Friday, November 26, 2010

Pitching one's mansion in the place of excrement

Stephan Pastis's comic Pearls Before Swine had a couple of strips recently about Donny the Dung Beetle. The gist of which was: If you think you have problems, Donny has it worse. (Click to enlarge.)

Which reminded me of an episode in J. Henri Fabre's book The Sacred Beetle and Others, published in English in 1918.

I've written about dung beetles before, and about Fabre. Fabre was the Homer of the insect world. He spent his life studying insects, and wrote about them in a series of books that are as delightful to read today as a century ago -- full of experiment and close observation, described with a flair worthy of a poet. And still in print.

For his studies on dung beetles he bribed neighborhood children with lollipops to bring him cow pats. And he watched, long and patiently, as the beetles excavated the precious ordure from the pat and molded it into balls, which they then pushed backwards away to a place of security where the ball would be buried as a well-provisioned pantry for the owner or his progeny.

And often, as he rolled his ball along, another beetle would sometimes ride along on top of the ball, waiting for an opportunity to purloin the nutritious sphere, thus avoiding the drudgery of making a ball of his own.

And now comes the experiment I have in mind, in which Fabre sought to test cooperation between a ball's lawful owner and the potential usurper.

Fabre fixed the ball to the ground with a long straight pin, the head of which was embedded in the dung.

The pusher fruitlessly pushes. He walks three times around the ball seeking an obstruction. Finding nothing, he tries pushing again. To no avail.

He looks on top. Nothing but the interloper.

"Now is the time, the very time, to claim assistance," writes Fabre, "which is all the easier as his mate is there, close at hand, squatting on the summit of the ball." At last, after much pushing and bumping, the thief-in-waiting comes down to help. After all, it's his problem too.

Together, they start exploring under the ball, and soon find the pin. No fools these, they dig themselves under the ball and start heaving. Up. Up. Pushing the dung-ball up the pin. Standing on their fore-legs, pushing with the rear legs. Up. Up. Until -- voila! -- the ball drops off the pin.

The rolling resumes.

But the thief-in-waiting, having deigned to help, climbs back aboard, waiting for the hard work to be completed before he makes his felonious move.

I've always loved the image of the infinitely curious Fabre down on his knees, watching this drama of his own contrivance. And one can't help but feel a pang of sympathy for Donny the Dung Beetle, having to put up with entomologists with pins as well as false mates and natural obstacles.

The next time you are inclined to whine about your travails, keep Donny in mind.