Several years ago on a visit to Los Angeles I passed a woman who seemed to me quintessentially Californian. She wore immaculately tailored jeans, a crisp shirt, her burnished hair flowed luxuriantly, her complexion glowed, she was the very picture of health and elegance. And she was swinging along on rollerblades.
Some time after that I was fortunate to make the acquaintance of another southern Californian, a woman who on entering a room made her northern counterparts feel just plain dowdy. She too had an insouciant disregard for her own elegance. With a passion for photography, she thought nothing of grovelling through muddy swamps and thorny thickets to capture on film her prey. Unusual attribute though this seemed to me, it was as nothing compared with her ability to achieve her goal.
For just as it did for Henri Fabre, the great French entomologist, nature positively leapt into her orbit wherever she was. While adjusting her camera to focus on a grass seed, butterflies—not just one, but flocks—would flutter out of nowhere and settle on her hat. Once she invited me to go with her to visit a certain pond, I forget why. On arrival, we found the pond crammed with frogs. There was no space at all between them, a thousand eyes bulging out to greet her. On another occasion she casually turned over a leaf. Beneath was a spotted lizard, so rare that it has barely been described. It was with mixed feelings that I said goodbye when she left the area. She was a little too eldritch for comfort.
She did however leave a legacy in that I tried to be more scientific in the garden I had at that time. The passion vine for example that smothered a chainlink fence may have been an infertile species, but it hosted a veritable soap opera of insects. Conspicuous was the gulf fritillary butterfly, whose burnt orange and silver wings gloriously complemented Passiflora jamesonii’s coral-pink flowers. I felt a trifle silly measuring the fritillary caterpillars that feed on the vine, yet it added a dimension to the spectacle to discover that on reaching a precise length, they pupate. Furthermore, they do so dramatically, hanging from their hind quarters and swinging violently from side to side before splitting and shedding their skins. At their most vulnerable at this time, naturally they attracted attention, and wasps constantly patrolled the vine, often snatching chunks of caterpillar presumably for their own children.
The most extraordinary encounter I had with an insect was, however, indoors. One morning I noticed a large thread-waisted black and yellow wasp wobbling through the open bedroom window, like a husband returning from a night on the tiles. Tracking it, I discovered it had started to build a cluster of mud cells on a corner of a picture frame. Each cell was a perfect clay pot, laid down coil by laborious coil, journey by laborious journey to and from the duck pond below the window. I left this open until the day came when each pot had a lid, and a coating of mud had been smoothed over all. Only she and I knew what was hidden inside, that each pot contained an egg, with food added to nourish the larva when the egg hatched.
After a little research (it is useful to live in a university town) I learned that the wasp was the well-named mud dauber, Sceliphron caementarium, and was able to calculate when the first offspring would emerge. Mindful of my southern Californian friend, I was determined to photograph the event.
The great day arrived and I was in time to capture on film what was resting on the picture frame near an open cell. I was so surprised by what I saw that I nearly dropped the camera. For, instead of the black and yellow mud dauber I had anticipated, here was a chunky fly of brilliant metallic blue. I later learned that it was a large blue cuckoo wasp, Chrysis coerulans, and its parent had indeed played cuckoo, imitating the European bird which lays its eggs in the nests of other birds. Several more of these interlopers emerged, and also, I was thankful to see, a sufficient proportion of mud daubers.
I’ve always felt that Fabre had the right idea when he bought a plot of land and spent his life observing the interplay of insects therein. Edwin Way Teale, in his The Insect World of J Henri Fabre, described Fabre as poor, subsisting on raw vegetables and potages, writing up his daytime observations each night. Provided he had enough, and health, I’d call him rich.