|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 |
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
"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
"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
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
 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."
"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
 point into the imprudent finger found within
"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
"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
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.
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