Of bees and baffled naturalists

In a nutshell, my research explores the ways in which eighteenth-century French thinkers were transformed by their engagement with insects. Thanks to a generous grant from the Voltaire Foundation, I had the opportunity to study the large collections of letters exchanged between the most important observers of insects of the Enlightenment – mainly Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur and Charles Bonnet – held at the archives of the Académie des Sciences in Paris and of the Bibliothèque de Genève.

‘Mouches à miel, ruches’ (1762) from Diderot and D'Alembert's Encyclopédie

‘Mouches à miel, ruches’ (1762) from Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie (with thanks to ARTFL)

To give you an example: the way in which insects constantly thwarted observers’ expectations about nature’s supposed laws influenced new standards for verification. In 1770, the Journal des savants published a report on the German naturalist Adam Gottlob Schirach’s observation that all bee larvae, thought to be sexless, could be turned into a queen bee simply by being fed differently than the other worker bees. [1] That the gender of an animal was not determined from the start of its life disturbed naturalists’ idea of natural laws. As the Swedish observer Charles De Geer wrote to his Swiss friend Charles Bonnet:

‘J’avoue que cette observation ne m’étonne pas seulement, mais même qu’elle me répugne; je ne sçaurai jamais croire, que le ver d’une abeille ouvriere, sans sexe, pourroit devenir une abeille femelle, par la seule façon d’être nourri différement. De telles sortes de métamorphoses sont inouïes dans l’histoire naturelle.’ [2]

Because of the contentious nature of Schirach’s observations, the Journal required a trustworthy naturalist to verify them. Thus, Duhamel de Monceau asked Bonnet, on behalf of the Académie des Sciences, to repeat Schirach’s observation, again emphasising the way in which it contradicted nature’s laws:

Portrait of Charles Bonnet, engraving by Johan Frederik Clemens (1779) after a painting by Jens Juel (1777)

Portrait of Charles Bonnet, engraving by Johan Frederik Clemens (1779) after a painting by Jens Juel (1777)

‘Les experiences de M. Schirach sont singulieres Monsieur et elles semblent renverser tout l’ordre de la nature. Mais elles ont été suivies avec des précautions qui engagent à y avoir confiance et je ne peux leur refuser la mienne quand je vois qu’elles ont merité votre approbation. Cependant l’academie etant dans l’usage d’en adopter les choses qui paroissent s’éloigner de la marche ordinaire de la nature qu’après un severe examen elle se propose de faire repeter les experimens de Mr Schirach et pour cela je suis chargé de vous demander les details suffisants pour les exécuter.’ [3]

Since naturalists and philosophers looked to ‘nature’, including insects, to understand human behaviours, such discoveries about the fluidity of gender roles were troubling. Despite the fact that naturalists repeatedly emphasised their openness to the surprises of insects, these creatures continued to puzzle them. Verification according to a set of prescribed, accepted procedures could somehow curb the uncontrollable contradictions of insects; as they continued to show surprising behaviours, the naturalists continued to evolve their methods for understanding them.

– Elisabeth Wallmann, University of Warwick

 

[1] Charles Bonnet, ‘Lettre sur les abeilles, adressée à messieurs les auteurs du Journal des savants’, Le Journal des savants, November 1770, p.746-53.

[2] De Geer to Bonnet, Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. Bonnet 30, 19.7.1771.

[3] Duhamel de Monceau to Bonnet, Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. Bonnet 30, 23.3.1770.

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