Even the man in the Peckham Rye station ticket office knew it. I was buying tickets for me and the 8-year-old to go to Kempton Park. “Off to the races?” he asks. “We’re actually going to a bug show.” I tell him. “It’s today is it?” says he “I don’t go any more” Calvin points out the large spider tattoo on the man’s arm. “I’ve got 20 tarantulas at home,” he continues, “I don’t need any more”.
The Amateur Entomologist’s Society has been holding an annual ‘exhibition’ since 1939. It’s now less of a demonstration of entomological science (although there are a few exhibits) but it has become a huge trade fair.
I have a clear memory of first going with my dad; the show was in the assembly hall of a school near Victoria, it was in the mid 1960s and I must have been 6 or 7. I was mesmerized by the trays of exotic insects for sale and came away with a small cardboard box in which were pinned three or four large, brightly coloured exotic butterflies.
Today, my focus is on buying books and equipment, and chatting to people I haven’t seen since last year. There are large numbers of live-stock sellers nowadays — tarantulas, stick insects, cockroaches and millipedes are popular pet items it seems. But there are still many glass-topped drawers full of large butterflies, moths, beetles and other insects, pinned ready for purchase.
I’m rather ambivalent about this practice. Part of me shuns the idea that these beautiful and fascinating creatures have been debased to become commercial commodities; these specimens no longer have any scientific significance, most come without names, or data, or any indication of where or how they were collected. ‘Serious’ entomologists have struggled to throw off the notion that they are all grasping collectors, fueled only by the greed of ownership and the desire to possess prized display trophies. The overt display of buying and selling great showy insects at Kempton does nothing to dispel this impression.
However, trade is regulated, and there are legal rules about scarce or protected species. There are good arguments about promoting and financing local wildlife conservation by sustainable harvest. And there is still a lot to be said about the educational superiority of being able to pick up and touch a real insect specimen, pinned, dead or otherwise, rather than simply seeing a pretty picture on the telly or the interweb.
Today I came away with a 1911 monograph on tsetse flies published by the British Museum (Natural History), and full of early 20th century earnest solemnity. And my bargain of the day was a broken odd volume of Donovan’s famous 1801 Natural History of British Insects; twenty exquisite hand-coloured plates, a snip at £22. The 8-year-old came away with a crystal-filled geode and a large shiny rhinoceros beetle. I can say nothing against his choices.