Tag Archives: Charles Darwin

No wonder Mr Darwin was so pleased

Thirty years before On the origin of species was published, Charles Darwin’s first appearance in print was, he later confessed, still one of his proudest achievements. You see, like so many great biologists, Darwin was a beetle man at heart.

In his later days  he likened himself to an old war horse, roused by a clarion call, on reading of the discovery of rare beetles. Well, that really rings true. He also said that seeing his name next to some of the beetle records in James Francis Stephens’ milestone 12 volumes series of  Illustrations of British Entomology (1828-1846) brought him great delight, and well it might.

Just one of several of Darwin's beetle finds, recorded in Stephens' monumental Illustrations of British entomology.

Just one of several of Charles Darwin’s beetle finds, recorded in the first beetle volume of J.F. Stephens’ monumental Illustrations of British entomology.

Here it is, in the addenda to Stephens’ first beetle volume (1829). Since it was issued in parts, various subscribing entomologists were able to read the early fascicles and send their comments and additional records to the author so he could incorporate them before the volume was finished. Technically, Darwin’s first record is a couple of pages earlier, but was for what is now a non-species (Ocys tempestivus, which has since been synonymized as just a slightly larger and brighter form of the very common Ocys harpaloides).

Blethisa multipunctata is a beautifully sculpted metallic ground beetle from riversides and marshes. Studying at Cambridge, Darwin was well-placed to find it in the Cambridgeshire fens, still a major stronghold. I’ve never found it. If I did, I’d certainly let someone know. And hope to see my record in print, with my name beside it.

When I was eighteen, I went up to an entomological meeting at London’s Natural History Museum. Here were many of the well-known entomologists of the day, Cyril Hammond was one I remember. I chatted to a few people, including the dipterist Alan Stubbs, one of the organizers, who was singularly impressed to learn that I had just recently seen quite a lot of a strikingly handsome and very rare hoverfly, Doros profuges (D. conopseus it was then). Later, when addressing the meeting he made mention of me, a newcomer in the room who had seen more specimens of this scarce fly than all previous British entomologists put together. There was a lot of interested head nodding in the audience, and I felt the same pride that Darwin knew. I guess that makes me a fly man, as well as a beetle man.

Real entomologists use aspirin bottles

I was recently reminded of the tale, told by Charles Darwin in later life, about his fervent beetle-collecting youth. Peeling off the loose bark of a dead tree, probably somewhere in Cambridgeshire, he saw two rare beetles and picked them up, one in each hand. On spotting yet another he was momentarily at a loss, but then decided to pop one of those he held into his mouth for safe-keeping, in order to free up his hand to catch the third. Of course it ejected some foul liquid and in the inevitable coughing, spluttering and choking fit that followed he lost all three.

Personally, I think Mr Darwin was being a bit sloppy. No real entomologist ever leaves home without at least some potential collecting containers about his or her person. A couple of glass tubes in a top pocket are the usual answer, but at a push, almost anything can be brought to use — empty humus pots, take-away containers, matchboxes, plastic milk bottles, urine sample kits. I once had to remove the ink cartridge from my fountain pen to drop in a small picture-wing fly — worked a treat.

So when, sitting in the Red Lion Pub in London’s Mayfair, some time back in the 1980s, it was no surprise when the person next to me took out a brown aspirin bottle from his pocket and offered me some of the contents. The American tourists sitting nearby were agog, and nudged each other surreptitiously until I explained that this was the perfectly normal behaviour of anyone who had just left a meeting of the British Entomological and Natural History Society. After leaving the lecture hall of the Alpine Club, in South Audley Street, where the meetings took place, a hard core would descend on the snug bar at the Red Lion in Waverton Street (it’s now boarded up, presumably about to be redeveloped). Here we would cogitate on the proceedings of the meeting, and continue earnest discussions about the correct way to find obscure leaf-mining moths, or ruminate on the last time anyone had seen a Clifden Nonpareil.

They must have closed it down because of the strange behaviour of some of the clientele.

Unscrewing the pill bottle, he gingerly tipped out a couple of beetles into the palm of my hand — Melasis buprestoides, a strange and handsome creature, I think I had only ever seen it once or twice before. Working for the National Trust biodiversity team, Andy Foster had plenty of opportunity to find such bark beetles, especially those, like Melasis, which are particularly at home in ancient woodland remnants. Would I like a specimen or two? Actually, they are much larger than the diminutive one I remembered finding in Sussex. Might be the other sex. Yes, I’ll take a couple for my reference collection. Now let’s see what I’ve got to put them in. A small glass tube tucked into the side pocket of my brief case. Perfect. If only Mr Darwin had been so prepared.