Happy Face Spider (Theridion grallator)
Yesterday evening I spoke at Aberystwyth University’s Bioblitz. Over 200 participants spent the day, and much of the night, dashing around collecting as many specimens as they could find. It was an inspiring sight. My co-presenter, John Warren, one of the day's organizers along with Pippa Moore, capped his amazing talk by showing slides of the Happy Face Spider, native to Hawaii. I challenge anyone to gaze on this little surfer dude and not smile.
The theme of our talk was: “What have bugs ever done for us?”. My brief was to look at the cultural dimensions. I found myself thinking about how Romantic science did much to establish modern taxonomies of the natural world, and also about ways in which Romantic poets alerted us to the wonders of what we now term biodiversity.
The history of collecting and curating biodiversity is relatively recent. Early examples are to be found in Renaissance "Cabinets of Curiosity". A foundational volume of work was Thomas Muffet’s Theatre of Insects (1634). Systematic categorization of biodiversity, however, really gathered momentum as a Romantic enthusiasm. The most famous naturalist of the eighteenth century was the Swede Carl Linnaeus (1707-78), known as the father of modern taxonomy and also of modern ecology. Britain had its own celebrities, naturalists William Kirby and William Spence, whose work on insects was groundbreaking. But we shouldn't discount the Romantic poets' own contribution alongside these towering figures of early entomology to describing the natural world.
We’d be forgiven for assuming the Romantics were primarily interested in birds (think Keats’s nightingale and Shelley’s skylark). But the Romantic poets were fascinated by nature in all its forms. Keats’s 1816 sonnet on “The Grasshopper and the Cricket” is especially intriguing in this regard, since it imagines nature silenced of all bird song and invites us to attune our ears instead to what is left – the chirruping of the resilient Omocestus viridulus (common green grasshopper):
When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,(Omocestus viridulus)
I’ve always thought there's something wonderfully subversive about Keats’s grasshoppers, who pass their song, their brittle communiqués, around an older network of intelligence – rural hedgerows. When the flashy birds have retreated in the political heat, the grasshoppers continue their conspiracies undaunted. Despite wide surveillance and a repressive political regime that had silenced many radical voices, the insects guarantee that, as Keats puts it in line 1, “The poetry of earth is never dead”.
If he liked grasshoppers, Keats was less impressed by gadflies. During his walking tour of Scotland in 1817, one stung him through his breeches. Keats was spurred to pen some doggerel lines on the insect, imagining it as an instrument of revenge to unleash on those he disapproved of: a local Scottish politician who’d managed to secure the support of Wordsworth, rival poets and ladies who read novels. Here’s a flavour of the bawdy whole:
Horse botfly (Gasterophilus intestinalis)
By gadfly, Keats probably means the horsefly species,Tabanidae. However, the reference to "breeding" a wort is suggestive, and may refer to another family of insects often called gadflies, Oestridae, whose members lay their eggs under the skin of cattle, and in some cases humans, leading to painful skin conditions.
The leading british naturalists of the Romantic period, the Williamses Kirby and Spence, have this to say about gadflies, classified as Oestrus L. in their two-volume An Introduction to Entomology; Or, Elements of the Natural History of Insects, 2nd ed (1816):
The Gad-fly (Oestrus L.) you have, doubtless, often heard of, and how sorely it annoys our cattle and other quadrupeds; but I suspect have no notion that there is a species appropriated to man: Oestrus Hominis … Even the gad-fly of the ox, leaving its proper food, has been known to ovi-posit in the jaw of a woman, and the bots produced from the eggs finally caused her death. (Vol 1, p. 137)
In their second volume, published the year of Keats's walking tour, Kirby and Spence turned their attention to the music of insects that had so fascinated Keats. Why did flying insects buzz? The pair cited Shelver’s experiments:
Upon cutting off the wings of a fly … he found the sound continued. He next cut off the poisers – the buzzing went on. This experiment was repeated eighteen times with the same result. Lastly, when he took of the winglets, either wholly or partially, the buzzing ceased. (Vol. 2, p. 382)
As for grasshoppers, Kirby’s and Spence’s explanation of that insect’s song was also anatomical rather than poetic:
Applying its posterior shank to the thigh, the animal rubs it briskly against the elytrum, doing this alternately with the right and left legs, which causes the regular breaks in the sound.Insect food stall, Bangkok
Keats loathed Newton for "unweaving the rainbow" with mathematics. He might also have despaired at Kirby's and Spence's dissection of the grasshopper's song as anatomically correct, but somehow prosaically beside the point.
Yesterday evening’s Bioblitz asked us to consider “What good are bugs?” Lots is, of course, the answer. Even Keats’s nemesis the gadfly has its place in the food chain, providing nourishment for house martins, swallows and swifts, which swoop low over the fields picking these slow flying prey out of the air. But beyond that, it's likely we’ll all be eating insects as the earth’s population continues to grow to a projected 9 billion by 2050. It takes 10 kilos of feed to produce 1 kilo of meat from a cow. The conversion factor of insects is much better: a ratio of about 1.5 to 1. The reason for this is that so much feed given to livestock goes towards producing heat; since insects are cold blooded, this doesn't apply. The latest sustainability thinking is that we’ll be gradually replacing meat at our tables with feasts of protein-laden insects.
Kirby and Spence, writing some twenty years after Thomas Malthus published his apocalyptic theory of expodentially increasing population growth in 1798, foresaw this in a chapter entitled “Direct Benefits Derived from Insects”. Spiny, spindly, buzzing, crawling ... insects, they informed their readers, were “endowed with highly nutritive properties”, and anyone who remained squeamish about eating them should consider the following:
Insects used as food, generally speaking, live on vegetable substances, and are consequently much more select and cleanly in their diet than the swine or the duck, which form a favourite part of ours. (Vol. 1, p. 300)
Food for thought, thought for food.