I was recently reminded of the tale, told by Charles Darwin in later life, about his fervent beetle-collecting youth. Peeling off the loose bark of a dead tree, probably somewhere in Cambridgeshire, he saw two rare beetles and picked them up, one in each hand. On spotting yet another he was momentarily at a loss, but then decided to pop one of those he held into his mouth for safe-keeping, in order to free up his hand to catch the third. Of course it ejected some foul liquid and in the inevitable coughing, spluttering and choking fit that followed he lost all three.
Personally, I think Mr Darwin was being a bit sloppy. No real entomologist ever leaves home without at least some potential collecting containers about his or her person. A couple of glass tubes in a top pocket are the usual answer, but at a push, almost anything can be brought to use — empty humus pots, take-away containers, matchboxes, plastic milk bottles, urine sample kits. I once had to remove the ink cartridge from my fountain pen to drop in a small picture-wing fly — worked a treat.
So when, sitting in the Red Lion Pub in London’s Mayfair, some time back in the 1980s, it was no surprise when the person next to me took out a brown aspirin bottle from his pocket and offered me some of the contents. The American tourists sitting nearby were agog, and nudged each other surreptitiously until I explained that this was the perfectly normal behaviour of anyone who had just left a meeting of the British Entomological and Natural History Society. After leaving the lecture hall of the Alpine Club, in South Audley Street, where the meetings took place, a hard core would descend on the snug bar at the Red Lion in Waverton Street (it’s now boarded up, presumably about to be redeveloped). Here we would cogitate on the proceedings of the meeting, and continue earnest discussions about the correct way to find obscure leaf-mining moths, or ruminate on the last time anyone had seen a Clifden Nonpareil.
Unscrewing the pill bottle, he gingerly tipped out a couple of beetles into the palm of my hand — Melasis buprestoides, a strange and handsome creature, I think I had only ever seen it once or twice before. Working for the National Trust biodiversity team, Andy Foster had plenty of opportunity to find such bark beetles, especially those, like Melasis, which are particularly at home in ancient woodland remnants. Would I like a specimen or two? Actually, they are much larger than the diminutive one I remembered finding in Sussex. Might be the other sex. Yes, I’ll take a couple for my reference collection. Now let’s see what I’ve got to put them in. A small glass tube tucked into the side pocket of my brief case. Perfect. If only Mr Darwin had been so prepared.