My Tropic Isle, by E. J. Banfield

Chapter XVIII

Insect Ways

“Some day ere I grow too old to think I trust to be

able to throw away all pursuits, save natural history,

and to die with my mind full of God’s facts instead

of men’s lies.”— CHARLES KINGSLEY.

August 2, 1909.

A lanky grasshopper with keeled back and pointed prow flew before me, settling on a leaf of blady grass, at once became fidgety and restless; flew to another blade and was similarly uneasy. It was bluff in colour with a narrow longitudinal streak of fawn, while the blades of grass whereon it rested momentarily were green. Each time it settled it adjusted itself to the blade of grass, became conscious of discomfort or apprehensive of danger, and sought another. Presently it settled on a yellowing leaf, the tints of which exactly corresponded with its own. The longitudinal streak became absorbed in the midrib of the blade, and the insect rested secure in its invisibility. The event demonstrated the purpose of its previous restlessness.

CARNIVOROUS WASPS

October 6, 1909.

This morning the soda siphon (which had not been used for a couple of days) refused duty, owing to a plug of terra-cotta-coloured clay. Upon the spout being probed the gush of gas expelled a quantity of clay and thirty-five small spiders, representative of about six different species. The spout had been converted into a nursery and larder by a carnivorous wasp, for in addition to the moribund spiders stored for the sustenance of future grubs were several unhatched eggs. Such wasps are exceedingly common, some building “nests” as large as a tea-cup, the last compartment being fitted with an elegantly fashioned funnel, the purpose of which is not obvious. If these nests are broken up, after the hatching out, the grubs are found-several in each compartment — feasting on the comatose spiders or caterpillars stored for their refreshment. Others of the species build a series of nests, detached or semi-detached, and shaped in resemblance to Greek amphora. Another species selects hollows in wood in which the eggs and insects are scaled. The larger wasps are not fearful of attacking so-called tarantulas, one sting rendering them paralytic.

November 10 1909.

Blue has a decided fascination for the bloodsucking “March” flies. In the “blue” tub of the laundry hundreds are lured to suicide, while the other tubs alongside count no voluntary victims. Blue clothing attracts scores, whereas the effect of any other colour is normal upon the appreciative sense of the flies. I am not well assured whether an attack of the “humph”—“the humph which is black and blue”— is not also diagnosed by the contemplative insects and forthwith attended to. Certainly if one has the misfortune to have become associated for the time being with devils of cerulean hue, the company of the flies seems all the more persistent and provocative of vexation. Imagination reels before the consequences of a blue costume, “all’s blue,” and the thrice intensified attacks of the indolent but persevering blood-suckers.

November 16, 1909.

Found a flat hairy spider, about 1 in. in diameter of body, mottled pale brown and grey, brooding over a flat egg capsule almost of the same tints as itself. It was on the trunk of the jack fruit tree, and so closely resembles the egg-capsule produced by contiguous fungi as to be absolutely invisible unless the gaze happened to be concentrated on the spot. No doubt in my mind that the similitude of the spider, together with its egg-capsule, to the adjacent discs of fungi enabled it to escape detection. When disturbed the spider whisked into absolute invisibility. I inspected the trunk of the tree for several minutes before I found it, within six inches of its original resting-place, perfectly still, acting the part of an obscure vegetable.

TARANTULAS AND TARANTISMUS

A few months ago I read in a text-book a dogmatic assertion to the effect that the so-called tarantulas were perfectly innocent of venom, and formidable only to the insects on which they prey. The great, good-tempered fellow, as uncouth in its hairiness as Nebuchadnezzar during his lamentable but salutary attack of boanthropy, is regarded with a good deal of suspicion, if not dread, though it pays for its lodging by reason of its large appetite, which latter statement seems self-contradictory. To satisfy its pangs of hunger it captures numbers of small insects which, willy nilly, tenant our homes.

In well-ordered establishments the aid of a tarantula or two in the suppression of insignificant undesirable creatures should, it might be argued, be unnecessary. Indeed, does not the presence of a fat, flat fellow lurking behind a rafter or in some gloomy corner, ever ready to seize cockroach or beetle, imply lack of order? Yet I have known homes where the tarantula was an honoured, if not a petted, lodger. When it had cleared one room it was coaxed on to a card and thereon transported to the next, and so it went the rounds. The children were wont to say that it knew its carriage, and would sidle on it whenever it was presented. To those of us who live in the bush, and who suffer fresh incursions almost every hour of the day, the help of a long-limbed, obese-bodied spider whose docility is beyond question, whose non-poisonous character is vouched for by high authorities, is by no means unwelcome.

But in spite of negative knowledge I have had my suspicions that the tarantula was not altogether wholesome in his anger, and now I have proof in support of my doubts. In a cool, dark cavity under a log in the bush were two huge representatives of the race. Each had its own compartment, a smooth, worn gallery, and they appear to have been on good terms until the moment of disturbance, for which each seemed to blame the other. They fought. It was a very brief, casual, and unentertaining encounter; but in less than half a minute one was dead, shrivelled and shrunk as though fire had passed over it. As no dismemberment or wound was apparent, I was fairly well satisfied that poison, very rapid in its effect, was at the service of the tarantula when its anger was aroused.

The next fact settled the point. Tom, the black boy, felt a nip on the arm as he put on a clean shirt an evening or two ago, and, reversing the sleeve, found a tarantula. Blood was oozing from two tiny incisions, the space between which was slightly raised. For two days Tom suffered pain in the arm, which became slightly swollen, headache, and great uneasiness.

Reading my text-book, I found that the original tarantula spider (from which the Australian species are misnamed) is so called from the town of Tarentum, in Italy. Among the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood it was a deeply-rooted belief that if any one was bitten by a tarantula he would be instantly inflicted with a singular disease known as tarantismus, which exhibited itself in two extremes, the one being a profound and silent melancholy and the other a continual convulsive movement of the whole body. It was thought that this disease could only be cured by music, and that a certain tune was needful in each particular case. This was the legend.

It will be remembered that among the tales told by “a great traveller” to Pepys was one on the subject of the tarantula. He says that all the harvest long (about which time they are most busy) there are fiddlers go up and down the fields everywhere in expectation of being hired by those who are stung.

Of the disease there is no doubt, and that it could be cured by dancing stimulated by music is a natural conclusion. Each patient indulged in long and violent exercise, which produced profuse perspiration; he then fell exhausted, slept calmly, and awoke cured.

For the best part of a day Tom lay stretched on his face in the sun. Like David the psalmist, he refused to be comforted. A profound and silent melancholy subdued the wandering spirit which invariably manifests itself on Sunday. He just “sweated out” the day he usually devotes to hunting, and on Monday was himself again, save for a greyish blue tinge encircling each of the little wounds on his arm.

Though it is certain that the tarantula of Italy and the spider which robbed Tom of his Sunday are of different species, yet one is struck by the similarity of the toxic effects of the bite with that of the manifestations of the disease of tarantismus. The fact that after a good sweating — hot sand and unshaded sun are fairly active sudorifics — all untoward effects (physical and mental) passed away seems to suggest close intimacy between the symptoms of the poison of tarantula and the disease.

I do not apologise for thus gravely recording an incident of the bush which has neither humour nor romance to recommend it, because I think, friendly as I am to the “tarantula,” the truth — the whole truth and nothing but the whole truth — should be told about him. Like the pet pussy-cat, “if you don’t hurt him he’ll do you no harm”; but put him in a tight corner and offer him violence and he will heroically defend himself and be very nasty about it. Having studied Tom’s demeanour while under the effects of the poison, I am satisfied that if one desires a visit from “divinest melancholy” without any of the thrills of poetry, let him provoke an angry tarantula to assault him. All “vain, deluding joys” will pass away, and for twenty-four hours he will be as dull as a log, and as sweatful as a fat Southerner in a canefield.

The local name of the house-haunting “tarantula,” though befitting and unique, imposes a singularly slight strain upon the resources of the alphabet. What combination of eight letters could be softer and more coaxing? And yet the startled Eves of Dunk Island were wont not only to specialise the spider but to shriek out affright at its unexpected presence by the exclamation “Oo-boo-boo!”

To prove that the “Oo-boo-boo” is not always victorious in the fights which take place in the dark, let me tell of a combat between a giant and a slim-waisted orange and black wasp. The latter buzzed about angrily, and, following up a feint, stung the “Oo-boo-boo,” which became nerveless on the instant and fell. As it was all too heavy to fly away with, the wasp dragged it along the ground with much labour and incessant fuss. The terra-cotta larder was in a hollow log, and only after immense exertions and many failures was the limp carcass tugged to the spot. Then there was more buzzing than ever, for the wasp discovered that its prey was many sizes too large for the clay compartment prepared for it. No amount of trampling and shoving of the limp tarantula was of any avail. Several minutes elapsed before the obvious fact dawned upon the baffled insect. Then it abandoned its efforts at compression, and with many loads of moist clay moulded a special compartment in which the tarantula, still in a state of suspended animation, was snugly stowed.

Just one more. A wasp dropped on the bench a few inches from my nose — a tiny wasp with a rollicking gait. Closer inspection showed half a wasp only. It had been neatly severed at the delicate waist and on the thatch above was an Oo-boo-boo — a big Oo-boo-boo — and it seemed to me to be beaming with that broad, self-satisfied expression that the cat wears when it has eaten the canary.

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