FEDERAL WRITERS' PROJECT American Guide, (Negro Writers' Unit) Martin Richardson, Field Worker Greenwood, Florida March 18, 1937 BILL AUSTIN Bill Austin--he says his name is NOT Williams--is an ex-slave who gained his freedom becaus... Read more of Bill Austin at Martin Luther King.caInformational Site Network Informational
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Let us take a more pleasant aspect of the insect whose loves are so
tragic. Its nest is a marvel. In scientific language it is known as the
_ootek_, or the "egg-box." I shall not make use of this barbarous
expression. As one does not speak of the "egg-box" of the titmouse,
meaning "the nest of the titmouse," why should I invoke the box in
speaking of the Mantis? It may look more scientific; but that does not
interest me.

The nest of the Praying Mantis may be found almost everywhere in places
exposed to the sun: on stones, wood, vine stocks, the twigs of bushes,
stems of dried grass, and even on products of human industry, such as
fragments of brick, rags of heavy cloth, and pieces of old boots. Any
support will suffice, so long as it offers inequalities to which the
base of the nest may adhere, and so provide a solid foundation. The
usual dimensions of the nest are one and a half inches long by
three-quarters of an inch wide, or a trifle larger. The colour is a pale
tan, like that of a grain of wheat. Brought in contact with a flame the
nest burns readily, and emits an odour like that of burning silk. The
material of the nest is in fact a substance similar to silk, but instead
of being drawn into a thread it is allowed to harden while a mass of
spongy foam. If the nest is fixed on a branch the base creeps round it,
envelops the neighbouring twigs, and assumes a variable shape according
to the accidents of support; if it is fixed on a flat surface the under
side, which is always moulded by the support, is itself flat. The nest
then takes the form of a demi-ellipsoid, or, in other words, half an egg
cut longitudinally; more or less obtuse at one end, but pointed at the
other, and sometimes ending in a short curved tail.

In all cases the upper face is convex and regular. In it we can
distinguish three well-marked and longitudinal zones. The middle zone,
which is narrower than the others, is composed of thin plates arranged
in couples, and overlapping like the tiles of a roof. The edges of these
plates are free, leaving two parallel series of fissures by which the
young can issue when the eggs are hatched. In a nest recently abandoned
this zone is covered with fine cast-off skins which shiver at the least
breath, and soon disappear when exposed to the open air. I will call
this zone the zone of issue, as it is only along this bell that the
young can escape, being set free by those that have preceded them.

In all other directions the cradle of this numerous family presents an
unbroken wall. The two lateral zones, which occupy the greater part of
the demi-ellipsoid, have a perfect continuity of surface. The little
Mantes, which are very feeble when first hatched, could not possibly
make their way through the tenacious substance of the walls. On the
interior of these walls are a number of fine transverse furrows, signs
of the various layers in which the mass of eggs is disposed.

Let us cut the nest in half transversely. We shall then see that the
mass of eggs constitutes an elongated core, of very firm consistency,
surrounded as to the bottom and sides by a thick porous rind, like
solidified foam. Above the eggs are the curved plates, which are set
very closely and have little freedom; their edges constituting the zone
of issue, where they form a double series of small overlapping scales.

The eggs are set in a yellowish medium of horny appearance. They are
arranged in layers, in lines forming arcs of a circle, with the cephalic
extremities converging towards the zone of issue. This orientation tells
us of the method of delivery. The newly-born larvae will slip into the
interval between two adjacent flaps or leaves, which form a prolongation
of the core; they will then find a narrow passage, none too easy to
effect, but sufficient, having regard to the curious provision which we
shall deal with directly; they will then reach the zone of issue. There,
under the overlapping scales, two passages of exit open for each layer
of eggs. Half the larvae will issue by the right-hand passage, half by
that on the left hand. This process is repeated for each layer, from end
to end of the nest.

Let us sum up those structural details, which are not easily grasped
unless one has the nest before one. Lying along the axis of the nest,
and in shape like a date-stone, is the mass of eggs, grouped in layers.
A protective rind, a kind of solidified foam, envelops this core, except
at the top, along the central line, where the porous rind is replaced by
thin overlapping leaves. The free edges of these leaves form the
exterior of the zone of issue; they overlap one another, forming two
series of scales, leaving two exits, in the shape of narrow crevices,
for each layer of eggs.

To be present at the construction of the nest--to learn how the Mantis
contrives to build so complex a structure--such was the main point of my
researches. I succeeded, not without difficulty, as the eggs are laid
without warning and nearly always at night. After a great deal of futile
endeavour, chance at last favoured me. On the 5th of September one of my
guests, fecundated on the 29th of August, began to make her preparations
under my eyes, at four o'clock in the afternoon.

One remark before proceeding: all the nests I have obtained in the
laboratory--and I have obtained a good number--have without exception
been built upon the wire gauze of the covers. I have been careful to
provide the insects with roughened stones and tufts of thyme, both being
very commonly used as foundations in the open fields. The captives have
always preferred the network of wire gauze, which affords a perfectly
firm foundation, as the soft material of the nest becomes incrusted upon
the meshes as it hardens.

In natural conditions the nests are never in any way sheltered; they
support the inclemencies of winter, resist rain, wind, frost, and snow,
without becoming detached. It is true that the female always selects an
uneven support on which the foundations of the nest can be shaped, thus
obtaining a firm hold. The site chosen is always the best obtainable
within reach, and the wire gauze is constantly adopted as the best
foundation obtainable in the cages.

The only Mantis that I was able to observe at the moment of laying her
eggs worked upside-down, clinging to the wire near the top of the cover.
My presence, my magnifying-glass, my investigations did not disturb her
in the least, so absorbed was she in her labours. I was able to lift up
the dome of wire gauze, tilt it, reverse it, turn it over and reverse it
again, without causing the insect to delay her task for a moment. I was
able, with my tweezers, to raise the long wings in order to observe
rather more closely what was taking place beneath them; the Mantis took
absolutely no notice of me. So far all was well; the female did not
move, and lent herself impassively to all the indiscretions of the
observer. Nevertheless, matters did not proceed as I had wished, so
rapid was the operation and so difficult observation.

The end of the abdomen is constantly immersed in a blob of foam, which
does not allow one to grasp the details of the process very clearly.
This foam is of a greyish white, slightly viscous, and almost like
soapsuds. At the moment of its appearance it adheres slightly to the end
of a straw plunged into it. Two minutes later it is solidified and no
longer adheres to the straw. In a short time its consistency is that of
the substance of an old nest.

The foamy mass consists chiefly of air imprisoned in minute bubbles.
This air, which gives the nest a volume very much greater than that of
the abdomen of the Mantis, evidently does not issue from the insect
although the foam appears at the orifice of the genital organs; it is
borrowed from the atmosphere. The Mantis builds more especially with
air, which is eminently adapted to protect the nest against changes
of temperature. She emits a glutinous substance like the liquid
secretion of silk-worms, and with this composition, mixed
instantaneously with the outer air, she produces the foam of which the
nest is constructed.

She whips the secretion as we whip white of egg, in order to make it
rise and stiffen. The extremity of the abdomen opens in a long cleft,
forming two lateral ladles which open and shut with a rapid, incessant
movement, beating the viscous liquid and converting it into foam as it
is secreted. Beside the two oscillating ladles we see the internal
organs rising and falling, protruding and retreating like a piston-rod,
but it is impossible to observe the precise nature of their action,
bathed as they are in the opaque blob of foam.

The end of the abdomen, continually palpitating, rapidly closing and
opening its valves, oscillates right and left like a pendulum. From each
of these oscillations results a layer of eggs in the interior, and a
transversal crevice on the exterior. As it advances in the arc
described, suddenly, and at frequent intervals, it plunges deeper into
the foam, as though burying something at the bottom of the frothy mass.
Each time it does so an egg is doubtless deposited; but the operation is
so rapid, and takes place under conditions so unfavourable for
observation, that I have never once been enabled to see the oviduct at
work. I can only judge of the advent of the eggs by the movements of the
end of the abdomen, which is immersed more deeply with a sudden plunging

At the same time the viscous composition is emitted in intermittent
waves, and is beaten into a foam by the terminal valves. The foam thus
obtained spreads itself over the sides and at the base of the layer of
eggs, and projects through the meshes of the wire gauze as a result of
the pressure of the abdomen. Thus the spongy envelope is progressively
created as the ovaries are gradually emptied.

I imagine, although I cannot speak as the result of direct observation,
that for the central core, where the eggs are surrounded by a material
more homogeneous than that of the outer shell, the Mantis must employ
her secretion as it emerges, without beating it into a foam. The layer
of eggs once deposited, the two valves would produce the foam required
to envelop the eggs. It is extremely difficult, however, to guess what
occurs beneath the veil of foam-like secretion.

In a recent nest the zone of issue is surrounded by a layer of finely
porous matter, of a pure matt, almost chalky white, which contrasts
distinctly with the remainder of the nest, which is of a dirty white. It
resembles the icing composition made by confectioners with whipped white
of egg, sugar, and starch, for the ornamentation of cakes.

This snowy border is easily crumbled and easily detached. When it
disappears the zone of issue is clearly defined, with its double series
of leaves with free edges. Exposure to the weather, wind, and rain
result in its disappearance, fragment by fragment, so that old nests
preserve no trace of it.

At first sight one is tempted to regard this snowy substance as of a
different material to the rest of the nest. But does the Mantis really
employ two secretions? No. Anatomy, in the first place, assures us of
the unity of the materials of the nest. The organ which secretes the
substance of the nest consists of cylindrical tubes, having a curious
tangled appearance, which are arranged in two groups of twenty each.
They are all filled with a colourless, viscous fluid, which is precisely
similar in appearance in all parts of the organ. There is no indication
of any organ or secretion which could produce a chalky coloration.

Moreover, the method by which the snowy band is formed rejects the idea
of a different material. We see the two caudal appendices of the Mantis
sweeping the surface of the foamy mass, and skimming, so to speak, the
cream of the cream, gathering it together, and retaining it along the
hump of the nest in such a way as to form a band like a ribbon of icing.
What remains after this scouring process, or what oozes from the band
before it has set, spreads over the sides of the nest in a thin layer of
bubbles so fine that they cannot be distinguished without the aid of a

We often see a torrent of muddy water, full of clay in suspension,
covered with great streaks and masses of foam. On this fundamental foam,
so to call it, which is soiled with earthy matters, we see here and
there masses of a beautiful white foam, in which the bubbles are much
smaller. A process of selection results from variations in density, and
here and there we see foam white as snow resting on the dirty foam from
which it is produced. Something of the kind occurs when the Mantis
builds her nest. The two appendices whip the viscous secretion of the
glands into foam. The lightest portion, whose bubbles are of the
greatest tenuity, which is white on account of its finer porosity, rises
to the surface, where the caudal filaments sweep it up and gather it
into the snowy ribbon which runs along the summit of the nest.

So far, with a little patience, observation is possible and yields a
satisfactory result. It becomes impossible in the matter of the complex
central zone, where the exits for the larvae are contrived through the
double series of overlapping leaves. The little I have been able to
learn amounts to this: The end of the abdomen, deeply cleft in a
horizontal direction, forms a kind of fork, of which the upper extremity
remains almost motionless, while the lower continuously oscillates,
producing the foam and depositing the eggs. The creation of the central
zone is certainly the work of the upper extremity.

It is always to be seen in the continuation of this central zone, in the
midst of the fine white foam gathered up by the caudal filaments. The
latter delimit the zone, one working on either side, feeling the edges
of the belt, and apparently testing it and judging its progress. These
two filaments are like two long fingers of exquisite sensitiveness,
which direct the difficult operation.

But how are the two series of scales obtained, and the fissures, the
gates of exit which they shelter? I do not know; I cannot even imagine.
I leave the end of the problem to others.

What a wonderful mechanism is this, that has the power to emit and to
form, so quickly and methodically, the horny medium of the central
kernel, the foam which forms the protective walls, the white creamy foam
of the ribbon which runs along the central zone, the eggs, and the
fecundating liquid, while at the same time it constructs the overlapping
leaves, the imbricated scales, and the alternating series of open
fissures! We are lost in the face of such a wonder. Yet how easily the
work is performed! Clinging to the wire gauze, forming, so to speak, the
axis of her nest, the Mantis barely moves. She bestows not a glance on
the marvel which is growing behind her; her limbs are used only for
support; they take no part in the building of the nest. The nest is
built, if we may say so, automatically. It is not the result of industry
and the cunning of instinct; it is a purely mechanical task, which is
conditioned by the implements, by the organisation of the insect. The
nest, complex though it is in structure, results solely from the
functioning of the organs, as in our human industries a host of objects
are mechanically fashioned whose perfection puts the dexterity of the
fingers to shame.

From another point of view the nest of the Mantis is even more
remarkable. It forms an excellent application of one of the most
valuable lessons of physical science in the matter of the conservation
of heat. The Mantis has outstripped humanity in her knowledge of thermic
nonconductors or insulators.

The famous physicist Rumford was responsible for a very pretty
experiment designed to demonstrate the low conductivity of air where
heat other than radiant heat is concerned. The famous scientist
surrounded a frozen cheese by a mass of foam consisting of well-beaten
eggs. The whole was exposed to the heat of an oven. In a few minutes a
light omelette was obtained, piping hot, but the cheese in the centre
was as cold as at the outset. The air imprisoned in the bubbles of the
surrounding froth accounts for the phenomenon. Extremely refractory to
heat, it had absorbed the heat of the oven and had prevented it from
reaching the frozen substance in the centre of the omelette.

Now, what does the Mantis do? Precisely what Rumford did; she whips her
albumen to obtain a soufflee, a froth composed of myriads of tiny
air-bubbles, which will protect the germs of life contained in the
central core. It is true that her aim is reversed; the coagulated foam
of the nest is a safeguard against cold, not against heat, but what will
afford protection from the one will afford protection from the other; so
that Rumford, had he wished, might equally well have maintained a hot
body at a high temperature in a refrigerator.

Rumford understood the athermic properties of a blanket of air-cells,
thanks to the accumulated knowledge of his predecessors and his own
studies and experiments. How is it that the Mantis, for who knows how
many ages, has been able to outstrip our physicists in this problem in
calorics? How did she learn to surround her eggs with this mass of
solidifying froth, so that it was able, although fixed to a bough or a
stone without other shelter, to brave with impunity the rigours of

The other Mantes found in my neighbourhood, which are the only species
of which I can speak with full knowledge, employ or omit the envelope of
solidifying froth accordingly as the eggs are or are not intended to
survive the winter. The little Grey Mantis (_Ameles decolor_), which
differs so widely from the Praying Mantis in that the wings of the
female are almost completely absent, builds a nest hardly as large as a
cherry-stone, and covers it skilfully with a porous rind. Why this
cellular envelope? Because the nest of the _Ameles_, like that of the
Praying Mantis, has to endure through the winter, fixed to a stone or a
twig, and is thus exposed to the full severity of the dangerous season.

The _Empusa pauperata_, on the other hand (one of the strangest of
European insects), builds a nest as small as that of the _Ameles_,
although the insect itself is as large as the Praying Mantis. This nest
is quite a small structure, composed of a small number of cells,
arranged side by side in three or four series, sloping together at the
neck. Here there is a complete absence of the porous envelope, although
the nest is exposed to the weather, like the previous examples, affixed
to some twig or fragment of rock. The lack of the insulating rind is a
sign of different climatic conditions. The eggs of the _Empusa_ hatch
shortly after they are laid, in warm and sunny weather. Not being
exposed to the asperities of the winter, they need no protection other
than the thin egg-cases themselves.

Are these nice and reasonable precautions, which rival the experiment of
Rumford, a fortuitous result?--one of the innumerable combinations which
fall from the urn of chance? If so, let us not recoil before the absurd:
let us allow that the blindness of chance is gifted with marvellous

The Praying Mantis commences her nest at the blunter extremity, and
completes it at the pointed tail. The latter is often prolonged in a
sort of promontory, in which the insect expends the last drop of
glutinous liquid as she stretches herself after her task. A sitting of
two hours, more or less, without interruption, is required for the total
accomplishment of the work. Directly the period of labour is over, the
mother withdraws, indifferent henceforth to her completed task. I have
watched her, half expecting to see her return, to discover some
tenderness for the cradle of her family. But no: not a trace of maternal
pleasure. The work is done, and concerns her no longer. Crickets
approach; one of them even squats upon the nest. The Mantis takes no
notice of them. They are peaceful intruders, to be sure; but even were
they dangerous, did they threaten to rifle the nest, would she attack
them and drive them away? Her impassive demeanour convinces me that she
would not. What is the nest to her? She is no longer conscious of it.

I have spoken of the many embraces to which the Praying Mantis submits,
and of the tragic end of the male, who is almost invariably devoured as
though a lawful prey. In the space of a fortnight I have known the same
female to adventure upon matrimony no less than seven times. Each time
the readily consoled widow devoured her mate. Such habits point to
frequent laying; and we find the appearance confirmed, though not as a
general rule. Some of my females gave me one nest only; others two, the
second as capacious as the first. The most fruitful of all produced
three; of these the two first were of normal dimensions, while the third
was about half the usual size.

From this we can reckon the productivity of the insect's ovaries. From
the transverse fissures of the median zone of the nest it is easy to
estimate the layers of eggs; but these layers contain more or fewer eggs
according to their position in the middle of the nest or near the ends.
The numbers contained by the widest and narrowest layers will give us
an approximate average. I find that a nest of fair size contains about
four hundred eggs. Thus the maker of the three nests, of which the last
was half as large as the others, produced no less than a thousand eggs;
eight hundred were deposited in the larger nests and two or three
hundred in the smaller. Truly a fine family, but a thought ungainly,
were it not that only a few of its members can survive.

Of a fair size, of curious structure, and well in evidence on its twig
or stone, the nest of the Praying Mantis could hardly escape the
attention of the Provencal peasant. It is well known in the country
districts, where it goes by the name of _tigno_; it even enjoys a
certain celebrity. But no one seems to be aware of its origin. It is
always a surprise to my rustic neighbours when they learn that the
well-known _tigno_ is the nest of the common Mantis, the _Prego-Dieu_.
This ignorance may well proceed from the nocturnal habits of the Mantis.
No one has caught the insect at work upon her nest in the silence of the
night. The link between the artificer and the work is missing, although
both are well known to the villager.

No matter: the singular object exists; it catches the eye, it attracts
attention. It must therefore be good for something; it must possess
virtue of some kind. So in all ages have the simple reasoned, in the
childlike hope of finding in the unfamiliar an alleviation of their

By general agreement the rural pharmacopoeia of Provence pronounces
the _tigno_ to be the best of remedies against chilblains. The method of
employment is of the simplest. The nest is cut in two, squeezed and the
affected part is rubbed with the cut surface as the juices flow from
it. This specific, I am told, is sovereign. All sufferers from blue and
swollen fingers should without fail, according to traditional usage,
have recourse to the _tigno_.

Is it really efficacious? Despite the general belief, I venture to doubt
it, after fruitless experiments on my own fingers and those of other
members of my household during the winter of 1895, when the severe and
persistent cold produced an abundant crop of chilblains. None of us,
treated with the celebrated unguent, observed the swelling to diminish;
none of us found that the pain and discomfort was in the least assuaged
by the sticky varnish formed by the juices of the crushed _tigno_. It is
not easy to believe that others are more successful, but the popular
renown of the specific survives in spite of all, probably thanks to a
simple accident of identity between the name of the remedy and that of
the infirmity: the Provencal for "chilblain" is _tigno_. From the moment
when the chilblain and the nest of the Mantis were known by the same
name were not the virtues of the latter obvious? So are reputations

In my own village, and doubtless to some extent throughout the Midi, the
_tigno_--the nest of the Mantis, not the chilblain--is also reputed as a
marvellous cure for toothache. It is enough to carry it upon the person
to be free of that lamentable affection. Women wise in such matters
gather them beneath a propitious moon, and preserve them piously in some
corner of the clothes-press or wardrobe. They sew them in the lining of
the pocket, lest they should be pulled out with the handkerchief and
lost; they will grant the loan of them to a neighbour tormented by some
refractory molar. "Lend me thy _tigno_: I am suffering martyrdom!" begs
the owner of a swollen face.--"Don't on any account lose it!" says the
lender: "I haven't another, and we aren't at the right time of moon!"

We will not laugh at the credulous victim; many a remedy triumphantly
puffed on the latter pages of the newspapers and magazines is no more
effectual. Moreover, this rural simplicity is surpassed by certain old
books which form the tomb of the science of a past age. An English
naturalist of the sixteenth century, the well-known physician, Thomas
Moffat, informs us that children lost in the country would inquire their
way of the Mantis. The insect consulted would extend a limb, indicating
the direction to be taken, and, says the author, scarcely ever was the
insect mistaken. This pretty story is told in Latin, with an adorable



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