Did Little Miss Muffet have nits?

I didn’t have the £1850 on me, so I had to forego this wonderful opportunity recently:

The first book in Engish on insects, 1658.

The first book in Engish on insects, 1658.

Published in 1658, as part of a larger compilation from various natural history sources, Thomas Muffet’s Theatre of Insects is widely lauded as the first book, in English, on insects. This was a translation of the Latin edition published in 1634. It turns out that Muffet (or Moufet, or Mouffet, or Moffet) did not write much of it, but was the catalyst by which various manuscripts he had inherited finally go into print. He possibly wasn’t that much of a catalyst either, and it only finally rolled off the presses 30 years after his death.

I did have a quick flick through though — fascinating reading, and some charming, if rather crude, woodcut illustrations. I didn’t notice at the time, but he has a whole chapter on head lice.

I’ve filched this from the on-line version of the Latin original. No mistaking this noisome beast.

Translation anyone?

Translation anyone?

The Little Miss Muffet of curds-and-whey nursery rhyme fame was reputed to have been Thomas Muffet’s daughter, taking the ridicule for her father’s peculiar interest in bugs. Perhaps, if the taunters had taken time to read the book through they might have come up with another rhyme, immortalizing her nits. History, and entomology’s loss, I say.

Bang on time, an island-hopping analogy

Just as predicted, a couple of weeks into the new term and 8-year-old was caught scritch-scratching behind the ear.

We’ve invested in a new nit comb, after the one we bought in Canada 5 years ago started to shed tines.

And tonight three little louselings have been dredged out.

This being the 21st century, we no longer believe in spontaneous generation, so a model of island biogeography offers us the best understanding of what has occurred.

First, there are no adults, not one. Second, the louse nymphs are all the same size, about 0.5 mm long. This implies that a mature, egg-laden female visited the island (8-year-old’s head) from some other part of the archipelago (class of schoolmates). She laid her eggs over a very short period, probably an hour or two, then moved off to another isle (probably during literacy lesson). A week later the eggs are hatching synchronously and the baby lice are starting to crawl about and to feed.

Of course, there is no actual island hopping (or skipping, or jumping) because head lice only crawl, but instead of having to negotiate seas between the islands, these islands conveniently visit and bump each other, head-to-head.

We got in quick, this time, with our vermin eradication programme. But we must keep vigilant.

Thankfully, the no-nits policy is long past

The editor of the 8-year-old’s school newsletter has chosen exactly the right time to make the usual head louse announcement — two weeks into the autumn term.

After several louse-free summer months the kids return to the heady (literally) maelstrom of head-to-head learning; just perfect conditions for louse spread.

It is a great relief to see that the school continues to offer sage advice about finding nits (i.e. combing) and they maintain their policy of not excluding nitty children.

The ugliest insect in the world?

For anyone who missed it, the blobfish has, apparently, been voted the ugliest animal in the world. I can’t work out whether I’m frustrated or relieved that this accolade didn’t go to an insect.

There are plenty of contenders. In Extreme Insects, I put forward the caterpillar of the lobster moth, Stauropus fagi, for this title. Imagined, by the ancients, as being half scorpion, half spider, it presents a truly gothic appearance. This, of course, is part of its defence against predators. It doesn’t look like an edible morsel. It doesn’t look like anything, actually.

Lobster moth caterpillar. Ugly.

Lobster moth caterpillar. Ugly.

But then marine biologist Maya Plass helpfully pointed out that, in her opinion, head lice could have out-done the blobfish:

“Nits are as close to ugly as I can imagine…Although [I'm] still impressed at their ability to cling to hair with their evil little limbs.”

16. Hooke

Yuck. Even in Hooke’s Micrographia, 1665.

She’s right, of course. ‘Cadaverous ashy-white’ is the best description of a head louse that I can find, from Denny’s Monographia Anoplurum Britanniae, published in 1842.

Maybe I should make a real push and get the head louse nominated next year.

Friendliness is next to lousiness

It's a thrilling read, but difficult to associate with any of the major characters.

It’s a thrilling read, but difficult to identify with any of the major characters.

Just got a call from my brother. He’s bought, and he wants me to sign, a copy of Little Book of Nits.

“It’s for some friends”, he says. “We stayed with them recently, and all their kids had head-lice”

I readily agree, but after we hang up, I contemplate the possibilities.

You’ve got to be REALLY good friends with someone to give them a book that is a direct comment on the state of their children’s verminous hair. And you have to be sure that you’ve accurately gauged the true measure of their humour.

This could all go horribly wrong.

It’s another sale though. Ring up those royalties, I say.

It’s been too quiet, too long

I was wondering, earlier, what I should blog about next. And right on cue, this text came in:

Not their real names.

Not their real names.

The text continued: “I love how you’re just so accepting of it, almost like you were waiting for them”.

Well, actually, I am. I’m always expecting them to reappear. They’re not going to go away just because we’ve combed a bit and are temporarily louse-free for a while. Anyway, we’re well used to the little blighters, and having a detached scientific professional interest in them helps.

Just one thing worries me, our best nit comb has lost a few teeth, we’ll have to get a new one.