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- The Life of the Fly - 5/49 -


sleeping larva as yet has no very definite static existence; it is like the raw materials collected for a building; it is waiting for the elaboration that is to make a bee of it. To mould those shapeless lumps of the future insect, the air, that prime adjuster of living things, circulates among them, passing through a network of ducts. To organize them, to direct the placing of them, the nervous system, the embryo of the animal, distributes its ramifications over them. Nerve and air duct, therefore, are the essentials; the rest is so much material in reserve for the process of the metamorphosis. As long as that material is not employed, as long as it has not acquired its final equilibrium, it can grow less and less; and life, though languishing, will continue all the same on the express condition that the respiratory organs and the nervous filaments be respected. It is as it were the flame of the lamp, which, whether full or empty, continues to give light so long as the wick is soaked in oil. Nothing but fluids, the plastic materials held in reserve, can be distilled by the Anthrax' sucker through the unpierced skin of the grub; no part of the respiratory and nervous systems passes. As the two essential functions remain unscathed, life goes on until exhaustion is completed. On the other hand, if I myself injure the larva, I disturb the nervous or air conducting filaments; and the bruised part spreads a taint, followed by putrefaction, all over the body.

I have elsewhere, speaking of the Scolia [a digger wasp] devouring the Cetonia grub, enlarged upon this refined art of eating which consists in consuming the prey while killing it only at the last mouthfuls. The Anthrax has the same requirements as his competitors who dine off fresh viands. He needs meat of that day, taken from a single joint that has to last a fortnight without going bad. His method of consuming reaches the highest level of art: he does not cut into his prey, he sips it little by little through his sucker. In this way, any dangerous risk is averted. Whether he imbibe at this spot or at that, even if he abandon the sucking process and resume it later, by no accident can he ever attack that which it is incumbent upon him to respect lest corruption supervene. The others have a fixed position on the victim, a place at which their mandibles have to bite and enter. If they move away from it, if they miss the appointed path, they imperil their existence. The Anthrax, more highly favored, puts his mouth where it suits him; he leaves off when he pleases and when he pleases starts again.

Unless I labor under a delusion, I think that I see the necessity for this privilege. The egg of the carnivorous burrower is firmly fixed on the victim at a point which varies considerably, it is true, according to the nature of the prey, but which is uniform for the same species of prey; moreover--and this is an important condition--the point of adhesion of that egg is always the head, whereas the egg of a bee, of the Osmia, for instance, is fixed to the mess of honey by the hinder end. When hatched, the new born Wasp grub has not to choose for itself, at its risk and peril, the suitable point at which to take the first cut in the quarry without fear of killing it too quickly: all that it need do is to bite at the spot where it has just been born. The mother, with her unfailing instinct, has already made the dangerous choice; she has stuck her egg on the propitious spot and, by the very act of doing so, marked out the course for the inexperienced grub to follow. The tact of ripe age here guides the young larva's behavior at table.

The conditions are very different in the Anthrax' case. The egg is not placed upon the victuals, it is not even laid in the mason bee's cell. This is the natural consequence of the mother's feeble frame and of her lack of any instrument, such as a probe or auger, capable of piercing the mortar wall. It is for the newly hatched grub to make its own way into the dwelling. It enters, finds itself in the presence of ample provisions, the larva of the mason bee. Free of its actions, it is at liberty to attack the prey where it chooses; or rather the attacking point will be decided at haphazard by the first contact of the mouth in quest of food. Grant this mouth a set of carving tools, jaws and mandibles; in short, suppose the grub of the Fly to possess a manner of eating similar to that of the other carnivorous larvae; and the nursling is at once threatened with a speedy death. He will split open his nurse's belly, he will dig without any rule to guide him, he will bite at random, essentials as well as accessories; and, from one day to the next, he will set up gangrene in the violated mass, even as I myself do when I give it a wound. For the lack of an attacking point prescribed for him at birth, he will perish on the damaged provisions. His freedom of action will have killed him.

Certainly, liberty is a noble attribute, even in an insignificant grub; but it also has its dangers everywhere. The Anthrax escapes the peril only on the condition of being, so to speak, muzzled. His mouth is not a fierce forceps that tears asunder; it is a sucker that exhausts but does not wound. Thus restrained by this safety appliance, which changes the bite into a kiss, the grub has fresh victuals until it has finished growing, although it knows nothing of the rules of methodical consumption at a fixed point and in a predetermined direction.

The considerations which I have set forth seem to me strictly logical: the Anthrax, owing to the very fact that he is free to take his nourishment where he pleases on the body of the fostering larva, must, for his own protection, be made incapable of opening his victim's body. I am so utterly convinced of this harmonious relation between the eater and the eaten that I do not hesitate to set it up as a principle. I will therefore say this: whenever the egg of any kind of insect is not fastened to the larva destined for its food, the young grub, free to select the attacking point and to change it at will, is as it were muzzled and consumes its provisions by a sort of suction, without inflicting any appreciable wound. This restriction is essential to the maintenance of the victuals in good condition. My principle is already supported by examples many and various, whose depositions are all to the same effect. The witnesses include, after the Anthrax, the Leucospis [a parasitic insect] and his rivals, whose evidence we shall hear presently; the Ephialtes mediator [an Ichneumon fly], who feeds, in the dry brambles, on the larva of the Black Psen [a digger wasp]; the Myodites, that strange, fly- shaped beetle whose grub consumes the larva of the cockchafer. All--flies, ichneumon flies and beetles--scrupulously spare their foster mother; they are careful not to tear her skin, so that the vessel may keep its liquid good to the last.

The wholesomeness of the victuals is not the only condition imposed: I find a second, which is no less essential. The substance of the fostering larva must be sufficiently fluid to ooze through the unbroken skin under the action of the sucker. Well, the necessary fluidity is realized as the time of the metamorphosis draws near. When they wished Medea to restore Pelias to the vigor of youth, his daughters cut the old king's body to pieces and boiled it in a cauldron, for there can be no new existence without a prior dissolution. We must pull down before we can rebuild; the analysis of death is the first step towards the synthesis of life. The substance of the grub that is to be transformed into a bee begins, therefore, by disintegrating and dissolving into a fluid broth. The materials of the future insect are obtained by a general recasting. Even as the founder puts his old bronzes into the melting pot in order afterwards to cast them in a mould whence the metal will issue in a different shape, so life liquefies the grub, a mere digesting machine, now thrown aside, and out of its running matter produces the perfect insect, bee, butterfly or beetle, the final manifestation of the living creature.

Let us open a Chalicodoma grub under the microscope, during the period of torpor. Its contents consists almost entirely of a liquid broth, in which swim numberless oily globules and a fine dust of uric acid, a sort of off-throw of the oxidized tissues. A flowing thing, shapeless and nameless, is all that the animal is, if we add abundant ramified air ducts, some nervous filaments and, under the skin, a thin layer of muscular fibers. A condition of this kind accounts for a fatty transpiration through the skin when the Anthrax' sucker is at work. At any other time, when the larva is in the active period or else when the insect has reached the perfect stage, the firmness of the tissues would resist the transfusion and the suckling of the Anthrax would become a difficult matter, or even impossible. In point of fact, I find the grub of the fly established, in the vast majority of cases, on the sleeping larva and sometimes, but rarely, on the pupa. Never do I see it on the vigorous larva eating its honey; and hardly ever on the insect brought to perfection, as we find it enclosed in its cell all through the autumn and winter. And we can say the same of the other grub eaters that drain their victims without wounding them: all are engaged in their death dealing work during the period of torpor, when the tissues are fluidified. They empty their patient, who has become a bag of running grease with a diffused life; but not one, among those I know, reaches the Anthrax' perfection in the art of extraction.

Nor can any be compared with the Anthrax as regards the means brought into play in order to leave the cell. These others, when they become perfect insects, have implements for sapping and demolishing, stout mandibles, capable of digging the ground, of pulling down clay partition walls and even of reducing the mason bee's tough cement to powder. The Anthrax, in her final form, has nothing like this. Her mouth is a short, soft proboscis, good at most for soberly licking the sugary exudations of the flowers; her slim legs are so feeble that to move a grain of sand were an excessive task for them, enough to strain every joint; her great, stiff wings, which must remain full spread, do not allow her to slip through a narrow passage; her delicate suit of downy velvet, from which you take the bloom by merely breathing on it, could not withstand the rough contact of the gallery of a mine. Unable herself to enter the Mason bee's cell to lay her egg, she cannot leave it either, when the time comes to free herself and appear in broad daylight in her wedding dress. The larva, on its side, is powerless to prepare the way for the coming flight. That buttery little cylinder, owning no tools but a sucker so flimsy that it barely arrives at substance and so small that it is almost a geometrical point, is even weaker than the adult insect, which at least flies and walks. The Mason bee's cell represents to it a granite cave. How to get out? The problem would be insoluble to those two incapables, if nothing else played its part.

Among insects, the nymph, or pupa, the transition stage between the larval and the adult form, is generally a striking picture of every weakness of a budding organism. A sort of mummy tight bound in swaddling clothes, motionless and impassive, it awaits the resurrection. Its tender tissues flow in every direction; its limbs, transparent as crystal, are held fixed in their place, along the side, lest a movement should disturb the exquisite delicacy of the work in course of accomplishment. Even so, to secure his recovery, is a broken boned patient held captive in the surgeon's bandages. Absolute stillness is necessary in both cases, lest they be crippled or even die.


The Life of the Fly - 5/49

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