Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







In History of Biology, Insects Were There

The history of biology, like nature itself, has lots of insects. For instance, around 330 B.C. the great Greek philosopher and biologist Aristotle put together several books about animals. Aristotle's writings brought together some of the earliest information about what people knew about the nature of life at the time.

These works included material on the habits of fish, reproductive activities of octopi, and biology of whales, porpoises and dolphins. In one volume, called Historia animalium, Aristotle included information about honey bees. Most scholars believe that the material was written by someone else, so we can think of Aristotle as the editor of the book. 

Nonetheless, the material was provided by a bee master, as the individual was called, who knew a lot about bees. The work includes accurate descriptions of a double-sided comb that contains either honey or grubs.

There is a description of drone flights and the ruler leaving with a group of bees. That is what we call “swarming” today. It is also mentioned that bees only visit one type of flower on each nectar-collecting trip and that bees that sting die.

One major mistake is that the writer states that the ruler is a male. A strange conclusion, since the writing indicates that the drone is a male and the workers are female. This gender error about the ruler persisted in literature through the time of Shakespeare—proving once again that some concepts die hard!

By the 16th century, there was a recognized need to organize available scientific knowledge. The individuals of the time who tried to assemble the knowledge were known as encyclopedists. One of the group, Aldrovandi, published an illustrated treatise on insects. Another, the Londoner Thomas Moufet produced his masterpiece, also illustrated, titled “Theatre of Insects.”

Marcello Malpighi was a professor of medicine at Bologna University in the 1600s. Malpighi is well-known for his work on the capillary system associated with the circulation of blood. But some of his best work was on an insect. He dissected the silkworm under the microscope and discovered that it had internal structures. He showed that silkworms lack lungs but breathe through a series of holes and tubes. He was correct.

Malpighi's treatise on the silkworm was the first on an invertebrate. In fact, the insect structures that are equivalent in function to the human kidneys are called Malpighian tubules. How's that for a long-lasting scientific honor?

Another historical scientist who dissected insects was Swammerdam. He produced accurate drawings of the internal workings of mayflies and his anatomy of the honey bee is remarkable by almost any standard. He also described the development of dragonflies and mosquitoes.

Many people recognize that Leeuwenhoek was a classical microscopist. It is said that he wandered through nature with his microscope, finding new wonders at every turn. Included was his work on the compound eyes of insects. He also discovered that aphids did not have eggs in their bodies but young that looked like the adult. 

Leeuwenhoek also did work on the development of the ant and the flea. One of his discoveries was that of a mite parasite on the larvae of fleas. This discovery led to the lines of the satirist Jonathan Swift, which is widely quoted:

            So naturalists observe, a flea
            Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
            And these have smaller still to bite ‘em;
            And so proceed ad infinitum.           

It is not surprising that early scientists discovered insects. Because of the numbers of insects, they are hard to miss even if they are small.


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox