M. Buckton and the English aphids

It is somewhat easy to dismiss aphids as annoying little pests that kill our houseplants and roses. There are, however, a number of books that have the power to broaden our horizons.

Between 1876 and 1883, George Bowdler Buckton, a chemist and entomologist in his later years, published what was to be the reference on aphids in England for several decades.
Around his home in Surrey and thanks to his contacts, he collected dozens of aphids to study them, measure them, draw them and even paint them in watercolours while they were still alive.

His study method is as follows: anaesthetize an aphid, then attach its body to a spot of Canada balsam, spread the legs and wings and draw them with the camera lucida. He then colours the drawings with watercolour, adding shadows to render the insects as lifelike as possible. Finally, he takes measurements (length of legs, antennae and cornicle (or siphunculus)) and seals the slide.

In the four volumes of his work, 170 English aphids are painted and described with the knowledge of his time. It was the standard work on this subject for forty years.

fig 1. Young specimen, showing the rostrum of disproportionate dimensions. fig 2. Apterous viviparous female. fig 3. Another example, feeding on a stalk of the elder tree. fig 4. Winged viviparous female. fig 5. Myrmica rubra, drinking the honeydew from the cornicle of the Aphis larva. The long antennae of the ant are used for "drumming" the sides of the Aphis, apparently as a signal to the Aphis.

In the 1970s, his work is resumed using his insect collections, purchased by the Natural History Museum in London after his death, and the original plates produced for the book.
Corrections to his classification are then made. He had identified 54 species and 2 varieties. In 1973, lectotypes (a specimen that becomes the nomenclatural type of a species) could be associated with 49 of them, thereby validating to a large extent this nearly century-old work.

For those of us who are not entomologists, the interest of the book is mainly aesthetic. Buckton's watercolours also reveal the different stages of aphid development in colour, with great finesse of execution.

And nowadays at INRAE?

These days, the physical characteristics of aphids are represented by colour photography.

Encyclop'Aphid: the website for aphid enthusiasts” is a database developed by the Ecology and Genetics of Insects team (UMR IGEPP, INRAE, Agrocampus Ouest and Rennes 1 University), based in Rennes.

A public database open to all, it provides access to identification keys, species profiles, videos and articles for the general public on the theme of "aphids and agriculture" and on research in aphidology.


Picture of P. Humuli, on the left by M. Buckton, on the right, photos from the encyclop'Aphid.

Bibliographic sources

  • Doncaster J P (1973) G B Buckton’s work on Aphidoidea (Hemiptera). Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History) (Entomology), 28, 25 – 109.
  • Loxdale H D (2004) Who was... George Bowdler Buckton ? Biologist, 51, 41 - 42

Text written by Pascale Hénaut (INRAE-DipSO).

How to cite: Agate Focus: M. Buckton and the English aphids, Pascale Hénaut (INRAE-DipSO), march 2023, https://agate.inrae.fr/agate/en/content/highlights

On the same subject

  • Entomology

    Charles Bonnet's fatherless aphids

    In 1745, Charles Bonnet describes the multiple experiments (carried out) under controlled conditions that enabled him to demonstrate the existence of asexual reproduction in aphids. Making the data available and describing the protocol to make it reproducible are still at the heart of the scientific approach today.