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.
Extracts from a year in the life of a Creative Entomologist.
In 2017 I made probably the most difficult decision of my life to date, if indeed it really was a decision when it came down to it. Having salvaged one of my longest-standing, most beautiful friendships from the rubble, it feels…hmm…not as though anything is possible, but that something worthwhile is always possible.
I received an important piece of wisdom at the time: Sometimes there is no good or bad decision, there is only the one that you make. The first time I volunteered in Madagascar, I learnt something similar. You commit to that spot on the far side of the river and you leap. That’s how you move through the forest.
After that cryptic introduction, let me tell you about some of the work-related leaps I made in 2017, and how they will shape the coming year of Creative Entomology for better or for worse.
Next week I’m returning to my favourite village in Madagascar to carry out the Wild Postcard Project with SEED Madagascar! I’ll spend four weeks there, running an art competition to produce Sainte-Luce-wildlife-themed postcards for the charity to sell to support their valuable work in the area. There will of course be a special insects/invertebrates category! I’m eager to work out how many postcards I should print – please contact me on Facebook if you would like to register your interest in buying a pack or donate towards the costs of art materials, prizes and printing.
Upon my return in mid-February, I will be available to lead bug workshops and nature outings for a primary school near you (if you live in the greater Dublin area), subsidised by the Heritage Council! That’s because I’ve been chosen for the Heritage in Schools panel 2018 – 2020!
It’s appropriate that I’m returning to Madagascar with my artist’s hat on, because 2017 was the year I really got my art buzz back, on the inspirational Bee Time residency at Emerson College. It opened my eyes to our complicated relationship with the honey bee and the importance of creating art with the communities in which we live. I made a bee line for the Bee Time HQ in Spain later in the year, visiting the land which the beetimers are healing for the bees, and becoming pleasantly embroiled in some plotting to bring a Bee Time residency to Ireland…
Last year I also applied for a pollinator art commission from Laois and Offaly County Councils. Didn’t get it. Made the art anyway. My video collaboration with the public in Laois and Dublin, More than Bees: Lesser Known Tips for Pollinator Conservation, was screened in Dunamaise Arts Centre during Heritage Week, thanks to the Laois Heritage Officer Catherine Casey. I also made some lovely beekeeper friends!
2017 saw the launch of my first solo exhibition, BUGONIA, built around the prints, paintings, and sound pieces I created in those two fruitful weeks at Bee Time, and hosted by Bí URBAN in Stoneybatter. What a calm yet thought-provoking space Kaethe Burt O’Dea has created! I’m excited to get involved in her Lifeline Project in 2018. The aim is “to create a flow of biodiversity from the Botanic Gardens to the Liffey as a living laboratory where the citizens of Dublin’s Northwest Inner city can map and measure the value of re-partnering with nature in the urban environment.”
In conjunction with the exhibition, and for Remembrance Day for Lost Species, I held a pollinator video workshop and a poetry and music evening at St. Michan’s Church, generously supported by Phibsboro Tidy Towns and Church of Ireland. A poetry competition and open call for musicians for the pollinator event led to many interesting international connections with insect poets and bug festival organisers! Opportunities are sticking to me like flies to fly paper! Which reminds me of another piece of wisdom I’ve been keeping close at hand this past year:
The amount of serendipity that will occur in your life, your Luck Surface Area, is directly proportional to the degree to which you do something you’re passionate about combined with the total number of people to whom this is effectively communicated.
Jason C. Roberts
My volunteer role as intercultural workshops coordinator with Discovery Gospel Choir brought me to Hatch Hall direct provision centre. I effectively communicated what I’m passionate about to the centre’s management and I was invited to run two chaotic creative entomology workshops with some amazing children. We created a “music video” for the song Inchworm, which featured Geometrid moths and their loopy caterpillars!
My most unusual work location this year was probably at the side of a road in Terenure. My Dublin Canvas painting of Staphylinus dimidiaticornis, a rove beetle of wet grasslands and fens, has been popular with the Instagrammers of South Dublin, where I continue to carry out insect surveys for the County Council’s Heritage Officer, Rosaleen Dwyer.
I published a short note (my first!) with my entomological hero Roy Anderson and Laila Higgins in the Irish Naturalists’ Journal, about a ground beetle we found along the Dodder: The status of Trechus subnotatus (Dejean) (Coleoptera: Carabidae) in Ireland, with a new site in the Dublin area.
I look back at the post I wrote about my fibromyalgia in 2016 and wonder how I’ve managed to hurtle through so many bizarre and exciting projects and experiences in the last year, under a job title I invented for myself, during a really difficult period of personal change, without collapsing. Two things were key to this being possible:
I learnt to ask for help. And friends, family, choir mates and people who had never met me before gave it in abundance. The term ‘sole trader’ is misleading – it takes a village to raise a business!
I learnt to embrace anger as a powerful force for change, put it into physical action, and it freed up so much energy. Anger, like pain, is just a feeling telling you that something needs to change. Listen to it.
Let the raging fire in your belly propel you forward in 2018. Put on some red boots. Practice saying “yes” and “no” and “help!” in a loud, clear voice. Kick through your inhibitions and frustrations. Imagine yourself standing in your favourite habitat, in peak bug-spotting form. Leap over that river and march right up to what makes you happy. You will find something very worthwhile there.
On 4th November 2017, I launched my first solo exhibition at Bí URBAN in Stoneybatter, Dublin 7. Here’s what it was all about!
I’ll tell of tiny things that make a show well worth your admiration Admiranda tibi levium spectacula rerum
Bugonia is an exhibition of visual and sound art by creative entomologist, Nessa Darcy. Nessa aims to reintroduce humans to their natural habitat through colourful encounters with insects. This includes insect surveys, bug-centric learning sessions and art celebrating and promoting these diverse, under-appreciated environmental engineers and spiritual guides.
A substantial portion of the work was created during the Bee Time artists residency. A hive of diverse artists engaged with the themes of natural beekeeping and the bee’s relationship with its environment, through discussion, meditation, movement, skill sharing, storytelling, art making, shamanic practices, farm visits and simply “asking the bees”.
Bugonia is an ancient ritual based on the belief that bees could be spontaneously generated from the carcass of an ox, as described in Virgil’s Georgics. To the artist, it represents our tangled relationship with nature. Humans feel, simultaneously, a detachment from factual ecological knowledge; wonder and fear at the forces of nature; and a longing to restore that which we need but have destroyed. The word also sounds like an appropriate name for an insects’ utopia, which we have the power to preserve and create.
Both wonder and knowledge are key to rescuing insects from the rapid decline they are currently suffering, “because we don’t love them enough” (Roger Druitt). To love insects requires understanding who they are and what they need. Nessa’s work draws people in to familiarise themselves intimately with insects.
The exhibition precedes Remembrance Day for Lost Species (November 30th). Designated by ONCA Gallery for art and ecology in Brighton, this annual event is a chance to tell the stories of lost and disappearing species and to renew commitments to those remaining. The theme for 2017 is pollinators.
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.