Tag Archives: Charles Darwin

Have you read The Origin of the Species?

As biologists we all acknowledge the influence that Charles Darwin has had on our professional lives but how many of us have actually read On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in its entirety?  The importance of The Origin has long been recognised by universities, even we agricultural zoology students at Leeds University back in 1973 had The Origin on our first year recommended reading list.  How many of my classmates bought it, let alone actually read it, is anyone’s guess.  I suspect not many.  I was somewhat odd, in that I had already read it, as far as I can remember when I was about 16 and just starting in the Lower 6th  (Year 12 in today’s parlance).  I was helped by the fact that both my parents were biologists and my Dad’s copy of The Origin was readily available. I was, and still am, a prodigious reader, although I must confess that I now find it much more difficult to read ‘hard’ books than I did then.

Finally, here is my question.  If as a professional biologist, of whatever ilk, does not having read The Origin make you any less of a biologist?  Should you be outed and castigated as an incomplete biologist?  Probably not.  What do you think?  I asked how many people had read  The Origin using a Twitter survey last week as a simple yes/no question.  The survey generated 53 responses, of  which 57% said yes.  The survey below is slightly more nuanced, taking into account the one respondent who tweeted “partially?”  🙂 Just realised that I managed to miss out the less than 18 category, my apologies.  If you are such a prodigy please feel free to tick the 18-25 box but add a note in the comments section so that I can adjust later.

 

Many thanks for your participation and rest assured, if you have not read The Origin I am not judging you in any way  🙂

Advertisements

9 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

EntoMasters on Tour – Visit to the Royal Entomological Society 2017

Yesterday I accompanied the Harper Adams University MSc Entomology and Integrated Pest Management students on their annual visit to the Headquarters of the Royal Entomological Society (RES), The Mansion House, located on the outskirts of the historic city of St Albans.

ontour-1

Harper Adams University entomologists, young and not so young 🙂  Photo by Jhman Kundun

Last year we had  a truly epic journey; accidents on the overcrowded UK motorway system on the way there and back, meant that we spent eight hours on the coach 😦  This year, in trying to avoid a similar fate, I cruelly forced the students and staff to be on the coach by 0645.

ontour2

Early morning entomologists; despite the hour, happy and smiling  – photo Alex Dye

Unfortunately, despite the early start, a diesel spill closed the M6 at a crucial moment causing huge queues and long detours.  As a result we arrived at our destination a frustratingly  hour and a half late.  Entomologists are however, made of stern stuff and the coffee and delicious biscuits awaiting our arrival soon restored our spirits.

ontour3

Coffee!

After coffee the RES Director of Science, Professor Jim Hardie, welcomed the students and talked about the history of the society and the benefits of joining as student members.  This was followed by a brief talk by one of the Outreach Team, Francisca Sconce, herself a former entomology Master’s student, about the many ways in which the RES brings the study and appreciation of insects to a wider audience.  The students were then treated to lunch and given the opportunity to explore the building and its facilities and to look at some of the treasures that the RES safeguards for posterity.

ontour4

Someone found the aphid section 🙂

ontour5

A future President? – trying out the presidential chair for size

ontour6

Dr Andy Cherrill enjoying the famous entomological lift (elevator)

I am no stranger to The Mansion House; I have taken several cohorts of the entomology MSc students to the Royal Entomological Society since the society moved its headquarters to St Albans in 2007, and also visit the building a couple of times a year when attending committee meetings.  Despite my long association with the RES (40 years) I still however, find things I have never seen before, such as the print below, that gently pokes fun at the single-mindedness of the entomological specialist.

ontour7

It is only a vertebrate  🙂

I also never cease to be amazed and humbled by the history that surrounds one as you meander your way around the various library rooms.

ontour8

 

ontour9

Printed history – as beautiful today as it was 400 years ago

We had a wonderful and educational day and you will be pleased to hear that our return journey was trouble-free.  Finally, many thanks to the Royal Entomological Society and staff for their extremely kind hospitality; the lunch was, as always, filling and delicious  🙂

Leave a comment

Filed under EntoNotes, Teaching matters

Entomologists – hirsutely stereotyped?

There is a general perception that entomologists* are bearded, eccentric elderly men, with deplorable dress sense, something I must confess I probably do little to dispel.

beard-1

Beard and entomologically-themed clothing – living the stereotype 🙂

Whilst it is certainly true that many Victorian entomologists fitted this description, it was and is not, a universal requisite for entomologists, although the images below may suggest otherwise.

beard-2

beard-3

Two views of the same beard

beard-4

Two famous (and bearded coleopterists) Charles Darwin and David Sharp – two great examples of an elderly entomological beard.

beard-5

Alfred Russel Wallace – often overlooked so have not paired him with Darwin 🙂

beard-6

Two examples of the weird (to me at any rate) under the chin beard.

beard-7

Elegant (?) entomologists; note not all are bearded 🙂  From the Aurelian’s Fireside Companion

 

To return to the proposition that male entomologists are facially hirsute, we need to answer the question, were, and are male entomologists different from the general population?  Up until the 1850s beards were fairly uncommon and usually associated with radical political views (Oldstone-Moore, 2005).  Entomologists were no exception, those from the 18th and early 19th centuries, being in the main, clean-shaven, well-dressed gentlemen, or so their portraitists would have us believe.

beard-8

Entomologists also remained relatively clean-shaven up to the 185os, as these pictures of two entomologists who became famously bearded in later life show.

beard-9

Charles Darwin, fairly clean-shaven, but sporting fashionable side boards, 1854, pre-Crimean War, and a youthful, clean-shaven Alfred Russel Wallace.

After the 1850s, beards and bushy side boards began to be seen as a sign of masculinity (Oldstone-Moore, 2005).  This was further reinforced as a result of the conditions during the Crimean War where due to the freezing conditions and lack of shaving soap, beards became commonplace among the soldiers.  Beards were then seen as a sign of the hero, hence the adoption by many civilian males of the time (Oldstone-Moore, 2005).  This sporting of facial hair was not just confined to entomologists, as the pictures of my great-great-grandfather and his cousin show.

beard-10

Two Victorian civil engineers – my great-great grandfather John Wignall Leather and his cousin, John Towlerton Leather.

Entomologists were however, still very much bearded at the end of the century.

beard-11

A group of entomologists from the north-west of England in the 1890s.  Some impressive beards and moustaches; from the Aurelian’s Fireside Companion

So during the latter half of the 19th century, it would seem that male entomologists were no different from any other male of the time.

The full beard, except for those associated with the Royal Navy, started to disappear soon after the beginning of the 20th Century; the Boer Wars and the First World War hastening its departure.  Moustaches were still common however, and many entomologists remained resolutely bearded until the 1920s, although perhaps not as luxuriantly so as some of their 19th century predecessors.

beard-12

A group of entomologists from 1920 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Percy_Ireland_Lathy#/media/File:BulletinHillMuseum1923.jpg

It is surprisingly difficult to find group photographs of entomologists on the internet, so I have been unable to do a robust analysis of the proportions of bearded entomologists through the ages.  Two of the most influential entomologists of the first half of the last century were however, most definitely clean-shaven.

beard-13

Sir Vincent Wigglesworth (1899-1994) and A D Imms (1880-1949), the authors of my generation’s two entomological ‘bibles’.  Definitely clean shaven.

The 1960s and 1970s were renowned for the hairiness of males in general (at least those in the West) and this especially spread into the world of students, many of whom were entomologists.  My memories of those times of attending meetings of the Royal Entomological Society and the British Ecological Society are of a dominance of beards among the male delegates and not just those in their twenties, but then memory is a funny thing.  I was, for example, lucky enough to attend the Third European Congress of Entomology held in Amsterdam in 1986.  My memory is of many bearded entomologists, but looking at the photograph of the delegates only 30% of the male delegates are bearded.

beard-14

The third European Congress of Entomology, Amsterdam 1986 – I am there, suitably bearded 🙂  The eagle-eyed among you may be able to spot a young John (now Sir John) Lawton, also bearded.

More shocking is the fact that the photograph shows that less than 20% of the delegates were female.  Times have changed since then, and as the two recent photos below show, we now have more female entomologists and fewer beards, the former a very positive trend, that I heartily endorse, the latter, something I am less happy about 🙂

beard-15

IOBC Meeting 2015 https://www.iobc-wprs.org/images/20151004_event_wg_field_vegetables_Hamburg_group_photo.jpg

beard-16

Entomological Society of America 2016

Generally speaking, it seems that beards are in decline and female entomologists are on the rise, something that I have, in my position as the Verrall Supper Secretary of the oldest extant entomological society in the world been at pains to encourage.

As to the matter of entomological eccentricity, that is another thing entirely.  As far as most non-entomologists are concerned anyone who loves insects and their allies is somewhat eccentric, and if that is indeed the case then I am happy to be considered eccentric.

beard-17

Me, happy with my head in a net

Eccentricity is not just confined to those of us in our dotage.

beard-18

A modern day eccentric?  Josh Jenkins-Shaw ex-MSc Entomology Harper Adams University, now pursuing a PhD at the Natural History Museum of Denmark at the University of Copenhagen resolving the biogeography of Lord Howe Island using beetle phylogenetics, mostly the rove beetle subtribe Amblyopinina.

beard-19

A selection of entomologist from our Department at Harper Adams University – not all bearded but we are all wearing antennae!

beard-20

Perhaps Santa Claus is an entomologist!

Merry Christmas to all my readers 🙂

 

References

Oldstone-Moore, C. (2005) The beard movement in Victorian Britain.  Victorian Studies, 48, 7-34.

Salmon, M.J. & Edwards, P.J. (2005) The Aurelian’s Fireside Companion.  Paphia Publishing Ltd. Lymington UK.

 

*That is of course if they know the meaning of the word.  I am constantly being surprised by the number of people who ask what an entomologist is and as for the ways in which entomology is spelt by the media, words fail me 🙂

 

 

13 Comments

Filed under EntoNotes, The Bloggy Blog

Reflections on the dawning of the Anthropocene

We are now officially in the Anthropocene Age which is probably not a good thing.  It seems an appropriate moment to reflect on what we can do to halt, or at the very least, slow down, what seems to be an unstoppable race to extinction of most of the natural world.  We all know what the principal causes are despite the obfuscation and prevarication that surrounds the debate. Equally, we are also aware of the mainly political and economic pressures that are preventing us from doing something to ease the pain and suffering we are inflicting on the world. I am not going to rehearse the arguments, but instead I will let the following speak to us all about why we need to keep and enhance what nature we have remaining.

Anthropocene

“Though large herds of deer do much harm to the neighbourhood, yet the injury to the morals of the people is of more moment than the loss of their crops.  The temptation is irresistible; for most men are sportsmen by constitution: and there is such an inherent spirit for hunting in human nature, as scarce any inhibitions can restrain” Gilbert White (1788)

Passenger_pigeon_shoot

They didn’t know any better – Passenger pigeon flock being hunted in Louisiana (Credit: Smith Bennett, 1875/Public domain.)

Anthropocene 2.GIF

They should know better – mind boggling and shocking

“Really I did deserve a chastisement for my intrusion into the meadow, the disastrous consequences of which I now had power to perceive to the full extent. I had bruised the tender stalks of springing grass, broken quantities of buds, and destroyed myriads of living creatures. In my stupid simplicity I had never had any suspicion of the pain I caused while perpetrating these evil deeds, and had been in a state of delight at the profound peace pervading the country, and the charms of solitude” E van Bruyssel (1870)

Anthropocene 3.

“We can never afford to lose sight of past and present human activities in their effects on the vegetation of countries which have been long inhabited and densely populated, like those of Western and Central Europe” A G Tansley (1923)

“On the favourable side of the balance, I think that I am superior to the common run of men in noticing things which escape attention, and in observing them carefully.  My industry has been great as it could have been in the observation and collection of facts.  What is far more important, my love of natural science has been steady and ardent” Charles Darwin (1929*)

“We have tried to conquer nature by force and by intellect.  It now remains for us to try the way of love It is impossible to use the full resources of the soil except with a mixture of plants (either grown together as in pasture or mixed crops grown in succession as a in a proper rotation of crops).  In monoculture it is impossible to keep disease at bay for long, and in addition it is impossible to feed animals properly except on a varied mixture” Lord Northbourne (1940)

Anthropocene 4.png

“The soil is among Nature’s greatest marvels. A clod of earth, seeming simple and lifeless, is now known to be highly complex in structure, its particles most elaborate in their composition, with numerous invisible crevices inhabited by prodigious numbers of living organisms inconceivably small, leading lives of which we can from only the haziest conception, yet somehow linked up with our lives in that they produce the food of plants which constitute our food, and remove from the soil, substances that would be harmful to us” Sir John Russell (1957)

“Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song” Rachel Carson (1962)

“I believe the strongest argument for keeping as much of the natural world as possible in the anthrosphere lies in the human need for variety, individuality, and the challenge of endeavouring to understand the nonhuman world.  I believe, too, that emersion in the world of trees, flower, and wild creatures is needed to nourish human attributes now in short supply: awe, compassion, reflectiveness, the brotherhood we often talk about but rarely practice except on the most superficial of levels”  Howard Ensign Evans (1966)

Epping

“I have heard it said more than once that the reason why there are more wire-worms afflicting the crops than in the past is that there are more tractors. The idea being that since the tractor-driven plough turns over three or four furrows at a time as against the horse-plough’s one furrow, the results is that birds get far fewer troughs in which to find worms,  Thus more worms are left in the soil.  It is an attractive theory, there is something cheering in the knowledge that Nature always hits back.  Everything in nature has a meaning and a purpose.  Everything is necessary to the universal scheme, every germ, every microbe, every pest.  When anything ceases to serve the harmony it dies out” John Stewart Collis (1973)

“Humanity now co-opts something in the order of one-twentieth of all the photosynthesis – the primal driving process of life on the planet – for its own uses.  And through its activities, Homo sapiens now threatens to alter the basic climatic patterns of the globe” Paul & Anne Ehrlich (1981)

“The rescue of biological diversity can only be achieved by a skillful blend of science, capital investment, and government: science to blaze the path by research and development; capital investment to create sustainable markets: and government to promote the marriage of economic growth and conservation” Edward Wilson (1992)

“Despite what developers will tell you about restoration, she said, once a piece of land is graded, the biologic organisms and understructure of the soil are destroyed.  No one knows how to really re-create that, short of years of hand-weeding.  Leaving land doesn’t work; the natives are overwhelmed by the invaders” Richard Louw (2005)

“Eventually some truth dawned: nature conservation is essentially concerned with mending the relationship between people and Nature, and is an expression of love for, and an interaction with, the beauty and wonder of the natural world, and with belonging in Nature” Matthew Oates (2015)

Enjoying Malham

“Evidence shows that loss of interactions with nature changes people’ s attitudes toward nature, including the values they place on it, their beliefs concerning the environment, their perceived norms of environmental ethics, and their willingness to protect nature” Soga & Gaston (2016)

I could go on, and on, but I think you get the picture.  We could have done so much so earlier.

Please share your favourite passages, be they gloomy or optimistic, by adding them to the comments.

 

References

Carson, R. (1962) Silent Spring, Houghton Mifflin, USA.

Collis, J.S. (1973)  The Worm Forgives the Plough. Penguin Books

Darwin, C.  (1929) Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Watts & Co., London (

*published posthumously)

Ehrlich, P.  & Ehrlich, A. (1981) Extinction, Random House, New York.

Evans, H.E. (1966)  Life on a Little-Known Planet, University of Chicago Press, USA.

Louw, R. (2005)  Last Child in the Woods, Atlantic Books, London.

Northbourne, W.J. (1940) Look to the Land, J.M. Dent & Sons.

Oates, M. (2015) In Pursuit of Butterflies: A Fifty-Year Affair, Bloomsbury, London.

Russell, Sir, E.J. (1957) The World of the Soil, Collins, London.

Soga, M. & Gaston, K.J. (2016) Extinction of experience: the loss of human–nature interactions.  Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 14, 94-101

Tanlsey, A.G. (1923) Introduction to Plant Ecology, George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Van Bruyssel, E. (1870) The Population of an Old Pear Tree, MacMillan & Co. London

White, G. (1788) The Natural History of Selborne, Penguin Edition 1977.

Wilson, E.O. (1992) The Diversity of Life, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, USA.

5 Comments

Filed under Bugbears, Uncategorized

Effervescent entomologists – MSc Entomology London Natural History Museum Visit 2015

Last Tuesday (February 4th 2015) I was roused from sleep by the strident tones of my mobile phone telling me that “It’s 5 ‘o’ clock, it’s time to get up”.   Just over an hour later I was standing outside a coach ticking names off my list as yawning MSc student entomologists, PhD students and entomological staff  sleepily settled  down for the four-hour journey to London* Happy Days Coach

Artistic licence – it was still dark when we left!  The name of the coach company is particularly apt.

 Just over four hours later we arrived outside the front of the Natural History Museum on Cromwell Road.NHM front

The front of the Natural History Museum London; when I was a child the beauty of the facade was obscured by soot and grime.

Making our way round to the Exhibition Road entrance, we were met by the legendary Max Barclay @coleopterist,  the Collections Manager for Coleoptera and Hymenoptera.  Pausing only to introduce the students to Charles Darwin and to allow them to take Max & Darwin

Max Barclay introduces Darwin to the students

photographs of the now Twittering Dippy the Diplodocus  @NHM_Dippy, Dippy

Dippy the Diploducus, shortly to be replaced by the Blue Whale skeleton. The blue whale skeleton in my opinion has two advantages over Dippy, first it is real, not a model and second it is actually my first ever biological memory, aged 3.

  we entered the first of our scheduled stops, the Coleoptera section. Beetles

Approximately 220 000 drawers of beetles

Here Max enthralled the students with  the magic of beetles large and small. Max enthralling

Max in full flow

We saw a very small  selection of Alfred Russel Wallace’s 8000+ collection, some of Darwin’s beetles and ARW beetles

A very small selection of Wallace’s collection.

some of the beetles collected by botanist Joseph Banks (as Max pointed out he appeared to be only able to collect large and showy specimens, whereas Darwin’s were much smaller and harder to identify.Bank's beetles

Bank’s beetles – large and showy

  We were also privileged to see a beetle collected by palaeaoanthropologist Louis Leakey whilst excavating hominid remains in the Olduvai Gorge. Max & Leakey's beetle

Max relating the story of how Louis Leakey thought he had found a fossil beetle.

 We then moved on to the Hymenoptera; unfortunately Gavin Broad was not available so we did not have the benefit of a specialist to enthrall us although we did see some interesting specimens such as this Tarantula Hawk Wasp.Pepsis

Pepsis heros – Tarantula Hawk

We then broke for lunch before meeting up with, in my opinion, the most entertaining Dipterist in the World, Erica McAlister, also known as @flygirlNHM. Erica and big flies

Erica with some rather large flies.

She showed us bot fly larvae from unexpected hosts, camels, elephants and rhinoceroses whilst regaling us with amusing and risqué anecdotes of fly mating behaviour.Camle bot flies

Camel bot fly larvae

Erica also showed us some large wax models of insects, my favourite being the model of the aphid, Myzus persicae, which was very good indeed and something I would dearly love to have in my possession.  Erica on the other hand was very keen on the model of a Drosophila mutant 😉Erica & wax aphid

A very large aphid!

Then Erica led us into the depths of the museum to the Tank Room to look at some larger animals, or as Erica described them “The Big Pickles”. Tank room

Part of the Tank Room – lots of pickled fish

Some of the pickles were very big indeed.

Giant squid

A very big pickle – giant squid

After looking at some of the specimens that Darwin had collected whilst on the Beagle, we then went upstairs again, on the way looking at the famous cocoon from above, before we Long way down

Sideways view of the cocoon.

entered the world of the little pickles – spiders and their allies, some poisonous, some venomous.  There is a difference, check it out.Solifugid

A Camel spider; a Solifiguid, despite the common name, they are only very distantly related to spiders.

Scorpions

MSc Students and scorpions; big and relatively harmless, small and deadly (not the students). The gloves protect against the preservative, not the possibility of being bitten!

And then sadly, it was time to get back on the coach and make our way back to Shropshire and Harper Adams University.  A great day out, made particularly enjoyable by the obvious passion that Erica and Max have for their insects.  If you ever get the chance to see Max and Erica extolling the virtues of their pet beasties, make sure you do so.  Effervescent, ebullient, enthusiastic and energetic entomologists both.  I am  sure that I speak for all of us who made the trip when I say “Thank you Max” and “Thank you Erica”.

 

Post script

It was only when I was writing this blog post that I realised that this visit was exactly a year after our previous visit.  The other huge benefit of these visits is that it very important to let the students see that you can work as an entomologist in a museum without being male and grey-bearded 😉  In which context it was very nice to bump into one of our ex-students, in fact one from the very first cohort of the MSc in Entomology after our move from Imperial College to Harper Adams (a story for a future post).

Minty

 

Footnote

*My wife (born in London) insists that it is up to London, but as a Yorkshireman this goes against the grain.  As far as I’m concerned London is down south, so for the sake of marital harmony I have gone for to London  😉

8 Comments

Filed under EntoNotes, The Bloggy Blog

Quaint titles and memorable lines in ecology and entomology

I am always struck when reading the old entomological and ecological literature by how much the style of our writing has changed over the last 100 years or so, and not necessarily for the better 😉 I am not advocating a return to the writing style of the Victorian 3-volume novel but do think that we might try to be a bit less dry when reporting our science in mainstream journals. With the establishment of on-line publishing perhaps there will be less emphasis on word limits from Editors and publishers, but then on the other hand, we are all busy people and the number of papers published seems to be increasing at an exponential rate.

Here for your edification is a title from the mid-Victorian period; penned by John Curtis an English entomologist

Curtis, J. (1845) Observations on the natural history and economy of various insects etc., affecting the corn-crops, including the parasitic enemies of the wheat midge, the thrips, wheat louse, wheat bug and also the little worm called Vibrio. Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society, 6, 493-518.

NPG P120(36); John Curtis by Maull & Polyblank

John Curtis  1791-1862  (Photograph from Wikipedia)

 

There are also some great sentences in this paper that give you an insight into the character of the man and the conditions under which he worked, which we do not get in modern papers.

“I had hoped, during the past summer, to make some progress in the further development of the economy of the Wheat-midge; but although the little orange larvae were abundant in some wheat-fields in August in this neighbourhood, owing to the wet and cold season I presume, I did not discover a single midge on the wing, and the larvae appear to have all died as usual”

Later on writing about aphids; I couldn’t possibly not mention aphids 😉

“The corn-crops do not escape the visitations of this extensive tribe: indeed, what crop does?”

 

And from that great entomologist A R Wallace writing in 1865 on species distribution, Wallace, A.R. (1855) On the law which has regulated the introduction of new species. Journal of Natural History, 16, 184-196.

“Fully to enter into such a subject would occupy much space, and it is only in consequence of some views having been lately promulgated, he believes in a wrong direction, that he now ventures to present his ideas to the public, with only such obvious illustrations of the arguments and results as occur to him in a place far removed from all means of reference and exact information”

Obviously a man of great probity and conviction.

 

We all know of Darwin’s story, (Darwin, 1929), about having to put a beetle into his mouth having gone collecting beetles without suitable containers but how many of us know about this side of his character, also from the same source,

A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if a pretty woman all the better

It is a great little book and well worth reading.

Darwin, F. (1929) Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Watts & Co., London

 

Norman McIndoo, the inventor of the insect olfactometer writes in his 1926 paper, McIndoo, N.E. (1926) An insect olfactometer. Journal of Economic Entomology, 19, 545-571

“To the writer a potato plant has a characteristic smell, although not as strong as those from some other plants. When enclosed in the plant chamber, its odors are perhaps emanated along with the water vapour, which judged from the condensed portion, was considerable.”

 

And here in a relatively modern paper, from that intrepid entomologist Philip Darlington, P.J. (1970) Carabidae on tropical islands, especially the West Indies. Biotropica, 2, 7-15

Mr Hlvac’s (1969) paper should be consulted for further details and discussion. But a very great deal still remains to be done on Scarites in Puerto Rico. Here obviously is another opportunity for exciting ecologic work, to be done under exceptional circumstances of comfort and convenience

Non-entomologists will no doubt be familiar with Darlington from his classic species-area work on Caribbean herpetofauna.

 

So dear readers, which are your favourite memorable sentences and titles from the scientific literature?  Please let me know.

6 Comments

Filed under EntoNotes, Uncategorized

It’s a Wonderful Life – an Inordinate Fondness for Insects

On Tuesday (4th February) I had the very pleasant task of escorting the MSc Entomology and Integrated Pest management Students from Harper Adams University on a trip to visit the Entomology Department at the Natural History Museum, London.  Despite having to leave at six in the morning all the students were on time (I hesitate to add bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as that would be a patent untruth), but they were there on time.  I almost didn’t make it on time, as being a Yorkshire man, I decided that rather than leave my outside light on all day, I would try to make it to my garden gate in the dark.  Consequently, I had a very close encounter with my garden pond and turned up at the coach with a wet sleeve, a bruised knee, skinned knuckles and one leg of my jeans tastefully decorated with pond-weed.  Still the four-hour journey from Edgmond to London gave me plenty of time to dry out 😉

We arrived as planned at 10 am and were met by Max Barclay , the Collections Manager of Coleoptera  and Hymenoptera, otherwise known as @Coleopterist who first told us that there were 22 000 drawers of beetles surrounding us, much more than either the Dipterists or Hymenopterists would be able to show us!

Beetle Collection

He did confess however, that he was no longer able to claim that beetles were the most speciose group in the world and that the famous quotation might now have to be “ an inordinate fondness for wasps (or possibly flies)”.  Nothing daunted he wowed us with the largest beetles in the world, the aptly named Titans, quickly followed by a few of Charles Darwin’s collection from his famous HMS Beagle trip.

Max Titans   Darwin's

Next came some glorious metallic coloured specimens which looked as if they had been painted; interestingly if they had been painted, they would actually be too heavy to fly.

Gold beetles

Max kept the students, and me, enthralled for some time and then led us upstairs to the Coleopterist’s Offices.  These were fantastic; thanks to an added mezzanine floor, they get to work surrounded by carvings and magnificent windows.  What a fantastic place to work.

Beetle offices  Max talking in offices Office space  Owl

Some of the researchers such as my friend Chris Lyal @Chrislyal are so dedicated that they rarely leave their chairs resulting in dramatic wear patterns 😉

Chris' chair

Next on the agenda was the Hymenopteran collection where we were greeted by Gavin Broad also known as @BroadGavin, the Senior Curator of Hymenoptera.  I don’t want you to think that entomologists are competitive and try to out-do each other, but

Gavin Broad

 we were shown the longest wasp in the world; quite impressive, but not a patch on the Titans 😉

Longest wasp

This was followed by a fantastic selection of wasp nests (of which I only show a few),

Wasp nest 1   Wasp nest 2

including one wearing a tweed jacket and woolly jumper!

Wasp nest jumper

We left the Hymenopteran collection with a reminder of how few taxonomists there are and how much material needs to be sorted and identified; the picture shows just a tiny fraction of the material that comes in each day.

to be sorted

After lunch we joined Erica McAlister @FlygirlNHM, the Collection Manager for Diptera, Fleas and Spiders.  She regaled us with stories

Erica

of bot flies, maggot-ridden corpses, showed us the maggots from the Ruxton murders (a forensic entomology first)

Ruxton maggots

and demonstrated how some flies twerk!  I really should have had a video camera.  I must also not forget to mention how many boxes of Dipteran specimens there are still left to identify and catalogue.  Again this is only a small selection.

Flies to sort

Erica then led us into the bowels of the museum to see some of the largest invertebrates on the planet, giant squids,

Squid

albeit not insects but quite impressive.  These are not on display to the public because they are preserved in formaldehyde, now deemed to be too dangerous to expose to all and sundry, despite the fact that as a school boy and undergraduate I spent a lot of time dissecting specimens preserved in the stuff, and as I recollect, not wearing gloves or face masks!  If you do want to see it, it is possible to take a free tour of the Spirit Collection http://t.co/U49HRoFbhV.  It was then time to get back on the coach and head back to Shropshire and Harper Adams University.   Here I am, captured on film by one of the students @Ceri_Watkins  as I try to make sure that everyone gets back on to the coach!

Loading the bus

All in all, a most enjoyable day and many thanks to our hosts for making it so memorable.

Post Script

I think that the thing that impressed us most was the enthusiasm everyone we met had for their particular group.  Even we general entomologists tend to have a favourite group of insects, in my case aphids, but the passion that Max, Gavin and Erica have and displayed for their specialities, is something very special indeed.  People tend to think of insect taxonomists as weird, introverted, bearded old gentleman.  Anyone who has the privilege to meet any of our three hosts will realise how wrong this stereotype is and will wonder why the Government and Research Councils are so reluctant to adequately fund proper taxonomy.

Without a thorough knowledge of the taxonomy and diversity of insects and allied organisms we will continue to be at risk from invasive pests and diseases.  If we don’t know what is out there, then how can we be ready to protect our crops and environment from outbreaks, or indeed, know how and what to protect to preserve the wonderful biodiversity which our planet supports.  It is time to admit that the funding for the study of vertebrates needs to be scaled back by at least 90% and those resources diverted to the identification and study of the biology and ecology of the dominant animal species of the world, the invertebrates.  In case anyone thinks that I am total partisan, I would also call for 20% of the funding devoted to vertebrate research should be dedicated to training plant scientist and funding whole organism botanical research.  Please spread the message.

10 Comments

Filed under EntoNotes, Teaching matters, The Bloggy Blog