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Insect Lore

( Originally Published 1908 )

Apis the bee, Vespa the wasp, and Arachne the spider these might properly figure in many a saga. Mighty are the works of the tribes of Apis, while Bombus the bumblebee befriends the pale flowers of the forest as do the winds the pine. Arachne beguiles the fly, for she is a very Medusa ; the solitary wasp slays the Gorgon and lays her in the tomb she has prepared, rolling a stone over the entrance ; lastly, from the body of the spider springs the race of wasps, like warriors from dragons' teeth in the days of Jason.

From the first flowering shrubs to the last goldenrod there is the hum of industry. The willows, on mild April days, resound with the roar of insect traffic. The bees push in rudely among the bunches of stamens, and the red anthers so neatly and compactly arranged are soon disheveled, the filaments bent by the myriad insect legs which scramble and kick through them. It is every-where bustle and hurry ; all are wrought to a tense degree. Life is here at a white heat purposeful, Anglo-Saxon ; yet it appears to move without friction. Occasionally a bee visits the meek-looking pistillate shrub near by, which patiently waits while the buzz and din continue uninterrupted across the path.

It is always a mystery just how the honey-bee transfers the pollen to the pollen-basket even in view of the explanation. It appears to be scraped from one leg to the other, and gradually shifted from fore to aft by a dexterous process until lodged in the proper place, the bee remaining all the time on the wing so that the legs are moved with perfect freedom. Finally it is stowed more neatly and compactly than any pack-mule's load, and the panniers are good to see, rich and yellow as pumpkins glistening in the corn field. Doubtless the bee is careful to keep the balance and not put more in one basket than in the other. Since pollen-grains are of distinct and definite shapes in different plants, is it not possible that the insect, from its near point of view, detects these differences, and in place of so much indistinguishable dust, finds itself handling minute cubes, spheres and variously shaped blocks ?

How readily bees are apprised of the blossoming of any flower. On the very instant the dwarf-sumacs open, the place hums with them. Solitary bumblebees continually scout through the woods and discover when the Indian-pipe, the shinleaf, the pipsissewa are in bloom. Only the queen bumblebee can have any memory of these flowers, as the life of the workers is but a season long. Probably they do not communicate the news, but each hunts for itself. With the honey-bees, how-ever, this is the gossip of the hive as much as the state of the crops with farmers : "Meadow sweet is open today ! " Clethra is in bloom!" "The first goldenrod!" Imagine the news circulating like wildfire through the hives. Honey-bees have little time or patience to hunt up solitary and retiring flowers. They want masses of bloom, fields of blossom, having a large work to do — a city to build, a host to feed.

The bumblebee is the good angel of the wood-land flowers, the visiting priest -- or shall I say priestess — to all outlying parishes, calling at every ledge and gorge and dell where is any colony of blossoms or a lone settler or two. The bee discovers the pale pendent blossoms of the checker-berry under the leaves and almost prone upon the ground. In order to reach them it sometimes turns on its back upon the hemlock needles as it inserts its tongue in the flower above. In winter when you gather a checkerberry now and then in your walk you shall bestow a thought upon the buzzing priest of Flora who solemnized these nuptials. It visits every flower in the transparent groups of Indian-pipes which push their way up through the leaf mould to stand like an assembly of the pale-sheeted dead, and looks singularly rich and velvety against these stems of alabaster. Here is a botanist who knows the flora well, and takes a tithe from every blossom to which is brought a grain of pollen the marriage fee. It is hard to believe so willing an agent is unaware of the service; that it fills an office which it does not recognize, while we, the biographers, alone perceive the relation.

Tell me, is there not something heroic in the life of the queen bumblebee? She awakens after her winter sleep, the sole survivor of her race, and bravely goes forth to collect pollen, lay her eggs and become the founder of a new race of workers. There is rude and virile romance in the life of this bee with its flavor of the forest. She is the queen-mother indeed, no mere figurehead, but strong, capable, self-reliant. Think of her retiring under the moss and leaves at the approach of winter, the last of her race ; or, rather, do they all resign themselves to a sleep from which she alone is to awaken. She remains encircled by Cold as Brunhilde was engirdled with Fire till the sun shall cross the magic line and awaken the sleeping Amazon.

Today I split open a dead twig of sumac in which the little upholsterer-bee had laid her eggs. From the summit a well or shaft was sunk some ten inches through the central pith. This I cautiously descended by means of a jack-knife and found it partitioned into a dozen cells, in each of which lay a pupa, the pallid sleepers like mummies in their royal tombs awaiting a resurrection. The cells were lined upholstered in silk and partitioned from each other by walls of chips cemented together. In some cases the pupa was being devoured by the minute larva of a chalcid fly, and in one cell only the dried skin remained. For that pupa there was to be no resurrection into the life of the bee, but as the cell was opened, out stepped a tiny chalcid into the light of day, its dapper little person shining blue-black and its minute wings of an iridescent green.

You may see many broken twigs of sumac, elder and blackberry, perforated at the end in evidence that in the cells below are the larvae of a bee, or perhaps the pupa wrapped in their transforming slumbers. This sepulcher is sign to the chalcid fly as well. In one such that I opened were several perfect bees, beautiful little green creatures. Immediately they stepped out upon my hand and began dusting and cleaning themselves, but appeared to be troubled by the brightness, and eager to hide. When offered the open end of a tube, such as they had recently come from, they seemed glad to enter. They were not yet fitted for contact with the world of light and preferred to return to the darkness and security of their cells. A spider had concealed herself in a silken room at the mouth of one tube, perhaps seeking this privacy in which to change her skin. When their time had come to emerge, the inmates would naturally have walked into the spider's den, while the light of day appeared beyond, but for a single instant, as a faint glimmer which they were destined never to reach.

However, there is a Theseus for every monster. A spider was one day spinning her web in an outer angle of the veranda, laying the first strands, the scaffolding. Attaching one point she swung out on her line and fixed a second, aided by the breeze. Without the wind she perhaps could not have erected her scaffolding in that place. The morning sunlight caught these first threads, stretched from post to beam, and they gleamed like silver or spun glass. At length a wide space was to be bridged and she swung free at the end of a long strand. The breeze carried her to and fro, far out from under the roof, so that she remained suspended in mid-air.

But other eyes were watching her at her work. As she swung thus, self-possessed and at ease, suddenly a mud-dauber pounced upon her. The silver strand parted in the sunlight, and the spider was carried to the beam above, where the wasp apparently stung her several times. A moment after she rose in air holding the large globular spider, now paralyzed and inert, and sailed away over the tree-tops in the direction of her nest. The victim was to be immured in a sarcophagus of mud together with the egg of the wasp. When the egg hatched, the larva in this tomb with the body of the spider would find such gruesome state con-genial enough —being of the wasps. In this case a spider the less means a wasp the more.

Late one afternoon a spider was constructing her web. She already had her first line stretched between two small shrubs. On this she crossed and recrossed several times, each trip reeling out a new strand from her spinnerets, until she had a stout cable from which the gossamer structure was to depend. From an end of this she dropped to the ground and fastened a thread, then ascended, traversed the cable and dropped lines from the other end to the twigs beneath. All were remark-ably taut and firm. By crossing two she now established the center of the web not the geometric center — and from the overhead cable spun some radii to this point and from this to the lower strand. In an incredibly short time she had lines radiating in all directions from the center like the spokes of a wheel.

She now fairly ran over these spokes paying out the strand as she laid the spiral web upon the gleaming radii. Starting at the center she traveled from left to right, passing the thread through the claw of one of the last pair of legs. By this means it was held from her as far as possible and quickly attached to each of the radii. A very short time sufficed for her to complete this spiral of perhaps a foot in diameter, and she had only to return over the ground with the final thread, on which are strung the viscid drops.

She paused as if resting, and in that moment a Social wasp descended like a fury and bore her to the ground. The wasp quickly rose holding the spider in her embrace, and returning to the bush suspended herself by one hind claw. Here she held the body of the spider with two pair of legs, and turning it about, as though it were on a spit, bit off some of the head parts with her strong jaws which worked like a pair of shears. So near was I that I could see these jaws meet and sever the thorax, which fell and glanced from a leaf a few inches below with the faintest imaginable sound. The wasp then proceeded to tear open the abdomen. The builder of gossamer bridges, who overcame space and flung her nets to the breeze, was no more. I looked again at the unfinished web and in it struggled a small fly.

In stretching the first strand the spider avails herself of the wind to some extent. When crossing from one point to another it is by no means necessary she should drop from a height equal to the distance to be crossed ; for if the wind is strong enough she has but to descend a little way, and then, as it holds her out at right angles, she pays out the line and so continues moving in mid-air. As soon as she comes in contact with some object she at once attaches her thread. I have more than once observed a spider drop a short distance when there was no breeze to carry her, but by the movement of her body she imparted a slight motion to the line and thus set herself to gyrating until she finally swung across the intervening space.

The spinners of flat webs in the grass are associated with dog-days and with foggy weather, as if they spread their tents only at such times to fold them again and steal away with the appearance of the sun. As a matter of fact these spiders work in clear weather and at different hours of the day, but the web is so fine as to be next to invisible unless covered with moisture, when it at once attracts the eye, like a writing in invisible ink which becomes manifest only under the right conditions.

There are other spiders which become evident only at the approach of winter. It is something to the credit of these small spiders that, being without wings, they should still aspire to fly; whereas the ants, born with wings, are in haste to tear them off. The past year they were so in evidence on the i i th of November that I shall henceforth associate that day with the flight of the Erigone. The weather was cool, but with a suggestion of Indian summer in the air. I first noticed the spiders on top of a hill, for the bare twigs of sumacs were streaming with gossamer threads which shone like silver. From time to time little spiders descended from the upper regions and ran about over my coat. One, which was spinning threads on my sleeve, finally ran out upon my hand and, elevating its spinnerets, began paying out a line, which I could see as I held it against the sun. When this had reached a length of several feet the little spider was whisked off by the breeze and carried away.

Toward sunset a delicate network of gossamer threads covered the open pastures like a silver mesh in which the earth lay captive. These minute spiders have a way at this time of allowing the strands to be drawn from their spinnerets by the wind, until they carry sail enough to be lifted off their feet. They fly away thus on the wings of the winds, perhaps carried high above the earth by ascending currents. Lo, the hegira of the spiders !

It would appear that the Solitary wasps are more ingenious and self-reliant, and less governed by tradition, than the Social bees and wasps ; for I have seen a small black one which was unable to rise on the wing with the large spider it was carrying, finally drag it up the trunk of an oak to the height of seven feet and from that vantage fly away. Such an one pulled a spider much larger than herself up on my knee and left it there, paralyzed but alive, while she made explorations, after which she returned and took it away. As I was making some notes at the time with reference to wasps, the incident made a pleasant impression, quite as though she had taken me into her confidence and had gone out of her way to reveal some facts of her life.

One day I encountered a sand-wasp which had just stung a wireworm and was dragging it over the ground. The worm, which resembled a brown twig, was three Inches long and as large around as a slate-pencil, while the wasp was not over an inch and a quarter in length and very slender. Seizing the victim in her jaws and straddling it, the wasp walked along in this uncomfortable fashion, over ground strewn with pebbles and partly covered with brush. Difficulties were many, and she was kept constantly pulling, tugging and boosting to get the worm along.

At length she penetrated the brush and came out bearing the worm into an open gravelly space. Here she turned off sharply for a distance of two yards, and, after running nervously to and fro, stopped in front of a small hole. She had been over an hour dragging the worm. During that time one main direction had been followed, though never had she to my knowledge left her burden and risen above the brush and trees to get her bearings ; yet she found her way unerringly, and only turned aside because of the boulders and clumps of white birch stumps. The whole distance was about forty feet in a straight line, but further as the wasp had gone.

Backing into the hole, she seized the worm and attempted to drag it in after her, but the entrance proved too small. She therefore came out and began rapidly enlarging it by seizing bits of gravel with her jaws and fore legs, rising in the air and carrying them off six or eight inches. Again she entered, and this time was able to pull the worm in after her. She remained three or four minutes in the hole, during which time she was depositing her eggs, then her head reappeared at the opening.

She now began filling in. Dropping two or more bits of gravel, she would then turn her back and rapidly scratch in dirt with her fore legs, evidently to fill up the interstices. Twice she, took out a bit of gravel and carried it away, precisely as a mason might throw aside a stone that was not the right shape or size. As her head was thus inserted in the hole a black ant approached and peered into the depths. Suddenly the wasp turned and gave one look, whereupon the ant fled in haste.

When the hole was filled to the brim she tamped it down with her head. This occupied her some minutes and she appeared to take the utmost care. Gravel was then brought and piled upon the spot until it exactly resembled its surroundings. The stones carried varied in size from those as large as a buckshot to some the size of a marrowfat pea. They were lifted and carried seemingly without effort, and dropped almost before one could see what she was about. Twenty minutes were consumed in filling up the hole and restoring the surface.

On a sudden she vanished, and with her vanished the place itself where she had been at work. It was as if a trap-door had closed, and no sign was left. So carefully had she done her work and so closely imitated the surroundings, like a miser burying his gold, it was only after careful search I could again locate the spot.

Thus in the economy of Nature every insect appears to be food for some other. On the leaves of the Virginia creeper you may usually find, in early autumn, some caterpillars which have received the eggs of a small chalcid fly. These caterpillars, otherwise so large and green and awe-some to the beholder, have become limp and lean and have an aged and decrepit look. They hold feebly to the vine but no longer eat anything. I brought home one of them and in a short time there emerged from its body a great number of small white grubs, fifty or more by actual count.

Upon the back of their emaciated host they proceeded to spin for themselves marvelous little cocoons of white silk which they did in a very brief time. Moving their heads this way and that they spun the fine threads about themselves until they were completely enveloped. Here were a great number of little spinners, making for themselves garments of silk, and at last spinning them-selves out of sight. The caterpillar now bristled with the small white cocoons which stood upon end on its back, where they were attached, and almost hid it from view.

The wary caterpillar has many foes. If it escapes the hungry warblers and vireos, there is still the army of goggle-eyed wasps and nervous ichneumons to circumvent. Yet a prodigious number survive. Were it not for their enemies they would overrun the earth. The butterflies sporting in the sunshine, and the small moths flitting about the lamp, have come through many perils, and may almost be said to have lived by their wits, so astonishing are the ruses they have devised to deceive their pursuers.

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