Don’t mention the unmentionable

There was a time when talk of excrement was more or less unacceptable in polite society. This could have been a handicap for anyone interested in dung beetles. Luckily, there was a way out — by reverting to the Latin of scholarly discourse.

When Thomas Vernon Wollaston (1822–1878) wrote “On certain coleopterous insects from the Cape de Verde Islands” in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History (1857, new series, volume 20, pages 503–506) he used the stock phrase to describe just where the beetle had come from — stercore.

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Phaleria clarkii is not one of the usual dung beetles, it is a scavenger, and while I have found the British species Phaleria cadaverina under a discarded half orange from someone’s picnic (not a cadaver as its name might suggest), probably almost any decaying organic matter could support it.

There is something more than a little taboo about delving into human excrement. Squeamish associations with dirt and disease, thrown out of the window when examining a cow pat or sheep droppings, can be a barrier, even to the hardened entomologist.

There is a tale, less than apocryphal, but clouded by the fact that different versions have been told to different  listeners. My old friend Roger Dumbrell told of a beetling trip where he and A.N. Other, went to Camber sands, back in the early 1970s. Walking onto the dunes from the car park they passed a large dropping and paused to consider whether or not to examine it. The used tissue close by gave no doubt that this was a human discharge. One of them walked on, unwilling to cross that taboo but the other gingerly turned the dung over with a stick. The beetles underneath were the very rare Onthophagus nuchicornis, and as the cry went up the unwilling coleopterist shelved disgust and dismay and came back to join in the exploration. Who walked on, and who dived in, is now lost in the debate fogs of hazy memory, but the specimens remain in the collection.

Nowadays, entomologists are brashly cavalier about recording their finds. This from a recent report on an insect survey from Hampshire:

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The knowledge that this was human dung is incontrovertible. The tissue nearby was a dead give-away, and anyway, it was deposited earlier in the day by the surveyor himself.

So now I’m left wondering, who of Gray and Clark actually found the beetle, and how did they know it was stercore humano?

How many coleopterists are there anyway?

Saturday 7 February 2015 and to Oxford to attend 12th Annual Coleopterists’ Day at Oxford University Museum of Natural History. There was a time when a gathering of beetle enthusiasts would have numbered a handful — scroll down to the end of my 2013 Coleopterists’ Day blog and count them on one-and-a-half hands.

But with social media and an all-inclusive invitation, Coleopterists seem to be crawling out of the woodwork. I estimated 60 people in the lecture theatre audience. Not a bad turn out.

Anyway, here are some pictures.

Amiable but authoritative boffin-speak — my signature style is defined

From one height of smugness to another. A couple of days after an advance copy of the book plonked through the letterbox, this splendid book review appeared in BBC Wildlife. Book of the month, no less.

Sometimes good things get added to the to-do list.

Sometimes good things get added to the to-do list.

Ooh, look what the postman just brought

I wasn’t expecting this quite yet — an advance copy ahead of publication in February, so am feeling very smug.

One person's irritating larder infestation is another's amusing after-dinner anecdote.

One person’s irritating larder infestation is another’s amusing after-dinner anecdote.

Most of the after-dinner anecdotes are my own infestations; I would never mock anyone else’s house cleanliness. Although only a minor part of the book, the identification guide, more a rogues’ gallery of usual suspects, has 144 entries — one gross, how cool is that coincidence?

I am now immersing myself in dung

Figuratively, that is, not literally. The period of research is now at hand, in which I comb the world for dung-related science, facts, figures, anecdotes and myths.

To the non-entomologist (the non-coleopterist even) the attractions of faeces may seem unintelligible, but if fastidious squeamishness can be set aside, it turns out that dung beetles are highly attractive and captivating creatures. The task they (and other insects) do in hygienically recycling nutrients is a hugely important part of grassland ecology; the behaviours of dung rolling and subterranean nesting are fascinating, and the elaborate head and thoracic horns of the often sexually dimorphic beetles can be truly bizarre. And there is much else besides.

I first tried to write a book about dung nearly 20 years ago, but the children’s book publishers, who were happy to entertain titles on rainforests, rivers, seashore and minibeasts, baulked at the notion of excrement, claiming the American market was too Puritan.

I remained optimistic though and a recent proposal has been accepted. The Amateur Scatologist – A Natural History of Dung is now in preparation.

Watch this space for more droppings.

Every library should have some books on sewage

These books are full of themselves.

These books are full of themselves.

When researching a new book about The natural history of dung (watch this space), it was important that I should make at least some reference to human droppings, and their disposal. I don’t need to go into too much detail, so no need to invest in expensive modern textbooks, but important, I think, to get a flavour of the pumping and pipeworks that transformed the squalid open sewers of Dickensian city centres into the engineering marvels of the Victorian age. Luckily, I knew exactly where to find some — in my father’s library. And here they are.

Dad always had a wildly eclectic taste in books, but even these peculiar volumes had a use for him. He had them for his own background research when making a list of the plants from the South Norwood Sewage Works, half a century ago. We lived in South Norwood at the time, and this was one of the nearest green open spaces. Although there were the usual concrete sedimentation tanks and circular filtration beds in one corner, much of the site was used as field irrigation for the final purification, where the sludge was dumped and the water was pumped until it finally trickled away back into the Chaffinch Brook, and ultimately into the River Thames at Deptford. Every so often, on a rotation system, the dried sludge on the surface was ploughed into the soil. This made for a series of fields in various stages of marshy dampness and recently ploughed disturbed areas. This was not a public access site, there were no leisure grass areas or playing fields, no ornamental planting was done; instead the sewage works represented a strange semi-natural wildlife reserve. I know all this because Dad published the results in the journal of the London Natural History Society — The London Naturalist — in 1961.

The London Naturalist, 1961, pp 102-114.

The London Naturalist, 1961, pp 102-114.

He got special permission from the Croydon Corporation (as the council was then called) to get onto the site, and the chief chemist of the works rewrote part of the introduction explaining how the sewage works worked. And there at the end of his reference list is one of the books I have borrowed. I wonder when Dad last flicked through this particular tome? Tucked inside it is an LNHS postcard from Ron Payne, then the journal’s editor, dated 31 Dec 1958, and thanking Dad for another article he’d just submitted, on Station Copse, Near Bookham Common. It finishes with “I must say I admire the flow of original papers you continue to produce. I myself found that marriage hindered some of this sort of thing.”

Today the sewage ‘farm’ is no more, and the area is open to the public — as the South Norwood Country Park. If I remember right, the reason that it is still a green open space, and not a housing estate, is a direct consequence of that field irrigation system. So much urban water and sludge was pumped, for so long, across the ground that dissolved lead from the pre-copper piping of the day, built up in the soils to the point where it was considered unsafe for gardens where children might play and where householders might grow their own vegetables to eat. The excrement has been dealt with, but the plumbing left its own problems on the environment.

In which I am showered with gifts, well, a gift

One evening last week the door bell went, and there on the doorstep was one of my old Ivydale students (now in year 8) and her mum. They’d picked up a vintage bug book from a market stall and wanted to give it to me as a present. It’s the 1938 Detmold-illustrated edition of Fabre’s Book of Insects. What a delight.
Jean-Henri Fabre (1823-1915) is slightly forgotten in the UK nowadays; not only was he French (although most of what he wrote was translated into English), but because he was writing for a general audience his works perhaps lack the lasting scientific gravitas of the monograph-producing elite. Nevertheless there is much to find in his charming, slightly old-fashioned, prose, and his personal observations are just as poignant today as they were a century ago.
In this volume the watercolour pictures are exquisite. Obviously the dung beetle frontis is my favourite.
Thanks Saoirse.