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Nether Lochaber
Chapter XXXV


Strength of Insects—Necrophoi-us Vespillo, or Burying-Beetle—Foetid smell of—How Willie Grimmond earned an Honest Penny in Glencoe.

The strength of insects, proportionally to their weight and size, was probably the first characteristic in the minor world to arrest the attention and call forth the admiration of entomologists; and soon afterwards, we may believe, the ingenuity, patience, and perseverance displayed by these pigmies in dealing with any self-imposed piece of labour, must have made the intelligent observer feel and acknowledge, even if he could not repeat and had never heard of the mad-wise Hamlet's dictum, that—

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Take an example of something wonderful in insect life, as it chanced to come under our notice a few days ago [September 1872]. We were raking hay—raking hay, too, after others had raked the same ground shortly before us, for we are most particular that, both for the look of the thing, as well as for the profit, not a wisp, not a strawlet shall be left upon the ground—when, as we raked, we came across a dead mole. No rare or wonderful thing, the reader may exclaim, but rare enough when you come to think of it, and wonderful enough, too, to attract the attention of any one even less observant of natural history than Nether Lochaber. Lying on its side was the mole, already half-hidden by the swiftly growing aftermath. Touching it with the corner of our rake, and moving it slightly, we got a glimpse of a yellow-banded beetle busy underneath; and at once understanding what was going on, we called our bairns, a couple of girls and a hoy, who were raking and laughing a la Madame de Sevigne in the field beside us, to give them a lesson on entomology; and as our lesson was fresh and to the point, and interesting, though we say it ourselves, and rather out of the common track of entomological experience, we give it to the reader, that he may know and believe, and reverently ponder, a truth that has never been so well expressed as by St. Augustine, the sturdy, old, bellicose Bishop of Hippo, who of all the Fathers had the most sensitive nose for the out-ferreting of a heretic, and who, when he got hold of one, treated him very much as a Scotch terrier does a rat—but who could say and do good things notwithstanding. Deus magnus in magnis, maximus in minimis. God is great, that is, in great things, but greatest of all in least things. The mole, as we have said, was lying on his side on a grassy patch of fast-growing aftermath, and our glimpse of the beetle beneath showed us that it was the Necrophorus vespillo, or burying-beetle, rare anywhere in Britain, and so rare in Lochaber and the west coast, that this was only the third or fourth instance in which we had met with it. It is a black beetle, rather more than an inch in length, with two bright orange-coloured bands across the back, and more active in all its movements than any of its congeners. There were just two beetles, observe—a pair, male and female—engaged upon the mole, and the "mole" of Adrianus, when a-building, showed not more labour and not half the mechanical skill or indomitable perseverance on the part of its constructors exhibited by these tiny but thoroughly skilled excavators in the case of their mole. "You see that mole," we said to our attentive audience, leaning upon our rake for the moment, as if it were a sceptre of prerogative and power, as in truth it was. "It is almost as big as an ordinary sized rat—bigger, you will confess, than three full-grown mice. It has only been dead, say, a dozen of hours; his sleek and still glossy coat proves it. This pair of beetles, then, a single pair remember, have discovered him by an instinct and sense of smell which must be wonderfully delicate and keen. They are now, as you may see, busy digging under and around him, and after breakfast to-morrow morning we shall come and see the result. "Suppose, papa," said one of the girls, with a demure look, though with a merry twinkle in her eye the while, "Suppose, sir, that this afternoon a passing kestrel or owl should pick up our mole and make a meal of him, what then could we see in the morning?" ""What you suggest is, no doubt, possible enough," was our rejoinder, "but we believe the mole will be here to-morrow morning all the same, provided you take example from the animal's proverbial wakefulness, and are up and have breakfast ready for us all in good time." Meantime, that they might know it again, should they ever come across it, we took up the male beetle, distinguishing the sex from his being somewhat smaller and rather more active than his mate, on the palm of our left hand, and with the fingers of the right turned him on his back to show him properly, the delicate markings of his abdomen, his muscular thorax and cas-chrom shaped antennae. We soon wished we had not done it; it was a thoughtless proceeding on our part, and we should have known better. We nearly fainted, and our children started back in horror and alarm at the foul and foetid smell of the carrion-eating Vespillo. It was horrible; never in all our experience were our olfactory nerves so offended. A pot of stale assafoetida from a druggist's shop, all the proverbial many dozen stinks of Cologne in combination, would have been a joke to it, a bouquet of roses compared with our Vespillo. It made us quite sick and ill for the moment; but we had the presence of mind to lay down our malodorous beetle beside his beloved mole ere we followed our audience, who were by this time scampering in all directions across the field, with their fingers tightly-compressing their nostrils, and vowing that they would have no more to do with dead moles or burying-beetles, be they ever so brightly banded or interesting from papa's point of view. A message now came forth that tea was ready ; but no tea could we drink, nor bread could we handle, on account of the horrible smell that still adhered to our fingers and palm. Washing with soap and water had no effect upon it, for it seemed to have instantly and thoroughly penetrated and permeated skin, flesh, and muscle, and to have reached and lodged in the very bone itself, whence it refused to be extirpated. It was only late at night, sitting by a briny rock-pool, and using the viscous clay of the beach after the manner of soap, that we managed to get quit of the foul odour; and even after a final washing with hot water and scented soap, as we retired for the night, we still persuaded ourselves that the loathsome smell had not altogether departed. All the carrion beetles, without exception, and most of the ground beetles proper, have always more or less of a disagreeable, sickening smell about them, but in this respect the burying-beetle is worse than all the rest put together; seeming to have centered in his own person a combination of the essences of all possible stenches in their worst and foulest form. In the case of the Vespillo, it is to be noted that the foetid smell, though always there, and easily perceptible, is bearable enough while the animal is quiescent and undisturbed, and you do not approach it too closely. Tease it, however, in any way ; touch it with the point of a switch, or take it up, as we foolishly did, in your hand, and the stench, emitted probably in self-defence, as in the case of the skunk and polecat, is of all others the most abominable in itself, and the most difficult to get rid of. Next morning, then, on visiting the mole, as proposed, we found it completely buried, with at least half an inch depth of earth neatly shovelled over it, with a slight ridge in the centre, and sloping sides, showing that the Vespillones are practised grave-diggers. Averse to disturbing a work that had cost the tiny excavators so much labour, we only removed the earth sufficiently to bring a small patch of the mole's fur to view, in proof to those accompanying us that the animal had really been buried by the beetles, as we had said it would be. A full-grown elephant buried by a pair of field mice would hardly be a more wonderful labour. The rationale and raison d'etre of the whole labour thus carried out with so much diligence and engineering skill is this : the carrion of the dead mole, mouse, or bird thus operated upon, serves in the first instance partly as food for the beetles themselves (and they richly deserve a feast, such as it is, in reward for their arduous labours), after which the female lays her eggs in the fast-rotting carcase, and it is then left as the doubtless savoury banquet of the larvae, while the parent pair cruise about in search of another dead bird or quadruped of the proper size, whereupon to bestow similar attentions. It is principally owing to the labours of these beetles that it happens that although you may see a dead mole, mouse, or bird lying in the corner of a field to-day, you shall look for it in vain next morning elsewhere than in a beetle-dug grave, as in the above instance. That a single pair of these comparatively small insects should be able to perform such a gigantic task in so short a time is, in truth, very wonderful, and must seem incredible to any one unacquainted with the habits and economy of the order.

There are doubtless many odd and curious ways of earning even an honest livelihood in this world, but the oddest, and to us, while uninitiated, the most puzzling we have met with for a long time, was the following :—On a fine day lately, we took our boat to the mouth of the Coe, and were leisurely proceeding up the far-famed glen, when we saw, a little before us, a diminutive but still active old man, whom, from his peculiar style of dress, we had no difficulty in recognising as a peripatetic vendor of ballads, letter-paper, steel pens, and other knick-knacks, who frequently pays us a visit in Lochaber, and with whom, in lieu of better company, Ave have had many a far from uninteresting roadside crack. As, Avith a longer and livelier stride than his, we Avere rapidly overtaking him, Ave noticed that he frequently stopped and picked up something, now from the middle of the road, now from the footpath at the side, and occasionally from the grass beyond, which something he instantly deposited in a sort of canvas side-pouch or Avallet slung at his side. "Well, "Willie," we exclaimed, as we came up with him, "what in the world are you doing in the glen to-day, and where's your pack? I wish to have a look at your bundle of ballads." "Weel, sir," was Willie's response, "my pack is laid by at Duror just now ; my present wark"—here he made a dart at something on the grass that looked to us uncommonly like a big black beetle, and transferred it to his wallet,—"my present wark," he went on to say, "pays far better, and is mair pleasant, besides, in this dreadfu' hot weather." "But what is your present work, Willie?" we inquired, "what are you so industriously picking up along the road and transferring to your wallet? Snails? beetles? what?" "No mony snails, or beetles either, sir," said Willie, with more entomological good sense than we gave him credit for,  "abroad in such hot and dry weather as this is. I'm no very fond of telling what I am doing to everybody; and when I see anybody coming, I generally sit down and let them pass; but I saw you coming, sir, and I kent ye brawly, and didn't mind. And now I'll tell ye what I'm gathering." With this he put his hand in his capacious pouch, and took out a handful of cigar and cheroot dumps, of all shapes and sizes. Some had been "smoked out," that is, till only an inch or so remained; others were only half smoked, and a few had only afforded the smoker a whiff or two, when, from a disinclination to smoke any further, or, perhaps, from some defect in the cigar itself, it was thrown away as of no further use. Of these cigar stumps "Willie" had at that moment nearly a pound weight in his wallet, the result of his forenoon's labours. We daresay we looked, as we really were, very much puzzled, which, Willie observing, he politely asked us for a light for his pipe, and invited us to sit on a ledge of rock by the roadside, and he would "tell us a' aboot it." Our pipes alight, we sat down accordingly, and Willie proceeds as follows:—"Weel, sir, I doubt if ever there was such a number of strangers—'tourists, as they ca' them—day after day in Glencoe as there are this year. And a' the gentlemen that goes up the glen smoke, and I have seen some of the ladies—forrenders, I suspect—smoking too, the mair shame to them. They a' maistly smoke cigars, and they throw them from them when they're done with them; sometimes only a short stump, and sometimes almost a hail ane, as I have shown ye; and I pick them up and sell them in Greenock or Glasgow for three ha'pence or tuppence the ounce, and that's a' aboot it." "But what," we inquired, "do they make of them in Glasgow?" "Weel, sir," he replied, "I believe some of them, the cleanest, langest, and best bits, are unrolled, and made up anew into cigars, and the shorter and dirtier stumps are dried and broken down to mix with other tobacco, in making the mixtures called 'bird's eye,' 'shag,' exetry, exetry." We ordered Willie a glass of beer at Clachaig, and went on our way with a bit of curious information, till that particular date undreamt of in all our philosophy.


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