Chapter II. The Green Grasshopper

Jean-Henri Fabre The Wonders of Instinct


Grasshopper (Acrididae)

We are in the middle of July. The astronomical dog-days are just beginning; but in reality the torrid season has anticipated the calendar and for some weeks past the heat has been overpowering.

This evening in the village they are celebrating the National Festival (1). While the little boys and girls are hopping round a bonfire whose gleams are reflected upon the church-steeple, while the drum is pounded to mark the ascent of each rocket, I am sitting alone in a dark corner, in the comparative coolness that prevails at nine o'clock, harking to the concert of the festival of the fields, the festival of the harvest, grander by far than that which, at this moment, is being celebrated in the village square with gunpowder, lighted torches, Chinese lanterns and, above all, strong drink. It has the simplicity of beauty and the repose of strength.

It is late; and the Cicadae are silent. Glutted with light and heat, they have indulged in symphonies all the livelong day. The advent of the night means rest for them, but a rest frequently disturbed. In the dense branches of the plane-trees a sudden sound rings out like a cry of anguish, strident and short. It is the desperate wail of the Cicada, surprised in his quietude by the Green Grasshopper, that ardent nocturnal huntress, who springs upon him, grips him in the side, opens and ransacks his abdomen. An orgy of music, followed by butchery.

I have never seen and never shall see that supreme expression of our national revelry, the military review at Longchamp; nor do I much regret it. The newspapers tell me as much about it as I want to know. They give me a sketch of the site. I see, installed here and there amid the trees, the ominous Red Cross, with the legend, „Military Ambulance; Civil Ambulance.“ There will be bones broken, apparently; cases of sunstroke; regrettable deaths, perhaps. It is all provided for and all in the programme.

Even here, in my village, usually so peaceable, the festival will not end, I am ready to wager, without the exchange of a few blows, that compulsory seasoning of a day of merry-making. No pleasure, it appears, can be fully relished without an added condiment of pain.

Let us listen and meditate far from the tumult. While the disembowelled Cicada utters his protest, the festival up there in the plane-trees is continued with a change of orchestra. It is now the time of the nocturnal performers. Hard by the place of slaughter, in the green bushes, a delicate ear perceives the hum of the Grasshoppers. It is the sort of noise that a spinning-wheel makes, a very unobtrusive sound, a vague rustle of dry membranes rubbed together. Above this dull bass there rises, at intervals, a hurried, very shrill, almost metallic clicking. There you have the air and the recitative, intersected by pauses. The rest is the accompaniment.

Despite the assistance of a bass, it is a poor concert, very poor indeed, though there are about ten executants in my immediate vicinity. The tone lacks intensity. My old tympanum is not always capable of perceiving these subtleties of sound. The little that reaches me is extremely sweet and most appropriate to the calm of twilight. Just a little more breadth in your bow-stroke, my dear Green Grasshopper, and your technique would be better than the hoarse Cicada's, whose name and reputation you have been made to usurp in the countries of the north.

Still, you will never equal your neighbour, the little bell-ringing Toad, who goes tinkling all round, at the foot of the plane-trees, while you click up above. He is the smallest of my batrachian folk and the most venturesome in his expeditions.

How often, at nightfall, by the last glimmers of daylight, have I not come upon him as I wandered through my garden, hunting for ideas! Something runs away, rolling over and over in front of me. Is it a dead leaf blown along by the wind? No, it is the pretty little Toad disturbed in the midst of his pilgrimage. He hurriedly takes shelter under a stone, a clod of earth, a tuft of grass, recovers from his excitement and loses no time in picking up his liquid note.

On this evening of national rejoicing, there are nearly a dozen of him tinkling against one another around me. Most of them are crouching among the rows of flower-pots that form a sort of lobby outside my house. Each has his own note, always the same, lower in one case, higher in another, a short, clear note, melodious and of exquisite purity.

With their slow, rhythmical cadence, they seem to be intoning litanies. „Cluck,“ says one; „click,“ responds another, on a finer note; „clock,“ adds a third, the tenor of the band. And this is repeated indefinitely, like the bells of the village pealing on a holiday: „cluck, click, clock; cluck, click, clock!“

The batrachian choristers remind me of a certain harmonica which I used to covet when my six-year-old ear began to awaken to the magic of sounds. It consisted of a series of strips of glass of unequal length, hung on two stretched tapes. A cork fixed to a wire served as a hammer. Imagine an unskilled hand striking at random on this key-board, with a sudden clash of octaves, dissonances and topsy-turvy chords; and you will have a pretty clear idea of the Toads' litany.

As a song, this litany has neither head nor tail to it; as a collection of pure sounds, it is delicious. This is the case with all the music in nature's concerts. Our ear discovers superb notes in it and then becomes refined and acquires, outside the realities of sound, that sense of order which is the first condition of beauty.

Now this sweet ringing of bells between hiding-place and hiding-place is the matrimonial oratorio, the discreet summons which every Jack issues to his Jill. The sequel to the concert may be guessed without further enquiry; but what it would be impossible to foresee is the strange finale of the wedding. Behold the father, in this case a real paterfamilias, in the noblest sense of the word, coming out of his retreat one day in an unrecognizable state. He is carrying the future, tight-packed around his hind-legs; he is changing houses laden with a cluster of eggs the size of peppercorns. His calves are girt, his thighs are sheathed with the bulky burden; and it covers his back like a beggar's wallet, completely deforming him.

Whither is he going, dragging himself along, incapable of jumping, thanks to the weight of his load? He is going, the fond parent, where the mother refuses to go; he is on his way to the nearest pond, whose warm waters are indispensable to the tadpoles' hatching and existence. When the eggs are nicely ripened around his legs under the humid shelter of a stone, he braves the damp and the daylight, he the passionate lover of dry land and darkness; he advances by short stages, his lungs congested with fatigue. The pond is far away, perhaps; no matter: the plucky pilgrim will find it.

He's there. Without delay, he dives, despite his profound antipathy to bathing; and the cluster of eggs is instantly removed by the legs rubbing against each other. The eggs are now in their element; and the rest will be accomplished of itself. Having fulfilled his obligation to go right under, the father hastens to return to his well-sheltered home. He is scarcely out of sight before the little black tadpoles are hatched and playing about. They were but waiting for the contact of the water in order to burst their shells.

Among the singers in the July gloaming, one alone, were he able to vary his notes, could vie with the Toad's harmonious bells. This is the little Scops-owl, that comely nocturnal bird of prey, with the round gold eyes. He sports on his forehead two small feathered horns which have won for him in the district the name of Machoto banarudo, the Horned Owl. His song, which is rich enough to fill by itself the still night air, is of a nerve-shattering monotony. With imperturbable and measured regularity, for hours on end, „kew, kew,“ the bird spits out its cantata to the moon.

One of them has arrived at this moment, driven from the plane-trees in the square by the din of the rejoicings, to demand my hospitality. I can hear him in the top of a cypress near by. From up there, dominating the lyrical assembly, at regular intervals he cuts into the vague orchestration of the Grasshoppers and the Toads.

His soft note is contrasted, intermittently, with a sort of Cat's mew, coming from another spot. This is the call of the Common Owl, the meditative bird of Minerva. After hiding all day in the seclusion of a hollow olive-tree, he started on his wanderings when the shades of evening began to fall. Swinging along with a sinuous flight, he came from somewhere in the neighbourhood to the pines in my enclosure, whence he mingles his harsh mewing, slightly softened by distance, with the general concert.

The Green Grasshopper's clic­king is too faint to be clearly perceived amidst these clamourers; all that reaches me is the least ripple, just noticeable when there is a moment's silence. He possesses as his apparatus of sound only a modest drum and scraper, whereas they, more highly privileged, have their bellows, the lungs, which send forth a column of vibrating air. There is no comparison possible. Let us return to the insects.

One of these, though inferior in size and no less sparingly equipped, greatly surpasses the Grasshopper in nocturnal rhapsodies. I speak of the pale and slender Italian Cricket (Oecanthus pellucens, Scop.), who is so puny that you dare not take him up for fear of crushing him. He makes music everywhere among the rosemary-bushes, while the Glow-worms light up their blue lamps to complete the revels. The delicate instrumentalist consists chiefly of a pair of large wings, thin and gleaming as strips of mica. Thanks to these dry sails, he fiddles away with an intensity capable of drowning the Toads' fugue. His performance suggests, but with more brilliancy, more tremolo in the execution, the song of the Common Black Cricket. Indeed the mistake would certainly be made by any one who did not know that, by the time the very hot weather comes, the true Cricket, the chorister of spring, has disappeared. His pleasant violin has been succeeded by another more pleasant still and worthy of special study. We shall return to him at an opportune moment.

These then, limiting ourselves to select specimens, are the principal participants in this musical evening: the Scops-owl, with his languorous solos; the Toad, that tinkler of sonatas; the Italian Cricket, who scrapes the first string of a violin; and the Green Grasshopper, who seems to beat a tiny steel triangle.

We are celebrating to-day, with greater uproar than conviction, the new era, dating politically from the fall of the Bastille; they, with glorious indifference to human things, are celebrating the festival of the sun, singing the happiness of existence, sounding the loud hosanna of the July heats.

What care they for man and his fickle rejoicings! For whom or for what will our squibs be spluttering a few years hence? Far-seeing indeed would he be who could answer the question. Fashions change and bring us the unexpected. The time-serving rocket spreads its sheaf of sparks for the public enemy of yesterday, who has become the idol of to-day. Tomorrow it will go up for somebody else.

In a century or two, will any one, outside the historians, give a thought to the taking of the Bastille? It is very doubtful. We shall have other joys and also other cares.

Let us look a little farther ahead. A day will come, so everything seems to tell us, when, after making progress upon progress, man will succumb, destroyed by the excess of what he calls civilization. Too eager to play the god, he cannot hope for the animal's placid longevity; he will have disappeared when the little Toad is still saying his litany, in company with the Grasshopper, the Scops-owl and the others. They were singing on this planet before us; they will sing after us, celebrating what can never change, the fiery glory of the sun.

I will dwell no longer on this festival and will become once more the naturalist, anxious to obtain information concerning the private life of the insect. The Green Grasshopper (Locusta viridissima, Lin.) does not appear to be common in my neighbourhood. Last year, intending to make a study of this insect and finding my efforts to hunt it fruitless, I was obliged to have recourse to the good offices of a forest-ranger, who sent me a pair of couples from the Lagarde plateau, that bleak district where the beech-tree begins its escalade of the Ventoux.

Now and then freakish fortune takes it into her head to smile upon the persevering. What was not to be found last year has become almost common this summer. Without leaving my narrow enclosure, I obtain as many Grasshoppers as I could wish. I hear them rustling at night in the green thickets. Let us make the most of the windfall, which perhaps will not occur again.

In the month of June my treasures are installed, in a sufficient number of couples, under a wire cover standing on a bed of sand in an earthen pan. It is indeed a magnificent insect, pale-green all over, with two whitish stripes running down its sides. Its imposing size, its slim proportions and its great gauze wings make it the most elegant of our Locustidae. I am enraptured with my captives. What will they teach me? We shall see. For the moment, we must feed them.

I offer the prisoners a leaf of lettuce. They bite into it, certainly, but very sparingly and with a scornful tooth. It soon becomes plain that I am dealing with half-hearted vegetarians. They want something else: they are beasts of prey, apparently. But what manner of prey? A lucky chance taught me.

At break of day I was pacing up and down outside my door, when something fell from the nearest plane-tree with a shrill grating sound. I ran up and saw a Grasshopper gutting the belly of a struggling Cicada. In vain the victim buzzed and waved his limbs: the other did not let go, dipping her head right into the entrails and rooting them out by small mouthfuls.

I knew what I wanted to know: the attack had taken place up above, early in the morning, while the Cicada was asleep; and the plunging of the poor wretch, dissected alive, had made assailant and assailed fall in a bundle to the ground. Since then I have repeatedly had occasion to witness similar carnage.

I have even seen the Grasshopper--the height of audacity, this--dart in pursuit of a Cicada in mad flight. Even so does the Sparrow-hawk pursue the Swallow in the sky. But the bird of prey here is inferior to the insect. It attacks a weaker than itself. The Grasshopper, on the other hand, assaults a colossus, much larger than herself and stronger; and nevertheless the result of the unequal fight is not in doubt. The Grasshopper rarely fails with the sharp pliers of her powerful jaws to disembowel her capture, which, being unprovided with weapons, confines itself to crying out and kicking.

The main thing is to retain one's hold of the prize, which is not difficult in somnolent darkness. Any Cicada encountered by the fierce Locustid on her nocturnal rounds is bound to die a lamentable death. This explains those sudden agonized notes which grate through the woods at late, unseasonable hours, when the cymbals have long been silent. The murderess in her suit of apple-green has pounced on some sleeping Cicada.

My boarders' menu is settled: I will feed them on Cicadae. They take such a liking to this fare that, in two or three weeks, the floor of the cage is a knacker's yard strewn with heads and empty thoraces, with torn-off wings and disjointed legs. The belly alone disappears almost entirely. This is the tit-bit, not very substantial, but extremely tasty, it would seem. Here, in fact, in the insect's crop, the syrup is accumulated, the sugary sap which the Cicada's gimlet taps from the tender bark. Is it because of this dainty that the prey's abdomen is preferred to any other morsel? It is quite possible.

I do, in fact, with a view to varying the diet, decide to serve up some very sweet fruits, slices of pear, grape-bits, bits of melon. All this meets with delighted appreciation. The Green Grasshopper resembles the English: she dotes on underdone meat seasoned with jelly. This perhaps is why, on catching the Cicada, she first rips up his paunch, which supplies a mixture of flesh and preserves.

To eat Cicadae and sugar is not possible in every part of the country. In the north, where she abounds, the Green Grasshopper would not find the dish which attracts her so strongly here. She must have other resources. To convince myself of this, I give her Anoxiae (A. pilosa, Fab.), the summer equivalent of the spring Cockchafer. The Beetle is accepted without hesitation. Nothing is left of him but the wing-cases, head and legs. The result is the same with the magnificent plump Pine Cockchafer (Melolontha fullo, Lin.), a sumptuous morsel which I find next day eviscerated by my gang of knackers.

These examples teach us enough. They tell us that the Grasshopper is an inveterate consumer of insects, especially of those which are not protected by too hard a cuirass; they are evidence of tastes which are highly carnivorous, but not exclusively so, like those of the Praying Mantis, who refuses everything except game. The butcher of the Cicadae is able to modify an excessively heating diet with vegetable fare. After meat and blood, sugary fruit-pulp; sometimes even, for lack of anything better, a little green stuff.

Nevertheless, cannibalism is prevalent. True, I never witness in my Grasshopper-cages the savagery which is so common in the Praying Mantis, who harpoons her rivals and devours her lovers; but, if some weakling succumb, the survivors hardly ever fail to profit by his carcass as they would in the case of any ordinary prey. With no scarcity of provisions as an excuse, they feast upon their defunct companion. For the rest, all the sabre-bearing clan display, in varying degrees, a propensity for filling their bellies with their maimed comrades.

In other respects, the Grasshoppers live together very peacefully in my cages. No serious strife ever takes place among them, nothing beyond a little rivalry in the matter of food. I hand in a piece of pear. A Grasshopper alights on it at once. Jealously she kicks away any one trying to bite at the delicious morsel. Selfishness reigns everywhere. When she has eaten her fill, she makes way for another, who in her turn becomes intolerant. One after the other, all the inmates of the menagerie come and refresh themselves. After cramming their crops, they scratch the soles of their feet a little with their mandibles, polish up their forehead and eyes with a leg moistened with spittle and then, hanging to the trellis-work or lying on the sand in a posture of contemplation, blissfully they digest and slumber most of the day, especially during the hottest part of it.

It is in the evening, after sunset, that the troop becomes lively. By nine o'clock the animation is at its height. With sudden rushes they clamber to the top of the dome, to descend as hurriedly and climb up once more. They come and go tumultuously, run and hop around the circular track and, without stopping, nibble at the good things on the way.

The males are stridulating by themselves, here and there, teasing the passing fair with their antennae. The future mothers stroll about gravely, with their sabre half-raised. The agitation and feverish excitement means that the great business of pairing is at hand. The fact will escape no practised eye.

It is also what I particularly wish to observe. My wish is satisfied, but not fully, for the late hours at which events take place did not allow me to witness the final act of the wedding. It is late at night or early in the morning that things happen.

The little that I see is confined to interminable preludes. Standing face to face, with foreheads almost touching, the lovers feel and sound each other for a long time with their limp antennae. They suggest two fencers crossing and recrossing harmless foils. From time to time, the male stridulates a little, gives a few short strokes of the bow and then falls silent, feeling perhaps too much overcome to continue. Eleven o'clock strikes; and the declaration is not yet over. Very regretfully, but conquered by sleepiness, I quit the couple.

Next morning, early, the female carries, hanging at the bottom of her ovipositor, a queer bladder-like arrangement, an opaline capsule, the size of a large pea and roughly subdivided into a small number of egg-shaped vesicles. When the insect walks, the thing scrapes along the ground and becomes dirty with sticky grains of sand. The Grasshopper then makes a banquet off this fertilizing capsule, drains it slowly of its contents, and devours it bit by bit; for a long time she chews and rechews the gummy morsel and ends by swallowing it all down. In less than half a day, the milky burden has disappeared, consumed with zest down to the last atom.

This inconceivable banquet must be imported, one would think, from another planet, so far removed is it from earthly habits. What a singular race are the Locustidae, one of the oldest in the animal kingdom on dry land and, like the Scolopendra and the Cephalopod, acting as a belated representative of the manners of antiquity!

Translator's No­te:

1. The 14th of July, the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille.

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