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THE PINE - CHAFER




The orthodox denomination of this insect is _Melolontha fullo_, Lin. It
does not answer, I am very well aware, to be difficult in matters of
nomenclature; make a noise of some sort, affix a Latin termination, and
you will have, as far as euphony goes, the equivalent of many of the
tickets pasted in the entomologist's specimen boxes. The cacophony would
be excusable if the barbarous term signified nothing but the creature
signified; but as a rule this name possesses, hidden in its Greek or
other roots, a certain meaning in which the novice hopes to find
instruction.

The hope is a delusion. The learned term refers to subtleties difficult
to comprehend, and of very indifferent importance. Too often it leads
the student astray, giving him glimpses that have nothing whatever in
common with the truth as we know it from observation. Very often the
errors implied by such names are flagrant; sometimes the allusions are
ridiculous, grotesque, or merely imbecile. So long as they have a decent
sound, how infinitely preferable are locutions in which etymology finds
nothing to dissect! Of such would be the word _fullo_, were it not that
it already has a meaning which immediately occurs to the mind. This
Latin expression means a _fuller_; a person who kneads and presses cloth
under a stream of water, making it flexible and ridding it of the
asperities of weaving. What connection has the subject of this chapter
with the fuller of cloth? I may puzzle my head in vain: no acceptable
reply will occur to me.

The term _fullo_ as applied to an insect is found in Pliny. In one
chapter the great naturalist treats of remedies against jaundice,
fevers, and dropsy. A little of everything enters into this antique
pharmacy: the longest tooth of a black dog; the nose of a mouse wrapped
in a pink cloth; the right eye of a green lizard torn from the living
animal and placed in a bag of kid-skin; the heart of a serpent, cut out
with the left hand; the four articulations of the tail of a scorpion,
including the dart, wrapped tightly in a black cloth, so that for three
days the sick man can see neither the remedy nor him that applies it;
and a number of other extravagances. We may well close the book, alarmed
at the slough of the imbecility whence the art of healing has come down
to us.

In the midst of these imbecilities, the preludes of medicine, we find a
mention of the "fuller." _Tertium qui vocatur fullo, albis guttis,
dissectum utrique lacerto adalligant_, says the text. To treat fevers
divide the fuller beetle in two parts and apply half under the right arm
and half under the left.

Now what did the ancient naturalist mean by the term "fuller beetle"? We
do not precisely know. The qualification _albis guttis_, white spots,
would fit the Pine-chafer well enough, but it is not sufficient to
make us certain. Pliny himself does not seem to have been very certain
of the identity of the remedy. In his time men's eyes had not yet
learned to see the insect world. Insects were too small; they were well
enough for amusing children, who would tie them to the end of a long
thread and make them walk in circles, but they were not worthy of
occupying the attention of a self-respecting man.

Pliny apparently derived the word from the country-folk, always poor
observers and inclined to extravagant denominations. The scholar
accepted the rural locution, the work perhaps of the imagination of
childhood, and applied it at hazard without informing himself more
particularly. The word came down to us embalmed with age; our modern
naturalists have accepted it, and thus one of our handsomest insects has
become the "fuller." The majesty of antiquity has consecrated the
strange appellation.

In spite of all my respect for the antique, I cannot myself accept the
term "fuller," because under the circumstances it is absurd. Common
sense should be considered before the aberrations of nomenclature. Why
not call our subject the Pine-chafer, in reference to the beloved tree,
the paradise of the insect during the two or three weeks of its aerial
life? Nothing could be simpler, or more appropriate, to give the better
reason last.

We have to wander for ages in the night of absurdity before we reach the
radiant light of the truth. All our sciences witness to this fact; even
the science of numbers. Try to add a column of Roman figures; you will
abandon the task, stupefied by the confusion of symbols; and will
recognise what a revolution was made in arithmetic by the discovery of
the zero. Like the egg of Columbus, it was a very little thing, but it
had to be thought of.

While hoping that the future will sink the unfortunate "fuller" in
oblivion, we will use the term "pine chafer" between ourselves. Under
that name no one can possibly mistake the insect in question, which
frequents the pine-tree only.

It has a handsome and dignified appearance, rivalling that of _Oryctes
nasicornis_. Its costume, if it has not the metallic splendour dear to
the Scarabaei, the Buprestes and the rose-beetles, is at least unusually
elegant. A black or chestnut background is thickly sown with
capriciously shaped spots of white velvet; a fashion both modest and
handsome.

The male bears at the end of his short antennae a kind of plume
consisting of seven large superimposed plates or leaves, which, opening
and closing like the sticks of a fan, betray the emotions that possess
him. At first sight it seems that this magnificent foliage must form a
sense-organ of great perfection, capable of perceiving subtle odours, or
almost inaudible vibrations of the air, or other phenomena to which our
senses fail to respond; but the female warns us that we must not place
too much reliance on such ideas; for although her maternal duties demand
a degree of impressionability at least as great as that of the male, yet
the plumes of her antennae are extremely meagre, containing only six
narrow leaves.

What then is the use of the enormous fan-like structure of the male
antennae? The seven-leaved apparatus is for the Pine-chafer what his long
vibrating horns are to the Cerambyx and the panoply of the head to the
Onthophagus and the forked antlers of the mandibles to the Stag-beetle.
Each decks himself after his manner in these nuptial extravagances.

This handsome chafer appears towards the summer solstice, almost
simultaneously with the first Cigales. The punctuality of its appearance
gives it a place in the entomological calendar, which is no less
punctual than that of the seasons. When the longest days come, those
days which seem endless and gild the harvests, it never fails to hasten
to its tree. The fires of St. John, reminiscences of the festivals of
the Sun, which the children light in the village streets, are not more
punctual in their date.

At this season, in the hours of twilight, the Pine-chafer comes every
evening if the weather is fine, to visit the pine-trees in the garden. I
follow its evolutions with my eyes. With a silent flight, not without
spirit, the males especially wheel and wheel about, extending their
great antennary plumes; they go to and fro, to and fro, a procession of
flying shadows upon the pale blue of the sky in which the last light of
day is dying. They settle, take flight again, and once more resume their
busy rounds. What are they doing up there during the fortnight of their
festival?

The answer is evident: they are courting their mates, and they continue
to render their homage until the fall of night. In the morning both
males and females commonly occupy the lower branches. They lie there
isolated, motionless, indifferent to passing events. They do not avoid
the hand about to seize them. Most of them are hanging by their hind
legs and nibbling the pine-needles; they seem to be gently drowsing with
the needles at their mouths. When twilight returns they resume their
frolics.

To watch these frolics in the tops of the trees is hardly possible; let
us try to observe them in captivity. Four pairs are collected in the
morning and placed, with some twigs off the pine-tree, in a spacious;
cage. The sight is hardly worth my attention; deprived of the
possibility of flight, the insects cannot behave as in the open. At most
I see a male from time to time approaching his beloved; he spreads out
the leaves of his antennae, and agitates them so that they shiver
slightly; he is perhaps informing himself if he is welcome. Thereupon he
puts on his finest airs and exhibits his attainments. It is a useless
display; the female is motionless, as though insensible to these
demonstrations. Captivity has sorrows that are hard to overcome. This
was all that I was able to see. Mating, it appears, must take place
during the later hours of the night, so that I missed the propitious
moment.

One detail in particular interested me. The Pine-chafer emits a musical
note. The female is as gifted as the male. Does the lover make use of
his faculty as a means of seduction and appeal? Does the female answer
the chirp of her _innamorata_ by a similar chirp? That this may be so
under normal conditions, amidst the foliage of the pines, is extremely
probable; but I can make no assertion, as I have never heard anything of
the kind either among the pines or in my laboratory.

The sound is produced by the extremity of the abdomen, which gently
rises and falls, rubbing, as it does so, with its last few segments, the
hinder edge of the wing-covers, which are held firm and motionless.
There is no special equipment on the rubbing surface nor on the surface
rubbed. The magnifying-glass looks in vain for the fine striations
usually found in the musical instruments of the insect world. All is
smooth on either hand. How then is the sound engendered?

Rub the end of the moistened finger on a strip of glass, or a
window-pane, and you will obtain a very audible sound, somewhat
analogous to that emitted by the chafer. Better still, use a scrap of
indiarubber to rub the glass with, and you will reproduce with some
fidelity the sound in question. If the proper rhythm is observed the
imitation is so successful that one might well be deceived by it.

In the musical apparatus of the Pine-chafer the pad of the finger-tip
and the scrap of indiarubber are represented by the soft abdomen of the
insect, and the glass is represented by the blade of the wing-cover,
which forms a thin, rigid plate, easily set in vibration. The
sound-mechanism of the Pine-chafer is thus of the very simplest
description.






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