MAY
1998

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

05-28-98

Children of Summer

Summer has always been a happy time for children. For many it is freedom from school. Summer means being outside and the opportunity to run barefoot on new-mown grass. It is a time for family vacations, picnics and swimming in the creek, pond or pool.

At first glance, Margaret Anderson's little book "Children of Summer” would appear to be about kids and warm summer days. And in a sense it is. But it is also about other creatures - the insects - that take advantage of the summer warmth.

"Children of Summer” is based on the insect studies of the French naturalist Henri Fabre. Fabre put his family to work helping with his experiments. His youngest son, Paul, was especially interested in insects, and the book recounts experiments through his eyes.

Fabre referred to insects as his "children of summer.” He was following well-established tradition in equating insects and humans. Many ancient people believed that miniature creatures existed in nature. Called sprites, elves or fairies, these creatures are miniature humans, but are always depicted in art as possessing insect wings.

The American poet Emily Dickinson made use of the idea in her poetry. For instance in these lines: "The bee is not afraid of me, I know the butterfly; The pretty people in the woods, Receive me cordially.”

While we all know that insects aren't very human, it is true that insects and children are commonly seen in summer. It is also true that many children discover insects on warm summer days. Unfortunately, many have encounters of the undesirable kind - being stung by a bee or bitten by a mosquito.

Henri Fabre's son, Paul, long remembered his summer encounters with the insects, and especially the experiments.

One experiment dealt with the question of whether or not cicadas can hear. Fabre thought cicadas were deaf since, in his observations, noise did not cause them to cease their loud singing. To prove the point, he went to the town center and borrowed two ancient cannons.

The cannons were transported to his backyard, to be discharged while the cicadas were singing. Fabre believed the insects would stop singing if they could hear the sound. Especially the loud sound of the cannon!

The first cannon blast did not deter the singing cicadas. Nor, for that matter, did the second blast. Fabre therefore concluded that cicadas could not hear and decided that it was unnecessary to fire either cannon again. That decision was a disappointment to Paul, who was fascinated by the process of shooting the cannons.

Other experiments that summer included studies with ants, solitary nesting wasps captured under glass jars, and stealing the manure balls from dung beetles. Paul and his father also watched burying beetles bury a dead mouse, and collected moths that came to the reading lights at night.

To Paul, that summer was one to remember. An added bonus was no doubt that he had an exciting answer to the question, "What did you do this summer?”

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann