Woolly bear postscript – where have all the young entomologists gone?

On Saturday (16th February) I attended the Shropshire Entomology Day at Preston Montford http://www.field-studies-council.org/centres/prestonmontford.aspx organised by Peter Boardman of the Field Studies Council http://www.field-studies-council.org/. The day was very well attended, about 75 people in total, and the talks ranged from detailed discourses on how to tell aquatic bugs apart to more general talks such as that by Peter Boardman  (my personal favourite) about the genealogy of a box of insects once owned by the remarkable Dipterist and blackfly expert, Lewis Davies http://www.blackfly.org.uk/downloadable/bsgbull28.pdf and that by Richard Becker showing us how he has made his organic Welsh hill farm into a haven for a wide variety of insects from dung-flies to butterflies.  I was there with my Professorial hat on, and incidentally my entomological t-shirt, to spread the word about the MSc in Entomology that we run at Harper Adams University http://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/postgraduate/201004/entomology and to foster links between us and other like-minded individuals and organisations.  We also heard about plans for a new Dragonfly Atlas for Shropshire and the forthcoming Cranefly Distribution Atlas for Shropshire, as well as the herculean efforts of the Wrekin Forest Volunteers http://wrekinforestvolunteers.blogspot.co.uk/ to ensure that every tetrad in the count at least one invertebrate record associated with it.

All in all it was a very enjoyable and informative day.  The thing that struck me most however, and I have made this observation before http://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/staff/profile/files/uploaded/Leather_&_Quicke_2010.pdf, was that the age range of the speakers and audience was heavily skewed towards the grey end of the spectrum, me included.  There were some relative youngsters present, but the overwhelming majority of the participants present, and those pictured in the talk by Paul Watts about the Wrekin Forest Volunteers, were heading towards retirement age or definitely past it.  I have noticed this phenomenon many times when giving talks to local Natural History Societies, most markedly at the Crowthorne Natural History Society, http://cnhg.org.uk/meetings.html where I was the youngest person present by at least 15 years!

So where were all the youngsters, and in this case I mean the 20-30 age group.  Volunteering to work abroad at great expense on projects involving charismatic mega-fauna or sat in front of their computer screens playing games or engaging with their peers on Face Book?  That said, one young man I spoke with, was planning to go to university to study ecology, an ambition that had been stimulated by volunteering in India, but the impression I got was that once qualified, he intended to return to India to continue on similar projects rather than get involved with small local projects as I advocated in a previous article https://simonleather.wordpress.com/2013/02/01/think-small-and-local-focus-on-large-charismatic-mega-fauna-threatens-conservation-efforts/ .

Yes I had an enjoyable day, yes I made some great contacts and yes, I even stimulated interest in the courses we offer, but Houston, we have a problem. There is enthusiasm at primary school level and the Bug Club http://www.amentsoc.org/bug-club/ do a great job at fostering this enthusiasm, but secondary school teaching (with some rare exceptions) and sadly, biology, zoology and ecology degrees at undergraduate level in the UK, largely relegate entomological teaching to a handful of lectures, concentrating instead on molecular biology or, when whole organisms are mentioned, my pet bugbear, charismatic mega-fauna.  My greatest fear is, that unless we can get secondary schools and universities to provide teaching that encompasses the invertebrate world, we will not only see the continued lack of engagement with invertebrates by the young, but we will also lose the older end of the spectrum as the endangered entomologically enthusiastic youngsters become extinct and no longer provide us with the next generation of grey entophiles who maintain sites such as this http://www.insects.org/entophiles. I find it hard to imagine that there are people who can fail to love or be thrilled by organisms such as this giant water bug, once they have them drawn to their attention.



At the risk of sounding alarmist I really feel that it is imperative that we get the message of how important entomology is out  to all levels of society and government before it is too late.  How we do this is another matter, but do it we must.


Filed under Bugbears, Teaching matters, The Bloggy Blog

7 responses to “Woolly bear postscript – where have all the young entomologists gone?

  1. Gordon

    During my University years I saw people interested in Entomology actively discouraged from pursuing it by the academic staff, on the grounds that it would make the student look like a “natural historian” rather than a serious researcher. It was fine to study the DNA or biochemistry of an insect, but anything whole organism or worse, taxonomic, was considered worthless since it didn’t attract funding. I think this institutional bias may be the biggest problem currently since any young incomers find their careers coming to a stop once they graduate.


  2. We are here! Always trying to get the word out, whilst keeping our own heads above water 🙂


  3. Hello from one of the old people who went to the entomology day. I too had a very good day and I have to say I enjoyed your bit especially because years ago I worked in entomology departments in agricultural research stations here and abroad. I agree with a lot of what you say. I got into entomology by accident when as an agricultural student I applied for a summer job with what I think was then ADAS in Cambridge and that was all that was on offer. Having done a bit of something called agricultural zoology that year the thought of working with insects appalled me and I nearly didn’t go but of course I had a brilliant summer and a few years after that. So how did the course in agricultural zoology present such an awful picture of entomology do you think?

    Since those days I have done lots of other things involving husbands, children, jobs … and it is only now that I am old that I have the time for entomology again. This is not the first time I have been made to feel rather guilty for turning up to something at Preston Montford and having someone moan that everyone was so OLD and there was no hope for the future! I haven’t got an answer for you I’m afraid. Perhaps entomology is something we enjoy in our first and our second childhoods, perhaps as we aren’t actually dead yet you could get us to do something useful?


    • Thanks for your comments – where did you do Agriucltural Zoology? It was doing agricultural zoology at Leeds that really made me decide on my career choice.


      • Oh – I did general agriculture at Leeds in the late 60s- we did a bit of agricultural zoology which I thought was deadly, but then I was not one of their finest students. Once I got out and met insects (and nematodes) in real life it was a different matter. Might there be non-university routes into a professional career?


  4. We’re here, but on limited funding, there are only so many places, talks, etc. we can get to. We really have to hand pick where we go. 😦


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