hollow of my hand completely. They differ from the cocoons of the preceding species only in their smaller size. The provisions consist of young Acridians, varying from about a quarter to half an inch in length. The adult insect does not appear in the assorted bags of game, being no doubt too tough for the feeble grub. All the carcases consist of Locust-larvae, whose budding wings leave the back uncovered and put one in mind of the short skirts of a skimpy jacket. Small so that it may be tender, the game is numerous so that it may suffice all needs. I count from two to four carcases to a cell. When the time comes we will discover the reason for these differences in the rations served.
The Mantis-killing Tachytes wears a red scarf, like her kinswoman, Panzer's Tachytes (a2). I do not think that she is very widely distributed. I made her acquaintance in the S?rignan woods, where she inhabits, or rather used to inhabit — for I fear that I have depopulated and even destroyed the community by my repeated excavations — where she used to inhabit one of those little mounds of sand which the wind heaps up against the rosemary clumps. Outside this small community, I never saw her again. Her history, rich in incident, will be given with all the detail which it deserves. I will confine myself for the moment to mentioning her rations, which consist of Mantis-larvae, those of the Praying Mantis predominating (4). My lists record from three to sixteen heads for each cell. Once again we note a great inequality of rations, the reason for which we must try to discover.
What shall I say of the Black Tachytes (T. nigra, VAN DER LIND) that I have not already said in telling the story of the Yellow-winged Sphex (5)? I have there described her contests with the Sphex, whose burrow she seems to me to have usurped; I show her dragging along the ruts in the roads a paralysed Cricket, seized by the hauling-ropes, his antennae; I speak of her hesitations, which lead me to suspect her for a homeless vagabond, and finally on her surrender of her game, with which she seems at once satisfied and embarrassed. Save for the dispute with the Sphex, an unique event in my records as observer, I have seen all the rest many a time, but never anything more. The Black Tachytes, though the most frequent of all in my neighbourhood, remains a riddle to me. I know nothing of her dwelling, her larvae, her cocoons, her family-arrangements. All that I can affirm, judging by the invariable nature of the prey which one sees her dragging along, is that she must feed her larvae on the same non-adult Cricket that the Yellow-winged Sphex chooses for hers.
Is she a poacher, a pillager of other's property, or a genuine huntress? My suspicions are persistent, though I know how chary a man should be of suspicions. At one time I had my doubts about Panzer's Tachytes, whom I grudged a prey to which the White-banded Sphex might have laid claim. To-day I have no such doubts: she is an honest worker and her game is really the result of her hunting. While waiting for the truth to be revealed and my suspicions set aside, I will complete the little that I know of her by noting that the Black Tachytes passes the winter in the adult form and away from her cell. She hibernates, like the Hairy Ammophila. In warm, sheltered places, with low, perpendicular, bare banks, dear to the Wasps, I am certain of finding her at any time during the winter, however briefly I investigate the earthen surface, riddled with galleries. I find the Tachytes cowering singly in the hot oven formed by the end of a tunnel. If the temperature be mild and the sky clear, she emerges from her retreat in January and February and comes to the surface of the bank to see whether spring is making progress. When the shadows fall and the heat decreases, she reenters her winter-quarters.
The Anathema Tachytes (T. anathema, VAN DER LIND), the giant of her race, almost as large as the Languedocian Sphex and, like her, decorated with a red scarf round the base of the abdomen, is rarer than any of her congeners. I have come upon her only some four or five times, as an isolated individual and always in circumstances which will tell us of the nature of her game with a probability that comes very near to certainty. She hunts underground, like the Scoliae. In September I see her go down into the soil, which has been loosened by a recent light shower; the movement of the earth turned over keeps me informed of her subterranean progress. She is like the Mole, ploughing through a meadow in pursuit of his White Worm. She comes out farther on, nearly a yard from the spot at which she went in. This long journey underground has taken her only a few minutes.
Is this due to extraordinary powers of excavation on her part? By no means: the Anathema Tachytes is an energetic tunneller, no doubt, but, after all, is incapable of performing so great a labour in so short a time. If the underground worker is so swift in her progress, it is because the track followed has already been covered by another. The trail is ready prepared. We will describe it, for it is clearly defined before the intervention of the Wasp.
On the surface of the ground, for a length of two paces at most, runs a sinuous line, a beading of crumbled soil, roughly the width of my finger.
From this line of ramifications (others) shoot out to left and right, much shorter and irregularly distributed. One need not be a great entomological scholar to recognize, at the first glance, in these pads of raised earth, the trail of a Mole-cricket, the Mole among insects. It is the Mole-cricket who, seeking for a root to suit her, has excavated the winding tunnel, with investigation-galleries grafted to either side of the main road. The passage is free therefore, or at most blocked by a few landslips, of which the Tachytes will easily dispose. This explains her rapid journey underground.
But what does she do there? For she is always there, in the few observations which chance affords me. A subterranean excursion would not attract the Wasp if it had no object. And its object is certainly the search for some sort of game for her larvae. The inference becomes inevitable: the Anathema Tachytes, who explores the Mole-cricket's galleries, gives her larvae this same Mole-cricket as their food. Very probably the specimen selected is a young one, for the adult insect would be too big. Besides, to this consideration of quantity is added that of quality. Young and tender flesh is highly appreciated, as witness the Tarsal Tachytes, the Black Tachytes and the Mantis-killing Tachytes, who all three select game that is not yet made tough by age. It goes without saying that the moment the huntress emerged from the ground I proceeded to dig up the track. The Mole-cricket was no longer there. The Tachytes had come too late; and so had I.
Well, how right was I to define the Tachytes as a Locust lover! What constancy in the gastronomic rules of the race! And what tact in varying the game, while keeping within the order of the Orthoptera! What have the Locust, the Cricket, the Praying Mantis and the Mole-cricket in common, as regards their general appearance? Why, absolutely nothing! None of us, if he were unfamiliar with the delicate associations dictated by anatomy, would think of classing them together. The Tachytes, on the other hand, makes no mistake. Guided by her instinct, which rivals the science of a Latreille, she groups them all together (6).
This instinctive taxonomy becomes more surprising still if we consider the variety of the game stored in a single burrow. The Mantis-killing Tachytes, for instance, preys indiscriminately upon all the Mantides that occur in her neighbourhood. I see her warehousing three of them, the only varieties, in fact, that I know in my district. They are the following: the Praying Mantis (M. religiosa, LIN.), the Grey Mantis (Ameles decolor, CHARP. (7)) and the Empusa (E. pauperata, LATR. (8)). The numerical predominance in the Tachytes' cells belongs to the Praying Mantis; and the Grey Mantis occupies second place. The Empusa, who is comparatively rare on the brushwood in the neighbourhood, is also rare in the store-houses of the Wasp; nevertheless her presence is repeated often enough to show that the huntress appreciates the value of this prey when she comes across it. The three sorts of game are in the larval state, with rudimentary wings. Their dimensions, which vary a good deal, fluctuate between two-fifths and four-fifths of an inch in length.
The Praying Mantis is a bright green; she boasts an elongated prothorax and an alert gait. The other Mantis is ash-grey. Her prothorax is short and her movements heavy. The coloration therefore is no guide to the huntress, any more than the gait. The green and the grey, the swift and the slow are unable to baffle her perspicacity. To her, despite the great difference in appearance, the two victims are Mantes. And she is right.
But what are we to say of the Empusa? The insect world, at all events in our parts, contains no more fantastic creature. The children here, who are remarkable for finding names which really depict the animal, call the larva „the Devilkin.“ It is indeed a spectre, a diabolical phantom worthy of the pencil of a Callot (9). There is nothing to beat it in the extravagant medley of figures in his „Temptation of Saint Anthony.“ Its flat abdomen, scalloped at the edges, rises into a twisted crook; its peaked head carries on the top two large, divergent, tusk-shaped horns; its sharp, pointed face, which can turn and look to either side, would fit the wily purpose of some Mephistopheles; its long legs have cleaver-like appendages at the joints, similar to the arm-pieces which the knights of old used to bear upon their elbows. Perched high upon the shanks of its four hind-legs, with its abdomen curled, its thorax raised erect, its front-legs, the traps and implements of warfare, folded against its chest, it sways limply from side to side, on the tip of the bough.
Any one seeing it for the first time in its grotesque pose will give a start of surprise. The Tachytes knows no such alarm. If she catches sight of it, she seizes it by the neck and stabs it. It will be a treat for her children. How does she manage to recognize in this spectre the near relation of the Praying Mantis? When frequent hunting-expeditions have familiarized her with the last-named and suddenly, in the midst of the chase, she encounters the Devilkin, how does she become aware that this strange find makes yet another excellent addition to her larder? This question, I fear, will never receive an adequate reply. Other huntresses have already set us the problem; others will set it to us again. I shall return to it, not to solve it, but to show even more plainly how obscure and profound it is. But we will first complete the story of the Mantis-killing Tachytes.
The colony which forms the subject of my investigations is established in a mound of fine sand which I myself cut into, a couple of years ago, in order to unearth a few Bembex larvae. The entrances to the Tachytes' dwelling open upon the little upright bank of the section. At the beginning of July the work is in full swing. It must have been going on already for a week or two, for I find very forward larvae, as well as recent cocoons. There are here, digging into the sand or returning from expeditions with their booty, some hundred females, whose burrows, all very close to one another, cover an area of barely a square yard. This hamlet, small in extent, but nevertheless densely populated, shows us the Mantis-slayer under a moral aspect which is not shared by the Locust slayer, Panzer's Tachytes, who resembles her so closely in costume. Though engaged in individual tasks, the first seeks the society of her kind, as do certain of the Sphex-wasps, while the second establishes herself in solitude, after the fashion of the Ammophila. Neither the personal form nor the nature of the occupation determines sociability.
Crouching voluptuously in the sun, on the sand at the foot of the bank, the males lie waiting for the females, to plague them as they pass. They are ardent lovers, but cut a poor figure. Their linear dimensions are barely half those of the other sex, which implies a volume only one-eighth as great. At a short distance they appear to wear on their heads a sort of gaudy turban. At close quarters this headgear is seen to consist of the eyes, which are very large and a bright lemon-yellow and which almost entirely surround the head.
At ten o'clock in the morning, when the heat begins to grow intolerable to the observer, there is a continual coming and going between the burrows and the tufts of grass, everlasting, thyme and wormwood, which constitute the Tachytes' hunting-grounds within a moderate radius. The journey is so short that the Wasp brings her game home on the wing, usually in a single flight. She holds it by the fore-part, a very judicious precaution, which is favourable to rapid stowage in the warehouse, for then the Mantis' legs stretch backwards, along the axis of the body, instead of folding and projecting sideways, when their resistance would be difficult to overcome in a narrow gallery. The lanky prey dangles beneath the huntress, all limp, lifeless and paralysed. The Tachytes, still flying, alights on the threshold of the home and immediately, contrary to the custom of Panzer's Tachytes, enters with her prey trailing behind her. It is not unusual for a male to come upon the scene at the moment of the mother's arrival. He is promptly snubbed. This is the time for work, not for amusement. The rebuffed male resumes his post as a watcher in the sun; and the housewife stows her provisions.
But she does not always do so without hindrance. Let me recount one of the misadventures of this work of storage. There is in the neighbourhood of the burrows a plant which catches insects with glue. It is the Oporto silene (S. portensis), a curious growth, a lover of the sea-side dunes, which, though of Portuguese origin, as its name would seem to indicate, ventures inland, even as far as my part of the country, where it represents perhaps a survivor of the coastal flora of what was once a Pliocene sea. The sea has disappeared; a few plants of its shores have remained behind. This Silene carries in most of its internodes, in those both of the branches and of the main stalk, a viscous ring, two- to four-fifths of an inch wide, sharply delimited above and below. The coating of glue is of a pale brown. Its stickiness is so great that the least touch is enough to hold the object. I find Midges, Plant-lice and Ants caught in it, as well as tufted seeds which have blown from the capitula of the Cichoriaceae. A Gad-fly, as big as a Blue bottle, falls into the trap before my eyes. She has barely alighted on the perilous perch when lo, she is held by the hinder tarsi! The Fly makes violent efforts to take wing; she shakes the slender plant from top to bottom. If she frees her hinder tarsi she remains snared by the front tarsi and has to begin all over again. I was doubting the possibility of her escape when, after a good quarter of an hour's struggle, she succeeded in extricating herself.
But, where the Gad-fly has got off, the Midge remains. The winged Aphis also remains, the Ant, the Mosquito and many another of the smaller insects. What does the plant do with its captures? Of what use are these trophies of corpses hanging by a leg or a wing? Does the vegetable bird-limer, with its sticky rings, derive advantage from these death-struggles? A Darwinian, remembering the carnivorous plants, would say yes. As for me, I don't believe a word of it. The Oporto silene is ringed with bands of gum. Why? I don't know. Insects are caught in these snares. Of what use are they to the plant? Why, none at all; and that's all about it. I leave to others, bolder than myself, the fantastic idea of taking these annular exudations for a digestive fluid which will reduce the captured Midges to soup and make them serve to feed the Silene. Only I warn them that the insects sticking to the plant do not dissolve into broth, but shrivel, quite uselessly, in the sun.
Let us return to the Tachytes, who is also a victim of the vegetable snare. With a sudden flight, a huntress arrives, carrying her drooping prey. She grazes the Silene's lime-twigs too closely. Behold the Mantis caught by the abdomen. For twenty minutes at least the Wasp, still on the wing, tugs at her, tugging again and again, to overcome the cause of the hitch and release the spoil. The hauling-method, a continuation of the flight, comes to nothing; and no other is attempted. At last the insect wearies and leaves the Mantis hanging to the Silene.
Now or never was the moment for the intervention of that tiny glimmer of reason which Darwin so generously grants to animals. Do not, if you please, confound reason with intelligence, as people are too prone to do. I deny the one; and the other is incontestable, within very modest limits. It was, I said, the moment to reason a little, to discover the cause of the hitch and to attack the difficulty at its source. For the Tachytes the matter was of the simplest. She had but to grab the body by the skin of the abdomen immediately above the spot caught by the glue and to pull it towards her, instead of persevering in her flight without releasing the neck. Simple though this mechanical problem was, the insect was unable to solve it, because she was not able to trace the effect back to the cause, because she did not even suspect that the stoppage had a cause.
Ants doting on sugar and accustomed to cross a foot-bridge in order to reach the warehouse are absolutely prevented from doing so when the bridge is interrupted by a slight gap. They would only need a few grains of sand to fill the void and restore the causeway. They do not for a moment dream of it, plucky navvies though they be, capable of raising miniature mountains of excavated soil. We can get them to give us an enormous cone of earth, an instinctive piece of work, but we shall never obtain the juxtaposition of three grains of sand, a reasoned piece of work. The Ant does not reason, any more than the Tachytes.
If you bring up a tame Fox and set his platter of food before him, this creature of a thousand tricks confines himself to tugging with all his might at the leash which keeps him a step or two from his dinner. He pulls as the Tachytes pulls, exhausts himself in futile efforts and then lies down, with his little eyes leering fixedly at the dish. Why does he not turn round? This would increase his radius; and he could reach then the food with his hind-foot and pull it towards him. The idea never occurs to him. Yet another animal deprived of reason.
Friend Bull, my Dog, is no better-endowed, despite his quality as a candidate for humanity. In our excursions through the woods, he happens to get caught by the paw in a wire snare set for rabbits. Like the Tachytes, he tugs at it obstinately and only pulls the noose tighter. I have to release him when he does not himself succeed in snapping the wire by his hard pulling. When he tries to leave the room, if the two leaves of the door are just ajar, he contents himself with pushing his muzzle, like a wedge, into the too narrow aperture. He moves forward, pushing in the direction which he wishes to take. His simple, dog-like method has one unfailing result: the two leaves of the door, when pushed, merely shut still closer. It would be easy for him to pull one of them towards him with his paw, which would make the passage wider; but this would be a movement backward, contrary to his natural impulse; and so he does not think of it. Yet another creature that does not reason.
The Tachytes, who stubbornly persists in tugging at her limed Mantis and refuses to acknowledge any other method of wresting her from the Silene's snare, shows us the Wasp in an unflattering light. What a very poor intellect! The insect becomes only the more wonderful, therefore, when we consider its supreme talent as an anatomist. Many a time I have insisted upon the incomprehensible wisdom of instinct; I do so again at the risk of repeating myself. An idea is like a nail: it is not to be driven in save by repeated blows. By hitting it again and again, I hope to make it enter the most rebellious brains. This time I shall attack the problem from the other end, that is, I shall first allow human knowledge to have its say and shall then interrogate the insect's knowledge.
The outward structure of the Praying Mantis would of itself be enough to teach us the arrangement of the nerve-centres which the Tachytes has to injure in order to paralyse its victim, which is destined to be devoured alive but harmless. A narrow and very long prothorax divides the front pair of legs from the two hinder pairs. There must therefore be an isolated ganglion in front and two ganglia, close to each other, about two-fifths of an inch back. Dissection confirms this forecast completely. It shows us three fairly bulky thoracic ganglia, arranged in the same manner as the legs. The first which actuates the fore-legs, is placed opposite their roots. It is the largest of the three. It is also the most important, for it presides over the insect's weapons, over the two powerful arms, toothed like saws and ending in harpoons. The other two, divided from the first by the whole length of the prothorax, each face the origin of the corresponding legs; consequently they are very near each other. Beyond them are the abdominal ganglia, which I pass over in silence, as the operating insect does not have to trouble about them. The movements of the belly are mere pulsations and are in no way dangerous.
Now let us do a little reasoning on behalf of our non-reasoning insect. The sacrificer is weak; the victim is comparatively powerful. Three strokes of the lancet must abolish all offensive movement. Where will the first stroke be delivered? In front is a real engine of warfare, a pair of powerful shears with toothed jaws. Let the fore-arm close upon the upper arm; and the imprudent insect, crushed between the two saw-blades, will be torn to pieces; wounded by the terminal hook, it will be eviscerated. This ferocious mechanism is the great danger; it is this that must be mastered at the outset, at the risk of life; the rest is less urgent. The first blow of the stylet, cautiously directed, is therefore aimed at the lethal fore-legs, which imperil the vivisector's own existence. Above all, there must be no hesitation. The blow must be accurate then and there, or the sacrificer will be caught in the vice and perish. The two other pairs of legs present no danger to the operator, who might neglect them if she had only her own security to think of; but the surgeon is operating with a view to the egg, which demands complete immobility in the provisions. Their centres of innervation will therefore be stabbed as well, with the leisure which the Mantis, now put out of action, permits. These legs, as well as their nervous centres, are situated very far behind the first point attacked. There is a long neutral interval, that of the prothorax, into which it is quite useless to drive the sting. This interval has to be crossed; by a backward movement conforming with the secrets of the victim's internal anatomy, the second ganglion must be reached and then its neighbour, the third. In short, the surgical operation may be formulated thus: a first stab of the lancet in front; a considerable movement to the rear, measuring about two-fifths of an inch; lastly, two lancet-thrusts at two points very close together. Thus speaks the science of man; thus counsels reason, guided by anatomical structure. Having said this much let us observe the insect's practice.
There is no difficulty about seeing the Tachytes operate in our presence; we have only to resort to the method of substitution, which has already done me so much service, that is, to deprive the huntress of her prey and at once to give her, in exchange, a living Mantis of about the same size. This substitution is impracticable with the majority of the Tachytes, who reach the threshold of their dwelling in a single flight and at once vanish underground with their game. A few of them, from time to time, harassed perhaps by their burden, chance to alight at a short distance from their burrow, or even drop their prey. I profit by these rare occasions to witness the tragedy.
The dispossessed Wasp recognizes instantly, from the proud bearing of the substituted Mantis, that she is no longer embracing and carrying off an inoffensive carcase. Her hovering, hitherto silent, develops a buzz, perhaps to overawe the victim; her flight becomes an extremely rapid oscillation, always behind the quarry. It is as who should say the quick movement of a pendulum swinging without a wire to hang from. The Mantis, however, lifts herself boldly upon her four hind-legs; she raises the fore-part of her body, opens, closes and again opens her shears and presents them threateningly at the enemy; using a privilege which no other insect shares, she turns her head this way and that, as we do when we look over our shoulders; she faces her assailant, ready to strike a return blow wheresoever the attack may come. It is the first time that I have witnessed such defensive daring. What will be the outcome of it all?
The Wasp continues to oscillate behind the Mantis, in order to avoid the formidable grappling-engine; then, suddenly, when she judges that the other is baffled by the rapidity of her manoeuvres, she hurls herself upon the insect's back, seizes its neck with her mandibles, winds her legs round its thorax and hastily delivers a first thrust of the sting, to the front, at the root of the lethal legs. Complete success! The deadly shears fall powerless. The operator then lets herself slip as she might slide down a pole, retreats along the Mantis' back and, going a trifle lower, less than a finger's breadth, she stops and paralyses, this time without hurrying herself, the two pairs of hind-legs. It is done: the patient lies motionless; only the tarsi quiver, twitching in their last convulsions. The sacrificer brushes her wings for a moment and polishes her antennae by passing them through her mouth, an habitual sign of tranquillity returning after the emotions of the conflict; she seizes the game by the neck, takes it in her legs and flies away with it.
What do you say to it all? Do not the scientist's theory and the insect's practice agree most admirably? Has not the animal accomplished to perfection what anatomy and physiology enabled us to foretell? Instinct, a gratuitous attribute, an unconscious inspiration, rivals knowledge, that most costly acquisition. What strikes me most is the sudden recoil after the first thrust of the sting. The Hairy Ammophila, operating on her caterpillar, likewise recoils, but progressively, from one segment to the next. Her deliberate surgery might receive a quasi-explanation if we ascribe it to a certain uniformity. With the Tachytes and the Mantis this paltry argument escapes us. Here are no lancet-pricks regularly distributed; on the contrary, the operating-method betrays a lack of symmetry which would be inconceivable, if the organization of the patient did not serve as a guide. The Tachytes therefore knows where her prey's nerve-centres lie; or, to speak more correctly, she behaves as though she knew.
This science which is unconscious of itself has not been acquired, by her and by her race, through experiments perfected from age to age and habits transmitted from one generation to the next. It is impossible, I am prepared to declare a hundred times, a thousand times over, it is absolutely impossible to experiment and to learn an art when you are lost if you do not succeed at the first attempt. Don't talk to me of atavism, of small successes increasing by inheritance, when the novice, if he misdirected his weapon, would be crushed in the trap of the two saws and fall a prey to the savage Mantis! The peaceable Locust, if missed, protests against the attack with a few kicks; the carnivorous Mantis, who is in the habit of feasting on Wasps far more powerful than the Tachytes, would protest by eating the bungler; the game would devour the hunter, an excellent catch. Mantis-paralysing is a most perilous trade and admits of no half-successes; you have to excel in it from the first, under pain of death. No, the surgical art of the Tachytes is not an acquired art. Whence then does it come, if not from the universal knowledge in which all things move and have their being!
What would happen if, in exchange for her Praying Mantis, I were to give the Tachytes a young Grasshopper? In rearing insects at home, I have already noted that the larvae put up very well with this diet; and I am surprised that the mother does not follow the example of the Tarsal Tachytes and provide her family with a skewerful of Locusts instead of the risky prey which she selects. The diet would be practically the same; and the terrible shears would no longer be a danger. With such a patient would her operating-method remain the same; should we again see a sudden recoil after the first stab under the neck; or would the vivisector modify her art in conformity with the unfamiliar nervous organization?
This second alternative is highly improbable. It would be nonsense to expect to see the paralyser vary the number and the distribution of the wounds according to the genus of the victim. Supremely skilled in the task that has fallen to its lot, the insect knows nothing further.
The first alternative seems to offer a certain chance and deserves a test. I offer the Tachytes, deprived of her Mantis, a small Grasshopper, whose hind-legs I amputate to prevent his leaping. The disabled Acridian jogs along the sand. The Wasp flies round him for a moment, casts a contemptuous glance upon the cripple and withdraws without attempting action. Let the prey offered be large or small, green or grey, short or long, rather like the Mantis or quite different, all my efforts miscarry. The Tachytes recognizes in an instant that this is no business of hers; this is not her family game; she goes off without even honouring my Grasshoppers with a peck of her mandibles.
This stubborn refusal is not due to gastronomical causes. I have stated that the larvae reared by my own hands feed on young Grasshoppers as readily as on young Mantes; they do not seem to perceive any difference between the two dishes; they thrive equally on the game chosen by me and that selected by the mother. If the mother sets no value on the Grasshopper, what then can be the reason of her refusal? I can see only one: this quarry, which is not hers, perhaps inspires her with fear, as any unknown thing might do; the ferocious Mantis does not alarm her, but the peaceable Grasshopper terrifies her. And then, if she were to overcome her apprehensions, she does not know how to master the Acridian and, above all, how to operate upon him. To every man his trade, to every Wasp her own way of wielding her sting. Modify the conditions ever so slightly; and these skilful paralysers are at an utter loss.
To every insect also its own art of fashioning the cocoon, an art which varies greatly, an art in which the larva displays all the resources of its instincts. The Tachytes, the Bembeces, the Stizi, the Palari and other burrowers build composite cocoons, hard as fruit-stones, formed of an encrustation of sand in a network of silk. We are already acquainted with the work of the Bembex. I will recall the fact that their larva first weaves a conical, horizontal bag of pure white silk, with wide meshes, held in place by interlaced threads which fix it to the walls of the cell. I have compared this bag, because of its shape, with a fishtrap. Without leaving this hammock, stretching its neck through the orifice, the worker gathers from without a little heap of sand, which it stores inside its workshop. Then, selecting the grains one by one, it encrusts them all around itself in the fabric of the bag and cements them with the fluid from its spinnerets, which hardens at once. When this task is finished, the house has still to be closed, for it has been wide open all this time to permit of the renewal of the store of sand as the heap inside becomes exhausted. For this purpose a cap of silk is woven across the opening and finally encrusted with the materials which the larva has retained at its disposal.
The Tachytes builds in quite another fashion, although its work, once finished, does not differ from that of the Bembex. The larva surrounds itself, to begin with, about the middle of its body with a silken girdle which a number of threads, very irregularly distributed, hold in place and connect with the walls of the cell. Sand is collected, within reach of the worker, on this general scaffolding. Then begins the work of minor masonry, with grains of sand for rubble and the secretion of the spinnerets for cement. The first course is laid upon the fore-edge of the suspensory ring. When the circle is completed, a second course of grains of sand, stuck together by the fluid silk, is raised upon the hardened edge of what has just been done. Thus the work proceeds, by ring-shaped courses, laid edge to edge, until the cocoon, having acquired half of its proper length, is rounded into a cap and finally is closed. The building-methods of the Tachytes-larva remind me of a mason constructing a round chimney, a narrow tower of which he occupies the centre. Turning on his own axis and using the materials placed to his hand, he encloses himself little by little in his sheath of masonry. In the same way the worker encloses itself in its mosaic. To build the second half of the cocoon, the larva turns round and builds in the same way on the other edge of the original ring. In about thirty-six hours the solid shell is completed.
I am rather interested to see the Bembex and the Tachytes, two workers in the same guild, employ such different methods to achieve the same result. The first begins by weaving an eel-trap of pure silk and next encrusts the grains of sand inside; the second, a bolder architect, is economical of the silk envelope, confines itself to a hanging girdle and builds course by course. The building-materials are the same: sand and silk; the surroundings amid which the two artisans work are the same: a cell in a soil of sandy gravel; yet each of the builders possesses its individual art, its own plan, its one method.
The nature of the food has no more effect upon the larva's talents than the environment in which it lives or the materials employed. The proof of this is furnished by Stiza ruficornis, another builder of cocoons in grains of sand cemented with silk. This sturdy Wasp digs her burrows in soft sandstone. Like the Mantis-killing Tachytes, she hunts the various Mantides of the countryside, consisting mainly of the Praying Mantis; only her large size requires them to be more fully developed, without however having attained the form and the dimensions of the adult. She places three to five of them in each cell.
In solidity and volume her cocoon rivals that of the largest Bembex; but it differs from it, at first sight, by a singular feature of which I know no other example. From the side of the shell, which is uniformly smoothed on every side, a rough knob protrudes, a little clod of sand stuck on to the rest. The work of Stizus ruficornis can at once be recognized, among all the other cocoons of a similar nature, by this protuberance.
Its origin will be explained by the method which the larva follows in constructing its strong-box. At the beginning, a conical bag is woven of pure white silk; you might take it for the initial eel-trap of the Bembeces, only this bag has two openings, a very wide one in front and another, very narrow one at the side. Through the front opening the Stizus provides itself with sand as and when it spends this material on encrusting the interior. This strengthens the cocoon; and the cap which closes it is made next. So far it is exactly like the work of the Bembex. We now have the worker enclosed, engaged in perfecting the inner wall. For these final touches a little more sand is needed. It obtains it from outside by means of the aperture which it has taken the precaution of contriving in the side of its building, a narrow dormer-window just large enough to allow its slender neck to pass. When the store has been taken in, this accessory orifice, which is used only during the last few moments, is closed with a mouthful of mortar, thrust outward from within. This forms the irregular nipple which projects from the side of the shell.
The Mud Dauber (Tachytes)
For the present I shall not expatiate further upon Stizus ruficornis, whose complete biography would be out of place in this chapter. I will limit myself to mentioning its method of constructing strong-boxes in order to compare it with that of the Bembex and above all with that of the Tachytes, a consumer, like itself, of Praying Mantes. From this parallel it seems to me to follow that the conditions of life in which men see to-day the origin of instincts — the type of food, the surroundings amid which the larval life is passed, the materials available for a defensive wrapper and other factors which the evolutionists are accustomed to invoke — have no actual influence upon the larva's industry. My three architects in glued sand, even when all the conditions, down to the nature of the provisions, are the same, adopt different means to execute an identical task. They are engineers who have not graduated from the same school, who have not been educated on the same principles, though the lesson of things is almost the same for all of them. The workshop, the work, the provisions have not determined the instinct. The instinct comes first; it lays down laws instead of being subject to them.
1. According to M. J. Perez, to whom I submitted the Wasp of which I am about to speak, this Tachytes might well be a new species, if it is not Lepelletier's T. tarsina or its equivalent, Panzer's T. unicolor. Any one wishing to clear up this point will always recognize the quarrelsome insect by its behaviour. A minute description seems useless to me in the type of investigation which I am pursuing. Back
2. The Mantis-hunting Tachytes was submitted to examination by M. J. Perez, who failed to recognize her. This species may well be new to our fauna. I confine myself to calling her the Mantis-killing Tachytes and leave to the specialists the task of adorning her with a Latin name, if it be really the fact that the Wasp is not yet catalogued. I will be brief in my delineation. To my thinking the best description is this: mantis-hunter. With this information it is impossible to mistake the insect, in my district of course. I may add that it is black, with the first two abdominal segments, the legs and the tarsi a rusty red. Clad in the same livery and much smaller than the female, the male is remarkable for his eyes, which are of a beautiful lemon-yellow when he is alive. The length is nearly half an inch for the female and a little more than half this for the male. Back
1. Locust or Grasshopper.
2. For the author's experiments with the Languedocian, the Yellow-winged and the White-edged Sphex, cf. „The Hunting Wasps“: chapter 11.
3. The harmas was the piece of enclosed waste land in which the author used to study his insects in their natural state. Cf. „The Life of the Fly,“ by J. Henri Fabre, translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos: chapter 1.
4. Cf. „The Life of the Grasshopper“: chapters 6 to 9.
5. „The Hunting Wasps“: chapters 4 to 6.
6. Pierre Andraeacute; Latreille (1762–1833), one of the founders of entomological science, a professor at the Mus?e d'histoire naturelle and member of the Acad?mie des sciences.
7. Cf. „The Life of the Grasshopper“: chapter 10.
8. Cf. idem: chapter 9.
9. Jacques Callot (1592–1635), the French engraver and painter, famous for the grotesque nature of his subjects.