Tasty Butterflies

Richard Fortey

  • Bugs and the Victorians by J.F.M. Clark
    Yale, 322 pp, £25.00, June 2009, ISBN 978 0 300 15091 9

John Lubbock, Liberal MP and social reformer (he introduced the bank holiday into law in 1871), was also the founding father of scientific anthropology and an obsessive entomologist. Of his many books, the most successful, Ants, Bees and Wasps, ran to 18 editions. In 1872, he presented a wasp that he had tamed (allegedly) to the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. When the wasp died the following year, Nature gave it an obituary. He had up to 40 glass ants’ nests constructed in his house in Kent, the better to observe the daily workings of these diminutive species. He was also a friend and neighbour of Charles Darwin. He provided the land on which Darwin constructed the Sand Walk at Down, where he pondered the problems of organic evolution as he took his daily stroll. Lubbock was the type example (as an entomologist might say) of the preternaturally energetic and intellectually voracious Victorian: busy as a bee, if rather more idealistic.

‘Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise,’ King Solomon advised, and although we haven’t gained much in the way of wisdom from contemplation of these small colonial hymenopterans, we do have a long tradition of using insects as a source of analogies with our own society. Since nobody was more inclined to finger-wagging than the Victorian naturalists, there is much to be learned about our attitude to the natural world from the activities of pioneering entomologists. In Bugs and the Victorians, J.F.M. Clark has uncovered a rich fund of stories about such scientists as they sought to establish their roles at a time before professional career paths had been defined for them. The stories concern religion, disease and empire, and display both great ambition and great altruism. Some of the debates still rumble on: pure v. applied science; whether museums are primarily for research or quasi-theatrical display; the place of women in science. Naturalists will be intrigued by the peculiarities and passions of the bug fanatics Clark has assembled, and entertained to learn of the ways insects have been repeatedly recruited to offer support for the scientific or social arguments of the day.

William Kirby, a parson-naturalist of the early 19th century, sought support from the ordered world of social insects for a kind of high church Toryism, and found evidence there of design in Nature ordered by God’s almighty hand. Even at the time, his contribution to the Bridgewater Treatises in the 1830s seemed old-fashioned, although an interest in drawing lessons from nature certainly wasn’t. The Victorian taste for practical improvement led to the production of efficient beehives. There had been a time when harvesting honey meant destroying the swarm, but the new beehives were a kind of ideal home. Engineered to promote peace among the workers, maximum productivity and due respect for the queen, they seemed to offer a ready marriage between economic productivity and a metaphor for a well-ordered society. The honest workers toiled incessantly for the greater whole. In Cruikshank’s cartoon of the ‘British Bee Hive’, every compartment is peopled with miniature humans, worthy and willing labourers at the bottom (dustmen, sweeps, ostlers and the like), and artists and scientists near the top; at the pinnacle, he shows the queen and her ‘royal family by lineal descent’. The Great Exhibition of 1851 celebrated ‘the working bees of the world’s hives’, according to its instigator, Henry Cole, who was to industrial design what Lubbock was to almost everything else.

Careful fieldwork had established that the true model of industry, the ant, laid aside provender for the winter months, thereby furnishing a six-legged symbol of thrift. When it was discovered that some species of ant enslaved other species, Lubbock reacted to the argument that slavery might therefore be considered natural by observing that the ants which captured slaves depended on them absolutely: without them they couldn’t even feed themselves. ‘A striking lesson of the degrading tendency of slavery,’ he said. Quite so: epicene Romans dawdling with their peeled grapes come to mind.

Insects were soon recruited into the debate about the reality of evolution through natural selection, a tradition that still continues with the universal use of the fruit fly Drosophila as the model organism for genetic experiments. Unlike leopards, insects really can change their spots, and colour can be used to aid deception. Henry Walter Bates’s paper to the Linnean Society in 1861, entitled ‘Contributions to an Insect Fauna of the Amazon Valley. Lepidoptera: Heliconidae’, was a dramatic confirmation of the power of natural selection. Bates discovered in South America that tasty butterflies had evolved to resemble highly distasteful ones belonging to a different family. There could scarcely be a better example of morphological change in the service of differential survival. Bates recognised the importance of what he had described: ‘The study of butterflies – creatures selected as the types of airiness and frivolity – instead of being despised, will some day be valued as one of the most important branches of Biological science.’ He was taking butterfly-hunting away from the ladies in crinolines on the South Downs and into the realms of high science. The beauty of the butterfly was no longer to be considered evidence of the generosity of the Almighty in decorating the planet for our delight, but as yet another ruse to keep off the predator’s hit list.

At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum were the hexapod flying invaders with which plague and pestilence had been associated ever since the descent of locusts on ancient Egypt. On the one hand, they provided a way for an expert to make a living: advice on the identification and eradication of pests could save hundreds of lives. On the other hand, the pests posed scientific problems that were interesting in their own right. Advancement in the scientific world required, then as now, publication in a book or scientific journal, but a successful ‘economic’ entomologist could remain behind the scenes in government employment, a practical backroom type, obsessed with the problem in hand. This tension between academic scientist and economic entomologist persists today, though fortunately both can now earn a living.

The early days of blasting noxious insects with even more noxious poisons are illustrated by the invasion of the Colorado beetle into Europe. Does anyone now recall the bright posters illustrating a yellow-and-black-striped potato-eater still on display in police stations and post offices in the 1960s? In the late 1800s the potato-eater inspired a ‘new and original coleopterous comicality’ in the music hall: ‘Its appetite is awful if it ever makes a stand/There won’t be one potato left in all of Paddy’s land.’ At least the beetle was visible, unlike the fungal blight that had descended so mysteriously on Ireland in 1845 and caused such devastation. The antidote turned out to be a chemical pigment called Paris green, although it was a treatment laced with arsenic. The Colorado beetle never quite lived up to its bad press, but its containment opened up an era of industrial-scale agriculture underpinned by the control of insect enemies with chemicals. This battle continues; from time to time it is discovered that the chemicals themselves entail unsuspected environmental cost – ‘collateral damage’, an American general might call it. The besting of insects is never without hazard.

When the Hessian fly or the diamond-back moth threatened British crops, the entomologist most often called on by the Royal Agricultural Society was Eleanor Ormerod, a spinster of private means and the queen of the economic entomologists, who refused to accept any reward other than recognition by her peers. Ormerod presents an interesting example of the place of women in science in the mid-19th century. Her gentility, combined with her competence, guaranteed her a place in the scientific establishment, but she would have felt diminished had she accepted fees, so she remained non-professional in the strictest sense. Such nasty creatures as the ox-warble fly, which burrows into the hides of its living host, were, as Clark says, ‘hardly appropriate subject matter for feminine consideration’, but Ormerod ignored such restrictions. She was an able public lecturer and the author of a dozen technical reports. She was never an overt feminist – she paid tribute to her male colleagues – but she helped establish an intellectual territory for economic entomologists that could be occupied throughout the empire, and many of these experts, some of them women, did become true salaried professionals.

The days of empire confirmed the ‘bug expert’ as one of the most economically important breeds of scientist. This was partly because crops grown in the tropics had their own set of pests, and these proliferated even faster in heat and humidity. More important was the recognition that insects were vectors of disease. Indeed insects are still one of the main reasons some areas of Africa are almost uninhabitable, at least by cattle. By the time of the First World War an article in the Times had recognised that fleas carried plague; that the house fly could carry typhoid; that typhus was conveyed by the louse, malaria and yellow fever by the mosquito, and the most insidious disease of all, sleeping sickness, by the tsetse fly, which also carried several lethal cattle diseases. The ways in which each disease was linked with its vector provide some of the most riveting detective stories in science.

If ants were models of industry, surely the order Diptera (flies and their allies) was one part of creation humans would never miss. Insecticides might help push them back into oblivion. The development of new insecticides required research. Thus economic entomology became a ‘tool of empire’, and money could now be found to set up academic posts. For sound business reasons it became important to know the details of the life cycle of the mosquito or the warble fly. Money and the microscope made common cause. The Imperial College entomologist Harold Lefroy founded Rentokil, and may have been the first ‘research entrepreneur’ of the kind Mrs Thatcher wished all scientists to become. Sadly, on 10 October 1925, Lefroy was overcome by fumes while experimenting on a gas of his own invention, and never enjoyed the fruits of his ingenuity.

Lefroy’s last, fatal experiment tested a new method of fumigation of the housefly. This particular dipteran, Musca domestica, has probably excited more loathing than any other insect: ‘winged sponges speeding hither and thither to carry out the foul behests of Contagion’, as the Lancet put it. The reason for its abundance was the enormous quantity of manure generated by horses in towns before the era of motorised transport. The fly grubs were ‘without wings, without legs, without eyes, wallowing well pleased in the midst of a mass of excrement’, as Henry Mayhew accurately described it. Flies carried bacterial gastro-enteric diseases and, encouraged by poor sanitation, were a significant cause of the high rate of infant mortality in the late 19th century: the deaths of babies rose proportionately to the increase in numbers of flies. There was a move to rename the common housefly the ‘typhoid fly’, so as to divest it of its last whiff of ordinariness. ‘Stench of old offal decaying, and infinite torment of flies’, Tennyson wrote in 1879. In the cities at this time something like 600 tons of manure were produced per square mile every day, so it is hardly surprising that urban life was dominated by swatting, trapping, netting, spraying and hanging fly-paper. ‘Man’s greatest enemy’ brought the entomologist into the mainstream of public health. But it was not until the internal combustion engine pushed the horses back into the shires that houseflies were reduced to the status of a nuisance rather than a threat to human survival. It might even be difficult to find a fly-swatter in shops these days, and the ‘Japanese clockwork fly trap’ is now no more than a museum curiosity.

In pinning down his collection of entomologists, Clark has tried to draw general conclusions from the stories of remarkable people who are not as famous as they should be. In this Darwin bicentenary year, the Sage of Down seems to have blocked the light that might have fallen on dozens of other naturalists who made Victorian Britain a scientific powerhouse. I can’t think of a better book to swivel the spotlight around towards Lubbock, Ormerod and their contemporaries, who were blessed with such energy and ingenuity. There are a few entomological histories that it would have been good to hear more about. How did the early entomologists cope when they realised that the number of insect species ran beyond tens of thousands into hundreds of thousands, even millions? How did the growth of public museums and their entomological collections affect the opportunities for professional employment? Entomologists were not alone in seeking recognition: after all, the term ‘scientist’ wasn’t coined before 1834. During the early years of Victoria’s reign, a society of savants with independent means was in transition towards one with a share of salaried researchers, though the emphasis was always on the practical benefits of shelling out from the public purse. Geologists and chemists had money problems in common with their bug-loving colleagues. The imperatives of empire propelled scientific expertise to the cutting edge for the first time; universities eventually responded to the demand for trained graduates. Money and power were the motors of scientific advance as much as curiosity. It is interesting to reflect that this is now happening again: research grant applications in 2009 insist on knowing what the commercial spin-off of any project might be. Like those early professional entomologists, we live in demanding times.