Story by Paul Wood
Photos by David Liitschwager
Like the native Hawaiian insects
he loved so well, Hawai‘i’s greatest entomologist was not only strange, but also sensationally good at being strange. He was a shy, funny-looking little man with bright eyes and an astonishingly outsize nose, born in 1867 in the English village of Badminton. By family tradition he had been sent to Oxford to learn Greek and Latin classics. Midway through college, however, he rejected that course of study and succumbed to his boyhood love of insects—especially the order Hymenoptera (wasps, bees and ants). Just two years later he earned a degree in the natural sciences. A headstrong fellow, he rejected an excellent job offer from the British Museum simply because they wouldn’t promise him bug-related tasks. Instead he did something reckless—traveled halfway around the globe to collect specimens of indigenous insects and birds in the Hawaiian Islands.
When he arrived in Honolulu Harbor on the trans-Pacific steamship Mariposa in the spring of 1892, he was 25 years old and had never traveled farther than southern England. His name was RCL Perkins.
His one-man expedition was reckless for several reasons. Finances, for one. Although he had been sent to Hawai‘i by two esteemed British scientific societies—they planned to create a multivolume Fauna Hawaiiensis—these societies could provide Perkins only with travel expenses and a mere £100 for the work “as long as it will last.” It was madness for them to impose such a task on one paltry fellow—eight major islands, alpine volcanoes, vertical ravines, searing lava flats, impenetrable forests. … Perhaps those English academicians imagined that Perkins would spend his days netting grasshoppers in Honolulu back yards. They didn’t know about the true habitat of Hawai‘i’s indigenous insects, the wao akua—the forests of the gods, beyond the pale of civilization, higher than the last hut or footpath.
In fact, prior to sending Perkins, the societies had received a letter from the director of Bishop Museum declaring that “it was no use sending out an entomologist, as there were no native insects, but only a few American species.” So it might have seemed in the cultivated lowlands during the 1890s, where crops and pastures had replaced original habitats and where imported insects now ruled the micro-world. Big-headed ants, for example, with their caste of monstrous soldiers, and other species of militarized ants controlled the common areas. All ants were recent arrivals, as were cockroaches, mosquitoes, aphids. … Basically, anything that makes people say “ooh, ick” had come to Hawai‘i from the outside world within the century before Perkins’ arrival.
But RCL Perkins was fired by a holy fervor that simply intensified the more he discovered about indigenous insects. Nine years he spent with them, alone, on foot and eventually—after he shredded his boots on sharp lava—barefoot. He spent days slogging through waist-deep swamps or cutting paths in primeval woods. He spent nights without food or sleep, collecting moths by lamplight and entertaining himself by reciting Greek poetry. He compromised his health in his enthusiasm.
What is the wonder of Hawai‘i’s insects that could drive a man to such extremes?