Pillbox joke anyone?

The last time I descended the 80 broken steps down from the corner of Newhaven Fort’s parade ground into the bowels of the earth, they were unlit, but for our torches, and the ruins of the broken tunnels echoed to our excited teenage voices. The fort was just a playground for us then. Dangerous, with its broken concrete, twisted metal and dark subterranean caverns, but still a place where we explored and played.
That was during the two decades of decay between when it was decommissioned in the early 1960s and when it was reconstructed as a heritage tourist attraction in the early 1980s.
When I recently took the 9-year-old for a look around, much had changed, but I still recognized some of the passageways and corridors, now lit by fluorescent tubes, and the long stairs down to the caponier were still dank and musty from disuse.
It’s always good to learn a bit of new jargon; a caponier is an earth-covered fortified construction jutting out into a defensive ditch allowing the soldiers to fire through small slot windows to defend the ramparts from assault. It’s a kind of semi-subterranean pillbox tacked onto the lower region of the fort.
And what better creature to find down there than hundreds of pill woodlice, Armadillidium vulgare? Gathered into huddles in the darkness, they were crying out for a pill- or pillbox-based collective noun. A tablet? A dose? A caponier, perhaps?

Not a man-eating clam, child-eating

The mighty mollusc

Every classroom should have a giant clam shell, if only to see it wheeled in with great ceremony, wrapped in a thick horse blanket and roped to a heavy duty sack trolley, by a red-faced and perspiring entomologist.

No, they did not believe me when I said it was a man-eater. My smirk always gives me away. They were quite impressed with the idea that it could well have been a century old when it was removed from the southern Indian or Pacific Ocean. And even more surprised to discover that it had been dug up in a garden in East Dulwich. The small hole drilled in the centre suggests it was once a water feature of some kind, but whether in a Victorian garden hereabouts or as a baptismal fount in a church remains to be determined.

My thanks to David and Pia Randall-Goddard for letting me drag it away from their house. No children or bugmen were harmed in the display of this fine object, but the final word in the Giant Clam Wordsearch to accompany it was the sound I made when I picked it up — Ooof.

I just can’t remember a time before insects

I inherited my interest in natural history from my father. When asked, he would claim to be ‘just a botanist’, but he always carried an insect net, and during his lifetime he amassed a large collection of insects across all orders. He also knew a thing or two about snails.

Even before we moved to Newhaven (in May 1965), I remember being out with Dad, or with the family, walking in the Surrey woods or along the North Downs. My first taste of fizzy orange juice was at the cafe near Box Hill railway station, surrounded by crowds of mods and rockers. I didn’t like the bubbles on my tongue, ‘hot’ I thought. The motorcycle policeman suggested we get on the train with the mods, rather than the more unstable and possibly more violent rockers.

I don’t quite remember this though.

Selsey v.60028

Two-year-old me.

It seems the indoctrination had started early. This was from our holiday to Selsey Bill, in May 1960. Even before this I was apparently dragged about the countryside, literally, in a large-wheeled push-chair, adapted for rough terrain by the addition of a stout pulling chain to the front axle, when extra power was needed to get along muddy bridleways.

My earliest insect collection (mostly butterflies, dragonflies and bumblebees, if I remember right) no longer exists, but a few surviving specimens linger  in the drawers today. According to my old catalogue, specimen 1a was the giant weevil Liparus coronatus from 1967 . Some of the memories are there though. Around the time of our first arrival in Newhaven I chased clouded yellows across the cliff-tops at Telscombe. A short walk over the downs to Bishopstone and it took several bites from saucer bugs (Ilyocoris cimicoides) and water boatmen (Notonecta species), before I worked out that I had to be carefully picking things out of the pond-dipping net.

I grew up thinking it was perfectly normal to spend every sun-lit weekend hour squelching across the marshy meadows of the Sussex river valleys, scrambling up the stepped sheep-rutted scarps of the chalk beacon hills, and pushing through the dense woods and copses of the Weald; then to sit down at a desk in the evening to pin insects onto setting boards, or fair-copy write-up my nature notes.

This picture is from much later, July 1983, when I was visiting my parents, but similar images from the previous 25 years would have shown the same thing — a shared interest in natural history. Thanks Dad.

July 1983015

Father and son.

The ghosts of collections past

The images stopped me in my tracks. These are the haunting signs that will make any entomologist hang their head in melancholy regret at things lost and gone forever.

photo 2

Echoes of the butterflies what were once stored in this box.

photo 1

… and the swallowtails that were once here.

These shadowy outlines were stained into the paper lining a couple of store-boxes I recently picked up at the Booth Museum of Natural History, in Brighton. They are all that is left of the butterfly specimens earnestly collected, carefully mounted and proudly pinned into the cork by some long-gone entomologist.

Imagine what would happen to the dried insect specimens, pinned into the box (the boxes stored flat to allow some stacking), if the butterfly bodies and wings suddenly and magically turned to fine dust. The dust would fall and settle on the white paper beneath, in exactly the same shape as the insect that was once above, and over the months or years the undisturbed dust would impregnate the white fibres of the lining, casting a tinge of discoloration. All that remains are the naked pins and the small rectangles of the data labels. Now the pins and labels have been removed, leaving their own echoes too.

There is no magic involved, though, just the depredations of the larvae of museum beetles — Anthrenus species. ‘Undisturbed’ is the operative word here. Undisturbed, unmonitored, unseen inside the boxes, a population of museum beetles chewed through the butterflies until there was nothing left but the beetles’ powdery dusty droppings.

Every museum in the world will have horror stories of some precious and irreplaceable collection reduced to dust like this. Store-boxes are especially prone, because they are apt to be left shut up for years or decades at a time. Glass-topped cabinet drawers, at least, can be easily pulled out and examined for the tell-tale dusty signs of an infestation — hopefully caught early on.

Like many museums, the Booth is glad to get rid of all the store boxes it can, transferring the many specimens into standard glazed drawers. And as I’m discussing this with the curators they shake their heads and bemoan the state of so many collections that come their way. This is all very significant for me, because I have just helped them transfer the nine cabinets of my father’s insect collections into the museum, along with a cabinet of snail shells and his herbarium, all of which he bequeathed to the Booth in his will. During his lifetime he was lucky that he never had any Anthrenus infestations.

The museum can heave a sigh of relief that the Alfred W. Jones bequest is pest-free, and there are no signs of any ghostly shadows on the paper linings of the drawers.

Can you tell whether I’m a cat person or a dog person?

Final proofs for House Guests, House Pests are in and it won’t be long before the print button is pressed. The content is, of course, mostly insects, but there is a light scatter of non-invertebrate subject matter too.

Bats in the belfry, dormice in the loft and porcupines interfering in the garden shed all get a mention. Not everything is a pest. There are plenty of animals we seem to tolerate in our houses.

Take this for instance. I’m pretty certain you should be able to tell where my loyalties lie.

Do house guests include cats and dogs?

Do house guests include cats and dogs?

What a difference three decades makes

The perspective is not quite the same, but I think you can just make out that Shirley Wheeler is standing in the left-hand of the two bridge spans.

Disused railway line, Poplar, 6 August 1984.

Disused railway line, Poplar, 6 August 1984.

Docklands Light Railway, Poplar, 4 September 2014.

Docklands Light Railway, Poplar, 4 September 2014.

This is the view just north-east of Poplar station on the Docklands Light Railway line heading up towards Stratford. The bridge carries Poplar High Street across the tracks. Just over 30 years separates the two photographs.

The first photo was taken when ‘Docklands’ was just a developer’s wild idea. The second was taken this afternoon. In the summer of 1984 Shirley was looking up at the birds nesting under the eaves of the derelict building — house martins I think they were, or swallows perhaps. We’d spent the day wandering the vast broken landscape of the Isle of Dogs, from Mudchute and Millwall up here to Poplar. Much of the former industry had been bulldozed or had just fallen down in abandonment. Everywhere was a riot of flowers and birdsong. We picked blackberries from the old railway embankments. I found the peculiar plant-hopper Asiraca clavicornis, for the first time. It’s a regular on London brownfields still, but is rare elsewhere in the UK.

The massive redevelopment started soon after our visit, and is continuing even now. Each time I travel on the DLR there is more construction going on somewhere as more plots are infilled. I don’t want to get too maudlin, but I do mourn the loss of what was, at the time, London’s largest nature reserve.

Anyone in Britain seen a map lately?

Has anyone in Britain seen a map lately? Clouded yellows — two a penny. Swallowtails — already plenty of sightings along the South Coast. But a map, now that would be something.


Map of France, from Burgundy actually.

The European map butterfly, Araschnia levana, is named for its prettily marked underside with its criss-cross of white lines supposedly resembling the radiating compass marks superimposed on old maps and nautical charts. It’s common enough on the Continent, and occurs through much of France, where this picture was taken a few years ago. What’s more, its caterpillars feed on the ubiquitous stinging nettle and it has been spreading through Europe, having extended its range hundreds of kilometres further north and west during the last few decades. It’ll be here any day now.

The weird thing about this butterfly is that it has two strikingly different colour forms on the upper surface. The spring butterflies, emerging from overwintered chrysalides, are bright orange on the upperside, patterned with a series of black spots and blotches — form levana. These lay eggs and the caterpillars feed through the summer, pupate, and emerge a few weeks later. The late-summer emergers are jet black above, with a strong white flash down each wing — form prorsa. There are plenty of galleries available to look at, here and here, for example.

Its possible that when the butterfly finally gets here it may only have one generation a year, as it does in northern parts of its range, and up mountains; this would be the chrsalis-overwintering orange form levana.

The map already has a tenuous claim in Britain, because 100 years ago it was established in the Forest of Dean. The story goes that it was deliberately released by some well-meaning, but ill-informed enthusiast around 1912. The tale continues that a less enthusiastic entomologist, one A.B Farn, was so incensed at this foreign transgressor that in 1915 he vowed to exterminate it by destroying every individual he could find. It seems unlikely that one butterfly maniac could eradicate a thriving colony; much more likely that this insect was floundering anyway, well away from its comfort zone in central Europe.

Today things are different and as that comfort zone appears to be expanding northwards, colonization of Britain now seems inevitable.