Tag Archives: taxonomy

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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Pick and mix 19 – a mixed bag

George Monbiot on how big coroporations are using viral marketing techniques to rubbish their opponents and even get scientific papesr retracted – very disturbing if true

When should a non-aggressive exotic species be demoted to a harmless naturalized resident?

David Zaruk on the two sides of communicating the perceived and real risks of pesticides

It turns out that moths and butterflies are a lot older than we thought – 70 000 000 years older!

More evidence that plants talk to each other

Why imaginary treehouses help children engage with Nature

Embedding real insects in resin – a great outreach tool

Taxonomy is essential for global conservation, not a hindrance

Why you shouldn’t kill or remove your house spiders

And yet more evidence to show that insects are under threat, this time from climate change

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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.

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Not Jiminy Cricket but Gregory Grasshopper – someone ought to tell Walt

Something that really bugs me is the way that so many cartoonists, artists and animators don’t get their insect details right. Too few legs, legs arising from the abdomen, mandibles when there shouldn’t be any, too many wings, too few wings, the list goes on.

jiminy_cricket cricket Pinocchio
Jiminy is clearly not a cricket – perhaps not even an insect?

Call me a pedant but I thought artists were supposed to be observant. Artistic licence is well and good but the Disney character Jiminy Cricket really annoys me. Not enough legs, or if present, hidden under his clothes and if he is an insect, clearly a grasshopper! Even the original artist didn’t get it right, but at least it has some cricket features, although in some ways it resembles a cockroach as does the one in the mural below.

pinocchio_mural

A shame Walt didn’t do his research either.

med-MeadowGrasshopperF_Bradgate_7July05 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A meadow grasshopper (courtesy of NatureSpot http://www.naturespot.org.uk/species/meadow-grasshopper) and a Great green bush cricket (courtesy of http://www.durlston.co.uk/index.php?nid=2&id=1) to put things in perspective.

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