Gateway to the Classics: Will o' the Wasps by Margaret Warner Morley
Will o' the Wasps by  Margaret Warner Morley

Wasp Flowers

"N OW," said Uncle Will, as he and Theodore were together on the porch the next day, "if you watch this little yellow jacket that has just come to taste the sugar spilled on the table you can see the tongue for yourself, and then you will remember about it." And sure enough, on the table where the grown people had been drinking their tea some grains of sugar had fallen in a drop of water, and a yellow jacket had found it. All at once Uncle Will popped a tumbler over her ladyship, which did not seem to disturb her at all—she was so busy.

"She is taking her afternoon tea," said Uncle Will, "and we will just invite her to remain until we have had a good look at her."

"She has a little, broad, flat tongue," said Theodore, laying his head on the table to see the better.

"That is so, and she cannot let it out like a telescope or fold it up like a jackknife—she has not bee-tricks in her tongue. It is just an ordinary nice little tongue to like up honey with."

"But how can she get the honey out of the flowers?" Theodore asked.

"She can't get it out of all of them," Uncle Will assured him. "The nectar that lies at the bottom of the flowers with long tubes is not for her. She can only sup with the flower people who offer refreshments in flat saucers or open cups."

"She has to sit and look on when the bumble bees go visiting the grand palaces of the Iris people," said Theodore, laughing. "She can only go to ordinary houses."

"Very true, but on the other hand you often see the wasps visiting the asters and goldenrods, very genteel families, I assure you, and the charming peach blossoms. And while there are some flowers so exclusive that only bees are welcome at their nectar parties, as you very well know, I wonder if you know that there are other flowers that seem to spread their tables on purpose for wasps?"

"No, Uncle Will o' the Wasps, I never heard of those flower folks. Please tell me about them," and Theodore settled himself comfortably down to listen.

"Well," Uncle Will went on, "it is this way. Do you remember the figwort growing along the roadside by the old field?"

"Yes, you showed me the little, brown, urn-shaped flowers and you said you would tell me something nice about them some day."

"Well, what I was going to tell you about them is this. Those are wasp flowers."

"Wasp flowers!" echoed Theodore, straightening up.

"Yes, wasp flowers. The wasps like them, and they are just the right size for the wasps to reach into and get the honey."

"Oh, go on and tell about it," begged Theodore, sitting up quite straight.

"I will if you will go and fetch me a stalk of figwort blossoms." So away raced Theodore and soon came back with the flowers.

"There was a wasp on it when I got there, which is why I stayed so long. I watched it till it flew away," he gasped, as he arrived out of breath at Uncle Will's side.

"The proper thing to do," said Uncle Will. "Now, then, why do you suppose the figwort keeps honey in its cups for the wasps to drink?"

"It wants them to carry pollen," promptly returned Theodore, who knew how the busy bees bear pollen from flower to flower when they go to gather honey.

"Here," said Uncle Will, after he had looked carefully at the figwort blossoms, "this flower is ready with fresh pollen. See the stamens?"

"All covered with flower-dust," said Theodore, looking through the magnifying-glass that Uncle Will always had ready in his pocket.

"Yes, and where is the pistil?"

"I don't see it; oh, yes, there it is, curled back out of the way—the wasps might go in a dozen times without touching it."

"But that doesn't matter," explained Uncle Will, "for the truth is, it has already been dusted. It ripens first, you know, and as soon as the pollen dusts it, it turns down out of the way and the stamens then ripen."

"The pistils and stamens ripen at different times because the flower does not want to be fertilized by its own pollen—isn't that so?"

"That is it, you wise botanist," replied Uncle Will, giving Theodore's ear a little tweak. "And so the wasps go flying about from figwort to figwort, carrying the pollen from one to the stigma of another." "But teacher says not on purpose. They just go to get a drink of nectar, and don't even know what they are doing with the pollen. She says perhaps they don't even know it sticks to them. But you and I don't believe that, Uncle Will o' the Wasps, do we?"

"What do we believe?" asked Uncle Will with interest.

"Oh, you know! We believe that the flowers invite the bees and wasps."

"They send out little perfumed notes," put in Uncle Will.

"Yes, some people think it is only perfumery that goes out of the flowers, but we know better. And the bees and wasps and butterflies and all the other insect friends get the notes and come to tea, and they sit around and sip nectar and eat little delicate ambrosia wafers, and talk and exchange the news, and when the visitors are ready to go the flower says to the bee, 'Take some of these ambrosia wafers home to your children; it is too bad they couldn't come too. Take all you can carry, it won't keep, you know.' So the bees fill their baskets and the flower says, 'Oh, dear friends, won't you each take a few ambrosia wafers to our relatives whose houses you pass on the way?' And so all the insects take some of the ambrosia to leave at the houses of the other flowers, and they say what a good they have had, and thank you, they are very glad to take the pollen—I mean the ambrosia—and leave it with the other flowers. Now, then, Uncle Will, isn't that what happens?"

"Anyway," was the answer, "that is a much prettier way to tell it, and I am sure it is a true as the very truest fairy story."

"Tell some more about wasp flowers, Uncle Will o' the Wasps."

"Let me see, do you know the story of the figs?"

"No, I never heard it. Please tell it!"

"To begin with, I suppose you know what a fig is?"

"I should think so! If I only had one I would show you how well I know what to do with it too."

"You young gourmand!" said Uncle Will. "You deserve not to have another word—for you only think about what is good to eat!"

"Well," said Theodore, "I have to think about that, too, sometimes; but please go on with the wasp story."

"If you lived where figs grow you would not see any fig flowers. You would see little tiny figs coming out on the branches of the fig tree—just as if apples came sprouting out without any blossoms, you know."

"How funny!" said Theodore.

"Yes, but the funniest part is yet to come. Each little fig is really a little pocket full of flowers—"

"You don't mean they are inside the fig?"

"I do mean exactly that. But they are not flowers with bright petals like the apple blossoms. They are tiny little petalless flowers that grow as thick as they can stand all over the inside of the little fig pocket. There is a little opening at the end of the fig just big enough for a small wasp to creep through. In the countries where the fig grows best these little wasps are always present, and when the fig blossom is ripe in goes the little wasp to get the honey and lay its eggs there that the larvae may feed on the ovules of the fig."

"Oh, my!" said Theodore; "no spiders or minced fly?"

"No, these people are vegetarians. When the wasp has laid a few eggs it squeezes out through the opening again, all nicely dusted with fig pollen to carry to another fig pocket full of petalless flowers. Thus it fertilizes the flowers so that the seeds are able to develop."

"But what good does that do it the larva eats the seeds?"

"Oh, well, it only eats a few, and no doubt the fig is glad to give some ovules in payment for its services in carrying the pollen."

"When we eat a fig, what are we eating, Uncle Will,—seeds, and was eggs and grubs? What is the good part?"

"When we eat a fig, nephew mine, we eat a whole cluster of little fruits all imbedded in the sweet pulp and covered with the thick skin that surrounds them. Here," said Uncle Will, drawing a package from his pocket, "you can see for yourself."

Theodore opened the package and squealed with delight, for it was filled with delicious whole figs.

"Open one," said Uncle Will, and Theodore did so. "There you have it," Uncle Will went on, "all as plain as the nose on your face. That fig is not one fruit as you might think—it is a whole storehouse full of little fruits."

"Well, what next?" demanded Theodore with twinkling eyes.

"I leave that to you," said Uncle Will, solemnly.

"I think it would be a good plan to see how these figs taste," said Theodore, also solemnly.

"You mean it would be a good plan to taste how these figs taste, don't you?" asked Uncle Will, yet more solemnly—then they both laughed heartily and fell to and ate up all the figs.

"Are there other wasp flowers?" Theodore asked as soon as he could speak.

"Why, yes; at least there are a good many flowers that wasps like. The thing to do will be to watch all summer and find out for yourself which flowers ask the wasps to take a cup of afternoon tea at their houses."

"Don't you mean a cup of afternoon nectar, Uncle Will?"

"Oh, yes, of course, a cup of afternoon nectar is exactly what I mean."

"And the flower fairies pass it around instead of the beautiful goddess Hebe, who passed the nectar to the gods on Mount Olympus," added Theodore.

"I suspect," said Uncle Will, "that the wasps do not wait to have it passed, they just walk in and help themselves. That might seem rather ill-bred to us, but no doubt it is considered good manners in wasp land."

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