A renowned entomologist

Although Jean-Henri Fabre preferred to be called a naturalist—one who practises the natural sciences, in particular botany, zoology and mineralogy—rather than an entomologist—one who studies insects—no one else was as adept at unravelling the psychology of insects. A passion that would bring him international fame.

Insect psychology

It was at the Harmas that J.-H. Fabre devoted himself fully to the study of insects, a lifelong passion he had cultivated since adolescence. As he preferred to study them alive, he made very few entomological boxes. Rather, he observed them patiently, noting the details of their behaviour, which made him one of the precursors of ethology. He realised that very little was known about them, despite the work of his forerunner Réaumur and a handful of other observers. The pages piled high on his little worktable. He published some of them in scientific journals, winning praise from the Institut National des Sciences et des Arts. Charles Darwin went so far as to call him "that inimitable observer", while Victor Hugo dubbed him "the Homer of insects".

Jean-Henri Fabre

Jean-Henri Fabre en observation dans son laboratoire

© P.-H. Fabre. Source : Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle

Favourite species

His subjects of choice? Two insect groups: the beetles and the hymenopterans. The former accounts for the greatest number of species, including the sacred scarab beetle, a dung beetle that boasts the distinction of being elevated to the rank of gods in Ancient Egypt. J.-H. Fabre, however, was not interested in the myths, but in the actual care taken by dung beetles to ensuring the survival of their offspring: while both sexes roll and bury balls of dung, the female will carefully shape balls into a pear-like form which she lays an egg. The second group includes bees and wasps, equally devoted to their progeny. J.-H. Fabre was also interested in cicadas, which, contrary to the fable (in the original, the grasshopper was a cicada) are plundered by ants—an observation that inspired him to write a poem in Provençal— as well as orb-weavers, praying mantises with their barbaric nuptials, grasshoppers and crickets... His field observations were limited only by the biodiversity at his beloved Provençal Harmas.

A reputation worldwide

Jean-Henri Fabre

Henri Fabre observant des insectes prisonniers sous une cloche de toile métallique. Photographie de P.-H. Fabre.

© P.-H. Fabre. Source : Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle

As much a man of letters as of science, J.-H. Fabre was keen to popularise the results of his research. In 1879, he published the first of ten volumes (4,000 pages) of his Souvenirs Entomologiques, “entomological memoirs” blending childhood memories and philosophical reflections with his descriptions. This highly acclaimed work has been translated into 14 languages: English (in some 50 volumes, including a 14-volume edition published in New York and London, and excerpts published in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa); Italian (a first edition in 1924, another in 1936, as well as numerous excerpts); Spanish (three volumes of selected excerpts published in Madrid and a series of 10 volumes published in Buenos Aires in 1947); Japanese (numerous editions, the first of which date back to 1909, with one of the most recent, published in 1991 by Shueisha in Tokyo, has sold over a million copies). The Japanese regard J.-H. Fabre as a model of a man of both science and literature, and his work is still part of the primary school curriculum.

    Aller plus loin