Today, we’re excited to feature Michael Barton, author of Dispersal of Darwin and Exploring Portland’s Natural Areas, as our first guest blogger. This is the newest feature on our blog – Fridays with Friends. Each week we’ll feature a different guest blog on our site.
“A taste for collecting beetles is some indication of future success in life!”
Entomologists are essentially naturalists, whether you work in the field or in the lab. It can be said that Charles Darwin, probably the most famous naturalist in history (Linnaeus and Humboldt could vie for the distinction), began his career in natural history with, using the words of the biologist J.B.S. Haldance, “an inordinate fondness for beetles.” A passage from Darwin’s autobiography is telling of such a fondness:
But no pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles. It was the mere passion for collecting, for I did not dissect them and rarely compared their external characters with published descriptions, but got them named anyhow. I will give a proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as well as the third one.
I was very successful in collecting and invented two new methods; I employed a labourer to scrape during the winter, moss off old trees and place [it] in a large bag, and likewise to collect the rubbish at the bottom of the barges in which reeds are brought from the fens, and thus I got some very rare species. No poet ever felt more delight at seeing his first poem published than I did at seeing in Stephen’s Illustrations of British Insects the magic words, “captured by C. Darwin, Esq.” I was introduced to entomology by my second cousin, W. Darwin Fox, a clever and most pleasant man, who was then at Christ’s College, and with whom I became extremely intimate. Afterwards I became well acquainted with and went out collecting, with Albert Way of Trinity, who in after years became a well-known archæologist; also with H. Thompson, of the same College, afterwards a leading agriculturist, chairman of a great Railway, and Member of Parliament. It seems therefore that a taste for collecting beetles is some indication of future success in life!
I am surprised what an indelible impression many of the beetles which I caught at Cambridge have left on my mind. I can remember the exact appearance of certain posts, old trees and banks where I made a good capture. The pretty Panagæus crux-major was a treasure in those days, and here at Down I saw a beetle running across a walk, and on picking it up instantly perceived that it differed slightly from P. crux-major, and it turned out to be P. quadripunctatus, which is only a variety or closely allied species, differing from it very slightly in outline. I had never seen in those old days Licinus alive, which to an uneducated eye hardly differs from many other black Carabidous beetles; but my sons found here a specimen and I instantly recognised that it was new to me; yet I had not looked at a British beetle for the last twenty years.
Kristie and Jessica exhibit this same passion for insects as did Darwin. I am not sure whether they would stick beetles into their mouths, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. Recently I wrote a post on my blog Exploring Portland’s Natural Areas about kids learning about nature from those who study it for a living, and I wrote: “Whether biologists turned environmental educators, biology students at a local university, or professional naturalists, scientists love to share their knowledge and research.” The Bug Chicks are two entomologists that share their enthusiasm for the insect world with others.
In December, my son Patrick had the opportunity to learn from them at a program at a nearby library. My wife took him, and when he came home, all he wanted to do was imitate a walking stick, as demonstrated by Kristie here:
To a child, learning that someone has devoted their career to studying some aspect of nature can be powerful. I’ve read many times about how scientists we’re inspired to go into science because of someone they encountered as a child. Paleontologists for young dinosaur enthusiasts, astronauts for space-crazed kids. Why not expose a child to all manner of naturalists?
My late grandfather was an amateur naturalist, and I started out in college in biology (and later moved on to history of science). I am not ashamed to admit that I would be delighted to see my son grow up and become a biologist. He can do what he wants when the time comes, but I do not think there is harm in providing a window into the world of people who study nature for a living.
And thanks to people like Kristie and Jessica, providing that window for my son is not only highly accessible, but entertaining. Throughout most of his life, spent writing, doing experiments, and tending to his garden and greenhouse at Down House outside of London, Darwin reminisced about his days at Cambridge collecting beetles. And he encouraged others to collect. To the geologist Charles Lyell’s sister-in-law, Katharine, Darwin wrote in 1856: “With respect to giving your children a taste for Natural History, I will venture one remark, viz that giving them specimens, in my opinion, would tend to destroy such taste. Youngsters must be themselves collectors to acquire a taste.” While Patrick and I may not be insect “collectors,” we have bug holders in my backpack, and he’s not afraid to pick something up. We’ll leave it to The Bug Chicks to show us more exotic and dangerous specimens. With a childhood full of rich experiences in learning about natural history and other sciences, I am sure my son will have “future success in life.”