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THE GOLDEN GARDENER - ITS NUTRIMENT




In writing the first lines of this chapter I am reminded of the
slaughter-pens of Chicago; of those horrible meat factories which in the
course of the year cut up one million and eighty thousand bullocks and
seventeen hundred thousand swine, which enter a train of machinery alive
and issue transformed into cans of preserved meat, sausages, lard, and
rolled hams. I am reminded of these establishments because the beetle I
am about to speak of will show us a compatible celerity of butchery.

In a spacious, glazed insectorium I have twenty-five Carabi aurati. At
present they are motionless, lying beneath a piece of board which I gave
them for shelter. Their bellies cooled by the sand, their backs warmed
by the board, which is visited by the sun, they slumber and digest their
food. By good luck I chance upon a procession of pine-caterpillars, in
process of descending from their tree in search of a spot suitable for
burial, the prelude to the phase of the subterranean chrysalis. Here is
an excellent flock for the slaughter-house of the Carabi.

I capture them and place them in the insectorium. The procession is
quickly re-formed; the caterpillars, to the number of perhaps a hundred
and fifty, move forward in an undulating line. They pass near the piece
of board, one following the other like the pigs at Chicago. The moment
is propitious. I cry Havoc! and let loose the dogs of war: that is to
say, I remove the plank.

The sleepers immediately awake, scenting the abundant prey. One of them
runs forward; three, four, follow; the whole assembly is aroused; those
who are buried emerge; the whole band of cut-throats falls upon the
passing flock. It is a sight never to be forgotten. The mandibles of the
beetles are at work in all directions; the procession is attacked in the
van, in the rear, in the centre; the victims are wounded on the back or
the belly at random. The furry skins are gaping with wounds; their
contents escape in knots of entrails, bright green with their aliment,
the needles of the pine-tree; the caterpillars writhe, struggling with
loop-like movements, gripping the sand with their feet, dribbling and
gnashing their mandibles. Those as yet unwounded are digging desperately
in the attempt to take refuge underground. Not one succeeds. They are
scarcely half buried before some beetle runs to them and destroys them
by an eviscerating wound.

If this massacre did not occur in a dumb world we should hear all the
horrible tumult of the slaughter-houses of Chicago. But only the ear of
the mind can hear the shrieks and lamentations of the eviscerated
victims. For myself, I possess this ear, and am full of remorse for
having provoked such sufferings.

Now the beetles are rummaging in all directions through the heap of
dead and dying, each tugging and tearing at a morsel which he carries
off to swallow in peace, away from the inquisitive eyes of his fellows.
This mouthful disposed of, another is hastily cut from the body of some
victim, and the process is repeated so long as there are bodies left. In
a few minutes the procession is reduced to a few shreds of still
palpitating flesh.

There were a hundred and fifty caterpillars; the butchers were
twenty-five. This amounts to six victims dispatched by each beetle. If
the insect had nothing to do but to kill, like the knackers in the meat
factories, and if the staff numbered a hundred--a very modest figure as
compared with the staff of a lard or bacon factory--then the total
number of victims, in a day of ten hours, would be thirty-six thousand.
No Chicago "cannery" ever rivalled such a result.

The speed of assassination is the more remarkable when we consider the
difficulties of attack. The beetle has no endless chain to seize its
victim by one leg, hoist it up, and swing it along to the butcher's
knife; it has no sliding plank to hold the victim's head beneath the
pole-axe of the knacker; it has to fall upon its prey, overpower it, and
avoid its feet and its mandibles. Moreover, the beetle eats its prey on
the spot as it kills. What slaughter there would be if the insect
confined itself to killing!

What do we learn from the slaughter-houses of Chicago and the fate of
the beetle's victims? This: That the man of elevated morality is so far
a very rare exception. Under the skin of the civilised being there lurks
almost always the ancestor, the savage contemporary of the cave-bear.
True humanity does not yet exist; it is growing, little by little,
created by the ferment of the centuries and the dictates of conscience;
but it progresses towards the highest with heartbreaking slowness.

It was only yesterday that slavery finally disappeared: the basis of the
ancient social organism; only yesterday was it realised that man, even
though black, is really man and deserves to be treated accordingly.

What formerly was woman? She was what she is to-day in the East: a
gentle animal without a soul. The question was long discussed by the
learned. The great divine of the seventeenth century, Bossuet himself,
regarded woman as the diminutive of man. The proof was in the origin of
Eve: she was the superfluous bone, the thirteenth rib which Adam
possessed in the beginning. It has at last been admitted that woman
possesses a soul like our own, but even superior in tenderness and
devotion. She has been allowed to educate herself, which she has done at
least as zealously as her coadjutor. But the law, that gloomy cavern
which is still the lurking-place of so many barbarities, continues to
regard her as an incapable and a minor. The law in turn will finally
surrender to the truth.

The abolition of slavery and the education of woman: these are two
enormous strides upon the path of moral progress. Our descendants will
go farther. They will see, with a lucidity capable of piercing every
obstacle, that war is the most hopeless of all absurdities. That our
conquerors, victors of battles and destroyers of nations, are detestable
scourges; that a clasp of the hand is preferable to a rifle-shot; that
the happiest people is not that which possesses the largest battalions,
but that which labours in peace and produces abundantly; and that the
amenities of existence do not necessitate the existence of frontiers,
beyond which we meet with all the annoyances of the custom-house, with
its officials who search our pockets and rifle our luggage.

Our descendants will see this and many other marvels which to-day are
extravagant dreams. To what ideal height will the process of evolution
lead mankind? To no very magnificent height, it is to be feared. We are
afflicted by an indelible taint, a kind of original sin, if we may call
sin a state of things with which our will has nothing to do. We are made
after a certain pattern and we can do nothing to change ourselves. We
are marked with the mark of the beast, the taint of the belly, the
inexhaustible source of bestiality.

The intestine rules the world. In the midst of our most serious affairs
there intrudes the imperious question of bread and butter. So long as
there are stomachs to digest--and as yet we are unable to dispense with
them--we must find the wherewithal to fill them, and the powerful will
live by the sufferings of the weak. Life is a void that only death can
fill. Hence the endless butchery by which man nourishes himself, no less
than beetles and other creatures; hence the perpetual holocausts which
make of this earth a knacker's yard, beside which the slaughter-houses
of Chicago are as nothing.

But the feasters are legion, and the feast is not abundant in
proportion. Those that have not are envious of those that have; the
hungry bare their teeth at the satisfied. Then follows the battle for
the right of possession. Man raises armies; to defend his harvests, his
granaries, and his cellars, he resorts to warfare. When shall we see the
end of it? Alas, and many times alas! As long as there are wolves in the
world there must be watch-dogs to defend the flock.

This train of thought has led us far away from our beetles. Let us
return to them. What was my motive in provoking the massacre of this
peaceful procession of caterpillars who were on the point of self-burial
when I gave them over to the butchers? Was it to enjoy the spectacle of
a frenzied massacre? By no means; I have always pitied the sufferings of
animals, and the smallest life is worthy of respect. To overcome this
pity there needed the exigencies of scientific research--exigencies
which are often cruel.

In this case the subject of research was the habits of the Carabus
auratus, the little vermin-killer of our gardens, who is therefore
vulgarly known as the Gardener Beetle. How far is this title deserved?
What game does the Gardener Beetle hunt? From what vermin does he free
our beds and borders? His dealings with the procession of
pine-caterpillars promise much. Let us continue our inquiry.

On various occasions about the end of April the gardens afford me the
sight of such processions, sometimes longer, sometimes shorter. I
capture them and place them in the vivarium. Bloodshed commences the
moment the banquet is served. The caterpillars are eviscerated; each by
a single beetle, or by several simultaneously. In less than fifteen
minutes the flock is completely exterminated. Nothing remains but a few
shapeless fragments, which are carried hither and thither, to be
consumed at leisure under the shelter of the wooden board. One well-fed
beetle decamps, his booty in his jaws, hoping to finish his feast in
peace. He is met by companions who are attracted by the morsel hanging
from the mandibles of the fugitive, and audaciously attempt to rob him.
First two, then three, they all endeavour to deprive the legitimate
owner of his prize. Each seizes the fragment, tugs at it, commences to
swallow it without further ado. There is no actual battle; no violent
assaults, as in the case of dogs disputing a bone. Their efforts are
confined to the attempted theft. If the legitimate owner retains his
hold they consume his booty in common, mandibles to mandibles, until the
fragment is torn or bitten through, and each retires with his mouthful.

As I found to my cost in bygone experiments, the pine-caterpillar wields
a violently corrosive poison, which produces a painful rash upon the
hands. It must therefore, one would think, form a somewhat highly
seasoned diet. The beetles, however, delight in it. No matter how many
flocks I provide them with, they are all consumed. But no one, that I
know of, has ever found the Golden Gardener and its larva in the silken
cocoons of the Bombyx. I do not expect ever to make such a discovery.
These cocoons are inhabited only in winter, when the Gardener is
indifferent to food, and lies torpid in the earth. In April, however,
when the processions of larvae are seeking a suitable site for burial and
metamorphosis, the Gardener should profit largely by its good fortune
should it by any chance encounter them.

The furry nature of the victim does not in the least incommode the
beetle; but the hairiest of all our caterpillars, the Hedgehog
Caterpillar, with its undulating mane, partly red and partly black, does
seem to be too much for the beetle. Day after day it wanders about the
vivarium in company with the assassins. The latter apparently ignore its
presence. From time to time one of them will halt, stroll round the
hairy creature, examine it, and try to penetrate the tangled fleece.
Immediately repulsed by the long, dense palisade of hairs, he retires
without inflicting a wound, and the caterpillar proceeds upon its way
with undulating mane, in pride and security.

But this state of things cannot last. In a hungry moment, emboldened
moreover by the presence of his fellows, the cowardly creature decides
upon a serious attack. There are four of them; they industriously attack
the caterpillar, which finally succumbs, assaulted before and behind. It
is eviscerated and swallowed as greedily as though it were a defenceless
grub.

According to the hazard of discovery, I provision my menagerie with
various caterpillars, some smooth and others hairy. All are accepted
with the utmost eagerness, so long as they are of average size as
compared with the beetles themselves. If too small they are despised, as
they would not yield a sufficient mouthful. If they are too large the
beetle is unable to handle them. The caterpillars of the Sphinx moth and
the Great Peacock moth, for example, would fall an easy prey to the
beetle were it not that at the first bite of the assailant the intended
victim, by a contortion of its powerful flanks, sends the former
flying. After several attacks, all of which end by the beetle being
flung back to some considerable distance, the insect regretfully
abandons his prey. I have kept two strong and lively caterpillars for a
fortnight in the cage of my golden beetles, and nothing more serious
occurred. The trick of the suddenly extended posterior was too much for
the ferocious mandibles.

The chief utility of the Golden Gardener lies in its extermination of
all caterpillars that are not too powerful to attack. It has one
limitation, however: it is not a climber. It hunts on the ground; never
in the foliage overhead. I have never seen it exploring the twigs of
even the smallest of bushes. When caged it pays no attention to the most
enticing caterpillars if the latter take refuge in a tuft of thyme, at a
few inches above the ground. This is a great pity. If only the beetle
could climb how rapidly three or four would rid our cabbages of that
grievous pest, the larva of the white cabbage butterfly! Alas! the best
have always some failing, some vice.

To exterminate caterpillars: that is the true vocation of the Golden
Gardener. It is annoying that it can give us but little or no assistance
in ridding us of another plague of the kitchen-garden: the snail. The
slime of the snail is offensive to the beetle; it is safe from the
latter unless crippled, half crushed, or projecting from the shell. Its
relatives, however, do not share this dislike. The horny Procrustes, the
great Scarabicus, entirely black and larger than the Carabus, attacks
the snail most valiantly, and empties its shell to the bottom, in spite
of the desperate secretion of slime. It is a pity that the Procrustes is
not more frequently found in our gardens; it would be an excellent
gardener's assistant.





Next: THE GOLDEN GARDENER - COURTSHIP

Previous: THE MANTIS - THE NEST



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