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

Pelopaeus Provisions Her Nest and Lays Her Eggs

T HE nest was about an inch long when it was finished, and the tunnel inside was no larger around than Theodore's little finger.

"What now?" asked Theodore.

"Oh! you wait," said Uncle Will, "don't try to hurry the affairs of the universe."

"You said it was a house for her children, but where are the children?"

"Not ready yet," answered Uncle Will; "you'll see!"

"But what is this," asked Theodore as Pelopaeus came bearing something that was not mud.

"She is carrying in her baby," he went on in an eager whisper.

The wasp certainly had something new, something with legs.

"I don't wonder you think so," said Uncle Will, "but you are as much mistaken as if you thought the moon was made of green cheese. That is not a wasp-child. It is a thanksgiving turkey for the young wasp to eat. See, Pelopaeus has gone into the cell, way in so you can just see the tip of her tail—she will stow away the spider she has brought and then go and find another."

"What for?" asked Theodore in astonishment, as the wasp came backing out of the nest and went away empty-handed.

"Have I not told you?"

"Oh, Uncle Will! that story about the turkey was just nonsense, you know."

"Not entirely," replied Uncle Will, in the serious tone that Theodore knew meant telling what was just so.

"Get down now and let us sit on the sawhorse out in the sun and watch for her to come back."

When they had seated themselves, Uncle Will went on with the story.

"You see," he said, "this is the way of it. When the nest is done, it must be provisioned, for Pelopaeus is going to leave it, and the young cave-dweller inside will have to stay shut up until he can care for himself. But of course Mother Pelopaeus is not going to leave her child to starve. Not she! She finds the most luscious fat spiders possible—"

"Ugh!" groaned Theodore.

"But you must remember spiders are what her imprisoned child likes best of anything in the world. Every one to his taste, you know. She goes out and catches the spiders and brings them home one by one—"

"Why don't they crawl away as soon as her back is turned?" asked Theodore. "I am sure she went off and left the cave quite open."

"They can't move," was Uncle Will's answer.

"Oh! she kills them then?"

"No, indeed, she knows better than that! Dead spiders wouldn't keep very well, or they might dry up and not be worth much as food. No, she has a better plan than that. She cannot put them in just as she finds them, for then they would run away, or if she succeeded in getting them walled up they might do the eating, and consume her child. No, when she finds a nice fat spider just to her liking, she darts upon it and stings it in a tender spot. She knows just the right place to strike, and no sooner is the sting well in than she squeezes a drop of poison from her poison bag into the wound. This paralyzes the spider so that it cannot move and doubtless cannot feel. You see, it is thus kept fresh and juicy for the wasp-child to eat."

"Canned spider!" shouted Theodore in delight.

"Preserved spider, I should say," amended Uncle Will.

"What would happen if she should sting us, Uncle Will? Would it paralyze us?"

"No, indeed," said Uncle Will, "we are too big for that. Her short little sting could not reach into our nerve centers even if she had enough poison to do us harm. She can only sting us on the skin."

"But it would hurt, I guess!"

"Well, I should say so!" agreed Uncle Will. "You may have a chance to know from experience before we get through with this wasp business."

"Well," said Theodore, "it makes me squirm to think of it, and yet I do hope I shall get stung sometime—just to know how it is."

"I have no doubt the wasps will accommodate you sooner or later," said Uncle Will, dryly. "But how long Pelopaeus is—she must have had a good hunt for her next spider—ah! here she comes—see, she has a nice little striped fellow in her claws"; and Uncle Will and Theodore hurried into the shed to see her stow it away.

"But where is her child?" Theodore wanted to know.

"Be patient—all in good time. Very likely she is this minute laying an egg on the abdomen of the spider. After a while, when the cell is full of spiders, and all nicely sealed up, the egg will hatch. No sooner will the little grub have hatched out of the egg—we call it a larva, you know—than it will begin to eat spider. How it will eat and how it will grow! When it has finished on spider, legs and all, it will start on another and eat that, legs and all, and so on until it has eaten every spider in the nest. You see, there is nothing for it to do in its safe little cave but to eat and sleep."

"And grow," added Theodore.

"Yes, and grow," assented Uncle Will.

"When everything is eaten up, what then?" Theodore wanted to know.

"Well, then it takes a long and happy sleep during which it becomes a 'pupa', which you know means 'doll'."

"Like the bee-babe in its wax cradle!" interrupted Theodore.

"Precisely so," said Uncle Will; "and just before it goes to sleep it spins a thin silken blanket all about itself."

"Where does it get the silk, Uncle Will? Is it in its mouth, as it is in the mouth of the baby bees?"

"Yes, just the same. The young wasp larva moves its head back and forth, attaching the liquid silk—which you remember dries quickly as soon as the air touches it—to one spot and another and drawing it out into fine, glistening threads. Thus it spins and weaves and spins and weaves until the neat soft covering quite surrounds its little body. Then it goes to sleep and remains as snug as you please while the change takes place within its body that transforms it from a larva to a pupa, and from a pupa to a perfect wasp. Then—you know what happens then."

"Yes, I suppose it comes out of its pupa shell just like the young bee; but do, please, go on and tell it," begged Theodore, and Uncle Will went on.

"When the pupa has turned into a wasp it stretches and struggles until it has drawn itself quite free from the delicate pupa shell, then it gnaws at the outer end of its clay nest with its strong little jaws until it has made a hole large enough to crawl out of, just opens the door, you see, and sallies forth. What went in as a little white egg comes out as a slender-waisted Pelopaeus."

"How long does it take, Uncle Will?"

"Only a short time for these that are started in the spring. But the nests made in the autumn keep their tenants through the winter. The young wasp remains in the pupa state until the flowers open in the spring, and the insects that supply it come forth."

"I should like to see the young wasp coming out into the world," said Theodore.

"Well, maybe you can," said Uncle Will, "and anyway, you can see it hunting; look there!" and he pointed to where Pelopaeus was flying up and down along the side of the walk where the bushes grew.

"Oh!" cried Theodore, "did you see that? Did you see her pounce on that spider and scramble round with it and snatch it out of its web? But when did she sting it?"

"I suppose in that scramble, when she first struck it; it all happened so quickly it was hard to see. I wish we had been closer."

"My! so do I!" cried Theodore.

"But anyway we are glad we saw the hunter capture her prey," said Uncle Will, "and we saw something more—we saw Madam Spider standing in her doorway with her silvery silken curtains drawn about her waiting for dinner. And then—what was that? a whir of wings! Madam Spider started up, all attention. Dinner was coming! But alas for little Madam Spider with the golden girdle about her waist and her full petticoat all embroidered with black and brown and yellow—alas for her! The insect she hoped to have for dinner was a strong and relentless huntress that sprang upon Madam Spider before she could collect her wits enough to escape,—yes, she sprang upon her and threw a poisoned dart into her vitals, and snatched her away from her green-leaf bower with the homespun silver silken curtains and—you know the rest."

"Uncle Will," said Theodore, rather soberly, "when you talk like that I don't know who to be sorry for. The wasp hunts the spider for her children's food, and first you feel glad for her, and then you feel sorry for the spider; and then the spider catches the fly so cleverly, and you feel glad and sorry again—and so it goes. Which of them ought we to feel glad over, Uncle Will?"

But Uncle Will only laughed and started towards the house, while Theodore trailed on behind.

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