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Friday, March 30, 2012

Insect Stories

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Insect Stories
by Vernon L. Kellogg

I found this absorbing. Each tale (i.e., a description of some aspect of some insect's life) is well written, and I would like to have made the time to read it in its entirety. 

The true parts of the book are those about the insect behaviour. The rest doesn't matter! 

The selected snippet is fairly graphic and those with arachnophobia may either steer clear of it – or be delighted with the outcome in this case. You'll need to read the story for that. After my wasp adventure on the other blog, maybe I should be sticking up for the tarantula.

Illustrations from other parts of the book I have included here.

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This is the story of a fight. In the first story of this book, I said that Mary and I had seen a remarkable fight one evening at sundown on the slopes of the bare brown foothills west of the campus. It was not a battle of armies – we have seen that, too, in the little world we watch, – but a combat of gladiators, a struggle between two champions born and bred for fighting, and particularly for fighting each other. One champion was Eurypelma, the great, black, hairy, eight-legged, strong-fanged tarantula of California, and the other was Pepsis, a mighty wasp in dull-blue mail, with rusty-red wings and a poisonous javelin of a sting that might well frighten either you or me. 

Do you have any wasp in your neighborhood of the ferocity and strength and size of Pepsis? If not, you can hardly realize what a terrible creature she is. With her strong hard-cased body an inch and a half long, borne on powerful wings that expand fully three inches, and her long and strong needle-pointed sting that darts in and out like a flash and is always full of virulent poison, Pepsis is certainly queen of all the wasp amazons.

But if that is so, no less is Eurypelma greatest, most dreadful, and fiercest, and hence king, of all the spiders in this country. In South America and perhaps elsewhere in the tropics, live the fierce bird-spiders with thick legs extending three inches or more on each side of their ugly hairy bodies. Eurypelma, the California tarantula, is not quite so large as that, nor does he stalk, pounce on and kill little birds as his South American cousin is said to do, but he is nevertheless a tremendous and fear-inspiring creature among the small beasties of field and meadow.

But not all Eurypelmas are so ferocious; or at least are not ferocious all the time. There are individual differences among them. Perhaps it is a matter of age or health. Anyway, I had a pet tarantula which I kept in an open jar in my room for several weeks, and I could handle him with impunity. He would sit gently on my hand, or walk deliberately up my arm, with his eight, fixed, shining, little reddish eyes staring hard at me, and his long seven-jointed hairy legs swinging gently and rhythmically along, without a sign of hesitation or excitement. His hair was almost gray and perhaps this hoariness and general sedateness betokened a ripe old age. But his great fangs were unblunted, his supply of poison undiminished, and his skill in striking and killing his prey still perfect, as often proved at his feeding times. He is quite the largest Eurypelma I have ever seen. He measures – for I still have his body, carefully stuffed, and fastened on a block with legs all spread out – five inches from tip to tip of opposite legs.

At the same time that I had this hoary old tarantula, I had another smaller, coal-black fellow who went into a perfect ecstasy of anger and ferocity every time any one came near him. He would stand on his hind legs and paw wildly with fore legs and palpi, and lunge forward fiercely at my inquisitive pencil. I found him originally in the middle of an entry into a classroom, holding at bay an entire excited class of art students armed with mahl-sticks and paint-brushes. The students were mostly women, and I was hailed as deliverer and greatest dompteur of beasts when I scooped Eurypelma up in a bottle and walked off with him.

But this is not telling of the sundown fight that Mary and I saw together. We had been over to the sand-cut by the golf links, after mining-bees, and were coming home with a fine lot of their holes and some of the bees themselves, when Mary suddenly called to me to "see the nice tarantula."

Perhaps nice isn't the best word for him, but he certainly was an unusually imposing and fluffy-haired and fierce-looking brute of a tarantula. He had rather an owly way about him, as if he had come out from his hole too early and was dazed and half-blinded by the light. Tarantulas are night prowlers; they do all their hunting after dark, dig their holes and, indeed, carry on all the various businesses of their life in the night-time. The occasional one found walking about in daytime has made a mistake, someway, and he blunders around quite like an owl in the sunshine.

All of a sudden, while Mary and I were smiling at this too early bird of a tarantula, he went up on his hind legs in fighting attitude, and at the same instant down darted a great tarantula hawk, that is, a Pepsis wasp. Her armored body glinted cool and metallic in the red sunset light, and her great wings had a suggestive shining of dull fire about them. She checked her swoop just before reaching Eurypelma, and made a quick dart over him, and then a quick turn back, intending to catch the tarantula in the rear.

But lethargic and owly as Eurypelma had been a moment before, he was now all alertness and agility. He had to be. He was defending his life. One full fair stab of the poisoned javelin, sheathed but ready at the tip of the flexible, blue-black body hovering over him, and it would be over with Eurypelma. And he knew it. Or perhaps he didn't. But he acted as if he did. He was going to do his best not to be stabbed; that was sure. And Pepsis was going to do her best to stab; that also was quickly certain.

At the same time Pepsis knew – or anyway acted as if she did – that to be struck by one or both of those terrible vertical, poison-filled fangs was sure death. It would be like a blow from a battle-axe, with the added horror of mortal poison poured into the wound.

So Eurypelma about-faced like a flash, and Pepsis was foiled in her strategy. She flew up and a yard away, then returned to the attack. She flew about in swift circles over his head, preparatory to darting in again.

A rather amusing title these days....
But Eurypelma was ready. As she swooped viciously down, he lunged up and forward with a half-leap, half-forward fall, and came within an ace of striking the trailing blue-black abdomen with his reaching fangs. Indeed it seemed to Mary and me as if they really grazed the metallic body. But evidently they had not pierced the smooth armor. Nor had Pepsis in that breathless moment of close quarters been able to plant her lance. She whirled up, high this time but immediately back, although a little more wary evidently, for she checked her downward plunge three or four inches from the dancing champion on the ground.

And so for wild minute after minute it went on; Eurypelma always up and tip-toeing on those strong hind legs, with open, armed mouth always toward the point of attack, and Pepsis ever darting down, up, over, across, and in and out in dizzy dashes, but never quite closing.

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