Letter | Published:

Singular Instance of Instinct

Abstract

AMONG the insects very common to Victoria is one popularly known as the mason-fly. In form it is very like a gigantic hornet; the wings and legs are of an orange colour, as is also the abdomen, which is decorated with broad black stripes. It has a strange habit of building its nest, composed of tempered mud, in keyholes. Mr. Ellery, F.R.S., the Government Astronomer, tells me that this same fly often commences to build within the tubes of their astronomical instruments. The nest is rather peculiar. A layer of mud is first laid down, and a certain number of eggs are laid. Then follows another layer of mud; on this are deposited a number of young spiders, paralysed but not killed. Another layer of mud, more eggs, then mud, then spiders again, and so on, until the nest is complete. The spiders are evidently stored up as food for the grubs, as soon as hatched, an arrangement already known to naturalists. This fly has a very fierce aspect, and its nature evidently does not belie its looks. It flies about with great liveliness, and when alighting, its long black antennæ are kept in a state of constant motion. Its favourite food seems to be spiders, which it is in the habit of seeking for under the bark and in holes in the trunk of the Eucalyptus. It order to catch them it burrows under the loose bark, and in a few seconds generally issues forth again with some larger or smaller prey between its mandibles. The enormous bulk of some of the victims does not appear to intimidate it in the least. Even the gigantic so-called tarantula (vulgarly triantelope) is fearlessly attacked. I was one day walking through a suburban park near Melbourne, and saw one of these flies suddenly pounce down on the back of a large tarantula some five inches in breadth, measuring from the ends of the legs. The huge arachnidian succumbed at once. Resistance with an adversary in such a position was altogether out of the question, the only resource being to die, like Cæsar, becomingly. I watched the fight, or rather the murder, for some minutes, and then touching the assailant with the point of my umbrella, drove it away. It only flew, however, to a short distance, and then returned, flying so viciously round that I fully expected I should be attacked. By flourishing the umbrella, however, I again drove it off, and it retired to a distance of about a hundred feet. I then left the spider, but afterwards went back, and found the mason-fly following up his victory as energetically as ever. I drove it away again, left the spot, and again returned to find the murderous work still going on. This was repeated some half a dozen times, and at last, taking out a book, I sat down on a seat resolving to see what would happen. The fly did not reappear for nearly a quarter of an hour, and I thought it had altogether departed. A small ditch ran beside the pathway, and, turning my eyes in that direction, I noticed the mason-fly peeping through some blades of grass growing on the edge. It was evidently waiting for me to leave the spot in order to secure the full advantages of its victory.

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