All of my research and work on Lantern Bugs is nearly done. I’m just waiting on some information from emails I’ve sent various museums and then my article and collections review on these insects will be complete.
While searching for literature on collectors and the insects themselves, I came across an interesting discussion in the third volume of the 1836 edition of The Entomological Magazine. It details a debate between entomologists about whether or not the lantern bug is actually a luminescent creature. In fact, the magazine even had the lantern bug on the front of their publication:
We now know that lantern bugs do not emit light, but at the time many people had insisted that they did. The most famous account was from Maria Sybilla Merian, who mistook luminescent bacteria on dead cicadas sharing the box with the lantern bugs for their light.
Even though Merian was wrong, the attack on her in the following notes I have copied seems unjustified. Most likely it was because of society’s attitudes towards women. I will let you read on and decide for yourself. Comments in italics are mine:
Mr. Davis: “Gentlemen, the present highly respectable meeting of the friends of the Entomological Magazine, has been convened for the purpose of considering the propriety of altering the figure which appears on the wrapper and in the title page of the magazine. It has recently been asserted that the insects of the genus Fulgora are not luminous. The whole evidence in favour of the luminosity of Fulgorae is summed up in “The Introduction to Entomology, by Kirkby and Spence;” a work of which I scarcely know how to speak in terms of sufficient praise.”
Mr. Davis then reads the passage, which I will quote part of here: “In F. laternaria, which is an insect two or three inches long, the snout is much broader and larger, and more of an oval shape, and sheds a light, the brilliancy of which transcends that of any insect. Madame Merian informs us, that the first discovery which she made of this property caused her no small alarm. The Indians had brought her several of these insects, which by day-light exhibited no extraordinary appearance; and she enclosed them in a box until she should have an opportunity of drawing them, placing it upon her table in her lodging room. In the middle of the night, the confined insects made such a noise as to awaken her, and she opened the box, the inside of which, to her great astonishment, appeared all in a blaze; and in her fright letting it fall, she was not less surprised to see each of these insects apparently on fire. ”
Mr. Doubleday: “Mr. Chairman, I have to thank you for this impartial manner in which this subject has been introduced. I now call your attention to the leading fact that [it is mentioned] in that passage that the species laternaria is the only species concerning which there is any evidence as to its luminosity, and this evidence is that of Madame Merian, an authoress who has been detected over and over again in the most gross mistatements. Witness that remarkable one lately pointed out by Mr. MacLeay, concerning Mygale avicularia which was supposed, on the sole authority of Madame Merian, to kill birds, having first entangled them in a web; a more fabulous story than which the history of gnomes and fairies cannot boast. In the instance before us, Madame Merian gravely tells us, that the Fulgorae are produced from the great Cicadae; so much for her accuracy!”
Six months later, at a second meeting, J. Hoyer leapt to Merian’s defense:
Mr. Hoyer: “Mr. Chairman, I beg leave to second the amendment. I think the objections made by our friend, the author of the Letters of Delta, are anything but sound. He sets out with attempting to throw a slur over the accuracy of Madame Merian; and brings forward, certainly, a very high authority to his support,- namely Mr. MacLeay. The charge notwithstanding all this, I think, will not stand the test of a cross-examination.”
In fact, Merian had stated nothing about a web. And she was right that the spider preyed upon hummingbirds.
Mr. Hoyer: “Here, then, is nothing about entangling the bird in a web; and I concieve that she has a right to retort upon her accusers. Her account I think rational; and that so powerful an insect as she describes, when pressed by hunger, should attack the nest of a hummingbird, is, in my opinion by no means improbable. ”