Tag Archives: Ivydale School

Ivydale’s inse(c)t day

It was the obvious wordplay, so I went with it. They were always called insect days in our house. Inset? what on Earth does that mean anyway? At least ‘teacher training day’ makes some sort of sense.

This way; past stinging nettles, trailing brambles, and mud.

This way; past stinging nettles, trailing brambles, and mud.

I didn’t call it a bug-hunt though (too demeaning for adults) so we indulged in the citizen science that is the bioblitz. But it was a bug hunt really. The hunters were armed with empty humous pots and sent off to see what could be scooped from the herbage of One Tree Hill off Brenchley Gardens.

I’d set up a trestle table and microscope in the small grassy clearing half way up the hill and along everyone came.

Ready to rumble.

Ready to rumble.

Not surprisingly the list of just over 60 species was really quite modest. The site we investigated was very restricted, barely a few hundred square metres of secondary woodland edge and irregularly mown grass and bramble thicket.

Nevertheless everyone seemed very enthusiastic. (Well, I did get a couple of sit-outs “Oooh, I don’t do insects”, slightly disappointing.) There were five species of bumble, including the tree bumblebee, Bombus hypnorum, and one of the cuckoo bumblebees, Bombus vestalis.

The most unusual find of the day was a single small (5.5 mm) metallic green jewel beetle. Agrilus laticornis is notionally ‘nationally scarce’, a denizen of oak woodland (there were some oaks growing here) where its larvae burrow through the bark of dead trunks and branches. It’s always a nice thing to find.

Agrilus laticornis, confirmed by examination of the shape of the prosternal plate behind the front coxae.

Agrilus laticornis, confirmed by examination of the shape of the prosternal plate behind the front coxae. Technical terms obligatory here folks.

One thing, though, became immediately clear — although older, wiser and potentially better informed, the adults could not compete with the keen and crisp eye-sight of their 5- to 12-year-old pupils. Also, being shorter, the children are naturally closer to the ground, always a useful thing when bug-hunting.

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I give you — the farting beetle

Today I took along a bombardier beetle, Brachinus crepitans, to Ivydale Natural History Club. I’d found it earlier in the day, near Dartford, slightly crushed at the edge of a footpath, but it was still alive and active in a three-legged sort of way. I would try to get it to perform.

In the class I pontificated about cannons, bombardment, chemical explosives and the useful deterent of being able to secrete stable neutral chemicals from abdominal glands, mix them inside a reinforced internal crucible reaction chamber, and then squirting a directable jet of boiling hot hydroquinones into the face of your would-be attacker. There were a few skeptical looks, and maybe 2 seconds before one quipped: “What, it farts?”

Well of course a bombardier beetle word search will have the word 'bottom' in it.

Well of course a bombardier beetle word search will have the word ‘bottom’ in it.

I had their attention now; getting them to quiet down to listen took a bit of time. Of course the beetle gets its name from the audible pop of its defensive mechanism. But at only 7 or 8 mm long, even the beetle’s loudest output would need complete silence in the group of 20 giggling 8- to 10-year-olds.

I waited, whilst the beetle shuffled about in its tissue-lined pot, and the general hubbub subsided to calm expectation. Using some fine watch-maker’s tweezers I gently tweaked its back leg and there came the report. The looks on the assembled faces were priceless. Not a pop, not a bang, not a fizz, but a tiny, clear, slightly musical ‘toot’. Perfect.

Ivydale School Bestiary Top Trumps

For the last few years I’ve run a small lunch-time club at Ivydale Primary School, mysteriously entitled “Bestiary”. I wanted a novel way to engage the year-6 children in natural history, when they are already barraged with stunning TV wildlife documentaries and almost every animal has a wikipedia page for them to browse at their leisure. So instead, we went back in time.

Despite modern advances in science, there is still a tendency to look back in fond admiration at the arcane and sometimes potentially secret knowledge of the ancients. In some fields (herbalism maybe?) there seems a certain professional snobbery in quoting the overly famous Gerard’s herbal, and it’s easy to forget that not one of the plant preparations was ever tested with any rigour, and the whole thing is more or less based on anecdotal reports of recovery from ill-understood medical conditions suffered by old wives. True, some modern drugs hail from traditional plant extracts (aspirin and digitalis the most oft-quoted), but most seem unlikely, except to enfreshen the fetid air of the sick bed.

The animal equivalents of herbals — bestiaries — contained an equally mixed hotch-potch of the familiar and the fantastical, mundane and mythical creatures sat haunch by jowl, often beautifully painted, but sometimes comically misportrayed, as if (as is quite likely) drawn by the figurative equivalent of Chinese whispers. Rabbits and hares are reproduced with the accurate, but blunt, knowledge of the butcher, whilst unfeasible elephants look like overweight, tusked deer with trumpet trunk and floppy-toed feet. And as for sea serpents, griffins and chimaeras….

So here was the perfect opportunity to incorporate natural history with legendary history, artistic license with anarchic fun, science with silliness. They’ve been making their own bestiaries. And this year they created Ivydale Bestiary Top Trump Cards. They are brilliant.

The mix was just as quirky as in any medieval bestiary. Alongside familiar critters like chickens, slugs and fox were some more unusual beasts such as echidna, seahorse and hippo. There were mythical marvels like roc, dragon and hydra, and (just for completeness) a few plants (venus fly trap, mandrake) and geophysical entities (northern lights, meteor, tsunami). Then there was the just plain odd — an alien called Zwg from the planet Poggle, the God of Death and the Count Van Evil Sock, yes an evil smelly sock that wants to take over the world, very strange.

In the end Isobel, Kristen, Saoirse , Sidney and William (together with Eliza and Tariq in 2012) produced 72 cards. I think they are wonderful and offer them here to anyone who wants to download them and play.