Jean-Henri FABRE The Life of the Fly - Chap. XV


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The Grub


The larvae of the bluebottle hatch within two days in the warm weather. Whether inside my apparatus, in direct contact with the piece of meat, or outside, on the edge of a slit that enables them to enter, they set to work at once. They do not eat, in the strict sense of the word, that is to say, they do not tear their food, do not chew it by means of implements of mastication. Their mouth parts do not lend themselves to this sort of work. These mouth parts are two horny spikes, sliding one upon the other, with curved ends that do not face, thus excluding the possibility of any function such as seizing and grinding.

The two guttural grapnels serve for walking much rather than for feeding. The worm plants them alternately in the road traversed and, by contracting its crupper, advances just that distance. It carries in its tubular throat the equivalent of our iron tipped sticks which give support and assist progress.

Thanks to this machinery of the mouth, the maggot not only moves over the surface, but also easily penetrates the meat: I see it disappear as though it were dipping into butter. It cuts its way, levying, as it goes, a preliminary toll, but only of liquid mouthfuls. Not the smallest solid particle is detached and swallowed. That is not the maggot's diet. It wants a broth, a soup, a sort of fluid extract of beef which it prepares itself. As digestion, after all, merely means liquefaction, we may say, without being guilty of paradox, that the grub of the bluebottle digests its food before swallowing it.

With the object of relieving gastric troubles, our manufacturing chemists scrape the stomachs of the pig and sheep and thus obtain pepsin, a digestive agent which possesses the property of liquefying albuminous matters and lean meat in particular. Why cannot they rasp the stomach of the maggot! They would obtain a product of the highest quality, for the carnivorous worm also owns its pepsin, pepsin of a singularly active kind, as the following experiments will show us.

I divide the white of a hard-boiled egg into tiny cubes and place them in a little test-tube. On the top of the contents, I sprinkle the eggs of the bluebottle, eggs free from the least stain, taken from those laid on the outside of tins baited with meat and not absolutely shut. A similar test-tube is filled with white of egg, but receives no germs. Both are closed with a plug of cotton-wool and left in a dark corner.

In a few days, the tube swarming with newborn vermin contains a liquid as fluid and transparent as water. Not a drop would remain in the tube if I turned it upside down. All the white of egg has disappeared, liquefied. As for the worms, which are already a fair size, they seem very ill at ease. Deprived of a support whence to attain the outer air, most of them dive into the broth of their own making, where they perish by drowning. Others, endowed with greater vigor, crawl up the glass to the plug and manage to make their way through the wadding. Their pointed front, armed with grappling irons, is the nail that penetrates the fibrous mass.

In the other test-tube, standing beside the first and subjected to the same atmospheric influences, nothing striking has occurred. The hard-boiled white of egg has retained its dead white color and its firmness. I find it as I left it. The utmost that I observe is a few traces of must. The result of this first experiment is patent: the Bluebottle's grub is the medium that converts coagulated albumen into a liquid.

The value of chemist's pepsin is estimated by the quantity of hard-boiled white of egg which a gram of that agent can liquefy. The mixture has to be exposed in an oven to a temperature of 1400 F. and also to be frequently shaken. My preparation, in which the bluebottle's eggs are hatched, is neither shaken nor subjected to the heat of an oven; everything happens in quietness and under the thermometric conditions of the surrounding air; nevertheless, in a few days, the coagulated albumen, treated by the vermin, runs like water.

The reagent that causes this liquefaction escapes my endeavors to detect it. The worms must disgorge it in infinitesimal doses, while the spikes in their throats, which are in continual movement, emerge a little way from the mouth, reenter and reappear. Those piston thrusts, those quasi-kisses, are accompanied by the emission of the solvent: at least, that is how I picture it. The maggot spits on its food, places on it the wherewithal to make it into broth. To appraise the quantity of the matter expectorated is beyond my powers: I observe the result, but do not perceive the leavening agent.

Well, this result is really astounding, when we consider the scantiness of the means. No pig's or sheep's pepsin can rival that of the worm. I have a bottle of pepsin that comes from the School of Chemistry at Montpellier. I lavishly powder some pieces of hard-boiled white of egg with the potent drug, just as I did with the eggs of the Bluebottle. The oven is not brought into play, neither is distilled water added, nor hydrochloric acid: two auxiliaries which are recommended. The experiment is conducted in exactly the same way as that of the tubes with the vermin. The result is entirely different from what I expected. The white of egg does not liquefy. It simply becomes moist on the surface; and even this moisture may come from the pepsin, which is highly absorbent. Yes, I was right: if the thing were feasible, it would be an advantage for the chemists to collect their digestive drug from the stomach of the maggot. The worm, in this case, beats the pig and the sheep.

The same method is followed for the remaining experiments. I put the bluebottle's eggs to hatch on a piece of meat and leave the worms to do their work as they please. The lean tissues, whether of mutton, beef or pork, no matter which, are not turned into liquid; they become a pea soup of a clarety brown. The liver, the lung, the spleen are attacked to better purpose, without, however, getting beyond the state of a semi-fluid jam, which easily mixes with water and even appears to dissolve in it. The brains do not liquefy either: they simply melt into a thin gruel.

On the other hand, fatty substances, such as beef suet, lard and butter, do not undergo any appreciable change. Moreover, the worms soon dwindle away, incapable of growing. This sort of food does not suit them. Why? Apparently because it cannot be liquefied by the reagent disgorged by the worms. In the same way, ordinary pepsin does not attack fatty substances; it takes pancreatin to reduce them to an emulsion. This curious analogy of properties, positive for albuminous, negative for fatty matter, proclaims the similarity and perhaps the identity of the dissolvent discharged by the grubs and the pepsin of the higher animals.

Here is another proof: the usual pepsin does not dissolve the epidermis, which is a material of a horny nature. That of the maggots does not dissolve it either. I can easily rear bluebottle grubs on dead crickets whose bellies I have first opened; but I do not succeed if the morsel be left intact: the worms are unable to perforate the succulent paunch; they are stopped by the cuticle, on which their reagent refuses to act. Or else I give them frogs' hind legs, stripped of their skin. The flesh turns to broth and disappears to the bone. If I do not peel the legs, they remain intact in the midst of the vermin. Their thin skin is sufficient to protect them.

This failure to act upon the epidermis explains why the bluebottle at work on the animal declines to lay her eggs on the first part that comes handy. She needs the delicate membrane of the nostrils, eyes or throat, or else some wound in which the flesh is laid bare. No other place suits her, however excellent for flavor and darkness. At most, finding nothing better when my stratagems interfere, she persuades herself to dab a few eggs under the axilla of a plucked bird or in the groin, two points at which the skin is thinner than elsewhere.

With her maternal foresight, the bluebottle knows to perfection the choice surfaces, the only ones liable to soften and run under the influence of the reagent dribbled by the newborn grubs. The chemistry of the future is familiar to her, though she does not use it for her own feeding; motherhood, that great inspirer of instinct, teaches her all about it.

Scrupulous though she be in choosing exactly where to lay her eggs, the bluebottle does not trouble about the quality of the provisions intended for her family's consumption. Any dead body suits her purpose. Redi, the Italian scientist who first exploded the old, foolish notion of worms begotten of corruption, fed the vermin in his laboratory with meat of very different kinds. In order to make his tests the more conclusive, he exaggerated the largess of the dining hall. The diet was varied with tiger and lion flesh, bear and leopard, fox and wolf, mutton and beef, horseflesh, donkey flesh and many others, supplied by the rich menagerie of Florence. This wastefulness was unnecessary: wolf and mutton are all the same to an unprejudiced stomach.

A distant disciple of the maggot's biographer, I look at the problem in a light which Redi never dreamt of. Any flesh of one of the higher animals suits the fly's family. Will it be the same if the food supplied be of a lower organism and consist of fish, for instance, of frog, mollusk, insect, centipede? Will the worms accept these viands and, above all, can they manage to liquefy them, which is the first and foremost condition?

I serve a piece of raw whiting. The flesh is white, delicate, partly translucent, easy for our stomachs to digest and no less suited to the grub's dissolvent. It turns into an opalescent fluid, which runs like water. In fact, it liquefies in much the same way as hard-boiled white of egg. The worms at first wax fat, as long as the conditions allow of some solid eyots remaining; then, when foothold fails, threatened with drowning in the too fluid broth, they creep up the side of the glass, anxious and restless to be off. They climb to the cotton-wool stopper of the test-tube and try to bolt through the wadding. Endowed with stubborn perseverance, nearly all of them decamp in spite of the obstacle. The test-tube with the white of egg showed me a similar exodus. Although the fare suits them, as their growth witnesses, the worms cease feeding and make a point of escaping when death by drowning is imminent.

With other fish, such as skate and sardines, with the flesh of frogs and tree frogs, the meat simply dissolves into a porridge. Hashes of slug, Scolopendra or praying mantis furnish the same result.

In all these preparations, the dissolving agent of the worms is as much in evidence as when butcher's meat is employed. Moreover, the grubs seem satisfied with the queer dish which my curiosity prescribes for them; they thrive amidst the victuals and undergo their transformation into pupae.

The conclusion, therefore, is much more general than Redi imagined. Any meat, no matter whether of a higher or lower order, suits the bluebottle for the settlement of her family. The carcasses of furred and feathered animals are the favorite victuals, probably because of their richness, which allows of plentiful layings; but, should the occasion demand it, the others are also accepted, without inconvenience. Any carrion that has lived the life of an animal comes within the domain of these scavengers.

What is their number to one mother? I have already spoken of a deposit of three hundred, counted egg by egg. A quite fortuitous circumstance enabled me to go much farther. In the first week of January 1905, we experienced a sudden short cold snap of a severity very exceptional in my part of the country. The thermometer fell to twelve degrees below zero. While a fierce north wind was raging and beginning to redden the leaves of the olive trees, came one and brought me a barn or screech owl, which he had found on the ground, exposed to the air, not far from my house. My reputation as a lover of animals made the donor believe that I should be pleased with his gift.

I was, as a matter of fact, but for reasons whereof the finder certainly never dreamt. The owl was untouched, with trim feathers and not the least wound that showed. Perhaps he had died of cold. What made me gratefully accept the present was exactly that which would have inclined anyone but myself to refuse it. The owl's eyes, glazed in death, were hidden under a thick mass of eggs, which I recognized as a bluebottle's. Similar masses occupied the vicinity of the nostrils. If I wanted maggots, here, of a certainty, was a richer crop than I had ever beheld.

I place the corpse on the sand of a pan, with a wire gauze cover, and leave events to take their course. The laboratory in which I install my bird is none other than my study. It is as cold in there, or nearly, as outside, so much so that the water in the aquarium in which I used to rear caddis worms has frozen into a solid block of ice. Under these conditions of temperature, the owl's eyes keep their white veil of germs unchanged. Nothing stirs, nothing swarms. Weary of waiting, I pay no more attention to the carcass; I leave the future to decide whether the cold has exterminated the fly's family or not.

Before the end of March, the packets of eggs have disappeared, I know not how long. The bird, for that matter, seems to be intact. On the ventral surface, which is turned to the air, the feathers keep their smooth arrangement and their fresh coloring. I lift the thing. It is light, very dry and gives a hard sound, like an old shoe tanned by the summer sun in the fields. There is no smell. The dryness has vanquished the stench, which, in any case, was never offensive during that time of frost. On the other hand, the back, which touched the sand, is a loathsome wreck, partly deprived of its feathers. The quills of the tail are bare barreled; a few whitened bones show, deprived of their muscles. The skin has turned into a dark leather, pierced with round holes like those of a sieve. It is all hideously ugly, but most instructive.

The wretched owl, with his shattered backbone, teaches us, first of all, that a temperature twelve degrees of frost does not endanger the existence of the bluebottle's germs. The worms were born without accident, despite the rude blast; they feasted copiously on extract of meat; then, growing big and fat, they descended into the earth by piercing round holes in the bird's skin. Their pupae must now be in the sand of the pan.

They are, in point of fact, and in such numbers that I have to resort to sifting in order to collect them. If I used the forceps, I should never have done sorting so great a quantity. The sand passes through the meshes of the sieve, the pupae remain above. To count them would wear out my patience. I measure them by the bushel, that is to say, with a thimble of which I know the holding capacity in pupae. The result of my calculation is not far short of nine hundred.

Does this family proceed from one mother? I am quite ready to admit it, so unlikely is it that the bluebottle, who is so rare inside our houses during the severe cold of winter, should be frequent enough outside to form into groups and to do business in common while an icy blast is raging. A belated specimen, the plaything of the north wind, and one alone must have deposited the burden of her ovaries on the owl's eyes. This laying of nine hundred eggs, an incomplete laying perhaps, bears witness to the mighty part played by the fly as a liquidator of corpses.

Before throwing away the screech owl treated by the worms, let us overcome our repugnance and give a glance inside the bird. We see a tortuous cavity, fenced in by nameless ruins. Muscles and bowels have disappeared, converted into broth and gradually consumed by the teeming throng. In every part, what was wet has become dry, what was solid muddy. In vain my forceps ransacks every nook and corner: it does not hit upon a single pupa. All the worms have emigrated, all, without exception. From first to last, they have forsaken the refuge of the corpse, so soft to their delicate skins; they have left the velvet for the hard ground. Is dryness necessary to them at this stage? They had it in the carcass, which was thoroughly drained. Would they protect themselves against the cold and rain? No shelter could suit them better than the thick quilt of the feathers, which has remained wholly undamaged on the belly, the breast and every part that was not in touch with the ground. It looks as though they had fled from comfort to seek a less kindly dwelling place. When the hour of transformation came, all left the owl, that most excellent lodging; all dived into the sand.

The exodus from the mortuary tabernacle was made through the round holes wherewith the skin is pierced. Those holes are the worms' work: of that there is no doubt; and yet we have lately seen the mothers refuse as a bed for their eggs any part whereat the flesh is protected by a skin of some thickness. The reason is the failure of the pepsin to act on epidermic substances. In the absence of liquefaction at such points, the nourishing gruel is unprocurable. On the other hand, the tiny worms are not able — or at least do not know how — to dig through the integument with their pair of guttural harpoons, to rend it and reach the liquefiable flesh. The newborn lack strength and, above all, purpose. But, as the time comes for descending into the earth, the worms, now powerful and suddenly versed in the necessary art, well know how to eat away patiently and clear themselves a passage. With the hooks of their spikes they dig, scratch and tear. Instinct has flashes of inspiration. What the animal did not know how to do at the start it learns without apprenticeship when the time comes to practice this or that industry. The maggot ripe for burial perforates a membranous obstacle which the grub intent upon its broth would not even have attempted to attack with either its pepsin or its grapnels.

Why does the worm quit the carcass, that capital shelter? Why does it go and take up its abode in the ground? As the leading disinfector of dead things, it works at the most important matter, the suppression of the infection; but it leaves a plentiful residuum, which does not yield to the reagents of its analytical chemistry. These remains have to disappear in their turn. After the fly, anatomists come hastening, who take up the dry relic, nibble skin, tendons and ligaments and scrape the bones clean.

The greatest expert in this work is the Dermestes beetle, an enthusiastic gnawer of animal remains. Sooner or later, he will come to the joint already exploited by the fly. Now what would happen if the pupae were there? The answer is obvious. The Dermestes, who loves hard food, would dig his teeth into the horny little kegs and demolish them at a bite. Even though he did not touch the contents, a live thing which he probably dislikes, he would at least test the flavor of that lifeless substance, the container. The future Fly would be lost, because her casing would be pierced. Even so, in the storerooms of our silk mills, a certain Dermestes (Dermestes vulpinus, FABR.) digs into the cocoons to attack the horny covering of the chrysalis.

The maggot foresees the danger and makes itself scarce before the other arrives. In what sort of memory does it house so much wisdom, indigent, headless creature that it is, for it is only by extension that we can give the name of head to the animal's pointed fore part? How did it learn that, to safeguard the pupa, it must desert the carcass and that, to safeguard the fly, it must not bury itself too far down?

To emerge from underground after the perfect insect is hatched, the bluebottle's device consists in disjointing her head into two movable halves, which, each distended with its great red eye, by turns separate and reunite. In the intervening space, a large, glassy hernia rises and disappears, disappears and rises. When the two move asunder, with one eye forced back to the right, the other to the left, it is as though the insect were splitting its brain pan in order to expel the contents. Then the hernia rises, blunt at the end and swollen into a great knob. Next, the forehead closes and the hernia retreats, leaving visible only a kind of shapeless muzzle. In short, a frontal pouch, with deep pulsations momentarily renewed, becomes the instrument of deliverance, the pestle wherewith the newly hatched bluebottle bruises the sand and causes it to crumble. Gradually the legs push the rubbish back and the insect advances so much toward the surface.

A hard task, this exhumation by dint of the blows of a cleft and palpitating head. Moreover, the exhausting effort has to be made at the moment of greatest weakness, when the insect leaves that protecting casket, its pupa. It emerges from it pale, flabby and unsightly, sorrily clad in the wings which, folded lengthwise and made shorter by their scalloped edge, only just cover the top of the back. Wildly bristling with hairs and colored ashen-gray, it is a piteous sight. The large set of wings, suitable for flight, will spread later. For the moment, it would only be in the way amid the obstacles to be passed through. Later also will come the faultless dress wherein the iridescent indigo-blue stands out against the severity of the black.

The frontal hernia that crumbles the sand with its impact has a tendency to make play for some time after the emergence from the ground. Take hold with the forceps of one of the hind legs of a newly released fly. Forthwith, the implement of the head begins to work, swelling and subsiding as energetically as a moment ago, when it had to make a hole in the sand. The insect, hampered in its movements as when it was underground, struggles as best it can against the only obstacle that it knows. With its heaving knob, it pounds the air even as but now it pounded the earthy barrier. In all unpleasant circumstances, its one resource is to cleave its head and produce its cranial hernia, which moves out and in, in and out. For nearly two hours, interspersed with halts due to fatigue, the little machine keeps throbbing in my forceps.

In the meantime, however, the desperate one is hardening her skin; she spreads wide the sail of her wings and dons her deep mourning of black and darkest blue. Then her eyes, warped sideways, come together and resume their normal position. The cleft forehead closes; the delivering blister goes in, never to show itself again. But there is one precaution to be taken first. With its front tarsi, the insect carefully brushes the bump about to disappear from view, lest grit should lodge in the cranium when the two halves of the head are joined for good.

The maggot is aware of the trials that await it when, as a fly, it will have to come up from under ground; it knows beforehand how difficult the ascent will be with the feeble instrument at its disposal, so difficult, in fact, as to become fatal should the journey be at all prolonged. It foresees the dangers ahead of it and averts them as well as it can. Gifted with two iron shod sticks in its throat, it can easily descend to such depths as it pleases. The need for greater quiet and a less trying temperature calls for the deepest possible home: the lower down it is, the better for the welfare of the worm and the pupa, on condition that descent be practicable. It is, perfectly; and yet, though free to obey its inspiration, the grub refrains. I rear it in a deep pan, full of fine, dry sand, easy to excavate. The interment never goes very far. About a hand's breadth is all that the most progressive digger ventures upon. Most of the interred remain nearer still to the surface. Here, under a thin layer of sand, the grub's skin hardens and becomes a coffin, a casket, wherein the transformation sleep is slept. A few weeks later, the buried one awakes, transfigured but weak, having naught wherewith to unearth herself but the throbbing hernia of her open forehead.

What the maggot denies itself it is open to me to realize, should I care to know the depth whence the fly is able to mount. I place fifteen bluebottle pupae, obtained in winter, at the bottom of a wide tube closed at one end. Above the pupae is a perpendicular column of fine, dry sand, the height of which varies in different tubes. April comes and the hatching begins.

A tube with six centimeters of sand, the shallowest of the columns under experiment, yields the best result. Of the fifteen subjects interred in the pupa stage, fourteen easily reach the surface when they become flies. Only one of them perishes, one who has not even attempted the ascent. With twelve centimeters of sand, four emerge. With twenty centimeters, two, no more. The other flies, jaded with their exertions, have died at a higher or lower stage of the road. Lastly, with yet another tube wherein the column of sand measured sixty centimeters, I obtained the liberation of only a single fly. The plucky creature must have had a hard struggle to mount from so great a depth, for the other fourteen did not even manage to burst the lid of their caskets.

I presume that the looseness of the sand and the consequent pressure in every direction, similar to that exercised by fluids, have a certain bearing on the difficulties of the exhumation. Two more tubes are prepared, but this time supplied with fresh mould, lightly heaped up, which has not the incoherence of sand, with the attendant drawback of pressure. Six centimeters of mould give me eight flies for fifteen pupae buried; twenty centimeters give me only one. There is less success than with the sandy column. My device has diminished the pressure, but, at the same time, increased the passive resistance. The sand falls of itself under the impact of the frontal rammer; the unyielding mould demands the cutting of a gallery. In fact, I perceive, on the road followed, a shaft which continues indefinitely such as it is. The fly has bored it with the temporary blister that throbs between her eyes.

In every medium, therefore, whether sand, mould or any earthy combination, great are the sufferings that attend the exhumation of the fly. And so the maggot shuns the depths which a desire for additional security might seem to recommend. The worm has its own prudence: foreseeing the dangers ahead, it refrains from making great descents that might promote the welfare of the moment. It neglects the present for the sake of the future.

Jean-Henri Fabre, Virgil of insects

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Chapter 16