Selected writings of A. Jackson Howe.
The following reproduction is a chapter from Professor Howe's book for the young, entitled "Conversations on Animal Life." Throughout this book, which starts with the simplest forms of animate life and ends with the quadrupeds, the whole insect, bird, and animal creation is discussed colloquially in such a manner as to bring out only the distinctive truths concerning the creatures under discussion. It represents just such a conversation as Professor Howe would enjoy having with children, whom he dearly loved and whom he would take with him over the pleasant pathways of childhood such as he enjoyed with the animal and bird denizens of the New England fields, streams, and forests.—Ed. Gleaner.
ARTICULATA.—Lucy brought to the table at the hour for the meeting the jar containing some of the animals caught the previous day. To her surprise she found that of six "minnies" which had been placed in the little aquarium after the return from the excursion, only two remained.
What had become of the four tiny fishes? The water beetle could not have eaten so many, and the crawfish had been bountifully fed on bits of meat dropped into the water. Perplexed, she asked her uncle to express his opinion on the cause of the loss. He intimated that the crustacean was so voracious that he would believe almost anything concerning its appetite. The minnows could keep out of its way in the daytime; but in the night the crawfish would have the advantage of seeing the best. If the "minnies" were near the surface the crawfish could not rise to their level, but the water beetle might seize and drag them to the bottom, where they would be exposed to the other and worse enemy.
"Only the plants" he added, "are safe in an aquarium where there are crawfish and water beetles."
"I believe the water beetle can fly in the air." said Tom.
"It has good wings and can fly wherever it wishes to go. In the water it uses its hind legs as paddles, and propels itself at a lively rate of speed. The water beetle is an air breather, and has to rise to the surface for breath. When it dives it takes a quantity of air under its wing-covers, which can be respired at will.
"There are other beetles which live in water. The gyrinus or whirligig beetles move in circles as if skating on the surface of the pool. They swim rapidly, and can not be captured by the trout or any other fish."
"I have seen them swimming in groups, several sets "skating" within a few feet of each other," said Tom.
"If struck at with a stick," responded his uncle, "the merry swimmers suddenly dive, taking with them a supply of air for breathing purposes. The air carried down looks like a globule of quicksilver attached to the body. When all is quiet, the divers reappear on the surface of the water and resume their gambols in sweeping curves. The gyrinus or water flea, as the little skating beetle is sometimes called, can not be kept in an uncovered aquarium, for at the approach of evening it may fly to more desirable haunts. When held in the fingers it gives off the odor of ripe apples."
"A whirligig beetle is about as large as a grain of coffee," said Tom, "and it has very beautiful wing-covers."
"'It is peculiar in having two pairs of eyes," said the uncle, "one just above the other. The upper set is used to see objects in the air, and the lower to behold things in the water. It has short antennae and long, slender legs in front; the other legs are broad and fringed, serving as propellers. It feeds on minute animals that live in water. In the larval state it is wholly aquatic, and passes the winter in the mud at the bottom of ponds and streams.
"All beetles and kindred flying insects possess four wings and six legs. The two pairs of wings are sometimes needed to give greater expansion than could be attained by a single pair; and often the membranous or under wings, which are frail structures, are overlaid by horny shields or wing-covers.
"The chests of insects do not have true lungs, but spiral tubes, that convey air to the interior of the body, even to the abdomen. The mandibles of beetles are commonly strong, arched, or branched."
There was what Sam called a "horned bug" in the case, and he was curious to know where it was found and what were the uses of its branching horns.
"Its name is stag beetle," said his uncle, "and it is oftenest found on locust trees. The horns are modified antennas, and may be regarded as ornamental weapons. It is the male of a common leaf-eating beetle. The stag beetle has a fighting spirit. If teased, it can be made to nip a green stick, and not relax its grip for several minutes."
"It seems strange," said Tom, "that antennae should be converted into horns."
"We see much of a similar variation in nature," said his uncle. "Soft down is transformed into thorns, feathers into quills, hair into bristles, and legs into biting mandibles, as in the lobster.
"The largest beetle in the world is the Hercules beetle of South America. It is more than four inches long, and one mandible is longer than the other. Its nip will crush a finger.
"In tropical countries, especially in timbered districts, are thousands of varieties of beetles. Many of them have beautiful wing-covers. Sometimes one will present brilliant markings that resemble a display of jewels."
"I think tumble bugs are beetles," said Tom. "I have seen a pair build a globe or ball."
"They are the pellet beetles common in our pastures," said the uncle. "The beetles will roll the ball away to some place where the earth is soft or sandy. They bury it after an egg has been laid in the center. A larval worm hatches from the egg, and feeds upon the substance of the pellet, and is afterwards transformed into a beetle. While a pair of beetles are rolling a pellet to its place of burial, they work in a hurried manner, the one pushing and the other pulling, appearing at first sight antagonistic to each other. But a moments watching will reveal that the ball keeps rolling in one direction.
"As soon as they have disposed of one pellet they hurry off to mold another, and do not cease working till night. If, in the haste, the round mass tumble down a declivity, and the beetles fall after it, they soon find the object of solicitude and force it where it may be properly buried.
"The sacred beetle of Egypt constructs a round ball and buries it after an egg has been deposited in the mass. Perhaps the coming of a larval beetle from the buried egg was thought to be emblematic of a new life. Possibly the beetle was venerated on account of its benefits as a scavenger, hiding what might otherwise make the air unwholesome."
"Where should we search for beetles?" asked Lucy.
"In dark, damp, and shaded places. Under the bark of decaying trees several species may be found. Others are to be discovered in dead animal structures. The tiny moth beetle is, in the larval slate, a pest of woolen goods in summer, and to fabrics woven from animal products. It will destroy all taxidermic work unless made proof against its ravages by arsenic or other poisonous substances. As soon as the naturalist perceives a sprinkling of fine dust beneath his mounted specimens he may be sure the invisible larval beetle is at its destructive work."
"I have reason to call them pests," said Lucy, "for they ruined my muff last summer and injured my cloak. They must be very small, for I never saw one, dead or alive."
"The tiny beetle," said her uncle, "lays its eggs in fur, feathers, and animal products, and the small larval worms, when hatched, gnaw the goods.
"The little moth miller, another pest, lays its eggs in dead animal structures, and the larval worms, after hatching, cause great havoc. The odor of camphor, cedar, and other pungent agents will help to keep them out of boxes and trunks. There is a larval beetle with teeth so sharp that it will channel dead buffalo horns and the hoofs of different animals."
The party went into the garden and lane to look for specimens of beetles. A couple of pellet beetles were watched while they were burying the ball in a bed of sand under the protection of a bush. A fragment of bark was stripped from a decayed log to expose larval beetles concealed there and the channels they had bored into the wood. A stalk of dead quince wood was broken in pieces to disclose the borings of the curculio beetle, which injures fruit trees. Lucy discovered a bug in the petals of a rose she had plucked. The little creature was a beetle, though it went by the name of "rose bug."
On the cucumber vines were multitudes of striped bugs—beetles —that would ruin the young plants, if they were not covered with screens. On the pumpkin vine was another and larger beetle. If touched it would give out an offensive odor. On the squash vine was still another variety of the beetle family. Yonder on the pea vines was a spotted beetle whose wing-covers when closed resembled the shell of a turtle. This beetle is sometimes called "lady bird." It is not destructive to garden vegetables, but feeds on various plant vermin. There was the hole of a beetle that is so fierce and voracious, and bounds upon its prey so suddenly, that it has been called the tiger beetle. It springs upon flies, worms, and other beetles.
Lucy, at this juncture, was moved to ask why God made creatures that would destroy not only garden delicacies, but more substantial crops. The question was puzzling, yet her uncle said, "All created things have a place and purpose in the world; and every animal strives to make the best of its conditions and surroundings. Our garden plants were once wild, stunted, and bitter, but by cultivation they have been rendered savory, tender, and succulent. The bugs that feed upon them now may have fed upon other plants originally. When they found luscious and nutritious vegetables they naturally would abandon tougher food. They would not take up with an inferior diet when a more desirable one was at hand. Bugs and beetles appropriate whatever they find to be agreeable to them. In some instances the original tastes of insects have been changed by feeding upon a rare exotic or successfully cultivated hybrid. Our own tastes become modified by being educated to enjoy certain things which were at first unpleasant to the taste.
"The Colorado beetle, so called, attacked the potato plant, and proved so destructive that the price of the familiar tuber largely advanced. Probably this was not a new beetle, but one that formerly fed upon something else, some other plant. It may have been in the wilderness thousands of years ago and fed upon a variety of the potato plant. It is not many years since the potato was unknown as an edible root, therefore we know little of its enemies. If the beetle of some wilderness country chanced to alight upon a cultivated variety and found it delicious, it would certainly abandon inferior food, and appear among growing crops, and thus become known to agriculturists.
"A 'fly' or beetle stings our plums and apricots; another variety deposits an egg in the blossom end of a chestnut, which, as a larval worm, after hatching, feeds upon the sweet contents of the shell. Most fruits have their special enemies, and a large proportion of these, when closely examined, are found to be members of the beetle family.
"The weevil, that destroys our wheat and other small grain, is a little beetle. It bores into the soft end of the kernel and there deposits an egg, which, when hatched, produces a tiny larval worm that feeds on the flour or starch of the seed. The flinty outside is left untouched, and resembles sound grain, yet is light and worthless. Southern grown corn is likely to be weevil eaten."
Sam asked the privilege of showing in a vial some "bugs" that he had caught the previous evening. He said they made a quick flash of light while flying, and then waited a few seconds before flashing again.
"The specimens are beetles," said Uncle Dan. "From May to August the meadows are illuminated by myriads of these light-producing beetles. On their bodies is a tuft which at night is made to give forth a flash of light. Heat is not developed in the process, but the shining light—phosphorescent glow—is strongly marked. The 'lightning bug' of the North and the 'fire fly' of the South are identical."
"Is the 'glow worm' the same as the 'fire fly?' " inquired Lucy.
"The 'glow worm' is quite distinct from the 'fire fly,' " answered her uncle. "It belongs to the beetle family, and sends forth light during autumn nights. The female is wingless, and crawls on the ground or among plants like a worm. Possibly she is in a state of arrested development on the way from the larval condition. Her glow begins feebly and grows brighter for a minute or two, and then gradually fades. The light has a beautiful green tinge, and lasts much longer than the flash of the 'fire fly.' The male has wings, yet little luminous capacity. When the poet said, "The glow worm is lighting her lamp," he must have been aware that the male is unable to 'glow.' "—HOWE, Conversations on Animal Life.