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Ere a leaf is on a bush, In the time before the thrush Has a thought about its nest,
Thou wilt come with half a call,
Like a careless Prodigal:
Poets, vain men in their mood,
That they all are wanton wooers;
Who stirs little out of doors,
Comfort have thou of thy merit,
Thou dost show thy pleasant face
In the lane—there's not a place,
Ill befal the yellow flowers,
Whether we will see or no;
They have done as worldlings do,
Prophet of delight and mirth,
Of a joyous train ensuing,
In the lanes my thoughts pursuing,
We have given the first flower and bird harbingers of spring, let us now glance at the insect world, and we shall find the gnat among the earliest heralds of the season; nor on our little search after him can we follow a better guide than our favourite author of the " Episodes of Insect Life," as he takes a stroll through an oak wood on a quiet sunshiny morning of this month.
"Thiswood," says he, "till lately, was an assemblage of the most ancient standing; but is now composed almost wholly of comparative upstarts exulting in their vigorous
life over the truncated stumps below them A
sprinkle of snow, crisp and glittering, slightly veiled the wood-tracks; and as we trod them, we heard not a sound but the brittle gems breaking on the spangled pathway. Our spirits were so light, our blood danced so briskly, our heart glowed, like our feet, so warmly, and rose so thankfully to the Great Source of all things, calm and bright and beautiful, that we longed for something animate to join us in our homage of enjoyment. The wish was hardly conceived ere it was accomplished; for on passing beneath a canopy of low, interlacing branches, we suddenly found ourselves making one with a company of gnats, dancing, though more mutely, quite as merrily as they could possibly have footed it on the balmy air of a summer's five. Their appearance was welcome to our eyes, not as flowers in May, but as flowers in February; and we sate down on one of the oaken stumps hard by, to watch their evolutions. Mazy and intricate enough, in sooth, they seemed; yet these light-winged figurantes, little as one might think it, would seem to have 'measure in their mirth,' ay, and mathematics too; for it is stated as a fact,* that no three of these dancers can so place themselves that lines joining their point of position shall form either more or less than two right angles. The set upon which we had intruded was an assemblage of those Tipulidan or long-legged gnats, which have been named tell-tales; we suppose, because by their presence in winter they seem to tell a tale of early spring, belied by the bitter east, which often tells us another story when we turn from their sheltered saloon of assembly.
In this single instance, however, these are not the only tell-tales of their kind; for quite as common, at the same season, are some other parties of aerial dancers, one of which we fell in with soon after we had taken leave of the
* In Parley's "Geometrical Companion."
first. These were tiny sylphs, with black bodies and wings of snow-white gauze, and like 'choice spirits black, white, and grey,' for they wore plumes of the latter colour, they were greeting the quiet young year with mirth and revelry; and that over a frozen pool, whose icy presence one would have fancied quite enough for their instant annihilation. But though warmed by exercise, these merry mates care so little for the cold without, they are glad enough, when occasion serves, to profit by the shelter of our windows. In ours, we often watch them; and you, good reader, had better seek for them unless you would miss the sight of as pretty and elegant a little creature as anyone could desire to look at on a fine summer's, much more winter's, day.
We have spoken of the plumes of these winged revellers, black, white, and grey, which dance in the air as merrily as the Quaker's wife in the song; but here be it observed that our gnats' wives, with real Quaker-like sobriety, rarely, if ever, dance at all, and never by any accident wear feathers. They may do work, as we shall perhaps discover by and by; but as for plumes, in poetic phrase,' feathered antlers,'— in scientific, 'pectinate antenna,' these are decorations of vanity exclusively confined among all gnats to the masculine gender. G-nats balls, therefore, contrary to usual custom, are made up of beaux.
"Pis merry in the hall when beards wag all,
says the morose proverb, steeped in the boozing barbarism of days gone by; and these ungallant flies would seem still to think it merry in the air when their dames are not there ....
Though courting the winter's gleam, everybody can tell that gnats by no means hide their heads with the summer sun, for they seem to rejoice at his setting as much as at his rising,—in his absence as well as in his presence. In short, at every hour, as at every season, 'Dansez toujours' seems their motto: up and down, in and out, and round about, in the morning, noon, and evening of our day, as in the morning, noon, and evening of their own existence.
"But stay! here we are arrived at the end of the dance, nay, at the end of our dancers' lives, without having said a word about their beginning. Well, we have nothing for it but to go backwards, jumping over the steps already made, up to the premier pas, our aerial performers' birth and parentage. Everybody, we conclude, has a general notion concerning the passage of a butterfly through the successive stages of caterpillar, chrysalis, and winged flutterer. Then, only let it be borne in mind that all perfect insects have passed through three states corresponding, though not similar, which are yclept by entomologists those of larva, pupa, and imago.
Now for the commencement of the gnat's life of buoyancy, which commences in the water. Man has been believed by the nations of antiquity to have
Learn'd of the little Nautilus to sail,
Spread the thin oar, and catch the rising gale;
but he might also have taken a first lesson in boat-building from an object common in almost every pond, though, certainly, not so likely to attract attention as the sailing craft of that bold mariner, the little Argonaut. This object is a boat of eggs, not a boat egg-laden; nor yet that witches' transport, an egg-shell boat, but a buoyant life-boat, curiously constructed of her eggs by the common gnat. How she begins and completes her work may be seen by any one curious enough and wakeful enough to repair by five or six in a morning to a pond or bucket of water frequented by gnats. The boat itself, with all we are going to describe, and all we have depicted from the life may be seen at home, and at all hours, within the convenient compass of a basin filled from an adjacent pond. When complete, the boat consists of from 250 to 350 eggs, of which, though each is heavy enough to sink in water, the whole compose a structure perfectly buoyant—so buoyant as to float amidst the most violent agitation. What is yet more wonderful, though hollow, it never fills with water; and even if we push it to the bottom of our mimic pool, it will rise unwetted to the surface. This cunning craft has been likened to a London wherry, being sharp and high fore and aft, convex below, concave above, and always floating on its keel. In a few days each of the numerous lives within, having put on the INSECT METAMORPHOSIS. 65
shape of a grub or larva, issues from the lower end of its own flask-shaped egg; but the empty shells continuing still attached, the boat remains a boat till reduced by weather to a wreck.
There let us leave it, and follow the fortunes of one of the crew, after he has left his cabin, which he quits in rather a singular manner, emerging through its bottom into the water. Happily, however, he is born a swimmer and can take his pleasure in his native element, poising himself near its surface head downwards, tail upwards. Why chooses he this strange position? Just for the same reason that we rather prefer, when taking a dabble in the waves, to have our heads above water, for the convenience, namely, of receiving a due supply of air, which the little swimmer in question sucks in through a sort of tube in his tail. This breathing apparatus, as well as the tail itself, serves also for a buoy, and both end in a sort of funnel, composed of hairs arranged in a star-like form, and anointed with an oil by which they repel water. When tired of suspension near the surface, our little swimmer has only to fold up these divergent hairs, and plump he sinks down to the bottom. He goes, however, provided with the means of re-ascension— a globule of air, which the oil enables him to retain at his funnel's ends, on re-opening which he again rises whenever the fancy takes him. But yet a little while, and a new era arrives in the existence of this buoyant creature;—buoyant in his first stage of larva, in his second of pupa he is buoyant still. Tet, in resemblance, how unlike! But lately topsyturvy, his altered body first assumes what we should call its natural position, and he swims, head upwards, because within it there is now contained a different, but equally curious, apparatus for inhaling the atmospheric fluid. Seated behind his head arises a pair of respirators, not very much unlike the aural appendages of an ass, to which they have been compared; and through these he feeds on air, requiring no grosser aliment. At his nether extremity there expands a fish-like, finny tail, by help of which he can either float or strike at pleasure through the water.
Thus passes with our buoyant pupa the space of about a week; and then another, and a more important change comes 'o'er the spirit of his dream.' With the gradual