The gall of it! Alfred Kinsey and his wasps

In today’s Story from the Museum Floor, Bryony from the Visitor Team finds out more about Alfred Kinsey and highlights an interesting connection between gall wasps and human sexuality.

You can explore more resources and activities relating to gender, identity and sexuality on Queering Manchester Museum. And for more about our Entomology collection have a look at the Curator’s blog.

The gall of it! Alfred Kinsey and his wasps

Museums and the studies of their objects have long been breeding grounds for great thinkers of our times. You might already know that Marie Stopes, the famous birth control campaigner, made her start in palaeobotany (the study of fossil plants); and our fossil collections hold many of her objects. But did you know that Alfred Kinsey, the American researcher who came up with the Kinsey Scale, used to be an entomologist collecting and studying gall wasps?

Now, if none of that made sense, don’t worry – an explanation is incoming:

Firstly, what is the Kinsey Scale? The Kinsey Scale is famous for being the basis of our modern-day understanding of human sexuality. Starting in 1948 with Kinsey’s publication of his most famous work Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male (followed in 1953 by Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female), he formalised the idea that human sexual behaviour was more than just ‘man-on-woman action’. In fact, his scale ranged from 0-6, and covered the following:

0 – Exclusively heterosexual
1 – Mostly attracted to the opposite sex, with one or two instances of attraction to the same sex (bisexual)
2 – Attracted to the opposite sex more than the same sex (bisexual)
3 – Equally attracted to both men and women (bisexual)
4 – Attracted to the same sex more than the opposite sex (bisexual)
5 – Mostly attracted to the same sex, with one or two instances of attraction to the opposite sex (bisexual)
6 – Exclusively homosexual
X – These people experience no sexual attraction (asexual – this is me!)

The Kinsey Scale is illustrated on this lovely rainbow graph if you prefer a visual representation. (Source)

Of course, our understanding of human sexuality and gender has evolved since the 1940s – the obvious one is that the Kinsey scale doesn’t take into account attraction to and by those who exist outside of the binary categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’ (eg. non-binary people). It is also possible to experience attraction in different ways than this scale captures: some people, for example, don’t feel instant attraction to someone, this instead developing over a longer period of time (demisexual); and some people experience sexual and romantic attraction at different points on the scale (so somebody may be a biromantic asexual, or a homoromantic bisexual). But there’s no denying that Kinsey set a precedent and provided a useful basis for discussion in our understanding of human sexuality.

Kinsey’s research was based on interviews with over 100,000 participants from all walks of life, and used the same exacting methods that he developed during his ‘wasp studies’. As he wrote in his introduction to The Sexual Behaviour of the Human Male, “the transfer from insect to human material is not illogical. It was born out of the senior author’s long-time experience with a problem in insect taxonomy.”

Gall wasps are a small kind of wasp that lay their larvae within leaves – a growth known as a gall forms on the leaves, protecting the wasp. We have a few example of galls on display in the Nature’s Library gallery at Manchester Museum – oak spangle galls and sputnik galls are my favourites, both caused by gall wasp larvae, although there are several types of insects, fungi, bacteria and viruses that also cause galls. In the UK, there are 86 different gall wasps species, with 70 of them being oak specialists. Interestingly, gall wasps are also notable for having one generation that reproduces asexually, then a generation that mates to reproduce, and then switching back and forth between these two modes of reproduction from generation to generation.

Silk-button spangle galls on oak leaves, Nature’s Library, Manchester Museum, and a sputnik gall on a dog rose leaf (source).

Kinsey went above and beyond in his gall wasp studies – his research involved taking 28 different exact measurements of different aspects of each specimen – no mean feat considering they’re such tiny creatures, usually considerably less than 1cm long! This sounds doable for maybe a handful of specimens, but Kinsey was much more thorough than that – his university peers nicknamed him ‘Get-a-million Kinsey’ during his PhD at Harvard University in 1917 because of his dedication to collecting as many specimens for research as he could. Upon completion of his PhD in 1919, he travelled the length and breadth of the country (including some 2,500 miles on foot!) in pursuit of new specimens. He collected 300,000 specimens by himself, but over his lifetime he certainly would ‘get a million’  – and more!

He went on collecting expeditions to Mexico and Guatemala in the 1930s, using a specially kitted-out laboratory truck and several assistants, who noted how he would wake them up at 4am and make them have cold showers to be ready for another day of wasp-collecting, even on Christmas Day! It paid off in terms of the specimens he collected, over 130 species of gall wasps were discovered, with scientific names such as Advena kinsey, Apache kinsey, Attriidivisa kinsey, Abbicolens kinsey… these are just the species that start with A!

Upon his death, five million gall wasp specimens were donated to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, over a quarter of their total number of 18 million insect specimens, a galling statistic (I know, I couldn’t resist!)

So next time you’re in the museum, don’t just pass our leaf galls by – there’s much more history behind them than you think!


Find out more…

What does the Kinsey Scale have to do with your sexuality? – Healthline

Alfred C. Kinsey on Gall Warps and Edible Plants – JSTOR Daily

Bloom of the Week: How Kinsey Surveyed Gall Wasps Before Humans

A Lot of Gall – Cabinet Magazine

Seven Galls to Spot this Year – Woodland Trust

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