Home > Moths > 17 July 2020 – Charles Bonnet and the Homunculus

18 July 2020

17 July 2020 – Charles Bonnet and the Homunculus

(Argyresthia bonnetella)

A moth with a connection to Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy? Odd but delightfully true.  

If the scientific name, Argyrthesia bonnetella, is examined, its sources can be identified. Arguros is the word for silver and esthes translates as dress. The two words combined refer to the metallic sheen on the moth’s wings. Bonnetella is in honour of the Swiss entomologist, Charles Bonnet (1720 – 93) who studied plant lice. He coined the term ‘phyllotaxis’ to describe the arrangement of leaves on plants and also believed that all future generations of mankind existed in the form of homunculi – miniature human beings – who grow during gestation and are born when they reach the correct ‘baby’ size.  In the novel, Walter Shandy fears for his son Tristram’s imminent birth and is concerned that ‘the little gentleman’ or homunculus will have insufficient strength owing to the peculiar nature of his conception – but this is a digression too far, I fear.  Read the opening chapter and you will understand.

The little micro-moth, with its dark, oblique cross-band, was identifiable from illustrations and photographs, but required confirmation from Charlie Fletcher as I couldn’t be certain.

Now I am sure I won’t forget species number 442 (Hooray for a new species!) – a mothy speck to carry a nine volume, eighteeth-century novel as an association.

(Paraswammerdamia nebulella)

I doubt I would  ever have been able to identify the moth above.  Now I have examined the photograph carefully and can see where the distinguishing colourings are (white head, grey thorax and black dots), I know what species it is – but the insect  is so small I doubt I would recognise it in the future without help. The scientific name refers to para (in support of) the Dutch entomologist Jan Swammerdam (1637 – 80) who demonstrated that the various stages of an insect’s development (egg, larva, pupa, adult) were all the same insect; the second part nebulella means smoky or misty recording the colouring of the moth.  And this is species number 443.  Two new species for the gardens in one night is a bonus.

Dingy Footman (Eilema griseola)

The Dingy Footman (Eilema griseola) has been photograped and recorded in the past, but not in the true dingy state – grey.  Normally this moth is a creamy yellow and has an appropriate nickname – Melon Seed, for when it is that creamy yellow, that is what it resembles.

Beautiful Plume (Amblyptilia acanthadactyla)

The Beautiful Plume (Amblyptilia acanthadactyla) is difficult to photograph.  If disturbed it zips away and is gone.  This one was persuaded into a plastic inspection tube and then nudged gently until it settled in the screw-cap. Very carefully the tube was unscrewed and the moth obligingly remained still enough to get a decent image in the camera.  The Plumes are a favourite.  ‘Amblus’ and ‘ptylon’ are Greek words that mean ‘blunt feather’ and ‘akantha’ means ‘thorn’ alluding to the scale teeth on the lobe of the hind wing – rather difficult to see.  Foodplants for the caterpillar include Hedge Woundwort (Stachys sylvatica) which is still just flowering in  the gardens.  Crane’s-bills are also plentiful and should benefit the Plume.

Hedge Woundwort (Stachys sylvatica)

Moth numbers from this trap were encouraging.  Over fifty different species including : Mother of Pearl (at least fifty in number), Common Footman (in abundance), Elephant Hawk-moth, Poplar Hawk-moth,  Beautiful Hook-tip, Snout, Swallow Prominent, Burnished Brass, Plain Golden Y, Muslin Footman, Light Emerald and Garden Pebble.