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Written by: Mary Catherine Santoro
Monday April 28, 2014

This past weekend, VMNH celebrated the opening of our newest temporary exhibit: Farmers, Builders, Warriors: The Hidden Lives of Ants.  It seems, therefore, like a great time to share with you this gem from the library’s entomology section.  

Published in London in 1883, the book is entitled Ants, Bees, and Wasps: A Record of Observations on the Habits of the Social Hymenoptera.  (We have the sixth edition.)   It was written by Sir John Lubbock, whose name on the title page followed by an impressive array of abbreviations and acronyms: Bart. M.P. F.R.S D.C.L. LL.D.

(That’s Baronet, Member of Parliament, Fellow of the Royal Society, Doctor of Civil Law, Doctor of Laws, and a lot to fit on a business card.)

Sir John (who would later become Lord Avebury) was a banker, a politician, and a naturalist.  He actually apologizes in the preface that his other occupations have interrupted the writing of his book, noting, “My parliamentary duties, in particular, have absorbed most of my time just at the season of the year when these insects can be most profitably studied.”

Still, he seems to have found enough time to be widely known as a naturalist.  In 1911, Encyclopædia Britannica noted, “As an original author and a thoughtful popularizer of natural history and philosophy he had few rivals in his day.”  And in 1882, shortly before the publication of Ants, Bees, and Wasps, noted British satire and humor magazine Punch depicted him like this:

Punch Magazine cartoon featuring Sir John Lubbock

Ants, Bees, and Wasps contains his observations and comments on various experiments he made using the title insects.   He wrote that he had initially intended to make observations primarily on bees, but “soon found that ants were more convenient for most experimental purposes, and I think they have also more power and flexibility of mind.  They are certainly far calmer, and less excitable.”  To do his research, he kept an ants’ nest in his room under “constant observation” for more than seven years. 

Though it doesn’t relate directly to Sir John and the ants, the VMNH Library’s copy also includes a rather wonderful bookplate.  Seen below, it shows that this copy was once presented as the Queen’s Prize, given by the Science and Art Department of the Committee of Council on Education South Kensington, and obtained by Arthur W. Sisson in the examination of the science schools, in May of 1884.

Queen’s Prize bookplate

To learn more about ants, be sure to visit VMNH during our Farmers, Builders, Warriors:  The Hidden Lives of Ants exhibit, open now through July 5. If the library’s open when you’re here, why not stop in and read of some of Sir John’s thoughts?  You never know, you might be inspired to make some prized observations of your own, and write the next library-worthy book about ants.

Tags: Library, Mary Catherine Santoro, Research and Collections

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