C. R. K. ALLEN
THE FLOWER GARDEN is, to our human eyes, a place of repose and relaxation. Its neatly clipped lawns and hedges, its beds of flowers and gravel paths together form a peace nook into which we may drift for a little time and take holiday from the outside world.
This same sheltered nook is, however, the scene, the focus of many struggles to live, some of them much more intense than our own. The drowsy murmur which on hot summer days arises from the flower-beds about us and lulls us to sleep, is made by the wings of countless insects who are hurrying on their own special and very important missions—searching for food perhaps, or a mate, or a suitable place for the laying of their eggs; or, it may be, even fleeing from death.
Let us draw close to one of the flower-beds and, imagining ourselves reduced to insect size, attempt to look at it as through the eyes of one of its tiny inhabitants.
With our eyes close to the ground, peering among the densely growing stems of the taller flowers, we find ourselves looking into a dark, cool forest, filled with that greenish glow—the soft jade of bright sunlight filtered through green leaves —so typical of all summer forests.
Our flower stems, looked at thus closely, have become thick tree trunks which seem to stretch upward to fearful heights above us. A wind is stirring their tops, but down here below everything is still.
The Hidden Monster
LET US NOW venture on an excursion to the top of one . of these tall trees. Up here, the humming which we heard a short while ago seems louder and less drowsy than before. It may be that our ears have become more sensitive in our game of make-believe, or perhaps it is because we are closer to the source of the humming, but we now seem able to distinguish in it a number of component sounds. There is the “zip” of the quickly flying beetle, there again the high
pitched whine of a small fly, and here is a deep, vibrating drone which rapidly grows louder until its noise seems to fill the air all about us then, with a sudden shock, a huge bumblebee alights upon our flower.
The stalk bends and sways perilously under the weight of this big intruder, but her footing is secure and she immediately plunges into the flower’s depths, where she probes about with her long tubelike tongue for the nectar at the base of the pistil, dusting herself generously with the golden pollen from the tops of the stamens. This pollen she will later comb from her fur-clad body and pack into two flat socalled “pollen baskets” on her hind legs; and eventually she will carry her load of pollen and nectar back to a nest built of wax in some old hollow fencepost or stone wall, there to feed the hungry little white grubs which will some day themselves turn into bumblebees. Just now, however, our bee seems only to have begun her day’s work, for she backs hurriedly out of the flower, drops oiï into space, and the hum of her four powerful wings dies away as she speeds off in search of lurther plunder.
Everything is quiet in the immediate neighborhood of our clump of flowers for several minutes after the boisterous departure of the bee, and then we become aware of a small object poised in mid-air about the flower of a white daisy a few feet away. At first glance it appears to be another and much smaller bee, since its body is marked with alternate yellow and black bands; but, as it hovers lower and still lower and finally comes to rest with its wings held out stiffly like those of a tiny airplane, we see that this yellow and black livery is merely a disguise, and that the insect is a fly, having only one pair of wings, while the more formidable bees and their relatives have two pairs.
Our little fly stands thus for several moments with her wings stretched ready for instant flight should any danger appear; and then, folding them demurely above her back, she walks slowly and daintily up a
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white petal toward the round yellow heart of the daisy. None of the impetuous haste of the bee here. There are no hungry babies waiting for the food which this fly collects. It will all go into her own tiny stomach.
Now, all at once, something terrible happens. She has almost reached the yellow centre of the daisy when she suddenly spreads her wings and attempts a quick leap into the air. But not quickly enough. There is a movement at the base of the flower ixítals ; she is seized in two pairs of long cream-colored legs, and dragged, struggling 1 feebly, up against the powerful biting jaws of the spider who has been waiting all morning for just such an opportunity as this.
It is a peculiar sort of spider, rather pretty from our point of view, if we remember for the moment that we are humans and not tiny insects, who might have shared the same fate as the luckless little fly. His body is a pale creamy yellow, and on each side there is a narrow strip of brownish rose. He is in fact a perfect cameo of a spider; but what a terror he must be to the smaller insects with their near-sighted eyes who never seem to expect to find these monsters actually crouching in the scented hearts of the flowers. This spider has discarded the respectable web-building ways of his relatives, and, instead of waiting for his food to come to him by mere chance, has assumed a proper disguise and stationed himself in the one place where he is sure that the insects will sooner or later come of their own accord.
Tragedy in Miniature
A ND NOW, lest we conclude that all life / \ is centred around the flowers at the top of the plant, let us descend again to the region of green leaves and stalks. Looking about here for some signs of life, we soon come upon a colony of tiny green insects standing huddled together on the stalk of the plant. They are aphids, or “plant lice” as the gardener calls them, and they are sucking the juices of the plant through their tiny tubelike mouths.
Just now, as we watch our little herd of plant lice, we notice, crawling toward them along the stem, a small green grub about one eighth of an inch long. A more harmlessappearing grub it would be hard to find. It has no legs, no mouth that we can see. and is pointed at the front and rounded behind. It looks like the white maggots which we have seen in decayed meat, and it is, in fact, a maggot. When it grows up it will turn into a dainty harmless fly exactly like the one we saw killed by the spider up there on the daisy.
But this baby fly is by no means as harmless as its parents. It has now reached the little group of plant lice and its pointed snout has come in contact with one of the group. It seizes the little insect in its mouth, lifts it clear of the stem, holds it kicking in mid-air and sucks the juices frem its body. There is something uncanny about the slowness of this killing. The plant louse makes not the slightest attempt to escape, and the grub, as a result, is very deliberate in its approach and capture.
And now another enemy approaches. A few inches above the group of plant lice, a brilliant little red and black ladybug appears, crawling along the rim of a leaf. She seems to be searching industriously, since she goes carefully over the whole leaf without pausing a moment, and then crawls back to the main stem, down a little way, out on to another leaf, and repeats the whole procedure. While crawling along the stem from one leaf to another she comes upon the plant lice; then, her search ended, she takes the nearest one in her jaws and begins her meal.
While watching the attack of the fly grub and the ladybug we have almost missed noticing a tiny black insect crawling about among the plant lice. Upon looking closely we discover that it is an exceedingly small flylike insect, much too small to eat any but
the very smallest of the plant lice. What then can she be doing here? As we watch her closely we notice that her attention seems focused on only the biggest and plumpest of the plant lice. When she comes upon a good-sized insect she turns about, backs up to it, and then we see that she has at the end of her body a very tiny sting. With this sting she pierces the body of the plant louse, who does not seem to mind in the least, and lays an egg within it.
If we wish to see the sequel to this egglaying, we have only to look on the leaves and stem closer to the ground and we shall soon find the body of a plant louse, or rather the mere shell of a plant louse, an empty husk with a little trapdoor neatly cut in its back. What has happened is that the egg has hatched into a very tiny grub which grew and lived upon the juices within the body of the plant louse, just as did the ladybug and the other larger grub we saw before; but, in this case, the little grub spent its entire life as a grub inside the plant louse and permitted its host to live until it was ready to emerge into the outside world as a complete little fly.
Quite possibly if we waited long enough by this ill-fated little company of aphids, we should see them annihilated. But rather j than witness even so mild a tragedy as this, j we shall pursue our explorations into other parts of this miniature jungle; so, leaving our perch among the leaves and stems, we descend to the ground and explore the floor of our forest.
Wolves of the Flowers
ERE WE SHALL FIND a whole host of creatures who dislike the strong sunlight and have crawled in here to sleep through the day
Some animal life is, however, on the move. Here is a group of small red ants ! working industriously around the mangled body of a huge earthworm.
There is something very strange about the body of this worm in here among the densely growing stems of the tall flowers. It is torn in several places, and if it were out on the gravel path we should say that it had been bruised by the scuffing foot of a human. In here, however, that explanation is not possible; and the red ants, though they are as fierce as little wolves and can pull down and kill almost any insect they can catch, would never have been able to capture this enormous worm. Had we been here early last evening, however, the mystery would have been solved; we should have witnessed a battle which, had the combatants been a hundred times their actual size, would have been really awe-inspiring.
Last evening, probably shortly after sunset, the worm had thrust aside the plug of dead grass and mud with which he had closed the mouth of his burrow in dry weather, and had stretched his long body out in search of food in the shape of dead or decaying plant material, being careful, however, to keep the rear end of his body, which is equipped with strong hooks, anchored within the burrow. It may have been that the food was scarce last night or the big worm discovered a bit which was slightly beyond his reach. At any rate, for some such reason he relaxed his hold upon the inside of his burrow and, drawing himself entirely out, ventured a little way across the surface of the ground.
About this time, had the worm possessed eyes, he would have seen gliding toward him a vicious-looking insect about two inches in length. It somewhat resembled another worm except that it was glossy black above and grey below and had a pair of very businesslike jaws. It had besides these, three pairs of legs upon which it ran very swiftly ín spite of its long, trailing body. It was the larva or young of a species of large ground beetle, and one of the worst enemies of the earthworm.
It drew closer. There was a little pounce,
the jaws opened widely, snapped shut in a fraction of a second, and the beetle larva was securely attached to its prey. The worm exploded into life in a moment. “Exploded" is the only word which describes the sudden burst of frantic energy which he put forth. The beetle larva could do nothing but hang on tightly, for it was being alternately thrown high into the air and rolled over and over on the ground, as the worm writhed and lashed about in a desperate attempt to shake off this horrible thing which had attached itself to him so painfully. The conflict lasted for about three minutes, and then the worm lay quiet, as if resigned to its fate. The beetle larva, releasing its hold, took a fresh one a little farther along, thus starting a new struggle, which was, however, not quite as desperate as the first. This continued until the worm had been bitten in several places and was quite dead. The beetle larva then made its meal, and retired for the rest of the night under a flat stone.
This cool, shadowy region beneath the forest of garden plants serves as a dormitory, where night-loving insects and other animals sleep away the long hours of daylight and only venture forth after the sun has set.
The Beetle and the Spider
I ET US NOW LEAVE the shade beneath L_ the tall plants and push our way out through the tangled grass of the lawn. While to us, in our assumed diminutive size, the flower-bed seemed a forest, the lawn, on the other hand, appears as a prairie, or perhaps more like one of the bamboo thickets about which we have read in books on tropical travel.
Contrasted with the floor of our plant forest, life here seems much more abundant. Flying insects of the flower tops, insects of the middle region of stems and leaves, and the creeping creatures of the ground level are all brought closer together in this region of shorter plants. Big white cabbage butterflies and their relatives, the yellow sulphurs, and the smaller copper butterflies with their pearly grey under wing-surfaces, all mingle and compete with the bees and flies for nectar from the dandelion blooms. As we push our way along, small white moths continually flutter upward from under the grass leaves and settle a little way ahead.
One of these moths comes to rest close enough to us so that we are able to observe how, after alightiag. it immediately crawls around to the under surface of a leaf, thus hiding its conspicuous white form from any prying hungry eyes.
As we watch the apparently aimless but really protective zig-zag flight of one of these small moths, our eye is caught by a rather larger, heavier insect which is coming down
through the air on a long slant, and a beetle alights upon a near-by dandelion.
Let us suppose that, wishing to observe how the beetle unfurls his wings from their cases, we attempt to frighten him off by shaking the flower on which he is perched. We find to our surprise that, instead of leaping into the air immediately as would a bee or a fly, he simply lets go his hold on the petals and instantly drops out of sight among the tangled grasses. This method of escaping immediate danger is just as quick as flight and is probably even more bewildering to an enemy.
In this particular case, however, our beetle does not drop quite out of sight. His fall is stopped just above the ground by a spider web which is spread out like a flat sheet over the blades of the grass. At one comer the web is woven so as to form a round tunnel leading down to the grass roots. The slight jar caused by the falling beetle makes the web tremble in all its parts, and at this trembling there appears at the dark mouth of the silky tunnel a brown, bristly head, bearing on its forehead not two eyes but a complete little circle of them, sparkling like tiny diamonds. The beetle, apparently realizing that it is trapped, begins to struggle frantically but helplessly, entangling itself more and more in the sticky threads of the web.
At this renewed agitation, which must be to the owner of the web like a tug on the line of a fisherman, the spider darts out to within half an inch of its victim and looks the situation over. She seems to decide that the beetle is comparatively defenseless, for she rushes in, delivers a quick bite, and jumps away again.
This method of killing prey by quick attack and instantaneous retreat is common to all spiders, and for a very good reason. Their bodies are soft and defenseless, so that a bite from almost any insect, however weak, may pierce their tender skins and cause death. Obtaining food is, therefore, for them a hazardous business; and they rely upon this method of a quick bite, with its injection of poison into the body of the intended victim, followed by an equally quick jump out of harm's way. This one bite proves sufficient for the beetle, and after a moment or two, its struggles having become weaker and finally ceased, the spider drags the body down into the tunnel where she will be able to suck the juices from it without being disturbed; while we, on our part, wander away with a feeling of pleasure at having witnessed still another of the small dramas of the garden, and shame at having caused the death of th is beetle who had been demonstrating to us the efficiency of his method of escape from enemies.