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Dooryard Stories by  Clara Dillingham Pierson
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PLUCKY MRS. POLISTES

[48]

M
RS. POLISTES was a charming little widow, who had slept through the long, cold winter, snugly tucked away in a crack in the barn belonging to the big house. She had married late in the fall, but her husband was a lazy fellow who had soon left her, and sat around in the sunshine with his brothers and the other fellows whom he knew. Each sat in his own little spot, and at last diced because he was so lazy. That is the way with many insects who will not work. They die, and the members of their families who keep busy live to a good old age.

Now it was spring, and Mrs. Polistes awakened happy and full of plans. You must not think her hard-hearted to be [49] happy after her husband was dead. If he had been a different sort of a fellow, you know, she would have missed him more. As it was, she did not even think of marrying again, but set to work to build her home and bring up her children to be good industrious Wasps like herself.

She asked another young widow to work with her and together they flew around hunting for a good building-place. They talked first of hanging their nest from the branch of a bush, but both were very careful Wasps and preferred to be sheltered from rain-storms. {Some of their family, however, did choose to build on bushes). Next they flew into the ice-house and tried several of the corners there. Mrs. Polistes did most of the talking, being a Wasp of very decided opinions.

"It is too chilly here," she said. "I should never feel like myself in such a cold place. And you know perfectly well," she added, "that if anybody should dis- [50] turb us in here, we would not be warm enough to sting. Or if we did sting, we could never pump much poison in."

There was nothing to be said after that, for everybody knows that unless a Wasp can sting, and sting hard, he is not safe.

Then they looked at the porch ceilings. Their cousins, the Vespæ, had started some nests there, and they preferred not to be too near them. The Vespæ were very good Wasps, but, as Mrs. Polistes said, "We wish to bring our children up to be Polistes Wasps, and if they see the way in which the Vespæ live, they will get their ideas all mixed. I do not think it wise to rear them within sight of covered nests, and you know as well as I [this was to her friend] how the Vespæ wall around their cells."

After this they found what they thought a most delightful place. It was just inside the closed shutters of a bedroom window. The upper sash of the window was low- [51] ered, and inside of that was a fine wire netting. "Excellent!" said the friend. "That is probably there to keep the people inside from coming out this way."

Mrs. Polistes was not quite sure that the netting was there for that reason, but she liked the place, so they flew off together to the stump-fence which enclosed the great field back of the house. Then they looked for an old stump, sat down on one of its prongs, and began to gnaw off wood fibre. They did not talk much, for they had to work so hard with their mouths. Each gnawed lengh-wise of the grain until she had a little bundle of wood fibre in her jaws. When these were ready, they flew off to their chosen spot and began to build. First it had to be chewed for a long time, until it was soft and pulpy, then, working together and very carefully, they built a slender, stem-like thing down from the top of the window casing.

[52] It took many trips to bring enough wood fibre for this, and between trips they had to stop for food. It took longer to find it so early in the season than it would later, for Flies and insects of all kinds were scarce and there were not many flowers yet. Some of those which looked most tempting were for Bees, and not for Wasps. The Wasps, you know, have such short tongues that they cannot get the honey from most flowers. That is why they so like the flat-topped ones and the shallow ones into which they can reach easily. Mrs. Polistes and her friend at last found a bed of sweet clover which made them fine meals.

That first day they only chose the place for their home and got the stems ready, but it was not long before they had three tiny cells begun and eggs in two of them. Mrs. Polistes and the home-makers of her family always insisted upon doing in this way.

[53] "It not only saves time," said Mrs. Polistes, "to have several kinds of work going at once, but it rests one, too. When my jaws are tired of chewing wood fibre or shaping it into cells, I rest myself by laying an egg. And when my sting is tired from that, I hunt food for myself and the babies. There is nothing like having a change of work."

Mrs. Polistes spoke in this way about her sting, you understand, because it was her ovipositor, or egg-layer, as well. She really used it in this way much more than the other. She did not wish to sting with it any more than she had to. It tired her very much to pump poison through it when she stung. There was always the danger, too, if she stung a large creature, like a boy, of getting it stuck in him and not being able to pull it out without breaking. If it broke, she would die.

Mrs. Polistes and her friends took turns [54] in laying eggs, and soon had to begin another row of cells around the first. They laid their oblong white eggs in them long before the cells were done, and had to stick them up to the side walls to keep them from falling out of the opening at the bottom. Then, when they had time, they lowered the walls of the cells. When the babies hatched, which was only a few days after the laying of the eggs, they brought food and fed them as they hung in their cells.

The Lady who lived in the bid house watched this very often, and Mrs. Polistes and her friend became so used to it that they were not at all frightened or disturbed. Wasps, you know, are very easily tamed by any on who moves gently. The Lady stood on a chair just inside the window, and put her face close to the screen. She could see exactly how the mother Wasps bit the cell walls into shape, moving backward all the time. She could see [55] Mrs. Polistes and her friend bring nicely chewed-up Flies and other insects with which to feed the babies, and watched them go quietly from cell to cell, giving a lunch to each.

They were very interesting babies. Being still fastened to the cell wall by the tail end, only their heads showed, tiny white heads with two little eyes and brown, horny jaws. Sometimes, when Mrs. Polistes and her friend were away, the Lady would softly lower the screen form the top of the window and touch the nest very, very gently with her pencil. Then each baby thought it was his mother or his aunt, and thrust his tiny head out for food. Perhaps this was not kind to the Wasp babies, but if the Lady made them and their mother amuse her, she was also very careful about worrying them. The older Wasps never found out that the screen had been moved, and the Lady told everybody in the house that [56] the upper window sash must not be put up. She feared that it would strike the outer cells and loosen the nest if raised.

All would have gone well if it had not been for that dreadful thunderstorm just before daylight one morning. The Gentleman found the raindrops blowing in through the bedroom window, and got it almost closed before he remembered the Wasps' nest. Then he lowered the upper sash again and left it down, in spite of the rain,

Sad to say, when morning came the dainty little nest lay on the top edge of the upper sash. It had been loosened but not crushed, and had fallen on to the only place it could. Mrs. Polistes and her friend were flying in and out with food for the babies, who were now all tilted up sidewise, instead of hanging head downward, as Wasp babies should.

"I don't understand it all," said the friend. "Everything is exactly as it was [57] when we went to sleep, except that the nest has fallen."

"I was dreaming as I hung on the nest last night," replied Mrs. Polistes, "when suddenly I felt a great jar and was knocked off."

"So was I," exclaimed her friend.

"I flew around in the dark until I found it again," added Mrs. Polistes, "but I had to wait until daylight to see what had happened. Oh, dear! It is so upsetting to find one's home upside down, and two of my children are just ready to spin their cocoons."

"Your children?" asked her friends quite sharply, for it made her cross to have such misfortunes. "Your children? One of those children is mine."

"Which one?" asked Mrs. Polistes, who thought she remembered her own egg-laying.

"I don't know which, now that the nest is all turned around," was the answer. [58] "It has mixed those babies up, and I can't pick out mine."

"Well, it does n't really matter." Said Mrs. Polistes kindly. "You may call them both your, if you want to. Just laying the egg does n't count for much, and we have both fed and cared for them. I supposed we would share babies as we have shared everything else."

This made the friend ashamed of herself, and she said that she was sorry she was cross, and the Mrs. Polistes should call one of the cocoons hers.

Then they put their heads together to decide what to do with the nest. When Wasps put their heads together, they stroke each other with their long feelers, or antennæ, and in that way each is sure what the other is thinking. They also smell with these feelers, you know, and some people say that they hear with them. A Wasp with broken antennæ can do but little, and as for not having any—why, [59] a Wasp might as well die at once as to lose his antennæ.

Poor Mrs. Polistes and her little friend! It looked now as though if they were to bring up those children at all, they would have to do it wrong side up. The right way, you know, is to raise them upside down, and here they were lying with their heads up in cells that were open at the top.

Yet, even while they were thinking about it, something else happened. The window sash on which the nest lay began to move slowly and steadily upward, not stopping until the nest almost touched the casing above.

Mrs. Polistes was so frightened! She thought that nest, children, and all were about to be crushed flat. She said afterward that she was so scared she could think of nothing but stinging, and there was nobody whom she could sting. Of course, that would be so, for a Wasp who is frightened always wants to sting, and it [60] is a great comfort to him if he can. It gives him something new to think about, you know.

The Lady was the one who slowly pushed the sash upward. She thought it might help the poor little mothers somewhat. And it did. They began at once to hunt food for their children and bring it in. The nest now lay on the middle of the sash. Before it was knocked loose, it had hung over in one corner of the casing. It would not have been much nearer for the little mothers to crawl through the middle of the shutters. But they were Wasps, and Wasps do not easily change their paths, so they entered each time at precisely the old place, and then flew or crawled to the nest. One who watches Wasps in the open air would never expect them to go by a roundabout way, for they fly so swiftly, strongly, and directly, yet they are easily puzzled by changes around the nest.

[61] Mrs. Plistes had not fed more than half her share of children when she had an idea. She struck her antennæ against those of her friend and told her about it. Then they walked all around the nest, looked at it, felt of it, and gave it little pushes. The Lady stood on her chair watching them, but they were used to her and did not mind it.

"I believe we can," said Mrs. Polistes.

"It would be lovely if we could," answered her friend, "but I am sure we can't."

"We can try it, anyway," said Mrs. Polistes.

"What is the use?" said her friend. "It will just scare the babies and tire us out. We might better feed them where they are."

"No," said Mrs. Polistes, and she spoke very positively. "No! There are worse things than being scared, and they must stand it. If we leave this nest as it is, [62] the first hard wind will tumble it around, and a rolling nest raises no Wasps."

"Mothers!" cried the children, in their weak little voices. "Mothers! What are you talking about?"

"We are going to fix your nest up again," answered Mrs. Polistes. "Now be good children, and do not bother us with questions."

Then she and her friend began pushing and pulling and rolling and tumbling the nest around to get it more nearly right side up. They got it tipped so that all the cells slanted downward, and then they began chewing wood-pulp and building a new stem toward it from the casing above. Mrs. Polistes worked so hard that her friend was really worried about her. She would not take time to eat. At last her friend stood right in front of her and unswallowed a drop of delicious honey. "You must eat it," she said. "When I swallowed it, I meant to [62] keep it for myself, but I would much rather give it to you." Mrs. Polistes lapped it up and felt stronger at once.

Such a stout stem as this one was! The cell walls also had to be strengthened with more of the wood pulp and sticky saliva from the Wasps' mouths, because the stem was to be fastened to them in a new place. It was not until the next day that all this work was done, and the mothers could begin living in the old way again. The babies were glad when this time came, for they had not been fed so much while extra building had to be done.

The two children who were ready to do so had spun their cocoons in their cells. They used the silky stuff which they had in their mouths, and which oozed out through a little hole in each child's lip. The others were growing finely, the nest was hanging from its new stem, the Lady had lowered the window [64] sash once more, and Mrs. Polistes and her friend had a little time to rest. "I am going to give myself a thorough cleaning," said she, licking her front feet off and then rubbing her head with them. "And then I am going away for a playspell."

She cleaned herself all over with her legs, and was most particular about her antennæ. She had special cleaners for these, you know?little prongs which grow in the bend of the fourth and fifth joints of the forelegs and fit closely around the antennæ, scraping them clean between the bent legs and the prongs. You can see she would need to be particular, because she had to do her talking, her smelling, part of her feeling, and perhaps some of her hearing with them. When she was well scrubbed, she took a good look at the children and flew off for a fine time, while her friend took care of things at home.

[65] Such fun as she had! She caught and ate Cabbage Butterflies, Earwigs, and other food which will not be touched by most insects and birds. She supped a tiny bit of honey from the sweet clover, and then flew straight to the cherry tree. A Catbird was already there, helping himself to the best in the tree-top, and laughing at the Lady when she tried to scare him away. He was never afraid of her throwing straight enough to hit him.

Mrs. Polistes sipped juice from one ripe cherry after another, and then, sad to say, she began to drink from one which was over-ripe. She may not have known that it was so, but not knowing made no difference with her feelings. She was soon so weak in all her six legs that she could not walk, and so weak in her wings that her big front and her small hind pairs would not stay hooked together as they should be. It was a long time before she could get home.

[66] When she did  go, she carried back some good things for the children, and then took care of them while her friend had a playspell. After all, when she was once rested, she enjoyed work better than play. Her children all grew finely, and so did those of her friend, which was exceedingly fortunate. If one had died, you know, after the tumbling down of the nest, each would have thought it her own.

The little Wasps also grew up as well as could be expected. The sons all took after their father, and were lazy, but, apart from that, they were all right. The Queen daughters were exactly like their mothers, and the little Workers, of whom there were the most of all, were the greatest of comforts. They did the work of the home as soon as they were old enough. It was truly a family which paid for saving.

When people asked Mrs. Polistes how she ever came to think of such a thing as [67] putting the nest up again, she simply flirted her wings and replied: "Where else should I put it? I could n't leave my children there."


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