Chapter IX. The Greenbottles

Jean-Henri Fabre The Life of the Fly

Green bottle fly

The Greenbottle Fly

I have wished for a few things in my life, none of them capable of interfering with the common weal. I have longed to possess a pond, screened from the indiscretion of the passers by, close to my house, with clumps of rushes and patches of duckweed. Here, in my leisure hours, in the shade of a willow, I should have meditated upon aquatic life, a primitive life, easier than our own, simpler in its affections and its brutalities. I should have watched the unalloyed happiness of the mollusk, the frolics of the Whirligig, the figure-skating of the Hydrometra (1), the dives of the Dytiscus beetle, the veering and tacking of the Notonecta (2), who, lying on her back, rows with two long oars, while her short forelegs, folded against her chest, wait to grab the coming prey. I should have studied the eggs of the Planorbis, a glairy nebula wherein focuses of life are condensed even as suns are condensed in the nebulae of the heavens. I should have admired the nascent creature that turns, slowly turns in the orb of its egg and describes a volute, the draft, perhaps, of the future shell. No planet circles round its center of attraction with greater geometrical accuracy.

I should have brought back a few ideas from my frequent visits to the pond. Fate decided otherwise: I was not to have my sheet of water. I have tried the artificial pond, between four panes of glass. A poor shift! Our laboratory aquariums are not even equal to the print left in the mud by a mule's hoof, when once a shower has filled the humble basin and life has stocked it with its marvels.

In spring, with the hawthorn in flower and the crickets at their concerts, a second wish often came to me. Along the road, I light upon a dead mole, a snake killed with a stone, victims both of human folly. The mole was draining the soil and purging it of its vermin. Finding him under his spade, the laborer broke his back for him and flung him over the hedge. The snake, roused from her slumber by the soft warmth of April, was coming into the sun to shed her skin and take on a new one. Man catches sight of her: ‚Ah, would you? ' says he. 'See me do something for which the world will thank me!‘

And the harmless beast, our auxiliary in the terrible battle which husbandry wages against the insect, has its head smashed in and dies.

The two corpses, already decomposing, have begun to smell. Whoever approaches with eyes that do not see turns away his head and passes on. The observer stops and lifts the remains with his foot; he looks. A world is swarming underneath; life is eagerly consuming the dead. Let us replace matters as they were and leave death's artisans to their task. They are engaged in a most deserving work.

To know the habits of those creatures charged with the disappearance of corpses, to see them busy at their work of disintegration, to follow in detail the process of transmutation that makes the ruins of what has lived return apace into life's treasure house: these are things that long haunted my mind. I regretfully left the mole lying in the dust of the road. I had to go, after a glance at the corpse and its harvesters. It was not the place for philosophizing over a stench. What would people say who passed and saw me!

And what will the reader himself say, if I invite him to that sight? Surely, to busy one's self with those squalid sextons means soiling one's eyes and mind? Not so, if you please! Within the domain of our restless curiosity, two questions stand out above all others: the question of the beginning and the question of the end. How does matter unite in order to assume life? How does it separate when returning to inertia? The pond, with its Planorbis eggs turning round and round, would have given us a few data for the first problem; the Mole, going bad under conditions not too repulsive, will tell us something about the second: he will show us the working of the crucible wherein all things are melted to begin anew. A truce to nice delicacy! Odi profanum vulgus et arceo; hence, ye profane: you would not understand the mighty lesson of the rag tank.

I am now in a position to realize my second wish. I have space, air and quiet in the solitude of the harmas. None will come here to trouble me, to smile or to be shocked at my investigations. So far, so good; but observe the irony of things: now that I am rid of passers by, I have to fear my cats, those assiduous prowlers, who, finding my preparations, will not fail to spoil and scatter them. In anticipation of their misdeeds, I establish workshops in midair, whither none but genuine corruption agents can come, flying on their wings. At different points in the enclosure, I plant reeds, three by three, which, tied at their free ends, form a stable tripod. From each of these supports, I hang, at a man's height, an earthenware pan filled with fine sand and pierced at the bottom with a hole to allow the water to escape, if it should rain. I garnish my apparatus with dead bodies. The snake, the lizard, the toad receive the preference, because of their bare skins, which enable me better to follow the first attack and the work of the invaders. I ring the changes with furred and feathered beasts. A few children of the neighborhood, allured by pennies, are my regular purveyors. Throughout the good season, they come running triumphantly to my door, with a snake at the end of a stick, or a lizard in a cabbage leaf. They bring me the rat caught in a trap, the chicken dead of the pip, the mole slain by the gardener, the kitten killed by accident, the rabbit poisoned by some weed. The business proceeds to the mutual satisfaction of sellers and buyer. No such trade had ever been known before in the village nor ever will be again.

April ends; and the pans rapidly fill. An ant, ever so small, is the first arrival. I thought I should keep this intruder off by hanging my apparatus high above the ground: she laughs at my precautions. A few hours after the deposit of the morsel, fresh still and possessing no appreciable smell, up comes the eager picker-up of trifles, scales the stems of the tripod in processions and starts the work of dissection. If the joint suits her, she even goes to live in the sand of the pan and digs herself temporary platforms in order to work the rich find more at her ease.

All through the season, from start to finish, she will always be the promptest, always the first to discover the dead animal, always the last to beat a retreat when nothing more remains than a heap of little bones bleached by the sun. How does the vagabond, passing at a distance, know that, up there, invisible, high on the gibbet, there is something worth going for? The others, the real knackers, wait for the meat to go bad; they are informed by the strength of the effluvia. The ant, gifted with greater powers of scent, hurries up before there is any stench at all. But, when the meat, now two days old and ripened by the sun, exhales its flavor, soon the master ghouls appear upon the scene: Dermestes (3) and Saprini (4), Silphae (5) carrion beetles and Necrophori (6), flies and Staphylini (7), who attack the corpse, consume it and reduce it almost to nothing. With the ant alone, who each time carries off a mere atom, the sanitary operation would take too long; with them, it is a quick business, especially as certain of them understand the process of chemical solvents.

These last, who are high class scavengers, are entitled to first mention. They are flies, of many various species. If time permitted, each of those strenuous ones would deserve a special examination; but that would weary the patience of both the reader and the observer. The habits of one will give us a summary notion of the habits of the rest. We will therefore confine ourselves to the two principal subjects, namely, the Luciliae, or greenbottles, and the Sarcophagae, or grey flesh flies.

The Luciliae — flies that glitter — are magnificent flies known to all of us. Their metallic luster, generally a golden green, rivals that of our finest beetles, the Rosechafers, Buprestes and leaf beetles. It gives one a shock of surprise to see so rich a garb adorn those workers in putrefaction. Three species frequent my pans: Lucilia Caesar, LIN., L. cadaverina, LIN., and L. cuprea, ROB. The first two, both of whom are gold-green, are plentiful; the third, who sports a coppery luster, is rare. All three have red eyes, set in a silver border.

Lucilia Caesar is larger than L. cadaverina and also more forward in her business. I catch her in labor on the 23rd of April. She has settled in the spinal canal of a neck of mutton and is laying her eggs on the marrow. For more than an hour, motionless in the gloomy cavity, she goes on packing her eggs. I can just see her red eyes and her silvery face. At last, she comes out. I gather the fruit of her labor, an easy matter, for it all lies on the marrow, which I extract without touching the eggs.

A census would seem important. To take it at once is impracticable: the germs form a compact mass, which would be difficult to count. The best thing is to rear the family in a jar and to reckon by the pupae buried in the sand. I find a hundred and fifty-seven. This is evidently but a minimum; for Lucilia Caesar and the others, as the observations that follow will tell me, lay in packets at repeated intervals. It is a magnificent family, promising a fabulous legion to come.

The greenbottles, I was saying, break up their laying into sections. The following scene affords a proof of this. A Mole, shrunk by a few days' evaporation, lies spread upon the sand of the pan. At one point, the edge of the belly is raised and forms a deep arch. Remark that the Greenbottles, like the rest of the flesh eating flies, do not trust their eggs to uncovered surfaces, where the heat of the sun's rays might endanger the existence of the delicate germs. They want dark hiding places. The favorite spot is the lower side of the dead animal, when this is accessible.

In the present case, the only place of access is the fold formed by the edge of the belly. It is here and here alone that this day's mothers are laying. There are eight of them. After exploring the piece and recognizing its good quality, they disappear under the arch, first this one, then that, or else several at a time. They remain under the Mole for a considerable while. Those outside wait, but go repeatedly to the threshold of the cavern to take a look at what is happening within and see whether the earlier ones have finished. These come out at last, perch on the animal and wait in their turn. Others at once take their place in the recesses of the cave. They remain there for some time and then, having done their business, make room for more mothers and come forth into the sunlight. This going in and out continues throughout the morning.

We thus learn that the laying is effected by periodical emissions, broken with intervals of rest. As long as she does not feel ripe eggs coming to her oviduct, the greenbottle remains in the sun, hovering to and fro and sipping modest mouthfuls from the carcass. But, as soon as a fresh stream descends from her ovaries, quick as lightning she makes for a propitious site whereon to deposit her burden. It appears to be the work of several days thus to divide the total laying and to distribute it at different points.

I carefully raise the animal under which these things are happening. The egg laying mothers do not disturb themselves; they are far too busy. Their ovipositor extended telescope fashion, they heap egg upon egg. With the point of their hesitating, groping instrument, they try to lodge each germ, as it comes, farther into the mass. Around the serious, red-eyed matrons, the Ants circle, intent on pillage. Many of them make off with a greenbottle egg between their teeth. I see some who, greatly daring, effect their theft under the ovipositor itself. The layers do not put themselves out, let the ants have their way, remain impassive. They know their womb to be rich enough to make good any such larceny.

Indeed, what escapes the depredations of the ants promises a plenteous brood. Let us come back a few days later and lift the mole again. Underneath, in a pool of sanies, is a surging mass of swarming sterns and pointed heads, which emerge, wriggle and dive in again. It suggests a seething billow. It turns one's stomach. It is horrible, most horrible. Let us steel ourselves against the sight: it will be worse elsewhere.

Here is a fat snake. Rolled into a compact whorl, she fills the whole pan. The greenbottles are plentiful. New ones arrive at every moment and, without quarrel or strife, take their place among the others, busily laying. The spiral furrow left by the reptile's curves is the favorite spot. Here alone, in the narrow space between the folds, are shelters against the heat of the sun. The glistening Flies take their places, side by side, in rows; they strive to push their abdomen and their ovipositor as far forward as possible, at the risk of rumpling their wings and cocking them towards their heads. The care of the person is neglected amid this serious business. Placidly, with their red eyes turned outwards, they form a continuous cordon. Here and there, at intervals, the rank is broken; layers leave their posts, come and walk about upon the snake, what time their ovaries ripen for another emission, and then hurry back, slip into the rank and resume the flow of germs. Despite these interruptions, the work of breeding goes fast. In the course of one morning, the depths of the spiral furrow are hung with a continuous white bark, the heaped up eggs. They come off in great slabs, free of any stain; they can be shoveled up, as it were, with a paper scoop. It is a propitious moment if we wish to follow the evolution at close quarters. I therefore gather a profusion of this white manna and lodge it in glass tubes, test tubes and jars, with the necessary provisions.

The eggs, about a millimeter long, are smooth cylinders, rounded at both ends. They hatch within twenty-four hours. The first question that presents itself is this: how do the greenbottle grubs feed? I know quite well what to give them, but I do not in the least see how they manage to consume it. Do they eat, in the strict sense of the word? I have reasons to doubt it.

Let us consider the grub grown to a sufficient size. It is the usual fly larva, the common maggot, shaped like an elongated cone, pointed in front, truncated behind, where two little red spots show, level with the skin: these are the breathing holes. The front, which is called the head by stretching a word — for it is little more than the entrance to an intestine — the front is armed with two little black hooks, which slide in a translucent sheath, project a little way outside and go in turn by turn. Are we to look upon these as mandibles? Not at all, for, instead of having their points facing each other, as would be required in a real mandibular apparatus, the two hooks work in parallel directions and never meet. What they are is ambulatory organs, grapnels assisting locomotion, which give a purchase on the plane and enable the animal to advance by means of repeated contractions. The maggot walks with the aid of what a superficial examination would pronounce to be a machine for eating. It carries in its gullet the equivalent of the climber's alpen­stock.

Let us hold it, on a piece of flesh, under the lens. We shall see it walking about, raising and lowering its head and, each time, stabbing the meat with its pair of hooks. When stationary, with its crupper at rest, it explores space with a continual bending of its fore part; its pointed head pokes about, jabs forward, goes back again, producing and withdrawing its black mechanism. There is a perpetual piston play. Well, look as carefully and conscientiously as I please, I do not once see the weapons of the mouth tackle a particle of flesh that is torn away and swallowed. The hooks come down upon the meat at every moment, but never take a visible mouthful from it. Nevertheless, the grub waxes big and fat. How does this singular consumer, who feeds without eating, set about it? If he does not eat, he must drink; his diet is soup. As meat is a compact substance, which does not liquefy of its own accord, there must, in that case, be a certain recipe to dissolve it into a fluid broth. Let us try to surprise the maggot's secret.

In a glass tube, sealed at one end, I insert a piece of lean flesh, the size of a walnut, which I have drained of its juices by squeezing it in blotting paper. On the top of this, I place a few slabs of greenbottle eggs collected a moment ago from the snake in my earthen pan. The number of germs is, roughly, two hundred. I close the tube with a cotton plug, stand it upright, in a shady corner of my study, and leave things to take their course. A control tube, prepared like the first, but not stocked with maggots, is placed beside it.

As early as two or three days after the hatching, I obtain a striking result. The meat, which was thoroughly drained by the blotting paper, has become so moist that the young vermin leave a wet mark behind them as they crawl over the glass. The swarming brood creates a sort of mist with the crossing and criss-crossing of its trails. The control tube, on the contrary, keeps dry, proving that the moisture in which the worms move is not due to a mere exudation from the meat.

Besides, the work of the maggot becomes more and more evident. Gradually, the flesh flows in every direction like an icicle placed before the fire. Soon, the liquefaction is complete. What we see is no longer meat, but fluid Liebig's extract. If I overturned the tube, not a drop of it would remain.

Let us clear our minds of any idea of solution by putrefaction, for in the second tube a piece of meat of the same kind and size has remained, save for color and smell, what it was at the start. It was a lump and it is a lump, whereas the piece treated by the worms runs like melted butter. Here we have maggot chemistry able to rouse the envy of physiologists when studying the action of the gastric juice.

I obtain better results still with hard-boiled white of egg. When cut into pieces the size of a hazel nut and handed over to the greenbottle's grub­s, the coagulated albumen dissolves into a colorless liquid which the eye might mistake for water. The fluidity becomes so great that, for lack of a support, the worms perish by drowning in the broth; they are suffocated by the immersion of their hind part, with its open breathing holes. On a denser liquid, they would have kept at the surface; on this, they cannot.

A control tube, filled in the same way, but not colonized, stands beside that in which the strange liquefaction takes place. The hardboiled white of egg retains its original appearance and consistency. In course of time, it dries up, if it does not turn moldy; and that is all.

The other quaternary compounds performing the same functions as albumen — the gluten of cereals, the fibrin of blood, the casein of cheese and the legumin of chickpeas — undergo a similar modification, in varying degrees. Fed, from the moment of leaving the egg, on any one of these substances, the worms thrive very well, provided that they escape drowning when the gruel becomes too clear; they would not fare better on a corpse. And, as a general rule, there is not much danger of going under: the matter only half liquefies; it becomes a running pea soup, rather than an actual fluid.

Even in this imperfect case, it is obvious that the greenbottle grubs begin by liquefying their food. Incapable of taking solid nourishment, they first transform the spoil into running matter; then, dipping their heads into the product, they drink, they slake their thirst, with long sups. Their dissolvent, comparable in its effects with the gastric juice of the higher animals, is, beyond a doubt, emitted through the mouth. The piston of the hooks, continually in movement, never ceases spitting it out in infinitesimal doses. Each spot touched receives a grain of some subtle pepsin, which soon suffices to make that spot run in every direction. As digesting, when all is said, merely means liquefying, it is no paradox to assert that the maggot digests its food before swallowing it.

These experiments with my filthy, evil smelling tubes have given me some delightful moments. The worthy Abbe Spallanzani must have known some such when he saw pieces of raw meat begin to run under the action of the gastric juice which he took, with pellets of sponge, from the stomachs of crows. He discovered the secrets of digestion; he realized in a glass tube the hitherto unknown labors of gastric chemistry. I, his distant disciple, behold once more, under a most unexpected aspect, what struck the Italian scientist so forcibly. Worms take the place of the crows. They slaver upon meat, gluten, albumen; and those substances turn to fluid. What our stomach does within its mysterious recesses the maggot achieves outside, in the open air. It first digests and then imbibes.

When we see it plunging into the carrion broth, we even wonder if it cannot feed itself, at least to some extent, in a more direct fashion. Why should not its skin, which is one of the most delicate, be capable of absorbing? I have seen the egg of the sacred beetle and other dung beetles growing considerably larger — I should like to say, feeding — in the thick atmosphere of the hatching chamber. Nothing tells us that the grub of the greenbottle does not adopt this method of growing. I picture it capable of feeding all over the surface of its body. To the gruel absorbed by the mouth it adds the balance of what is gathered and strained through the skin. This would explain the need for provisions liquefied beforehand.

Let us give one last proof of this preliminary liquefaction. If the carcass — mole, snake or another — left in the open air have a wire gauze cover placed over it, to keep out the flies, the game dries under a hot sun and shrivels up without appreciably wetting the sand on which it lies. Fluids come from it, certainly, for every organized body is a sponge swollen with water; but the liquid discharge is so slow and restricted in quantity that the heat and the dryness of the air disperse it as it appears, while the underlying sand remains dry, or very nearly so. The carcass becomes a sapless mummy, a mere bit of leather. On the other hand, do not use the wire gauze cover, let the flies do their work unimpeded; and things forthwith assume another aspect. In three or four days, an oozing sanies appears under the animal and soaks the sand to some distance.

I shall never forget the striking spectacle with which I conclude this chapter. This time, the dish is a magnificent Aesculapius' snake, a yard and a half long and as thick as a wide bottleneck. Because of its size, which exceeds the dimensions of my pan, I roll the reptile in a double spiral, or in two storeys. When the copious joint is in full process of dissolution, the pan becomes a puddle wherein wallow, in countless numbers, the grubs of the greenbottle and those of Sarcophaga carnaria, the Grey or checkered flesh fly, which are even mightier liquefiers. All the sand in the apparatus is saturated, has turned into mud, as though there had been a shower of rain. Through the hole at the bottom, which is protected by a flat pebble, the gruel trickles drop by drop. It is a still at work, a mortuary still, in which the Snake is being drawn off. Wait a week or two; and the whole will have disappeared, drunk up by the sun: naught but the scales and bones will remain on a sheet of mud.

To conclude: the maggot is a power in this world. To give back to life, with all speed, the remains of that which has lived, it macerates and condenses corpses, distilling them into an essence wherewith the earth, the plant's foster mother, may be nourished and enriched.

Translator's No­tes:

1. A water bug known as the Pond skater.

2. The water boatman.

3. Bacon beetles, small flesh-eating beetles.

4. Exceedingly small flesh-eating beetles.

5. Carrion beetles

6. Burying beetles.

7. rove beetles


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