Category Archives: Book Reviews

Clasped like tiny gold jewels… Miss Benson’s Beetle, a gem of a book

Inside the envelope, a black-and-white photograph. It showed two women. An entomologist and her assistant. The entomologist stood right in the centre, a young woman with a big smile on her face, her hand stretched out to reach the camera…. Freya moved her magnifying glass to the assistant. She was much older. Too old, really, to be in the field.”

I always find writing reviews of fiction a bit fraught as I am very conscious, that for some, including me, spoilers are the work of the Devil 🙂

My mission then, is to do my best to convey the feel of the book without giving away too much of the plot. Let me begin by saying that this is a fantastic book and I was very honoured to be involved, albeit in a minor way, as one of the entomologists that Rachel consulted before she embarked on her literary adventure.  Chick lit is defined as works of heroine-centred narratives that focus on the trials and tribulations of their individual protagonists, and is, more often than not, used as a dismissive and derogatory term. Yes, this book is heroine-centred, and yes it focuses on the trials and tribulations of Miss Benson and her somewhat erratically (and that is putting it mildly), behaved travelling companion, Enid Pretty. Nevertheless, let me assure you, this is not chick lit, this is a novel of substance, but written in a very approachable and accessible style.

The backbone of this story, and given that beetles are invertebrates, this is possibly not the best term to use, but as chitinous exo-skeleton doesn’t really do the job, I will stick with the vertebrate reference, is the quest for a possibly mythical golden beetle. Fear not non-entomologists, this is not an entomological textbook, filled with abstruse terms and incomprehensible minutiae. It is the very opposite. It is many things; it is a thriller, a love-story, a tragedy, a mystery, a tale of frustrated ambition, a window into the past and present, and above all, a story of fulfilment.

Not everything is as it seems as you will find when you reach the passage I quoted at the beginning of this review. Set mainly in 1950, but moving from before the Great War until the early 1980s this book will transport you on an emotional roller-coaster of a ride from London to New Caledonia, accompanied by a sinister stalker, a couple of unexpected stops along the way and some immensely amusing pen-portraits which really capture the period.

In summary, an unexpected friendship, murder, mystery, burglaries, things that go bump in the night, poignant, funny, and to cap it all, not all is what it seems at first sight.  As an entomologist, I must also compliment Rachel on how she has managed to capture the entomological aspects of the story and in particular, the passion that we feel for our discipline and our favourite species.

A must read for all, and, in my opinion, Rachel’s best book to date.

Rachel Joyce (2020) Miss Benson’s Beetle, Doubleday, ISBN 978-0-8575-2198- 9 £16.9:9

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Buzzing with invention and intrigue – The Bees by Laline Paull

Laline Paulll, The Bees, Harper Collins (2014) ISBN 978-0-00-755774-5

Having suffered the trauma of watching Antz and the Bee Movie, I’m always a tad reluctant to embark on books that feature insects as their main protagonists. Maya Leonard’s Beetle Boy trilogy, which I thoroughly enjoyed, is different, as the insects play a supporting role.  It is probably this prejudice that has allowed this wonderful book to have been unread by me for six long years 🙂

I can’t remember who recommended this book, but I’m glad I took them up on it.  Despite the glowing recommendation and the numerous blurbs inside and out (after all Stephen Heard has recently revealed the truth about book blurbs) I began reading Laline Paull’s debut novel with some trepidation. I was pleasantly surprised, despite the inevitable anthropomorphisation of the heroine*, (I don’t think the novel would have worked without it), I engaged wholeheartedly with the story.

I was a bit dubious at first about the kin group theme, the heroine is a Flora (717 to be exact), and there are Teasels, Clovers and the evil Sages, as I, erroneously as it turned out, had this idea that all the members of a hive were full sisters.  I had, however, misremembered, honey bee queens, unlike many other Hymenoptera, are no strangers to multiple mating**(polyandry), having, in fact, the highest levels of this trait of all the social insects (Strassman, 2001). Biologically, the Queen having access to multiple sperm-donors is highly advantageous, as when disease strikes, as it does in the novel, not all the inhabitants of the colony are equally vulnerable (Tarpy, 2003). British elms would not have been all but exterminated by Dutch Elm Disease, if they had not all been members of a single clone.

The other characteristic of bees that some might feel that Laline Paull plays a little fast and loose with is temporal polyethism (age based division of labour). I had slight misgivings about the rigidity of the division of labour within the hive. It has long been known that honeybee workers exhibit temporal polyethism (age-based division of labour) (Pérez, 1889). Young workers perform brood-nest associated tasks such as brood-cell cleaning and larval feeding, graduating on to food processing, nest construction, and guarding and finally as they enter old age, become foragers (Seeley and Kolmes 1991). Flora 717 does indeed go through these phases, but the rest of her kin group seem to be sanitation workers throughout their lives and the scheming Sage priestesses seem to have no other function than to spread their mantra of “Accept, Obey, Serve” and to direct the action of the sinister police bees. In case you think that police bees are a bit too detached from reality, worker bees do ‘police’ other workers when it comes to ‘unauthorised’ egg laying (Ratnieks & Visscher, 1989). Although it has been shown that different genotypes of bees within a hive do show some variation in the timing of their move from one task to another (Siegel et al., 2013), there is, as far, as I can find, no evidence of genotypes that remain fixed in one job their whole lives.

I guess the biggest issue, without giving the climax of the story away, is the production of a Queen from an egg laid by a worker bee. Worker bees can, and do lay unfertilised eggs, but, with one exception, they are invariably males.  Workers of the Cape honeybees (Apis mellifera capensis), however, can produce female eggs parthenogenetically (Hepburn, 1994), a phenomenon known as thelytoky. If fed the right food during the first 72 hours of their larval life, these eggs, could in theory, develop into Queens, (Pérez, 1889). Although the story is not set in South Africa, I am willing to give this a pass and assume that one of the drones that impregnated the Queen of Flora’s hive was a Cape honeybee.

The many issues facing honeybees are brought to life in this dramatic and believable story.  Experience the effects of pesticides, pollution and ‘phone masts on our heroine and her hive mates at first hand.  Cower as the wasps attack, and when a starving mouse gains entry to the hive in mid-winter, wince as the surplus drones are disposed of by the workers and cheer as our heroine saves the day.  This is a gripping story, and despite my reservations about the ‘hive mind’ Laline has taken the advice of her entomological advisors to heart and made a hugely successful foray into depicting the life style and ecology of the honeybee.

Definitely worth reading, a tour de force.

 

References

Hepburn, H.R. (1994) Reproductive cycling and hierarchical competition in Cape honeybees, Apis mellifera capensis Esch. Apidologie, 25, 38-48.

Pérez J. (1889) Les Abeilles. Paris, France: Hachette et Cie.

Ratnieks, F.L.W. & Visscher, P.K. (1989) Worker policing in the honeybee. Nature, 342, 796-797.

Seeley, T.D. & Kolmes, S.A. (1991) Age polyethism for hive duties in honey bees — illusion or reality? Ethology, 87, 284-297.

Siegel, A. J., Fondrk, M. K., Amdam, G. V., & Page, R. E., Jr (2013). In-hive patterns of temporal polyethism in strains of honey bees (Apis mellifera) with distinct genetic backgroundsBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology67, 1623–1632.

Strassmann, J. E. (2001) The rarity of multiple mating by females in the social Hymenoptera. Insectes Sociaux, 48, 1–13.

Tarpy, D.R. (2003) Genetic diversity within honeybee colonies prevents severe infections and promotes colony growth. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 270, 99-103.

*Unlike makers of The Bee Movie, Laline knows what sex worker bees are 🙂

** Note that I did not use the word promiscuous; promiscuity is a human trait, not an insect one.

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Snouts, pugs, daggers and leaf eating wainscots – and all because of the sharks!

I joined Twitter seven years ago,  and I was, and continue to be amazed by how many people out there run moth traps*. One of the many side-effects of the Covid-19 crisis is an increase in the number of trappers; every day my Twitter feed is filled with pictures of their more notable specimens.  The other day in response to this deluge of moths, I remarked on the fact that the common names of moths range from the extremely prosaic, to completely lyrical flights of fancy. Take for example, the baldly descriptive Orange Underwing and the gloriously named Merveille du Jour.  To these I could add the beautiful, but literally named, Green Silver Lines and the bizarrely named Purple Thorn.

Orange Underwing and the Merveille de Jour.

Green Silver Lines and a Purple Thorn. I see no purple 🙂

Now, I have seen a mouse moth in action, so I totally get its name. On the other hand, while browsing Paul Waring and Martin Townsend’s excellent Field Guide (I was trying to identify a Yellow Shell I had come across in the garden), I noticed a mention to the sharks. Intrigued, I skipped down to the species notes to see why they were called sharks. The answer was simple; Paul and Martin say it is the way their wings are folded at rest to give the appearance of  a dorsal fin. Looking at the picture, I could live with that, and it also gave me an idea.

As loyal readers will know, I have a penchant for delving into insect names.  Who could forget my in-depth investigation into the naming of thrips or the mystery of the wheat dolphin? I figured that here was yet another subject for a blog. I had, however, been beaten to the punch!  Naturalist Extraordinaire, Peter Marren has written a whole book about the often, gnomic names of Lepidoptera :-). Having discovered it, I had, of course, to buy it. You will be glad to know, that even though it cost me the princely sum of £20, and although as a Yorkshireman, I toyed with the idea of getting a second hand copy, I don’t regret the purchase one iota.

Peter Marren (2019) Little Toller Books £20

It is a lovely little book. It is amusingly written, brimming with history and filled with factoids over which any entomologist setting a Pub Quiz will drool.  Take my word for it, well worth the investment.  My only complaint is that there aren’t enough colour plates, but that is only a minor quibble. I don’t want to stop you buying Peter’s book so I am only treating you to a few of the gems contained therein.

I’ll start with the more obvious ones. There is a group of moths within the Erebidae (they were Noctuids when I was student) known as the snouts.  When you look at them from above it is obvious why. They have long palps that protrude very noticeably, forming a very distinctive snout. Just to confuse you, some pyralid moths are also known as snout moths, but their snouts are feeble affairs.

Hypena proboscidalis – The Snout

In the Noctuidae proper, we have the one that started it all, the shark, Cucullia umbratica, so called because it is sleek, grey and from above has a pointed shark like nose and a dorsal fin.

Cucullia umbratica – the shark.  yes, it is quite shark-like, but also a bit like a bit of bark. Perhaps it should be called the wood chip 🙂

 

Also within the Noctuidae we find the wainscots, so named because their pale grainy wings resemble wood panelling.

Mythimna pallens –  common wainscot and would definitely be able to hide in a wood panelled study

The three examples above definitely fit their common names.  The next two I feel have been somewhat misnamed.

Yet another Noctuid, this time Acronicta psi, the Grey Dagger.  According to Peter Marren, the markings on the wings look like daggers.  Personally I don’t see them, but I do see something that resembles pairs of of scissors 🙂

Daggers – the grey dagger wing markings suggest daggers, but look more like scissors to me

And finally, a Geometrid, a pug.  Supposedly the resting posture is reminiscent of the head of a pug dog with its drooping jaws.

Pug anyone? I don’t see it myself – someone must have had an overactive imagination!

 

If you want to know about the brocades, shoulderknots, carpets, quakers, prominents, rustics, eggars, thorns, sallows, and all the others, you’re going to have have to buy his book

Reference

Waring, P. & Townsend, M. (2003) Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland. British Wildlife Publishing, Dorset, UK.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the Butterfly Conservation Trust for allowing me to use the moth photographs.

*it always amuses me how many of them are vertebrate ecologists 🙂

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The Last Butterflies – book review

Book and cover both fantastic!

My review of Nick Haddad’s excellent book was published recently in Oryx.  If you want to read the review, follow this link.  If you don’t, then all you need to know is that my responses to the following questions were all very positive 🙂

  1. Would I buy it?
  2. Would I recommend a colleague to buy it?
  3. Would I recommend it to students as worth buying?
  4. Would I ask the library to buy it?
  5. Would I recommend it to anyone else?

Enjoy!

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All Among the Barley – an evocative and disturbing read

Readable Hardy

A summer between the wars

Rural lass recalls

I wrote this haiku immediately after reading Melissa Harrisons latest novel All Among the Barley, and tweeted it to her to let her know the admiration I felt for what I think is, to date, her magnum opus.  I hesitate to use the word enjoy, because, although this is a magnificent piece of writing, it is, in my opinion, an uncomfortable journey for the reader. Yes, my haiku is an adequate description

Melissa Harrison, All Among the Barley, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018

 

of the book, in as much as we spend a year in early 1930s rural England with the memories of Edith Mather, the sensitive and intelligent, teenage daughter of smallholder George Mather. Set as it is, the rhythm and texture of the farming year pervade the book but this in no way overwhelms the reader or the plot; it is an essential part of the narrative. The writing as a whole is lyrical, especially so when referring to the natural world.

 

“The bluebells would come out in Hulver Wood and our bees would wake and begin to forage; the grass would grow tall in the hay meadows and be mown, the peas would blossom once more and become sweet. And the cornfields would be green, then grow tall and turn golden; and so would pass the next year, and the next.”

 

It is hard to review this book without creating spoilers, so I am going to be deliberately opaque, but hopefully give you enough information to make you want to pick up, or buy a copy and immerse yourself in this lost world, that Melissa has stunningly recreated.  My arithmetic places the story in 1933 or 1934, a time of great upheaval in Europe and the UK. The rise of the unions, a deep distrust of foreigners, be they incomers or immigrants, overlaid on the, to some, fresh memories of the Great War, the insidious rise of fascism, and, despite burgeoning women’s rights,  a still, overtly patriarchal society, are the bricks on which this book is built.  The story is based firmly around the Mather family and Edie’s interactions with her recently married sister, her brother, her grandparents, her long-suffering mother and her prone to drunkenness father.  Add to this mix dark hints of witchcraft and a less than stable deceased grandmother, an unrequited relationship between Edie’s’ mother and the farm’s horseman, an overly amorous friend of her brother, a tincture of racism, the arrival of Constance, a liberated lady journalist from London, and you have the makings of a hugely compelling and gripping tale.

All is not as it seems and the twists and turns of this deceptively simple story will keep you by turns, charmed, horrified, puzzled and perhaps at times, in tears. I defy you to guess the ending.  It caught me totally by surprise.  I can only reiterate what I said at the beginning of this review, it may not be a comfortable read, but it is a magnificent piece of writing that deserves a huge audience.  I recommend it to you most strongly.

 

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Brilliantly, Beautifully Beetle Filled – The Beetle Collector’s Handbook

A book to hold and cherish – it is a very tangible experience

According to the frontispiece, Bartholomew Cuttle got this book when he was 9 years old and it passed into his son Darcus’s keeping when he was 13, I’m guessing at the end of the Beetle Boy Trilogy.  At round about the same age as Bartholomew (I was 8), I pinned my first insects and discovered the Dr Dolittle books, both events that shaped my life significantly, engendering as they did, a life-long love of Nature.

 

If someone had given me Maya Leonard’s latest offering, The Beetle Collector’s Handbook then, and not now, I would have been over the moon and have immediately rushed off to read it cover to cover in one sitting, which is pretty much what I did, and, how I felt, when it arrived in the post at work a couple of weeks ago 😊 As you may have guessed from the above, I am a great fan of this, the latest outing by Maya Leonard.  Despite the frontispiece, the artificial but subtle signs of aging and loving usage, and the connection with the Beetle Boy novels indicated by the fictional, annotations*  by Darcus and his friends, this is not a work of fiction.

Fantastic Silphid with extra annotations

Neither is it a text-book or a manual.  So, what is it exactly?  It’s instructional, educational and, very importantly, fun.   So, what do I mean by instructional.  I have, for example,  written about the history of the Pooter which I consider educational, whereas, The Handbook shows you how to make your own, hence instructional.

 

Everyone needs to know how to make a Pooter

Keeping proper records is very important.

 

Also instructional is the advice on how to record your observations.  In terms of education, you are regaled with salient facts and figures about a number of beetles, albeit only a tiny fraction of those that have been described by entomologists, but that in the words of the author are  “..the species of beetles that I think are the most surprising, beautiful and impressive…”

Stag beetle, I particularly like the fact that many of the illustrations show you the actual size of the beetle.

Maya, or should that be the fictional author, Monty Leonard, has shunned traditional taxonomy-based listing and instead presented the beetles in a playful grouping of shared traits, skills or appearance, so fun and educational.  What really makes this book something very special is the quality of the illustrations by a very gifted young artist, Carim Nahaboo.  I can’t praise them enough.  Buy the book and enjoy them in their high-quality format and not via my poorly photographed versions.

The Great Diving Beetle – marvellously life-like

 

This is a book that all primary schools should buy, two copies at the very least, one to subtly place in the library area and the other for use by the staff member tasked with encouraging their pupils to appreciate the wonders of Nature. I also think that secondary schools should invest in a copy or two.

I suspect that not all the fans of Darcus & Co will read this cover to cover, but those that do, will, I am sure, end up studying entomology, perhaps on the new Zoology & Entomology BSc at Harper Adams or on our MSc course 😊

Thank you, Maya, for yet another very enjoyable read.  May you long continue to enthrall audiences, young and not so young, with your tales of beetles and their deeds.

M.G. Leonard (2018) The Beetle Collectors’ Handbook, Scholastic Children’s Books, ISBN 978 1407 18566 8

 

*

 

 

 

 

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Battle of the Beetles – Kunoichi Beetle Girl – Maya Leonard Does it Again!

Battle of the Beetles, M.G. Leonard, 2018, Paperback, ISBN 9781910002780, Chicken House Publishing Ltd., Frome, UK.

I’m sad, I’m satisfied, I’m very impressed, I’m in a dilemma.  I’ve just finished reading Battle of the Beetles, the final instalment of M.G. Leonard’s Beetle Boy trilogy, which means, very sadly, that the adventure is over ☹

I’m satisfied, nay, very satisfied, because this final volume has lived up to the expectations raised by the previous two in the series, Beetle Boy and Beetle Queen.  I’m very impressed because Battle of the Beetles is so much more than an adventure story.  As well as being thrilling, heart-stopping, and full of action, it is also educational and raises some very important and thought-provoking issues.  I’m in a dilemma, because how can I review this excellent book without giving away spoilers?

First, just to reiterate this is a great book. It is a literary roller-coaster, featuring jungle escapades, martial arts, near-death experiences, family reunions, coleopteran gymnastics, terrifying events, pathos, bathos, scatological humour and a happy ending. In summary, a fantastic couple of hours entertainment.  If you have read the first two books in the series, you won’t be disappointed; buy or get someone to buy Battle of the Beetles for you as soon as possible.  If you haven’t read the earlier books you have some catching up to do 😊

The underlying theme of this instalment is metamorphosis and physiology and be warned there is some very memorable and slightly disturbing imagery connected with these themes.  You will never see Silphids (carrion beetles) in the same way again. Speaking of imagery, the illustrations by Karl James Mountford are stunning.  While amusing and entertaining there are some very serious underlying concepts that hopefully will not be overlooked by readers.  We learn about environmentally friendly means of pest control, e.g. pheromone disruption and the very successful and relevant real-life Sterile Insect Techniques (SIT). SIT was pioneered as a control technique against the screw worm, a serious pest of cattle in the USA (Baumhover et al., 1955; Knipling, 1955) and is now seen as a practical way forward for mosquito control or eradication (Benelli, 2015).  This may however, be the first time it has been mentioned in a work of fiction for children. Another first for Maya Leonard 🙂 The lack of undergraduate entomological training in the UK also gets a mention; the good news is that the MSc in Entomology at Harper Adams University is shortly to be joined by a new undergraduate degree, Zoology with Entomology 😊

The most thought-provoking theme is, however, that of rewilding, much in the news these days.  How far would you be willing to go to conserve species and protect the environment?  At one stage I almost felt sympathetic towards Lucretia Cutter; a truly brilliant twist to the story.  I don’t think I can say much more without giving too much away.

Embrace your inner beetle, throw away your prejudices and enjoy this fantastic adventure.  An enthralling read for everyone aged nine and above, including entomologists and ecologists.

References

Baumhover, A.H., Graham, A.J., Bitter, B.A., Hopkins, D.E., New, W.D., Dudley, F.H. & Bushland, R.C. (1955) Screw-worm control through release of sterilized flies.  Journal of Economic Entomology, 48, 462-466.

Benelli, G. (2015) Research in mosquito control: current challenges for a brighter future. Parasitology Research, 114, 2801-2805.

Knipling, E.F. (1955) Possibilities of insect control or eradication through the use of sexually sterile males. Journal of Economic Entomology, 48, 459-462.

 

Post script

I must also compliment Maya and her copy editor.  This is one of the most typo-free books I have read for some time.  I only found one error/typo, bearing used instead of baring.  Excellent proof reading.

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On Being Dead and a fictional ecology

Two very different books about fictional entomologists

I am ashamed to say, that until last summer, I had never heard of Jim Crace, let alone read anything by him.  Then my oldest friend (50 years since we first met at Ripon Grammar School) persuaded me that he was worth reading.   He was right, and I became hooked on Crace’s very distinctive style and diverse range of topics, ranging from the prehistoric to a dystopian future.  Then I came across Being Dead, which I at first thought was a murder mystery, but no, it turned out to be something completely different.  It is, in fact, a novel of many parts.  It is a retrospective view of the life of two entomologists who became matrimonially enjoined after they meet on a student expedition.  It is a love story with a difference. It is a commentary on bereavement and loneliness.  It is a story of life and death. I am however, not going to dwell on the plot, a fair bit of which describes the decomposition of the two bodies 🙂 Don’t be put off though, it is definitely a book worth reading.

Early on we are introduced to the study organisms of the two Doctors of Zoology, which is how Crace describes his two main characters*.  Celice works on the Oceanic Bladder Fly and Joseph on the Spray Hopper, Pseudogryllidus pelagicus. Crace’s description of the latter beast, a small (1 cm long) grey predatory beetle resembling a cricket, feeding on sea nits and sand lice at the ocean’s edge, was so cool, that, having never heard of this insect before, I was prompted to turn to the Great God Wikipedia, where, to my surprise, I found no mention of this fabulous beast!  Nor could I find it in Web of Science or Google Scholar.  I was forced to admit that I had been totally fooled and that the spray hopper was a figment, albeit very realistic, of Crace’s fertile imagination.   I am used to coming across ‘realistic’ fictional ecology in well-crafted science but have not often come across it in literary mainstream fiction so this was a bit of a surprise.

The Spray Hopper, Pseudogryllidus pelagicus, as imagined and very badly drawn by me

Being the nerd that I am, I went back to the start of the book and started reading it again, this time noting down every biological reference, checking these with Google, Google Scholar and Web of Science.  Luckily the spray hoper is mentioned fairly early on.

In addition to the already mentioned salt nits and sand lice, some other fictional insects appear, some with tantalising snippets of life cycle and habits.  These include the Polar cricket and Blind cave hoppers, which I assume are Orthopterans, three more beetle species, the Dune beetle, the Furnace beetle and Claudatus maximi a specialist herbivore, feeding on lissom grass. Three flies get a mention, Celice’s study organism, the Oceanic bladder fly which feeds on inshore wrack, the interestingly named Swag Fly, which seem to have a penchant for blood, and finally, the Sugar Flies, which as they are associated with fruit rind, I assume may be Drosophilids. There is a fleeting mention to the Squadron ant and an intriguing hemipteran, a flightless cicada, the Grease monkey, that feeds and breeds in diesel and is dispersed in the fuel tanks and engine blocks of trucks and lorries.

A number of birds are mentioned, but without much in the way of their biology, the only clues being in their names, Wood crow, Rock owls, Skin-eyed hawks  Sea jacks, Skimmers, Pickerling, and the  Hispid buzzard.   Crace almost slipped up with the latter, there is a Hispid hare, Caprolagus hipidus, also known as the Assam rabbit, which is native to south Asia.

Crace doesn’t just invent animals, he does plants as well.  Central to the decay theme and with several mentions is Festuca mollis or lissom grass.  Crace also gives us several alternative common names for this grass, angel bed, pintongue, sand hair, repose.  The adjectives he uses when talking about lissom grass are all indicative of its role in both the choice of location for the  act of sexual congress that unwittingly makes the entomological couple murder victims;  bed, mattress, irresistible, velvety, sensuous.  Again this is a totally made up species, although there is a Bromus mollis that depending on your source is either a synonym or a sub-species.

Then there are the wonderfully evocatively named plants, Flute bush, Sea thorn, the Tinder trees (described as being very dry), the Sea pine, also known as Slumber tree or Death’s Ladder, Vomitoria that grows in thickets, an imaginary relative of walnut,  Juglans suca that yields sapnuts, Stove weed with green bells, Pyrosia described as having high bracts, firesel, cordony and finally, the staple crop of the area, manac beans.

Three real plants get a mention, Spartina, red stem, Ammannia spp., which grows in water, and wet soil, and are used in aquariums and finally broom sedge Andropogon virginicus, native of the USA but a weed in Australia where it is known as whiskey grass as it was used as packaging for bottles of USA whiskey, which is a bit of trivia I didn’t know.

And finally, the one made up mammal, the Sea bat which given how few mammals there are, is entirely proper 🙂

All in all, reading Being Dead was a rewarding, if not entirely enjoyable experience, although I guess it depends on how you define enjoyable.  I do however, recommend it to you as good read, if only for the thrill of meeting the Spray hopper!

Coincidentally the next book I read was The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams, which is also a murder story with an entomological connection, but unlike Being Dead, the entomology is hard core and totally real – I know, I checked 🙂  Like Being Dead, it is also worth reading, although again, there are definitely metaphysical under- and overtones so ones enjoyment is tempered by having to think hard about what you are reading.

Read them back to back for the full experience and relax in the knowledge that you don’t need to keep fact checking as I have done it for you already 🙂

 

p* Strangely I was slightly irritated by this despite it reflecting that zoology, as I have always said, is mainly entomology 🙂

 

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Will Lucretia Cutter reign supreme? Beetle Queen – the latest sensation from M G Leonard

beetle-queen

https://www.chickenhousebooks.com/books/beetle-queen/

Laughter, tears, joy, horror and shock; what an emotional roller-coaster of a book.  From the gurgling stomach of a much-loved uncle to the charred rim of a once beetle-inhabited cup, Maya Leonard’s latest installment* of beetle-inspired fiction will grip and hold you spell-bound from the moment you start reading.  This is a book you won’t be able to put down, it will get in the way of everyday life, and will, depending on when you begin to read it, obscure your dinner plate or breakfast bowl.  Be warned, those of you who are moved to tears easily will definitely need a box of tissues or a large handkerchief close by.

It is very hard to write a review of this enthralling and fast-moving book without giving away too many spoilers, so I am going to limit myself to unstinting praise and a very brief synopsis of the plot to give you a flavour of what to expect 🙂

Metamorphosis is the name of the game. Lucretia Cutter has a devious plan, but Darkus, Bertolt and Virginia are on the case. Novak thinks that Darkus is dead, Bartholomew Cuttle is acting very strangely, Uncle Max is a tower of strength and Mrs Bloom reveals hidden depths. We learn more about the early days of Darkus’s parents and their interactions with the then Lucy Johnstone and meet some other entomologists.  Yellow ladybirds act as spies and assassins for Lucretia Cutter, and we travel to the film Awards in Los Angeles via Greenland with our resourceful trio, Uncle Max and Mrs Bloom.  Lurking in the background, the evil cousins Humphrey and Pickering provide comic, albeit distasteful relief.  All this leads us to the dramatic finale, where much is revealed including some parts which will especially amuse all the boys (old and young) 🙂

The shootout at the Film Awards ceremony where the evil Lucretia spectacularly reveals her hidden attributes, Novak performs gravity-defying feats, and giant motorised pooters come into their own to help our intrepid trio and their grown-up allies overcome the evil hordes, makes me think that one day we will be seeing Darkus and his friends on the silver screen.  There are of course great supporting roles by Baxter, Marvin, Newton and Hepburn, and do remember to brush up on your Morse code 🙂

This installment of the story ends at Christmas and the presents our heroes receive tell us that our next stop is the Amazon!

This book, like the first will definitely help bring the wonders of entomology to a wider audience.  Maya Leonard continues to be a worthy ambassador for our discipline, and I am extremely grateful that she has opted to use her undoubted talents to publicise insects and entomology so well.  Thank you Maya.

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*If you haven’t read the first installment in this thrilling trilogy I can thoroughly recommend it.

 

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It’s never too early to get it right – children’s books can be accurate as well as fun

Making insects more appealing to children, (and adults), by making them look cute, cuddly and more like humans, is not a bad thing in itself, there is however, a line that should not be crossed.

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These two books for children written almost a century apart, are exact opposites. In Sibylle von Olfers’ Etwas von den Wurzelkindern published in 1906, we see the most incredibly detailed and accurate biological drawings.  The insects are pretty much recognizable to

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The Wurzelkindern getting the beetles spruced up for spring

species as are the flowering plants; the grasses are so accurately portrayed that the following conversation occurred on Twitter.

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Two plant scientists are able to discuss the grasses, so accurately are they drawn.

Contrast this with Birgitta Nicolas’ 2009 Der kleine Marienkäfer und seine Freunde.

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Here the insects have four legs*, humanised faces and hands and feet, although to be fair, the bumblebee does have pollen collectors (or is perhaps wearing leg warmers). The plants are heavily stylised and although one can guess at their families, I could not for example decide if the member of the Rosaceae pictured was Prunus, Malus or Pyrus, although being pink. it is most likely meant to be a Prunus.  The language used, despite the Gothic characters in von Olfer’s book, is at the same level, so meant to be read aloud by a parent or puzzled through by a beginner, yet the treatment of the wildlife is so different.  Von Olfers’ charming and accurate illustrations provide a visual treat of exploration and learning, while Nicolas’ heavily stylised daubs rely on the texturing present, i.e. fake fur for the squirrel, fuzzy felt for the bumble bee etc.  What harm would it have done to have at least given the insects the right number of legs and in the right place, all on the thorax.  The bee might also have liked to have had the right number of wings**, I might then have been able to forgive her the humanised faces, it is a story after all 🙂

As Aristotle said “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.” Early habits die hard and if you learn that insects have four legs as a young child, confusion must ensue and make it harder to learn and retain the truth later on. First perceptions and impressions have a habit of sticking with us in later life, best to get the facts right at the beginning.

So if looking for an insect or natural history themed book for a young relative, I would recommend that you buy Sibylle von Olfer’s book and if your German or Google Translate is not up the job, you can get it in English https://www.amazon.co.uk/Tale-Root-Children-Etwas-Wurzelkindern/dp/3946190146/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&qid=1462291724&sr=8-7&keywords=etwas+von+den+wurzelkindern

Post script

Whilst clearing the attic in our new house*** in the Languedoc area of France, I came across this edition of Pinocchio published in 1959,

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which as well as bringing back nostalgic memories, I had the same edition as a child, but in English, is a great example of getting the insects right. The keen-eyed of you will notice it has a cricket on the front cover, but unlike the Walt Disney version in which Jiminy is definitely not a cricket, Libico Maraja, the illustrator, had obviously looked at crickets closely and carefully before putting pen to paper.

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Pinocchio meets the talking cricket – he does not have a name in the original version of the story.

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Even when anthropomorphised he still retains essential features such as legs joined to the thorax and complete with tarsi.

*although if you look closely, this insect, which I think is meant to be an aphid, does seem to have six legs 🙂

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**at least the ladybird has elytra and wings 

***our retirement dream house and where I hope to write all the books that I have planned to write over the last twenty-odd years and never got round to doing 

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