Petri Dish Pathos

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By Matt Cahill

I spent the afternoon sorting a tangle of dead bodies.  Their legs were all snarled in a heap.  I had to pry each little corpse apart, delicately, one at a time.  Down the barrel of my microscope the petri dish was filled with yellow stripes and cellophane wings, stray heads and dispossessed parts.  How lovely, I thought, to see nature up close.

Then in the middle of the pile, underneath the furry abdomen of a bee, a set of small black legs began to wiggle.  These insects had been stewing for two weeks, ever since I had swept them up in my net from the late-summer goldenrod and dumped their squirming bodies into a calm bath of ethanol.  They should have been very much dead.

But the legs kept wiggling.  Pushing the bee aside, a small wasp head emerged, yellow-painted with large black eyes, quivering.  The tiny wasp crawled up on the pile of bodies like a shipwrecked sailor on a sandy shore.  I shook the dish to knock it back under.

“Savage! What gives you the right to kill?” the small wasp yelled when it surfaced again.

Surprised at a talking wasp, I sent in under a third time, very much hoping it would die.

“You, eyeball ogre! Stop! Are you too dumb to understand words?” the wasp continued once it surfaced, referring I assumed to my magnified eye.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean any disrespect,” I said, “but you’re supposed to be dead.  Like the others.”

“That I’m very much aware.  Two poison baths would have been clue enough.”  The wasp climbed the island of cadavers in the middle of the dish and spread its pairs of wings, buzzing them violently to dry them.  It groomed its large globular eyes and shook the long stinger-like spine protruding from its abdomen.

“You’re an Ichneumon wasp,” I said, impressed with myself. “I can see your ovipositor.”

The wasp looked up again, disgusted. “I should expect the insane to also be rude.  Quit peeping at my parts, you blood-shot venous creep.” I looked away towards a couple of rigor-mortised ants, embarrassed.

When the wasp finished grooming and it stretched its spindle legs and began to survey the petri dish. I asked politely how it managed to survive the ethanol.

“Oh, I have an adaptation, I suppose,” it replied without interest and resumed its survey, carefully inspecting the bodies beneath it.

I said how very interesting it was that the wasp could endure such a dangerous environment, and that it was likely a very important discovery, and it could possibly be a new species, indeed, a new way life altogether.  “You should be very excited,” I said.  “Thrilled, really.  Ecstatic!”

The wasp, which had been carefully turning over bee bodies and piling them to one side abruptly stopped and shot me another furious gaze up through the microscope.  “Ecstatic?  Yes life was so nasty, brutish, and short before you plucked me from my meadow, interred me in that mesh prison, and then tried to drown me in your toxic stew. “

“You must understand, it was for science,” I explained. “You were being added to our great collection of knowledge.  You are very important, you see.  We need to know, and besides, really, you are just bugs after all.” The wasp cut me off.

“How pretentious of you! Lofty lord and creator, seer of all things!  To think you have the right kill other living creatures for your own purposes, your own scholarly lusts.” The wasp turned away, distracted.  Next to it another quivering body was emerging from the grave.  This time it was a pink, squishy larva with small pixel eyes and pudgy, groping stub legs.

No sooner had the larva emerged the wasp was on top, pinning it down.

“Dear lord!  Help!” it squeaked.  I tried to grab the wasp with my tweezers tips but it dodged my pinches, dancing around the struggling grub.

ichneumon2“Leave off,” the wasp demanded, “I have work to do.”  The wasp reared its abdomen in a graceful arch above the larva, the ovipositor spine straightened and primed.  The larva screamed. I yelled.  The wasp plunged its spine into the soft flesh of the larva with a dozen sharp, surgical stabs.

When it was finished the grub lay motionless and the wasp resumed grooming.

“Why did kill that poor grub?  After all your lectures about the value of life,” I said.  “That grub did nothing wrong, it was just trying to survive. It was just a baby, and so pink and cute. How could you be so cruel?”

The wasp cut in a third time. “Get real.  Life is cruel.  Anyway, it’s not dead.”

“No?” I asked. “But it looks …“

“No. Not until my eggs hatch inside its paralyzed body and devour its flesh from the inside out.”

Matt Cahill is a student in the Field Naturalist Program.

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