Category Archives: Books

A gnat-infested woodland near Polegate

Copies of Mosquito should be available in August, ready for the ‘official’ launch in October. In the end, I had to cut quite a lot from my initial over-ambitious plan. It would all have made the book too long and too rambling. As I constantly remind my long-suffering family in grumpy-old-man style: less is more.

There are a few things, however, that I don’t want to consign to the editorial dustbin. This one, in particular, is very personal.

There are plenty of mosquito-named places in the world. Google Maps are very helpful here. Some of these find their way into chapter 4, but this one was excised.

Gnat Wood, near Polegate from the mid-19th century Ordnance Survey map.

In the 19th century, a very likely marshy buggy wood at Polegate (near Eastbourne, East Sussex) was called Gnat Wood. Perhaps, like the Mosquito Range in the Rockies, Mosquito Island in the British Virgin Islands, many Mosquito Harbours, Mosquito Creeks, Mosquito Lanes and Mosquito Roads around the world, it was named by the natives vexed by their local biting flies.

It doesn’t sound very enticing; not the sort of place you might consider taking the family for a country stroll. Nevertheless, it was included in the Ward Lock Guide to Eastbourne as part of a ‘Pleasant Circular Run’ through Pevensey, Wartling and Hurstmonceux, and was constantly referred to by Freeman Clark Roper in his 1875 Flora of Eastbourne.

In fact, Gnat Wood, though it was not necessarily called such, was a much-loved haunt of Victorian Naturalists, being part of the well-known, (verging on famous) Abbot’s Woods. Like many prominent localities of the time, its proximity to a railway station, at Hailsham, may have made it attractive to the London entomologists.

I never knew it as Gnat Wood,  by the early 20th century it had split into the adjoining Nate and Gate Woods. Nor did I go there by train, it was a relatively easy bus journey from my parent’s home in Newhaven, and when we moved there from Croydon in 1965, Abbot’s Wood was one of the first places we would visit on our regular weekend family rambles.

Screen grab from the current Ordnance Survey map of the south-east section of Abbot’s Wood.

I have many fond memories of Abbot’s Wood. I was always amused by the first wood over the wooden gate from the bus stop and down the ancient hedge-lined greenway; the rather grunt-sounding Oggs Wood reminded me of Stig of the Dump (I was 7 or 8 at the time), and I imagined it had been there since some vague indeterminate stone age settlement. I half expected to glimpse dark, shadowy, tassel-haired figures wielding flint-tipped spears and wearing loin cloths, hopping about between the coppice stools.

Abbot’s Wood was probably the first place I ever saw green tiger beetles or harlequin frog-hoppers, or wood ants. I was never very interested in butterflies, but here were pearl-bordered fritillaries, small pearl-bordered, silver-washed, and dark-green. There may even have been the occasional Duke of Burgundy. This was where I first saw a grass snake, as long as a broomstick and as thick as my arm, crashing off into the undergrowth, and seeming to me like a writhing anaconda. I found its sloughed skin and took it home in my empty sandwich box — a wilderness treasure to be sure.

I have clear memories of finding the startling ‘bug fly’, Alophora hemiptera, and of watching the brown hawker dragonfly, Aeshna grandis, swooping over the small artificial lake, of picking red leaf beetles, Chrysolina polita, from water mint leaves, and catching the wasp longhorn, Strangalia maculata, in my bare hands. It was also the first time I was ever bitten by a horse fly, probably the common Tabanus bromius.

Ah, such times! I don’t remember mosquitoes, or midges or gnats though. But perhaps that’s nostalgia editing my memories.

How to startle a chemist?

When I found Rhopalapion longirostre, a tiny weevil that feeds on garden hollyhocks, new to Britain in June 2006, I immediately set about composing a short article for The Coleopterist announcing its discovery. These short notes, published in the various entomological journals were, until the advent of the anonymous database, the basic stuff of biological recording, and the first act of anyone researching a particular species, or habitat, or locality, was to trawl the literature for records.

They are also, to some extent, the currency of the field entomologist’s kudos — “look what I’ve found”. So I was a bit put out when the editors cut what I thought was a key part of the information. I found the weevils as I was wandering around the gardens of the local church — that much made it into print. But why was I there? Not out of any religious conviction, but to take my young daughters to their ballet lesson in the church hall next door. While we waited, I carried my 1-year-old son around as we explored the sunny grass and watched ants busy on the patio. It was here, on the hollyhocks beside the church steps, that I found and immediately recognized the weevils, small, but thoroughly distinctive because of their unfeasibly long snouts. In order to collect a few specimens I needed a container so, I simply tipped out a couple of broken bread sticks and a few left-over raisins from the pocket Tupperware box that had contained 1-year-old’s afternoon snack. These details, obviously, were considered unnecessary twaddle, and the editorial red pen had excised them. A shame, I thought.

I like to flick through old volumes of The Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine (EMM), or Transactions of the Entomological Society, or The Entomologist’s Record and Journal of Variation. It is just this sort of ephemeral incidental detail that makes some of the old articles so entertaining 100 and more years after they were first published. They are all full of fascinating notes and records by what we now regard as the fathers of British entomology (hardly any women in those days, I’m afraid), but they also contain so many entertaining social commentaries and personal asides.

I recently came across this one, from the EMM, 1869, volume 6, pages 162-163, and I’ve taken the liberty of making a screen grab from the on-line version put up by the Biodiversity Heritage Library. It makes charming reading.

I wonder if there is still a chemist to be startled near Dartford station?

John William Douglas (1814–1905) was one of the foremost entomologists of his day, a president of the Entomological Society of London (later to become the ‘Royal’ in 1933) and one-time editor of the journal into which he put this snippet. He was an erudite and learned scientist, but even so he was not above inserting some ‘trivial’ personal details into his short note on this scarce little hopper. The result — a readable and informative record of an insect still restricted to a few rough grassy places within easy distance, as the house-agents say, of the built environment in the environs of London, chains and slavery.

It makes a change from some of the dreary pieces that get published in scientific journals today. I shall aspire to emulate Mr Douglas, and try to get in something about startling a chemist next time I find a beetle new to Britain.

Four rabbits make one felt hat

It’s not all about insects. Occasionally I have to find out something about ‘other’ wildlife. In which case, as well as resorting to the interweb, I scour my bookshelves to see what old reference books I can find. This is one of my favourites:

I use it lots. Its rather tatty cover is a dead giveaway.

When it first appeared (1937), it was quite revolutionary in its style and format. Gone were the wordy descriptions of the Victorian gentlemen from a generation or two before. Here instead was a clipped military staccato prose of precise information delivered in short detailed phrases. Of the badger, for example:

“Sexes alike. Female (‘Sow’) usually slightly smaller than male (‘Boar’). Length 28 in. plus 8 in. tail. Weight very variable; average, boar about 25 lb., sow 22 lb., but recorded up to 40 lb. Thickset, bear-like, round-backed, very powerful. Fur coarse, long, and loose. Foetid gland under tail. 6 teats.”

That would have taken half a page a few years earlier. Sandars also included some of the first distribution maps, rather stylized but very useful, along with drawings of skeleton, dentition, gait and footprints. He relates life histories, daily activities and yearly routines, and he gives all the information you might need about food, calls, habits, enemies and distribution.

His concise text is not at all dry; like many writers he found a sharp clarity, and sometimes a whimsical wit, in being so constrained, and every animal chapter or description contains delightful nuggets, like the title of this blog entry. Just opening the book at random —

Whales and dolphins:

“Except Man, the Killer Whale, and some parasites, the great Whales have no enemies, but whaling must be considered because it has almost exterminated them. The oceans being no-man’s land, it has been found impossible to make effective game laws.”

Suffolk horses (lots of farm animals in the book as well as wild):

“Of fine constitution, long lived, handy, and active, they show unequalled pluck at a dead pull.”

Slow worm:

“Not particularly slow, but rarely in a hurry”.

Bank vole:

“Voice. Short, grunting squeaks. They also grind their teeth in rage.”

Daubenton’s Bat:

“Skim low over water, sometimes zigzagging Swallow-like, and sometimes hovering with quivering wing as a Sandpiper, often dipping to the surface to drink and take ephemerids. Frequently take a fisherman’s fly.”

Man:

“More nearly naked than any Mammal except the Whales…The hands (with 5 nailed fingers) are used only for work, play, or combat, rarely for crawling…There is no special mating season…Sleeps lying down…He does not get each meal by his own effort of hunting or browsing. He eats what other Men have garnered or killed. A Man usually produces nothing for his own use, very rarely much…Almost omnivorous, but eat very few raw foods, such as oysters, salads, fruits and nuts. Cannot digest grass, even cooked…The voice of the Males is louder and deeper, of Females higher pitched and, perhaps less usually silent.”

It was the 1930s, mild sexism was de rigueur.