Insect Pests

William’s other research interest was the insect pests that attacked his animals and his crops. He studied their life cycle as part of his understanding of the way in which their attacks destroyed crops and weakened animals. His ideas, comments and conclusions were based on his detailed observations. These ideas differed from conventional theories, but William found support from eminent scientists.

Farmers knew that their cattle might run across a field, apparently in terror at being attacked by an insect. The insect that was generally blamed was the ox-warble fly. It certainly laid its eggs on cattle and the grubs, or warbles, travelled through a cow’s back to appear months later from little craters on its back.

To investigate this insect, William rose at 2am and went among his cattle to collect warbles as they bored their way out of the cows’ backs. He kept these until they developed into flies. He took one of the flies and allowed it to buzz close to the cows — but they did not appear to notice the fly or react in any way. So the question William asked was: Why were cattle supposed to be afraid of this insect but they seemed unconcerned when he held it close to their heads? The ox-warble fly laid its eggs quietly on the legs of cattle. It did not bite the cattle so it could not have been the irritation of being bitten that caused the panic. There was another fly that did bite and William thought this might have been the cause of cattle running across a field. He wrote an article about his observations and ideas. With the help of Prof Alexander Meek, this was published in 1898 in a veterinary journal. The full story told in this article is a fascinating account of William patient and careful observation and research on which he based his conclusions. Fifty years after William’s death, writers of books on insects were still debating which insect was the cause of panic in cattle. William had made his contribution to this debate.

William did similar research on the action of the horse bot fly. Again, William’s ideas, based on his careful observations, differed from generally held theories. He wrote an article about his research. This was published in a national newspaper and a veterinary journal and so his work was widely read and recognised. It was quoted by other writers and included in international research indexes.

William corresponded with Miss E A Ormerod, an entomologist with an international reputation and so something of his work was known through his contributions to her reports on insect pests. Sometimes the route his work took was less direct. When digging peats for winter fuel, William spotted larvae of an insect and recognised them as Sericomyia borealis. He took the larvae home and hatched them into flies. This was an unusual achievement. His story, and the specimens, were sent to another amateur entomologist in England, thence to someone who wrote an article, quoting William’s notes. This story was picked up by G H Verral who was writing a major book about British flies. He printed an account of William’s work, complete with extracts from his letters. So William’s original observation and subsequent research were quoted 7 years later in a reference book. Did William ever realise how his recognition of this larva while cutting peat had received such publicity?