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Baxter Saves the Day – Beetle Boy – a tour de force by M G Leonard

Beetle Boy front

Beetle Boy, Chicken House Books, Paperback  ISBN: 9781910002704  £6.99

 “The sad fact is, that the number of insect is in decline. As we destroy their habitats, so we destroy their species, but we desperately need them. If all the mammals on the planet were to die out, the planet would flourish – but if all the insects disappeared, everything would very soon be dead.”

Not that I am biased, but any book that has the above in it gets my vote. Joking aside, this is a real gem of a book.  Although aimed at a younger audience than me, I found this a fascinating book.  I read it in one sitting, on the coach returning from a visit to the entomologists at the Natural History Museum, in company with the MSc Entomology students from Harper Adams University; a very appropriate setting.

Darkus, whose father, Dr Bartholomew Cuttle, a closet entomologist and the Director of Science at the Natural History Museum in London, has disappeared in mysterious circumstances, is one of a pair of unlikely heroes who help make this story the tour de force it is. The authorities believe that Dr Cuttle suffered some sort of breakdown and has walked away from his responsibilities.  Newspaper headlines ensue and the distraught Darkus, who remains convinced that his father has been spirited away or worse, now regarded as an orphan by social services, as his mother died four years earlier, is sent to an orphanage where he receives an unfortunate hair-cut.  Fortuitously, three weeks later, his eccentric Uncle Max, a somewhat unconventional archaeologist, returns from Egypt and Darkus is allowed to move in with his Uncle, who houses him in his attic, where he unknowingly meets his best friend to be, Baxter, and the adventure begins.  You will have to excuse this breathless introduction, but all this happens in the first sixteen pages!  What a roller-coaster of a read.

Next he is sent to a new school, (the worst nightmare for those of us of a nerdish persuasion) where he is befriended by two odd-balls, the lanky Virginia and the small, pale, bespectacled Bertholt.  We have school bullies, beetles with more than a dash of humanity mixed in, an evil businesswoman with a dark past and even darker secrets, a beautiful heiress thrown in for good measure, very odd neighbours, a secret den, evil henchmen, poison gas, death, destruction, entomology, successes, setbacks, laughter and sadness but a happy ending.  This is a story with something for everyone.  This is what my father, if he were still alive, would have called a rattling good yarn and I would agree with him wholeheartedly.

This is a hard book to describe without introducing spoilers so I am not going to give away any more of the plot than I already have. Imagine a mix of Swallows & Amazons, Stalky & Co*, the Famous Five, Five Find-Outers and Dog**, Artemis Fowl and any other of your favourite young detectives/adventurers that you can think of, and you will get somewhere close to imagining what a gripping read Maya Leonard has produced.   Beetle Boy owes nothing to any of these books, I only use them to illustrate, that in my opinion, this book is destined to join the classics.

It is of course the beetles that really make this book stand out from the crowd, and in more than one way, the fore edge of the book is decorated with beetles; beetles inside and out, what more can an entomologist ask for?

Beetle boy fore edge

Maya Leonard is a superb ambassador for beetles; they form an integral part of the story working in partnership with the human protagonists. She also subtly introduces the wonderful diversity of the beetle world to the non-initiated.  How many books can mention tiger beetles, powder post beetles, blister beetles, bombardier beetles, rhinoceros beetles, titans, stags, harlequins,  Goliath beetles and dung beetles and keep the plot moving along at a breath-taking pace.  Outside an entomology text book I don’t think I have ever come across so many beetle references.   Not only has Maya Leonard mentioned the beetles by name, she has managed to endow them with believable personalities but in a very unsentimental way, although that said, there is a very tragic scene near the end of the book.   I have been a professional entomologist for almost forty years and, yes some of what happens in this book might not be entomologically feasible, but the story carried me along on waves of excitement and totally enthralled and enchanted me and that is what matters.  I liked this book very much.  In fact, I was so excited about this book that I couldn’t wait for an appropriate grandson’s birthday so sent it to their mother, my daughter in Australia, for her birthday, and suggested that she could make it a family readathon 🙂

Maya Leonard, on the behalf of entomologists everywhere, I salute you. Roll on the sequel.

Dung beetles ZSL

The wonderful dung beetle sculpture at London Zoo.

Postscript and notes

Did I say that I really liked this book 🙂

*Rudyard Kipling’s fictionalised account of his school days at the United Services College – coincidentally, the character based on Kipling, is nicknamed Beetle! Well worth a read and in my opinion, possibly the inspiration for Frank Richard’s Billy Bunter books.

**Less well-known than the Famous Five, but I actually liked them better 🙂 http://www.enidblytonsociety.co.uk/five-find-outers.php

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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  😉

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Sometimes big can be good – Reflections on INTECOL 2013

Warning:  I am not going to discuss the science presented, just my impressions of the conference as a whole.

In April I wrote about my dislike of big international conferences  citing reasons such as  the difficulty in finding people, session clashes, people giving talks on already published papers and the tendency of just talking to people you already know.  I finished the article somewhat cynically, with the phrase “perhaps INTECOL will prove me wrong”; for those of you who may not know, INTECOL is the acronym of the International Association for Ecology (I had to look it up myself to get it exactly right).  INTECOL 2013 (#INT13 for Twitter users) coincided with the 100th birthday of the British Ecological Society and was held at the ExCel Centre in London.  It thus promised to be a very large event.  So two strikes against it already as far as I was concerned, huge conference and in London, probably my least favourite city of all time; twenty years of commuting into the South Kensington campus of Imperial College from Bracknell has not left me pleasant memories and although having had a cosmopolitan childhood I am a small village boy at heart.  I probably wouldn’t have gone to INTECOL at all, if the British Ecological Society hadn’t subsidised my attendance (I am an Associate Editor for the Journal of Animal Ecology) and we hadn’t taken our summer holiday earlier than usual this year.  I decided that I would commute in daily, rather than pay for accommodation; we still have a house in Bracknell, despite me working in Shropshire, and it would also give me the opportunity to have some family time.

For me the conference started on Sunday morning when my wife and I travelled into the ExCel Centre to set up the Harper Adams University display stand.  This was done very quickly and we then went for a walk in the sunshine to look at the surrounding area with the impressive London Dockers statue just outside the ExCel , and the street food outlets down near the

Dockers-Statue_preview

Emirates Air Lines (cable cars across the  Thames) and an abortive trip to look at the London Olympic site (no access available); luckily next to the Westfield Shopping Centre, so some entertainment there;  people watching from the M&S Café on the Bridge and a free taster glass of the new Pimms flavour, blackberry and elderflower.  Then back to the ExCel for the very pleasant welcome mixer, where as I had predicted I spoke to people I already knew and then back home to Bracknell.  I was up very early on Monday to catch the dreaded Reading to Waterloo slow service (65 minutes from Bracknell to Waterloo) and then the 40 minute tube and DLR journey from Waterloo to Prince Regent and the ExCel.  Things were very busy but as I had volunteered to do student talk judging, my schedule was fixed for me for the first two days; no need to wade through the huge programme and sigh over clashes.   At the first plenary it was announced that questions would only be taken via Twitter; there were a few disgruntled groans from the audience but as a Twitter convert of less than a year, I was intrigued and  it also gave me an idea.  There and then I decided that I would try to say hello in person to as many people I could find who followed me on Twitter, my fellow Tweeps.  I had a mission and I have to admit it made the meeting quite fun, instead of waiting for people to say hello and mainly just talking to old friends I was on the hunt; as an entomologist it reminded me very much of my childhood days of insect collecting.  This was also made easier by the very user-friendly delegate badges, actually readable at a distance and here I at least, was very pleased with the draconian attitude of the ExCel

Simon Badge

security staff who insisted that badges were worn at all times by delegates.  It always annoys me when delegates don’t wear their badges and when the lettering is so small that you have to get embarrassingly close to people’s vital areas to identify them 😉  Note that in the picture above the lanyard is positioned to prevent the badge turning round and being unreadable; many people used the central hole which meant that their badges were often totally useless as a means of identification.

Wrong badge

At first I took a few of my ex-students to task (of which there were many) and showed them how to wear their badges.  I may then have become somewhat evangelical, indeed officious, about the subject and started teaching strangers how to wear their badges correctly;

Badge wearing

no matter I had a mission and was enjoying the conference and meeting lots of new people. The second conference-changing moment was the plenary lectures and asking questions via Twitter, or Tweeqs as I called them.  One problem I did have, was that I found it difficult to type and listen at the same time; how do students manage in lectures?  I also found that although you could ask a question there was then no chance to riposte when the speaker answered verbally to the whole audience, so no real debate, but I think it has potential.  For example, my question to Georgina Mace, who gave a very good lecture on biodiversity conservation in the 21st Century but largely ignored invertebrates when making assumptions and predictions about the future, was not entirely answered to my

G Mace question

satisfaction, being along the lines of yes I know that data are not balanced but we are waiting for you guys to produce similar data sets, did generate some Twitter debate but I was not able to respond directly to Georgina.  Still, I think that this is definitely an

Mace riposte

creative way forward and allows people not at a conferences to ‘attend’.  I especially highlight this for the benefit of Chris Buddle of McGill University and Blogger extra-ordinaire at Arthropod Ecology, who although not at INTECOL, was able to participate, albeit only at a distance (from Canada to be precise).

Buddle question

Perhaps at future meetings there may be some way to employ an official conference tweeter (or more), akin to the way translators are used at the United Nations?

I also very much enjoyed meeting many of the next generation of ecologists as well as chatting to many ex-students and colleagues.  I would especially like to highlight the fact that Kathryn Luckett, a PhD student at Silwood Park, publicised, first via Twitter and secondly by her recent blog post, about the inequality in ecology of career progression for female scientists as very well illustrated by the presenters at the conference.

 Speakers for Simon

I think that this is something for us all to think very hard about. and I urge you to read her post.

Commuting as I was, meant that I was not as able to take part in the social events to the same extent as those staying in the very nearby hotels, healthier for both my wallet and my liver, although that said I did pick up a cold – not sure who to blame for that, the daily tube journey or the influx of delegates from all around the world!

The programme overall was excellent, the speakers in the main, fantastic, and the organisation by the BES and local committee very good indeed.  I would have liked it better if the coffee and tea had been on tap all day and not at set times.  The BES Centenary party was a superb idea, even though I had to leave before the band started!  So on the whole; I actually enjoyed this conference very much but I am not sure how much I gained scientifically.  I do think, however, that everyone had a great time and I certainly made many useful contacts, although as predicted there were a number of people who I wanted to see who I never did manage to find.  Well done BES and INTECOL for putting on such a great event. It is always good to be proved wrong once in a while, especially if it is a pleasant surprise.

The week after next, I am presenting a talk at ENTO13 at St Andrews University, on the usefulness of social media for scientists.  This will be a much smaller conference, albeit international.  I wonder if I will enjoy it as much or more?

Post script – for those of you curious about the stand, here is a picture of it with me and Fran Sconce (a PhD student of mine working on Collembola) in attendance.  Note that we are both wearing butterfly themed clothing – how entomological can you get 😉 and our badges are the right way round.

Harper Stand INTECOL

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