Saved by a Beetle

I found a history lesson sitting on my sweet peas.

In November 1793 thirty-one year-old Pierre André Latreille found himself locked in a French prison, a priest who refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the state. He was destined to follow other victims of the French Revolution, including Marie Antoinette who died on the guillotine just weeks before.

But then something unusual happened. The story goes that while checking on prisoners, the prison doctor found Latreille on the floor studying a tiny beetle. He claimed it was quite rare, Necrobia ruficollis, the red-necked bacon beetle. (Although Latreille had trained as a priest his real passion was natural history and insects in particular.)

Intrigued, the doctor sent the beetle to a local naturalist who confirmed Latreille’s discovery. Jean Baptiste Bory de Saint-Vincent was familiar with Latreille’s work with insects and managed to convince authorities to release Latreille and a cell-mate. The two men were incredibly lucky — within a month the rest of the men were executed.

Out of prison, Latreille gave up the priesthood and devoted the rest of his life toPierre Andre Latreile collecting and naming insects, producing a prolific body of work. Between 1798 and 1850 more than 160 species were named in his honour — including the fly in my garden, Mesembrina latreillii, identified and named in 1830.

Noted scientists described Latreille in glowing terms — “the father of entomology”, “the prince of entomology” and “the foremost entomologist of our time.”

After his death France’s Entomology Society placed an obelisk over his grave. One of the inscriptions reads: “Necrobia ruficollis Latreillii salvator” — Latreille’s saviour — honouring the little beetle that saved his life.

Mesembrina latreillii   (no common name)