Creative entomology is a discipline I have formed* out of two of my greatest passions – studying insects and making art. The main body of my work involves insect biodiversity surveys, 1-to-1 entomology sessions, art and design with a focus on all things six-legged, nature outings and visits to schools and community groups.
This blog is a little side project or notebook. It’s an attempt to crystallise little droplets of my ocean of thoughts on biodiversity and the human condition into something meaningful to others. It combines my experiences in wildlife research with instinctive creative exploration and aims to bring people back in touch with our natural habitat and each other.
*I have found just one other reference to creative entomology online, in relation to an award which “recognizes creative entomologists who have demonstrated the ability to find alternative solutions to problems that significantly impact entomology”. As the only person who claims the job title of creative entomologist, I’m pretty sure I win this.
A slightly naive review of Where Do Camels Belong?, the story and science of invasive species by Ken Thompson (Profile Books, London, 2015), and how it revealed to me my xenophobic tendencies.
It took me nearly a year to finish Ken Thompson’s book, Where Do Camels Belong?. Partly because I’m bad at giving myself time to read, and partly because his tone often reminds me of people I know who argue for the sake of arguing. He annoyed me until it became clear that he is alarmingly right about a great deal of what he argues.
I won’t go into detail about Thompson’s evidence (usually solid, sometimes dubious), because I highly recommend you read the book for yourself. In a nutshell, he makes a strong argument for a less gung-ho, more nuanced approach to our interaction with so called invasive species, exotic pests, noxious weeds. He demonstrates that not all introduced species are bad, and many are of overall benefit to the economy or to wildlife (think potatoes, and shrubs which offer forage for bees and berries for birds).
The reader is encouraged to view the natural processes of the world on a bigger timescale than our human-centric society is used to. Consider a constantly, gradually shifting world in which ecosystems balance themselves out and plants and animals introduce themselves to new territories following changes in climate and geology.
The available scientific literature focuses on a relatively small number of introduced species which have caused actual biodiversity loss or economic harm. Thompson cites many cases where the costs of attempting to eradicate a species comprise the bulk of the economic damage of which the species is accused!
What I have come to see is that the introduced species is often a scapegoat for damage caused or enabled by human interference in natural processes. Focusing on the harm caused by a handful of invasive species distracts us and diverts funds from more urgent conservation issues such as destruction of existing quality habitat and climate change. In other words, from addressing the underlying problems.
Does this scapegoating sound familiar, in this era marred by Brexit and Trump, the rejection of refugees, and disturbed, disenfranchised young people blowing up the natives?
Obviously, it’s not a direct parallel. Humans of every race and nationality are all of the one species. But the language we use to reject species and people we feel are different or don’t belong, shares similarities. Invasion, exotic, non-native. It’s a language of fear.
What startled me the most about reading Where do Camels Belong? was discovering my own disproportionate fear of introduced species and the perceived harm that every new species which enters the country might do to my beloved Irish wildlife. “They’re importing bumble bees from Europe to pollinate crops inside polytunnels? Fools! What about disease? Encouraging people to scatter wildflower seeds from the UK? Our local wildflowers will be destroyed! Somebody please think of the outbreeding depression!” I have even been known to wander through parks wondering how much meat there is on a grey squirrel…
I realised that part of the reason Thompson annoyed me was the defensive attitude with which I began reading the book. Fuelled by the media, and many of my scientific peers and mentors, I was convinced that invasive species could be a major contributing factor to the downfall of our remaining wildlife.
I’m not saying that plants and animals which multiply vigorously and have an above average effect on the make up of an ecosystem are never a problem. We do need to talk about it, and work on preventing it where we can. Where do Camels Belong? is just one book and I’m still making up my mind about it. All I’m saying is let’s be careful, calm, open-minded and scientific about it, and put ourselves in other species’ shoes now and then.
The hyacinth first bloomed from the blood of Hyakinthos, a divine hero struck dead by the jealous West Wind. The crocus flower opens its petals to the first sun of springtime, a reminder to open our hearts to the goodness of all that surrounds us, to “discovery beauty in everyone”. Discovery Gospel Choir were greeted by these natural symbols, of hope in the face of tragedy and of open-hearted acceptance, as we entered the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum for an extraordinarily moving concert.
I want to tell you that the grounds of the Central Mental Hospital are beautiful at this time of year. That there are swathes of spring flowers breathing a gasp of colour and surprise all amongst the tall, inspiring trees. I want to tell you that they have donkeys, chickens, rescue dogs and bee hives now, for the patients to care for and to care for the patients.
I’m dying to tell you, stumbling over my sentences with excitement, every detail of the most joyful and meaningful concert I have ever sung with Discovery Gospel Choir! And how I’ve never felt as connected with and as appreciated by an audience as I did with the patients of the Central Mental Hospital for the criminally insane (and we get some truly awesome audiences).
Yet I have held back and hesitated to publish this blog post, because not everyone had the privilege of being there, so not everyone will understand. I expect people might put up high walls in their minds when I tell them, maybe even respond with disgust or anger. Because (and this startled me too) many of the forty or so people in our chapel audience had killed someone, in many cases even a member of their own family. They had been found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity, so they were sent here instead of to prison. But the media vilifies and mocks those who suffer from mental illnesses, so those who lack awareness fear them even after their medication has healed them.
Take schizophrenia as an example of one such illness during which a person can act without understanding the reality of their actions. The rare story of a young man wielding an axe sells more newspapers than the one cowering in his bedroom afraid for his own life. The bizarre tale of the person who kills someone they believe to be Satan gets more clicks online than the local “mad woman” wandering the streets and harmlessly and humorously (if it wasn’t so sad) telling strangers about her chats with God on the phone.
From everything I have heard and read the two non-violent examples above appear to be much more likely manifestations of schizophrenia for the roughly 1% of the population in Ireland who will suffer from this awful illness. One percent of our documented population amounts to roughly 45,950 people. There are roughly 100 patients in the Central Mental Hospital, the only forensic psychiatric unit in Ireland. I’m not a doctor or a statistician, but do the maths and break down that stigma.
Psychosis (an umbrella term which mainly covers hallucinations, delusions and disorganised thinking, which can be tormenting and terrifying for the person who has it) is the primary symptom of schizophrenia and features in a number of other illnesses. It’s also something you can experience once off. It is estimated that 8% of the population at any given time have had psychotic experiences. It’s the luck of the draw what you or your loved one might hallucinate about if they have the misfortune to be struck by this illness.
That’s all that has brought these patients here – illness, and an unfortunate set of circumstances, which could strike anyone at any time in this society where mental health is so often an afterthought, a regret. Can you imagine recovering from a serious illness to discover that you have killed someone you love dearly? It seems like the cruellest sentence. Your life and the lives of your family and your victim’s family are changed beyond recognition forever.
We met a member of staff whose dedication to these patients goes far beyond his remit. While also lamenting the lack of supportive resources for victims’ families, he blames these tragedies on the lack of availability of mental health services in the outside world, and I agree. If the public were equipped to recognise the signs, look past the stigma, and seek and receive help as soon as it is needed, many of these cases could have been prevented, not to mention the suffering of thousands others who go under the public radar.
We heard from our hosts that the Central Mental Hospital used to be more prison-like. When you hear “high security psychiatric unit” you think Hannibal Lecter. It’s an image that strikes fear into people’s hearts, and the beings encased in hard layers of security become dehumanised. The grey stone buildings date back to 1850. The 18 foot high outer walls tower above the suburbs which have grown up around it.
Nowadays, there is much more of an effort towards rehabilitation. There is more of an atmosphere of hope and healing, at least around the flower beds and in the beautiful old chapel where we sang. The patients have something to talk about other than their past, and they sell their own brand of honey: Patient Bee. Outside of these walls, Ireland needs to reform its attitude to mental health to prevent others from ending up here. We can no longer brush this problem under the carpet like so many others.
Lifting the roof of the hospital chapel with four-part harmonies, songs gathered from around the world, was a mere drop of compassion in the ocean of troubles this country needs to face right now. But, for the gentle-spoken migrant patient in the front row who recognised and sang along to a song in his native language, for the smiling toothless man who danced like he was at a rave, and for all of us who clapped and danced and sang and opened our hearts and minds in joyful connection, it was a storm surge.
Earlier this week I wrote about plants at the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland which would be pollinated by beetles, geckos and lemurs in their natural habitats. There were too many fun facts to fit into one post! Here are a few more plants which deserved a special mention…
Many of the orchids in the palm house were in bloom when my Dad and I visited at the end of February. Each one is perfectly evolved for pollinator-specific relationships. They have landing platforms for bees, pungent odours to attract flies, or they imitate insects like our own native bee orchid.
This is where the National Botanic Gardens boasts another pollination wonder from Madagascar – Angraecum sesquipedale. In 1862, Darwin theorised that this long-nectaried orchid could only be pollinated by a moth with an equally long proboscis, which would have co-evolved with the plant. In 1907, more than 20 years after Darwin passed away, that very moth (Xanthopan morganii praedicta) was found in Madagascar.
Finally, we were treated to some real pollination in action. We spotted a queen Bombus terrestris/lucorum fuelling up on the flowers of a Pieris sp.
Queen bees emerge early to begin searching for nest sites in places such as the lovely untidy, tussocky bases of hedgerows. Early flowering plants are essential to their survival, so let those dandelions and other “weeds” bloom! Don’t mow, let it grow!
My dad and I were late season visitors to the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland’s Hidden February Blossoms tour at the very end of last month. Despite our tardiness, the tour guide diligently sought out each and every plant species that was still in flower, and had something equally fascinating to say about every non-blooming thing in between.
As someone who gets a kick out of plant-animal interactions, all my favourite facts were about pollination. Did you know that Magnolia is such an ancient plant it predates the evolution of bees, and is pollinated by a wide range of beetle species instead? Pollination researcher Beatriz Moisset describes the relationship perfectly:
“Beetles are very clumsy at their task; sometimes they get carried away and eat parts of the flowers along with the pollen they find there. Their mouth parts are made for chewing…so they can’t be blamed for their sloppiness. The flowers, in turn, are adapted to this rough treatment…”
The excitement on my face following this revelation ensured that the subject matter of our tour veered towards pollination as much as towards the original theme of winter flowers!
Moving along into the curvilinear range, designed by Robert Turner and constructed in a mere quarter of a century, we were introduced to the rare Nesocodon mauritianus. Its blue, bell-shaped flowers drip with nectar as orange as cough-syrup. The pollination of this species remained a mystery until 2006 when researchers discovered that two other plants with coloured nectar on its island home of Mauritius were pollinated by Phelsuma day geckos. Hansen, Beer and Müller (2006) demonstrated that Phelsuma ornata geckos prefer coloured nectar to clear nectar (which most other flowers contain).
“In flowering plants, coloured nectar could additionally function as an honest signal that allows pollinators to assert the presence and judge the size of a reward prior to flower visitation, and to adjust their behaviour accordingly, leading to increased pollinator efficiency.”
In other words, coloured nectar allows the geckos to spot and choose their lunch and tells them where to pay. But not all geckos are such honest nectar customers. Here is a paper featuring stunning shots of a Phelsuma stealing nectar from mangrove flowers in Madagascar, bypassing the pollen entirely! Unlike Nesocodon mauritianus, the mangrove Sonneratia alba has white flowers which bloom at night so it can also attract the more helpful bats and moths.
I can’t mention day geckos without showing you a photo of Phelsuma antanosy, a species I was researching with SEED Madagascar. I have observed them licking clear nectar from small flowers. I wonder how useful they were being in terms of pollen transportation!
After paying homage to the rhododendrons, azalias, andromedas and witch hazel, all brightening up wintry grey Ireland with their dazzling colours, we entered the palm house. And there stood the plant which takes me back to Madagascar most nostalgically of all. The Traveller’s Palm.
Cue the compulsory discussion about the origin of its common name: Stab it and out flows water to quench your thirst on a long journey. It might be stagnant and full of bugs, but as a last resort it could probably save you from death by dehydration. You can also use its leaves as an umbrella or a parasol, or for covering food on the long journey from the mountains to the market. The leaves grow east to west so you can use them like a compass. Or is it north to south? Or do they actually at all? Because I’ve seen them do both, so maybe I’ve misunderstood something, but I would not like to count on it if I was lost in the bush. This is where the facts always start to become a bit alternative. Can anyone shed light on this mystery?
Our guide then revealed the pollinators of the Traveller’s Palm: lemurs! The plant co-evolved with ruffed lemurs, whose fluffy faces make the perfect pollen brush! How I lived in Madagascar for 16 months without learning this is a mystery. Too busy with my nose in the undergrowth looking for insects and frogs, perhaps!
Death Cap, Destroying Angel, Amethyst Deceiver, Panther Cap, Barefoot Amanita, Charcoal Eyelash, Yellow Fairy Cup, Devil’s Bolete, Witches’ Butter… The exotic “common” names for Irish and British species read like a spell book. A catalogue of human suspicions and accusations, promises of seduction and plenty.
I heard some of these names for the first time at an exhibition of Irish fungi at the National Botanic Gardens in September. As mycologists Maria Cullen and Howard Fox regaled us members of the Dublin Naturalists’ Field Club with bizarre facts and folklore, mushroom foraging began to sound like Russian roulette, or meddling with the occult.
We are right to be somewhat wary of fungi. A representative from the Poisons Information Centre, invited by Maria and Howard, spoke to us of an Asian expatriate who mistook our Death Cap for the edible Paddy Straw Mushroom, used frequently in Asian cuisine. The result was a liver transplant, but could have been much worse.
A fungus has even been accused of triggering the Salem witch trials. Claviceps purpurea (Fr.), or Ergot, grows on grains such as rye, a staple food source in Salem at the time of the “witchcraft” outbreak. Ergot contains ergotamine, related to LSD, the consumption of which can cause a burning sensation from nerve damage in the limbs (known as St. Anthony’s Fire), psychotic behaviour, convulsions and hallucinations – all symptoms recorded in the unfortunate Salem “witches”.
This theory was first proposed by a psychology major, called Linnda Caporael, who found that there was plenty of warm, damp weather around Salem in 1691. Perfect conditions for the fungus to thrive. You can read more about it in this article taken from the very reliable-sounding Uncle John’s Heavy Duty Bathroom Reader.
Maria Cullen suggested that the women might have been the first to develop the symptoms because they scoffed a sneaky rye scone before the men got home for dinner. And who is going to eat leftover rye scones baked by a witch? Yet she was quick to assure us before we left that fungi are not out to get us. The main reason they possess such powerful toxins is so they can break down the cellulose in the organic matter they consume.
Indeed, many fungi could be considered friends, providing antibiotics, dyes, delicious risotto and many more products that we use. Even Ergot has gone some way to redeeming itself, as a treatment for migraines.
Doting on a roundy little dumpling of a Boletus mushroom, I wonder if a mushroom would feel bad if it knew it had poisoned someone, letting my anthropomorphantasies get entirely carried away. Then Maria tells me that some similar species contain tubes that lure tiny insects in and valves that stop them from ever getting out again, and I wonder…
Moral of the story: Just like in the human world, there are harmful mushrooms and helpful mushrooms, but they’re all just trying to get along in life and digest their environment.
There is Nothing More… is the first solo exhibition by Laura Poff. Her practice is predominantly drawing based and also encompasses sculpture and installation. Through repetitive methods and actions, she creates works that endeavour to evoke something of the meditative state involved in their construction. She references organic forms and patterns, and through a process of automatic drawing, transforms them into fluid and ambiguous compositions.
The exhibition takes its title from the Junichiro Tanizaki’s essay “In Praise of Shadows”. The works on display take inspiration from the author’s mediation on Japanese aesthetics, and their preference for all things soft and nuanced, specifically the impact of darkness. To quote Tanizaki, “We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates… Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.” The…
As Dublin Inquirer journalist Cónal Thomas recently wrote such a generous article about me, I feel I owe it to him to finish the blog post I told him I was writing when he interviewed me several weeks ago!
Unlike many naturalists, I’m biased towards Pokémon GO. I’m optimistic that it could be a stepping stone for many into the real and valuable world of biological recording, especially with some great wildlife recording apps out there.
Although I never became involved in the original Pokémon games, I used to come home from school to watch the cartoons and sketch the characters in my school uniform – the closest I had to an animé costume! I was far less interested in catchin’ ’em all and pitting animals against each other in battle than I was in Brock’s romances with Nurse Joy and Officer Jenny, Bulbasaur’s magical garden, and donuts which looked suspiciously like sushi…
But I can’t help being excited about Pokémon GO, as the benefits are hard to ignore. Articles abound on how it helps people with depression, anxiety and autism, young burns unit patients, and lonely dogs at animal rescue shelters. Augmented reality, on that screen we were already addicted to anyway, is showing us landmarks we’d never noticed in places we’ve lived for years, providing an icebreaker for meeting new people and bringing out the best in our communities. Sure, bad stuff has happened too, but there’s always one…
Of course, what I’m most interested in are the enormous similarities the game shares with real life entomology, as outlined in this Buzzfeed by Dr Bryan Lessard (aka Bry the Fly Guy), a postdoctoral fellow at CSIRO’s Australian National Insect Collection! Not surprising, when you learn that Pokémon creator Satoshi Tajiri was obsessed with insects from early childhood. Like Tajiri, I hope that Pokémon GO can be a tool for getting people outdoors and encouraging interest in wildlife, simply by putting people in a better position to notice it. This is sort of how I imagine it:
Recently, during an insect survey, I encountered a young man supervising his son as he hunted Pokémon along the Grange Road Cycleway in Dublin. The boy barely glanced up from his game when I showed him a large wasp-mimic hoverfly in a jar, giving me somewhat less confidence in my theory. But my disappointment was shortlived – his father was fascinated!
I showed him several different species of hoverfly – more variations on the wasp theme and one that had tricked me into thinking it was a bee! He marvelled at each one and asked lots of questions. The look on his face as he left expressed that blown away feeling most effectively brought about by nature surprising you. It still surprises me every day.
There are some great apps out there for finding and identifying animals and plants in a Pokémon-esque fashion (if you use your imagination and make the sound effects yourself). Many of them enable you to make an important contribution to our knowledge of the distribution and conservation status of wild species by submitting a record of what you’ve found. Here are a few examples:
Identify Irish Butterflies for Android does exactly what it says on the tin, very straight-forwardly, and allows you to submit a record with a photo if you wish.
iRecord Ladybirds is a handy identification tool, but use with caution as not all species on it are present in Ireland!
Although I haven’t tried it yet, ChirpOMatic UK looks pretty exciting. Like Shazam, you can record a bird singing and it uses automatic recognition to identify it for you! As we share our bird fauna with the UK, this should also work in Ireland.
You don’t need fancy apps to record wildlife! Choose a group with a small number of species to begin with (ladybirds, butterflies or shieldbugs are a great place to start). Get yourself a good Pokédex, I mean, ID chart, field guide or key. Join a friendly facebook group such as the Beetles of Britain and Ireland, who will help to verify the identity of your ladybirds as long as you’re willing to give it a go first. Submit your sightings to a recording scheme such as the All Ireland Ladybird Survey or the Dublin Naturalists’ Field Club Shieldbug Survey. Contact me if you would like more guidance, and…