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Megalopyge's 'Powers of Annoyance'

Last month Maria Sibylla Merian ranked among a host of intellectuals who had depicted cacao (see Pods, Pots, and Potions). This month we zoom in to study the caterpillars creeping through the image. The larvae featured on cacao have a special history, perhaps not unrelated to the European reception of cacao explored on this site. As we will see, when Merian published Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium in 1705, it was the first time Europeans had seen cacao firmly rooted in its ecosystem.

Branch of Cacao, Plate 26, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, 1705

First, a word about the effect of seeing insect life on botanical drawings. When the cacao tree first crawled with the four stages of moth metamorphosis—egg, larva, pupa cocoon, and adult—it looked less like a specimen and more like a vibrant, living thing. The insect's process also influenced what Merian chose to depict of the plant. Variations of the pod also show four stages of life: a flower, new fruit pushing out, growing bigger and bigger around its lumpy seeds, and harvestable with the interior tracks of mature cacao bean exposed. This depiction nicely illustrates Merian's superimposition of botanical and entomological stages of growth to maturity, demonstrating interconnectedness. Beyond that insight, she let larvae and moths considered pests reign in their habitats. She would connect creepers to their favorite foods as settings for their portraits, the plant both haven and sustenance for their miraculous transformations.

That connection of the insect parasite to its plant victim, in and of itself, was not new. In the Histoire naturelle et morale des îles Antilles de l'Amérique (1658), known in English as the History of the Carriby-Islands (1666), Charles de Rochefort lists caterpillars among the “mischievous insects” (189) of which tobacco planters must beware lest they gnaw at and hinder the growth of the plants. In Merian, though, the caterpillar is not depicted as the enemy of the people. It is not predatory as it snacks (there is but one hole in one leaf) and instead looks beautifully natural against the bright yellows and green materiality of the cacao tree. Caterpillars belong on trees in the visual universe of the Metamorphosis.

Branch of Guava with Army Ants, Pink-Toe Tarantulas, Huntsman Spiders, and [yuck, very dead] Ruby-Topaz Hummingbird, Watercolor on Vellum, Royal Trust Collection, London

Her gentle treatment of them on cacao piques curiosity because, as Natalie Zemon Davis points out, her work on the ecology of Surinam tends to depict insects in their viciousness. Davis cites an image of guava covered in spiders and ants—one famously reproduced all over the web (and above)—as evidence of Merian’s interest in their violence. The particular species she depicts on cacao in 1705, a black- and red-striped caterpillar, could have appeared that way. In fact, it became cacao’s signature pest after Merian drew the plant and insect in relationship. Plate 26 features the Southern Armyworm, Spodoptera eridania. It’s east Asian relative, Tiracola plagiata, goes by the name Cacao Armyworm now that its diet includes that fruit, which traveled around the equator from South America to Asia in the wake of global colonialism. Armyworms, as their name suggests, are voracious defoliators that dwell in the Western tropical and subtropical regions. Feeding on young growth, they can reduce a fledgling plant to stems.

That effect, seen above on guava, would be shocking on cacao, whose leaf production takes the form of regeneration—a leaf only falls once another has sprouted to take its place—such that a pest-free plant never looks stripped. Merian’s decision to depict Armyworm in its beauty--it's moth a modest nibbler (you work up an appetite in a cocoon)--and in the four states of its existence, perhaps reminds us that she perceived in metamorphosis the glory, not the brutality of nature. Cacao’s Armyworm is formidable, but this is not the larva that most concerns this post or history's entomologists after her. Merian also found another genus of caterpillar on cacao, which we will tentatively identify as the magnificent wooly-haired Megalopyge or Puss Moth or Flannel Moth.

Cacao Tree, Plate 63, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, 1726

Maria’s daughter, Johanna Helena Merian, added the above Plate 63 and 11 other drawings to an updated 2nd edition of the Metamorphosis published posthumously in 1719 and again in 1726. Davis credits Johanna with rendering the 1719 images, though the cacao tree above bears a striking resemblance to its 1705 cousin, Plate 26. In any case, though the print with two caterpillars was added posthumously, Merian had depicted Megalopyge in 1705 on guava, placed a few pages earlier (Plate 19) in the Metamorphosis (below). The British Royal Collection also features a watercolor plate with the same species, dubbed Megalopyge lanata by Caspar Stoll in 1780, on a sour guava. And again on another guava plate later in the 1705 edition, we find what is likely the distinctive Megalopyge opercularis (second image below), the hairiest among them. Merian drew Megalopyge often. The genus name Megalopyge, of the family Megalopygidae is from the Greek megalo (large) and pygidium (back segment), so it is named for its impressive, hairy rump. Megalopyge are, as a genus, known as “puss” caterpillars because their furry, often tailed bodies are said to resemble a cat.

Branch of Guava, Plate 19, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, 1705

Branch of Guava, Plate 57, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, 1705

But enough about guava. Cacao’s large, greenish-yellowish version of Megalopyge in Plate 63 emerges from its cocoon an equally fetching moth of browns and yellows, with red accent lines and vivid black and white “eyes” on its wings. And it has great documented "powers of annoyance."

Although they did not always credit her, eighteenth-century botanists, including Carl Linnaeus, used Merian’s pioneering work. In 1787, physician and botanist Pierre-Joseph Buc’hoz referenced the insects Merian found on the cacao plant she studied in Surinam by way of opening his late-century Essay on cacao, its cultivation, and the different ways of preparing chocolate (Dissertations sur l'utilité, et les bons et mauvais effets du tabac, du café, du cacao et du thé..., 1787). He turned to her description of the tree, although there had been others since—Hans Sloane’s among them—no doubt because of her book’s enduring authority in the fields of ethnobotany and entomology, and because few had communed with the plant in quite the way Merian had. In fact, she is his main sources of wisdom on the plant’s ecology. Discussion of 'Mademoiselle de Merian' and her experience directly follows an obligatory nod to Linnaeus in the opening pages of Buc’hoz's section on cacao.

After verbally painting the picture of the polychrome caterpillars and moths featured in Merian’s image, Buc’hoz recounts an anecdote about what happened when she closely inspected them: she recoiled in pain.

According to Mademoiselle de Merian, the caterpillar is highly venomous because it hurt her fingers when she touched it: her fingers promptly turned purple and became livid and caused her great pain that she felt in her hand and up to her elbow.

Having inspected the culprit under a microscope, Mademoiselle de Merian noted that this caterpillar was covered in hairs and bristles layered thick and short below, and thin and tall above. One of these black hairs probably broke off and remained in her skin, and created something like venom, which, in point of fact, it is not. (95)

To be clear, contemporary descriptions of Megalopyge’s sharp spines do identify them as venomous, as they indeed conduct poison from recessed sacs to the aggressor’s skin on contact. Though Buc’hoz could not know that, he broadcast Merian’s encounter with Surinam’s cacao creeper and Megalopyge’s violent sting became the stuff of legend.

This anecdote has since accompanied many discussions of Merian’s entomological contributions. In a chapter on insect self-defense, none other than William Kirby, oft cited as the founder of entomological theory and science, appealed to her tale of woe to illustrate the “wonderful varieties” of an insect’s “powers of annoyance by means of their hairs” (227), whence the post's title was lifted. Among the martially endowed specimens he lists in 1818 is Merian’s “enormous caterpillar,” gifted (his word) with spines as defensive armor, for which she provided the first cautionary tale:

Madame Merian has figured an enormous caterpillar of this kind—which unfortunately she could not trace to the perfect insect,—by the very touch of which her hands she says were inflamed and that the inflammation was succeeded by the most excruciating pain.

Megalopyge had acquired a reputation, one that titillated entomologists, who were enthralled by the physical complexity and what later Mary and Elizabeth Kirby—no relation to the older Kirby—called the “skill far beyond our limited capacity” of the third animal order, articulata (literally, jointed) (9). The power to induce symptoms of poison surely appeared to exceed the biology of such a fluffy crawler, which thus took its famous Dutch victim by surprise.

In her introduction to the recent English facsimile edition of Merian’s Surinam album, Julie Harvey, Entomology Librarian at London’s Natural History Museum also cites the excruciating encounter with Megalopyge’s "urticating" hairs, so much has it marked the record of Merian’s journey to the Americas. Finally, entomologists today still credit Merian with providing the first visual identification of the painful New World caterpillar. After Merian, Megalopyge was widely known to inflict great suffering when disturbed, its hairs causing stings that provoke symptoms of poisoning. But it may well be Buc’hoz who connected that suffering to cacao.

There is no “perfect insect” or imago, the end point of metamorphosis, in the plate where Kirby found the anecdote. Merian tells the tale of pain in her hand in the description accompanying the second image of guava above, Plate 57 of the 1705 edition. There is no Puss Moth in it. Buc'hoz, on the other hand, discusses two caterpillars on cacao, which means without a doubt he consulted Plate 63 of the 1726 edition. Having apparently read the urticating anecdote and noticed that guava's annoying crawler bore striking resemblance to the hairy one on cacao, Buc’hoz appears to have made a connection among the caterpillars—they all have hairs potentially painful to the touch—and superimposed Megalopyge’s story onto cacao. The shoe fit, given the look of the caterpillar in the 1726 cacao print. So, what caterpillar did Merian depict on cacao? As for the identity of the cacao pest Buc’hoz conflates with Megalopyge, there are a few possibilities:

The Megalopyge larva fits, but the moth in Plate 63 more closely resembles Automeris or Polyphemus, which have “eyes” on their wings. Puss Moths are simply less spectacular. Did Buc’hoz then mistake which moth went with which caterpillar? We may never know. But in fact, the precise identification of Surinam cacao's second pest does not particularly matter if we focus instead on the interest of the connection between pain and cacao. Buc’hoz associated the cacao tree with the venomous Megalopyge anecdote, which it seems no one before or after him did. Why? Buc’hoz saw in Megalopyge and its venomous hairs an emblem of cacao’s foreignness.

First, Buc’hoz knew the tumultuous reputation of chocolate in France dating back to the 1670s when Madame de Sévigné and other courtiers took it as a refreshing digestive and to fortify between meals. Those were days when drinkers experimented with the effects of chocolate inside their own bodies. Sévigné supplied various commentaries on chocolate in her letters in 1671 (see Chocolate Fire) and they range schizophrenically from intestinal upset and the horrible rumor that Madame de Cöetlogon drank too much and gave birth to a black baby that died, all the way to resounding endorsement: "my dearest, you don’t have a chocolate pot, how will you manage?"

Second, Pierre Buc'hoz writes the Dissertations to demonstrate the medical potency and culinary versatility of cacao, along with coffee, tea, and tobacco, its fellow colonial crops. An anecdote about Surinam and the earliest botanical investigations of the plant layered Buc’hoz’s argument about the value of medicinal plants with a touch of the exotic—that aroma cacao had years before when it was more associated with Mesoamerica than Europe. Finally, although Carl Linnaeus had already given the plant its scientific name, Theobroma cacao (1753) and Buc’hoz approached the subject with the objectivity of empirical classification, cacao’s exoticism recalled an age not long before when it was so poorly understood a scientist—and uninitiated drinker, for that matter—could be harmed investigating it.

Something of the sting delivered by the caterpillar gave the cacao plant and the drink made from it, chocolate, a lot in common. Protected by a pest whose needled armor penetrates, swells digits, and turns flesh livid, the cacao plant appeared to bite back. Megalopyge served as an apt metaphor for the potency of the chocolate drink. More perniciously, the sting evokes the stereotype of the violent American Indian, born of the Spanish encounter with the Aztec, and sustained by images of the chocolate drinker that figure him always with bow in hand (below). Megalopyge and cacao became famous together when Merian’s pain gave Buc’hoz the perfect opening anecdote for a treatise cautioning Europeans about the proper healthful consumption of chocolate. Indeed, after improperly or over- consuming the drink derived from cacao, many a regretful eighteenth-century drinker might well have called chocolate what Buc’hoz called Megalopyge’s sting: a sort of venom, which, in point of fact, it is not.

Philippe Dufour, frontispiece, "L'Usage du chocolate," Traitez nouveaux et curieux du café, du thé, et du chocolate..., 1685


Bibliography and Further Reading

Buc'hoz, Pierre. Dissertations sur l'utilité, et les bons et mauvais effets du tabac, du café, du cacao et du thé ... Paris: Chez l'auteur; de Bure; et la veuve Tilliard & fils,1788.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. Women on the Margins. Princeton, NJ: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Dufour, Philippe. Dufour, Philipe Sylvestre [Jacob Spon]. Traitez nouveaux et curieux du café, du thé, et du chocolate, ouvrage également nécessaire aux médecins, et à tous ceux qui aiment leur santé. The Hague: Adrian Moetjens, 1685.

Harvey, Julie. "Introduction," in Maria Sibylla Merian, The Surinam Album. London: Folio Society, 2006.

Kirby, Mary and Elizabeth. Sketches of Insect Life. London: The Religious Tract Society, 1874.

Kirby, William and William Spence. An Introduction to Entomology: Or, Elements of the Natural History of Insects [1815–1826]. Vol. 2. London: Longmans, et al., 1818.

Polar, Perry, Matthew J.W. Cock, and Tamika L. Seales, “Painful Encounters with Caterpillars of Megalopyge lanata (Stoll), (Lepidoptera: Megalopygidae) in Tobago, Trinidad and Tobago, West Indies,” Living World: Journal of the Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalist’s Club. 2011. Digital Edition.

Rochefort, Charles de. [Histoire naturelle et morale des îles Antilles de l'Amérique, 1665 (1658)] The History of the Carriby Islands. London: J.M., 1666.

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