A pair of metal tongs with gauze nets about 8 inches wide. This object for catching butterflies can be found in some natural history museums, as well as in in a large number of images in the entomological literature since around 1755, and in June 2020 served the archaeologist Gordon Le Pard as inspiration for a performative exploration of the history of science.
This blog “One net to catch them all?” is a space where I, a historian of entomology collect images and texts on this net because it is an important relic for writing the history of the scientific discipline and, like other instruments, tools and objects in natural history collecting and organizing, is part of typical field equipment.
Instruments and tools were and are an important part of the research process and their use and design were absolute prerequisites for the production of knowledge. Just like systematics were and are subject to change over time so were the instruments and tools. The net and its use are ideal “tools” to research the importance of natural history collecting for knowledge formation itself, and to understand the interaction of the actors involved, the natural researcher on the one hand and the insects as objects of study on the other. Precisely because it is important to catch beetles, bees, ants, flies and other invertebrates as intact as possible and to keep them in the collections for as long as possible.
Collections represent the most important basis for the taxonomical part of entomological research. The second half of the eighteenth century witnessed a growing interest in insects in Europe. Two processes in particular influenced this development: firstly, the paradigmatic changes in the perception, systematization and classification of insects brought about by the advancement of Linnaean systematics in botany and zoology; secondly, the expanding numbers of specimens that accumulated at this time in European cabinets of natural history, collected on a global as well as a local scale. While insect collecting remained a popular pastime, the later decades of the century emerged as an important era also for the development of entomology as an academic subject.
The net was first mentioned in Carl Alexander Clerck’s Några Anmärkningar angående Insecter (“Some notes concerning insects”), published in the Proceedings of the Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1755. Clerck’s short article included “a description of a forceps to catch insects” and it seems that he was regarded as the inventor of this net: in his instructions for the travelling naturalist, on p. 306, Linnaeus called the net “Forcipe Clerckiano.”
I will add more images to this blog as I find them but I also have writen on some of them in German: Objekte, Bilder, Praktiken. Ein Schmetterlingsnetz und seine materielle Wissensgeschichte, in: WerkstattGeschichte 83, 1 (2021), p. 115-119 and in English: Nets, Labels and Boards: Materiality and Natural History Practices in Continental European Manuals on Insect Collecting 1688-1776, in: Arthur MacGregor (ed.), Naturalists in the Field. Collecting, Recording and Preserving the Natural World from the Fifteenth to the Twenty-First Century, Leiden et. all: Brill 2018 (Emergence of Natural History; 2), p. 686-705.
One of my favourite images of the forceps net is this carricature of Joseph Banks, where he is depicted as a ruthless naturalist trampling down a gardener while on the hunt for a butterfly. Banks is well known in the history of natural history collecting and has recently gained renewed attention, in special issues of Notes and Records and the Journal for Maritime Research among many others. It is striking how many of his portraits have connection to insect collecting and entomology. This is partly because of the marginalised status of entomology as something “futile and childish”, as William Kirby and William Spence still lamented in 1816.
The question is why did the famous carricaturist depict the forceps net? Was he maybe familiar with insect collecting and knew this was a recent and important tool? Had he seen this in the manuals on collecting and just copied it? Or did the net seem as ridiculous to him as the practice of collecting itself and therefore added to the satire? The net is larger than the one invented by Clerck but we do find the net in all differnt sizes and shapes as this blog will document. In a way the iconography of the net as as varied and multi-layered as the fascinating iconography of Joseph Banks’s portraiture. If you are interested in the latter, have a look at Patricia Fara’s wonderful article “Joseph Banks Portraits of a Placid Elephant.”
The depiction of Banks using the forceps net is not the only one with the instrument “in action.” The German Protestant Pastor Gottlieb Tobias Wilhelm, like many of his fellow clergymen a keen naturalist, published a popular book on natural history in 17 volumes from 1808 to 1828. Three volumes alone where reserved for insects. The third volume contains another favourite image of mine, full of instruments and advice how best to collect insects. Of course, the forceps net is depicted too. Indeed twice, once the instrument on its own and another time “in action.” In the detail you can even see an enlarged butterfly on a flower as the object of collecting.
More images of the forceps net and other insect collecting equipment can also be found in these great publications:
Peter C. Barnard, “Bat-Fowlers, Pooters and Cyanide Jars: a Historical Overview of Insect Collecting and Preservation,” p. 646-685