Not just sailor aphids, but an aphid ship too – Insect Class Gunboats

Some of you may have come across Reaktion Books and their Animal series, which as well having the usual vertebrate suspects has a refreshingly large number of invertebrate titles, for example, Moth, Ant, Mosquito just to name those gracing my shelves. I had, at one time, the ambition of adding to the collection with Aphid :-). Unfortunately, one of the requirements for inclusion in the series is what one might call a cultural dimension, and despite being fabulously awesome, aphids have not, as yet, made a huge impact on human culture.  In spite of assiduous searching on my behalf, I have not, as yet*, managed to find many instances of aphids making it into the wider human consciousness beyond their undeserved (in my opinion) reputation as mega-pests.

My count to date is a post card, a children’s book, a postage stamp, a sculpture and two poems. Sadly, I don’t feel I can count coloured plates from entomological texts, no matter how beautiful 😦

Punk aphid postcard – adapted from the cover of an issue of New Scientist published in 1977, when our PhD group at the University of East Anglia had our fifteen minutes of fame 🙂

To my knowledge, the only children’s book (or any work of fiction for that matter), with an aphid as the main character.

The World’s classiest stamp – thank you Slovenia for recognising the importance of aphids 🙂

An artist who appreciates the beauty of aphids – Aphid on rose – Beth Biggs.

Of the two poems that mention aphids, Charles Goodrich’s is, in my opinion, the winner, so I have reproduced it in full. I am much less enamoured of Greenfly from Giles Goodland’s collection celebrating insects, The Masses, so have not shared it with you.

A Lecture on Aphids by Charles Goodrich

She plucks my sleeve.
“Young man,” she says, “you need to spray.
You have aphids on your roses.”

In a dark serge coat and a pill box hat
by god it’s my third grade Sunday school teacher,
shrunken but still stern, the town’s
most successful corporate attorney’s mother.
She doesn’t remember me. I holster
my secateurs, smile publicly,
and reply, “Ma’am,

did you know a female aphid is born
carrying fertile eggs? Come look.
There may be five or six generations
cheek by jowl on this “Peace” bud.
Don’t they remind you
of refugees
crowding the deck of a tramp steamer?
Look through my hand lens-
they’re translucent. You can see their dark innards
like kidneys in aspic.

Yes, ma’am, they are full-time inebriates,
and unashamed of their nakedness.
But isn’t there something wild and uplifting
about their complete indifference to the human prospect?”

And then I do something wicked. “Ma’am,” I say,
“I love aphids!” And I squeeze
a few dozen from the nearest bud
and eat them.

After the old woman scuttles away
I feel ill
and sit down to consider
what comes next. You see,
aphids
aren’t sweet
as I had always imagined.
Even though rose wine is their only food,
aphids
are bitter.


“But what about the ship?” I hear you cry.  To cut a long story short, I was looking for images of Aphis species for a lecture, when up popped a picture of a ship, HMS Aphis. I of course immediately jumped down the internet rabbit hole in pursuit and found to

HMS Aphis https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HMS_Aphis_AWM_302297.jpeg

my delight that during the first World War, the Admiralty commissioned a class of ships, the Insect Gunboats, for the Royal Navy designed for use in shallow rivers or inshore. Twelve of these were commissioned between 1915 and 1916. They were, in alphabetical order, not in order of commission, Aphis, Bee, Cicala, Cockchafer, Cricket, Glowworm, Gnat, Ladybird, Mantis, Moth, Scarab, and surprisingly, given the huge number of candidates to choose from, a non-insect, Tarantula.

I haven’t been able to discover why someone decided to call them the Insect class or why they choose the names they did.  Most

HMS Aphis, ship’s badges – very pleased to see the siphunculi, somebody did their research.

of them are not particularly pugnacious species with the possible exceptions of the Bee, Gnat, Ladybird, Mantis and the non-insect Tarantula.

Not sure which species of ladybird this is supposed to represent but felt that as an insect often associated with aphids it deserved a mention 🙂

Lepidoptera, Hymenoptera and Diptera

HMS Glowworm – a shame that this is symbolic rather than the actual insect 😦

Sadly, none of the Insect gunboats have survived, HMS Aphis was scrapped in 1947, in Singapore of all places, and the last one, HMS Cockchafer, was sold for scrap in 1949.

Pleased as I was to discover HMS Aphis, I am still a long way off having enough cultural references to convince Reaktion Books that Aphid is a possible title in the series. The Secret Life of Aphids, is however, a real possibility :-).  Finally, if you were puzzled about the sailor aphids I mention in the title, you can satisfy your curiosity by clicking on this link.

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Filed under Aphidology, Aphids

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