THE SISYPHUS BEETLE - THE INSTINCT OF PATERNITY





The duties of paternity are seldom imposed on any but the higher

animals. They are most notable in the bird; and the furry peoples acquit

themselves honourably. Lower in the scale we find in the father a

general indifference as to the fate of the family. Very few insects form

exceptions to this rule. Although all are imbued with a mating instinct

that is almost frenzied, nearly all, when the passion of the moment is

appeased, terminate then and there their domestic relations, and

withdraw, indifferent to the brood, which has to look after itself as

best it may.



This paternal coldness, which would be odious in the higher walks of

animal life, where the weakness of the young demands prolonged

assistance, has in the insect world the excuse that the new-born young

are comparatively robust, and are able, without help, to fill their

mouths and stomachs, provided they find themselves in propitious

surroundings. All that the prosperity of the race demands of the

Pierides, or Cabbage Butterflies, is that they should deposit their eggs

on the leaves of the cabbage; what purpose would be served by the

instincts of a father? The botanical instinct of the mother needs no

assistance. At the period of laying the father would be in the way. Let

him pursue his flirtations elsewhere; the laying of eggs is a serious

business.



In the case of the majority of insects the process of education is

unknown, or summary in the extreme. The insect has only to select a

grazing-ground upon which its family will establish itself the moment it

is hatched; or a site which will allow the young to find their proper

sustenance for themselves. There is no need of a father in these various

cases. After mating, the discarded male, who is henceforth useless,

drags out a lingering existence of a few days, and finally perishes

without having given the slightest assistance in the work of installing

his offspring.



But matters are not everywhere so primitive as this. There are tribes in

which an inheritance is prepared for the family which will assure it

both of food and of shelter in advance. The Hymenoptera in particular

are past-masters in the provision of cellars, jars, and other utensils

in which the honey-paste destined for the young is stored; they are

perfect in the art of excavating storehouses of food for their grubs.



This stupendous labour of construction and provisioning, this labour

that absorbs the insect's whole life, is the work of the mother only,

who wears herself out at her task. The father, intoxicated with

sunlight, lies idle on the threshold of the workshop, watching the

heroic female at her work, and regards himself as excused from all

labour when he has plagued his neighbours a little.



Does he never perform useful work? Why does he not follow the example

of the swallows, each of whom brings a fair share of the straw and

mortar for the building of the nest and the midges for the young brood?

No, he does nothing; perhaps alleging the excuse of his relative

weakness. But this is a poor excuse; for to cut out little circles from

a leaf, to rake a little cotton from a downy plant, or to gather a

little mortar from a muddy spot, would hardly be a task beyond his

powers. He might very well collaborate, at least as labourer; he could

at least gather together the materials for the more intelligent mother

to place in position. The true motive of his idleness is ineptitude.



It is a curious thing that the Hymenoptera, the most skilful of all

industrial insects, know nothing of paternal labour. The male of the

genus, in whom we should expect the requirements of the young to develop

the highest aptitudes, is as useless as a butterfly, whose family costs

so little to establish. The actual distribution of instinct upsets our

most reasonable previsions.



It upsets our expectations so completely that we are surprised to find

in the dung-beetle the noble prerogative which is lacking in the bee

tribe. The mates of several species of dung-beetle keep house together

and know the worth of mutual labour. Consider the male and female

Geotrupes, which prepare together the patrimony of their larvae; in their

case the father assists his companion with the pressure of his robust

body in the manufacture of their balls of compressed nutriment. These

domestic habits are astonishing amidst the general isolation.



To this example, hitherto unique, my continual researches in this

direction permit me to-day to add three others which are fully as

interesting. All three are members of the corporation of dung-beetles. I

will relate their habits, but briefly, as in many respects their history

is the same as that of the Sacred Scarabaeus, the Spanish Copris, and

others.



The first example is the Sisyphus beetle (_Sisyphus Schaefferi_, Lin.),

the smallest and most industrious of our pill-makers. It has no equal in

lively agility, grotesque somersaults, and sudden tumbles down the

impossible paths or over the impracticable obstacles to which its

obstinacy is perpetually leading it. In allusion to these frantic

gymnastics Latreille has given the insect the name of Sisyphus, after

the celebrated inmate of the classic Hades. This unhappy spirit

underwent terrible exertions in his efforts to heave to the top of a

mountain an enormous rock, which always escaped him at the moment of

attaining the summit, and rolled back to the foot of the slope. Begin

again, poor Sisyphus, begin again, begin again always! Your torments

will never cease until the rock is firmly placed upon the summit of the

mountain.



I like this myth. It is, in a way, the history of many of us; not odious

scoundrels worthy of eternal torments, but worthy and laborious folk,

useful to their neighbours. One crime alone is theirs to expiate: the

crime of poverty. Half a century or more ago, for my own part, I left

many blood-stained tatters on the crags of the inhospitable mountain; I

sweated, strained every nerve, exhausted my veins, spent without

reckoning my reserves of energy, in order to carry upward and lodge in

a place of security that crushing burden, my daily bread; and hardly was

the load balanced but it once more slipped downwards, fell, and was

engulfed. Begin again, poor Sisyphus; begin again, until your burden,

falling for the last time, shall crush your head and set you free at

length.



The Sisyphus of the naturalists knows nothing of these tribulations.

Agile and lively, careless of slope or precipice, he trundles his load,

which is sometimes food for himself, sometimes for his offspring. He is

very rare hereabouts; I should never have succeeded in obtaining a

sufficient number of specimens for my purpose but for an assistant whom

I may opportunely present to the reader, for he will be mentioned again

in these recitals.



This is my son, little Paul, aged seven. An assiduous companion of the

chase, he knows better than any one of his age the secrets of the

Cigale, the Cricket, and especially of the dung-beetle, his great

delight. At a distance of twenty yards his clear sight distinguishes the

refuse-tip of a beetle's burrow from a chance lump of earth; his fine

ear will catch the chirping of a grasshopper inaudible to me. He lends

me his sight and hearing, and I in return make him free of my thoughts,

which he welcomes attentively, raising his wide blue eyes questioningly

to mine.



What an adorable thing is the first blossoming of the intellect! Best of

all ages is that when the candid curiosity awakens and commences to

acquire knowledge of every kind. Little Paul has his own insectorium, in

which the Scarabaeus makes his balls; his garden, the size of a

handkerchief, in which he grows haricot beans, which are often dug up to

see if the little roots are growing longer; his plantation, containing

four oak-trees an inch in height, to which the acorns still adhere.

These serve as diversions after the arid study of grammar, which goes

forward none the worse on that account.



What beautiful and useful knowledge the teaching of natural history

might put into childish heads, if only science would consider the very

young; if our barracks of universities would only combine the lifeless

study of books with the living study of the fields; if only the red tape

of the curriculum, so dear to bureaucrats, would not strangle all

willing initiative. Little Paul and I will study as much as possible in

the open country, among the rosemary bushes and arbutus. There we shall

gain vigour of body and of mind; we shall find the true and the

beautiful better than in school-books.



To-day the blackboard has a rest; it is a holiday. We rise early, in

view of the intended expedition; so early that we must set out fasting.

But no matter; when we are hungry we shall rest in the shade, and you

will find in my knapsack the usual viaticum--apples and a crust of

bread. The month of May is near; the Sisyphus should have appeared. Now

we must explore at the foot of the mountain, the scanty pastures through

which the herds have passed; we must break with our fingers, one by one,

the cakes of sheep-dung dried by the sun, but still retaining a spot of

moisture in the centre. There we shall find Sisyphus, cowering and

waiting until the evening for fresher pasturage.



Possessed of this secret, which I learned from previous fortuitous

discoveries, little Paul immediately becomes a master in the art of

dislodging the beetle. He shows such zeal, has such an instinct for

likely hiding-places, that after a brief search I am rich beyond my

ambitions. Behold me the owner of six couples of Sisyphus beetles: an

unheard-of number, which I had never hoped to obtain.



For their maintenance a wire-gauze cover suffices, with a bed of sand

and diet to their taste. They are very small, scarcely larger than a

cherry-stone. Their shape is extremely curious. The body is dumpy,

tapering to an acorn-shaped posterior; the legs are very long,

resembling those of the spider when outspread; the hinder legs are

disproportionately long and curved, being thus excellently adapted to

enlace and press the little pilule of dung.



Mating takes place towards the beginning of May, on the surface of the

soil, among the remains of the sheep-dung on which the beetles have been

feeding. Soon the moment for establishing the family arrives. With equal

zeal the two partners take part in the kneading, transport, and baking

of the food for their offspring. With the file-like forelegs a morsel of

convenient size is shaped from the piece of dung placed in the cage.

Father and mother manipulate the piece together, striking it blows with

their claws, compressing it, and shaping it into a ball about the size

of a big pea.



As in the case of the _Scarabaeus sacer_, the exact spherical form is

produced without the mechanical device of rolling the ball. Before it is

moved, even before it is cut loose from its point of support, the

fragment is modelled into the shape of a sphere. The beetle as geometer

is aware of the form best adapted to the long preservation of preserved

foods.



The ball is soon ready. It must now be forced to acquire, by means of a

vigorous rolling, the crust which will protect the interior from a too

rapid evaporation. The mother, recognisable by her slightly robuster

body, takes the place of honour in front. Her long hinder legs on the

soil, her forelegs on the ball, she drags it towards her as she walks

backwards. The father pushes behind, moving tail first, his head held

low. This is exactly the method of the Scarabaeus beetles, which also

work in couples, though for another object. The Sisyphus beetles harness

themselves to provide an inheritance for their larvae; the larger insects

are concerned in obtaining the material for a banquet which the two

chance-met partners will consume underground.



The couple set off, with no definite goal ahead, across the

irregularities of the soil, which cannot be avoided by a leader who

hauls backwards. But even if the Sisyphus saw the obstacles she would

not try to evade them: witness her obstinate endeavour to drag her load

up the wire gauze of her cage!



A hopeless undertaking! Fixing her hinder claws in the meshes of the

wire gauze the mother drags her burden towards her; then, enlacing it

with her legs, she holds it suspended. The father, finding no purchase

for his legs, clutches the ball, grows on to it, so to speak, thus

adding his weight to that of the burden, and awaits events. The effort

is too great to last. Ball and beetle fall together. The mother, from

above, gazes a moment in surprise, and suddenly lets herself fall, only

to re-embrace the ball and recommence her impracticable efforts to scale

the wall. After many tumbles the attempt is at last abandoned.



Even on level ground the task is not without its difficulties. At every

moment the load swerves on the summit of a pebble, a fragment of gravel;

the team are overturned, and lie on their backs, kicking their legs in

the air. This is a mere nothing. They pick themselves up and resume

their positions, always quick and lively. The accidents which so often

throw them on their backs seem to cause them no concern; one would even

think they were invited. The pilule has to be matured, given a proper

consistency. In these conditions falls, shocks, blows, and jolts might

well enter into the programme. This mad trundling lasts for hours and

hours.



Finally, the mother, considering that the matter has been brought to a

satisfactory conclusion, departs in search of a favourable place for

storage. The father, crouched upon the treasure, waits. If the absence

of his companion is prolonged he amuses himself by rapidly whirling the

pill between his hind legs, which are raised in the air. He juggles with

the precious burden; he tests its perfections between his curved legs,

calliper-wise. Seeing him frisking in this joyful occupation, who can

doubt that he experiences all the satisfactions of a father assured of

the future of his family? It is I, he seems to say, it is I who have

made this loaf, so beautifully round; it is I who have made the hard

crust to preserve the soft dough; it is I who have baked it for my sons!

And he raises on high, in the sight of all, this magnificent testimonial

of his labours.



But now the mother has chosen the site. A shallow pit is made, the mere

commencement of the projected burrow. The ball is pushed and pulled

until it is close at hand. The father, a vigilant watchman, still

retains his hold, while the mother digs with claws and head. Soon the

pit is deep enough to receive the ball; she cannot dispense with the

close contact of the sacred object; she must feel it bobbing behind her,

against her back, safe from all parasites and robbers, before she can

decide to burrow further. She fears what might happen to the precious

loaf if it were abandoned at the threshold of the burrow until the

completion of the dwelling. There is no lack of midges and tiny

dung-beetles--Aphodiinae--which might take possession of it. It is only

prudent to be distrustful.



So the ball is introduced into the pit, half in and half out of the

mouth of the burrow. The mother, below, clasps and pulls; the father,

above, moderates the jolts and prevents it from rolling. All goes well.

Digging is resumed, and the descent continues, always with the same

prudence; one beetle dragging the load, the other regulating its descent

and clearing away all rubbish that might hinder the operation. A few

more efforts, and the ball disappears underground with the two miners.

What follows will be, for a time at least, only a repetition of what we

have seen. Let us wait half a day or so.



If our vigilance is not relaxed we shall see the father regain the

surface alone, and crouch in the sand near the mouth of the burrow.

Retained by duties in the performance of which her companion can be of

no assistance, the mother habitually delays her reappearance until the

following day. When she finally emerges the father wakes up, leaves his

hiding place, and rejoins her. The reunited couple return to their

pasturage, refresh themselves, and then cut out another ball of dung.

As before, both share the work; the hewing and shaping, the transport,

and the burial in ensilage.



This conjugal fidelity is delightful; but is it really the rule? I

should not dare to affirm that it is. There must be flighty individuals

who, in the confusion under a large cake of droppings, forget the fair

confectioners for whom they have worked as journeymen, and devote

themselves to the services of others, encountered by chance; there must

be temporary unions, and divorces after the burial of a single pellet.

No matter: the little I myself have seen gives me a high opinion of the

domestic morals of the Sisyphus.



Let us consider these domestic habits a little further before coming to

the contents of the burrow. The father works fully as hard as the mother

at the extraction and modelling of the pellet which is destined to be

the inheritance of a larva; he shares in the work of transport, even if

he plays a secondary part; he watches over the pellet when the mother is

absent, seeking for a suitable site for the excavation of the cellar; he

helps in the work of digging; he carries away the rubbish from the

burrow; finally, to crown all these qualities, he is in a great measure

faithful to his spouse.



The Scarabaeus exhibits some of these characteristics. He also assists

his spouse in the preparation of pellets of dung; he also assists her to

transport the pellets, the pair facing each other and the female going

backwards. But as I have stated already, the motive of this mutual

service is selfish; the two partners labour only for their own good. The

feast is for themselves alone. In the labours that concern the family

the female Scarabaeus receives no assistance. Alone she moulds her

sphere, extracts it from the lump and rolls it backwards, with her back

to her task, in the position adopted by the male Sisyphus; alone she

excavates her burrow, and alone she buries the fruit of her labour.

Oblivious of the gravid mother and the future brood, the male gives her

no assistance in her exhausting task. How different to the little

pellet-maker, the Sisyphus!



It is now time to visit the burrow. At no very great depth we find a

narrow chamber, just large enough for the mother to move around at her

work. Its very exiguity proves that the male cannot remain underground;

so soon as the chamber is ready he must retire in order to leave the

female room to move. We have, in fact, seen that he returns to the

surface long before the female.



The contents of the cellar consist of a single pellet, a masterpiece of

plastic art. It is a miniature reproduction of the pear-shaped ball of

the Scarabaeus, a reproduction whose very smallness gives an added value

to the polish of the surface and the beauty of its curves. Its larger

diameter varies from half to three-quarters of an inch. It is the most

elegant product of the dung-beetle's art.



But this perfection is of brief duration. Very soon the little "pear"

becomes covered with gnarled excrescences, black and twisted, which

disfigure it like so many warts. Part of the surface, which is otherwise

intact, disappears under a shapeless mass. The origin of these knotted

excrescences completely deceived me at first. I suspected some

cryptogamic vegetation, some _Spheriaecaea_, for example, recognisable by

its black, knotted, incrusted growth. It was the larva that showed me my

mistake.



The larva is a maggot curved like a hook, carrying on its back an ample

pouch or hunch, forming part of its alimentary canal. The reserve of

excreta in this hunch enables it to seal accidental perforations of the

shell of its lodging with an instantaneous jet of mortar. These sudden

emissions, like little worm-casts, are also practised by the Scarabaeus,

but the latter rarely makes use of them.



The larvae of the various dung-beetles utilise their alimentary residues

in rough-casting their houses, which by their dimensions lend themselves

to this method of disposal, while evading the necessity of opening

temporary windows by which the ordure can be expelled. Whether for lack

of sufficient room, or for other reasons which escape me, the larva of

the Sisyphus, having employed a certain amount in the smoothing of the

interior, ejects the rest of its digestive products from its dwelling.



Let us examine one of these "pears" when the inmate is already partly

grown. Sooner or later we shall see a spot of moisture appear at some

point on the surface; the wall softens, becomes thinner, and then,

through the softened shell, a jet of dark green excreta rises and falls

back upon itself in corkscrew convolutions. One excrescence the more has

been formed; as it dries it becomes black.



What has occurred? The larva has opened a temporary breach in the wall

of its shell; and through this orifice, in which a slight thickness of

the outer glaze still remains, it has expelled the excess of mortar

which it could not employ within. This practice of forming oubliettes in

the shell of its prison does not endanger the grub, as they are

immediately closed, and hermetically sealed by the base of the jet,

which is compressed as by a stroke of a trowel. The stopper is so

quickly put in place that the contents remain moist in spite of the

frequent breaches made in the shell of the "pear." There is no danger of

an influx of the dry outer air.



The Sisyphus seems to be aware of the peril which later on, in the

dog-days, will threaten its "pear," small as it is, and so near the

surface of the ground. It is extremely precocious. It labours in April

and May when the air is mild. In the first fortnight of July, before the

terrible dog-days have arrived, the members of its family break their

shells and set forth in search of the heap of droppings which will

furnish them with food and lodging during the fierce days of summer.

Then come the short but pleasant days of autumn, the retreat underground

and the winter torpor, the awakening of spring, and finally the cycle is

closed by the festival of pellet-making.



One word more as to the fertility of the Sisyphus. My six couples under

the wire-gauze cover furnished me with fifty-seven inhabited pellets.

This gives an average of more than nine to each couple; a figure which

the _Scarabaeus sacer_ is far from attaining. To what should we attribute

this superior fertility? I can only see one cause: the fact that the

male works as valiantly as the female. Family cares too great for the

strength of one are not too heavy when there are two to support them.





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