Attempting to master entomology

“Glow worms? In Telford? Seriously?” is along the lines of what I was thinking in late September, 2005, having just started a university placement at Severn Gorge Countryside Trust (SGCT). I was looking through ecological survey reports for various species and habitats to get a feel for what inhabited the Ironbridge Gorge.

At the time I was a student at Harper Adams University College, studying BSc Countryside & Environmental Management, and the course included a placement year for developing skills and knowledge of the sector.

Birds and mammals had always been my main focus of interest in the natural world but ultimately everything natural got my attention. Insects had been an interest ever since I bred my first colony of 7-spot ladybirds Coccinella septempunctata in a plastic Ferrero Rocher box at the age of six-years-old. However, they had kind of slipped down the pecking order in my priorities over the years. That is until the glow worm Lampyris noctiluca came into my life.

These creatures to me were those of myth and legend. Perhaps this was naive of me, but as I had never encountered them I had never thought to look them up in my numerous natural history books. Anyway, I sat down with the reports and devoured them! The reports I mean, not the glow worms.

Amongst the records for white-letter hairstreak Satyrium w-album, dingy skipper Erynnis tages, scarce yellow splinter Lipsothrix nigristigma and the aforementioned L. noctiluca, was another name new to me – Pete Boardman. There was no scientific name coupling what turned out to be the surveyor of this land of woods, meadow, and remnant heath. I had stumbled upon Mr Cranefly!

The more I read, the more I walked in the woods, the more I observed the birds and mammals, the more I surveyed trees, the more I noticed. And the more I thought and reflected upon these moments, the more I saw the link: insects. They had always been in my thoughts but typically subconsciously. While watching badgers Meles meles at the sett I would be harassed by mosquitoes (species unknown). When looking to the skies in summer as the swifts Apus apus screeched by feeding I would note plumes of insects. And sitting quietly in the heathland I would observe common lizards Zootoca vivipara hunting insects amongst the grasses.

During the intervening years I have been fortunate to work full-time at SGCT, carry out ecological surveys in remote parts of Australia, and work on numerous ecological surveys in the UK. Nearly ten years have passed and I am back studying at Harper Adams. This time I have opted to concentrate entirely on insects as I study MSc Entomology.

The main reason for me choosing this course is the realisation that insects, although incredibly numerous and diverse in species, are astonishingly undervalued in the world of ecology. Great crested newt Triturus cristatus and the bat species resident in the UK are the focus of thousands of surveys every year, yet how many of these surveys take in to consideration insects? I say insects as the bats and newts feed on them. In fact they depend on them for their survival.

I am not going to change the world. I am not going to be involved with every survey of bats. And I am most definitely not going to preach about the importance of insects. However, the more I can learn, the more I feel I will be able to contribute to their protection, understanding, and appreciation amongst others.

I knew that the course would be a steep learning curve. It has definitely proved to be so but what an enjoyable experience. I am studying full-time for a year and since September I have studied modules covering biology and taxonomy, diversity and evolution, ecological principles and decision tools, and advanced research methods. Professor Simon Leather heads the experienced and passionate team of entomologists teaching us. Experts from the entomology world who visit Harper Adams and give great in-depth lectures complement this team. Max Barclay (Coleoptera), Dr Erica McAlister (Diptera), Steve Brooks (Odonata), and Dr Amoret Whitaker (forensic entomology), all from the Natural History Museum, are amongst the guest lecturers who I have had the pleasure to meet.

Of course nowhere near everything regarding the subject of entomology can be covered, even in a year, but we are exposed to everything from biological control to curation, population dynamics to life cycles, taxonomy to computer modelling, and the list goes on.

I have just completed yet another assignment. Writing you will probably assume. Yes, writing is involved but the focus is the collection and presentation of 10 insect species. The development of my collection began last September with collecting of specimens out in the field. They have gradually been collected and stored in the bottom drawer of the freezer until quite recently. The main reason being that I needed to build up the courage to pin and point them. This has been an extremely interesting exercise but also quite scary when worried that the specimen will break. A couple of legs have been lost but I am happy overall with the pinning and the development of my knowledge. I do believe we learn more when we get hands-on and this course allows for such experience through lab lessons using microscopes and the collection of insects.

Gradually, I can feel my language changing when talking about insects. Nowadays when in discussion about entomology I will readily speak of the coxa, halteres, chitin, pronotum etc. Initially these words seemed like a foreign language but as I further my understanding of them, and observe such features in detail, I gain more confidence in the use of them.

The Royal Entomological Society (RES) generously supported my studies through the award of a bursary. A visit to their headquarters was another highlight of the course. I got to see the inked signatures of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace; that was a spine-tingling moment!

While on the subject of signatures, we had a visit from a VIP the other day at Harper Adams. I’m not one for name-dropping but the said person was none other than HRH The Princess Royal. I had a brief chat with her after she had officially opened the Jean Jackson Entomology Building. She then went on to sign the visitor book right before my very eyes. Cursive style in ink was the approach to simply writing large in the centre of the page, ‘Anne’.

I continue to meet interesting people directly or indirectly related to entomology and was grateful to Sue McLamb, County Recorder for Odonata, for allowing me access to her collection of exuviae. They were photographed and included in my video promoting Odonata. The video ‘A-Z of Entomology: D is for Dragonflies and Damselflies’ is available to view below.

As you’ve probably realised, I could go on and on about insects and my studies. I will stop now but would just like to say thank you to all the people I have met so far on my entomology journey. You have all taught me something valuable whether you realise or not and without your enthusiasm, knowledge, and support, I would not have had the confidence to study MSc Entomology.

The passage above was written for the Shropshire Entomology newsletter in March 2015. The featured image is thanks to the Shropshire Star.

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