8 thoughts on “Curious Friday : Potter Wasp Nest

  1. Here’s a little piece of fairly useless literary detective work I engaged in this afternoon prompted by your (as always) fascinating pictures. I thought you might be interested, since this, after all, is Curious Friday.

    According to Wikipedia the genus name of the potter wasp supposedly comes from the Greek general Eumenes who was the loyal secretary of Philip II of Macedon, a close associate of his son Alexander the Great and supporter of Alexander’s own son during the civil war that followed the death of Alexander. The decision to name an insect genus after an ancient warrior seemed to me curious and probably had an interesting story behind it, so I tried to track down the reason. Nowadays when a new scientific name is given the namer is required to give the etymology in the paper proposing the name. This name, however, was proposed long ago by a French entomologist named Pierre André Latreille in 1802. I couldn’t find the work in which he named the genus (and I suspect he wouldn’t have wasted time explaining the meaning, in any event). Nor could I find in any of the numerous taxonomy texts that attribute the name to Latreille any reason for the choice of name. Taxonomists must not themselves be a curious lot.

    So I tried to discover a plausible reason–a “folk taxonomy”–why Latreille would associate these wasps with general Eumenes. Although I couldn’t find any other source of whatever trustworthiness (other than ones that simply copied Wikipedia) that proposed that the wasps were named after the general, that did not deter me. So I looked through ancient “biographies” of Alexander to see if there was some association between Eumenes and any sort of wasp. Google drew me to an Armenian version of the so-called (lost) The Romance of Alexander the Great by the Psuedo-Callisthenes (an anonymous Greek author of perhaps the 3rd century A.D. who some scholars in the Middle Ages thought was actually the Callisthenes who knew Alexander in the fourth century B.C. The author now goes by the name of “the false Callistenes”). That collection of Alexander legends gives the following speech by Alexander before his first encounter with the Persians (the hated foes of the Greeks for generations):

    “‘My fellow soldiers and friends, I know that our number is small, but let no one bear in his heart a lesser courage for the fight. For anyone of you baring his fists could destroy thousands of opponents. I know that the number of Persians, with all their stupidity and foolishness, is greater than ours. But there are many thousands of flies in gardens, which, on a summer day, gather and, because of their great numbers, crowd one another; but when wasps and horseflies attack them, they drive them away in a whir of wings. In the same way, a mass of those Persian flies is nothing against a very few wasps of the Macedonian armies.’ When the king had thus spoken, they all praised him.”

    Eumenes undoubtedly was present for this supposed speech but he is not a big deal in Pseudo-Callisthenes. But it’s the closest I ever got to associating Eumenes with wasps.

    A nagging curiousity however drove me to what I should have done first: Liddell & Scott’s Greek Lexicon. There I find that the work “menes” is often used in the sense of “steadfast,” as in “menedaios” (steadfast against the enemy, staunch), “menaichmais” (abiding the spear, staunch in battle), “menecharais” (stauch in battle), etc. (There are often many terms in Greek for something we are happy to use one word for; and Greeks loved battles and heroism, so they had numerous words for them). The term is even part of the name Menelaus (which means “withstanding men”), the husband of Helen who mounted the Greek expedition against the Trojans (who would have killed Paris but for the treachery of Aphrodite–and what better day than today to recount the untrustworthiness of the goddess of love?). “Eu-” is a common preface meaning “true” or “well” or “very.”

    I therefore suspect Latreille named the wasp because he regarded them as “very steadfast” because the males aggressively defend the feeding grounds and the females bring caterpillars to feed the larvae.

    But I did learn 3 things in the process: (1) There is no reason to assume that there is an interesting story behind a scientific name. (2) Never trust Wikipedia unless it footnotes a source and you can verify it. And (3) Pseudo-Callisthenes looks like a rousing string of legends that’s worth a further read.

    1. Well thank you for all your work is exploring the meaning behind the Latin name of these wasps. In working with plants which my wife and partner who knows most of the Latin names for them and having done a little research behind their meaning it is interesting what some folks were thinking when they discovered something new and wanting to give it meaning.
      For me it always the pleasure of just observing the wonders around me, that if I didn’t want to see , I would never know they were there.

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