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THE GOLDEN GARDENER - COURTSHIP




It is generally recognized that the Carabus auratus is an active
exterminator of caterpillars; on this account in particular it deserves
its title of Gardener Beetle; it is the vigilant policeman of our
kitchen-gardens, our flower-beds and herbaceous borders. If my inquiries
add nothing to its established reputation in this respect, they will
nevertheless, in the following pages, show the insect in a light as yet
unsuspected. The ferocious beast of prey, the ogre who devours all
creatures that are not too strong for him, is himself killed and eaten:
by his fellows, and by many others.

Standing one day in the shadow of the plane-trees that grow before my
door, I see a Golden Gardener go by as if on pressing business. The
pilgrim is well met; he will go to swell the contents of my vivarium. In
capturing him I notice that the extremities of the wing-covers are
slightly damaged. Is this the result of a struggle between rivals? There
is nothing to tell me. The essential thing is that the insect should not
be handicapped by any serious injury. Inspected, and found to be without
any serious wound and fit for service, it is introduced into the glass
dwelling of its twenty-five future companions.

Next day I look for the new inmate. It is dead. Its comrades have
attacked it during the night and have cleaned out its abdomen,
insufficiently protected by the damaged wing-covers. The operation has
been performed very cleanly, without any dismemberment. Claws, head,
corselet, all are correctly in place; the abdomen only has a gaping
wound through which its contents have been removed. What remains is a
kind of golden shell, formed of the two conjoined elytra. The shell of
an oyster emptied of its inmate is not more empty.

This result astonishes me, for I have taken good care that the cage
should never be long without food. The snail, the pine-cockchafer, the
Praying Mantis, the lob-worm, the caterpillar, and other favourite
insects, have all been given in alternation and in sufficient
quantities. In devouring a brother whose damaged armour lent itself to
any easy attack my beetles had not the excuse of hunger.

Is it their custom to kill the wounded and to eviscerate such of their
fellows as suffer damage? Pity is unknown among insects. At the sight of
the desperate struggles of a crippled fellow-creature none of the same
family will cry a halt, none will attempt to come to its aid. Among the
carnivorous insects the matter may develop to a tragic termination. With
them, the passers-by will often run to the cripple. But do they do so in
order to help it? By no means: merely to taste its flesh, and, if they
find it agreeable, to perform the most radical cure of its ills by
devouring it.

It is possible, therefore, that the Gardener with the injured
wing-covers had tempted his fellows by the sight of his imperfectly
covered back. They saw in their defenceless comrade a permissible
subject for dissection. But do they respect one another when there is no
previous wound? At first there was every appearance that their relations
were perfectly pacific. During their sanguinary meals there is never a
scuffle between the feasters; nothing but mere mouth-to-mouth thefts.
There are no quarrels during the long siestas in the shelter of the
board. Half buried in the cool earth, my twenty-five subjects slumber
and digest their food in peace; they lie sociably near one another, each
in his little trench. If I raise the plank they awake and are off,
running hither and thither, constantly encountering one another without
hostilities.

The profoundest peace is reigning, and to all appearances will last for
ever, when in the early days of June I find a dead Gardener. Its limbs
are intact; it is reduced to the condition of a mere golden husk; like
the defenceless beetle I have already spoken of, it is as empty as an
oyster-shell. Let us examine the remains. All is intact, save the huge
breach in the abdomen. So the insect was sound and unhurt when the
others attacked it.

A few days pass, and another Gardener is killed and dealt with as
before, with no disorder in the component pieces of its armour. Let us
place the dead insect on its belly; it is to all appearances untouched.
Place it on its back; it is hollow, and has no trace of flesh left
beneath its carapace. A little later, and I find another empty relic;
then another, and yet another, until the population of my menagerie is
rapidly shrinking. If this insensate massacre continues I shall soon
find my cage depopulated.

Are my beetles hoary with age? Do they die a natural death, and do the
survivors then clean out the bodies? Or is the population being reduced
at the expense of sound and healthy insects? It is not easy to elucidate
the matter, since the atrocities are commonly perpetrated in the night.
But, finally, with vigilance, on two occasions, I surprise the beetles
at their work in the light of day.

Towards the middle of June a female attacks a male before my eyes. The
male is recognisable by his slightly smaller size. The operation
commences. Raising the ends of the wing-covers, the assailant seizes her
victim by the extremity of the abdomen, from the dorsal side. She pulls
at him furiously, eagerly munching with her mandibles. The victim, who
is in the prime of life, does not defend himself, nor turn upon his
assailant. He pulls his hardest in the opposite direction to free
himself from those terrible fangs; he advances and recoils as he is
overpowered by or overpowers the assassin; and there his resistance
ends. The struggle lasts a quarter of an hour. Other beetles, passing
by, call a halt, and seem to say "My turn next!" Finally, redoubling his
efforts, the male frees himself and flies. If he had not succeeded in
escaping the ferocious female would undoubtedly have eviscerated him.

A few days later I witness a similar scene, but this time the tragedy is
played to the end. Once more it is a female who seizes a male from
behind. With no other protest except his futile efforts to escape, the
victim is forced to submit. The skin finally yields; the wound
enlarges, and the viscera are removed and devoured by the matron, who
empties the carapace, her head buried in the body of her late companion.
The legs of the miserable victim tremble, announcing the end. The
murderess takes no notice; she continues to rummage as far as she can
reach for the narrowing of the thorax. Nothing is left but the closed
boat-shaped wing-covers and the fore parts of the body. The empty shell
is left lying on the scene of the tragedy.

In this way must have perished the beetles--always males--whose remains
I find in the cage from time to time; thus the survivors also will
perish. Between the middle of June and the 1st of August the inhabitants
of the cage, twenty-five in number at the outset, are reduced to five,
all of whom are females. All the males, to the number of twenty, have
disappeared, eviscerated and completely emptied. And by whom? Apparently
by the females.

That this is the case is attested in the first place by the two assaults
of which I was perchance the witness; on two occasions, in broad
daylight, I saw the female devouring the male, having opened the abdomen
under the wing-covers, or having at least attempted to do so. As for the
rest of the massacres, although direct observation was lacking, I had
one very valuable piece of evidence. As we have seen, the victim does
not retaliate, does not defend himself, but simply tries to escape by
pulling himself away.

If it were a matter of an ordinary fight, a conflict such as might arise
in the struggle for life, the creature attacked would obviously
retaliate, since he is perfectly well able to do so; in an ordinary
conflict he would meet force by force, and return bite for bite. His
strength would enable him to come well out of a struggle, but the
foolish creature allows himself to be devoured without retaliating. It
seems as though an invincible repugnance prevents him from offering
resistance and in turn devouring the devourer. This tolerance reminds
one of the scorpion of Languedoc, which on the termination of the
hymeneal rites allows the female to devour him without attempting to
employ his weapon, the venomous dagger which would form a formidable
defence; it reminds us also of the male of the Praying Mantis, which
still embraces the female though reduced to a headless trunk, while the
latter devours him by small mouthfuls, with no rebellion or defence on
his part. There are other examples of hymeneal rites to which the male
offers no resistance.

The males of my menagerie of Gardeners, one and all eviscerated, speak
of similar customs. They are the victims of the females when the latter
have no further use for them. For four months, from April to August, the
insects pair off continually; sometimes tentatively, but usually the
mating is effective. The business of mating is all but endless for these
fiery spirits.

The Gardener is prompt and businesslike in his affairs of the heart. In
the midst of the crowd, with no preliminary courtship, the male throws
himself upon the female. The female thus embraced raises her head a
trifle as a sign of acquiescence, while the cavalier beats the back of
her neck with his antennae. The embrace is brief, and they abruptly
separate; after a little refreshment the two parties are ready for other
adventures, and yet others, so long as there are males available. After
the feast, a brief and primitive wooing; after the wooing, the feast; in
such delights the life of the Gardener passes.

The females of my collection were in no proper ratio to the number of
aspiring lovers; there were five females to twenty males. No matter;
there was no rivalry, no hustling; all went peacefully and sooner or
later each was satisfied.

I should have preferred a better proportioned assembly. Chance, not
choice, had given me that at my disposal. In the early spring I had
collected all the Gardeners I could find under the stones of the
neighbourhood, without distinguishing the sexes, for they are not easy
to recognise merely by external characteristics. Later on I learned by
watching them that a slight excess of size was the distinctive sign of
the female. My menagerie, so ill-proportioned in the matter of sex, was
therefore the result of chance. I do not suppose this preponderance of
males exists in natural conditions. On the other hand, one never sees
such numerous groups at liberty, in the shelter of the same stone. The
Gardener lives an almost solitary life; it is rarely that one finds two
or three beneath the same object of shelter. The gathering in my
menagerie was thus exceptional, although it did not lead to confusion.
There is plenty of room in the glass cage for excursions to a distance
and for all their habitual manoeuvres. Those who wish for solitude can
obtain it; those who wish for company need not seek it.

For the rest, captivity cannot lie heavily on them; that is proved by
their frequent feasts, their constant mating. They could not thrive
better in the open; perhaps not so well, for food is less abundant under
natural conditions. In the matter of well-being the prisoners are in a
normal condition, favourable to the maintenance of their usual habits.

It is true that encounters of beetle with beetle are more frequent here
than in the open. Hence, no doubt, arise more opportunities for the
females to persecute the males whom they no longer require; to fall upon
them from the rear and eviscerate them. This pursuit of their onetime
lovers is aggravated by their confined quarters; but it certainly is not
caused thereby, for such customs are not suddenly originated.

The mating season over, the female encountering a male in the open must
evidently regard him as fair game, and devour him as the termination of
the matrimonial rites. I have turned over many stones, but have never
chanced upon this spectacle, but what has occurred in my menagerie is
sufficient to convince me. What a world these beetles live in, where the
matron devours her mate so soon as her fertility delivers her from the
need of him! And how lightly the males must be regarded by custom, to be
served in this manner!

Is this practice of post-matrimonial cannibalism a general custom in the
insect world? For the moment, I can recollect only three characteristic
examples: those of the Praying Mantis, the Golden Gardener, and the
scorpion of Languedoc. An analogous yet less brutal practice--for the
victim is defunct before he is eaten--is a characteristic of the Locust
family. The female of the white-faced Decticus will eagerly devour the
body of her dead mate, as will the Green Grasshopper.

To a certain extent this custom is excused by the nature of the insect's
diet; the Decticus and the Grasshopper are essentially carnivorous.
Encountering a dead body of their own species, a female will devour it,
even if it be the body of her latest mate.

But what are we to say in palliation of the vegetarians? At the approach
of the breeding season, before the eggs are laid, the Ephippigera turns
upon her still living mate, disembowels him, and eats as much of him as
her appetite will allow.

The cheerful Cricket shows herself in a new light at this season; she
attacks the mate who lately wooed her with such impassioned serenades;
she tears his wings, breaks his musical thighs, and even swallows a few
mouthfuls of the instrumentalist. It is probable that this deadly
aversion of the female for the male at the end of the mating season is
fairly common, especially among the carnivorous insects. But what is the
object of this atrocious custom? That is a question I shall not fail to
answer when circumstances permit.





Next: THE FIELD - CRICKET

Previous: THE GOLDEN GARDENER - ITS NUTRIMENT



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