Tag Archives: Natural History Museum

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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By the side of the River Liffey – ENTO’15 Dublin

This year, the Royal Entomological Society’s biennial symposium was held at Trinity College, Dublin (September 2nd-4th). This was the first time that the Society has held its symposium meeting outside the UK. The symposium theme this year was Insect Ecosystem Services, whilst the Annual Meeting which ran alongside the symposium meeting this year, was divided into nine themes, Biocontrol, Conservation, Decomposition, Insect Diversity and Services, Multiple Ecosystem Services, Outreach, Plant-Insect Interactions, Pollination and just in case anyone was feeling left out, Open.

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The meeting convenors, Archie Murchie, Jane Stout, Olaf Schmidt, Stephen Jess, Brian Nelson, and Catherine Bertrand, came from both sides of the border so that the whole of Ireland was represented.

As a number of us were going from Harper Adams University we decided to use the Sail-rail option (any mainline station in the UK to Dublin for £78 return). We were thus able to feel smug on two levels, economically and ecologically 🙂 We set out on the morning of Tuesday 1st September from Stafford Railway Station, changing at Crewe for the longer journey to Holyhead.

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Andy Cherrill, Tom Pope, Joe Roberts, Charlotte Rowley and Fran Sconce look after the luggage.

Just over two hours later we arrived at Holyhead to join the queue for the ferry to Dublin.

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In the queue at Holyhead.

Two of my former students were supposed to join us on the ferry but due to a broken down train, only one of them made it in time, Mark Ramsden being the last passenger to board whilst Mike Garratt had to wait for the next ferry.

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Tom Pope and Mark Ramsden relaxing on board the ferry.

We arrived at Trinity College in the pouring rain, but still got a feel for some of the impressive architecture on campus.

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I never quite worked out what this piece of art was about, although the added extra made me smile.

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The bedrooms were very self-contained – the bed was rather neatly built into the storage although it did make me feel like I was sleeping on a shelf.

Lincolns

After settling in we found a pleasant pub and sampled some of the local beverages.

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Despite the beverage intake, I was up bright and early on Wednesday morning, in fact so early, that I was not only first at the Registration Desk, but beat the Royal Entomological Society Staff there.

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After setting up our stand we were able to enjoy the programme of excellent plenary talks and those in the National Meeting themes. There was a great deal of live tweeting taking place so I thought I would give you a flavour of those rather than describing the talks in detail.  For the full conference experience use Twitter #ento15

Dave Goulson from Sussex University,  was the first of the plenary speakers and lead off with a thought-provoking talk about the global threats to insect pollination services.

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I was a bit disappointed that John Pickett, who was chairing the session cut short a possibly lively debate between Lin Field and Dave Goulson about pesticide usage.

The next plenary speaker was Akexandra-Maria Klein from Freiburg speaking about biodiversity and pollination services.

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The third plenary speaker was Lynn Dicks from Cambridge asking how much flower-rich habitat is enough for wild pollinators?

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I was the fourth plenary speaker, talking about how entomology and entomologist have influenced the world. I deliberately avoided crop protection and pollination services.

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I was very pleased that my talk was on the first day as this allowed me to enjoy the rest of the meeting, including the social events to the full.

The following day, Jan Bengtsson from SLU in Sweden spoke about biological ontrol in a landscape context and the pros and cons of valuing ecosystem services.

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Jan was followed by Sarina Macfadyne from CSIRO, Australia, who spoke about temporal patterns in plant growth and pest populations across agricultural landscapes and astounded us with the list of pesticides that are still able to be used by farmers in Australia.

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The next plenary speaker, Charles Midega – icipe spoke about the use of companion cropping for sustainable pest management in Africa and extolled the virtues of ‘push-pull’ agriculture.

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The last plenary of Day Two was Jerry Cross of East Malling Research who enlightened us about the arthropod ecosystem services in apple orchards and their economic benefits. He also highlighted the problems faced by organic growers trying to produce ‘perfect’ fruit for the supermarkets.

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The third day of the conference plenaries was kicked off by Michael Ulyshen from the USDA Forest Service – who reviewed the role of insects in wood decomposition and nutrient cycling. My take-home image form his talk was the picture of how a box of woodchips was converted to soil by a stage beetle larvae completing its life cycle.

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The last plenary of the morning was Craig Macadam from BugLife who explained to us that aquatic insects are much than just fish food and play cultural role as well as an ecological one.

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The afternoon session of the last day was Sarah Beynon, the Queen of Dung Beetles who enthralled us with her stories of research and outreach . It was a testament to the interest people had in what Sarah had to say, that the audience was till well over a hundred, despite it being the last afternoon.

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The final plenary lecture, and last lecture of the conference, was given by Tom Bolger from the other university in Dublin, UCD. Hi subject was soil organisms and their role in agricultural productivity.

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I know that I have only given you a minimal survey of the plenary lectures, but you can access the written text of all the talks in the special issue of Ecological Entomology for free.

I did of course attend a number of the other talks, and had to miss many that I wanted to see but which clashed with the ones that I did see.

Eugenie Regan gave a great talk on her dream of setting up a Global Butterfly Index.

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One of my PhD students, Joe Roberts, gave an excellent talk on his first year of research into developing an artificial diet for predatory mites.

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Katie Murray, a fomer MREs student of mine, now doing a PhD at the University of Stirling, gave a lively talk on Harlequin ladybirds and the problems they may be having with STDs.

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Rudi Verspoor, yet another former MRes student gave us an overview of a project that he and Laura Riggi, have developed on entomophagy in Benin.

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Peter Smithers from Plymouth University gave an amusing and revelatory talk the ways in which Insects are perceived and portrayed. Some excellent material for my planned book on influential entomology 😉

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Chris Jeffs, yet another former MRes student gave an excellent presentation about climate warming and host-parasitoid interactions.

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My colleague (and former MSc student) Tom Pope bravely volunteered to step into a gap in the programme and gave an excellent talk about how understanding vine weevil behaviour can help improve biological control programmes.

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Jasmine Parkinson from the University of Sussex, and incidentally a student of a former student of mine, gave an excellent and well-timed talk about mealybugs and their symbionts.

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Charlotte Rowley from Harper Adams gave an excellent talk about saddle-gall midge pheromones.

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Another former student, Mike Garratt, now at Reading University, gave an overview of his work on hedgerows and their dual roles as habitats for pollinators and natural enemies.

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There were also excellent talks by Jessica Scrivens on niche partitioning in cryptic bumblebees, Relena Ribbons on ants and their roles as ecological indicators, Rosalind Shaw on biodiversity and multiple services in farmland from David George on how to convince farmers and growers that field margins are a worthwhile investment. My apologies to all those whose talks I missed, I wanted to see them but parallel sessions got in the way.

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Richard Comont, whose talk I missed, very recognisable from the back 😉

 

I leave you with a selection of photographs from the social parts of the programme including our last morning in Dublin before catching the ferry home on Saturday morning.

 

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The Conference Dinner – former and current students gathering.

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Tom Pope signs the Obligations Book – his signature now joins those of Darwin and Wallace.

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Archie Murchie with RES Librarian Val McAtear.

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The youngest delegate and his father; I hope to see him at Harper Adams learning entomology in the near future.

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Entomologists learning how to dance a ceilidh.

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Moving much too fast for my camera to capture them.

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Academic toilets – note the shelf on which books can be placed whilst hands are otherwise occupied.

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On site history.

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Impressive doorway in the Museum café.

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The Natural History Museum was very vertebrate biased.

aphid

They certainly didn’t way know the best way to mount aphids.

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I was, however, pleased to see a historical Pooter.

 Leaving

On our final day the sun actually made an appearance so our farewell to Ireland was stunning.

And finally, many thanks to the conference organizers and the Royal Entomological Society for giving us such a good experience.  A lot to live up to for ENTO’16 which will be at Harper Adams University.  We hope to see you there.

Postscript

As a result of being tourists on Saturday morning we were exposed to a lot of gift shops and in one I impulsively bought a souvenir 😉

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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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