A renowned naturalist, George Robert Waterhouse wrote extensively about insects and mammals. He is best known for having examined and catalogued Darwin’s specimens from the Beagle Voyage, for having contributed significantly to the multi-volume Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle , and for having identified nineteen new species and, in Februar 1837, a new genus. Altogether, Waterhouse enumerated 67 species, including bats, fox, cats, otters, porpoise, guanaco, and deer. His insect descriptions, along with those of mammals, are morphologically accurate, and most of his 120 papers were published in the Transactions of the Entomological Society of London and in other major journals.

Waterhouse’s verbal artistry is especially evident in his descriptions of insects and animals. Anatomical dimensions, fur pigments and skin textures, along with skeletal and dental structures, are precisely depicted and are accompanied by illustrative plates. Morphological illustrations and taxonomic information permitted Waterhouse and colleagues to compare specimens to each other in order to suggest membership in a genus, sub-genus, and species. Although Waterhouse subscribed to the Quinary method of classification, a schematic method incompatible with Darwin’s developing evolutionary theory, he nevertheless was able to contribute to systematics and natural history as a collector, cataloguer, and recorder of animal behavior. Along with other senior naturalists of the day, he recognized that an accurate and regulated classificatory method was absolutely essential to the understanding of natural history. For this reason, he was a major voice in the Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science which addressed the rules by which the nomenclature of zoology might be standardized.

The title-page and three plates from the first volume of A Natural History of Mammalia (1846) — left to right: (a) Jaws of the Ornithorhynchus. (b) Brain of a kangeroo (from Owen). (c) The wombat. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

Waterhouse demonstrated an extraordinary aptitude as an architect and was a noted mineralogist. After serving as curator of the London Zoological Society’s museum from 1836 to 1843, he was appointed assistant in the mineralogical branch of the department of natural history at the British Museum and was made president of the Entomological Society in 1849-1850; and, in 1851, he became keeper of the mineralogical branch. Waterhouse took part in a major paleontology project: the assessment of Solenhofen fossils, among which was Archaeopteryx, “the almost perfect link between reptiles and birds,” discovered in 1861 (Mayr 430). Through his negotiations, the British Museum was able to purchase more than one hundred fossils in 1862 and, in 1863, acquired 1595 more. He acquired invaluable finds for the Museum into the 1880s and was instrumental in the acquisition of 50,000 fossils from the Museum of Practical Geology. His training as an architect served him well when he designed the galleries of the New Natural History Museum in South Kensington.

A self-taught polymath and distinguished authority in landscape design, entomology, zoology, and mineralogy, Waterhouse would appear to belong to the intellectual lineage of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). A review of his vita might just as well suggest that he drifted from discipline to discipline, from avocation to avocation. Did he possess an aptitude that allowed him to excel in disparate fields, even two as diverse as architecture and entomology? In one instance, it appears that his training in structural design and penchant for detail and patient observation actually helped him to understand the building methods of insects. One such instance, emerging from Waterhouse’s participation in the zoology project connected with the Beagle voyage, is described below.

In his 1844 “Notes on the Habits of Osmia atricapilla” (a solitary, excavator bee), Waterhouse recorded observations while on a field excursion in Liverpool. He watched a female bee “in the act of constructing a cell.” These cells, pre-fabricated mud capsules, were to be transported to a work site where the bee was in the process of constructing a subterranean nursery. From eggs deposited in the cell and housed in larger hive-like chambers, larva would emerge and be nurtured by food the female bee had stocked in the compartment and that she would regularly replenish. The excavation site, chosen for its exact slope and soil consistency, was perfectly suited to the bee’s purpose: on this projecting part of a nearly perpendicular bank, the bee deposited the individual mud capsules on the grass. With the grass as a covering, the bee “inserted” each capsule in the soil to a depth of one inch, with the upper part of each capsule slightly above ground. Each nesting chamber had been hollowed out. The bee then attached the cells to each other in a hive-like configuration. Without the benefit of modern fiber optics, by which today’s entomologists peer into the inner recesses of insect nests, Waterhouse peered inside the little shells, one by one, probably aided by a magnifying glass, to inspect the entrance and interior design of each contiguous chamber; of course, this required patience and a light touch. The ground-level entrance of each unit was large enough only for the bee to enter, while the outer surface, the opening, and the rim of the cylindrical chamber, were smoothly finished to accommodate food pellets. The chamber itself was approximately _ inch diameter, and the underground conical structure was tapered at its truncated, upper end. The most amazing feature was an inwardly concave mud cover, perfectly fitted to the aperture, somewhat reminiscent of a submarine hatch. The females even perforated the hatch beforehand: the pinhead hole allowed her to deposit honey-pollen food. Waterhouse even discovered that the females had provisioned each cell in advance of transport.

In a letter of 14 April 1857, to Charles Darwin, Waterhouse referred to the1844 article above and to the bee’s “little oval cell” with a smooth inner side and rough outer side. The focus, here, is on the bees’ interior workmanship. Situating herself in a precise location, the female was recalled as having “smoothed” the rough interior walls, using her mandibles to grind and trowel soil. These observations influenced Darwin’s concurrent study of bee hive construction in The Origin of Species; Waterhouse’s correspondence had led him to investigate the cell-making instinct of the hive-bee (pp. 208-216).

In a letter of 8 February 1858, Waterhouse again wrote to Darwin about the O. atricapilla, returning to the “small circular cavity.” Here he includes a cross-sectional diagram of its interior design, and points out that she had molded a number of identical chambers to house the transported egg cradles. The mechanical rapidity with which the female hollowed out and contoured the inner walls fascinated Waterhouse. Wondering why the insect never shifted position, he inferred that, as she worked her way into the capsule, the bee situated instinctively found a precise angle; in this way the depth and inner circumference of each capsule would be identical; the capsules were being manufactured, almost robotically, to instinctive specifications. After measuring each capsule and finding each diameter invariable, Waterhouse conjectured that the insect was an instinctive architect: it pivoted at a set point, determined by body length; and it then worked circularly, like a compass, to grind out uniform, interior diameters; hence, “by keeping the body fixed in one position for some time & by working in all directions as far as she could reach, in her excavating, she would necessarily form a cavity in segments of circles and of a definite size—the diameter being determined by her power of reaching, without shifting the hinderpart of her body.”

Waterhouse’s architectonic talent and his love of insects allowed him to observe O. atricapilla tirelessly, to record interesting, minute aspects of its hive-making process, and to communicate his findings to colleagues so that other naturalists could make behavioral connections between this and related species of bee. He was also intrigued about the nature of O. atricapilla’s intelligence. Did it remember how far to insert itself into the chamber to attain the correct depth? How did it calibrate the diameter of each unit, using its body length as a ruler? In the correspondence to Darwin on hive-making, Waterhouse carefully avoided the implication that the bee could think. But the bee’s mental processes were nonetheless captivating, especially when he considered that for certain species hives were not always geometrically uniform. In fact, some could be heterogeneous in form (“hexagonal, or pentagonal or anything agonal” [10 February 1858, DCP, Letter: 2213]. Could this absence of uniformity suggest innovation? Waterhouse was, once more, careful not to suggest that hive irregularities meant some bees could solve problems. Nor did he imply, in the Paleyan sense, that geometrical hive variations were “determined” or the products of Design (italics his). Both Waterhouse and Darwin agreed, however, that the machine-like efficiency of the hive-makers was something to behold.


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Last modified: 13 September 2013