|The Story Book of Science|
|by Jean Henri Fabre|
|The wonders of plant and animal life told with rare literary charm by Uncle Paul in conversations with three children. Besides such stories as the ants' subterranean city, the spider's suspension bridge, and the caterpillars' processing, he unlocks the mystery behind thunder and lightning, clouds and rain, the year and its seasons, and volcanoes and earthquakes. Ages 9-12 |
HE next day Emile, when only half awake, began to think of
the ants' cows. "We must beg uncle," said he to Jules, "to
tell us the rest of his story this morning."
No sooner said than done: they went to look for their uncle.
"Aha!" cried he upon hearing their request, "the ants' cows
are interesting you. I will do better than tell you about
them, I will show them to you. First of all call Claire."
Claire came in haste. Their uncle took them under the elder
bush in the garden, and this is what they saw:
The bush is white with flowers. Bees, flies, beetles,
butterflies, fly from one flower to another with a drowsy
murmur. On the trunk of the elder, amongst the ridges of the
bark, numbers of ants are crawling, some ascending, some
descending. Those ascending are the more eager. They
sometimes stop the others on the way and appear to consult
them as to what is going on above. Being informed, they
begin climbing again with even more ardor, proof that the
news is good. Those descending go in a leisurely manner,
with short steps. Willingly they halt to rest or to give
advice to those who consult them. One can
 easily guess the
cause of the difference in eagerness of those ascending and
those descending. The descending ants have their stomachs
swollen, heavy, deformed, so full are they; those ascending
have their stomachs thin, folded up, crying hunger. You
cannot mistake them: the descending ants are coming back
from a feast and, well fed, are returning home with the
slowness that a heavy paunch demands; the ascending ants are
running to the same feast and put into the assault of the
bush the eagerness of an empty stomach.
"What do they find on the elder to fill their stomachs?"
asked Jules. "Here are some that can hardly drag along. Oh,
"Gluttons! no," Uncle Paul corrected him; "for they have a
worthy motive for gorging themselves. There is above, on the
elder, an immense number of the cows. The descending ants
have just milked them, and it is in their paunch that they
carry the milk for the common nourishment of the ant-hill
colony. Let us look at the cows and the way of milking them.
Don't expect, I warn you, herds like ours. One leaf serves
them for pasturage."
Uncle Paul drew down to the children's level the top of a
branch, and all looked at it attentively. Innumerable black
velvety lice, immobile and so close together as to touch one
another, cover the under side of the leaves and the still
tender wood. With a sucker more delicate than a hair plunged
into the bark, they fill themselves peacefully with the sap
of the elder without changing their position. At the end of
their back, they have two short and hollow
 hairs, two tubes
from which, if you look attentively, you can see a little
drop of sugary liquid escape from time to time. These black
lice are called plant-lice. They are the ants' cows. The two
tubes are the udders, and the liquor which drips from their
extremity is the milk.
In the midst of the herd, on the
herd, even, when the cattle are too close together, the
famished ants come and go from one louse to another,
watching for the delicious little drop. The one who sees it
runs, drinks, enjoys it, and seems to say on raising its
little head: Oh, how good, oh, how good it is! Then it goes
on its way looking for another mouthful of milk. But
plant-lice are stingy with their milk; they are not always
disposed to let it run through their tubes. Then the ant,
like a milkmaid ready to milk her cow, lavishes the most
endearing caresses on the plant-louse. With its antennæ,
that is to say, with its little delicate flexible horns, it
gently pats the stomach and tickles the milk-tubes. The ant
nearly always succeeds. What cannot gentleness accomplish!
The plant-louse lets itself be conquered; a drop appears
which is immediately licked up. Oh, how good, how good! As
the little paunch is not full, the ant goes to other
plant-lice trying the same caresses.
Uncle Paul let go the branch, which sprang back into its
natural position. Milkmaids, cattle, and
 pasture were at
once at the top of the elder bush.
"That is wonderful, Uncle," cried Claire.
"Wonderful, my dear child. The elder is not the only bush
that nourishes milk herds for the ants. Plant-lice can be
found on many other forms of vegetation. Those on the
rosebush and cabbage are green; on the elder, bean, poppy,
nettle, willow, poplar, black; on the oak and thistle,
bronze color; on the oleander and nut, yellow. All have the
two tubes from which oozes the sugary liquor; all vie with
one another in feasting the ants."
Claire and her uncle went in-doors. Emile and Jules,
enraptured by what they had just seen, began to look for
lice on other plants. In less than an hour they had found
four different kinds, all receiving visits of no
disinterested sort from the ants.
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