Logging the Pittioni bee collection.

Three boxes, sufficiently heavy that holding one casually is an exaggerated sign of manliness, make up the Pittioni Bee Collection. Open any one up and it divides neatly in half, to reveal hundreds of index cards in various shades of off-yellow.
On the oxidizing iron paper, in a cursive script of often fearful legibility, Bruno Pittioni has recorded bee specimens collected by himself mostly, his father sometimes, and a few others here and there. At the top of the card is the often lengthy species name. More on that later. There are columns for the place a specimen was collected, the date of collection, the plant it was found feeding upon, the bees’ number and gender, and the person who collected it.
Some record cards are bespoke with printed headers, others are hand-drawn columns. So far, so normal. The collection takes on a more sinister air when coming to the bright off-yellow of the school records. Pittioni used the blank reverse, tracing out a few columns in pencil to fill with his scrawl. The printed side, in heavy blackletter, mostly contains mundane questions - the grades attained by a child, the names of their parents, the date of birth. One question on the school side sticks out. Kathleen, my volunteer colleague and a native German speaker, translated it. ‘Member of Party’. Ja / Nein. Each card is printed with several school years. These in every case cover the same time period: 1939-1946.
When not idly wondering about the fate of Ewalds and Oskars in the Third Reich (are any of them still alive?), I transcribe the species at the top of the cards into the Scratchpad database. Taxonomy has been transformed by modern advances in molecular cladistics and phylogenies generated with mitochondrial DNA and sophisticated genetic markers. This much is well-known. But to truly intuitively grasp how far we have come since Watson and Crick’s Copernican revolution in biology, I think it’s necessary to spend time with a natural history collection of the past. Though scarcely half a century separates me from Bruno Pittioni, his taxonomy looks the product of a megalomaniac with obsessive-compulsive disorder who gorges on L-dopa.
B. alticola, B. alticola tenufasciatus, B. meridionalis, B. alticola latofasciatus, B. alticola drenowskii, B. alticola drenowskii tenuifasciatus, B. alticola drenowskii latofasciatus - says Pittioni, filling card after card.
Modern science looks on the confusion, and brings them to order under a single species: B. Melanobombus sichelii.

B. agrorum m. septentrionalis, B. agrorum m. septentrionalis f. sextigametus, B. agrorum m. septentrionalis subquadristigmatus, B. agrorum m. romani, B. agrorum m. romani f. fasciatus, B. agrorum m. romani f. niger, B. agrorum m. romani f. propefasciatus, B. agrorum m. romani f. subfasciatus, B. agrorum m. romani f. superoctomaculatus, B. agrorum m. pascuorum, B. agrorum m. pascuorum f. intermidicus, B. agrorum m. olympicus, B. agrorum m. meridionalis, B. agrorum m. meridionalis dusmeti, B. agrorum m. melleofacies, B. agrorum m. drenowskianus, B. agrorum m. drenowskianus, B. agrorum m. drenowskianus f. tricuspi-sublatofasciatus […] and so on, and on. And on and on. Says Pittioni.

Modern science: B. Thoracobombus pascuorum.

Much of these varieties have a ‘Pitt.’ next to them, indicating that Pittioni took himself to be the first to ever describe these varieties. And how many he did describe. I’m tempted to believe he was continually scratching at the so-called ‘mihi itch’ seen amongst naturalists, the desire to have one’s own name immortalized next to Nature’s ancient lineages for all time in august annals of bees.

My degree was in ecology, and I remember studying the various species concepts with great interest. We were biologists, empiricists and testers - so it was all about the best species concept, given the evidence. And maybe Pittioni is just a morphological species concept ‘splitter’ extremist, ascribing a new variety to each tiny difference in form. But now I think that psychology can never be excluded from these debates. A similar thing is seen in ‘birders’, who often invent their own taxonomies - after all, why have one species, when two gives you another ‘tick’?

Bringing Pittioni’s old species taxonomy into line is half the task, and here I’m aided greatly by the NHM’s Dr Paul Williams’ wonderful species list for Bombus. By checking old names against this, I can find the modern equivalent. Sometimes, the name is not on the list, but a bit of educated guesswork means I’ve not yet found anything I can’t put a modern name to - though one or two records remain uncertain. Deciphering the other details on the card, in much smaller writing and doubtless referencing towns and countries that no longer exist, will be for people with sterner souls and superior squinting skills.

At the end of a day looking at cards on a screen, coming to the 43rd different name for the same species, I take some vindictive pleasure in grouping all of these ridiculous subsubsubsubspecies into one modern species. Take that! Why did you make things so complicated for me? When things get like this, it actually makes me long for my day job, a very different world editing a report writing course or a technical writing course, rather than noting down the tenth different name of Bombus humilis.

But on the other hand, how many modern entomologists, now so much more biologists than natural historians, could match him? It’s a commonplace that science advances, that Aristotle today would be amazed by what a school child knows. True, if he talked to the right kid. But I wonder if a keen eye like Pittioni exists anywhere today, or could exist again. We may know that his endless listing of bees will be difficult to get real ecological data from, and is only a small step-up from the ‘stamp collecting’ of bird watchers and their ilk - but when it comes to his eye for detail, I can’t help but feel that science may have taken a step back. Our scientific knowledge will continue to increase well beyond Pittioni - but in an age of molecular biology, the naturalist’s art of observing closely may never be ascendant again.

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Scratchpads developed and conceived by (alphabetical): Ed Baker, Katherine Bouton Alice Heaton Dimitris Koureas, Laurence Livermore, Dave Roberts, Simon Rycroft, Ben Scott, Vince Smith