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Eighteenth-Century Life 30.3 (2006) 107-134

Entertaining Entomology:

Insects and Insect Performers in the 
Eighteenth Century

Deirdre Coleman

University of Sydney

While botany has seized center ground in eighteenth-century studies, we have not been so attentive to entomology. This is odd given the necessary connection between the two fields, and the fact that the eighteenth century offers a substantial and fascinating body of writing about insects and insect societies. According to James Edward Smith, in his inaugural address to the Linnean Society in 1788 on the “rise and progress of natural history,” there was no science, after botany, that “had more attention paid to it than entomology.”1 Furthermore, the centrality of entomology to eighteenth-century natural history is writ large in the many magazine and periodical digests of research by prominent insect specialists, including: Jan Swammerdam; Marcello Malpighi; Jacques-Philippe Maraldi; Antony van Leeuwenhoek; René Antoine Réaumur; Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon; Giacomo Maraldi; Adam Gottlob Schirach; Charles Bonnet; as well as the English commentators John Worlidge; John Coakley Lettsom; John Debraw; and John Hunter.2

Insects, especially the social insects—bees, ants, termites, and wasps—have long been a source of fascination, rich in allegorical meanings for human life. Observation glass hives, offering insights into bee society’s [End Page 107] innermost workings, were increasingly popular during the eighteenth century. As sitting-room windows were transformed into these transparent glass displays, family and friends, instead of looking out to the green world, turned their gaze inwards and reflected upon the major social, cultural, and moral issues affecting them.3 What, for instance, was the relationship between the individual and its society? Was modern society, as Bernard Mandeville had argued in The Fable of the Bees; or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits (1714), simply an aggregation of self-interested individuals bound to one another by the tenuous bonds of envy, competition, and exploitation? Or are we by instinct and nurture social beings, bound to the wider group through deep emotional ties, as Adam Ferguson claimed in his Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767)? Also demanding investigation were the mysteries of generation, and the “naturalness” of gender categories and identities. Sexuality and the boundlessness of creation were implicit in Linnaean natural history, a system that imagined a world overwhelmed by the desire to reproduce and multiply. In eighteenth-century entomology as well as in botany, sexuality had assumed a central rather than a marginal role, so much so that by midcentury there was a growing consensus that reproduction was the raison d’être of insect societies. The female sex was thus preeminent in accounts of these societies, as well as in the social theory evoked by these texts, whether that theory reflected prevailing ideology or prompted subversive allegorical meanings. 

Of the many issues raised by observation of insect societies, the one this paper focuses on concerns gender, sexuality, and reproduction, with a particular emphasis on the queen of the species, and the often unstable meaning of her queenliness, fluctuating as this sometimes did between an imperious regality and a more “everywoman” ordinariness. As feminist scholarship on the eighteenth century has shown, definitions and cultural assumptions about “femininity” and the nature and status of women were keenly debated as part of a wider redefinition of social categories and roles. When it comes to the queen bee, some commentators have seen a clear connection between her textual representation and cultural change, and certainly it is possible to trace, as I will later demonstrate, an increasingly antimonarchical and democratic spirit in writings about social insects from the 1770s onwards. But if there was an increasing tendency to demystify the queen insect and to dismiss such anthropomorphic notions as her “royal retinue,” these intriguing regal metaphors persisted, as did the close association between aristocratic women and the queen bee. Take, for instance, [End Page 108] the curious newspaper snippet about the eccentric Duchess of Rutland, which reported that a “large swarm of bees” followed her “from the country to Berkley-square...


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