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.





THE METHOD OF THE AMMOPHILAE. THE METHOD OF THE SCOLIAE facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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