by Jean-Henri FabreMay 30th, 2023
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Almost as famous as the Cicada, the Field Cricket, the denizen of the greenswards, figures among the limited but glorious number of the classic insects. He owes this honour to his song and his house. One thing alone is lacking to complete his renown. By a regrettable omission, the master of the art of making animals talk gives him hardly two lines. In one of his fables he shows us the Hare seized with terror at the sight of his ears, which scandalmongers will not fail to describe as horns at a time when to be horned is dangerous. The prudent animal packs up his traps and makes off:
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The Life of the Grasshopper by Jean-Henri Fabre, is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. THE CRICKET: THE BURROW; THE EGG


Almost as famous as the Cicada, the Field Cricket, the denizen of the greenswards, figures among the limited but glorious number of the classic insects. He owes this honour to his song and his house. One thing alone is lacking to complete his renown. By a regrettable omission, the master of the art of making animals talk gives him hardly two lines.

In one of his fables he shows us the Hare seized with terror at the sight of his ears, which scandalmongers will not fail to describe as horns at a time when to be horned is dangerous. The prudent animal packs up his traps and makes off:

“Adieu, voisin Grillon,” dit-il; “je pars d’ici;

Mes oreilles enfin seraient cornes aussi.”

The Cricket answers:

“Cornes cela! Vous me prenez pour cruche!

Ce sont oreilles que Dieu fit.”

The Hare insists:

“On les fera passer pour cornes.”

And that is all. What a pity that La Fontaine did not make the insect hold forth at greater length! The good-natured Cricket is depicted for us in a couple of lines which already show the master’s touch. No, indeed, he is no fool: his big head might have found some capital things to say. And yet the Hare was perhaps not wrong to take his departure in a hurry. When slander is at your heels, the best thing is to fly.[302]

Florian2 was less concise in his story, which is on another theme; but what a long way we are from the warmth and vigour of old La Fontaine! In Florian’s fable Le Grillon, there are plenty of flowery meadows and blue skies; Dame Nature and affectation go hand in hand; in short, we have the feeble artificialities of a lifeless rhetoric, which loses sight of the thing described for the sake of the description. It lacks the simplicity of truth and also the saving salt of humour.

Besides, what a preposterous idea, to represent the Cricket as discontented, bewailing his condition in despair! All who have studied him know, on the contrary, that he is very well pleased with his own talent and his hole. This, moreover, is what the fabulist makes him admit, after the Butterfly’s discomfiture:

“Combien je vais aimer ma retraite profonde!

Pour vivre heureux, vivons caché!”

I find more force and more truth in the apologue by the nameless friend to whom I owe the Provençal piece, La Cigalo e la Fournigo. He will forgive me if for the second time I expose him, without his consent, to the dangerous honour of print. Here it is:

I find more force and more truth in the apologue by the nameless friend to whom I owe the Provençal piece, La Cigalo e la Fournigo. He will forgive me if for the second time I expose him, without his consent, to the dangerous honour of print. Here it is:

Le Grillon

L’histoire des bêtes rapporte
Qu’autrefois un pauvre grillon,
Prenant le soleil sur sa porte,
Vit passer un beau papillon.

Un papillon à longues queues,
Superbe, des mieux décorés,
Avec rangs de lunules bleues,
Galons noirs et gros points dorés.

“Vole, vole,” lui dit l’ermite,
“Sur les fleurs, du matin au soir;
Ta rose, ni ta marguerite
Ne valent mon humble manoir.”

Il disait vrai. Vient un orage
Et le papillon est noyé
Dans un bourbier; la fange outrage
Le velours de son corps broyé.

Mais la tourmente en rien n’étonne
Le grillon, qui, dans son abri,
Qu’il pleuve, qu’il vente, qu’il tonne,
Vit tranquille et chante cri-cri.

Ah! n’allons pas courir le monde
Parmi les plaisirs et les fleurs;
L’humble foyer, sa paix profonde
Nous épargneront bien des pleurs.


Among the beasts a tale is told
How a poor Cricket ventured nigh
His door to catch the sun’s warm gold
And saw a radiant Butterfly.

She passed with tails thrown proudly back
And long gay rows of crescents blue,
Brave yellow stars and bands of black,
The lordliest fly that ever flew.

“Ah, fly away,” the hermit said,
“Daylong among your flowers to roam;
Nor daisies white nor roses red
Will compensate my lowly home.”

True, all too true! There came a storm
And caught the other in its flood,
Staining her broken velvet form
And covering her wings with mud.

The Cricket, sheltered from the rain,
Chirped and looked on with tranquil eye;
For him the thunder pealed in vain,
The gale and torrent passed him by.

Then shun the world, nor take your fill
Of any of its joys or flowers;
A lowly fire-side, calm and still,
At least will grant you tearless hours!

There I recognize my Cricket. I see him curling his antennæ on the threshold of his burrow, keeping his belly cool and his back to the sun. He is not jealous of the Butterfly; on the contrary, he pities her, with that air of mocking commiseration familiar in the ratepayer who owns a house of his own and sees passing before his door some wearer of a gaudy costume with no place to lay her head. Far from complaining, he is very well satisfied with both his house and his violin. A true philosopher, he knows the vanity of things and appreciates the charm of a modest retreat away from the riot of pleasure-seekers.[306]

Yes, the description is about right, though it remains very inadequate and does not bear the stamp of immortality. The Cricket is still waiting for the few lines needed to perpetuate his merits; and, since La Fontaine neglected him, he will have to go on waiting a long time.

To me, as a naturalist, the outstanding feature in the two fables—a feature which I should find repeated elsewhere, beyond a doubt, if my library were not reduced to a small row of odd volumes on a deal shelf—is the burrow on which the moral is founded. Florian speaks of the snug retreat; the other praises his lowly home. It is the dwelling therefore that above all compels attention, even that of the poet, who cares little in general for realities.

In this respect, indeed, the Cricket is extraordinary. Of all our insects, he alone, on attaining maturity, possesses a fixed abode, the monument of his industry. During the bad season of the year, most of the others burrow or skulk in some temporary refuge, a refuge obtained free of cost and abandoned without regret. Several create marvels, with a view to settling their family: cotton satchels, baskets made of leaves, towers of [307]cement. Some carnivorous larvæ dwell in permanent ambuscades, where they lie in wait for their prey. The Tiger-beetle, among others, digs itself a perpendicular hole, which it closes with its flat, bronze head. Whoever ventures on the insidious foot-bridge vanishes down the gulf, whose trap-door at once tips up and disappears beneath the feet of the wayfarer. The Ant-lion makes a funnel in the sand. The Ant slides down its very loose slope and is bombarded with projectiles hurled from the bottom of the crater by the hunter, who turns his neck into a catapult. But these are all temporary refuges, nests or traps.

The laboriously constructed residence, in which the insect settles down with no intention of moving, either in the happy spring or the woful winter season; the real manor, built for peace and comfort and not as a hunting-box or a nursery: this is known to the Cricket alone. On some sunny, grassy slope he is the owner of a hermitage. While all the others lead vagabond lives, sleeping in the open air or under the casual shelter of a dead leaf, a stone, or the peeling bark of an old tree, he is a privileged person with a permanent address.[308]

A serious problem is that of the home. It has been solved by the Cricket, by the Rabbit and, lastly, by man. In my neighbourhood, the Fox and the Badger have holes the best part of which is supplied by the irregularities of the rock. A few repairs; and the dug-out is completed. Cleverer than they, the Rabbit builds his house by burrowing wheresoever he pleases, when there is no natural passage that allows him to settle down free of any trouble.

The Cricket surpasses all of them. Scorning chance refuges, he always chooses the site of his abode, in well-drained ground, with a pleasant sunny aspect. He refuses to make use of fortuitous cavities, which are incommodious and rough; he digs every bit of his villa, from the entrance-hall to the back-room.

I see no one above him, in the art of house-building, except man; and even man, before mixing mortar to hold stones together, before kneading clay to coat his hut of branches, fought with wild beasts for the possession of a refuge in the rocks or an underground cavern.

Then how are the privileges of instinct distributed? Here is one of the humblest, [309]able to lodge himself to perfection. He has a home, an advantage unknown to many civilized beings; he has a peaceful retreat, the first condition of comfort; and nobody around him is capable of settling down. He has no rivals until you come to ourselves.

Whence does he derive this gift? Is he favoured with special tools? No, the Cricket is not an incomparable excavator; in fact, one is rather surprised at the result when one considers the feebleness of his resources.

Can it be made necessary by the demands of an exceptionally delicate skin? No, among his near kinsmen, other skins, no less sensitive than his, do not dread the open air at all.

Can it be a propensity inherent in the anatomical structure, a talent prescribed by the secret promptings of the organism? No, my neighbourhood boasts three other Crickets (Gryllus bimaculatus, de Geer; G. desertus, Pallas.; G. burdigalensis, Latr.), who are so like the Field Cricket in appearance, colour and structure that, at the first glance, one would take them for him. The first is as large as he is, or even larger. The second represents him reduced to about half [310]his size. The third is smaller still. Well, of these faithful copies, these doubles of the Field Cricket, not one knows how to dig himself a burrow. The Double-spotted Cricket inhabits those heaps of grass left to rot in damp places; the Solitary Cricket roams about the crevices in the dry clods turned up by the gardener’s spade; the Bordeaux Cricket is not afraid to make his way into our houses, where he sings discreetly, during August and September, in some dark, cool spot.

There is no object in continuing our questions: each would meet with no for an answer. Instinct, which stands revealed here and disappears there despite organisms alike in all respects, will never tell us its causes. It depends so little on an insect’s stock of tools that no anatomical detail can explain it to us and still less make us foresee it. The four almost identical Crickets, of whom one alone understands the art of burrowing, add their evidence to the manifold proofs already supplied; they confirm in a striking fashion our profound ignorance of the origin of instinct.

Who does not know the Cricket’s abode! Who has not, as a child playing in [311]the fields, stopped in front of the hermit’s cabin! However light your footfall, he has heard you coming and has abruptly withdrawn to the very bottom of his hiding-place. When you arrive, the threshold of the house is deserted.

Everybody knows the way to bring the skulker out. You insert a straw and move it gently about the burrow. Surprised at what is happening above, tickled and teased, the Cricket ascends from his secret apartment; he stops in the passage, hesitates and enquires into things by waving his delicate antennæ; he comes to the light and, once outside, he is easy to catch, so greatly have events puzzled his poor head. Should he be missed at the first attempt, he may become more suspicious and obstinately resist the titillation of the straw. In that case, we can flood him out with a glass of water.

O those adorable times when we used to cage our Crickets and feed them on a leaf of lettuce, those childish hunting-trips along the grassy paths! They all come back to me to-day, as I explore the burrows in search of subjects for my studies; they appear to me almost in their pristine freshness when my companion, little Paul, already an expert in [312]the tactical use of the straw, springs up suddenly, after a long trial of skill and patience with the recalcitrant, and, brandishing his closed hand in the air, cries, excitedly:

“I’ve got him, I’ve got him!”

Quick, here’s a bag; in you go, my little Cricket! You shall be petted and pampered; but mind you teach us something and, first of all, show us your house.

It is a slanting gallery, situated in the grass, on some sunny bank which soon dries after a shower. It is nine inches long at most, hardly as thick as one’s finger and straight or bent according to the exigencies of the ground. As a rule, a tuft of grass, which is respected by the Cricket when he goes out to browse upon the surrounding turf, half-conceals the home, serving as a porch and throwing a discreet shade over the entrance. The gently-sloping threshold, scrupulously raked and swept, is carried for some distance. This is the belvedere on which, when everything is peaceful round about, the Cricket sits and scrapes his fiddle.

The inside of the house is devoid of luxury, with bare and yet not coarse walls. Ample leisure allows the inhabitant to do away with any unpleasant roughness. At the [313]end of the passage is the bedroom, the terminal alcove, a little more carefully smoothed than the rest and slightly wider. All said, it is a very simple abode, exceedingly clean, free from damp and conforming with the requirements of a well-considered system of hygiene. On the other hand, it is an enormous undertaking, a regular Cyclopean tunnel, when we consider the modest means of excavation. Let us try to be present at the work. Let us also enquire at what period the enterprise begins. This obliges us to go back to the egg.

Any one wishing to see the Cricket lay her eggs can do so without making great preparations: all that he wants is a little patience, which, according to Buffon, is genius, but which I, more modestly, will describe as the observer’s chief virtue. In April, or at latest in May, we establish isolated couples of the insect in flower-pots containing a layer of heaped-up earth. Their provisions consist of a lettuce-leaf renewed from time to time. A square of glass covers the retreat and prevents escape.

Some extremely interesting facts can be obtained with this simple installation, supplemented, if need be, with a wire-gauze cover, [314]the best of all cages. We shall return to this matter. For the moment, let us watch the laying and make sure that the propitious hour does not evade our vigilance.

It is in the first week in June that my assiduous visits begin to show satisfactory results. I surprise the mother standing motionless, with her ovipositor planted perpendicularly in the soil. For a long time she remains stationed at the same point, heedless of her indiscreet caller. At last she withdraws her dibble, removes, more or less perfunctorily, the traces of the boring-hole, takes a moment’s rest, walks away and starts again somewhere else, now here, now there, all over the area at her disposal. Her behaviour, though her movements are slower, is a repetition of what the Decticus has shown us. Her egg-laying appears to me to be ended within the twenty-four hours. For greater certainty, I wait a couple of days longer.

I then dig up the earth in the pot. The straw-coloured eggs are cylinders rounded at both ends and measuring about one-ninth of an inch in length. They are placed singly in the soil, arranged vertically and grouped in more or less numerous patches, which correspond [315]with the successive layings. I find them all over the pot, at a depth of three-quarters of an inch. There are difficulties in examining a mass of earth through a magnifying-glass; but, allowing for these difficulties, I estimate the eggs laid by one mother at five or six hundred. So large a family is sure to undergo a drastic purging before long.

The Cricket’s egg is a little marvel of mechanism. After hatching, it appears as an opaque white sheath, with a round and very regular aperture at the top; to the edge of this a cap adheres, forming a lid. Instead of bursting anyhow under the thrusts or cuts of the new-born larva, it opens of its own accord along a specially prepared line of least resistance.

It became important to observe the curious hatching. About a fortnight after the egg is laid, two large, round, rusty-black eye-dots darken the front end. A little way above these two dots, right at the apex of the cylinder, you see the outline of a thin circular swelling. This is the line of rupture which is preparing. Soon the translucency of the egg enables the observer to perceive the delicate segmentation of the tiny creature [316]within. Now is the time to redouble our vigilance and multiply our visits, especially in the morning.

Fortune, which loves the persevering, rewards me for my assiduity. All round this swelling where, by a process of infinite delicacy, the line of least resistance has been prepared, the end of the egg, pushed back by the inmate’s forehead, becomes detached, rises and falls to one side like the top of a miniature scent-bottle. The Cricket pops out like a Jack-in-the-box.

When he is gone, the shell remains distended, smooth, intact, pure white, with the cap or lid hanging from the opening. A bird’s egg breaks clumsily under the blows of a wart that grows for the purpose at the end of the chick’s beak; the Cricket’s egg, endowed with a superior mechanism, opens like an ivory case. The thrust of the inmate’s head is enough to work the hinge.

The hatching of the eggs is hastened by the glorious weather; and the observer’s patience is not much tried, the rapidity rivalling that of the Dung-beetles. The summer solstice has not yet arrived when the ten couples interned under glass for the benefit of my studies are surrounded by their [317]numerous progeny. The egg-stage, therefore, lasts just about ten days.

I said above that, when the lid of the ivory case is lifted, a young Cricket pops out. This is not quite accurate. What appears at the opening is the swaddled grub, as yet unrecognizable in a tight-fitting sheath. I expected to see this wrapper, this first set of baby-clothes, for the same reasons that made me anticipate it in the case of the Decticus:

“The Cricket,” said I to myself, “is born underground. He also sports two very long antennæ and a pair of overgrown hind-legs, all of which are cumbrous appendages at the time of the emergence. He must therefore possess a tunic in which to make his exit.”

My forecast, correct enough in principle, was only partly confirmed. The new-born Cricket does in fact possess a temporary structure; but, so far from employing it for the purpose of hoisting himself outside, he throws off his clothes as he passes out of the egg.

To what circumstances are we to attribute this departure from the usual practice? Perhaps to this: the Cricket’s egg stays in the ground for only a few days before hatching; the egg of the Decticus remains there for [318]eight months. The former, save for rare exceptions in a season of drought, lies under a thin layer of dry, loose, unresisting earth; the latter, on the contrary, finds itself in soil which has been caked together by the persistent rains of autumn and winter and which therefore presents serious difficulties. Moreover, the Cricket is shorter and stouter, less long-shanked than the Decticus. These would appear to be the reasons for the difference between the two insects in respect of their methods of emerging. The Decticus, born lower down, under a close-packed layer, needs a climbing-costume with which the Cricket is able to dispense, being less hampered and nearer to the surface and having only a powdery layer of earth to pass through.

Then what is the object of the tights which the Cricket flings aside as soon as he is out of the egg? I will answer this question with another: what is the object of the two white stumps, the two pale-coloured embryo wings carried by the Cricket under his wing-cases, which are turned into a great mechanism of sound? They are so insignificant, so feeble that the insect certainly makes no use of them, any more than the [319]Dog utilizes the thumb that hangs limp and lifeless at the back of his paw.

Sometimes, for reasons of symmetry, the walls of a house are painted with imitation windows to balance the other windows, which are real. This is done out of respect for order, the supreme condition of the beautiful. In the same way, life has its symmetries, its repetitions of a general prototype. When abolishing an organ that has ceased to be employed, it leaves vestiges of it to maintain the primitive arrangement.

The Dog’s rudimentary thumb predicates the five-fingered hand that characterizes the higher animals; the Cricket’s wing-stumps are evidence that the insect would normally be capable of flight; the moult undergone on the threshold of the egg is reminiscent of the tight-fitting wrapper needed for the laborious exit of the Locustidæ born underground. They are so many symmetrical superfluities, so many remains of a law that has fallen into disuse but never been abrogated.

As soon as he is deprived of his delicate tunic, the young Cricket, pale all over, almost white, begins to battle with the soil overhead. He hits out with his mandibles; he sweeps aside and kicks behind him the [320]powdery obstruction, which offers no resistance. Behold him on the surface, amidst the joys of the sunlight and the perils of conflict with the living, poor, feeble creature that he is, hardly larger than a Flea. In twenty-four hours he colours and turns into a magnificent blackamoor, whose ebon hue vies with that of the adult insect. All that remains of his original pallor is a white sash that girds his chest and reminds us of a baby’s leading-string. Very nimble and alert, he sounds the surrounding space with his long, quivering antennæ, runs about and jumps with an impetuosity in which his future obesity will forbid him to indulge.

This is also the age when the stomach is still delicate. What sort of food does he need? I do not know. I offer him the adult’s treat, tender lettuce-leaves. He scorns to touch them, or perhaps he takes mouthfuls so exceedingly small that they escape me.

In a few days, with my ten households, I find myself overwhelmed with family cares. What am I to do with my five or six thousand Crickets, a pretty flock, no doubt, but impossible to rear in my ignorance of the treatment required? I will [321]set you at liberty, my little dears; I will entrust you to nature, the sovran nurse.

Thus it comes to pass. I release my legions in the enclosure, here, there and everywhere, in the best places. What a concert I shall have outside my door next year, if they all turn out well! But no, the symphony will probably be one of silence, for the savage pruning due to the mother’s fertility is bound to come. All that I can hope for is that a few couples may survive extermination.

As in the case of the young Praying Mantes, the first that hasten to this manna and the most eager for the slaughter are the little Grey Lizard and the Ant. The latter, loathsome freebooter that she is, will, I fear, not leave me a single Cricket in the garden. She snaps up the poor little creatures, eviscerates them and gobbles them down at frantic speed.

Oh, the execrable wretch! And to think that we place the Ant in the front rank of insects! Books are written in her honour and the stream of eulogy never ceases; the naturalists hold her in the greatest esteem and add daily to her reputation, so true is it, among animals as among men, that of the [322]various ways of making history, the surest way is to do harm to others.6

Nobody asks after the Dung-beetle and the Necrophorus,7 invaluable scavengers both, whereas everybody knows the Gnat, that drinker of men’s blood; the Wasp, that hot-tempered swashbuckler, with her poisoned dagger; and the Ant, that notorious evil-doer, who, in our southern villages, saps and imperils the rafters of a dwelling with the same zest with which she devours a fig. I need not trouble to say more: every one will discover in the records of mankind similar instances of usefulness ignored and frightfulness exalted.

The massacre instituted by the Ants and other exterminators is so great that my erstwhile populous colonies in the enclosure become too small to enable me to continue my observations; and I am driven to have recourse to information outside. In August, among the fallen leaves, in those little oases where the grass has not been wholly scorched by the sun, I find the young Cricket already rather big, black all over like the adult, [323]with not a vestige of the white girdle of his early days. He has no domicile. The shelter of a dead leaf, the cover of a flat stone are enough for him; they represent the tents of a nomad who cares not where he lays his head.

This vagabond life continues until the middle of autumn. It is then that the Yellow-winged Sphex8 hunts down the wanderers, an easy prey, and stores her bag of Crickets underground. She decimates those who have survived the Ants’ devastating raids. A settled dwelling, dug a few weeks before the usual time, would save them from the spoilers. The sorely-tried victims do not think of it. The bitter experience of the centuries has taught them nothing. Though already strong enough to dig a protecting burrow, they remain invincibly faithful to their ancient customs and would go on roaming though the Sphex stabbed the last of their race.

It is at the close of October, when the first cold weather threatens, that the burrow is taken in hand. The work is very simple, judging by the little that my observation of [324]the caged insect has shown me. The digging is never done at a bare point in the pan, but always under the shelter of a withered lettuce-leaf, some remnant of the food provided. This takes the place of the grass screen that seems indispensable to the secrecy of the establishment.

The miner scrapes with his fore-legs and uses the pincers of his mandibles to extract the larger bits of gravel. I see him stamping with his powerful hind-legs, furnished with a double row of spikes; I see him raking the rubbish, sweeping it backwards and spreading it slantwise. There you have the method in its entirety.

The work proceeds pretty quickly at first. In the yielding soil of my cages, the digger disappears underground after a spell that lasts a couple of hours. He returns to the entrance at intervals, always backwards and always sweeping. Should he be overcome with fatigue, he takes a rest on the threshold of his half-finished home, with his head outside and his antennæ waving feebly. He goes in again and resumes work with pincers and rakes. Soon the periods of repose become longer and wear out my patience.

The most urgent part of the work is done. [325]Once the hole is a couple of inches deep, it suffices for the needs of the moment. The rest will be a long-winded business, resumed in a leisurely fashion, a little one day and a little the next; the hole will be made deeper and wider as demanded by the inclemencies of the weather and the growth of the insect. Even in winter, if the temperature be mild and the sun playing over the entrance to the dwelling, it is not unusual to see the Cricket shooting out rubbish, a sign of repairs and fresh excavations. Amidst the joys of spring, the upkeep of the building still continues. It is constantly undergoing improvements and repairs until the owner’s decease.

April comes to an end and the Cricket’s song begins, at first in rare and shy solos, soon developing into a general symphony in which each clod of turf boasts its performer. I am more than inclined to place the Cricket at the head of the spring choristers. In our waste lands, when the thyme and the lavender are gaily flowering, he has as his partner the Crested Lark, who rises like a lyrical rocket, his throat swelling with notes, and from the sky, invisible in the clouds, sheds his sweet music upon the fallows. Down below the Crickets chant the responses. Their [326]song is monotonous and artless, but so well-suited, in its very crudity, to the rustic gladness of renascent life! It is the hosanna of the awakening, the sacred alleluia understood by swelling seed and sprouting blade. Who deserves the palm in this duet? I should award it to the Cricket. He surpasses them all, thanks to his numbers and his unceasing note. Were the Lark to fall silent, the fields blue-grey with lavender, swinging its fragrant censers before the sun, would still receive from this humble chorister a solemn celebration.

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