What Do You Do? 2017 – 2018

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.

Club A Butterfly
Club Atsatsaky with butterflies for Sainte Luce’s World Environment Day festival 2011

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…

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Insect walk for the Bee Time exhibition at Emerson College, East Sussex

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!

Geometrid Moths and Inchworms
Some colourful fun for kids stuck in the mind-numbing system of direct provision

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.

Grasshopper grange road
Catchin’ grasshoppers with my wonderful intern-for-the-day Tyler. Want to volunteer in 2018?

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:

  1. 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!
  2. 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.

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Follow the Nectar: Part 2

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.

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A real stinker of an orchid with some Spanish moss.

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.

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Darwin’s orchid, Angraecum sesquipedale.

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.

Can you?

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Spot the bee!

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!

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When the gecko’s away, the ants will play! Nesocodon mauritianus which I mentioned in Follow the Nectar: Part 1

 

 

Follow the Nectar: Part 1

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  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…”

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Magnolia trees at the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland, looking suitably wintry.

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!

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Phelsuma antanosy, a critically endangered day gecko, endemic to Madagascar.

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!

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Ravenala madagascariensis, the Traveller’s Palm, at Nahampoana near Fort Dauphin.

To be continued…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Madagascar No.3

Adult Lanternfly
Adult lanternfly in Manafiafy, Sainte Luce, Madagascar

When my Dad visited Madagascar, Juveni, one of my ecotourism students, gave us a guided tour of the village where he grew up. I had lived just up the road from Manafiafy for nearly a year, but this tour opened my eyes to a rich history of missionaries and taboos, and some tasty secrets.

I must confess, the tasty secrets are what I remember best. A stroll through some short, coastal vegetation sent a couple of bizarre, colourful creatures whirring into the air. These creatures, Malagasy lantern bugs (most likely Zanna madagascariensis), are Juveni’s favourite snacks. They’re supposed to taste a bit like shrimp!

But beware:

“American naturalist John C. Bannor recalled in 1885 stories of an insect called lantern fly whose bite could instantly kill people, animals and even trees. People at least were saved – according to the myth – if they had sex within 24 hours.” – The Myth Behind the Lantern Bug

Zanna species, or sakandry, eat lima bean plants and their relatives. I’m no botanist, but I wonder if a lima bean growing project in Sainte Luce could provide two sources of protein for local kids (beans and bugs) and help to replenish the poor soil in the area with nitrogen.

I never had the chance to snack on lantern bugs myself, but I think I would prefer the softer-looking nymphs, with their little fluffy bums.

Baby Lanternfly
Nymph of a lantern bug, with waxy fluffy secretions for distracting and tricking predators!

Madagascar No.2

Finally a post about insects! Ants are amazing. So amazing, in fact, that we managed to teach two whole environmental education classes to our conservation club with the title “Ants Are Amazing!” (“Mahalatsa Ny Vitsiky!” or “Mahagaga Ny Vitsiky!”, in Malagasy).

Ants are Amazing
Club Atsatsaky drawing ants in Sainte Luce, Madagascar.

Let me tell you some mere snippets of information about why ants are so amazing.

There are over 600 described species of ants in Madagascar, and likely to be well over 1000 in total. There is a single colony of Argentine ants that stretches over 6000 km across Europe. Ants farm aphids, “milking” them for honeydew, and they collect leaves on which to grow tasty mildew. If a group of army ants loses the pheromone trail of the main foraging party, they will form a continuous circle called an ant mill, and run round in circles until they die of exhaustion.

The first time I lived in Madagascar, a fellow volunteer was collecting dead things to bring home to his artist friend. We needed to dry out a large bug. So we built an anti-ant tower out of Eau Vive bottles, with a platform of salt upon which to place the bug body, and a moat of water round the bottom. Overnight, the ants built a bridge by floating grains of sand across the water. They reached the bug and devoured it.

Ant attachs cockroach
One of the adorable, bumbling big ants that lived in our longhouse, drags a young cockroach kicking and hissing across the mahampy reed floor mat.

I only seem to have photos of Ants Being Awful. And, as anyone who has read 100 Years of Solitude or has been held under siege in a forest glade by biting ants will know, they can behave pretty atrociously. But you have to admire their team work and tenacity…

After learning the Malagasy word for amazing, I proudly announced to the camp chef that the dinner she had prepared for us was mahalatsa, thinking she would be pleased. She looked very taken aback, and turned to the guides for some sort of explanation. It turns out that mahalatsa means amazing in the startling, surprising, bewildering kind of way. Perhaps rather appropriately when it comes to ants.

Ant caterpillar attack
Malagasy ants ganging up on some sort of 80’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Caterpillar toy?

Madagascar No.1

LittleSolo

I’ve had the astonishing honour of living 19 months of my life in Madagascar, most of them in Sainte Luce, as a neighbour of the gentleman in this photo. Literally thousands of photographs came home with me to Ireland and there are not enough words in the English language to describe what each memory means to me or what it was like. This is the first in a series of attempts to show my Madagascar to you, grain of sand by grain of sand.

Here is sweet, shy Solo, whose name means “replacement”. Solo helped out in the conservation camp kitchen and always found me the juiciest coconuts. One evening I was sitting in our wooden research station, entering data into the SEED Madagascar Conservation Programme work computer, as the resident gecko licked my lychee peels. I spotted Solo hefting this precious newborn zebu calf down the road in his arms. Its mother had given birth while out grazing, and he was carrying it home to the village. A band of small boys followed him, triumphantly bearing the calf’s umbilical cord and placenta high in their hands. Waste not, want not!