Clap Nets and Bat Fowling, revisiting the Butterfly net

A fellow blogger, Autism Mom, recently revisited one of her earlier posts. This made me recall my very first blog where I included this picture and said.

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For example this is an eighteenth century butterfly net. How did it work? Some writers considered it clumsy and impractical, I didn’t think so, so I made one to find out. Perhaps one day I will tell the story.

So here is the story of one of my earliest historical reconstructions, a Clap-Net or Bat Fowler net, taken from papers published in the Entomologists Record and the Bulletin of the Amateur Entomologists Society in 1985 and 6. I cannot find the original photographs I took of trying out the net, so went out yesterday to take a few.

The Clap-Net was the standard insect net used in Britain (not on the Continent) from the early eighteenth century until the middle of the nineteenth, when it was replaced by the Bag Net which we use today. Later generations of entomologists have looked with awe on the old plates illustrating this net, and wondered how anybody managed to catch any insects at all with such an impractical device.

I was somewhat suspicious as to the popular belief in the clumsiness of the clap-net, and determined to try and make one to see how it would work.

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Making the Net

There are several available illustrations of a clap-net in various entomological publications from Moses Harris (1766) onwards. Basically the net consists of two rods that curve towards their tips where they are hinged. A U-shaped piece of net is attached between the rods and the insect is caught by simply bringing the rods together and enveloping it in the fold of netting.

The net was made about 4’6″ (1.40m.) long as this is the length suggested by the illustration in Harris’s Aurelian. The curved rods would have been made of bent cane but as it proved impossible either to obtain, or make, suitable canes, more modern materials had to be used. The curved sections, therefore, were made of thin aluminium tubing that was fitted onto lengths of dowelling which formed the handles. At the ‘hinge’ end the tubes were flattened and holes drilled through them; they were then linked first with a metal ring to form the hinge. Unfortunately the metal ring tended to jam when in use so it was replaced by a length of string. The bag was a U-shaped piece of net approximately 1. 10m. long by 0.70m. wide with a linen tube sewn along each side. This tube was then slid over the sticks and tied in place with short pieces of tape. The net was ready for use.

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Using the Clap-Net

The Clap-net was remarkably easy to use, a few minutes’ practise showed how easy it was. In fact it proved to be a very fine piece of all-round entomological equipment. It was used throughout the summer with considerable success catching not only Lepidoptera but also Odonata, Orthoptera, Hymenoptera and a few Coleoptera.

To use the net normally the sticks are held apart, one in each hand, and the net is brought up to the insect. The sticks are then brought together and the insect is caught in the fold of the net. Whilst in hot pursuit the large surface area of the net makes capture considerably easier than with the bag-net. This bears out Coleman (1860) who said that the clap-net gave “… more power in a fair chase.”

When the insect is settled on a flower, the net is held half open and gently brought down over it , The lack of trailing bag, and the long reach possible with the clap-net make the capture of insects on bramble, reasonably easy. Finally the net, held open with one hand, makes a useful beating tray.

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Disadvantages of the Net

The greatest difficulty when writing about the clap-net is answering the question, why did it fall out of fashion? There must be some disadvantages in using the clap-net which the bag-net doesn’t share, otherwise we would be using them today. There are several possibilities. The first, and least likely, is that the clap-net was too big and bulky to carry and was replaced by the smaller, and more easily carried bag-net. Whilst some clap-nets were very big, so were some bag-nets. A full sized kite net, with handle, is considerably bigger than the clap-net shown by Moses Harris and both the kite net and the clap-net could be collapsed for easy transport.

The second possible reason is that the bag-net only needs one hand to operate it whilst the clap-net needs two. This is certainly true but was not found to be a disadvantage in use.

The reason that I would suggest is that the net proved to be incompatible with another piece of entomological equipment the killing bottle. The early entomologists killed insects by squeezing the thorax (in the case of most flying insects). The killing bottle was not invented until 1852 (at about the time the clap-net fell into disuse). When using the clap-net it was found to be difficult successfully to box an insect there were no folds of net to prevent the insect’s escape as the box was slid into the net. Boxing is, of course, very easy with a bag-net. I believe that it was the difficulty in boxing, or bottling the insect, that led to the disappearance of the clap-net by the end of the nineteenth century.

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So, when I watched the 1996 version of Emma, I was horrified to see Emma and Harriet waving modern butterfly nets about (clearly they had not been shown how to catch insects) rather than the type that Jane Austen may well have seen being used, perhaps in the neighbourhood of Bath.


Filed under Butterfly Net, Historical Reconstructions

6 responses to “Clap Nets and Bat Fowling, revisiting the Butterfly net

  1. I remember this. I’m sure the two handed issue counted against the clap. Though the trouble with boxing makes sense too. Good to see it getting an airing ,


  2. Autism Mom

    Very interesting – I never really captured insects except fireflies, which you can do carefully with your hands – kind of a reach out and grab – and then transfer them to bottles. Thanks also for the shout out! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: The Curious Scissors Net, another Entomological reconstruction | The Curious Archaeologist

  4. Courtney Flack

    Hi Gordon!
    I’m interested in using the eighteenth century image you have in a historical essay for uni and I was wondering where you found it?



    • The illustration is the frontispiece to ‘The Aurelian’ 1766 by Moses Harris, and is of particular interest in that the smaller image is the earliest one I know of showing how the net was used.
      There are many versions of the image available online, so you should be able to find one easily.
      Hope this helps.


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