John Charles Bowring
Period of stay in Hong Kong: 1842–1864
Interest in natural history: Insects, especially beetles; ferns and orchids
The Insect Master
Bowring was a successful merchant who came to China in his early twenties. He became a partner of Jardine Matheson & Co. in 1854, one of the few outside the Jardine family. It is said that his vast connections in Chinese business circles greatly contributed to his father’s appointment (Sir Bowring) as British Plenipotentiary and Superintendent of Trade in 1849, and later the fourth Governor of Hong Kong.
An insect enthusiast, he ventured into the wild whenever he could. In 1847, when Captain Champion came to Hong Kong, they became friends and often went insect-collecting together. By the time Bowring returned to England, his insect specimen collection exceeded 80,000, all of which were donated to the British Museum (the collection was later split and became part of the Natural History Museum). In recognition of his contributions, the entomological community had been naming new species after him since the 1840s. Over the next century, nearly 50 species of insects were named bowringi or bowringii.
Not only did Bowring collect insects, he also studied their behaviours. In 1850, he found a new moth (Genus Epipyrops) and found its larvae to be parasitic. It was the first time that a moth with parasitic behaviour was discovered. Unfortunately, the specimen he sent to the Entomological Society of London (now Royal Entomological Society) in the same year was damaged during transport, and the new species therefore was not recognised. Nonetheless, his subsequent attempts to send specimens to the Society, not only resulted in the confirmation of the new species, but also led to the creation of a new genus in 1876 and a new family (Parasitidae*) for the moth in 1902.
Influenced by Champion, Bowring started collecting plants and became more passionate about ferns. His greatest contribution to botany was the delivery of two living Pith Paper Plants from Hong Kong to Kew in 1852, which helped Hooker solve the mystery that had puzzled the Western botanical community for decades. He also kept two plants and published a paper on them when they flowered. It was the only botanical paper he ever published.
When he left Hong Kong and returned to England, he was just around forty years old. The wealth he had accumulated in China allowed him to focus on his naturalist interests. He began growing orchids and got into hybrid orchid breeding, an experimental process that was still at a nascent stage at the time. He was the first amateur naturalist to experiment with this type of breeding. In 1876, he successfully bred Selenipedium x stenophyllum (now Phragmipedium × stenophyllum, a hybrid of the Genus Paphiopedilum).
*There are eight distinct categories in taxonomic classifications: domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. With each step down the taxonomy, organisms are classified into more specific groups. For example, humans belong to Animalia (kingdom), Chordata (phylum), Mammalia (class), Primates (order), Hominidae (family), Homo (genus), and H. sapiens (species).
The Annals and Magazine of Natural History (1844)
©️ Natural History Museum, London
The journal records the insect specimens from Hong Kong Island that Bowring sent to the British Museum. He drew the picture on page 422 to give British entomologists a better understanding of the features of Black Flightless Tiger Beetle. He wrote, "I have been much surprised at finding that there is so great a difference between the insects on this island and those on Macao Peninsula, a difference for which it is difficult to account, in places so close to each other (Macao is only 40 miles off).”