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The Hunting Wasp
By HENRI FABRE
"Who that has diverted himself, however little, with the study of insects does not know the Pompili? Against old walls, at the foot of the banks beside unfrequented foot-paths, in the stubble after the harvest, in the tangles of dry grass, wherever the spider spreads her nets, who has not seen them busily at work?”
OST of the insects and larvæ that form the prey of the hunting wasps, who store them away as food for their young, are inoffensive victims, like the silly sheep of our slaughter-houses; they allow themselves to be operated upon by the paralyzer, submitting stupidly, without offering much resistance. The mandibles gape, the legs kick and protest, the body wriggles and twists, and that is all; they have no weapons capable of contending with the assassin's dagger.
I wanted to see the huntress grappling with an imposing adversary, one as crafty as herself, an expert layer of ambushes, and, like her, bearing a poisoned dirk. I wanted to see the bandit armed with the stiletto confronted by another bandit equally familiar with the use of that weapon. Is such a duel possible? Yes, it is possible and even common. On the one side we have the Pompili, the protagonists who are always victorious; on the other hand the spiders, the protagonists who are always overthrown.
Who that has diverted himself, however little, with the study of insects does not know the Pompili? Against old walls, at the foot of the banks beside unfrequented foot-paths, in the stubble after the harvest, in the tangles of dry grass, wherever the spider spreads her nets, who has not seen them busily at work, now running hither and thither, at random, their wings raised and quivering above their backs, now moving from place to place in flights long or short? They are hunting for a quarry which might easily turn the tables and
itself prey upon the trapper lying in wait for it.
The Pompili feed their larvæ solely on spiders, and the spiders feed on any insect commensurate with their size that is caught in their nets. While the first possess a sting, the second have two poisoned fangs. Often their strength is equally matched; indeed, the advantage is not seldom on the spider's side. The wasp has her ruses of war, of war, her cunningly premeditated strokes; the spider has her wiles and her set traps. The first has the advantage of great rapidity of movement, while the second is able to rely upon her perfidious web; the one has a sting which contrives to penetrate the exact point to cause paralysis; the other has fangs which bite the back of the neck and deal sudden death. We find the paralyzer on the one hand, and the slaughterer on the other. Which of the two will become the other's prey?
If we consider only the relative strength of the adversaries, the power of their weapons, the virulence of their poisons, and their different modes of action, the scale would very often be weighted in favor of the spider. Since the Pompilus always emerges victorious from this contest, which appears to be full of peril for her, she must have a special method, of which I would fain learn the secret.
In our part of the country the most powerful and courageous spider huntress is the Ringed Pompilus (Calicurgus annulatus, FABR.), clad in black and yellow. She stands high on her legs, and her wings have black tips, the rest being yellow, as though exposed to smoke,