The Story Book of Science  by Jean Henri Fabre

Venomous Insects

"Y OU have heard that certain creatures emit poison, that is to say, shoot from a distance into the face and on to the hands of those who approach a liquid capable of causing death, or at least of blinding or otherwise injuring them. Last week Jules found on the leaves of the potato-vines a large caterpillar armed with a curved horn."

"I know, I know," put in Jules. "It is the caterpillar, you told me, that turns into a magnificent butterfly called the sphinx Atropos. This butterfly, large as my hand, has on its back a white spot that frightens many people, for it has a vague resemblance to a death's-head. And besides, its eyes shine in the dark. You added that it was a harmless creature of which it would be unreasonable to be afraid."

"Jacques, who was weeding the potatoes," continued Uncle Paul, "knocked the sphinx caterpillar out of Jules's hands, and hastened to crush it with his big wooden shoe. 'What you are doing is very dangerous,' said the good Jacques. 'Handling poisonous creatures—of all things! Do you see that green venom? Don't get too close; the silly thing is not quite dead; it might yet throw some poison on you.' The worthy man took the green entrails of the crushed caterpillar for poison. Those entrails did not contain anything dangerous; they were green because they were swollen with the juice of the leaves that the poor thing had just eaten.

"Many persons are of the same opinion as Jacques: they are afraid of a caterpillar and the green of its entrails. They think that certain creatures poison everything they touch and throw out venom. Well, my dear children, you must bear this in mind, for it is a very important thing and frees us from foolish fears, while it puts us on guard against real danger: no animal of any kind, absolutely none, shoots venom and can harm us from a distance. To be convinced of this it suffices to know what venom really is. Divers creatures, large or small, are endowed with a poisoned weapon that serves them either as defense or to attack their prey. The bee is our best known venomous creature."

"What!" exclaimed Emile, "a bee is poisonous, the bee that makes honey for us?"

"Yes, the bee; the bee without which we could not have those honey cakes that Mother Ambroisine hands round when you are good. You don't think then of the stings that made you cry so?"

Emile blushed: his uncle had just revived unpleasant memories. From pure heedlessness he tried one day to see what the bees were doing. They say he even thrust a stick through the little door of the hive. The bees became incensed at this indiscretion. Three or four stung the poor boy on the cheeks and hands. He cried out most piteously, and thought himself done for. His uncle had much difficulty in consoling him. Compresses of cold water finally soothed his smarting pains.

"The bee is venomous," repeated Uncle Paul; "Emile could tell you that."

"The wasp too, then?" asked Jules. "One stung me once when I tried to drive it from a bunch of grapes. I did not say anything, but all the same I was not very comfortable. To think that such a tiny thing can hurt one so! It seemed as if my hands were on fire."


Solitary Wasp and Nest

"Certainly, the wasp is venomous; more so than the bee, in the sense that its sting causes greater pain. Bumble-bees are, too, as well as hornets, those large reddish wasps, an inch long, which sometimes come and gnaw the pears in the orchard. You must beware especially of hornets, my little friends. One sting from them, one only, would give you hours of horrible pain.

"All these insects have, for their defense, a poisoned weapon constructed in the same way. It is called the sting. It is a small, hard, and very pointed blade, a kind of dagger finer than the finest needle. The sting is placed at the end of the creature's stomach. When in repose, it is not seen; it is hidden in a scabbard that goes into its stomach. To defend itself, the insect draws it out of its sheath and plunges the point into the imprudent finger found within reach.


American Hornet

"Now it is not exactly the wound made by the sting that causes the smarting pain that you are familiar with. This wound is so slight, so minute, we cannot see it. We should hardly feel it were it made with a needle or a thorn as fine as the sting. But the sting communicates with a pocket of venom lodged in the creature's body, and, by means of a hollowed-out canal, it carries to the bottom of the wound a little drop of the formidable liquid. The sting is then drawn back. As to the venom, it stays in the wound and it is that, that alone, which causes those shooting pains that Emile could, if necessary, tell us about."

At this second attack from Uncle Paul, who dwelt on this misadventure in order to blame him for his heedless treatment of the bees, Emile blew his nose, although he did not need to. It was a way of hiding his confusion. His uncle did not appear to notice it, and continued:

"Scholars who have made a study of this curious question tell us of the following experiment, to make clear that it is really the venomous liquid introduced into the wound, and not the wound itself, that causes the pain. When one pricks oneself with a very fine needle, the hurt is very slight and soon passes off. I am sure Claire is not much frightened when she pricks her finger in sewing."

"Oh! no," said she. "That is so soon over, even if blood comes."

"Well, the prick of a needle, insignificant in itself can cause sharp pains if the little wound is poisoned with the venom of the bee or wasp. The scholars I am telling you of dip the point of the needle into the bee's pocket of venom, and with this point thus wet with the venomous liquid give themselves a slight sting. The pain is now sharp and of long duration, more so than if the insect itself had stung the experimenter. This increase of pain is due to the fact that the comparatively large needle introduces into the wound more venom than could the bee's slender sting. You understand it now, I hope: it is the introduction of the venom into the wound that causes all the trouble."

"That is plain," said Jules. "But tell me, Uncle, why these scholars amuse themselves by pricking themselves with needles dipped in the bee's venom? It is a queer amusement, to hurt oneself for nothing."

"For nothing, Mr. Harum-scarum? Do you count as nothing what I have just told you? If I know it, must not others have taught me? Who are these others? They are the valiant investigators who learn about everything, observe and study everything, in order to alleviate our suffering. When they voluntarily prick themselves with poison, they propose to study in themselves, at their own risk and peril, the action of the venom, to teach us to combat its effects, which are sometimes so formidable. Let a viper or a scorpion sting us, and our life is in peril. Ah, then it is important to know exactly how the venom acts and what must be done to arrest its ravages; it is then that the scholars' researches are appreciated, researches that Jules looks upon as merely a queer amusement. Science, my little friend, has sacred enthusiasms that do not shrink from any test that may enlarge the sphere of our knowledge and diminish human suffering."

Jules, confused by his unfortunate remark, lowered his head and said not a word. Uncle Paul was on the point of getting vexed, but peace was soon restored and he continued the account of venomous creatures.