by Jean-Henri FabreJune 1st, 2023
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“Mind you are ready, children, to-morrow morning, before the sun gets too hot: we are going Locust-hunting.” This announcement throws the household into great excitement at bed-time. What do my little helpmates see in their dreams? Blue wings, red wings, suddenly flung out fanwise; long, saw-toothed legs, pale-blue or pink, which kick out when we hold their owners in our fingers; great shanks acting as springs that make the insect leap forward like a projectile shot from some dwarf catapult hidden in the grass.
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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 LOCUSTS: THEIR FUNCTION; THEIR ORGAN OF SOUND


“Mind you are ready, children, to-morrow morning, before the sun gets too hot: we are going Locust-hunting.”

This announcement throws the household into great excitement at bed-time. What do my little helpmates see in their dreams? Blue wings, red wings, suddenly flung out fanwise; long, saw-toothed legs, pale-blue or pink, which kick out when we hold their owners in our fingers; great shanks acting as springs that make the insect leap forward like a projectile shot from some dwarf catapult hidden in the grass.

What they behold in sleep’s sweet magic lantern I also happen to see. Life lulls us with the same simple things in its first stages and its last.

If there be one peaceful and safe form of hunting, one that comes within the powers of [355]old age and childhood alike, it is Locust-hunting. Oh, what delicious mornings we owe to it! What happy moments when the mulberries are black and allow my assistants to go pilfering here and there in the bushes! What memorable excursions on the slopes covered with sparse grass, tough and burnt yellow by the sun! I retain a vivid recollection of all this; and my children will do the same.

Little Paul has nimble legs, a ready hand and a piercing eye. He inspects the clumps of everlastings where the Tryxalis solemnly nods his sugar-loaf head; he scrutinizes the bushes out of which the big Grey Locust suddenly flies like a little bird surprised by the hunter. Great disappointment on the part of the latter, who, after first rushing off at full speed, stops and gazes in wonder at this mock Swallow flying far away. He will have better luck another time. We shall not go home without a few of those magnificent prizes.

Younger than her brother, Marie Pauline patiently watches for the Italian Locust, with his pink wings and carmine hind-legs; but she really prefers another jumper, the most elegantly attired of all. Her favourite wears [356]a St. Andrew’s cross on the small of his back, which is marked by four white, slanting stripes. His livery has patches of verdigris, the exact colour of the patina on old bronze medals. With her hand raised in the air, ready to swoop down, she approaches very softly, stooping low. Whoosh! That’s done it! Quick, a screw of paper to receive the treasure, which, thrust head first into the opening, plunges with one bound to the bottom of the funnel.

Thus are our bags distended one by one; thus are our boxes filled. Before the heat becomes too great to bear, we are in possession of a number of varied specimens which, raised in captivity, will perhaps teach us something, if we know how to question them. Thereupon we go home again. The Locust has made three people happy at a small cost.

The first question that I put to my boarders is this:

“What function do you perform in the fields?”

You have a bad reputation, I know; the text-books describe you as noxious. Do you deserve this reproach? I take the liberty of doubting it, except, of course, in the case of [357]the terrible ravagers who form the scourge of Africa and the east.

The ill repute of those voracious eaters has left its mark on you all, though I look upon you as much more useful than injurious. Never, so far as I know, have our peasants complained of you. What damage could they lay to your charge?

You nibble the tops of the tough grasses which the Sheep refuses to touch; you prefer the lean swards to the fat pastures; you browse on sterile land where none but you would find the wherewithal to feed himself; you live upon what could never be used without the aid of your healthy stomach.

Besides, by the time that you frequent the fields, the only thing that might tempt you, the green wheat, has long since yielded its grain and disappeared. If you happen to get into the kitchen-gardens and levy toll on them to some slight extent, it is not a rank offence. A man can console himself for a piece bitten out of a leaf or two of salad.

To measure the importance of things by the foot-rule of one’s own turnip-patch is a horrible method, which makes us forget the essential for the sake of a trivial detail. The short-sighted man would upset the order of [358]the universe rather than sacrifice a dozen plums. If he thinks of the insect at all, it is only to speak of its extermination.

Fortunately, this is not and never will be in his power. Look at the consequences, for instance, of the disappearance of the Locust, who is accused of stealing a few crumbs from earth’s rich table. In September and October, the Turkeys are driven into the stubble-fields, under the charge of a child armed with two long reeds. The expanse over which the gobbling flock slowly spreads is bare, dry and burnt by the sun. At the most, a few ragged thistles raise their belated heads. What do the birds do in a desert like this, simply reeking with famine? They cram themselves, in order to do honour to the Christmas table; they wax fat; their flesh becomes firm and appetizing. With what, pray? With Locusts, whom they snap up here and there, a delicious stuffing for their greedy crops. This autumnal manna, which costs nothing and is richly flavoured, contributes to the elaboration and the improvement of the succulent roast that will be so largely eaten on the festive evening.

When the Guinea-fowl, that domesticated game-bird, roams around the farm, uttering [359]her rasping note, what is it that she seeks? Seeds, no doubt, but, above all things, Locusts, who puff her out under the wings with a pad of fat and give greater flavour to her flesh.

The Hen, much to our advantage, is just as fond of them. She well knows the virtues of that dainty dish, which acts as a tonic and increases her laying-capacity. When left at liberty, she hardly ever fails to lead her family to the stubble-fields, so that they may learn how to snap up the exquisite mouthful deftly. In fact, all the denizens of the poultry-yard, when free to wander about at will, owe to the Locust a valuable addition to their diet.

It becomes a much more important matter outside our domestic fowls. If you are a sportsman, if you are able to appreciate the value of the Red-legged Partridge, the glory of our southern hills, open the crop of the bird which you have just brought down. You will see that it contains a splendid certificate to the services rendered by the much-maligned insect. You will find it, nine times out of ten, more or less crammed with Locusts. The Partridge dotes on them, prefers them to seed as long as he is able to [360]catch them. This highly-flavoured, substantial, stimulating fare would almost make him forget the existence of seeds, if it were only there all the year round.

Let us now consult the illustrious black-footed tribe, so warmly celebrated by Tousserel.1 The head of the family is the Wheatear, the Cul-blanc,2 as the Provençal calls him, who grows disgracefully fat in September and supplies delicious material for the skewer. At the time when I used to indulge in ornithological expeditions, I made a practice of jotting down the contents of the birds’ crops and gizzards, so as to become acquainted with their diet. Here is the Wheatear’s bill of fare: Locusts, first of all; next, many various kinds of Beetles, such as Weevils, Opatra, Chrysomelæ, or Golden-apple-beetles, Cassidæ, or Tortoise-beetles, and Harpali; in the third place, Spiders, Iuli,3 Woodlice and small Snails; lastly and [361]rarely, bramble-berries and the berries of the Cornelian cherry.

As you see, there is a little of all kinds of small game, just as it comes. The insect-eater does not turn his attention to berries except in the last resort, at seasons of dearth. Out of forty-eight cases mentioned in my notes, vegetable food appears only three times, in trifling proportions. The predominant item, both as regards frequency and quantity, is the Locust, the smaller specimens being chosen, in order not to tax the bird’s swallowing-powers.

Even so with the other little birds of passage which, when autumn comes, call a halt in Provence and prepare for the great pilgrimage by accumulating on their rumps a travelling-allowance of fat. All of them feast on the Locust, that rich fare; all, in the waste lands and fallows, gather as best they can the hopping tit-bit, that source of vigour for flying. Locusts are the manna of little birds on their autumnal journey.

Nor does man himself scorn them. An Arab author quoted by General Daumas4 in his book, Le Grand désert, tells us:[362]

“Grasshoppers5 are of good nourishment for men and Camels. Their claws, wings and head are taken away and they are eaten fresh or dried, either roast or boiled and served with flesh, flour and herbs.

“When dried in the sun, they are ground to powder and mixed with milk or kneaded with flour; and they are then cooked with fat or with butter and salt.

“Camels eat them greedily and are given them dried or roast, heaped in a hollow between two layers of charcoal. Thus also do the Nubians eat them.

“When Miriam6 prayed God that she might eat flesh unpolluted by blood, God sent her Grasshoppers.

“When the wives of the Prophet were sent Grasshoppers as a gift, they placed some of these in baskets and sent them to other women.

“Once, when the Caliph Omar was asked if it were lawful to eat Grasshoppers, he made answer:

“ ‘Would that I had a basket of them to eat!’[363]

“Wherefore, from this testimony, it is very sure that, by the grace of God, Grasshoppers were given to man for his nourishment.”

Without going so far as the Arab naturalist, which would presuppose a power of digestion not bestowed on every man, I feel entitled to say that the Locust is a gift of God to a multitude of birds, as witness the long array of gizzards which I consulted.

Many others, notably the reptile, hold him in esteem. I have found him in the belly of the Rassado, that terror of the small girls of Provence, I mean the Eyed Lizard, who loves rocky shelters turned into a furnace by a torrid sun. And I have often caught the little Grey Lizard of the walls in the act of carrying off, in his tapering snout, the spolia opima of some long-awaited Acridian.

Even fish revel in him, when good fortune brings him to them. The Locust’s leap has no definite goal. A projectile discharged blindly, the insect comes down wherever the unpremeditated release of its springs shoots it. If the place where it falls happen to be the water, a fish is there at once to gobble up the dripping victim. It is sometimes a [364]fatal dainty, for anglers use the Locust when they wish to bait their hook with a particularly attractive morsel.

Without expatiating further on the devourers of this small game, I can clearly see the great usefulness of the Acridian who by successive leaps transmits to man, that most wasteful of eaters, the lean grass now converted into exquisite fare. Gladly therefore would I say, with the Arab writer:

“Wherefore, from this testimony, it is very sure that, by the grace of God, Grasshoppers were given to man for his nourishment.”

One thing alone makes me hesitate: the direct consumption of the Locust. As regards indirect consumption, under the form of Partridge, young Turkey and others, none will think of denying him his praises. Is direct consumption then so unpleasant? That was not the opinion of Omar,7 the mighty caliph, the destroyer of the library of Alexandria. His stomach was as rude as his intellect; and, by his own account, he [365]would have relished a basket of Grasshoppers.

Long before him, others were content to eat them, though in this case it was a wise frugality. Clad in his Camel’s-hair garment, St. John the Baptist, the bringer of good tidings and the great stirrer of the populace in the days of Herod, lived in the desert on Grasshoppers and wild honey:

“And his meat was locusts and wild honey,” says the Gospel according to St. Matthew.

Wild honey I know, if only from the pots of the Chalicodoma.8 It is a very agreeable food. There remains the Grasshopper of the desert, otherwise the Locust. In my youth, like every small boy, I appreciated a Grasshopper’s leg, which I used to eat raw. It is not without flavour. To-day let us rise a peg higher and try the fare of Omar and St. John the Baptist.

I capture some fat Locusts and have them cooked in a very rough and ready fashion, fried with butter and salt, as the Arab author prescribes. We all of us, big and little, partake of the queer dish at dinner. [366]We pronounce favourably upon the caliph’s delicacy. It is far superior to the Cicadæ extolled by Aristotle. It has a certain shrimpy flavour, a taste that reminds one of grilled Crab; and, were it not that the shell is very tough for such slight edible contents, I would go to the length of saying that it is good, without, however, feeling any desire for more.

My curiosity as a naturalist has now twice allowed itself to be tempted by the dishes of antiquity: Cicadæ first; Locusts next. Neither the one nor the other roused my enthusiasm. We must leave these things to the powerful jaws of the negroes and the huge appetite of which the famous caliph gave proof.

The queasiness of our stomachs, however, in no way decreases the Locusts’ merits. Those little browsers of the burnt grass play a great part in the workshop where our food is prepared. They swarm in vast legions which roam over the barren wastes, pecking here and there, turning what could not otherwise be used into a foodstuff which is passed on to a host of consumers, including, first and foremost, the bird that often falls to man’s share.

Pricked relentlessly by the needs of the stomach, the world knows no more imperative duty than the acquisition of food. To secure a seat in the refectory, each animal expends its sum total of activity, industry, toil, trickery and strife; and the general banquet, which should be a joy, is to many a torment. Man is far from escaping the miseries of the struggle for food. On the contrary, only too often he tastes them in all their bitterness.

Ingenious as he is, will he succeed in freeing himself from them? Science says yes. Chemistry promises, in the near future, a solution of the problem of subsistence. The sister science, physics, is preparing the way. Already it is contemplating how to get more and better work done by the sun, that great sluggard who thinks that he has done his duty by us when he sweetens our grapes and ripens our corn. It will bottle his heat, garner his rays, in order to control them and employ them where we think fit.

With these supplies of energy, the hearths will blaze, the wheels will turn, the pestles pound, the graters grate, the rollers grind; and the work of agriculture, so wasteful at present, thwarted as it is by the inclemency [368]of the seasons, will become factory-work, yielding economical and safe returns.

Then chemistry will step in, with its legion of cunning reagents. It will turn everything into nutritious matter, in a highly concentrated form, capable of being assimilated in its entirety and leaving hardly any foul residue. A loaf of bread will be a pill; a rumpsteak a drop of jelly. Of agricultural labour, the inferno of barbarian times, nothing will remain but a memory, of interest only to the historians. The last Sheep and the last Ox will figure, neatly stuffed, as curiosities in our museums, together with the Mammoth dug up from the Siberian ice-fields.

All that old lumber—herds and flocks, seeds, fruits and vegetables—is doomed to disappear some day. Progress demands it, we are told; and the chemist’s retort, which, in its presumptuous fashion, recognizes nothing as impossible, repeats the assertion.

This golden age of foodstuffs leaves me very incredulous. When it is a question of obtaining some new toxin, science displays alarming ingenuity. Our laboratory collections are veritable arsenals of poisons. When the object is to invent a still in which [369]potatoes shall be made to yield torrents of alcohol capable of turning us into a nation of sots, the resources of industry know no limits. But to procure by artificial means a single mouthful of really nourishing matter is a very different business. Never has any such product simmered in our retorts. The future, beyond a doubt, will do no better. Organized matter, the only true food, escapes the formulæ of the laboratory. Its chemist is life.

We shall do well therefore to preserve agriculture and our herds. Let us leave our nourishment to be prepared by the patient work of plants and animals, let us mistrust the brutal factory and keep our confidence for more delicate methods and, in particular, for the Locust’s stomach, which assists in the making of the Christmas Turkey. That stomach has culinary receipts which the chemist’s retort will always envy without succeeding in imitating them.

This picker-up of nutritive trifles, destined to support a crowd of paupers, possesses musical powers wherewith to express his joys. Consider a Locust at rest, blissfully digesting his meal and enjoying the sunshine. With sharp strokes of the bow, [370]three or four times repeated and spaced with pauses, he sings his ditty. He scrapes his sides with his great hind-legs, using now one, now the other, anon both at a time.

The result is very poor, so slight indeed that I am obliged to have recourse to little Paul’s ear in order to make sure that there is a sound at all. Such as it is, it resembles the creaking of the point of a needle pushed across a sheet of paper. There you have the whole song, so near akin to silence.

There is nothing more to be expected from so rudimentary an instrument. We have nothing here similar to what the Grasshopper clan have shown us: no toothed bow, no vibrating membrane stretched into a drum. Let us, for instance, take a look at the Italian Locust (Caloptenus italicus, Lin.), whose apparatus of sound is repeated in the other stridulating Acridians. His hinder thighs are keel-shaped above and below. Each surface, moreover, has two powerful longitudinal nervures. Between these main parts there is, in either case, a graduated row of smaller, chevron-shaped nervures; and the whole thing is as prominent and as plainly marked on this outer side as on the inner one. And what surprises me even [371]more than this similarity between the two surfaces is that all these nervures are smooth. Lastly, the lower edge of the wing-cases, the edge rubbed by the thighs which serve as a bow, also has nothing particular about it. We see, as indeed we do all over the wing-cases, nervures that are powerful but devoid of any rasping roughness or the least denticulation.

What can this artless attempt at a musical instrument produce? Just as much as a dry membrane will emit when you rub it. And for the sake of this trifle the insect lifts and lowers its thighs, in sharp jerks, and is satisfied with the result. It rubs its sides very much as we rub our hands together in sign of contentment, with no intention of making a sound. That is its own particular way of expressing its joy in life.

Examine it when the sky is partly obscured and the sun shines intermittently. There comes a rift in the clouds. Forthwith the thighs begin to scrape, increasing their activity as the sun grows hotter. The strains are very brief, but they are renewed so long as the sunshine continues. The sky becomes overcast. Then and there the song ceases, to be resumed with the next gleam of sunlight, [372]always in brief spasms. There is no mistaking it: here, in these fond lovers of the light, we have a mere expression of happiness. The Locust has his moments of gaiety when his crop is full and the sun benign.

Not all the Acridians indulge in this joyous rubbing. The Tryxalis (Truxalis nasuta, Lin.), who sports a pair of immensely elongated hind-legs, maintains a gloomy silence even under the most vigorous caresses of the sun. I have never seen him move his shanks like a bow; he seems unable to use them—so long are they—for anything but hopping.

Dumb likewise, apparently as a consequence of the excessive length of his hind-legs, the big Grey Locust (Pachytilus cinerescens, Fabr.) has a peculiar way of diverting himself. The giant often visits me in the enclosure, even in the depth of winter. In calm weather, when the sun is hot, I surprise him in the rosemaries, with his wings unfurled and fluttering rapidly for a quarter of an hour at a time, as though for flight. His twirling is so gentle, in spite of its extreme speed, as to create hardly a perceptible rustle.

Others still are much less well-endowed. [373]One such is the Pedestrian Locust (Pezotettix pedestris, Lin.), the companion of the Alpine Analota on the ridges of the Ventoux. This foot-passenger strolling amid the paronychias (P. serpyllifola) which lie spread in silvery expanses over the Alpine region; this short-jacketed hopper, the guest of the androsaces (A. villosa), whose tiny flowers, white as the neighbouring snows, smile from out of their rosy eyes, has the same fresh colouring as the plants around him. The sunlight, less veiled in mists in the loftier regions, has made him a costume combining beauty and simplicity: a pale-brown satin back; a yellow abdomen; big thighs coral-red below; hind-legs a glorious azure-blue, with an ivory anklet in front. But, being incapable of going beyond the larval form, this dandy remains short-coated.

He has for wing-cases two wrinkled slips, distant one from the other and hardly covering the first segment of the abdomen, and for wings two stumps that are even more abbreviated. All this hardly covers his nakedness down to the waist. Any one seeing him for the first time takes him for a larva and is wrong. It is indeed the adult insect, [374]ripe for mating; and the insect will remain in this undress to the end.

Is it necessary to add that, with this skimpy jacket, stridulation is impossible? The big hind-thighs are there, it is true; but what is lacking, for them to rub upon, is the grating surface, the edge of the wing-cases. Whereas the other Locusts are not to be described as noisy, this one is absolutely dumb. In vain have the most delicate ears around me listened with might and main: there has never been the least sound during the three months’ home breeding. This silent one must have other means of expressing his joys and summoning his partner to the wedding. What are they? I do not know.

Nor do I know why the insect deprives itself of wings and remains a plodding wayfarer, when its near kinsmen, on the same Alpine swards, are excellently equipped for flight. It possesses the germs of wing and wing-case, gifts which the egg gives to the larva; and it does not think of using these germs by developing them. It persists in hopping, with no further ambition; it is satisfied to go on foot, to remain a Pedestrian Locust, as the nomenclators call it, when it [375]might, one would think, acquire wings, that higher mechanism of locomotion.

Rapid flitting from crest to crest, over the valleys deep in snow; easy flight from a shorn pasture to one not yet exploited: can these be negligible advantages to the Pedestrian Locust? Obviously not. The other Acridians and in particular his fellow-dwellers on the mountain-tops possess wings and are all the better for them. What is his reason for not doing as they do? It would be very profitable to extract from their sheaths the sails which he keeps packed away in useless stumps; and he does not do it. Why?

“Arrested development,” says some one.

Very well. Life is arrested half-way through its work; the insect does not attain the ultimate form of which it bears the emblem. For all its scientific turn of phrase, the reply is not really a reply at all. The question returns under another guise: what causes that arrested development?

The larva is born with the hope of flying at maturity. As a pledge of that fair future, it carries on its back four sheaths in which the precious germs lie slumbering. Everything is arranged according to the rules of [376]normal evolution. Thereupon, suddenly, the organism does not fulfil its promises; it is false to its engagements; it leaves the adult insect without sails, leaves it with only useless rags.

Are we to lay this nudity to the charge of the harsh conditions of Alpine life? Not at all, for the other hoppers, living on the same grassy slopes, manage very well to achieve the wings foretold by the larva’s rudiments.

Men tell us that, from one attempt to another, from progress to progress, under the stimulus of necessity, animals end by acquiring this or that organ. No other creative intervention is accepted than that of need. This, for instance, is the way in which the Locusts went to work, in particular those whom I see fluttering over the ridges of the Ventoux. From their niggardly larval flaps they are supposed to have extracted wings and wing-cases, by virtue of secret and mysterious labours rendered fruitful by the centuries.

Very well, O my illustrious masters! And now tell me, if you please, what reasons persuaded the Pedestrian Locust not to go beyond his rude outline of a flying-apparatus. [377]He also, surely, must have felt the prick of necessity for ages and ages; during his laborious tumbles amid the broken stones, he must have felt the advantage that it would be for him to be relieved of his weight by means of wing-power; and all the endeavours of his organism, striving to achieve a better lot, have not yet succeeded in spreading bladewise his incipient wings.

If we accept your theories, under the same conditions of urgent necessity, diet, climate and habits, some are successful and manage to fly, others fail and remain clumsy pedestrians. Short of resting satisfied with words and passing off chalk for cheese, I abandon the explanations offered. Sheer ignorance is far preferable, for it prejudges nothing.

But let us leave this backward one who is a stage behind his kinsmen, no one knows why. Anatomy has its throwbacks, its halts, its sudden leaps, all of which defy our curiosity. In the presence of the unfathomable problem of origins, the best thing is to bow in all humility and pass on.

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