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THE METHOD OF THE CALICURGI




The non-armoured victims, vulnerable by the sting over almost their whole
body, ordinary caterpillars and Looper caterpillars, Cetonia- and Anoxia-
larvae, whose only means of defence, apart from their mandibles, consists
of rollings and contortions, called for the testimony of another victim,
the Spider, almost as ill-protected, but armed with formidable poison-
fangs. How, in particular, will the Ringed Calicurgus set to work in
operating on the Black-bellied Tarantula, the terrible Lycosa, who with a
single bite kills the Mole or the Sparrow and endangers the life of man?
How does the bold Pompilus overcome an adversary more powerful than
herself, better-equipped with virulent poison and capable of making a meal
of her assailant? Of all the Hunting Wasps, none risks such unequal
conflicts, in which appearances would proclaim the aggressor to be the
victim and the victim the aggressor.

The problem was one deserving patient study. True, I foresaw, from the
Spider's organization, a single sting in the centre of the thorax; but that
did not explain the victory of the Wasp, emerging safe and sound from her
tussle with such a quarry. I had to see what occurred. The chief difficulty
was the scarcity of the Calicurgus. It is easy for me to obtain the
Tarantula at the desired moment: the part of the plateau in my
neighbourhood left untilled by the vine-growers provides me with as many as
are necessary. To capture the Pompilus is another matter. I have so little
hope of finding her that special quests are regarded as useless. To search
for her would perhaps be just the way not to find her. Let us rely on the
uncertainties of chance. Shall I get her or shall I not?

I've got her. I catch her unexpectedly on the flowers. Next day I supply
myself with half a dozen Tarantulae. Perhaps I shall be able to employ them
one after the other in repeated duels. As I return from my Lycosa-hunt,
luck smiles upon me again and crowns my desires. A second Calicurgus offers
herself to my net; she is dragging her heavy, paralysed Spider by one leg,
in the dust of the highway. I attach great value to my find: the laying of
the egg has become a pressing matter; and the mother, I believe, will
accept a substitute for her victim without much hesitation. Here then are
my two captives, each under her bell-glass with her Tarantula.

I am all eyes. What a tragedy there will be in a moment! I wait,
anxiously...But...but...what is this? Which of the two is the assailed?
Which is the assailant? The characters seem to be inverted. The Calicurgus,
unable to climb up the smooth glass wall, strides round the ring of the
circus. With a proud and rapid gait, her wings and antennae vibrating, she
goes and returns. The Lycosa is soon seen. The Calicurgus approaches her
without the least sign of fear, walks round her and appears to have the
intention of seizing one of her legs. But at that moment the Tarantula
rises almost vertically on her four hinder legs, with her four front legs
lifted and outspread, ready for the counterstroke. The poison-fangs gape
widely; a drop of venom moistens their tips. The very sight of them makes
my flesh creep. In this terrible attitude, presenting her powerful thorax
and the black velvet of her belly to the enemy, the Spider overawes the
Pompilus, who suddenly turns tail and moves away. The Lycosa then closes
her bundle of poisoned daggers and resumes her natural pose, standing on
her eight legs; but, at the slightest attempt at aggression on the Wasp's
part, she resumes her threatening position.

She does more: suddenly she leaps and flings herself upon the Calicurgus;
swiftly she clasps her and nibbles at her with her fangs. Without wielding
her sting in self-defence, the other disengages herself and merges
unscathed from the angry encounter. Several times in succession I witness
the attack; and nothing serious ever befalls the Wasp, who swiftly
withdraws from the fray and appears to have received no hurt. She resumes
her marching and countermarching no less boldly and swiftly than before.

Is this Wasp invulnerable, that she thus escapes from the terrible fangs?
Evidently not. A real bite would be fatal to her. Big, sturdily built
Acridians succumb (Locusts and Grasshoppers.--Translator's Note.); how is
it that she, with her delicate organism, does not! The Spider's daggers,
therefore, make no more than an idle feint; their points do not enter the
flesh of the tight-clasped Wasp. If the strokes were real, I should see
bleeding wounds, I should see the fangs close for a moment on the part
seized; and with all my attention I cannot detect anything of the kind.
Then are the fangs powerless to pierce the Wasp's integuments? Not so. I
have seen them penetrate, with a crackling of broken armour, the corselet
of the Acridians, which offers a far greater resistance. Once again, whence
comes this strange immunity of the Calicurgus held between the legs and
assailed by the daggers of the Tarantula? I do not know. Though in mortal
peril from the enemy confronting her, the Lycosa threatens her with her
fangs and cannot decide to bite, owing to a repugnance which I do not
undertake to explain.

Obtaining nothing more than alarums and excursions of no great seriousness,
I think of modifying the gladiatorial arena and approximating it to natural
conditions. The soil is very imperfectly represented by my work-table; and
the Spider has not her fortress, her burrow, which plays a part of some
importance both in attack and in defence. A short length of reed is planted
perpendicularly in a large earthenware pan filled with sand. This will be
the Lycosa's burrow. In the middle I stick some heads of globe-thistle
garnished with honey as a refectory for the Pompilus; a couple of Locusts,
renewed as and when consumed, will sustain the Tarantula. These comfortable
quarters, exposed to the sun, receive the two captives under a wire-gauze
dome, which provides adequate ventilation for a prolonged residence.

My artifices come to nothing; the session closes without result. A day
passes, two days, three; still nothing happens. The Pompilus is assiduous
in her visits to the honeyed flower-clusters; when she has eaten her fill,
she clambers up the dome and makes interminable circuits of the netting;
the Tarantula quietly munches her Locust. If the other passes within reach,
she swiftly raises herself and waves her off. The artificial burrow, the
reed-stump, fulfills its purpose excellently. The Lycosa and the Pompilus
resort to it in turns, but without quarrelling. And that is all. The drama
whose prologue was so full of promise appears to be indefinitely postponed.

I have a last resource, on which I base great hopes: it is to remove my two
Calicurgi to the very site of their investigations and to install them at
the door of the Spider's lodging, at the top of the natural burrow. I take
the field with an equipment which I am carrying across the country for the
first time: a glass bell-jar, a wire-gauze cover and the various implements
needed for handling and transferring my irascible and dangerous subjects.
My search for burrows among the pebbles and the tufts of thyme and lavender
is soon successful.

Here is a splendid one. I learn by inserting a straw that it is inhabited
by a Tarantula of a size suited to my plans. The soil around the aperture
is cleared and flattened to receive the wire-gauze, under which I place a
Pompilus. This is the time to light a pipe and wait, lying on the
pebbles...Yet another disappointment. Half an hour goes by; and the Wasp
confines herself to travelling round and round the netting as she did in my
study. She gives no sign of greed when confronted with the burrow, though I
can see the Tarantula's diamond eyes glittering at the bottom.

The trellised wall is replaced by the glass wall, which, since it does not
allow her to scale its heights, will oblige the Wasp to remain on the
ground and at last to take cognizance of the shaft, which she seems to
ignore. This time we have done the trick!

After a few circuits of her cage, the Calicurgus notices the pit yawning at
her feet. She goes down it. This daring confounds me. I should never have
ventured to anticipate as much. That she should suddenly fling herself upon
the Tarantula when the latter is outside her stronghold, well and good; but
to rush into the lair, when the terrible monster is waiting for you below
with those two poisoned daggers of hers! What will come of such temerity? A
buzzing of wings ascends from the depths. Run to earth in her private
apartments, the Lycosa is no doubt at grips with the intruder. That hum of
wings is the Calicurgus' paean of triumph, until it be her death-song. The
slayer may well be the slain. Which of the two will come up alive?

It is the Lycosa, who hurriedly scampers out and posts herself just over
the orifice of the burrow, in her posture of defence, her fangs open, her
four front legs uplifted. Can the other have been stabbed? Not at all, for
she emerges in her turn, not without receiving on the way a cuff from the
Spider, who immediately regains her lair. Dislodged from her basement a
second and yet a third time, the Tarantula always comes up unwounded; she
always awaits her adversary on her threshold, administers punishment and
reenters her dwelling. In vain do I try my two Pompili alternately and
change the burrow; I do not succeed in observing anything else. Certain
conditions not realized by my stratagems are lacking to complete the
tragedy.

Discouraged by the repetition of my futile attempts, I throw up the game,
the richer however by one fact of some value: the Calicurgus, without the
least fear, descends into the Tarantula's den and dislodges her. I imagine
that things happen in the same fashion outside my cages. When expelled from
her dwelling, the Spider is more timid and more vulnerable to attack.
Moreover, while hampered by a narrow shaft, the operator would not wield
her lancet with the precision called for by her designs. The bold irruption
shows us once again, more plainly than the tussles on my table, the
Lycosa's reluctance to sink her fangs into her enemy's body. When the two
are face to face at the bottom of the lair, then or never is the moment to
have it out with the foe. The Tarantula is in her own house, with all its
conveniences; every nook and corner of the bastion is familiar to her. The
intruder's movements are hampered by her ignorance of the premises. Quick,
my poor Lycosa, quick, a bite; and it's all up with your persecutor! But
you refrain, I know not why, and your reluctance is the saving of the rash
invader. The silly Sheep does not reply to the butcher's knife by charging
with lowered horns. Can it be that you are the Pompilus' Sheep?

My two subjects are reinstalled in my study under their wire-gauze covers,
with bed of sand, reed-stump burrow and fresh honey, complete. Here they
find again their first Lycosae, fed upon Locusts. Cohabitation continues
for three weeks without other incidents than scuffles and threats which
become less frequent day by day. No serious hostility is displayed on
either side. At last the Calicurgi die: their day is over. A pitiful end
after such an enthusiastic beginning.

Shall I abandon the problem? Why, not a bit of it! I have encountered
greater difficulties, but they have never deterred me from a warmly-
cherished project. Fortune favours the persevering. She proves as much by
offering me, in September, a fortnight after the death of my Tarantula-
huntresses, another Calicurgus, captured for the first time. This is the
Harlequin Calicurgus (C. scurra, LEP.), who sports the same gaudy costume
as the first and is almost of the same size.

Now what does this newcomer, of whom I know nothing, want? A Spider, that
is certain; but which? A huntress like this will need a corpulent quarry:
perhaps the Silky Epeira (E. serica), perhaps the Banded Epeira (E.
fasciata), the largest Spiders in the district, next to the Tarantula. The
first of these spreads her large upright net, in which Locusts are caught,
from one clump of brushwood to another. I find her in the copses on the
neighbouring hills. The second stretches hers across the ditches and the
little streams frequented by the Dragon-flies. I find her near the Aygues,
beside the irrigation-canals fed by the torrent. A couple of trips procures
me the two Epeirae, whom I offer to my captive next day, both at the same
time. It is for her to choose according to her taste.

The choice is soon made: the Banded Epeira is the one preferred. But she
does not yield without protest. On the approach of the Wasp, she rises and
assumes a defensive attitude, just like that of the Lycosa. The Calicurgus
pays no attention to threats: under her harlequin's coat, she is violent in
attack and quick on her legs. There is a rapid exchange of fisticuffs; and
the Epeira lies overturned on her back. The Pompilus is on top of her,
belly to belly, head to head; with her legs she masters the Spider's legs;
with her mandibles she grips the cephalothorax. She curves her abdomen,
bringing the tip of it beneath her; she draws her sting and...

One moment, reader, if you please. Where is the sting about to strike? From
what we have learnt from the other paralysers, it will be driven into the
breast, to suppress the movement of the legs. That is your opinion; it was
also mine. Well, without blushing too deeply at our common and very
excusable error, let us confess that the insect knows better than we do. It
knows how to assure success by a preparatory manoeuvre of which you and I
had never dreamt. Ah, what a school is that of the animals! Is it not true
that, before striking the adversary, you should take care not to get
wounded yourself? The Harlequin Pompilus does not disregard this counsel of
prudence. The Epeira carries beneath her throat two sharp daggers, with a
drop of poison at their points; the Calicurgus is lost if the Spider bites
her. Nevertheless, her anaesthetizing demands perfect steadiness of the
lancet. What is to be done in the face of this danger which might
disconcert the most practised surgeon? The patient must first be disarmed
and then operated on.

And in fact the Calicurgus' sting, aimed from back to front, is driven into
the Epeira's mouth, with minute precautions and marked persistency. On the
instant, the poison-fangs close lifelessly and the formidable quarry is
powerless to harm. The Wasp's abdomen then extends its arc and drives the
needle behind the fourth pair of legs, on the median line, almost at the
junction of the belly and the cephalothorax. At this point the skin is
finer and more easily penetrable than elsewhere. The remainder of the
thoracic surface is covered with a tough breast-plate which the sting would
perhaps fail to perforate. The nerve-centres, the source of the leg-
movements, are situated a little above the wounded point, but the back-to-
front direction of the sting makes it possible to reach them. This last
wound results in the paralysis of all the eight legs at once.

To enlarge upon it further would detract from the eloquence of this
performance. First of all, to safeguard the operator, a stab in the mouth,
that point so terribly armed, the most formidable of all; then, to
safeguard the larva, a second stab in the nerve-centres of the thorax, to
suppress the power of movement. I certainly suspected that the slayers of
robust Spiders were endowed with special talents; but I was far from
expecting their bold logic, which disarms before it paralyses. So the
Tarantula-huntress must behave, who, under my bell-glasses, refused to
surrender her secret. I now know what her method is; it has been divulged
by a colleague. She throws the terrible Lycosa upon her back, pricks her
prickers by stinging her in the mouth and then, in comfort, with a single
thrust of the lancet, obtains paralysis of the legs.

I examine the Epeira immediately after the operation and the Tarantula when
the Calicurgus is dragging her by one leg to her burrow, at the foot of
some wall. For a little while longer, a minute at most, the Epeira
convulsively moves her legs. So long as these throes continue, the Pompilus
does not release her prey. She seems to watch the progress of the
paralysis. With the tips of her mandibles she explores the Spider's mouth
several times over, as though to ascertain if the poison-fangs are really
innocuous. When all movement subsides, the Pompilus makes ready to drag her
prey elsewhere. It is then I take charge of it.

What strikes me more than anything else is the absolute inertia of the
fangs, which I tickle with a straw without succeeding in rousing them from
their torpor. The palpi, on the other hand, their immediate neighbours,
wave at the least touch. The Epeira is placed in safety, in a flask, and
undergoes a fresh examination a week later. Irritability has in part
returned. Under the stimulus of a straw, I see her legs move a little,
especially the lower joints, the tibiae and tarsi. The palpi are even more
irritable and mobile. These different movements, however, are lacking in
vigour and coordination; and the Spider cannot employ them to turn over,
much less to escape. As for the poison-fangs, I stimulate them in vain: I
cannot get them to open or even to stir. They are therefore profoundly
paralysed and in a special manner. The peculiar insistence of the sting
when the mouth was stabbed told me as much in the beginning.

At the end of September, almost a month after the operation, the Epeira is
in the same condition, neither dead nor alive: the palpi still quiver when
touched with a straw, but nothing else moves. At length, after six or seven
weeks' lethargy, real death supervenes, together with its comrade,
putrefaction.

The Tarantula of the Ringed Calicurgus, as I take her from the owner at the
moment of transportation, presents the same peculiarities. The poison-fangs
are no longer irritable when tickled with my straw: a fresh proof, added to
those of analogy, to show that the Lycosa, like the Epeira, has been stung
in the mouth. The palpi, on the other hand, are and will be for weeks
highly irritable and mobile. I wish to emphasise this point, the importance
of which will be recognized presently.

I found it impossible to provoke a second attack from my Harlequin
Calicurgus: the tedium of captivity did not favour the exercise of her
talents. Moreover, the Epeira sometimes had something to do with her
refusals; a certain ruse de guerre which was twice employed before my eyes
may well have baffled the aggressor. Let me describe the incident, if only
to increase our respect a little for these foolish Spiders, who are
provided with perfected weapons and do not dare to make use of them against
the weaker but bolder assailant.

The Epeira occupies the wall of the wire-gauze cage, with her eight legs
wide-spread upon the trelliswork; the Calicurgus is wheeling round the top
of the dome. Seized with panic at the sight of the approaching enemy, the
Spider drops to the ground, with her belly upwards and her legs gathered
together. The other dashes forward, clasps her round the body, explores her
and prepares to sting her in the mouth. But she does not bare her weapon. I
see her bending attentively over the poisoned fangs, as though to
investigate their terrible mechanism; she then goes away. The Spider is
still motionless, so much so that I really believe her dead, paralysed
unknown to me, at a moment when I was not looking. I take her from the cage
to examine her comfortably. No sooner is she placed on the table than
behold, she comes to life again and promptly scampers off! The cunning
creature was shamming death beneath the Wasp's stiletto, so artfully that I
was taken in. She deceived an enemy more cunning than myself, the Pompilus,
who inspected her very closely and took her for a corpse unworthy of her
dagger. Perhaps the simple creature, like the Bear in the fable of old,
already noticed the smell of high meat.

This ruse, if ruse it be, appears to me more often than not to turn to the
disadvantage of the Spider, whether Tarantula, Epeira or another. The
Calicurgus who has just put the Spider on her back after a brisk fight
knows quite well that her prostrate foe is not dead. The latter, thinking
to protect itself, simulates the inertia of a corpse; the assailant profits
by this to deliver her most perilous blow, the stab in the mouth. Were the
fangs, each tipped with its drop of poison, to open then; were they to
snap, to give a desperate bite, the Pompilus would not dare to expose the
tip of her abdomen to their deadly scratch. The shamming of death is
exactly what enables the huntress to succeed in her dangerous operation.
They say, O guileless Epeirae, that the struggle for life has taught you to
adopt this inert attitude for purposes of defence. Well, the struggle for
life was a very bad counsellor. Trust rather to common sense and learn, by
degrees, at your own cost, that to hit back, above all if you can do so
promptly, is still the best way to intimidate the enemy. (Fabre does not
believe in the actual shamming of death by animals. Cf. "The Glow-worm and
Other Beetles," by J. Henri Fabre, translated by Alexander Teixeira de
Mattos: chapters 8 to 15.--Translator's Note.)

The remainder of my observations on these insects under glass is little
more than a long series of failures. Of two operators on Weevils, one, the
Sandy Cerceris (C. arenaria), persistently scorned the victims offered; the
other, Ferrero's Cerceris (C. Ferreri), allowed herself to be empted after
two days' captivity. Her tactical method, as I expected, is precisely that
of the Cleonus-huntress, the Great Cerceris, with whom my investigations
commenced. When confronted with the Acorn-weevil, she seizes the insect by
the snout, which is immensely long and shaped like a pipe-stem, and plants
her sting in its body to the rear of the prothorax, between the first and
second pair of legs. It is needless to insist: the spoiler of the Cleoni
has taught us enough about this mode of operation and its results.

None of the Bembex-wasps, whether chosen among the huntresses of the Gadfly
or among the lovers of the House-fly rabble, satisfied my aspirations.
Their method is as unknown to me now as at the distant period when I used
to watch it in the Bois des Issards. (Cf. "The Hunting Wasps": chapters 14
to 18.--Translator's Note.) Their impetuous flight, their love of long
journeys are incompatible with captivity. Stunned by colliding with the
walls of their glass or wire-gauze prison, they all perish within twenty-
four hours. Swifter in their movements and apparently satisfied with their
honeyed thistle-heads, the Spheges, huntresses of Crickets or Ephippigers,
die as quickly of nostalgia. All I offer them leaves them indifferent.

Nor can I get anything out of the Eumenes, notably the biggest of them, the
builder of gravel cupolas, Amedeus' Eumenes. All the Pompili, except the
Harlequin Calicurgus, refuse my Spiders. The Palarus, who preys upon an
indefinite number of the Hymenopteron clan, refuses to tell me if she
drinks the honey of the Bees, as does the Philanthus, or if she lets the
others go without manipulating them to make them disgorge. The Tachytes do
not vouchsafe their Locusts a glance; Stizus ruficornis promptly gives up
the ghost, disdaining the Praying Mantis which I provide for her.

What is the use of continuing this list of checks? The rule may be gathered
from these few examples: occasional successes and many failures. What can
be the reason? With the exception of the Philanthus, tempted from time to
time by a bumper of honey, the predatory Wasps do not hunt on their own
account; they have their victualling-time, when the egg-laying is imminent,
when the family calls for food. Outside these periods, the finest heads of
game might well leave these nectar-bibbers indifferent. I am careful
therefore, as far as possible, to capture my subjects at the proper season;
I give preference to mothers caught upon the threshold of the burrow with
their prey between their legs. This diligence of mine by no means always
succeeds. There are demoralized insects which, once under glass, even after
a brief delay, no longer care about the equivalent of their prize.

All the species do not perhaps pursue their game with the same ardour; mood
and temperament are more variable even than conformation. To these factors,
which are of the nicest order, we may add that of the hour, which is often
unfavourable when the subject is caught at haphazard on the flowers, and we
shall have more than enough to explain the frequency of the failures. After
all, I must beware of representing my failures as the rule: what does not
succeed one day may very well succeed another day, under different
conditions. With perseverance and a little skill, any one who cares to
continue these interesting studies will, I am sure, fill up many gaps. The
problem is difficult but not impossible.

I will not quit my bell-jars without saying a word on the entomological
tact of the captives when they decide to attack. One of the pluckiest of my
subjects, the Hairy Ammophila, was not always provided with the hereditary
dish of her family, the Grey Worm. I offered her indiscriminately any bare-
skinned caterpillars that I chanced to find. Some were yellow, some green,
some brown with white edges. All were accepted without hesitation, provided
that they were of suitable size. Tasty game was recognized wonderfully
under very dissimilar liveries. But a young Zeuzera-caterpillar, dug out of
the branches of a lilac-tree, and a silkworm of small dimensions were
definitely refused. The over-fed products of our silkworm-nurseries and the
mystery-loving caterpillar which gnaws the inner wood of the lilac inspired
her with suspicion and disgust, despite their bare skin, which favoured the
sting, and their shape, which was similar to that of the victims accepted.

Another ardent huntress, the Interrupted Scolia, refused the Cetonia-grub,
which is of like habits with the Anoxia-larva; the Two-banded Scolia also
refused the Anoxia. The Philanthus, the headlong murderess of Bees, saw
through my trickery when I confronted her with the Virgilian Bee, the
Eristalis (E. tenax). She, a Philanthus, take this Fly for a Bee! What
next! The popular idea is mistaken; antiquity too is mistaken, as witness
the "Georgics," which make the putrid remains of a sacrificed Bull give
birth to a swarm; but the Wasp makes no mistake. In her eyes, which see
farther than ours, the Eristalis is an odious Dipteron, a lover of
corruption, and nothing more.





Next: OBJECTIONS AND REJOINDERS

Previous: THE METHOD OF THE SCOLIAE



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