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*
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.
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 Barclay introduces Darwin to the students
photographs of the now Twittering Dippy the Diplodocus @NHM_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.
Approximately 220 000 drawers of beetles
Here Max enthralled the students with the magic of beetles large and small.
Max in full flow
We saw a very small selection of Alfred Russel Wallace’s 8000+ collection, some of Darwin’s beetles and
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 – 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 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 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 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.
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 😉
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”.
Part of the Tank Room – lots of pickled fish
Some of the pickles were very big indeed.
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
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.
A Camel spider; a Solifiguid, despite the common name, they are only very distantly related to spiders.
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”.
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).
*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 😉