Rob Hardy: Outnumbered by insects: ‘Bugs and the Victorians’

July 29, 2009 7:12:00 AM

Rob Hardy - [email protected]


Insects, even the greatest of couch potatoes knows, are everywhere. If you weighed all the insects and weighed all the people on the planet, insects would win. 


Insects win in the species race, too; there are something like 800,000 insect species and only 4,500 mammalian ones. 


They are influential; everyone knows what pests mosquitoes or cockroaches are, although the benefits of bees and other pollinators are often overlooked. So it is not surprising that the study of insects should not only be important, but historically ought to reflect the influence of our scientific view on the natural world. It is surprising, however, that insects have influenced social or political views. 


These are among the lessons in "Bugs and the Victorians" (Yale University Press) by environmental historian J.F.M. Clark. The author has traced the influence not of insects but of the study of insects from the 19th century into some of the 20th, mostly within England, charting entomology from harmless but eccentric diversion into a scientific and economic mainstay. 


Collecting insects started out as an amateur''s enthusiasm. It was, Clark writes, "a worthy, sacred endeavor" meant to increase admiration for the creator. 


Insects had good characteristics that made them collectable. They were small, and diverse types were numerous. They were intricate, and microscopes were originally called "flea-glasses" because insects were such interesting microscopic subjects. Insects were often colorful. Collectors could swap specimens and buy imported exotics. 


Collecting in this way may have been a foundation for taxonomy, but for many it was clearly a religious exercise: "Like a close reading of the Bible," says Clark, "a close examination of nature afforded proof of the existence of God. ... The number, diversity, and scale of insects rendered them a favourite subject of natural theologians." 


Insects fit nicely among the activities of the many parson-naturalists. Parsons in the Anglican church could find lessons in their tiny objects of study. Bees, for instance, displayed all sorts of good lessons.  


There was a queen at the top of a hierarchical social order, for instance, although it had taken a century or two to come to some acceptance that it was a queen rather than a king bee. It was possibly best not to take lessons too closely: "... the suggestion that the ''queen'' might take multiple mates vitiated the dignity of the monarch." 


It is fascinating that architecture of man-made hives was a mirror for human architecture. It isn''t so much that the hives looked like buildings, but it was realized that making the hives a certain way modified the behavior and efficiency of the inhabitants, just as social engineers were finding for humans as they studied homes that varied in crowding, cleanliness and ventilation. Hives were designed specifically to prevent swarming, and there were at the same time countless social programs to help with the worrisome swarming of the jobless poor. 


Lessons were also derived from ants, especially those that kept slaves. Entomologist John Lubbock wrote that slaveholder ants became dependent upon their slaves, and could not even feed themselves without them, which he said was "a striking lesson of the degrading tendency of slavery." Clearly, the lessons provided from insects told more about the people inspired by the lesson than about the insects themselves. 


Lubbock is one of many entomologists profiled here. In a classic bit of Victorian eccentricity, he created quite a figure for himself within the British Association for the Advancement of Science: "... in 1872, he created a sensation at the annual meeting of the BAAS when he presented a wasp that he had tamed." (Punch suggested that he be nominated to pacify the hornet''s nest of Ireland.) 


Lubbock enjoyed the theme of human control over nature, but he had difficulties with bees in an observation hive and bees which stung him when they were maddened by the summer heat. He could still control nature, but he changed to ants: "I originally intended to make my experiment principally with bees, but soon found that ants were on the whole more suitable for my purpose. In the first place, ants are much less excitable, they are less liable to accidents, and from the absence of wings are more easy to keep under continuous observation." 


He invented a vertical stack of horizontal ant nests, each of which could be rotated out from the others for particular inspection. His ants were subject to experiments with electric lights and sounds. He was the first investigator to dab the ants with dots of paint so he could identify individuals. For all those who proposed that ants and bees had societies in which workers worked and the needy got served, Lubbock showed that some ants seemed to hate each other, or that they did not come to the aid of helpless comrades. 


That the study of insects might be much more than just one armchair collector swapping specimens with another was shown in the episode of the Colorado potato beetle. In 1877, there was worry that the beetle would make its way from America, and the threat was infamous enough that not only was the creature seen as a token from God, it was made a demon character in that year''s pantomime of "Babes in the Wood." 


Clark jokes, "''Beetle mania'' had struck Great Britain." The beetle was held to be a sign of the dangers of free trade by some, or even a type of biological warfare because the Fenians were said to be collecting and importing them for use on English crops. 


More seriously, the beetle caused innovation in science and government when an arsenical poison was found to be effective against it. Pesticides became essential, but also essential were agricultural entomologists, scientists who knew the enemy and tactics against it. The beetle never colonized Britain, but "it left an enduring legacy of technocratic science." The science was carried into the empire in campaigns against flies, lice and mosquitoes, and became accepted as an acknowledged scientific discipline. It even had martyrs. 


Harold Maxwell Lefroy was a professor of entomology, who among his other experiments was working on his own formula for a gas insecticide against flies. His lab, alas, was improperly vented, and he unwittingly got a fatal dose of the poison that was supposed to be used on flies. His final words: "The little beggars got the best of me this time." 


The Victorians turned entomologists into scientists, and bugs into natural phenomena, eventually stripped of a "higher" meaning. Even the fly had to be taken from its pedestal as a little being designed by its creator to "keep the warm air pure and wholesome by its swift and zigzag flight." 


Clark''s erudite book has a lot of entomology in it, including reflections from that famous collector of beetles, Charles Darwin, as well as the legitimate evolutionary lessons in such things as mimicry that insects can reveal. It is mostly, though, about people -- a host of bug fanatics, as well as parsons, philosophers and legislators who drew such lessons as they could about how people ought to live their lives and how society ought to be run. Many of the lessons are now quaint and funny. 


The lessons that have made a real difference, though, have come from regarding entomology as a science and bugs as merely a proper target of scientific inquiry. 


Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]