I don’t work in a museum but….

 

best-blogI don’t work in a museum, but I’ve been nominated (i.e. challenged) to write a blog for the Twitter museumweek hashtag. I nearly didn’t get nominated, you see I don’t actually work in a museum. I quite like museums though, and my study is pretty museum-like, what with shelves of old books and cabinets of old insect specimens. I could argue that it is a sort of museum in embryo, since most museums started out as the personal cabinets of curiosity of whoever founded them. I’m not expecting my disordered boxes to lead on to anything, but I like to think I am museumish in temperament, just as I am bookish. Also, I did work at a proper museum (The Horniman) on a (very) short-term contract a few years ago. With these credentials, I managed to convince a slightly reluctant Erica McAlister from London’s Natural History Museum (see her museumweek blog here) to give me the baton. So here goes.

1. Who are you and what do you blog about? I am an entomologist, and I blog about insects. That might not seem very enlightening, but because I don’t work in a museum my claimed status as an entomologist is rather telling. (In a similar vein, when does a bird-watcher become an ornithologist.) I’m not really an ‘amateur’ since I work on insects professionally, but my lack of attachment to any academic institution also means I have no real accredited professional status. The amateur/professional dichotomy is very blurred in natural history anyway. Many key experts in the field have always been amateurs in the sense that they study insects in their own time and at their own expense; I’ve always argued that a more useful distinction is between a field entomologist (that’s me, by the way, hello) and research entomologists (they’re mostly the ones in museums and universities). I used to try and get away with being a ‘consultant’ entomologist, but that just sounded pompous so I’ve gone back to being just a plain old entomologist, and I’m comfortable with that. I go off into the field, finding invertebrates for environmental surveys. And I sometimes write something about insects too. People pay me to do this. What a lark!

2. What blog piece did you enjoy writing the most? It’s got to be Lego.  I delight in the frivolity of this. That’s one of the pluses of being self-employed.

Our giraffe-necked weevil was a triumph.

Our giraffe-necked weevil was a triumph.

 3. What made you want to start a blog? This was partly a commercial decision; it’s in lieu of a website.  I’d been writing a garden wildlife blog for Gardeners’ World for some years so my personal blog complemented that too. All my work comes in through word of mouth, so both blogs (and Twitter now) at least give me a presence on the interweb.

4. What is the best thing about working in a museum? Academic studious calm. My short-term contract at the Horniman Museum was cataloguing, curating and studying Frederick Horniman’s original collection of exotic beetles and especially specimens of the Horniman beetle, Cyprolais hornimani (Bates, 1877). Though only a few hundred specimens (mainly large showy chafers, scarabs and longhorns) the historical links to some of the major zoological players of the day was fascinating. Bates (of Amazon fame) worked on the beetles, many of which had come from Christian mission stations in Cameroon to which Horniman had personal links; William Lucas Distant (who lived just around the corner from me in East Dulwich) named several bugs and the Horniman swallowtail butterfly (Papilio hornimani) from Tanzania where Horniman had commercial tea plantations. Some of the beetle specimens were collected by Alfred Russel Wallace, others were connected to the expedition sent out to find Livingstone, or came via William Watkins, a commercial insect trader who had a showroom stall at the Crystal Palace, then newly erected up on nearby Sydenham Heath. The few small cabinets of insect specimens provide a wonderful microcosm of colonial exploration, trade and empire in the Victorian era. 

5. If time and money were not an issue, which museum in the world would you most like to visit? Without hesitation it would be the Lord Howe Island Museum. Lying in the South Pacific, between Australia and New Zealand, this remote speck of land must rank as one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and its wildlife, about which I know next to nothing I have to say, must be fascinating. Although there is no museum there, I’d also have to visit the isolated splinter of volcanic rock that is Ball’s Pyramid.

6. What is your earliest museum memory? When, as a 6-year-old, my family relocated from South Norwood (near Croydon) to Newhaven (Sussex), it did not take long for my father (from whom I get my interest in wildlife) to take me to the Booth Museum in Brighton. Although I was already firmly interested in insects I remember being transfixed by all the stuffed birds in glass cases — my first taste of a natural history museum.

7. If you could start up any new museum, which one would it be and why? I think the world needs a museum of etymology, with a large annex dedicated to punctuation, especially apostrophes.

8. Share a museum selfie?

I couldn't actually find one of those, so maybe this art gallery portrait by my daughter Lillian, might suffice.

I couldn’t actually find one of those, so maybe this art gallery portrait by my daughter Lillian, might suffice.

9. If you could own a single object or specimen from a museum’s collections, which one would it be and why? It would either be the Alfred jewel in the Ashmolean, because of the delightful happenchance of its finding, ploughed up in a Somerset field, or the handsome blue john vase that used to sit on a table in Down House which, if memory serves, was stolen some time in the 1980s.

10. What is the most popular post on your blog? It seems to be my photo-record of the 2013 Coleoptera meeting  held, as coincidence would have it, in a museum, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. I think people were looking for photographs of themselves.

11. What’s the oddest comment you have received in relation to a blog post? When I blogged about dissecting a rat at a primary school natural history club, I did not realize it would be seen by the head teacher. She later took me aside for a quiet word. I thought, perhaps, that there had been complaints from the children’s parents. On the contrary, the mixture of revulsion and fascination had been reported to parents favourably. I was told to keep up the good work.

I intend to.

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Technically, Museum Week (24–30 March) finished some time ago, but blogs and the hashtag continue to trail on. I’m publishing this blog now, at the very tail end, but if I can nominate someone else, I’ll tack on a post-script here.

Stolen goods — an acceptable habitat?

In 1999 I was pleased to be invited to take part in an environmental survey of London Underground’s tracksides. Although the deep underground tunnels in the centre of the city are best known as “The Tube”, there are over 130 km of overground tracks running out of London, from Cockfosters to Heathrow and Amersham to Upminster. Usually these linear nature reserves are inaccessible to the general public, because of safety and security concerns, but after a training course (how not to get electrocuted or hit by a train) and a medical, I was allowed pretty good access, as long as I was accompanied at all times by a safety officer.

It was a fascinating year and lots of unusual things turned up. Water voles near Roding Valley, a muntjac deer near Chesham, the enigmatic weevil (5 UK records?) Otiorhynchus dieckmanni at Elm Park  and a small crop of cannabis plants at Barkingside. Some things were more sinister; rubbish was often dumped over fences and we’d been warned about discarded hypodermic needles near the end of ‘quiet’ station platforms. Several times we found handbags and briefcases which appear to have been dumped after being stolen. One series of plastic bags contained obviously important documents, including medical cards and two passports. Thinking I should act the upright citizen and hand them in to be returned to their owners I took them with me back into Central London after the day’s outing.

The British Transport Police were not very interested and, finding no record of any crime against the passport holders on their computer, they seemed unable to cope with lost property. So instead, I took them into the tube station manager’s office at Victoria. She was a little surprised to find out that I had retrieved them from the trackside, but I was wearing my bright orange London Underground high-vis jacket to prove I was ‘official’. She pored over the passports, which were slightly mouldy and had been partly nibbled by snails, only to exclaim when she saw a minute creature crawling across one of the pages. I immediately snapped it up and put it into a glass tube — Chthonius ischnocheles (Herm.) the only pseudoscorpion found during the survey.

Tiny, but highly distinctive, pseudoscorpions are easily overlooked, unless you are looking closely ... very closely indeed.

Tiny, but highly distinctive, pseudoscorpions are easily overlooked, unless you are looking closely … very closely indeed.

I well remember an entomologist who, on finding a very rare beetle under part of an old shoe washed up on a saltmarsh, refused to give the exact details on the data label, writing instead: “under rejectamenta”. You’ll be relieved to know that my London Underground specimen of Chthonius is correctly labelled: “Sudbury Town, 18.x.99, In old passport, dumped, stolen goods”.

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PS. I was spurred to write this in response to Chris Buddle’s recent blog: Ten facts about pseudoscorpions:

 

 

No wonder Mr Darwin was so pleased

Thirty years before On the origin of species was published, Charles Darwin’s first appearance in print was, he later confessed, still one of his proudest achievements. You see, like so many great biologists, Darwin was a beetle man at heart.

In his later days  he likened himself to an old war horse, roused by a clarion call, on reading of the discovery of rare beetles. Well, that really rings true. He also said that seeing his name next to some of the beetle records in James Francis Stephens’ milestone 12 volumes series of  Illustrations of British Entomology (1828-1846) brought him great delight, and well it might.

Just one of several of Darwin's beetle finds, recorded in Stephens' monumental Illustrations of British entomology.

Just one of several of Charles Darwin’s beetle finds, recorded in the first beetle volume of J.F. Stephens’ monumental Illustrations of British entomology.

Here it is, in the addenda to Stephens’ first beetle volume (1829). Since it was issued in parts, various subscribing entomologists were able to read the early fascicles and send their comments and additional records to the author so he could incorporate them before the volume was finished. Technically, Darwin’s first record is a couple of pages earlier, but was for what is now a non-species (Ocys tempestivus, which has since been synonymized as just a slightly larger and brighter form of the very common Ocys harpaloides).

Blethisa multipunctata is a beautifully sculpted metallic ground beetle from riversides and marshes. Studying at Cambridge, Darwin was well-placed to find it in the Cambridgeshire fens, still a major stronghold. I’ve never found it. If I did, I’d certainly let someone know. And hope to see my record in print, with my name beside it.

When I was eighteen, I went up to an entomological meeting at London’s Natural History Museum. Here were many of the well-known entomologists of the day, Cyril Hammond was one I remember. I chatted to a few people, including the dipterist Alan Stubbs, one of the organizers, who was singularly impressed to learn that I had just recently seen quite a lot of a strikingly handsome and very rare hoverfly, Doros profuges (D. conopseus it was then). Later, when addressing the meeting he made mention of me, a newcomer in the room who had seen more specimens of this scarce fly than all previous British entomologists put together. There was a lot of interested head nodding in the audience, and I felt the same pride that Darwin knew. I guess that makes me a fly man, as well as a beetle man.

The womanly bow-wing

Many years ago, something like 1983 I’m guessing, I sat at the table at a friend’s dinner party in her flat in West Hampstead, when someone pointed to a small animated speck waltzing across the ceiling high above us.

Without even standing up, I announced ‘Toxoneura muliebris’, more to myself than anyone, without even thinking I might be speaking out loud. There then followed some light-hearted mockery at what might now be considered slightly impressive geekiness, but which was then regarded as rather daft dorkiness on my part.

It’s a pretty little thing — pale-bodied with a distinctive sinuous hair-pin stripe of brown and black around each wing. As it walks, it flicks its wings, first one, then the other, in some sort of discoordinated semaphore. I don’t know if this is related to courtship or territoriality, but it makes it a highly distinctive creature, even from several metres away. I’d seen it before, several times, in the old woodlands and wooded river valleys of the Sussex Weald.

At the time I assumed it had flown in through an open window and its dance on the ceiling was an accidental error of behavioural judgement, but I now believe otherwise. Several entomologists have commented that they, too, have found this fly indoors, and that it is probably a natural predator of carpet beetles.

This is exciting news, because it means that I can include it in House pests, house guests, and I have this illustration by Verity, my 16-year-old daughter, to go with it.

Toxoneura muliebris, pen and ink, by Verity Ure-Jones.

Toxoneura muliebris, pen and ink, by Verity Ure-Jones.

Through the vagaries of scientific nomenclature, it is currently placed in the genus Palloptera, but I prefer its older name, if only because Toxoneura (sometimes Toxonevra) comes from the Greek toxon (bow) and neuron (nerve) presumably for the bow-shaped band across the wing nervature, and muliebris is Latin for womanly. Not sure what that’s all about, though.

Verrall time is here again

Another year, another Verrall Supper. One hundred and eighty-five entomologists sat down to dinner at the Rembrandt Hotel again. After standing at the bar, of course.

Here are some random pictures.

See you all again next year.

My middle name is ant

The wolf spiders are out again. Early I think, confused by late February sunshine. They’re dancing on the wooden sleepers and at the bottom of the fence. Of course, they’re not really dancing, but anthropomorphism works for me.

They’re all females as far as I can see, which is a shame because it is the males semaphoring I really like to see. That’s not anthropomorphism, that one. They genuinely are signalling to each other using their palps like semaphore flags, holding them out at various angles, bobbing them up and down to convey their messages.

A couple of years ago I took some in to Ivydale Natural History Club and then we set about with real semaphore flags to send our own messages from one side of the classroom to the other. I needed something short and simple for the kids to do, so I suggested we’d signal our middle names.

I started: . . . . . A . . . . N . . . . T . .

At this point everyone fell about laughing and claiming that I, the Bugman, was making it up.

No, my middle name really is Antony.

Asian longhorn — not today thank you

I’m always interested to be shown specimens or photos of insects that people have found. I can’t always help with a precise identification, but I can at least offer some ideas of what type of creature it might be. Often I have to guess at a dark blob. Sometimes it’s a crisp clear picture and a name comes easy.

So when I was shown this picture by one of the teachers at the local primary school, it was obvious.

Asian longhorn, Anoplophora glabripennis. Lovely, but not welcome here.

Asian longhorn, Anoplophora glabripennis. Lovely, but not welcome here, thank you very much.

This beautiful and distinctive insect is on the edge of our pest-control radar here. The Forestry Commission have started issuing warnings. The Daily Mail has already been on about it. Twice. The beetle became established near Maidstone in 2012; it is thought to have been eradicated, but only after the felling of over 2100 trees.

I tried not to inject any concern into my voice: “Ah, where did you find that one?”

“It was crawling across the pavement on our school trip to China.”

Phew. That’s all right then.