Though often maligned for its ability (at least among the males) to deliver a painful sting, the Wopse (known as "Iknuin" in Nybelmar) is remarkable, for an insect, in the devoted care and attention it shows to its offspring, who might be described as the most closeted and pampered young creatures in all Santharia. A by-product of this curious life-cycle is also coveted by sentient races - the nursery-gall which Wopses build for their young is edible, and a precious delicacy to many, under the slightly romanticised name of “Birchegg”. The connection between the strange growths which appear in birch trees, offering welcome treats to those who find them, and the tiny, fragile insects which create them, has been made only recently. Many people would tuck into their meal of fried birchegg with a good deal less relish if they knew it as the creation of insects, and the home of a small grub.
The fly itself is easy to ignore, at only a couple of
nailsbreadths long, and so
fragile and slender that it seems to be made of glass - indeed, it is largely
transparent. Catching one and holding it up to the light reveals the innards to
an astonishing degree. In shape it is obviously more like a malise or groshmite
than a typical fly - the abdomen is separated from the thorax by a very long,
narrow waist, and the whole shape of the fly is excessively graceful and slim,
never exceeding a couple of grains in girth.
The fly is, in fact, heaviest at the head, which is taken up by a pair of oversized, near globular eyes in a delicate shade of pinkish gold. The antennae are long and delicate; males have feathered antennae similar to those sported by some moths, whilst females have simple stalk-shaped antennae. Aside from the eyes, close examination also reveals that the head of the female is adorned with a formidable pair of mandibles, for digging out nest holes in birch bark. Males have useless stubs in place of the thick, barbed apparatus of the female.
In general, males are considerably smaller than females, although they have longer, broader wings to aid their travels in search of mates. Females are comparatively clumsy fliers with smaller, though still functional wings. The wings of both genders are transparent, glassy structures fairly typical of most flies. The Wopse has very long legs, which it waves blindly when it flies, as if trying to slow itself down. Perhaps this is an attempt to protect its fragile body, and, in the case of the female, the long ovipositor, often mistaken for a fearsome stinger. The female’s ovipositor is about half as long again as her body, and quite brittle, so she must take great care in flying. The male Wopse does have a stinger, a fairly potent one, but it’s very small and tricky to notice, so it’s no surprise that the female’s menacing looking ovipositor is often mistaken for a weapon.
The larvae of the Wopse are very rarely seen alive, as they spend their entire lives before pupating secluded inside the birchegg-galls that serve as nurseries. They are nothing much to look at – fat little grubs, growing up to five nailsbreadths long (much larger than their parents, like many such insects), with pulpy white flesh, and large mandibles capable of giving a sharp nip. The eyes are the only feature they share in common with their parents – bulbous and goldish-pink. What these grubs might use their eyes for is a mystery, as they spend this early part of their lives in complete darkness.
Male Wopses have an extraordinary sense of smell- using their long, feathered
antennae they can follow the scent of a female for nearly a stral. They also
seem to be sensitive to colour, and use the colour of the trees around them, and
of other Wopses they meet, to navigate and distinguish between denizens of
different birch species. They also have small, needle sharp stings, loaded with
a mild venom which causes a painful swelling and inflammation. These effects can
remain for over an hour, though it rarely has more severe effects than this. In
some individuals, the sting appears to cause a more severe effect: prolonged
pain and stiffness. Anything more serious than this is extremely rare. The Wopse
can sting many times without sustaining harm, though they cannot produce very
much venom at a time, so often the potency of stings will be lessened if an
individual has had to fend off many intruders recently.
The male’s sting is nearly invisible to the naked eye, and thus in the popular imagination it is often confused with the ovipositor (egg-laying-tube) of the females, which resembles a very threatening stinger, half as long again as her body. This tube is used to deposit her eggs deep inside the bark of a birch tree, once she has used her strong mandibles to gnaw a hole therein.
Perhaps the most mysterious and weird of the Wopse’s abilities, however, is their strange talent of secreting something into the wood of a living birch tree which causes it to grow into the soft, nutritious flesh of a birchapple, providing food and shelter for a growing grub. How they do this is a great mystery, though prominent alchemists have suggested that they somehow inject or secrete a chymical that changes the growth pattern of the tree, though some traditional hobbit explanations tend to talk of the Wopse taking advantage of growths which the tree produces anyway, like fruit.
Territory. Wopses are found throughout the forested areas of Santharia and Nybelmar – they rely on healthy birch trees, but need little else, so they are found almost anywhere such trees will grow. It seems that there are slight differences between Wopses that use different species of birch. Those that feed on red birch, for instance, have a distinctive ruddy blush to their glass-like bodies and wings. Whether this helps the insects camouflage, or makes it easier for them to choose mates that subsist on the same kind of tree as themselves, is unknown, but it does make for a beautiful array of colourings among Wopses. Among the greatest strongholds of the insect are the moon hills in the Ehebion Peninsula, Nybelmar, where they are known as Iknuin by the Murmillions, and the Thaelon Forest of Northern Santharia.
Habitat/Behaviour. Wopses rarely venture below the canopy level of the trees in which they make their homes, and indeed only the males travel around with any regularity. Life for an adult Wospe revolves entirely around caring for their young – they have a very short adult life; only around a couple of months, and so they tend to spend this time in frantic activity. When the larvae pupate, and haul themselves out of their birchegg cocoons, they can pause only to let their new-grown wings uncurl and dry in the open air, before they must begin the task of preparing for parenthood. Adult Wopses do not feed – they will have spent their larval lives fattening on the rich flesh of their birchegg, and the jaws which adorn the female will be used strictly for excavation. Males have no jaws to speak of at all.
Diet. As mentioned above, adult Wopses cannot eat; they subsist entirely on the reserves they build up as larvae. Wopse grubs, on the other hand, do very little besides eating. They chew the oily, nutritious flesh of the birchegg, eating at such a rate that after a few months the tree cannot replenish the flesh as quickly as it is eaten, and the grub will hollow out its birchegg entirely. It is now that it will pupate, having exhausted its food supply.
Mating. Females, on hatching, will begin looking for a suitable nest site, usually by walking along the branches, but they will fly to other trees if they can’t find suitable nest sites on foot. When they find a good spot – usually the fork of a strong branch, where the bark is thick and smooth, and there is no trace of rot or scarring to the tree – she will begin chewing through the bark. She uses her large jaws to work through the tough outer layer of the bark, until she has broken through into the softer under layers.
Males take to the air as soon as their wings are ready for flying, following the scent released by a female who has already settled on a good nest site. Often all the bircheggs for strals about will hatch in a short time, so hundreds of Wopses will seem to appear from nowhere.
When the males find a female, they land and inspect her carefully, brushing her all over to ensure that she is definitely receptive, female, and alive. Once this is ensured, the pair will mate, and the female will lay eggs in the hole she has made, using the full length of her ovipositor to secure the eggs right under the bark. Once eggs are laid, both male and female will begin working carefully to build the nest. The male obsessively cleans away every speck of dirt, moss or debris from the area, whilst the female begins trimming through the bark in a wide circle all around the nest-hole. She bites down through the bark, but leaves it intact, separated from the rest of the bark. Any twigs growing in this area will be bitten off as low as possible. After this, the female’s job is done. With nothing more to achieve in her adult life, and no means of feeding herself (her jaws may be impressive, but there is little in the way of gut to back it up), most of her body is given over to energy storage and egg production. She will soon die.
The male, however, still has work to do. He will guard the nest with his stinger as the section marked off by the female swells and thickens, eventually growing into a large, melderapple-sized protuberance, with smooth, glossy bark and a slightly spongy texture. Somewhere inside, the grub will grow, feeding on the flesh of his cocoon, whilst its father protects it, slowly starving as the birchegg grows. By the time the birchegg is fully developed, with bark hard enough to defend the grub against most attacks, the adult male will have starved to death.
Usages. The obvious aforementioned use of Wopses is in harvesting the galls in which they raise their grubs – known as bircheggs. The birchegg, if cut when fairly young, will have a great deal of soft, oily, and pleasantly sweet flesh, and only an egg or a tiny grub that needs removing – on balance, a great deal less trouble than the various seeds and pips that fill so many real fruits. Of course, the bark must be removed, as it is too leathery and woody to be edible. The flesh that remains is delicious raw, if fresh, but generally is cooked to make the best of the delicacy, or to allow it to keep for longer. Fried in milchbutter, sliced thin, a birchegg is a meal that few would refuse, even if they might usually disdain to eat the nursery intended for a fat little Wopse grub. Otherwise it can be dried, baked into little cakes, or even mixed and heated with milch, sweetbean extract and liquor to make a popular winter drink known among hobbits as Wopsegrog.
The birchegg remains edible as long as the grub lives inside it, but for obvious reasons, the longer the grub lives, the less flesh and the more bug there will be available. Seasoned birchegg harvesters generally learn to tap the gall lightly, and to listen to the sound it makes – a certain hollowness is discernible as the grub gets bigger. If the gall is really far gone, of course, it’ll be squidgy to the touch, and this kind is never picked. A birchegg clearly guarded by a male Wopse will be prized, as it will almost certainly be young enough to be worthwhile. Whether the birchegg is worth a sting or two is debatable.
Due to the Wopses’ extraordinary synchronicity in hatching out, there are generally too many galls in one place at a time for them all to be harvested, ensuring that enough Wopses survive each generation to breed the next. That said, in areas where trees are scarce, or the insects are persecuted for their stings or the belief that they spoil the galls, they often decline dramatically.
Myth/Lore. Wopses have had an understandably mixed reputation amongst the sentient races – on the one hand, they are undeniably pretty, in a fragile way, and provide the delicious birchegg galls to eat. On the other, they sting, and, according to most traditional views, lay their eggs in young birchegg galls, so that a fat grub spoils the potential meal. It must be admitted that there’s something unpleasant in the idea of eating “fruit” that has housed, and likely will still house, a Wopse grub.
In fact general consensus is largely still of the opinion that bircheggs are a natural “fruit” of birch trees, and the presence of Wopse grubs doesn’t come until after the gall has grown. Though various accounts have disproved this idea, it is still popular, for understandable reasons: who wants to eat something, however delicious, that has grown from the secretions of an insect? The Wopse doesn’t even have the popular association with industriousness and productiveness that the malise enjoys: honey may be the made from regurgitated nectar, but at least you rarely find a fat grub sitting in the middle of a jar.
Sadly, this means that Wopses are often killed on sight, with the aim of protecting the very harvest that they provide. In areas where this takes place regularly, people will often find the insects so reduced that there are no galls to harvest. It’s partly because of this that the places where the Wopses seem to flourish best are those where people generally understand and accept that they are the originators of bircheggs.
The Helmondshire Halflings are the main benefactors of the flourishing Wopse territory in the Thaelon Forest. Among halflings they are unique in accepting enthusiastically the Wopse as a valued food producer. Indeed, they are believed to be the first people to use bircheggs as food, and even the word “Wopse” is reputed to be a halfling invention. There are stories among the Helmondshire people that the Wopse fell in love with the birch tree long ago, and that, once in a thousand thousand years, a birchegg will grow on an especially besotted birch tree, and hundreds of Wopses will labour to let it grow enormous, the size of a child, until eventually a baby pendrowe hatches from the great gall. Of course, most people nowadays have heard a little about real pendrowe, and so the story has lost a lot of its credence.
In the Ehebion Peninsula of Nybelmar, a story with some notable similarities is told; there is a folk tale, popular among the shepherds and woodsmen who scratch a living in the moon hills, that goes thus:
Iknuin's Daughter. Once, long ago, when the tallest of these trees was a
sapling at the feet of its parent, there was a girl called Iknuin, who
lived in these very woods. She was a beautiful creature, slender as a
birch tree and so pale in skin and hair that the light shone straight
through her. She wandered in the woods for many a year, and saw no-one, so
nobody asked her where she’d come from, and nobody asked her where she was
going. And she was happy as dreaming.