Good Questions: Float like a butterfly, sink like a wasp: This Week: butterflies, wasps, monkeys and misery, plus more on bum-bags.

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Who invented the butterfly swimming stroke? Has it any practical use outside competitive swimming? (Mark Barron, Barrow, Cumbria)

The German swimmer Eric Rademacher invented the butterfly stroke in 1926, but it only became generally noticed in 1933 when an American, Henry Myers, started using it to take advantage of an apparent loophole in the laws for breaststroke. Myers maintained that butterfly conformed to the letter of the rules by keeping the shoulders level, swimming on the breast, and having the arms extended simultaneously and symmetrically. The debate continued for 20 years until the rules were rewritten and butterfly recognised as a distinct stroke in 1953.

For butterfly: 'Both arms must be brought forward together over the water and brought backwards simultaneously. All movements of the feet must be performed together.' Up and down foot movements in a vertical plane are permitted, but no alternating movements.

In breaststroke: 'The hands shall be pushed forward together from the breast on, under, or over the water and shall be brought back on or under the surface of the water. The hands shall not be brought back beyond the hip line, except on the first stroke following a turn.' For the leg movements: 'The feet must be turned outwards during the propulsive part of the kick. Scissors, flutter, or downward dolphin kick is not permitted. Breaking the surface of the water with the feet is allowed unless followed by a downward dolphin kick.'

Sources: The Amateur Swimming Association, The Book of Inventions and Discoveries, Encyclopaedia Britannica.

What has happened to the once common wasp, vespa vulgaris? It was a large insect, brightly banded in shiny black and yellow, the artificer of papery nests, high in the corners of barns and was not especially fierce. What seems to have replaced it is a much smaller insect, about half the size, the stripes much duller and hardly shiny. It makes no nest but issues from a hole in the ground and is far more ferocious. Accidentally disturbing some last summer, I was pursued by them across my garden, into my house and up the stairs to my bedroom where they kept clinging to me and stinging. It is not shown in any book on hymenoptera that I have consulted. What is it?'

(Jean Overton Fuller, Rushden, Northants)

This question has produced some bafflement among the experts we consulted, with no known insect fitting all parts of the description. From the physical description, it would appear almost certain to be a solitary bee known as Andrena or mining bee. It is half the size of normal bees, hairy, which would give it a dull rather than hard and shiny appearance, and is a waspish orange or red, with stripes.

The females are solitary, and don't form colonies, but very large numbers of them tend to excavate holes in a tunnel in which they lay eggs. In light, often sandy soil, or on a grassy bank, there may be very many individual holes close together inhanbited by these wasp- like things.

The only thing wrong with this diagnosis is that mining bees do not sting. Conventional wasps do, however, often have underground nests, and it is even possible that Ms Fuller was followed by a mixture of two different species of insect. It is difficult to establish precisely what was biting her without the body of the accused. Anyone troubled by the persistent attention of flying insects would be well advised to change their perfume or after-shave. Smell is the most important of their senses for arousal.

Principal source: Dr Peter Credland, senior lecturer in biology, University of London.

Where do the three wise monkeys: 'See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil' come from? (Mrs E Green, Croydon, and others)

There appear to be two answers to this question: a temple at Kyoto or the Army & Navy stores. The OED goes for the latter, giving the earliest listing of the three wise monkeys as an Army & Navy Stores catalogue of 1926 which offered them at '4d per group of three'.

There is a poem, The Three Wise Monkeys, by Pauline Carrington Rust Bouve (1860-1928) beginning:

'In the land of the Island Kingdom,/'Mid Shinto temple and shrine,/Where the lights of a thousand altars/To a thousand false gods shine,/There is carved an odd, quaint lesson,/Wondrously cut in the wood - The three wise monkeys of Nikko,/Who see, speak, hear but the good]'

Another reference is Florence Boyce Davis, The Three Wise Monkeys (date unknown), who names them as Mizaru, Kikazaru and Iwazaru:

'In a temple at Kioto in far-away Japan,

The little Apes of Nikko are sitting, wondrous wise.'

Desmond Morris, in his 1966 book Men and Apes, writes: 'The famous three wise monkeys, See- no-evil, Hear-no-evil and Speak-no- evil, are based on the Japanese ape (Macaca fuscata), a delightful monkey with a short, stumpy tail and a bright, pink face that flushes scarlet when the animal is sexually active.'

Sources: Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, Oxford English Dictionary.

Finally, C Riley of Highbury, north London asks: Why is life so awful all of the time?

Plato believed that the highest pleasure comes from intellectual speculation, in which case an absence of such activity could be a cause for the awfulness of the life of the questioner. Aristotle prescribed a life of virtue and friendship as the best path to happiness, while Thomas Aquinas thought these secondary to a love of God.

Joseph Butler claimed that happiness occurs only as a side-effect of the satisfaction of other desires. So those who aim directly for happiness do not find it.

The answer depends on whether you take a teleological or deontological view of things. The latter depends on a belief in duty or moral obligation, while the former accepts that the goodness of an action may be measured by its effect. Jeremy Bentham, a founder of Utilitarianism, believed in a 'hedonic calculus', enabling the overall good to be calculated as a sum of all the units of pleasure and pain felt by anyone affected by the deed.

If reading this answer has given pleasure to many, while irritating few, the question may be deemed 'good' and C Riley, teleologically speaking, should be cheered up. Deontologically, however, life could still be just as awful.

FEEDBACK: Last week's Good Questions have produced enough letters to fill a bum-bag. Len Clarke of Uxbridge, Middlesex writes:

'I first saw a bum-bag, and heard it described as such, when skiing on Mount Hotham, Australia, at Christmas 1946. If bum-bag only appears in Brewers and the Shorter Oxford as late as the 1990s, they should pay more attention to what the other half of the planet is up to.'

Coincidentally, John Simpson, Chief Editor of the OED, writes to tell us:

'The first volume of the Oxford English Dictionaries Additions Series (published last week) traces bumbag back to 1951.' He supplies the entry, in which the earliest reference is from a Handbook of Skiing.

His Honour Judge Nicholas Philpot neatly ties up our bum- baggery: 'The Italians call bum- bags marsupi, so we know where marsupials wear them] Latin marsupium from the Greek marsupion: a scrip, purse, bag or wallet. Full circle]'

Compiled by William Hartston