Bugs and the Victorians

October 8, 2009

Bugs and the Victorians is an exploration of the coming of age of entomology in Britain. The collection and curation of insects, our omnipresent and abundant companions, was nothing more than a curiosity in the early 19th century; an amateur pursuit for the appreciation of diversity and beauty in nature, and ultimately, admiration for the creator of these organisms.

But as society changed rapidly in the 19th century, so too did science. Bees and ants became important topics of research, and Clark describes the beehive as "an analogue of human social organisation". Improvement of bee-keeping practices was paralleled to agricultural and urban reforms, and architectural hive modifications led not only to improved efficiency in hives but was linked to prospects for "managed colonisation" through manipulation of the environment of the "artificial swarms" of Britain's working classes.

Slavery was similarly studied from the observation of Amazon ants stealing the pupae of the ash-coloured ants and rearing them for the purpose of labour in the nests of the host species. The ability to draw behavioural comparisons between human and insect societies made insect experimentation and observation more than an idle pastime: there was now a basis for political and social commentary and the engineering of the human masses.

Clark examines the political and ideological issues behind the development of entomology from a curiosity to a science. He charts its progression from the realm of amateurs and scientific naturalists to the establishment of formal entomological education, programmes of experimentation, communication of entomological science to the public, the formation of professional bodies and the ultimate appointment of numerated experts in entomology.

The importance of the application of empirical knowledge to real-world problems was a critical stage in this process, as the pest and vector capabilities of our six-legged compatriots was encountered and expert knowledge was required to overcome them.

The prospect of invasion by the damaging Colorado potato beetle provided impetus for the development of economic entomology in Britain, and as political and scientific agendas clashed over the issue, Britain's first official agricultural entomologist's post resulted from this situation.

The wealthy spinster Eleanor Ormerod applied her interest in the discipline by assisting - without remuneration - various agriculture bodies, including the Royal Agricultural Society, through provision of her expertise. Her role in introducing the large-scale application of pesticides to Britain for the treatment of insects injurious to crops was a critical step in the establishment of the field of economic entomology.

The development of medical entomology, too, is explored. It largely evolved from parasitological studies, and early reports in the field generally came from medical doctors who lacked insect knowledge. In 1877, physician Patrick Manson claimed that the filarial worms responsible for elephantiasis were transmitted from mosquitoes to humans when drinking water was infested with mosquito eggs; he had failed to observe the transmission of the parasite during the insect blood meal.

Understanding of insect vectors and their control would play a key role in the colonisation of the tropics, and thus significant resources were devoted to medical entomology. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, economic entomology, including its medical aspects, became an important destination for entomological graduates and the field established itself as a profession - a far cry from its amateur and often ridiculed status in the early 19th century.

Today, entomology is a field with professional status and enormous application in society, owing to the abundance and sheer diversity of the hexapods that live alongside us. Bugs and the Victorians provides an interesting chronology of the journey of a science from an idle hobby to a respected profession with genuine impact on our agriculture, our health and our very existence.

Entomologists will find this a fascinating commentary on the evolution of a science, but there is a far bigger picture here: this is the story of the interaction of science, politics, religion and social engineering with a cast of six-legged stars.

Bugs and the Victorians

By J.F.M. Clark. Yale University Press, 384pp, £25.00. ISBN 9780300150919. Published 18 June 2009

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