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Ch. 12: A Noble Wasp

_(Monedula punctata.)_

Naturalists, like kings and emperors, have their favourites, and as my
zoological sympathies, which are wider than my knowledge, embrace all
classes of beings, there are of course several insects for which I have
a special regard; a few in each of the principal orders. My chief
favourite among the hymenopteras is the one representative of the
curious genus Monedula known in La Plata. It is handsome and has
original habits, but it is specially interesting to me for another
reason: I can remember the time when it was extremely rare on the
pampas, so rare that in boyhood the sight of one used to be a great
event to me; and I have watched its rapid increase year by year till it
has come to be one of our commonest species. Its singular habits and
intelligence give it a still better claim to notice. It is a big, showy,
loud-buzzing insect, with pink head and legs, wings with brown
reflections, and body encircled with alternate bands of black and pale
gold, and has a preference for large composite flowers, on the honey of
which it feeds. Its young is, however, an insect-eater; but the Monedula
does not, like other burrowing or sand wasps, put away a store of
insects or spiders, partially paralyzed, as a provision for the grub
till it reaches the pupa state; it actually supplies the grub with
fresh-caught insects as long as food is required, killing the prey it
captures outright, and bringing it in to its young; so that its habits,
in this particular, are more bird- than wasp-like.

The wasp lays its solitary egg at the extremity of a hole it excavates
for itself on a bare hard piece of ground, and many holes are usually
found close together. When the grub--for I have never been able to find
more than one in a hole--has come out from the egg, the parent begins to
bring in insects, carefully filling up the mouth of the hole with loose
earth after every visit. Without this precaution, which entails a vast
amount of labour, I do not believe one grub out of every fifty would
survive, so overrun are these barren spots of ground used as
breeding-places with hunting spiders, ants, and tiger-beetles. The grub
is a voracious eater, but the diligent mother brings in as much as it
can devour. I have often found as many as six or seven insects,
apparently fresh killed, and not yet touched by the pampered little
glutton, coiled up in the midst of them waiting for an appetite.

The Monedula is an adroit fly-catcher, for though it kills numbers of
fire-flies and other insects, flies are always preferred, possibly
because they are so little encumbered with wings, and are also more
easily devoured. It occasionally captures insects on the wing, but the
more usual method is to pounce down on its prey when it is at rest. At
one time, before I had learnt their habits, I used frequently to be
startled by two or three or more of these wasps rushing towards my face,
and continuing hovering before it, loudly buzzing, attending me in my
walks about the fields. The reason of this curious proceeding is that
the Monedula preys largely on stinging flies, having learnt from
experience that the stinging fly will generally neglect its own safety
when it has once fastened on a good spot to draw blood from. When a man
or horse stands perfectly motionless the wasps take no notice, but the
moment any movement is made of hand, tail, or stamping hoof, they rush
to the rescue, expecting to find a stinging fly. On the other hand, the
horse has learnt to know and value this fly-scourge, and will stand very
quietly with half a dozen loud Avasps hovering in an alarming manner
close to his head, well knowing that every fly that settles on him will
be instantly snatched away, and that the boisterous Monedula is a better
protection even than the tail--which, by the way, the horse wears very
long in Buenos Ayres.

I have, in conclusion, to relate an incident I onco witnessed, and which
does not show the Monedula in a very amiable light. I was leaning over a
gate watching one of these wasps feeding on a sunflower. A small
leaf-cutting bee was hurrying about with its shrill busy hum in the
vicinity, and in due time came to the sunflower and settled on it. The
Monedula became irritated, possibly at the shrill voice and bustling
manner of its neighbour, and, after watching it for a few moments on the
flower, deliberately rushed at and drove it off. The leaf-cutter quickly
returned, however--for bees are always extremely averse to leaving a
flower unexplored--but was again driven away with threats and
demonstrations on the part of the Monedula. The little thing went off
and sunned itself on a leaf for a time, then returned to the flower,
only to be instantly ejected again. Other attempts were made, but the
big wasp now kept a jealous watch on its neighbour's movements, and
would not allow it to come within several inches of the flower without
throwing itself into a threatening attitude. The defeated bee retired to
sun itself once more, apparently determined to wait for the big tyrant
to go away; but the other seemed to know what was wanted, and spitefully
made up its mind to stay where it was. The leaf-cutter then gave up the
contest. Suddenly rising up into the air, it hovered, hawk-like, above
the Monedula for a moment, then pounced down on its back, and clung
there, furiously biting, until its animosity was thoroughly appeased;
then it flew off, leaving the other master of the field certainly, but
greatly discomposed, and perhaps seriously injured about the base of the
wings. I was rather surprised that they were not cut quite off, for a
leaf-cutting bee can use its teeth as deftly as a tailor can his shears.

Doubtless to bees, as to men, revenge is sweeter than honey. But, in the
face of mental science, can a creature as low down in the scale of
organization as a leaf-cutting bee be credited with anything so
intelligent and emotional as deliberate anger and revenge, "which
implies the need of retaliation to satisfy the feelings of the person
(or bee) offended?" According to Bain _(Mental and Moral Science)_ only
the highest animals--stags and bulls he mentions-can be credited with
the developed form of anger, which, he describes as an excitement caused
by pain, reaching the centres of activity, and containing an impulse
knowingly to inflict suffering on another sentient being. Here, if man
only is meant, the spark is perhaps accounted for, but not the barrel of
gunpowder. The explosive material is, however, found in the breast of
nearly every living creature. The bull--ranking high according to Bain,
though I myself should place him nearly on a level mentally with the
majority of the lower animals, both vertebrate and insect--is capable of
a wrath exceeding that of Achilles; and yet the fact that a red rag can
manifestly have no associations, personal or political, for the bull,
shows how uniutcllectual his anger must be. Another instance of
misdirected anger in nature, not quite so familiar .as that of the bull
and red rag, is used as an illustration by one of the prophets: "My
heritage is unto me as a speckled bird; the birds round, about are
against it." I have frequently seen the birds of a thicket gather round
some singularly marked accidental visitor, and finally drive him with
great anger from the neighbourhood. Possibly association comes in a
little here, since any bird, even a small one, strikingly coloured or
marked, might be looked on as a bird of prey.

The flesh-fly laying its eggs on the carrion-flower is only a striking
instance of the mistakes all instincts are liable to, never more
markedly than in the inherited tendency to fits of frenzied excitement:
the feeling is frequently excited by the wrong object, and explodes at
inopportune moments.

W. H. Hudson