Chapter X. The Gray Flesh Flies

Jean-Henri Fabre The Life of the Fly

Gray Flesh Fly

Grey Flesh Fly,(Sarcophaga)

Here the costume changes, not the manner of life. We find the same frequenting of dead bodies, the same capacity for the speedy liquefaction of the fleshy matter. I am speaking of an ash-gray fly, the greenbottle's su­perior in size, with brown streaks on her back and silver gleams on her abdomen. Note also the blood-red eyes, with the hard look of the knacker in them. The language of science knows her as Sarcophaga, the flesh eater; in the vulgar tongue she is the grey flesh fly, or simply the flesh fly.

Let not these expressions, however accurate, mislead us into believing for a moment that the Sarcophagae are the bold company of master tainters who haunt our dwellings, more particularly in autumn, and plant their vermin in our ill-guarded viands. The author of those offences is Calliphora vomitoria, the bluebottle, who is of a stouter build and arrayed in darkest blue. It is she who buzzes against our windowpanes, who craftily besieges the meat safe and who lies in wait in the darkness for an opportunity to outwit our vigilance. The other, the grey fly, works jointly with the greenbottles, who do not venture inside our houses and who work in the sunlight. Less timid, however, than they, should the outdoor yield be small, she will sometimes come indoors to perpetrate her villainies. When her business is done, she makes off as fast as she can, for she does not feel at home with us.

At this moment, my study, a very modest extension of my open air establishments, has become something of a charnel house. The grey fly pays me a visit. If I lay a piece of butcher's meat on the windowsill, she hastens up, works her will on it and retires. No hiding place escapes her notice among the jars, cups, glasses and receptacles of every kind with which my shelves are crowded.

With a view to certain experiments, I collected a heap of wasp grubs, asphyxiated in their underground nests. Stealthily she arrives, discovers the fat pile and, hailing as treasure trove this provender whereof her race perhaps has never made use before, entrusts to it an installment of her family. I have left at the bottom of a glass the best part of a hard-boiled egg from which I have taken a few bits of white intended for the greenbottle maggots. The grey fly takes possession of the remains, recks not of their novelty and colonizes them. Everything suits her that falls within the category of albuminous matters: everything, down to dead silkworms; everything, down to a mess of kidney-beans and chick-peas.

Nevertheless, her preference is for the corpse: furred beast and feathered beast, reptile and fish, indifferently. Together with the greenbottles, she is sedulous in her attendance on my pans. Daily she visits my snakes, takes note of the condition of each of them, savors them with her proboscis, goes away, comes back, takes her time and at last proceeds to business. Still, it is not here, amid the tumult of callers, that I propose to follow her operations. A lump of butcher's meat laid on the window sill, in front of my writing table, will be less offensive to the eye and will facilitate my observations.

Two flies of the genus Sarcophaga frequent my slaughter yard: Sarcophaga carnaria and Sarcophaga haemorrhoidalis, whose abdomen ends in a red speck. The first species, which is a little larger than the second, is more numerous and does the best part of the work in the open air shambles of the pans. It is this fly also who, at intervals and nearly always alone, hastens to the bait exposed on the windowsill.

She comes up suddenly, timidly. Soon she calms herself and no longer thinks of fleeing when I draw near, for the dish suits her. She is surprisingly quick about her work. Twice over — buzz! Buzz! — the tip of her abdomen touches the meat; and the thing is done: a group of vermin wriggles out, releases itself and disperses so nimbly that I have no time to take my lens and count then accurately. As seen by the naked eye, there were a dozen of them. What has become of them? One would think that they had gone into the flesh, at the very spot where they were laid, so quickly have they disappeared. But that dive into a substance of some consistency is impossible to these newborn weaklings. Where are they? I find them more or less everywhere in the creases of the meat; singly and already groping with their mouths. To collect them in order to number them is not practicable, for I do not want to damage them. Let us be satisfied with the estimate made at a rapid glance: there are a dozen or so, brought into the world in one discharge of almost inappreciable length.

Those live grubs, taking the place of the usual eggs, have long been known. Everybody is aware that the flesh flies bring forth living maggots, instead of laying eggs. They have so much to do and their work is so urgent! To them, the instruments of the transformation of dead matter, a day means a day, a long space of time which it is all important to utilize. The greenbottle's eggs, though these are of very rapid development, take twenty-four hours to yield their grubs. The flesh flies save all this time. From their matrix, laborers flow straightway and set to work the moment they are born. With these ardent pioneers of sanitation, there is no rest attendant upon the hatching, there is not a minute lost.

The gang, it is true, is not a numerous one; but how often can it not be renewed! Read R?aumur's des­cription of the wonderful procreating machinery boasted by the Flesh flies. It is a spiral ribbon, a velvety scroll whose nap is a sort of fleece of maggots set closely together and each cased in a sheath. The patient biographer counted the host: it numbers, he tells us, nearly twenty thousand. You are seized with stupefaction at this anatomical fact.

How does the gray fly find the time to settle a family of such dimensions, especially in small packets, as she has just done on my window sill? What a number of dead dogs, moles and snakes must she not visit before exhausting her womb! Will she find them? Corpses of much size do not abound to that extent in the country. As everything suits her, she will alight on other remains of minor importance. Should the prize be a rich one, she will return to it tomorrow, the day after and later still, over and over again. In the course of the season, by dint of packets of grubs deposited here, there and everywhere, she will perhaps end by housing her entire brood. But then, if all things prosper, what a glut, for there are several families born during the year! We feel it instinctively: there must be a check to these generative enormities.

Let us first consider the grub. It is a sturdy maggot, easy to distinguish from the greenbottle's by its larger girth and especially by the way in which its body terminates behind. There is here a sudden breaking off, hollowed into a deep cup. At the bottom of this crater are two breathing holes, two stigmata with amber-red tips. The edge of the cavity is fringed with half a score of pointed, fleshy festoons, which diverge like the spikes of a coronet. The creature can close or open this diadem at will by bringing the denticulations together or by spreading them out wide. This protects the air holes which might otherwise be choked up when the maggot disappears in the sea of broth. Asphyxia would supervene, if the two breathing holes at the back became obstructed. During the immersion, the festooned coronet shuts like a flower closing its petals and the liquid is not admitted to the cavity.

Next follows the emergence. The hind part reappears in the air, but appears alone, just at the level of the fluid. Then the coronet spreads out afresh, the cup gapes and assumes the aspect of a tiny flower, with the white denticulations for petals and the two bright red dots, the stigmata at the bottom, for stamens. When the grubs, pressed one against the other, with their heads downwards in the fetid soup, make an unbroken shoal, the sight of those breathing cups incessantly opening and closing, with a little clack like a valve, almost makes one forget the horrors of the charnel yard. It suggests a carpet of tiny Sea anemones. The maggot has its beauties after all.

It is obvious, if there be any logic in things, that a grub so well-protected against asphyxiation by drowning must frequent liquid surroundings. One does not encircle one's hindquarters with a coronet for the sole satisfaction of displaying it. With its apparatus of spokes, the Grey Fly's grub informs us of the dangerous nature of its functions: when working upon a corpse, it runs the risk of drowning. How is that? Remember the grubs of the greenbottle, fed on hard-boiled white of egg. The dish suits them; only, by the action of their pepsin, it becomes so fluid that they die submerged. Because of their hinder stigmata, which are actually on the skin and devoid of any defensive machinery, they perish when they find no support apart from the liquid.

The flesh fly's maggots, though incomparable liquefiers, know nothing of this peril, even in a puddle of carrion broth. Their bulky hind part serves as a float and keeps the air holes above the surface. When, for further investigation, they must needs go under completely, the anemone at the back shuts and protects the stigmata. The grubs of the gray fly are endowed with a life buoy because they are first class liquefiers, ready to incur the danger of a ducking at any moment.

When high and dry on the sheet of cardboard where I place them to observe them at my ease, they move about actively, with their breathing rose widespread and their stigmata rising and falling as a support. The cardboard is on my table, at three steps from an open window, and lit at this time of day only by the soft light of the sky. Well, the maggots, one and all of them, turn in the opposite direction to the window; they hastily, madly take to flight.

I turn the cardboard round, without touching the runaways. This action makes the creatures face the light again. Forthwith, the troop stops, hesitates, takes a half turn and once more retreats towards the darkness. Before the end of the racecourse is reached, I again turn the cardboard. For the second time, the maggots veer round and retrace their steps. Repeat the experiment as often as I will, each time the squad wheels about in the opposite direction to the window and persists in avoiding the trap of the revolving cardboard.

The track is only a short one: the cardboard measures three hand's breadths in length. Let us give more space. I settle the grubs on the floor of the room; with a hair pencil, I turn them with their heads pointing towards the lighted aperture. The moment they are free, they turn and run from the light. With all the speed whereof their cripple's shuffle allows, they cover the tiled floor of the study and go and knock their heads against the wall, twelve feet off, skirting it afterwards, some to the right and some to the left. They never feel far enough away from that hateful illuminated opening.

What they are escaping from is evidently the light, for, if I make it dark with a screen, the troop does not change its direction when I turn the cardboard. It then progresses quite readily towards the window; but, when I remove the screen, it turns tail at once.

That a grub destined to live in the darkness, under the shelter of a corpse, should avoid the light is only natural; the strange part is its very perception. The maggot is blind. Its pointed fore part, which we hesitate to call a head, bears absolutely no trace of any optical apparatus; and the same with every other part of the body. There is nothing but one bare, smooth, white skin. And this sightless creature, deprived of any special nervous points served by ocular power, is extremely sensitive to the light. Its whole skin is a sort of retina, incapable of seeing, of course, but able, at any rate, to distinguish between light and darkness. Under the direct rays of a searching sun, the grub's distress could be easily explained. We ourselves; with our coarse skin, in comparison with that of the maggot, can distinguish between sunshine and shadow without the help of the eyes. But, in the present case, the problem becomes singularly complicated. The subjects of my experiment receive only the diffused light of the sky, entering my study through an open window; yet this tempered light frightens them out of their senses. They flee the painful apparition; they are bent upon escaping at all costs.

Now what do the fugitives feel? Are they physically hurt by the chemical radiations? Are they exasperated by other radiations, known or unknown? Light still keeps many a secret hidden from us and perhaps our optical science, by studying the maggot, might become the richer by some valuable information. I would gladly have gone farther into the question, had I possessed the necessary apparatus. But I have not, I never have had and of course I never shall have the resources which are so useful to the seeker. These are reserved for the clever people who care more for lucrative posts than for fair truths. Let us continue, however, within the measure which the poverty of my means permits.

When duly fattened, the grubs of the flesh flies go underground to transform themselves into pupae. The burial is intended, obviously, to give the worm the tranquillity necessary for the metamorphosis. Let us add that another object of the descent is to avoid the importunities of the light. The maggot isolates itself to the best of its power and withdraws from the garish day before contracting into a little keg. In ordinary conditions, with a loose soil, it goes hardly lower than a hand's breadth down, for provision has to be made for the difficulties of the return to the surface when the insect, now full grown, is impeded by its delicate fly wings. The grub, therefore, deems itself suitably isolated at a moderate depth. Sideways, the layer that shields it from the light is of indefinite thickness; upwards, it measures about four inches. Behind this screen reigns utter darkness, the buried one's delight. This is capital.

What would happen if, by an artifice, the sideward layer were nowhere thick enough to satisfy the grub? Now, this time, I have the wherewithal to solve the problem, in the shape of a big glass tube, open at both ends, about three feet long and less than an inch wide. I use it to blow the flame of hydrogen in the little chemistry lessons which I give my children.

I close one end with a cork and fill the tube with fine, dry, sifted sand. On the surface of this long column, suspended perpendicularly in a corner of my study, I install some twenty Sarcophaga grubs, feeding them with meat. A similar preparation is repeated in a wider jar, with a mouth as broad as one's hand. When they are big enough, the grubs in either apparatus will go down to the depth that suits them. There is no more to be done but to leave them to their own devices.

The worms at last bury themselves and harden into pupae. This is the moment to consult the two apparatus. The jar gives me the answer which I should have obtained in the open fields. Four inches down, or thereabouts, the worms have found a quiet lodging, protected above by the layer through which they have passed and on every side by the thickness of the vessel's contents. Satisfied with the site, they have stopped there.

It is a very different matter in the tube. The least buried of the pupae are half a yard down. Others are lower still; most of them even have reached the bottom of the tube and are touching the cork stopper, an insuperable barrier. These last, we can see, would have gone yet deeper if the apparatus had allowed them. Not one of the score of grubs has settled at the customary halting place; all have traveled farther down the column, until their strength gave way. In their anxious flight, they have dug deeper and ever deeper.

What were they flying from? The light. Above them, the column traversed forms a more than sufficient shelter; but, at the sides, the irksome sensation is still felt through a coat of earth half an inch thick if the descent is made perpendicularly. To escape the disturbing impression, the grub therefore goes deeper and deeper, hoping to obtain lower down the rest which is denied it above. It only ceases to move when worn out with the effort or stopped by an obstacle.

Now, in a soft diffused light, what can be the radiations capable of acting upon this lover of darkness? They are certainly not the simple luminous rays, for a screen of fine, heaped up earth, nearly half an inch in thickness, is perfectly opaque. Then, to alarm the grub, to warn it of the over proximity of the exterior and send it to mad depths in search of isolation, other radiations, known or unknown, must be required, radiations capable of penetrating a screen against which ordinary radiations are powerless. Who knows what vistas the natural philosophy of the maggot might open out to us? For lack of apparatus, I confine myself to suspicions.

To go underground to a yard's depth — and farther if my tube had allowed it — is on the part of the Flesh fly's grub a vagary provoked by unkind experiment: never would it bury itself so low down, if left to its own wisdom. A hand's breadth thickness is quite enough, is even a great deal when, after completing the transformation, it has to climb back to the surface, a laborious operation absolutely resembling the task of an entombed well sinker. It will have to fight against the sand that slips and gradually fills up the small amount of empty space obtained; it will perhaps, without crowbar or pickaxe, have to cut itself a gallery through something tantamount to tufa, that is to say, through earth which a shower has rendered compact. For the descent, the grub has its fangs; for the assent, the fly has nothing. Only that moment come into existence, she is a weakling, with tissues still devoid of any firmness. How does she manage to get out? We shall know by watching a few pupae placed at the bottom of a test-tube filled with earth. The method of the Flesh flies will teach us that of the greenbottles and the other Flies, all of whom make use of the same means.

Enclosed in her pupa, the nascent fly begins by bursting the lid of her casket with a hernia which comes between her two eyes and doubles or trebles the size of her head. This cephalic blister throbs: it swells and subsides by turns, owing to the alternate flux and reflux of the blood. It is like the piston of an hydraulic press opening and forcing back the front part of the keg.

The head makes its appearance. The hydrocephalous monster continues the play of her forehead, while herself remaining stationary. Inside the pupa, a delicate work is being performed: the casting of the white nymphal tunic. All through this operation, the hernia is still projecting. The head is not the head of a fly, but a queer, enormous mitre, spreading at the base into two red skull caps, which are the eyes. To split her cranium in the middle, shunt the two halves to the right and left and send surging through the gap a tumor which staves the barrel with its pressure: this constitutes the Fly's eccentric method.

For what reason does the hernia, once the keg is staved, continue swollen and projecting? I take it to be a waste pocket into which the insect momentarily forces back its reserves of blood in order to diminish the bulk of the body to that extent and to extract it more easily from the nymphal slough and afterwards from the narrow channel of the shell. As long as the operation of the release lasts, it pushes outside all that it is able to inject of its accumulated humors; it makes itself small inside the pupa and swells into a bloated deformity without. Two hours and more are spent in this laborious stripping.

At last, the fly comes into view. The wings, mere scanty stumps, hardly reach the middle of the abdomen. On the outer edge, they have a deep notch similar to the waist of a violin. This diminishes by just so much the surface and the length, an excellent device for decreasing the friction along the earthy column which has next to be scaled. The hydrocephalous one resumes her performance more vigorously than ever; she inflates and deflates her frontal knob. The pounded sand rustles down the insect's sides. The legs play but a secondary part. Stretched behind, motionless, when the piston stroke is delivered, they furnish a support. As the sand descends, they pile it and nimbly push it back, after which they drag along lifelessly until the next avalanche. The head advances each time by a length equal to that of the sand displaced. Each stroke of the frontal swelling means a step forward. In a dry, loose soil, things go pretty fast. A column six inches high is traversed in less than a quarter of an hour.

As soon as it reaches the surface, the insect, covered with dust, proceeds to make its toilet. It thrusts out the blister of its forehead for the last time and brushes it carefully with its front tarsi. It is important that the little pounding engine should be carefully dusted before it is taken inside to form a forehead that will open no more: this lest any grit should lodge in the head. The wings are carefully brushed and polished; they lose their curved notches; they lengthen and spread. Then, motionless on the surface of the sand, the fly matures fully. Let us set her at liberty. She will go and join the others on the Snakes in my pans.


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