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


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The dangers of the exhumation are not the only ones; the Bluebottle must be acquainted with others. Life, when all is said, is a knacker's yard wherein the devourer of today becomes the devoured of tomorrow; and the robber of the dead cannot fail to be robbed of her own life when the time comes. I know that she has one exterminator in the person of the tiny Saprinus beetle, a fisher of fat sausages on the edge of the pools formed by liquescent corpses. Here swarm in common the grubs of the greenbottle, the flesh fly and the bluebottle. The Saprinus draws them to him from the bank and gobbles them indiscriminately. They represent to him morsels of equal value.

This banquet can be observed only in the open country, under the rays of a hot sun. Saprini and greenbottles never enter our houses; the flesh fly visits us but discreetly, does not feel at home with us; the only one who comes fussing along is the bluebottle, who thus escapes the tribute due to the consumer of plump sausages. But, in the fields, where she readily lays her eggs upon any carcass that she finds, she, as well as the others, sees her vermin swept away by the gluttonous Saprinus.

In addition, graver disasters decimate her family, if, as I do not doubt, we can apply to the bluebottle what I have seen happen in the case of her rival, the flesh fly. So far, I have had no opportunity of actually perceiving with the first what I have to tell of the second; still, I do not hesitate to repeat about the one what observation has taught me about the other, for the larval analogies between the two flies are very close.

Here are the facts. I have gathered a number of pupae of the flesh fly in one of my vermin jars. Wishing to examine the pupa's hinder end, which is hollowed into a cup and scalloped into a coronet, I stave in one of the little barrels and force open the last segments with the point of my pocketknife. The horny keg does not contain what I expected to find: it is full of tiny grubs packed one atop the other with the same economy of space as anchovies in a bottle. Save for the skin, which has hardened into a brown shell, the substance of the maggot has disappeared, changed into a restless swarm.

There are thirty-five occupants. I replace them in their casket. The rest of my harvest, wherein, no doubt, are other pupae similarly stocked, is arranged in tubes that will easily show me what happens. The thing to discover is what genus of parasites the grubs enclosed belong to. But it is not difficult, without waiting for the hatching of the adults, to recognize their nature merely by their mode of life. They form part of the family of Chalcididae, who are microscopic ravagers of living entrails.

Not long ago, in winter, I took from the chrysalis of a great peacock moth four hundred and forty-nine parasites belonging to the same group. The whole substance of the future moth had disappeared, all but the nymphal wrapper, which was intact and formed a handsome Russia-leather wallet. The worm grubs were here heaped up and squeezed together to the point of sticking to one another. The hair pencil extracts them in bundles and cannot separate them without some difficulty. The holding capacity is strained to the utmost; the substance of the vanished Moth would not fill it better. That which died has been replaced by a living mass of equal dimensions, but subdivided. The price of this colony's existence is the conversion of the chrysalis into a sort of milk food of doubtful constitution. The enormous udder has been drained outright.

You shudder when you think of that budding flesh nibbled bit by bit by four or five hundred gormandizers; the horrified imagination refuses to picture the anguish suffered by the tortured wretch. But is there really any pain? We have leave to doubt it. Pain is a patent of nobility; it is more pronounced in proportion as the sufferer belongs to a higher order. In the lower ranks of animal life, it must be greatly reduced, perhaps even nil, especially when life, in the throes of evolution, has not yet acquired a stable equilibrium. The white of an egg is living matter, but endures the prick of a needle without a quiver. Would it not be the same with the chrysalis of the great peacock, dissected cell by cell by hundreds of infinitesimal anatomists? Would it not be the same with the pupa of the flesh fly? These are organisms put back into the crucible, reverting to the egg state for a second birth. There is reason to believe, therefore, that their destruction crumb by crumb is merciful.

Towards the end of August, the parasite of the flesh fly's grubs makes her appearance out of doors in the adult form. She is a Chalcidid, as I expected. She issues from the barrel through one or two little round holes which the prisoners have pierced with a patient tooth. I count some thirty to each pupa. There would not be enough room in the abode if the family were larger.

The imp is a slim and elegant creature, but oh, how small! She measures hardly two millimeters. Her garb is bronzed black, with pale legs and a heart shaped, pointed, slightly pedunculate abdomen, with never a trace of a probe for inoculating the eggs. The head is transversal, the width exceeding the length.

The male is only half the size of the female; he is also very much less numerous. Perhaps pairing is here, as we see elsewhere, a secondary matter from which it is possible to abstain, in part, without injuring the prospects of the race. Nevertheless, in the tube wherein I have housed the swarm, the few males lost among the crowd ardently woo the passing fair. There is much to be done outside, as long as the flesh fly's season lasts; things are urgent; and each pigmy hurries as fast as she can to take up her part as an exterminator.

How is the parasite's inroad into the flesh fly's pupae effected? Truth is always veiled in a certain mystery. The good fortune that secured me the ravaged pupa taught me nothing concerning the tactics of the ravager. I have never seen the Chalcidid explore the contents of my appliances; my attention was engaged elsewhere and nothing is so difficult to see as a thing not yet suspected. But, though direct observation be lacking, logic will tell us approximately what we want to know.

It is evident, to begin with, that the invasion cannot have been made through the sturdy amour of the pupae. This is too hard to be penetrated by the means at the pigmy's disposal. Naught but the delicate skin of the maggots lends itself to the introduction of the germs. An egg laying mother, therefore, appears, inspects the surface of the pool of sanies swarming with grubs, selects the one that suits her and perches on it; then, with the tip of her pointed abdomen, whence emerges, for an instant, a short probe kept hidden until then, she operates on the patient, perforating his paunch with a dexterous wound into which the germs are inserted. Probably, a number of pricks are administered, as the presence of thirty parasites seems to demand.

Anyway, the maggot's skin is pierced at either one point or many; and this happens while the grub is swimming in the pools formed by the putrid flesh. Having said this, we are faced with a question of serious interest. To set it forth necessitates a digression which seems to have nothing to do with the subject in hand and is nevertheless connected with it in the closest fashion. Without certain preliminaries, the remainder would be unintelligible. So now for the preliminaries.

I was in those days busy with the poison of the Languedocian scorpion and its action upon insects. To direct the sting toward this or the other part of the victim and moreover to regulate its emission would be absolutely impossible and also very dangerous, as long as the scorpions were allowed to act as they pleased. I wished to be able myself to choose the part to be wounded; I likewise wished to vary the dose of poison at will. How to set about it? The scorpion has no jarlike receptacle in which the venom is accumulated and stored, like that possessed, for instance, by the wasp and the bee. The last segment of the tail, gourd shaped and surmounted by the sting, contains only a powerful mass of muscles along which lie the delicate vessels that secrete the poison.

In default of a poison jar which I would have placed on one side and drawn upon at my convenience, I detach the last segment, forming the base of the sting. I obtain it from a dead and already withered scorpion. A watch glass serves as a basin. Here, I tear and crush the piece in a few drops of water and leave it to steep for four-and-twenty hours. The result is the liquid which I propose to use for the inoculation. If any poison remained in my animal's caudal gourd, there must be at least some traces of it in the infusion in the watch glass.

My hypodermic syringe is of the simplest. It consists of a little glass tube, tapering sharply at one end. By drawing in my breath, I fill it with the liquid to be tested; I expel the contents by blowing. Its point is almost as fine as a hair and enables me to regulate the dose to the degree which I want. A cubic millimeter is the usual charge. The injection has to be made at parts that are generally covered with horn. So as not to break the point of my fragile instrument, I prepare the way with a needle, with which I prick the victim at the spot required. I insert the tip of the loaded injector in the hole thus made and I blow. The thing is done in a moment, very neatly and in an orthodox fashion, favorable to delicate experiments. I am delighted with my modest apparatus.

I am equally delighted with the results. The scorpion himself, when wounding with his sting, in which the poison is not diluted as mine is in the watch glass, would not produce effects like those of my pricks. Here is something more brutal, producing more convulsion in the sufferer. The virus of my contriving excels the scorpion's.

The test is several times repeated, always with the same mixture, which, drying up by spontaneous evaporation, then made to serve again by the addition of a few drops of water, once more drained and once more moistened, does duty for an indefinite length of time. Instead of abating, the virulence increases. Moreover, the corpses of the insects operated upon undergo a curious change, unknown in my earlier observations. Then the suspicion comes to me that the actual poison of the scorpion does not enter into the matter at all. What I obtain with the end joint of the tail, with the gland at the base of the sting, I ought to obtain with any other part of the animal.

I crush in a few drops of water a joint of the tail taken from the front portion, far from the poison glands. After soaking it for twenty-four hours, I obtain a liquid whose effects are absolutely the same as those before, when I used the joint that bears the sting. I try again with the scorpion's claws, the contents of which consist solely of muscle. The results are just the same. The whole of the animal's body, therefore, no matter which fragment be submitted to the steeping process, yields the virus that so greatly pricks my curiosity.

Every part of the Spanish fly (1), inside and out, is saturated with the blistering element; but there is nothing like this in the scorpion, who localizes his venom in his caudal gland and has none of it elsewhere. The cause of the effects which I observe is therefore connected with general properties which I ought to find in any insect, even the most harmless.

I consult Oryctes nasicornis, the peaceable rhinoceros beetle, on this subject. To get at the exact nature of the materials, instead of pulverizing the whole insect in a mortar, I use merely the muscular tissue obtained by scraping the inside of the dried Oryctes' corselet. Or else I extract the dry contents of the hind legs. I do the same with the desiccated corpses of the cockchafer, the Capricorn, or Cerambyx beetle, and the Cetonia, or rosechafer. Each of my gleanings, with a little water added, is left to soften for a couple of days in a watch glass and yields to the liquid whatever can be extracted from it by crushing and dissolving.

This time, we take a great step forward. All my preparations, without distinction, are horribly virulent. Let the reader judge. I select as my first patient the sacred beetle, Scarabaeus sacer, who thanks to his size and sturdiness, lends himself admirably to an experiment of this kind. I operate upon a dozen, in the corselet, on the breast, on the belly and, by preference, on one of the hind legs, far removed from the impressionable nervous centers. No matter what part my injector attacks, the effect produced is the same, or nearly. The insect falls as though struck by lightning. It lies on its back and wriggles its legs, especially the hind legs. If I set it on its feet again, I behold a sort of St. Vitus' dance. Scarabaeus lowers his head, arches his back, draws himself up on his twitching legs. He marks time with his feet on the ground, moves forward a little, moves as much backward, leans to the right, leans to the left, in wild disorder, incapable of keeping his balance or making progress. And this happens with sudden jerks and jolts, with a vigor no whit inferior to that of the animal in perfect health. It is a displacement of all the works, a storm that uproots the mutual relations of the muscles.

Seldom have I witnessed such sufferings, in my career as a cross- examiner of animals and, therefore, as a torturer. I should feel a scruple, did I not foresee that the grain of sand shifted today may one day help us by taking its place in the edifice of knowledge. Life is everywhere the same, in the Dung beetle's body as in man's. To consult it in the insect means consulting it in ourselves, means moving towards vistas which we cannot afford to neglect. That hope justifies my cruel studies, which, though apparently so puerile, are in reality worthy of serious consideration.

Of my dozen sufferers, some rapidly succumb, others linger for a few hours. They are all dead by tomorrow. I leave the corpses on the table, exposed to the air. Instead of drying and stiffening, like the asphyxiated insects intended for our collections, my patients, on the contrary, turn soft and slacken in the joints, notwithstanding the dryness of the surrounding air; they become disjointed and separate into loose pieces, which are easily removed.

The results are the same with the Capricorn, the cockchafer, the Procrustes (2), the Carabus (3). In all of them there is a sudden break-up, followed by speedy death, a slackening of the joints and swift putrefaction. In a non-horny victim, the quick chemical changes of the tissues are even more striking. A Cetonia grub, which resists the scorpion's sting, even though repeatedly administered, dies in a very short time if I inject a tiny drop of my terrible fluid into any part of its body. Moreover, it turns very brown and, in a couple of days, becomes a mass of black putrescence.

The great peacock, that large moth who recks little of the scorpion's poison, is no more able to resist my inoculations than the sacred beetle and the others. I prick two in the belly, a male and a female. At first, they seem to bear the operation without distress. They grip the trellis work of the cage and hang without moving, as though indifferent. But soon the disease has them in its grip. What we see is not the tumultuous ending of the sacred beetle; it is the calm advent of death. With wings slackly quivering, softly they die and drop from the wires. Next day, both corpses are remarkably lax; the segments of the abdomen separate and gape at the least touch. Remove the hairs and you shall see that the skin, which was white, has turned brown and is changing to black. Corruption is quickly doing its work.

This would be a good opportunity to speak of bacteria and cultures. I shall do nothing of the sort. On the hazy borderland of the visible and the invisible, the microscope inspires me with suspicion. It so easily replaces the eye of reality by the eye of imagination; it is so ready to oblige the theorists with just what they want to see. Besides, supposing the microbe to be found, if that were possible, the question would be changed, not solved. For the problem of the collapse of the structure through the fact of a prick there would be substituted another no less obscure: how does the said microbe bring about that collapse? In what way does it go to work? Where lies its power?

Then what explanation shall I give of the facts which I have just set forth? Why, none, absolutely none, seeing that I do not know of any. As I am unable to do better, I will confine myself to a pair of comparisons or images, which may serve as a brief resting place for the mind on the dark billows of the unknown.

All of us, as children, have amused ourselves with the game of "card friars." A number of cards, as many as possible, are bent lengthwise into a semi-cylinder. They are placed on a table, one behind the other, in a winding row, the spaces in which are suitably disposed. The performance pleases the eye by its curved lines and its regular arrangement. It possesses order, which is a condition of all animated matter. You give a little tap to the first card. It falls and overturns the second, which, in the same way, topsy-turvies the third; and so on, right to the end of the row. In less than no time, the capsizing wave spreads and the handsome edifice is shattered. Order is succeeded by disorder, I might almost say, by death. What was needed thus to upset the procession of friars? A very, very slight first push, out of all proportion to the toppled mass.

Again, take a glass balloon containing a solution of alum supersaturated by heat. It is closed, during the process of boiling, with a cork and is then allowed to cool. The contents remain fluid and limpid for an indefinite period. Mobility is here represented by a faint semblance of life. Remove the cork and drop in a solid particle of alum, however infinitesimal. Suddenly, the liquid thickens into a solid lump and gives off heat. What has happened? This: crystallization has set in at the first contact of the particle of alum, the center of attraction; next, it has spread bit by bit, each solidified particle producing the solidification of those around. The impulse comes from an atom; the mass impelled is boundless. The very small has revolutionized the immense.

Of course, in the comparison between these two instances and the effects of my injections, the reader must see no more than a figure of speech, which, without explaining anything, tries to throw a glimmer of light upon it. The long procession of card friars is knocked down by the mere touch of the little finger to the first; the voluminous solution of alum suddenly turns solid under the influence of an invisible particle. In the same way, the victims of my operations succumb, thrown into convulsions by a tiny drop of insignificant size and harmless appearance.

Then what is there in that terrible liquid? First of all, there is water, inactive in itself and simply a vehicle of the active agent. If a proof were needed of its innocuousness, here is one: I inject into the thigh of any one of the sacred beetle's six legs a drop of pure water larger than that of the fatal inoculations. As soon as he is released, he makes off and trots about as nimbly as usual. He is quite firm on his legs. When put back to his pellet, he rolls it with the same zeal as before the experiment. My injection of water makes no difference to him.

What else is there in the mixture in my watch glasses? There is the disintegrated matter of the corpse, especially shreds of dried muscles. Do these substances yield certain soluble elements to water? Or are they simply reduced to a fine dust in the crushing? I will not decide this question, nor is it really of importance. The fact remains that the poison proceeds from those substances and from them alone. Animal matter, therefore, which has ceased to live is an agent of destruction within the organism. The dead cell kills the living cell; in the delicate statics of life, it is the grain of sand which, refusing its support, entails the collapse of the whole edifice.

In this connection, we may recall those dreadful dissecting room accidents. Through awkwardness, a student of anatomy pricks himself with his scalpel in the course of his work; or else, by inadvertence, he has an insignificant scratch on his hand. A cut which one would hardly notice, produced by the point of a pocket knife, a scratch of no account, from a thorn or otherwise, now becomes a mortal wound, if powerful antiseptics do not speedily remedy the ill. The scalpel is soiled by its contact with the flesh of the corpse; so are the hands. That is quite enough. The virus of corruption is introduced; and, if not treated in time, the wound proves fatal. The dead has killed the living. This also reminds us of the so-called carbuncle flies, the lancet of whose mouth parts, contaminated with the sanies of corpses, produces such terrible accidents.

My dealings as against insects are, when all is said, nothing but dissecting room wounds and carbuncle flies' stings. In addition to the gangrene that soon impairs and blackens the tissues, I obtain convulsions similar to those produced by the scorpion's sting. In its convulsive effects, the venomous fluid emitted by the sting bears a close resemblance to the muscular infusions with which I fill my injector. We are entitled, therefore, to ask ourselves if poisons, generally speaking, are not themselves a produce of demolition, a casting of the organism perpetually renewed, waste matter, in short, which, instead of being gradually expelled, is stored for purposes of attack and defense. The animal, in that case, would arm itself with its own refuse in the same way as it sometimes builds itself a home with its intestinal recrement. Nothing is wasted; life's detritus is used for self defense.

All things considered, my preparations are meat extracts. If I replace the flesh of the insect by that of another animal, the ox, for instance, shall I obtain the same results? Logic says yes; and logic is right. I dilute with a few drops of water a little Liebig's extract, that precious standby of the kitchen. I operate with this fluid on six Cetoniae or rosechafers, four in the grub stage, two in the adult stage. At first, the patients move about as usual. Next day, the two Cetoniae are dead. The larvae resist longer and do not die until the second day. All show the same relaxed muscles, the same blackened flesh, signs of putrefaction. It is probable, therefore, that, if injected into our own veins, the same fluid would likewise prove fatal. What is excellent in the digestive tubes would be appalling in the arteries. What is food in one case is poison in the other.

A Liebig's extract of a different kind, the broth in which the liquefier puddles, is of a virulence equal, if not superior, to that of my products. All those operated upon, Capricorns, sacred beetles, ground beetles, die in convulsions. This brings us back, after a long way round, to our starting point, the maggot of the flesh fly. Can the worm, constantly floundering in the sanies of a carcass, be itself in danger of inoculation by that whereon it grows fat? I dare not rely upon experiments conducted by myself: my clumsy implements and my shaky hand make me fear that, with subjects so small and delicate, I might inflict deep wounds which of themselves would bring about death.

Fortunately, I have a collaborator of incomparable skill in the parasitic Chalcidid. Let us apply to her. To introduce her germs, she has perforated the maggot's paunch, has even done so several times over. The holes are extremely small, but the poison all around is excessively subtle and has thus been able, in certain cases, to penetrate. Now what has happened? The pupae, all from the same apparatus, are numerous. They can be divided into three not very unequal classes, according to the results supplied. Some give me the adult flesh fly, others the parasite. The rest, nearly a third, give me nothing, neither this year nor next.

In the first two cases, things have taken their normal course: the grub has developed into a fly, or else the parasite has devoured the grub. In the third case, an accident has occurred. I open the barren pupae. They are coated inside with a dark glaze, the remains of the dead maggot converted into black rottenness. The grub, therefore, has undergone inoculation by the virus through the fine openings effected by the Chalcidid. The skin has had time to harden into a shell; but it was too late, the tissues being already infected.

There you see it: in its broth of putrefaction, the worm is exposed to grave dangers. Now there is a need for maggots in this world, for maggots many and voracious, to purge the soil as quickly as possible of death's impurities. Linnaeus tells us that 'Tres muscae consumunt cadaver equi aeque cito ac leo." (4). There is no exaggeration about the statement. Yes, of a certainty, the offspring of the flesh fly and the bluebottle are expeditious workers. They swarm in a heap, always seeking, always snuffling with their pointed mouths. In those tumultuous crowds, mutual scratches would be inevitable if the worms, like the other flesh eaters, possessed mandibles, jaws, clippers adapted for cutting, tearing and chopping; and those scratches, poisoned by the dreadful gruel lapping them, would all be fatal.

How are the worms protected in their horrible work yard? They do not eat: they drink their fill; by means of a pepsin which they disgorge, they first turn their foodstuffs into soup; they practice a strange and exceptional art of feeding, wherein those dangerous carving implements, the scalpels with their dissecting room perils, are superfluous. Here ends, for the present, the little that I know or suspect of the maggot, the sanitary inspector in the service of the public health.


Translator's Notes:

  1. Cantharis or blistering beetle.

  2. A large ground beetle.

  3. The true ground beetle, including the gold beetle.

  4. Three flies consume the carcass of a horse as quickly as a lion could do it.

Jean-Henri Fabre, Virgil of insects

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