By Charlotte Sleigh

Jardin de l'Harmas de Fabre à Sérignan

In the heat of the Provençal summer, the countryside whirs and buzzes with the sounds of uncountable insects. Bees cruise around the lavender, and cicadas chirrup in the dry grass.

Just over one hundred years ago, a skinny, bearded man in a big hat, together with his several children, trailed after these insects all around his garden. This man was Jean-Henri Fabre (1823-1915), a phenomenally popular and prolific author of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Fabre studied and taught many areas of science, but it was his colourful accounts of insects – the Souvenirs Entomologiques (1879-1907) – that won him fans in many countries and languages.

Fabre enjoyed the bizarre and outrageous aspects of insect life. His description of the praying mantis related with breathless faux-horror the fate of mantis ‘husbands’ after their ‘nuptials’. Strictly in the interests of science, Fabre introduced male after male to his female, to see when she might be satisfied.

The result of my inquiry was scandalous. The Mantis in only too many cases is never sated with embraces and conjugal feasts … in the course of two weeks I have seen the same Mantis treat seven husbands in this fashion. She admitted all to her embraces, and all paid for the nuptial ecstasy with their lives … insects can hardly be accused of sentimentality; but to devour [the husband] during the act surpasses anything that the most morbid mind could imagine. I have seen the thing with my own eyes, and I have not yet recovered from the surprise.

It was the instincts of insects that most fascinated Fabre. How did these tiny creatures ‘know’ how to act so perfectly, without either brain-power or teaching? In one classic series of observations and experiments, he showed how the female bee-hunter Philanthus apivorus ‘knew’ how to sting her prey at a specific location so that it would not be paralysed. Thus, she was able to empty its stomach of honey, which she ‘knew’ was poisonous to her offspring, before leaving it in the hatching-cell for her young to eat.

Jean Henri Fabre, as photographed by Nadar aka Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (1820–1910).

Fabre’s reputation suffered at the hands of academic entomologists after his death. His resistance to the evolution of instinct was often highlighted, and he was written off as a theistic bigot despite the fact that he was not a believer in any formal sense. Fabre’s observations were patronisingly lauded for their patience even as they were put down as suitable only for children. In fact, Fabre’s treatment of insects as primarily creatures of instinct continued to drive the research agenda of entomology for a long while. But like so many other amateur entomologists, Fabre was dismissed as ‘eccentric’.

Many aspects of Fabre’s life and work actually come out as remarkably admirable by contemporary standards. He was firmly committed to education, and girls’ education in particular; he respected children’s participation in science; he had a strong affinity for nature; a respect for the living world and a humility about the place of Homo sapiens within it. In anachronistic terms, we might say he managed to achieve a genuine public scientific dialogue.

Fabre’s loving attention to insects was and is contagious. Most recently, the film Microcosmos (1996) was a humorous but fond homage to his art and science. There are two places to follow in Fabre’s footsteps in Aveyron: the edutainment centre Micropolis, and the Harmas de Fabre, his final home and all-important garden.

Further information

Charlotte Sleigh, Six Legs Better: A Cultural History of Entomology (Johns Hopkins, 2007)

Micropolis (12780 Saint Léons)

Musée Harmas Jean-Henri Fabre (84830 Sérignan-du-Comtat)