The Story Book of Science by Jean Henri Fabre
N the evening Uncle Paul resumed the story of the ants. At
that hour Jacques was in the habit of going the round of the
stables to see if the oxen were eating their fodder and if
the well-fed lambs were sleeping peacefully beside their
mothers. Under the pretense of giving the finishing touches
to his wicker basket, Jacques stayed where he was. The real
reason was that the ants' cows were on his mind. Uncle Paul
related in detail what they had seen in the morning on the
elder: how the plant-lice let the sugary drops ooze from
their tubes, how the ants drank this delicious liquid and
knew how, if necessary, to obtain it by caresses.
"What you are telling us, Master," said Jacques, "puts
warmth into my old veins. I see once more how God takes care
of His creatures, He who gives the plant-louse to the ant as
He gives the cow to man."
"Yes, my good Jacques," returned Uncle Paul, "these things
are done to increase our faith in Providence, whose
all-seeing eye nothing can escape. To a thoughtful person,
the beetle that drinks from the depths of a flower, the tuft
of moss that receives the raindrop on the burning tile, bear
witness to the divine goodness.
"To return to my story. If our cows wandered at will in the
country, if we were obliged to take troublesome journeys to
go and milk them in distant pastures, uncertain whether we
should find them or not, it would be hard work for us, and
very often impossible. How do we manage then? We keep them
close at hand, in inclosures and in stables. This also is
sometimes done by the ants with the plant-lice. To avoid
tiresome journeys, sometimes useless, they put their herds
in a park. Not all have this admirable foresight, however.
Besides, if they had, it would be impossible to construct a
park large enough for such innumerable cattle and their
pasturage. How, for example, could they inclose in walls the
willow that we saw this morning with its population of black
lice? It is necessary to have conditions that are not beyond
the forces available. Given a tuft of grass whose base is
covered with a few plant-lice, the park is practicable.
"Ants that have found a little herd plan how to build a
sheepfold, a summer châlet, where the plant-lice can be
inclosed, sheltered from the too bright rays of the sun.
They too will stay at the châlet for some time, so as to
have the cows within reach and to milk them at leisure. To
this end, they begin by removing a little of the earth at
the base of the tuft so as to uncover the upper part of the
root. This exposed part forms a sort of natural frame on
which the building can rest. Now grains of damp earth are
piled up one by one and shaped into a large vault, which
rests on the frame of the roots and surrounds the stem above
the point occupied by the plant-lice.
Openings are made for
the service of the sheepfold.
The châlet is finished. Its
inmates enjoy cool and quiet, with an assured supply of
provisions. What more is needed for happiness? The cows are
there, very peaceful, at their rack, that is to say, fixed
by their stickers to the bark. Without leaving home the ants
can drink to satiety that sweet milk from the tubes.
"Let us say, then, that the sheepfold made of clay is a
building of not much importance, raised with little expense
and hastily. One could overturn it by blowing hard. Why
lavish such pains on so temporary a shelter? Does the
shepherd in the high mountains take more care of his hut of
pine branches, which must serve him for one or two months?
"It is said that ants are not satisfied with inclosing small
herds of plant-lice found at the base of a tuft of grass,
but that they also bring into the sheepfold plant-lice
encountered at a distance. They thus make a herd for
themselves when they do not find one already made. This mark
of great foresight would not surprise me; but I dare not
certify it, never having had the chance to prove it myself.
What I have seen with my own eyes is the sheepfold of the
plant-lice. If Jules looks carefully he will find some this
summer, when the days are warmest, at the base of various
"You may be sure, Uncle," said Jules, "I shall look for
them. I want to see those strange ants' châlets. You have
not yet told us why ants gorge themselves so, when they have
the good luck to find a herd of plant-lice. You said those
elder with their big stomachs were going to
distribute the food in the ant-hill."
"A foraging ant does not fail to regale itself on its own
account if the occasion offers; and it is only fair. Before
working for others must one not take care of one's own
strength? But as soon as it has fed itself, it thinks of the
other hungry ones. Among men, my child, it does not always
happen so. There are people who, well fed themselves, think
everybody else has dined. They are called egoists. God
forbid your ever bearing that sorry name, of which the ant,
paltry little creature, would be ashamed! As soon as it is
satisfied, then, the ant remembers the hungry ones, and
consequently fills the only vessel it has for carrying
liquid food home; that is to say, its paunch.
"Now see it returning, with its swollen stomach. Oh! how it
has stuffed so that others may eat! Miners, carpenters, and
all the workers occupied in building the city await it so as
to resume their work heartily, for pressing occupations do
not permit them to go and seek the plant-lice themselves. It
meets a carpenter, who for an instant drops his straw. The
two ants meet mouth to mouth, as if to kiss. The
milk-carrying ant disgorges a tiny little bit of the
contents of its paunch, and the other one drinks the drop
with avidity. Delicious! Oh! now how courageously it will
work! The carpenter goes back to his straw again, the
milk-carrier continues his delivery route. Another hungry
one is met. Another kiss, another drop disgorged and passed
from mouth to mouth. And so on with all the ants that
themselves, until the paunch is emptied. The
milk-ant then departs to fill up its can again.
"Now, you can imagine that, to feed by the beakful a crowd
of workers who cannot go themselves for victuals, one
milk-ant is not enough; there must be a host of them. And
then, under the ground, in the warm dormitories, there is
another population of hungry ones. They are the young ants,
the family, the hope of the city. I must tell you that ants,
as well as other insects, hatch from an egg, like birds."
"One day," interposed Emile, "I lifted up a stone and saw a
lot of little white grains that the ants hastened to carry
away under the ground."
"Those white grains were eggs," said Uncle Paul, "which the
ants had brought up from the bottom of their dwelling to
expose them under the stone to the heat of the sun and
facilitate their hatching. They hurried to descend again,
when the stone was raised, so as to put them in a safe
place, sheltered from danger.
"On coming out from the egg, the ant has not the form that
you know. It is a little white worm, without feet, and quite
powerless, not even able to move. There are in an ant-hill
thousands of those little worms. Without stop or rest, the
ants go from one to another, distributing a beakful, so that
they begin to grow and change in one day into ants. I leave
you to think how much they must work and how many plant-lice
must be milked, merely to nurse the little ones that fill