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LA CIGALE ayant chanté
Tout l'Esté
Se trouva fort dépourveuë
Quand la Bize fut venuë

- so wrote La Fontaine in the first of his Fables. These Fables appeared in 1668, so the French is a bit

LA CIGALE ayant chanté
Tout l'Esté
Se trouva fort dépourveuë
Quand la Bize fut venuë

- so wrote La Fontaine in the first of his Fables. These Fables appeared in 1668, so the French is a bit old-fashioned. Translation? Coming up:

The cicada having sung
All the summer
Found herself unprovided for
When the autumn winds came.

The fable goes on to describe how the feckless cicada, having frittered away summer's plenty in singing, is forced to beg for winter food from the industrious and thrifty ant. Despite the cicada's promise to repay everything with interest, the hard-hearted ant refuses to lend anything and advises the cicada to keep warm by dancing: Eh bien, dansez maintenant, the ant says, OK, now dance, and having taken in the moral that we must all be thrifty and make hay while the sun shines we move on to Fable 2, The Fox and the Crow.

Not the greatest plot you've ever read, not much here to interest Stephen Spielberg, nothing here to get Stephen King leaping from his bed to his word processor in a lather of invention. And yet . . .

I've seen cicadas in silver and gold, in ceramic, carved from olive wood, as embroidered buttons, in chocolate, in just about any medium you care to mention. But I'd never seen one live until recently. This is strange, given that the song of the cicada is inescapable throughout the summer in the south of France, a continuous maracas-like rattle that starts as soon as the day warms up and which doesn't finish until after nightfall. When eventually it subsides, you can hear the much softer buzz of the cricket and the occasional whispered chirrup of the grasshopper underlying it. Every tree seems to have its resident cicada. They're elusive, all the same: stop beneath a tree to try to locate the singing tenant and it promptly stops. It's a sound that's difficult to pinpoint, too. Move to the left, and it seems to come from your right; move right to locate it, and it shifts back to the left. Very curious.

I found one by chance the other day on the slender trunk of an ornamental maple we'd planted in the spring. Maybe this cicada was nearing the end of its short life, but it was still a handsome insect, about 5cm long with a large head, delicately traced wings folded roofwise along its body. It was singing lustily, rattling the plates of its abdomen fit to bust. Always a sucker for novel experiences and happening to have my mobile with me, I rang my son Andrew in the UK to let him hear the music of the Midi direct from our maple tree. What would your reactions have been in similar circumstances? Well, his were just the same.

La Fontaine spent most of his life in Paris and never went nearer the Midi than Limoges. I don't expect he was terribly interested in insects. In any case he lifted the story from Aesop, who in turn had it from an eastern oral folk fable. Aesop was careless about the name of the feckless singing creature, or maybe the nearest Greek equivalent to the oriental original was the cicada. The real life of the cicada could have provided material for a truly original fable.

Our cicada doesn't eat, she - we'll make her female out of respect for La Fontaine - only drinks. Liquids are scarce in the often parched Midi, but one invariable source is tree sap. She pierces the bark with her proboscis and sucks away, rattling the plates - the tymbals - on her abdomen the while. The sound or maybe the vibration attracts other thirsty insects, especially ants. They will attack her, trying to get her to move away from the water-hole she has made, biting at her feet and even trying to pull her proboscis away. She puts up with this for a while and then flies off to another tree to start all over again, leaving her aggressors to squabble for drink among themselves until the resins in the sap harden and seal the hole.

Eventually, after she has mated, she will lay eggs in the bark and die, well before autumn sets in. Her adult life has lasted a high summer month or so. You can sometimes see ants devouring her carcase, so that, quite contrary to what La Fontaine has to say, the cicada provides both meat and drink for the ant. The grub born from the egg will drop to the ground, burrow beneath the surface, and will feed on roots for several years before surfacing as an unlovely troglodyte out of which the beautiful adult cicada will emerge to dry her flashing wings in the sun.

I TOOK most of the technical information about the life-cycle of the cicada from Jean-Henri Fabre, a 19th-century entomologist who wrote about insects with great accuracy but also with such a poetic zeal, rare in a scientist, that he is sometimes known as the Homer of insects. I went to see his birthplace once, a tiny house high up on the granite tableland of the Aveyron in a village called St Léons. They've made it into a little museum, which I'm sure that Fabre, the most modest of men, would have thought a quite excessive tribute to his work.

There's a tiny garden attached to the house, with a most unusual statue of Fabre in it. The sculptor carved him, broad brimmed hat and all, observing something on a tree-stump, shading his magnifying glass from the glare of the sun by holding his coat up beside his ear. So much more revealing than a straight bust or formal portrait.

If it was proposed to make a statue of you, what would you like to be sculpted as doing?

MORE INSECTS, and I promise there won't be any next month: insect populations wax and wane, one year a-buzz with wasps, the next with hardly any bumble bees. This year vine crickets are especially abundant. Vine crickets measure 3cm long, they're usually green with long wavy antennae and a pair of back legs which, if you straightened them out from their usual big inverted V, would be longer than the body they're attached to.

Just at this time of year, late summer with an occasional hint of autumn, they find places to hibernate, usually indoors. It's not unusual to find them perching on top of curtain poles, tucked away on the highest bookshelf, snuggled in behind pictures or central heating pipes. Sometimes we encourage them out, sometimes we just leave them there. They're quite harmless. Whether they survive we don't know. There don't seem to be any carcases the following spring.

Sign of a hard winter to come? It couldn't be any harder than the one dreamt up by La Fontaine for the cicada.