National Insect Week

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By | From the Collections

Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways

(Proverbs 6:6)

Over a million species described – and maybe another six or seven million out there awaiting description. Insects account for maybe half of all living species – and when one knocks out plants and single-celled life forms, confining discussion to what we would call “animal” life, the proportion goes up to something like 90%. They’re found everywhere, in the air, in the soil, in the water (there are even species that walk on the surface of the ocean). They fly, they walk, they swim; they communicate by sight and smell and sound; they live alone, in family groups or in huge complex societies. They’re present in the fossil record from the early Devonian period onwards, over 400 million years ago: they long predate humanity and will almost certainly outlive us. They thrive without us and most would not notice our passing. Yet their form is alien to us – segmented body and exoskeleton, six legs, multiple and sometimes compound eyes, much smaller scale – and we cannot interact with them in the way we do many other animals: we cannot herd or tame insects, or make meaningful eye contact. For these reasons, we tend rather to ignore insects in our daily lives. From now until next Sunday, however, the Royal Entomological Society is co-ordinating a variety of activities that make up National Insect Week, an event to raise awareness of the variety, significance and interest to be found in the insect world. With that in mind, here is a selection of insect-related items from the Wellcome Library’s holdings. Readers are warned that by the time they reach the bottom they may have started to itch.

Much of human interaction with insects is based on the view that they are pests. This is illustrated nicely in the extensive papers (MSS.1456-1499, 6931-6941 & 7920-7941) of the tropical medicine specialist Sir James Cantlie (1851-1926). Among Cantlie’s many scrap-books there is one containing much material on insects, MS.7926 – its focus is entirely on insects (and rats) as pests, as carriers of disease, and on their means of extermination. There is no doubt that as they pursue their own agendas and their own survival strategies, insects can often be agents of harm to humans, most notably by transmission of disease: whether this be the housefly that transfers faecal matter to food by landing on it, or the more spectacular examples of mosquito-borne fatal diseases such as malaria or yellow fever. Malaria remains one of the great global killers. Estimates vary as to its annual death toll but it is clearly well over a million – chiefly in Africa and South-East Asia, with infants and pregnant women the main groups affected. Adults and older children growing up in areas where the disease is endemic have typically some resistance to the disease in its severe form: the plasmodium parasite that causes the disease will linger in the system but in a non-fatal form. There are now massive global efforts to eradicate or at least control malaria, in which the Wellcome Trust continues to play a leading role (£150 million of Trust funds was pumped into malaria research in the past decade: see our malaria website for details).

Until recent years the West’s focus, however, was more upon the danger that the disease posed to those coming in from areas where malaria was not endemic: the administrators, traders and particularly soldiers from countries fortunate enough not to suffer from malaria, required to remain healthy in the face of this new danger. The Library’s holdings in military medicine are strong and contain much material on the task of keeping armed forces healthy, whether they are there as colonial garrisons or as expeditionary forces in a major war. The papers of the Royal Army Medical Corps are particularly rich in this area; we can also highlight the papers of Air Marshal Sir Harold Whittingham (1887-1983), which include cartoons showing members of the armed forces how to lead a healthy existence whilst in the tropics – insects being among the dangers they face. Whittingham’s cartoons show the importance of getting a health-promotion message across in a punchy, memorable manner.

Perhaps the best example of this can be found in Private Snafu vs. Malaria Mike, a short film held in the Library’s Moving Image and Sound Collection. During the years 1943-1946 the Warner Brothers all-star cartoon team responsible for Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and other characters still going strong today produced a series of five-minute shorts for the US Army, featuring Private Snafu (the name is a piece of military slang which we may render delicately as “Situation Normal, All F****d Up”). In this one, directed by Chuck Jones and written by Theodore Giesel (“Dr. Seuss”), Snafu commits various blunders such as bathing naked at sundown, not using mosquito repellent, and finally allowing a chink in his mosquito netting, resulting in his falling victim to his insect enemy Malaria Mike (alias Amos Quito). Voice artiste supreme Mel Blanc is behind the microphone and reuses Bugs Bunny’s voice for Snafu, though if the soldier had the rabbit’s street smarts he would surely not have ended up as a trophy on Malaria Mike’s wall.

Drama and insect-borne disease also feature in the archives holdings, in the form of an American radio script entitled “The Mosquito Chaser” (MS.8428); a dramatisation of the work in Panama of William Gorgas in identifying the mosquito as the carrier of yellow fever. Gorgas was working at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and this period is a particularly fertile one in our search for material on insects and disease: exploration and colonial expansion combined with science to provide both motivation and wherewithal for a series of breakthroughs in the understanding of tropical diseases. Underpinning this lay painstaking work in the field by often-forgotten scientists. As an example, in our archives we hold papers (MSS.2248-2268, 4790-4807 & 5690-5691) relating to the various annual expeditions mounted by Joseph Everett Dutton (1874-1905) and John Lancelot Todd (1876-1949) of Liverpool University’s School of Tropical Medicine, visiting various locations in Western and Central Africa to observe micro-organisms and the vector species that carry them, including many insect-borne diseases. Dutton paid the ultimate price, dying in Africa of spirillum fever (a bacterial infection carried by that other great disease vector, the rat) and being buried at Kasongo in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The rat and the insect combine, of course, in the commonly-accepted explanation for the spread of the Black Death and the seventeenth-century Great Plague, although the model of a disease spread by fleas on the Black Rat is by no means universally accepted: readers seeking to challenge what they learned at school can find discussion of the causes of these epidemics in the Library’s holdings. If there were no other insect-borne disease, the 994 catalogue entries thrown up by a subject search on Plague are a vivid illustration of the relevance of insects to health and medicine.

However, our holdings on insects as pests are not confined to these dramatic diseases. Insects are common enemies in the Library’s holdings relating to agriculture and household management, with their capacity not merely to spread disease but also to destroy crops and equipment. We have already drawn attention to the recipes collected in India by a Mrs Turnbull in the mid-19th century (MS.5853): amongst the recipes for curry and chutney she also records several for preserving furniture against the action of termites, one of them a ferocious mixture whose central ingredient is “1 quart of the worst Bazar Mustard” (MS.5853/85). On a much more industrial scale, the holdings of the Wellcome Foundation, the pharmaceuticals company, include the papers of Coopers Ltd, a veterinary medicine firm taken over in the 1950s. Within this is a collection of 78 late nineteenth century lantern slides illustrating many different species of tick (WF/C/M/SL/01) and many other papers relating to insects: for example, information on products combatting mosquitoes, houseflies and weevils that destroy grain (WF/M/I/PR/P02). The sheer variety of insect enemies faced by the farmer can be seen in the papers of the botanist Edward Morrell Holmes (1843-1940) (MSS.2867-2932, 7961 & WMS/Amer.145-148), whose collections of cuttings includes a file of material dedicated specifically to “Injurious Insects” (MS.2885), in which one can learn all about such creatures as the Onion Maggot, and wonder how any of our food makes it to the table at all.

So far we have focussed upon the insect as pest. We should remember, however, the significance of the timing of insects’ first appearance in the fossil record: they appear at around the same point as flowering plants, and the history of both since then has been a story of co-evolution and mutual dependence. Not all plants rely on insects and not all insects on plants, but if the pollinating insects were lost to the world the result would be environmental catastrophe. These include, of course, the bees, which do not merely contribute to our survival by pollinating plants but also, uniquely among insects, can be “farmed”. The Library’s holdings relating to bees and honey are varied. Before access to West Indian sugar cane plantations (and the slave labour that worked them), the chief means of sweetening food in Europe was to use honey (and the tiny six-legged labourers that created it). Our manuscript recipe books, many now digitised, offer many recipes using honey: in particular, recipes for mead are common. One example comes from the late seventeenth – early eighteenth century recipe book held as MS.1322 (compiler unknown):

To 6 gallons of Water put Nine pound of Honey Boyle and Scum it as long as any Rises, then put in 30 Cloves and a little Ginger, and give a Boyle or two up, then Sett it to Coole, and when milk warm put in the Rines thin pared of 3 Lemons Juice & all when quite Cold Tun it up in a Vessell to fit the quantity and may drink it in a week.
I have other Receipts that are good but Require Longer time in the Vessell before tis fitt to Drink. Therefore this is best for Present use. (MS.1322/49)

Bees (and the other social insects) fascinate because of their huge and complex societies; they are the subject of much analysis, either seeking simple scientific explanations or using them as metaphors for human society. One late seventeenth-century work, Moses Rusden’s A further discovery of bees. Treating of the nature, government, generation and preservation of the bee, is both a practical work for the bee-keeper and a descriptive work of natural history, setting out the social strata of the hive. It gives a detailed description of how the bee colony interacts – identifying, correctly, that it centres on a dominant “monarch” whose rule is “severe, just, and absolute”, but assuming incorrectly that this monarch is a king rather than a queen. At the start of the book Rusden summarises neatly the alien nature of this society, its sheer remoteness from the categories of our experience:

Bees are creatures full of wonders, being not altogether tame, nor absolutely wild, but between both, yet indocible [impossible to tame], for most they do is by instinct.

In addition to natural historical description, Rusden also sets out the beekeeper’s craft in detailed, practical terms, explaining how to transfer a colony from one hive to another, how to handle a swarm, and so forth, in terms that a modern beekeeper would recognise. As has emerged so often in the items described here, our relationship with these insects is simultaneously intimate and remote: we live cheek by jowl with them, using them and being used by them, unable to keep them out of our lives, and yet they remain alien and unknowable, their lives unlike anything we can experience or even imagine.

For intimacy of connection, however, one would have to go far to beat our last example of useful insects. The physician Frederick Parkes Weber (1863-1962) collected information on a huge variety of subjects, gathering notes and cuttings into files on unusual medical conditions and techniques. Among his papers (PP/FPW) one can find a file on insects (PP/FPW/B.169/2) – including their use in surgery, which includes the technique of cleaning wounds of gangrenous or otherwise damaged flesh by having maggots nibble it away. Readers who feel that they can take it are invited to come in and read the full grisly details. So far as is known, no institutions will be marking National Insect Week with wound-cleaning sessions; but a better example of our close and unpredictable relationships with the commonest creatures on earth would be hard to find.

Images, from top:
1/ still from “Private Snafu vs. Mosquito Mike”
2/ cartoon by Air Marshal Sir Harold Whittingham
3/ title image from “Private Snafu vs. Mosquito Mike”
4/ “insect book” from Dutton and Todd expeditions, showing mouth-parts of a tick
5/ cutting about the onion maggot, from Edward Morrell Holmes papers
6/ illustration of bee social structure, from Moses Rusden’s “A further discovery of bees”
7/ papers on insects and their medical aspects, from the archive of Frederick Parkes Weber

Chris Hilton

Chris Hilton

Dr Christopher Hilton was until August 2017 a Senior Archivist at the Wellcome Library.

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