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Living on Insects, at Three Pence Apiece

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 2, 2011

The passion for natural history has often had an upper class image, for better or worse. Period movies and novels treat it as a country house pursuit, with governesses helping the children net frogs in the reflecting pool and young ladies rearing butterflies in the hothouse.  And many celebrated naturalists, including Joseph Banks and Charles Darwin, did in fact come from wealthy backgrounds.

Social connections made it easier to land a suitable post in the foreign service, or on a Naval expedition; money also obviously helped in a field that was never likely to prove useful or remunerative.  British naturalist Edward Forbes, who struggled to get by on the dismal wages available to a marine zoologist, once remarked, “People without independence have no business to meddle with science.”   The anatomist Richard Owen was more adept at currying the favor of the good and great; he got the essayist Thomas Macaulay to pass the hat on his behalf:  “The greatest natural philosopher may starve while his countrymen are boasting of his discoveries.”

But many naturalist, like the Amazonian explorer Henry Walter Bates, supported themselves as freelancers, by gathering specimens for sale to collectors back home.  By good fortune, Bates found a capable specimen dealer named Samuel Stevens to dispose of his duplicates on a commission basis.  Stevens, whose shop was on Bedford Street around the corner from the British Museum, expected to sell a typical insect specimen for four pence, with three pence going back to the collector in the field.

With this meager funding, Bates spent eleven happy years of hard work in the Amazon.  He headed out into the forest early each morning dressed in boots, trousers, an old hat, and a colored shirt with a pin cushion on the front for keeping six different sizes of insect pins at the ready.  He carried a shotgun over his left shoulder, one barrel loaded with No. 10 shot, the other with No. 4, for anything from a small bird to an animal the size of a goose.  In his right hand, he carried his butterfly net.  A leather bag at his left side held ammunition and a box for insect specimens.  A game bag on his right held further supplies, with leather thongs for hanging lizards, snakes, frogs, large birds and other specimens.  And having spent a long day in the field, Bates often worked late into the night preserving his new treasures and protecting them from rats, ants, and other scavengers.
For all this effort, his total profit for one stretch of 20 months was ₤27.

2 Responses to “Living on Insects, at Three Pence Apiece”

  1. It is amazing what Bates (and Wallace) achieved with so little. I don’t think that kind of dedication exists today.

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