Monthly Archives: June 2014

Entomological Classics – The Pooter or Insect Aspirator

I’m sure that we can all remember our first encounter with that wonderful entomological device, The Pooter and were probably all told to remember to  “suck don’t blow” and also to remember to suck from the right tube.  Despite this sage advice I am also sure that most, if not all of us, have somehow managed to end up with a mouthful of small insects 😉

pooter classic


The Pooter as I came across it first as a student – inherently simple but incredibly breakable

So exactly what is a Pooter and when was it invented?  I of course knew the answer to the first bit but had forgotten the answer to second (if I ever knew it).  I decided to see what Google would reveal.  A quick Google search led me to this simple definition from

  “The pooter (sic – pedantically as it is named after a person so should be capitalised) is said to get it’s wonderful name from William Poos an American entomologist active in the 1930s, it consists of a small transparent airtight vial with two tubes protruding.  One tube is put in your mouth and the other acts as a vacuum that will suck up bugs safely without damaging them.  There is an inherent risk of sucking a bug into your mouth but that is half the fun.”

and this one here from

Pooter definition

and from A Dictionary of Entomology,  Gordon Gordh & David Headrick  CABI 2011 Second Edition.

Pooter noun

So it definitely seemed to appear that the Pooter was a relatively recent invention.  Was this true or was it the entomological equivalent of an urban myth? I started with finding out a bit more about the putative inventor of the Pooter, F.W.  Poos and found this also in the same source

Poos obit short


and after tracking down the obituary by T E Wallenmaier was rewarded with a photograph of the great man.

Poss Picture

Next I got hold of Poos’s 1929 paper in which he described the insect aspirator and sure enough there was a diagram of a Pooter pretty much as we know it today but with a cigarette holder as the mouthpiece.

Poo's Pooter

In his paper Poos notes that his design is a modified version of the aspirators used by Kunkel (1926) and Severin & Swezy (1928). So how modified was his design and should the Pooter really be called the Pooter?  In the Severin and Swezy paper we are lucky enough to have a photograph of the insect aspirator in action and it is very obviously a straight line system as opposed to the two tubes going in at the top and the text explains that  once caught the catch is tapped into another tube or vial.

Severin Swezy picture

So what about the earlier Kunkel paper?  In this case the photograph clearly shows a sucking tube and another tube in which the

Kunkel Pooter

catch is placed by blowing it out of the collecting tube; the Poos version is clearly a more efficient device as you suck and catch and can store your catches until a convenient moment arises for transfer to either your killing jar or observation  chamber.  As an undergraduate I briefly trialed a Pooter containing cherry laurel  (Prunus laurocerasus) to make a combined catching and killing device; needless to say I very quickly decided that it was not a good idea.

So the Pooter is distinct from the other devices in that the catch does not have to be transferred immediately to another container and that it has the sucking and catching ends coming out of the same aperture.  Interestingly enough I did find an earlier description of an insect aspirator that had the same properties as the Pooter but was a straight line system (Buxton, 1928).  So is the criterion


Buxton Pooter


for a Pooter the two tubes emanating from the same source?  Apparently not as I have found these all described as pooters (sic).



Despite all my searching and a resort to Twitter, the earliest reference to an insect aspirator that I could find (many thanks to Richard Jones also known as @Bugmanjones) was 1868 and is basically the same device as that described by Severin and Swezy in 1929.

Precursor Pooter

So if we accept that the Pooter is the classic two tube sucker-storage version then yes, Poos invented the Pooter.  If we contend that the Pooter is any old insect aspirator then it seems that Ormerod got there first and we should perhaps only be calling it a pooter  because of the noise we make when aspirating an insect 😉


Gibb, T.J. & Oseto, C.Y. (2006) Arthropod Collection and Identification: Laboratory and Field Techniques.  Academic Press , New York

Kunkel, L.O. (1926) Studies on Aster Yellows.  American Journal of Botany, 13, 646-705

Poos, F.W. (1929) Leaf hopper injury to legumes.  Journal of Economic Entomology, 22, 146-153

Severin, H.P. & Swezy, O. 91928) Filtration experiments on curly top of sugar beets.  Phytopathology, 18, 681-691

Wallenmaier, T.E. (1989) Poos, Frederick, William-1891-1987-Obiturary. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington , 91, 298-301


Post script

I knew I would regret throwing out my old copies of Antenna when I moved to Harper Adams.  During my research I came across a reference to some correspondence in Antenna in 1982.

Obit excerpt


Luckily, Val McAtear, the Librarian at the Royal Entomological Society, very kindly scanned in the relevant pages for me.  To my chagrin, I found that I would have saved myself a lot of time if I had remembered this article (Fergusson, N.D.M. (1982)  Pooter Post. Antenna,  282-284).  On the plus side, I had, however, found several references to insect aspirators that he had not.  His additional references are shown below in case anyone wants to track them down.

Baden, E.B. (1951)  Collecting beetles associated with stored food products.  Amateur Entomologist Leaflet 6, 1-9

Cogan, B.H. & Smith, K.G.V. (1974) Instructions for Collectors.  British Museum (Natural History).

Colyer, C.N. & HJammond, C.O. (1951) Flies of the British Isles, Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd.

Hurd, P.D. (1954) ‘Myiases’ resulting from the use of the Aspirator method in the collection of insects.  Science, 119, 814-815

Lewis, D.J.  (1933)  Observations on Aedes aegypti L. (Dipt., Culic.) under controlled atmospheric conditions.  Bulletin of Entomological Research, 24, 363-372

Myers, E.H. (1933) A mouth pipette and containers for smaller organisms.  Science, 77, 609-610

Oldroyd, H. (1958) Collecting, Preserving and Studying Insects.  Hutchinson, London.

O’Rourke, F.J. (1939) Ant collecting.  Amateur Entomologist, 4, 33-34

Perkins, J.F. (1943) The collecting trip, in the Hymenopterist’s Handbook.  Amateur Entomologist, 7, 140-147

Philip, C.B. (1931) Two new species of Uranotaenia (Culicidae) from Nigeria, with notes ion the genus in the  Ethiopian region.  Bulletin of Entomological Research, 22, 183-193

Psota, F.J. (1916) A suction-pump collector.  Entomological News, 27, 22-23

Wishart, G. (1930) Some devices for handling insects.  Journal of Economic Entomology, 23, 234-237


Post  post script

Two curiosities that I came across in my foray into the depths of insect aspirator history was a patent filed in 1938 by a Clyde Barnhart for an aspirator designed to reduce wear and tear on the operator

Pooter patent

And a mechanical aspirator powered by a car engine (Moore, H,.W. (1943)  A mechanical aspirator of sorting and collecting insects in the field.  Canadian Entomologist, 75, 162).

And finally

It appears that in the USA poot is analogous to fart!

Pooter tooter

And now sadly, available in the UK for a mere £12.99 –

Pooter tooter UK

But the good news is that you can get a real Pooter (albeit plastic) for much less , £1.79 to be precise 😉

Pooter Invicta




Filed under Entomological classics, EntoNotes

Are we too late to save Natural History? The demise of Natural History training in schools and universities

For some years now I have sounded off about my concerns over the loss of entomological expertise and teaching (Leather, 2007, 2009ab). My former colleague Donald Quicke and I have also written about the demise of natural history teaching in secondary and tertiary education (Leather & Quicke, 2009, 2010). More recently, I have been following a debate on Ecolog about the lack of field-based natural history teaching in the USA, with many contributors lamenting the decline of teaching in this area due to the over-emphasis placed on teaching molecular biology and allied subjects. Interestingly enough, at about the same time, Jeremy Fox addressed a similar issue about natural history knowledge in academic ecologists and concluded that there was not as much of a problem as many people thought

Terry McGlynn however, is much less sanguine and perceives a real problem with not just the teaching of the subject, but of the willingness of students to engage with those courses still available.

In the UK the decline in teaching whole organism biology in general at secondary school and undergraduate level has become ever more pronounced. Biology teaching at research intensive university has become increasingly cell and molecular biased as whole organism biologists retire and are replaced by cell and molecular biologists publishing in ‘high impact’ journals; the needs of teaching are perceived as secondary, research profiles are seen as more important. As a consequence, many biology degrees in the UK lack balance, and content is largely dependent on what those staff still willing to teach, are able to offer. We thus have zoology degrees where whole organisms are largely absent and the invertebrates are covered in perhaps as few as twelve lectures. We also see ecology degrees lacking physiology; how can you understand an ecosystem if you don’t know how the constituent parts work?

I have not been alone in bemoaning the status of natural history knowledge and training; in 2005, Anne Bebbington of the Field Studies Council wrote

At secondary level the decrease in the importance of whole organism biology in the curriculum, declining opportunities for fieldwork and the concentration of A-level fieldwork on techniques and course assessment allow little time for training in identification skills. Many A-level students feel that being able to recognise and name organisms is not important. In teaching students to be responsible citizens and to care about their environment, a knowledge of at least the common organisms around them is vital. Initiatives are needed to engage the interest of primary school children and to provide more opportunities for fieldwork at secondary level, including time to teach students to recognise organisms. Training for teachers would be valuable and the role of organisations outside formal education in educating the wider public is also recognised.”

Five years later, Donald Quicke and I (Leather & Quicke, 2010) wrote “The great majority of those now studying for degrees in biology have had virtually no training or experience in identifying organisms, and sadly, the drive towards ever more molecular and hands-off meta-analysis type study in universities is exacerbating the situation. Although students may be enthused on a two-week long field course and get to learn to recognise a few major groups or species, without back-up, just as with use of statistics, for example, this will have little, if any, long term retention in their skill set.”

We are now almost five years on from these words and worryingly, things, despite all the citizen science activities that seem to spring up every week and the popularity of natural history apps and programmes like Springwatch, have actually got worse and not just in the UK (Tewksbury et al., 2014)*.

The problem we face is that although there are still many people interested in natural history per se, there is a declining number of opportunities for people to be academically trained in the disciplines associated with its study. Thus fewer biology teachers with these skills are employed and opportunities for enhancing (or subverting as some might see it) the rigid school curriculum at present enforced in secondary schools are becoming fewer too. The good work done in some primary schools by dedicated teachers and outreach specialists such as Minibeast Mayhem are not reinforced at secondary school and thus fewer students want to go on to pursue such studies, or are even aware that such study is possible. At undergraduate level, we find very little whole organism teaching in both the field and laboratory. How many zoology degrees in the UK now expose their students to functional morphology; for example, examining and drawing skulls in able to understand the evolution of reptilian jaw bones to mammalian auditory bones; something that even I, as an invertebrate zoologist, was ‘forced’ to do? I was pleasantly surprised during my recent visit to University College Dublin as the external examiner for their BSc Zoology degree, to find that at least some zoology courses do still retain many of the essential whole organism elements required to fully understand animal form and function.

What are we doing about these lost skills? The UK Plant Sciences Federation recently (January 2014) released a detailed report where they highlighted areas where the UK is desperately short of expertise and training; much to my gratification this included entomology as a key subject area 😉 They have, since the release of this report, set up a number of working groups, one of which, Training and Skills, I have agreed to chair. Our first meeting is in July and we will report back at the end of September, hopefully with some concrete and workable suggestions. The Field Studies Council, as you might expect, are also very much concerned about the situation and thanks to a recent grant from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation have been able to initiate a programme called Tomorrow’s Biodiversity which has the aim of facilitating the recording of biodiversity by getting more people trained in identification skills, particularly in the less well-known taxa.

The problem as I see it, lies in the lack of formal natural history training and teaching at undergraduate level. This has been brought about by the failure of university departments to understand the importance of whole organism biology and a tendency to recruit staff according to the funding fashion of the moment, rather than considering the big picture and recruiting across the specialities. We need to balance the teaching and research staff within our university departments so that we produce a viable population of graduate whole organism biologists, be they zoologists, botanists, or ecologists, who are able to recognise the plants and animals that surround them and not just a few ‘model organisms’ and also to understand how they function within that environment. We also need to look seriously at our pre-university biology teaching and increase the amount of whole organism and field content in both pre- and post-16 teaching. There are many opportunities to do this even in genetics. For example in ‘O’ Level Biology our teacher took us outside to search for and collect the snail Cepea nemoralis, famous for its variation in shell colour which is genetically controlled and which is selected for by the degree of predation that populations in different environments suffer from thrushes (Cain & Sheppard, 1954).  There are many such opportunities but only if the teachers know about them and are willing and able to take them.

Pink Cepaea_nemoralis

  Yellow Cepaea_nemoralis_(Linnaeus_1758)

An afternoon outside taught us genetics, ecology and plenty of natural history. I feel privileged and thankful that I was able to spend so much of my childhood outside in the natural

Simon Jamaica c 1963

world and hope that we can at least give the current generation of young people the opportunity to enjoy and understand the importance of the natural world around them before it is too late.


Bebbington, A. (2005) The ability of A-level students to name plants. Journal of Biological Education 39: 63-67.

Cain, A.J. & Sheppard, P.M. (1954) Natural selection in Cepaea. Genetics, 39, 89-116

Leather, S. R. (2007). British entomology in terminal decline? Antenna 31: 192-193.

Leather, S. R. (2009a). Taxonomic chauvinism threatens the future of entomology. Biologist 56: 10-13.

Leather, S. R. (2009b). Institutional vertebratism threatens UK food security. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24: 413-414.

Leather, S. R. & Quicke, D. L. J. (2009). Where would Darwin have been without taxonomy? Journal of Biological Education 43: 51-52.

Leather, S. R. & Quicke, D. L. J. (2010). Do shifting baselines in natural history knowledge threaten the environment? Environmentalist 30: 1-2.

Tewksbury, J.J. et al. (2014) Natural History’s place in science and society. Bioscience 64: 300-310

*Slightly tongue in cheek, I must point out that the authors failed to cite any of my papers concerning the decline of natural history teaching 😉



Filed under Bugbears, Teaching matters, Uncategorized