Page images



Luminous Insects

MANY insects are possessed of a luminous preparation or secretion, which has all the advantages of our lamps and candles, without their inconveniences; which gives light sufficient to direct our motion; which is incapable of burning; and whose lustre is maintained without needing fresh supplies of oil, or the application of snuffers

Of the insects thus singularly provided, the common GLOWWORM (Lampyris noctiluca) is the most familiar instance. This insect in shape somewhat resembles a caterpillar, only it is much more depressed; and the light proceeds from a pale-coloured patch that terminates, the under side of the abdomen.

It has been supposed by many, that the males of the different species of lampyris do not possess the property of giving out any light; but it is now ascertained that this supposition is inaccurate, though their light is much less vivid than that of the female. Ray first pointed out this fact with respect to (L. noctiluca.) Geoffrey also observed, that the male of this species has four small luminous points, two on each of the two last segments of the belly and his observation has been recently confirmed by Miller. This last entomologist, indeed, saw only two shining spots; but from the insects having the power of withdrawing them out of sight, so that not the smallest trace of light remains, he thinks it is not improbable that at times two other points, still smaller, may be exhibited, as Geoffrey has described. In the males of L. splendidula, and of L. hemiptera, the light is very distinct, and may be seen in the former while flying. The females have the same faculty of extinguishing or concealing their light; a very necessary provision to guard them from the attacks of nocturnal birds. Mr. White even thinks that they regularly put it out between eleven and twelve every night, and they have also the power of rendering it for a while more vivid than ordinary.

Though many of the females of the different species of lam pyris are without wings, and even elytra, (in Coleoptera,) tḥis is not the case with all. The female of L. Italica, a species common in Italy, and which, if we may trust to the accuracy of the account given by Mr. Waller, in the Philosophical Transactions for 1684, would seem to have been taken by him

in Hertfordshire, is winged; and when a nun ber of these moving stars are seen to dart through the air in a dark Light, nothing can have a more beautiful effect. Dr. Smith says, that the beaus of Italy are accustomed in an evening to adorn the heads of the ladies with these artificial diamonds, by stick ng them into their hair; and a similar custom prevails amongst the ladies of India.

Besides the golden species of the genus Lampyris, all of which are probably more or less luminous, another insect of the beetle ribe, Elater noctilucus, is endowed with the same property, and taat in a much higher degree. This insect, which is an inch long, and about one-third of an inch broad, gives out its principal light from two transparent eye-like tubercles placed upon the thorax; but there are also two luminous patches concealed under the elytra, which are not visible except when the insect is flying, at which time it appears adorned with four brilliant gems of the most beautiful golden-blue lustre: in fact, the whole body is full of light, which shines out between the abdominal segments when stretched. The light emitted by the two tho. racic tubercles alone is so considerable, that the smallest print may be read by moving one of these insects along the lines; and in the West India islands, particularly in St. Domingo, where they are very common, the natives were formerly accustomed to employ those living lamps, which they called cucuij instead of candles, in performing their evening household occu pations. In travelling at night, they used to tie one to each great toe; and in fishing and hunting, required no other flambeau. Pietro Martire's Decades of the New World, quoted in Madoc, p. 543. Southey has happily introduced this insect ir his "Madoc," as furnishing the lamp by which Coatel rescued the British hero from the hands of the Mexican priests.

"She beckon'd and descended, and drew out,
From underneath her vest, a cage, or net
It rather might be called, so fine the twigs
Which knit it, where, confined, two fire-flies gave
Their lustre. By that light did Madoc first
Behold the features of his lovely guide."

Pietro Martire tells us, that cucuij serve the natives of the Spanish West India islands not only instead of candles, but as extirpators of the gnats, which are a dreadful pest to the inhabitants of the low grounds. They introduce a few fireflies, to which the gnats are a grateful food, into their houses, and by means of these "commodious hunters," are soon rid of the intruders. 66 How they are a remedy (says this author) for so great a mischiefe, it is a pleasant thing to hear. Hee whc understandeth that he has those troublesome guestes (the gnattes) at home, diligently hunteth after the cucuij. Whoso wanteth cucuij, goeth out of the house in the first twilight of

the night, carrying a burning fire-brande in his hande, and ascendeth the next hillock, that the cucuij may see it, and hee swingeth the fire-brande about, calling Cucuie aloud, and beating the ayre with often calling out, Cucuie, Cucuie." He goes on to observe, that the simple people believe the insect is attracted by their invitatiors; but that, for his part, he is rather inclined to think that he fire is the magnet. Having obtained a sufficient number of cucuij, the beetle-hunter returns home, and lets them fly loose in the house, where they diligently seek the gnats about the beds and the faces of those asleep, and devour them.-Martire ubi supr. Colonies, i. 128. These insects are also applied to purposes of decoration. On certain festival-days, in the month of June, they are collected in great numbers, and tied all over the garments of young people, who gallop through the streets on horses similarly ornamented, producing on a dark evening the effect of a large moving body of light. On such occasions, the lover displays his gallantry by decking his mistress with these living gems.Walton's Present State of the Spanish Colonies. And according to P. Martire," many wanton wilde fellowes" rub their faces with "the flesh of a killed cucuij," as boys with us use phosphorus, "with purpose to meet their neighbours with a flaming countenance," and derive amusement from their fright.

Besides Elater noctilucus, E. ignitus, and several others of the same genus, are luminous: not fewer than twelve species of this family are described by Illiger in the Berlin Naturalist Society's Magazine.

The brilliant nocturnal spectacle presented by these insects to the inhabitants of the countries where they abound, cannot be better described than in the language of the poet above referred to, who has thus related its first effect upon British visitors of the new world:

sorrowing we beheld
The night come on: but soon did night display
More wonders than it veil'd; innumerable tribes
From the wood-cover swarm'd, and darkness made
Their beauties visible; one while they stream'd
A bright blue radiance upon flowers that clos'd
Their gorgeous colours from the eye of day;
Now motionless and dark, eluding search,
Self-shrouded; and anon starring the sky,
Rose like a shower of fire."


If we are to believe Mouffet, (and the story is not incredible,) the appearance of the tropical fire-flies on one occasion led to a more important result than might have been expected from such a cause. He tells us, that when Sir Thos. Cavendish and Sir John Dudley first landed in the West Indies, and saw in the evening an infinite number of moving lights in the woods, which were merely these insect hey supposed that

the Spaniards were advancing upon them, and immediately betook themselves to their ships: a result as well entitling the elatera to a commemoration feast, as a similar good office by the land-crabs of Hispaniola, which, as the Spaniards tell, (and the story is confirmed by an anniversary Fiesta de los Cangrejos,) by their clattering being mistaken for the sound of Spanish cavalry close upon their heels, in like manner scared away a body of English invaders from the city of St. Domingo. Walton's Hispaniola, i. 39.

An anecdote less improbable, perhaps, and certainly more ludicrous, is related by Sir James Smith, of the effect of the first sight of the Italian fire-flies upon some Moorish ladies, ignorant of such appearances. These females had been taken prisoners at sea, and, until they could be ransomed, lived in a house in the outskirts of Genoa, where they were frequently visited by the respectable inhabitants of the city; a party of whom, on going one evening, were surprised to find the house closely shut up, and their Moorish friends in the greatest grief and consternation. On inquiring into the cause, they ascertained that some of the Lampyris Italica had found their way into the dwelling, and that the ladies within had taken it into their heads that these brilliant guests were no other than the troubled spirits of their relations; and some time elapsed before they could be divested of this idea. The common people in Italy have a superstition respecting these insects somewhat similar, believing that they are of a spiritual nature, and proceed out of the graves; and hence carefully avoid them.-Tour on the Continent, 2d ed. iii. 85.

The insects hitherto adverted to have been beetles, or of the order Coleoptera. But, besides these, a genus in the order Hemiptera, called Fulgora, includes several species, which emit so powerful a light, as to have obtained in English the generic appellation of lantern-flies. Two of the most conspicuous of this tribe are the F. lanternaria and F. candelaria; the former a native of South America, the latter of China. Both, as indeed is the case with the whole genus, have the material which diffuses their light included in a hollow subtransparent projection of the head. In F. candelaria this projection is of a subcylindrical shape, recurved at the apex, above an inch in length, and the thickness of a small quill. We may easily conceive, as travellers assure us, that a tree studded with multitudes of these living sparks, some at rest and others in motion, must during the night have a superlatively splendid appearance.

In F. lanternaria, which is an insect two or three inches long, the snout is much larger and broader, and more of an oval shape, and sheds a light, the brilliancy of which transcends that of any other luminous insect. Madam Merian

[ocr errors]
[graphic][merged small][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][subsumed][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][subsumed][merged small][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][graphic][merged small][subsumed][graphic][graphic]
« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »