Rossdavidh's Reviews > The Hunting Wasps

The Hunting Wasps by Jean-Henri Fabre
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it was amazing
bookshelves: red

How can one describe this amazing book? The most impressive thing about it, is how grand it is in spite of its humble object of interest, so a quick summary will give you nothing at all of what makes it so enchanting.

Perhaps it is grand, rather, not in spite of, but because its topic is insects, in particular a class of wasps that hunt. Now, it should be said, there are rumors that the habits of these wasps were an inspiration for the "Alien" from the movie of the same name, and whether true or not one could see how. The wasps in question provision their nests, tiny burrows in the sand or dirt, with food for the eggs that they will leave there before sealing up the burrow and leaving forever. Perhaps as a consequence of needing to leave enough meat for their offspring's entire youth, they do not kill their prey, but only immobilize it. If you identify too much with the weevil or caterpillar that is the victim, it is suggestive of a horror movie indeed. Of course, if you have seen plant life devoured by an onslaught of such prey, then you may find yourself rooting for the hunting wasps a bit more.

But the star of the show here is actually not the wasps, although they are interesting enough, it is the author. This appears to be the furthest thing from his intention, he seems to have had a genuine fascination with and enthusiasm for his topic. Listen to him talk about being interrupted in his observations by the local constabulary, worried that he is a poacher, or hear him express his disappointment as the wasp burrow that he was observing on a public pathway is trod upon (unknowingly) by two young military conscripts. He finds a wasp of just the sort he has been wishing to observe, just at the moment when it is preparing to provision its nest, and he gets wife, children, and friends to help him with experiments by searching for just the right kind of caterpillar to swap with the one it has brought home from the hunt (to see if it notices, and what it will do if it does). I cannot help but feel that if the typical scientific article were written in a style closer to Fabre's (ably translated by Alexander Teixiera de Mattos, preserving the spirit as well as the content), we would have a more scientifically literate society.

Here, he describes a hike (with company, some of them botanists) up Mont Ventoux:

"It is four o'clock in the morning. At the head of the caravan walks Triboulet, with his Mule and his Ass: Triboulet, the Nestor of the Ventoux guides. My botanical colleagues inspect the vegetation on either side of the road by the cold light of the dawn; the others talk. I follow the party with a barometer slung from my shoulder and a note-book and pencil in my hand.

My barometer, intended for taking the altitude of the principal botanical halts, soon becomes a pretext for attacks on the gourd with the rum. No sooner is a noteworthy plant observed than somebody cries: 'quick, let's look at the barometer!' And we all crowd around the gourd, the scientific instrument coming later. The coolness of the morning and our walk make us appreciate these references to the barometer so thoroughly that the level of the stimulant falls even more swiftly than that of the mercury. In the interests of the immediate future, I must consult Torricelli's tube a little less often."

It is as if we have combined the underfunded, but meticulously observant, amateur scientist with the raconteur. I should note that, not in this book but another, he made observations about the mating habits of praying mantises (you know the habit I speak of) which were being pooh-poohed by scientists a century later, that have more recently been found to be essentially accurate (19th century autodidact triumphs over 20th century professional scientist). Well, a theorist he was not (he objected to Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, not on religious grounds, but because he could imagine no way for the elaborate and programmatic behavior he witnessed in the insect world to have evolved by partial steps). But as an observer of the myriad fascinating ways in which the insect world can be of interest, if we notice it, he was perhaps unmatched.
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Reading Progress

December 18, 2019 – Started Reading
December 18, 2019 – Shelved
January 24, 2020 – Shelved as: red
January 24, 2020 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by Morgan (new)

Morgan Blackledge Awesome review!

Rossdavidh Morgan wrote: "Awesome review!"

Thanks! It was an awesome book!

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