A Book of Natural History Part 11

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I one day saw a small black and yellow banded wasp hunting for spiders; it approached a web where a spider was stationed in the centre, made a dart towards it--apparently a feint to frighten the spider clear of its web; at any rate it had that effect, for it fell to the ground, and was immediately seized by the wasp, who stung it, then ran quickly backwards, dragging the spider after it, up a branch reaching to the ground until it got high enough, when it flew heavily off with it. It was so small, and the spider so heavy, that it probably could not have raised it from the ground by flight. All over the world there are wasps that store their nests with the bodies of spiders for their young to feed on. In Australia, I often witnessed a wasp combating with a large flat spider that is found on the bark of trees. It would fall to the ground, and lie on its back, so as to be able to grapple with its opponent; but the wasp was always the victor in the encounters I saw, although it was not always allowed to carry off its prey in peace. One day, sitting on the sandbanks on the coast of Hobson's Bay, I saw one dragging along a large spider. Three or four inches above it hovered two minute flies, keeping a little behind, and advancing with it. The wasp seemed much disturbed by the presence of the tiny flies, and twice left its prey to fly up towards them, but they darted away with it. As soon as the wasp returned to the spider, there they were hovering over and following it again. At last, unable to drive away its small tormentors, the wasp reached its burrow and took down the spider, and the two flies stationed themselves one on each side the entrance, and would, doubtless, when the wasp went away to seek another victim, descend and lay their own eggs in the nest.

[Ill.u.s.tration: WASPS' NEST.]

[Ill.u.s.tration: THE SAND-WASP.]

The variety of wasps, as of all other insects, was very great around Santo Domingo. Many made papery nests, hanging from the undersides of large leaves. Others hung their open cells underneath verandahs and eaves of houses. One large black one was particularly abundant about houses, and many people got stung by them. They also built their pendent nests in the orange and lime trees, and it is not always safe to gather the fruit. Fortunately they are heavy flyers, and can often be struck down or evaded in their attacks. They do good where there are gardens, as they feed their young on caterpillars, and are continually hunting for them. Another species, banded brown and yellow (_Polistes carnifex_), has similar habits but is not so common.

Bates, in his account of the habits of the sand-wasps at Santarem, on the Amazon, gives an interesting account of the way in which they took a few turns in the air around the hole they had made in the sand before leaving to seek for flies in the forest, apparently to mark well the position of the burrow, so that on their return they might find it without difficulty. He remarks that this precaution would be said to be instinctive, but that the instinct is no mysterious and unintelligible agent, but a mental process in each individual differing from the same in man only by its unerring certainty. I had an opportunity of confirming his account of the proceedings of wasps when quitting a locality to which they wished to return, in all but their unerring certainty. I could not help noting how similar they were to the way in which a man would act who wished to return to some spot not easily found out, and with which he was not previously acquainted. A specimen of the _Polistes carnifex_ was hunting about for caterpillars in my garden. I found one about an inch long, and held it out towards it on the point of a stick. It seized it immediately, and commenced biting it from head to tail, soon reducing the soft body to a ma.s.s of pulp. It rolled up about one-half of it into a ball, and prepared to carry it off. Being at the time amidst a thick ma.s.s of a fine-leaved climbing plant, before flying away, he took note of the place where it was leaving the other half. To do this, it hovered in front of it for a few seconds, then took small circles in front of it, then larger ones round the whole plant. I thought it had gone, but it returned again, and had another look at the opening in the dense foliage down which the other half of the caterpillar lay. It then flew away, but must have left its burden for distribution with its comrades at the nest, for it returned in less than two minutes, and making one circle around the bush, descended to the opening, alighted on a leaf, and ran inside. The green remnant of the caterpillar was lying on another leaf inside, but not connected with the one on which the wasp alighted, so that in running in it missed it, and soon got hopelessly lost in the thick foliage. Coming out again, it took another circle, and pounced down on the same spot again, as soon as it came opposite to it. Three small seed-pods, which here grew close together, formed the marks that I had myself taken to note the place, and these the wasp seemed also to have taken as its guide, for it flew directly down to them, and ran inside; but the small leaf on which the fragment of caterpillar lay, not being directly connected with any on the outside, it again missed it, and again got far away from the object of its search. It then flew out again, and the same process was repeated again and again. Always when in circling round it came in sight of the seed-pods down it pounced, alighted near them, and recommenced its quest on foot. I was surprised at its perseverance, and thought it would have given up the search; but not so, it returned at least half a dozen times, and seemed to get angry, hurrying about with buzzing wings. At last it stumbled across its prey, seized it eagerly, and as there was nothing more to come back for, flew straight off to its nest, without taking any further note of the locality. Such an action is not the result of blind instinct, but of a thinking mind: and it is wonderful to see an insect so differently constructed using a mental process similar to that of man. It is suggestive of the probability of many of the actions of insects that we ascribe to instinct being the result of the possession of reasoning powers.

[Ill.u.s.tration: WASP AND HOLE IN THE SAND.]




[6] Reprinted by permission from Bulletin No. 2, Series I, of The Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, 1898.


Most graceful and attractive of all the wasps--as Fabre describes them, the Ammophiles, of all the inhabitants of the garden, hold the first place in our affections. Not so beautiful as the blue _Pelopaeus_ nor so industrious as the little red-girdled _Trypoxylon_, their intelligence, their distinct individuality, and their obliging tolerance of our society make them an unfailing source of interest.

They are, moreover, the most remarkable of all genera in their stinging habits, and few things have given us deeper pleasure than our success in following the activities and penetrating the secrets of their lives. In our neighborhood we have but two species of _Ammophila_, _urnaria_ Cresson and _gracilis_ Cresson, both of them being very slender bodied wasps of about an inch in length, _gracilis_ all black, and _urnaria_ with a red band around the front end of the abdomen. With two exceptions our observations relate to _urnaria_.

During the earlier part of the summer we had often seen these wasps feeding upon the nectar of flowers, especially upon that of the sorrel of which they are particularly fond, but at that time we gave them but pa.s.sing notice. One bright morning in the middle of July, however, we came upon one that was so evidently hunting, and hunting in earnest, that we gave up everything else to follow her. The ground was covered, more or less thickly, with patches of purslane, and it was under these weeds that our _Ammophila_ was eagerly searching for her prey. After thoroughly investigating one plant she would pa.s.s to another, running three or four steps and then bounding as though she were made of thistledown and were too light to remain upon the ground. We followed her easily, and as she was in full view nearly all of the time we had every hope of witnessing the capture, but in this we were destined to disappointment. We had been in attendance on her for about a quarter of an hour when, after disappearing for a few moments under the thick purslane leaves, she came out with a green caterpillar. We had missed the wonderful sight of the paralyzer at work, but we had no time to bemoan our loss for she was making off at so rapid a pace that we were well occupied in keeping up with her. She hurried along with the same motion as before, unembarra.s.sed by the weight of her victim. Twice she dropped it and circled over it a moment before taking it again. For sixty feet she kept to open ground, pa.s.sing between two rows of bushes, but at the end of this division of the garden, she plunged, very much to our dismay, into a field of standing corn. Here we had great difficulty in following her, since far from keeping to her former orderly course, she zigzagged among the plants in the most bewildering fas.h.i.+on, although keeping a general direction of northeast. It seemed quite impossible that she could know where she was going. The corn rose to a height of six feet all around us; the ground was uniform in appearance, and, to our eyes, each group of corn stalks was just like every other group, and yet, without pause or hesitation, the little creature pa.s.sed quickly along, as we might through the familiar streets of our native town.

[Ill.u.s.tration: "She Hurried along, Unembarra.s.sed by the Weight of Her Victim."]

At last she paused and laid her burden down. Ah! the power that has led her is not a blind, mechanically perfect instinct, for she has travelled a little too far. She must go back one row into the open s.p.a.ce that she has already crossed, although not just at this point.

Nothing like a nest is visible to us. The surface of the ground looks all alike, and it is with exclamations of wonder that we see our little guide lift two pellets of earth which have served as a covering to a small opening running down into the ground.

The way being thus prepared she hurries back with her wings quivering and her whole manner betokening joyful triumph at the completion of her task. We, in the meantime, have become as much excited over the matter as she is herself. She picks up the caterpillar, brings it to the mouth of the burrow and lays it down. Then, backing in herself, she catches it in her mandibles and drags it out of sight, leaving us full of admiration and delight.

How clear and accurate must be the observing powers of these wonderful little creatures! Every patch of ground must, for them, have its own character; a pebble here, a larger stone there, a trifling tuft of gra.s.s--these must be their landmarks. And the wonder of it is that their interest in each nest is so temporary. A burrow is dug, provisioned and closed up, all in two or three days, and then another is made in a new place with everything to learn over again.

From this time (July thirteenth) on to the first of September our garden was full of these wasps, and they never lost their fascination for us, although owing to a decided difference between their taste and ours as to what const.i.tuted pleasant weather all our knowledge of them was gained by the sweat of our brows. When we wished to utilize the cool hours of the morning or of the late afternoon in studying them, or thought to take advantage of a cloud which cast a grateful shade over the sun at noonday, where were our Ammophiles? Out of sight entirely, or at best only to be seen idling about on the flowers of the onion or sorrel. At such a time they seemed to have no mission in life and no idea of duty. But when the air was clear and bright and the mercury rose higher and higher, all was changed. Their favorite working hours were from eleven in the morning to three in the afternoon, and when they did work they threw their whole souls into it. It was well that it was so, for they certainly needed all the enthusiasm and perseverance that they could muster for such wearisome and disappointing labor. Hour after hour was pa.s.sed in search, and often there was nothing to show at the end of it, for, since the caterpillars that they wanted were nocturnal species, most of them were under ground in the day-time. The species observed by Fabre knew, by some subtle instinct, where to find the worm, and unearthed it from its burrow. _Urnaria_, on the contrary, never dug for her prey, but hunted on bare ground, on the purslane, and most of all on the bean-plants. These were examined carefully, the wasp going up and down the stems and looking under every leaf, but the search was so frequently unsuccessful that in estimating their work we are inclined to think that they can scarcely average one caterpillar a day. When they were hunting over bare ground they often paused and seemed to listen, and in the beginning we expected to see them burrow down and drag a victim from under the soil, but this never happened.

In this species, as in every one that we have studied, we have a most interesting variation among the different individuals, not only in methods but in character and intellect. While one was beguiled from her hunting by every sorrel blossom she pa.s.sed, another stuck to her work with indefatigable perseverance. While one stung her caterpillar so carelessly and made her nest in so s.h.i.+ftless a way that her young could only survive through some lucky chance, another devoted herself to these duties, not only with conscientious thoroughness, but with an apparent craving after artistic perfection that was touching to see.

The method employed by the _Ammophilae_ in stinging their prey is more complex than that of any other predatory wasp. The larvae with which they provision their nests are made up of thirteen segments, and each of these has its own nervous centre or ganglion. Hence if the caterpillar is to be reduced to a state of immobility, or to state so nearly approaching immobility that the egg may be safely laid upon it, a single sting, such as is given by some of the _Pompilidae_ to their captured spiders, will be scarcely sufficient. All this we knew from Fabre's "Souvenirs," and yet we were not at all prepared to believe that any plain American wasp could supply us with such a thrilling performance as that of the Gallic _hirsuta_, which he so dramatically describes. We were, however, most anxious to be present at the all-important moment that we might see for ourselves just how and where _Ammophila urnaria_ stings her victim.

For a whole week of scorching summer weather we lived in the bean patch, scorning fatigue. We quoted to each other the example of Fabre's daughter Claire, whose determination to solve the problem of _Odynerus_ led to a sun-stroke. We followed scores of wasps as they hunted; we ran, we threw ourselves upon the ground, we scrambled along on our hands and knees in our desperate endeavors to keep them in view, and yet they escaped us. After we had kept one in sight for an hour or more some sudden flight would carry her far away and all our labor was lost.

At last, however, our day came. We were doing a little hunting on our own account, hoping to find some larvae which we could drop in view of the wasps and thus lead them to display their powers, when we saw an _urnaria_ fly up from the ground to the underside of a bean leaf and knock down a small green caterpillar. Breathless with an excitement which will be understood by those who have tasted the joy of such a moment, we hung over the actors in our little drama. The ground was bare, we were close by and could see every motion distinctly. Nothing more perfect could have been desired.

The wasp attacked at once but was rudely repulsed, the caterpillar rolling and unrolling itself rapidly and with the most violent contortions of the whole body. Again and again its adversary descended but failed to gain a hold. The caterpillar in its struggles, flung itself here and there over the ground, and had there been any gra.s.s or other covering near by it might have reached a place of partial safety, but there was no shelter within reach, and at the fifth attack the wasp succeeded in alighting over it, near the anterior end, and in grasping its body firmly in her mandibles. Standing high on her long legs and disregarding the continued struggles of her victim, she lifted it from the ground, curved her abdomen under its body, and darted her sting between the third and fourth segments. From this instant there was a complete cessation of movement on the part of the unfortunate caterpillar. Limp and helpless, it could offer no further opposition to the will of its conqueror. For some moments the wasp remained motionless, and then, withdrawing her sting, she plunged it successively between the third and the second, and between the second and the first segments.


The caterpillar was now left lying on the ground. For a moment the wasp circled above it and then, descending, seized it again, further back this time, and with great deliberation and nicety of action gave it four more stings, beginning between the ninth and tenth segments and progressing backward.

_Urnaria_, probably feeling--as we certainly did--reaction from the strain of the last few minutes, and a relief at the completion of her task, now rested from her labors. Standing on the ground close by she proceeded to smooth her body with her long hind legs, standing in the meantime, almost on her head, with her abdomen directed upward. She then gave her face a thorough was.h.i.+ng and rubbing with her first legs, and not until she had made a complete and satisfactory toilet did she return to the caterpillar.

We saw _Ammophila_ capture her prey only three times during the whole summer, but from these observations and from the condition of her caterpillars taken at various times from nests, her method seems to be wonderfully close to that of _hirsuta_, with just about the same amount of variation in different individuals.

Thus in our second example, she stung the first three segments in the regular order, the third, the second, and lastly (and most persistently) the first. She then went on, without a pause, to sting the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh, stopping at this point and leaving the posterior segments untouched. In our first example, it will be remembered, the middle segments were spared. The sting being completed, she proceeded to the process known as _malaxation_, which consists in repeatedly squeezing the neck of the caterpillar, or other victim, between the mandibles, the subject of the treatment being turned around and around so that all sides may be equally affected.

In our third case a caterpillar which we had caught was placed in front of a wasp just after she had carried the second larva into her nest. She seemed rather indifferent to it, pa.s.sing it once or twice as she ran about, but finally picked it up and gave it one prolonged sting between the third and fourth segments. She then spent a long time in squeezing the neck, pinching it again and again. It was then left on the ground, and as she showed no further interest in it we carried it home for further study.

In the three captures, then, that came under our observation, all the caterpillars being of the same species and almost exactly of the same size, three different methods were employed. In the first, seven stings were given at the extremities, the middle segments being left untouched, and no malaxation was practised. In the second, seven stings again but given in the anterior and middle segments, followed by slight malaxation. In the third, only one sting was given but the malaxation was prolonged and severe.






Nearly all travellers in tropical America have described the ravages of the leaf-cutting ants (_codoma_); their crowded, well-worn paths through the forests, their ceaseless pertinacity in the spoliation of the trees--more particularly of introduced species--which are left bare and ragged, with the mid-ribs and a few jagged points of the leaves only left. Many a young plantation of orange, mango, and lemon trees has been destroyed by them. Again and again have I been told in Nicaragua, when inquiring why no fruit-trees were grown at particular places, "It is no use planting them; the ants eat them up." The first acquaintance a stranger generally makes with them is on encountering their paths on the outskirts of the forest crowded with the ants; one lot carrying off the pieces of leaves, each piece about the size of a sixpence, and held up vertically between the jaws of the ant; another lot hurrying along in an opposite direction empty handed, but eager to get loaded with their leafy burdens. If he follows this last division, it will lead him to some young trees or shrubs, up which the ants mount; and where each one, stationing itself on the edge of a leaf, commences to make a circular cut, with its scissor-like jaws, from the edge, its hinder-feet being the centre on which it turns. When the piece is nearly cut off, it is still stationed upon it, and it looks as though it would fall to the ground with it; but, on being finally detached, the ant is generally found to have hold of the leaf with one foot, and soon righting itself, and arranging its burden to its satisfaction, it sets off at once on its return. Following it again, it is seen to join a throng of others, each laden like itself, and, without a moment's delay, it hurries along the well-worn path. As it proceeds, other paths, each thronged with busy workers, come in from the sides, until the main road often gets to be seven or eight inches broad, and more thronged than the streets of the city of London.

[Ill.u.s.tration: SETS OFF AT ONCE ON ITS RETURN.]

After travelling for some hundreds of yards, often for more than half a mile, the formicarium is reached. It consists of low, wide mounds of brown, clayey-looking earth, above and immediately around which the bushes have been killed by their buds and leaves having been persistently bitten off as they attempted to grow after their first defoliation. Under high trees in the thick forest the ants do not make their nests, because, I believe, the ventilation of their underground galleries, about which they are very particular, would be interfered with, and perhaps to avoid the drip from the trees. It is on the outskirts of the forest, or around clearings, or near wide roads that let in the sun, that these formicariums are generally found. Numerous round tunnels, varying from half an inch to seven or eight inches in diameter, lead down through the mounds of earth; and many more, from some distance around, also lead underneath them. At some of the holes on the mounds ants will be seen busily at work, bringing up little pellets of earth from below, and casting them down on the ever-increasing mounds, so that its surface is nearly always fresh and new-looking.

Standing near the mounds, one sees from every point of the compa.s.s ant-paths leading to them, all thronged with the busy workers carrying their leafy burdens. As far as the eye can distinguish their tiny forms, troops upon troops of leaves are moving up towards the central point, and disappearing down the numerous tunnelled pa.s.sages. The outgoing, empty-handed hosts are partly concealed amongst the bulky burdens of the incomers, and can only be distinguished by looking closely amongst them. The ceaseless, toiling hosts impress one with their power, and one asks--What forests can stand before such invaders? How is it that vegetation is not eaten off the face of the earth? Surely nowhere but in the tropics, where the recuperative powers of nature are immense and ever active, could such devastation be withstood.

Further acquaintance with the subject will teach the inquirer that, just as many insects are preserved by being distasteful to insectivorous birds, so very many of the forest trees are protected from the ravages of the ants by their leaves either being distasteful to them, or unfitted for the purpose for which they are required, whilst some have special means of defence against their attacks.

These ants do not confine themselves to leaves, but also carry off any vegetable substance that they find suitable for growing the fungus on.

They are very partial to the inside white rind of oranges, and I have also seen them cutting up and carrying off the flowers of certain shrubs, the leaves of which they neglected. They are very particular about the ventilation of their underground chambers, and have numerous holes leading up to the surface from them. These they open out or close up, apparently to keep up a regular degree of temperature below.

The great care they take that the pieces of leaves they carry into the nest should be neither too dry nor too damp, is also consistent with the idea that the object is the growth of a fungus that requires particular conditions of temperature and moisture to ensure its vigorous growth. If a sudden shower should come on, the ants do not carry the wet pieces into the burrows, but throw them down near the entrances. Should the weather clear up again, these pieces are picked up when nearly dried, and taken inside; should the rain, however, continue, they get sodden down into the ground, and are left there. On the contrary, in dry and hot weather, when the leaves would get dried up before they could be conveyed to the nest, the ants, when in exposed situations, do not go out at all during the hot hours, but bring in their leafy burdens in the cool of the day and during the night. As soon as the pieces of leaves are carried in they must be cut up by the small cla.s.s of workers into little pieces. I have never seen the smallest cla.s.s of ants carrying in leaves! their duties appear to be inside, cutting them up into smaller fragments, and nursing the immature ants. I have, however, seen them running out along the paths with the others; but instead of helping to carry in the burdens, they climb on the top of the pieces which are being carried along by the middle-sized workers, and so get a ride home again. It is very probable that they take a run out merely for air and exercise. The largest cla.s.s of what are called workers are, I believe, the directors and protectors of the others. They are never seen out of the nest, excepting on particular occasions, such as the migrations of the ants, and when one of the working columns or nests is attacked, they then come stalking up, and attack the enemy with their strong jaws.

Sometimes, when digging into the burrows, one of these giants has unperceived climbed up my dress, and the first intimation of his presence has been the burying of his jaws in my neck, from which he would not fail to draw blood. The stately observant way in which they stalk about, and their great size, compared with the others, always impressed me with the idea that in their bulky heads lay the brains that directed the community in their various duties. Many of their actions, such as that I have mentioned of two relays of workmen carrying out the ant food, can scarcely be blind instinct. Some of the ants make mistakes, and carry in unsuitable leaves. Thus gra.s.s is always rejected by them, but I have seen some ants, perhaps young ones, carrying leaves of gra.s.s; but after a while these pieces are always brought out again and thrown away. I can imagine a young ant getting a severe ear-wigging from one of the major-domos for its stupidity.


I shall conclude this long account of the leaf-cutting ants with one more instance of their reasoning powers.

A nest was made near one of our tramways, and to get to the trees the ants had to cross the rails, over which the wagons were continually pa.s.sing and repa.s.sing. Every time they came along a number of ants were crushed to death. They persevered in crossing for some time, but at last set to work and tunnelled underneath each rail. One day, when the wagons were not running, I stopped up the tunnels with stones; but although great numbers carrying leaves were thus cut off from the nest, they would not cross the rails, but set to work making fresh tunnels underneath them. Apparently an order had gone forth, or a general understanding been come to, that the rails were not to be crossed.

A Book of Natural History Part 11

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