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- The Life of the Fly - 6/49 -


Well, here, by a strange inversion that confuses all our views on life, a Cyclopean task is laid upon the nymph of the Anthrax. It is the nymph that has to toil, to strive, to exhaust itself in efforts to burst the wall and open the way out. To the embryo falls the desperate duty, which shows no mercy to the nascent flesh; to the adult insect the joy of resting in the sun. This transposition of functions has as its result a well sinker's equipment in the nymph, an eccentric, complicated equipment which nothing suggested in the larva and which nothing recalls in the perfect insect. The set of tools includes an assortment of plowshares, gimlets, hooks and spears and of other implements that are not found in our trades nor named in our dictionaries. Let us do our best to describe the strange piercing gear.

In a fortnight at most, the Anthrax has consumed the Chalicodoma grub, whereof naught remains but the skin, gathered into a white granule. By the time that July is nearly over, it becomes rare to find any nurslings left upon their nurses. From this period until the following May, nothing fresh happens. The Anthrax retains its larval shape without any appreciable change and lies motionless in the mason bee's cocoon, beside the pellet remains. When the fine days of May arrive, the grub shrivels and casts its skin and the nymph appears, fully clad in a stout, reddish, horny hide.

The head is round and large, separated from the thorax by a strangulated furrow, crowned on top and in front with a sort of diadem of six hard, sharp, black spikes, arranged in a semicircle whose concave side faces downward. These spikes decrease slightly in length from the summit to the ends of the arch. Taken together, they suggest the radial crowns which we see the Roman emperors of the Decadence wear on the medals. This six-fold plowshare is the chief excavating tool. Lower down, on the median line, the instrument is finished off with a separate group of two small black spikes, placed close together.

The thorax is smooth, the wing cases large, folded under the body like a scarf and coming almost to the middle of the abdomen. This has nine segments, of which four, starting with the second, are armed, on the back, down the middle, with a belt of little horny arches, pale brown in color, drawn up parallel to one another, set in the skin by their convex surfaces and finishing at both ends with a hard, black point. Altogether, the belt thus forms a double row of little thorns, with a hollow in between. I count about twenty-five twin-toothed arches to one segment, which gives a total of two hundred spikes for the four rings thus armed.

The use of this rasp, or grater, is obvious: it gives the nymph a purchase on the wall of its gallery as the work proceeds. Thus anchored on a host of points, the stern pioneer is able to hit the obstacle harder with its diadem of awls. Moreover, to make it more difficult for the instrument to recoil, long, stiff bristles, pointing backwards, are scattered here and there among the climbing belts. There are some besides on the other segments, both on the ventral and the dorsal surface. On the flanks, they are thicker and arranged as it were in clusters.

The sixth segment carries a similar belt, but a much less powerful one, consisting of a single row of unassuming thorns. The belt is weaker still on the seventh segment; lastly, on the eighth, it is reduced to a mere rough brown shading. Commencing with the sixth, the rings decrease in width and the abdomen ends in a cone, the extremity of which, formed of the ninth segment, constitutes a weapon of a new kind. It is a sheaf of eight brown spikes. The last two exceed the others in length and stand out from the group in a double terminal plowshare.

There is a round air hole in front, on either side of the thorax, and similar stigmata on the flanks of each of the first seven abdominal segments. When at rest, the nymph is curved into a bow. When about to act, it suddenly unbends and straightens itself. It measures 15 to 20 millimeters long and 4 to 5 millimeters across.

Such is the strange perforating machine that is to prepare an outlet for the feeble Anthrax through the Mason bee's cement. The structural details, so difficult to explain in words, may be summed up as follows: in front, on the forehead, a diadem of spikes, the ramming and digging tool; behind, a many bladed plowshare which fits into a socket and allows the pupa to slacken suddenly in readiness for an attack on the barrier which has to be demolished; on the back, four climbing belts, or graters, which keep the animal in position by biting on the walls of the tunnel with their hundreds of teeth; and, all over the body, long, stiff bristles, pointing backwards, to prevent falls or recoils.

A similar structure exists in the other species of Anthrax with slight variations of detail. I will confine myself to one instance, that of Anthrax sinuata, who thrives at the cost of Osmia tricornis. Her nymph differs from that of Anthrax trifasciata, the Anthrax of the mason bee, in possessing less powerful armor. Its four climbing belts consist of only fifteen to seventeen double spiked arches, instead of twenty-five; also, the abdominal segments, from the sixth onwards, are supplied merely with stiff bristles, without a trace of horny spikes. If the evolution of the various Anthrax flies were better known to us, the number of these arches would, I believe, be of great service to entomology in the differentiation of species. I see it remaining constant for any given species, with marked variations between one species and another. But this is not my business: I merely call the attention of the classifiers to this field of study and pass on.

About the end of May, the coloring of the nymph, hitherto a light red, alters greatly and forecasts the coming transformation. The head, the thorax and the scarf formed by the wings become a handsome, shiny black. A dark band shows on the back of the four segments with their two rows of spikes; three spots appear on the two next rings; the anal armor becomes darker. In this manner we foresee the black livery of the coming insect. The time has arrived for the pupa to work at the exit gallery.

I was anxious to see it in action, not under natural conditions, which would be impracticable, but in a glass tube in which I confine it between two thick stoppers of sorghum pith. The space thus marked off is about the same size as the natal cell. The partitions front and back, although not so stout as the Chalicodoma's masonry, are nevertheless firm enough not to yield except to prolonged efforts; on the other hand, the side walls are smooth and the toothed belts will not be able to grip them: a most unfavorable condition for the worker. No matter: in the space of a single day, the pupa pierces the front partition, three quarters of an inch thick. I see it fixing its double plowshare against the back partition, arching into a bow and then suddenly releasing itself and striking the plug in front of it with its barbed forehead. Under the impact of the spikes, the sorghum slowly crumbles to pieces. It is slow in coming away; but it comes away all the same, atom by atom. At long intervals, the method changes. With its crown of awls driven into the pith, the animal frets and fidgets, sways on the pivot of its anal armor. The work of the auger follows that of the pickaxe. Then the blows recommence, interspersed with periods of rest to recover from the fatigue. At last, the hole is made. The pupa slips into it, but does not pass through entirely: the head and thorax appear outside; the abdomen remains held in the gallery.

The glass cell, with its lack of supports at the side, has certainly perplexed my subject, which does not seem to have made use of all its methods. The hole through the sorghum is wide and irregular; it is a clumsy breach and not a gallery. When made through the mason bee's walls, it is cylindrical, fairly neat and exactly of the animal's diameter. So I hope that, under natural conditions, the pupa does not give quite so many blows with the pickaxe and prefers to work with the drill.

Narrowness and evenness in the exit tunnel are necessary to it. It always remains half caught in it and even pretty securely fixed by the graters on its back. Only the head and thorax emerge into the outer air. This is a last precaution for the final deliverance. A fixed support is, in fact, indispensable to the Anthrax for issuing from her horny sheath, unfurling her great wings and extricating her slender legs from their scabbards. All this very delicate work would be endangered by any lack of steadiness.

The pupa, therefore, remains fixed by the graters of its back in the narrow exit gallery and thus supplies the stable equilibrium essential to the new birth. All is ready. It is time now for the great act. A transversal cleft makes its appearance on the forehead, at the bottom of the perforating diadem; a second, but longitudinal slit divides the skull in two and extends down the thorax. Through this cross-shaped opening, the Anthrax suddenly appears, all moist with the humors of life's laboratory. She steadies herself upon her trembling legs, dries her wings and takes to flight, leaving at the window of the cell her nymphal slough, which keeps intact for a very long period. The sand- colored fly has five or six weeks before her, wherein to explore the clay nests amid the thyme and to take her small share of the joys of life. In July, we shall see her once more, busy this time with the entrance into the cell, which is even stranger than the exit.

CHAPTER III ANOTHER PROBER (PERFORATOR)

What can he be called, this creature whose style and title I dare not inscribe at the head of the chapter? His name is Monodontomerus cupreus, SM. Just try it, for fun: Mo-no-don-to- me-rus. What a gorgeous mouthful! What an idea it gives one of some beast of the Apocalypse! We think, when we pronounce the word, of the prehistoric monsters: the mastodon, the mammoth, the ponderous megatherium. Well, we are misled by the scientific label: we have to do with a very paltry insect, smaller than the common gnat.

There are good people like that, only too happy to serve science with resounding appellations that might come from Timbuktu; they cannot name you a midge without striking terror into you. O ye wise and revered ones, ye christeners of animals, I am willing, in my study, to make use--but not undue use--of your harsh terminology, with its conglomeration of syllables; but there is a danger of their leaving the sanctum and appearing before the public, which is always ready to show its lack of deference for terms that do not respect its ears. I, wishing to speak like everybody else, so that I may be understood by all, and persuaded that science has no need of this Brobdignagian jargon, make a point of avoiding technical nomenclature when it becomes too barbarous, when it threatens to lumber the page the moment my pen attempts it. And so I abandon Monodontomerus.


The Life of the Fly - 6/49

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