Help us identify some 17th century butterflies, moths, and bugs

Help us identify some 17th century butterflies, moths, and bugs

Think you know your bugs? Art curator Dr Mark Stocker has been working on a project along with our bug experts, Dr Phil Sirvid and Dr Julia Kasper, to identify a number of butterflies, moths, and other insects (including a snail) in some 17th century prints by Anglo-Czech etcher Wenceslaus Hollar. But they haven’t managed to identify them all – can you help?

Hollar: artist of nearly everything 

Hollar really was the artist of ‘nearly everything’ in the 17th century: religious prints, mythology, satire, landscapes, geography and maps, portraits, costumes, sports, architecture, heraldry, numismatics, ornaments, title-pages, and initials.

Etching of some furry hand muffs
Wenceslaus Hollar, Muff with a band of brocade, 1647. Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1952. Te Papa (1952-0003-128)

But as yet, I haven’t discussed insects and bugs in Hollar.

It so happens that Te Papa owns a splendid and complete set of his etchings of these creatures and we need your help in identifying them all.

The science team steps in

Much of the identification work has been done already by my erudite science team colleagues Phil Sirvid and Julia Kasper, who were instant converts to Hollar.

Like me, they marvelled at the intricate beauty of his depictions and the delightful pictorial arrangements of Muscarum scarabeorum vermiumque (Of flies, beetles and worms), though there are paradoxically relatively few beetles and no house flies or worms whatsoever!

Intricate etching including butterflies and other winged insects
Wenceslaus Hollar, Muscarum scarabeorum … varie figure. Plate 1. Title plate, 1646. Gift of Bishop Monrad, 1869. Te Papa (1869-0001-165)

Art vs science

Happily, Phil and Julia were able to identify the huge majority of Hollar’s creatures even if their New Zealand equivalents are their speciality.

Identification of these insects from black and white depictions was not always straightforward, but his use of common species made their task easier.

My colleagues admired the fineness and general accuracy of his depictions – unprecedented at the time. And they allowed for artistic licence in the formal rather than scientific arrangement of the creatures on each plate: after all, this was a century before Carl Linnaeus revolutionised the system of naming organisms.

Carl Linnaeus on Swedish 100 kronor banknote
Carl Linnaeus on Swedish 100 kronor banknote, 1996 (World Banknotes and Coins)

Lord Arundel’s flies

The invertebrates concerned came from a set of coloured drawings or paintings in the collection of Hollar’s great patron, Thomas Howard, 21st Earl of Arundel.

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Peter Paul Rubens, Thomas Howard 21st Earl of Arundel, 1629-30. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston (Wikimedia Commons)

An immediate question that Phil and Julia asked was whether the source material consisted of preserved specimens housed in this great collector’s ‘Cabinet of curiosities’.

Looking closely at certain examples, you can see from slight departures from strict symmetry that they were indeed based on such specimens. But others, like the caterpillars, whether furry or slimy, couldn’t have been preserved, while the varied open and closed wings also meant that Hollar went out in the open to study his art from life.

We reckon he got hooked, and to congratulate himself on the set’s completion, he made this astonishing, and rare, print, which could be subtitled ‘Hollar’s Greatest Insect Hits’. Dead or alive, Te Papa would love to own Forty-one insects, moths and butterflies.

An etching of forty-one insects, moths and butterflies
Wenceslaus Hollar, Forty-one insects, moths and butterflies, c. 1646. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Harris Dick Fund: 23-65.35

Now over to you!

Plate 1: Title page

Etching of a number of bugs
Wenceslaus Hollar, Muscarum scarabeorumvarie figure. Plate 1. Title plate, 1646. Gift of Bishop Monrad, 1869. Te Papa (1869-0001-165)

Within an ornate baroque frame, the inscription tells us in Latin what the set depicts, its source in Lord Arundel’s collection and that the etchings were made by Hollar in 1646, when he was based in Antwerp as a Royalist-supporting refugee from the English Civil War (1642-51).

Hollar loved heraldry and he is really enjoying himself, playing games with mating insects. This is definitely the most complex and challenging plate, and we’ve numbered in red the more prominent invertebrates in it, starting top left and moving clockwise. (Those in red below are as-yet unknowns.)

  1. A species of bumble-bee (Bombus sp.).
  2. Possibly a tiger moth (subfamily Arctiinae), but if so it is depicted in the ‘at rest pose’ of a butterfly.
  3. Possibly a gossamer-winged butterfly (Family Lycaenidae), Polyommatus sp., viewed from below.
  4. Possibly the garden tiger moth, Arctia caja. If so, there is some artistic licence, as the wing shape and pattern are very unusual. The rear wing margin would not be undulating as shown here.
  5. Cabbage white butterfly, Pieris rapae. Possibly the great white butterfly, Pieris brassicae, as the two are very similar. Same as in Plate 2, top row, right.
  6. Painted lady butterfly, Vanessa cardui (two views, both reproduced on Plate 1).
  7. Possibly a gossamer-winged butterfly (Family Lycaenidae). The spotty pattern looks like artistic licence rather than an attempt at accuracy.
  8. Two dragonflies flanking an unknown inverted heart-shaped butterfly. We are uncertain about the identity of the butterfly, but we suspect the view is looking down on it while it holds the wings slightly open with only the forewings apparent.The dragonflies’ wings are incorrectly posed as they are shown above the body as opposed to horizontal and at right angles to the body. Could this have been Hollar’s attempt to follow the sweep of other decorative elements? We also wonder if the dragonflies are meant to represent two sexes, as the body shapes are different and they are in close proximity to a heart-shaped element. The dragonfly on the left looks more authentic, while the one on the right looks somewhat anthropomorphised, particularly the head. The body is rather necklace-like. If the dragonflies are based on real species, they look as if they belong to two different families (left: Libeluidae, right: Aeshnidae). The dragonfly on the right has rather unusual eyes that seem to be gazing (lovingly?!) at the other. Its mate, however, is probably not in love and is instead looking towards the inscription.
  9. Family Zygaenidae, possibly the variable burnet moth, Zygaena ephialtes. Same as in Plate 3, bottom row, centre.
  10. Xa – Xd: unknown, please help us identify them!

Plate 2: Six insects

Etching of insects including a cricket and some butterflies
Wenceslaus Hollar, Muscarum scarabeorum … varie figure. Plate 2. Six insects, 1646. Gift of Bishop Monrad, 1869. Te Papa (1869-0001-166)
  • Top left: meadow brown butterfly, Maniola jurtina, possibly a male
  • Top right: cabbage white butterfly, Pieris rapae, though like Plate 1, it could be a great white, Pieris brassicae
  • Middle left: unknown moth, possibly Dioryctria abietella, from the family Pyralidae
  • Middle right and bottom left: large conehead (bush-cricket), Ruspiola nitidula (viewed at two angles)
  • Bottom right: possibly the migratory locust, Locusta migratoria

Plate 3: Moth and three butterflies

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Wenceslaus Hollar, Muscarum scarabeorum … varie figure. Plate 3. Moth and three butterflies, 1646. Gift of Bishop Monrad, 1869. Te Papa (1869-0001-167)
  • Top: hawk moth (sphingidae), possibly the privet hawk moth, Sphinx ligustri or pine hawk moth, sphinx pinastri
  • Bottom left: dingy skipper moth, Erynnis tages
  • Bottom centre: a member of the Zygaenidae, possibly the variable burnet moth, Zygaenae ephialtes
  • Bottom right: unknown butterfly, member of the Nymphalidae or Lycaenidae families

Plate 4: Four caterpillars and a snail

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Wenceslaus Hollar, Caption Muscarum scarabeorum … varie figure. Plate 4. Four caterpillars and a snail, 1646. Gift of Bishop Monrad, 1869. Te Papa (1869-0001-168)

This plate will appeal the most to some people, the least to others. I admire Hollar for his witty, almost surrealistic observation of how furry caterpillars could resemble his famous fur hand-muffs (see above). These, in turn, can transform from inanimate objects to rather sinister, even sexy-looking creatures!

  • Top: unknown caterpillar
  • Second row, left: snail, possibly cornu aspersum
  • Second row, right: tiger moth caterpillar, sub-family arctiinae
  • Third row: spurge moth caterpillar (hyles euphorbia)
  • Fourth row: tiger moth caterpillar, sub-family arctiinae

Plate 5: A moth, three butterflies, and two beetles

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Wenceslaus Hollar, Muscarum scarabeorum … varie figure. Plate 5. A moth, three butterflies, and two beetles, 1646. Gift of Bishop Monrad, 1869. Te Papa (1869-0001-169)
  • Top row: possibly the small emperor moth, Saturnia pavonia, from the family Saturniidae
  • Middle row, left: seven-spotted ladybird, Coccinella septempunctata
  • Middle row, right: two-spotted ladybird, Adalia bipunctata
  • Bottom row, left: Possibly a species of Coenonympha brown butterfly, from the sub-family Satyrinae
  • Bottom row, middle and right: wall brown butterfly, Lasiommata megera

Plate 6: Dragonflies, bumble-bee, and butterfly

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Wenceslaus Hollar, Muscarum scarabeorum … varie figure. Plate 6. Dragonflies, bumble-bee and butterfly, 1646. Gift of Bishop Monrad, 1869. Te Papa (1869-0001-170)
  • Top row, left: a species of bumble-bee, genus Bombus
  • Top row, right: damsel-fly, infraorder Zygoptera
  • Middle: possibly a banded-winged grasshopper of the genus Oedipoda and the Acrididae family
  • Bottom row, left: gossamer-winged butterfly from the Lycaenidae family
  • Bottom row, right: dragonfly, infraorder Anisoptera. The strangely shaped wings suggest that Hollar was trying to represent the insect in motion. Dragonflies have four wings, but in motion they would look blurred to the naked eye.

While looking at this plate, I noticed that the venerable and scholarly New Hollstein catalogue of Hollar’s prints had inadvertently overlooked the butterfly in its title. I reported this to a famous overseas museum but they prefer to remain faithful to Hollstein. So, for accurate research, make Te Papa’s Collections Online your first choice!

Before we buzz off…

Any answers that either identify the unknown invertebrates, or confirm possibilities, would be very much appreciated. If Phil and Julia have made any errors, then feel free to sting us! The reader with the most correct answers to both blogs will win a jar of manuka honey. Till next week, zzzzz….


  1. Plate 4: unidentified caterpillar – looks like a deaths head hawk moth caterpillar

    1. Author

      Thank you Hilary – this too will be forwarded to our invertebrates’ experts. Part II of this exciting blog will be posted very soon!

  2. My guesses:
    Plate 1, #8: Possibly Melanargia titea or M. lachesis
    Plate 1, Xa: too stylized to be sure … possibly Melanargia
    Plate 1, Xb: Argynnis paphia
    Plate 1, Xc-Xd: Lasiommata megera
    Plate 2, Middle Left: Anania hortulata? (Crambidae: Pyraustinae)
    Plate 3, Bottom right: Polygonia c-album
    Hope this is useful!

    1. Author

      Thank you for your inspired ‘guesses’, Vazrick, these are appreciated. Yours and any others that we receive will be forwarded to Phil and Julia, who will investigate them further. We will report back in due course!

  3. Plate 4: The caterpillar looks like a sphingid caterpillar, which commonly have those chevron patterns. There are other caterpillars that also have them, like Melanchra persicariae, but the head:body width ratio makes me lean towards Sphingidae. Some sphinx moth caterpillars don’t have the typical posterior “horn” during their last instar, or it’s quite reduced. As the specimen is drawn from directly above, it’s hard to tell.

    Plate 6: The damselfly looks like a calopterygid, assuming the broad wings aren’t artistic licence. If so, it could belong to the genus Calopteryx (many have all dark wings).

    1. Thank you for your identifications, Daniel, these are appreciated. Yours and any others that we receive will be forwarded to Phil and Julia, who will investigate them further. We will report back in due course!

  4. Thank you Mark Stocker. I learned much about Hollar’s etchings and insects from your blog post. Don’t buzz away for too long!

    1. Thank you Bruce and don’t worry – 6 more plates of insects will be buzzing your way next week!

  5. Thank you Tom, he will definitely be alerted by my great science team collaborators!

  6. I bet Robert Hoare would be able to help with the Lepidoptera – have you tried contacting him?

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