Category Archives: Butterfly Net

The Curious Scissors Net, another Entomological reconstruction

During lockdown people have been encouraged to try handicrafts, also to get out and enjoy nature. Now as a reenactor who enjoys experimental history, there was an obvious thing to do – make an eighteenth century butterfly net.

Some time ago I described how I made a reconstruction of a Clap, or Batfowler net to see how this improbable looking butterfly net functioned. Rereading Moses Harris’s The Aurelian a little while ago I was inspired to make another improbable looking insect net, the Scissors or Forceps Net.

He begins by describing;

Racket Nets. Which are form’d of Wire about the Size of a Raven’s Quill, turned round to a Circle, bending the Ends outwards by way Shanks, which are made fast in a Brass Socket;  this Circle or Ring of Wire is covered with Gause, and bound round with Ferret [A stout tape most commonly made of cotton OED]; a round Stick of about two Feet in Length is fitted to this Socket, by Way of Handle. These Sort Of Nets are what an AURELIAN should at all Times carry about him; a Pair of these of about six Inches Diameter are the most convenient for that Purpose. The chief Use of these Sort of Netts are for catching Moths, sitting against a Tree, Wall, or Pales; or a Moth or Fly sitting on a Leaf, may be conveniently caught between a Pair of these.

The Fly Catching Macaroni

Then he tells us that;

The Scithers Net are no more than a small Pair of these Racket Nets; fixed on two Pieces of Iron which are rivetted across each other, with two of the Ends turn’d round in the Form of Rings, for the Admittance of the Thumb and Finger; in short, a Pair of Toupee Irons, or Curling Tongs, such as is used by a Hair-Dresser, are very well adapted for this Purpose, with a round Net fixed to the End of each Tong with binding Wire, or small Twine well waxed; these Nets are principally adapted to take small Moths, &c.

Scissors Net cartoon

So to make a Scissors Net, I first needed a pair of tongs. Whilst I have (as one does) a pair of Georgian Curling Tongs, I didn’t want to use these so I needed a pair of tongs of similar proportions. After a while I found some old barbeque tongs which could be adapted.

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I then needed to make the wire loops, I unfortunately don’t have a Ravens Quill, but online enquiries (thank you 18th Century Sewing facebook group) suggested just under 1/8 inch diameter. Fortunately wire coat hangers are about the right size.

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Unfortunately I cannot find anybody who produces ferret these days, but it was easy enough to create a stiff cotton tape, and finally create the net.

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Then I had to work out how they were to be used, the delightfully named Letitia Jermyn, in 1824, she tells us that;

The forceps are about ten or twelve inches in length, provided with fans of a circular or other form, and are covered with gauze; they are held and moved like a pair of scissors, and are used to catch the insects when at rest.

In later editions of her book (1836) she adds further advice

The leaves should be expanded as wide as possible, and the prey approached very cautiously, and when within reach, close them upon it suddenly, including the leaf or flower on which it rests.

Whilst William Curtis, in 1771, advised using them to catch wasps and bees as;

These insects being armed many of them with poisonous stings, it will be necessary to use the forcep nets to catch them with.

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I soon discovered that they were very easy to use, especially when taking insects sitting on flowers, and on a plant like bramble I was able to capture insects without risking the net being caught. As to why the net fell out of use, I suspect it was simply the problem of carrying a number of nets. Difficult when was no longer accompanied by a servant.

On day I might well make a pair of Racket Nets, as described by Moses Harris, or the oddest of all nets, and also the simplest.

The Casting Net, described by Letitia Jermyn in 1824 (she dropped it from later editions of her book);

If they {insects} are beyond your reach, you must use a casting net, which may be made thus:- tie a weight (a halfpenny for instance), in one of the corners of a piece of gauze, about the size of a common handkerchief, a lighter weight in the second corner, and a bit of very light wood in the third : the inequality in the weight and bulk of these substances, will occasion the gauze to open, when thrown from the hand : a thin piece of twine, a yard to two long, may be tied to the remaining corner, by which the net may be drawn in at pleasure. The art of spreading it to its full extent may be acquired with very little practice.

The vision of a Regency Lady throwing a weighted handkerchief over a butterfly of moth is a delightful one, which it would be lovely to recreate.

Sources

Curtis, William. 1771 Instructions for Collecting and Preserving Insects

Harris, Moses. 1776 The Aurelian or Natural History of English Insects

Jermyn, Letitia. 1824 The butterfly collector’s vade mecum; with a synoptical table of British butterflies.

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Filed under Butterfly Net, Georgian, Historical Reconstructions, Reconstructing the Regency, Scientific History

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.

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Filed under Butterfly Net, Historical Reconstructions