EntoMasters vs Royal Ent Soc 2019

The 13th of February heralded an early start for the Entomologists as we assembled, ready for another coach trip halfway across the country. The destination: The Royal Entomological Society headquarters in sunny St Albans, a recent(ish) move from London, where the society had been since its foundation in 1833.

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An illustration from an 18th century guide to insects of Suriname. This was, unsurprisingly, in the “European Insects” section.

We made good time on the way down and were greeted by some very welcome tea and coffee and, if that hadn’t woken us all up enough, an incredible selection of biscuits (both chocolate and shortbread). After initial introductions had been made, we had some free time to very carefully explore the Society’s collection of historical entomological texts including some beautifully illustrated guides to insects from all over the world, and to explore the building. The ‘little’ details around the RES make it a great place to visit; from the giant ant model outside, the figurine of Barry B. Benson in the library, or, of course, the incredible lift, it was nice to see insects so front and centre.

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Exploring some of the library’s collection.

After an especially winning group photo underneath said giant ant, we had a series of talks from three bona fide entomologists of the society. First we were welcomed by the Director of Science, Jim Hardie, who gave us an introduction to the society and its history, as well as the conferences, prizes, special interest groups, and opportunities that the society offers. This was followed by another talk from the Director of Outreach and Development, Luke Tilley, who emphasised the need for science communication in general, but especially in entomology where the common response is usually a lack of understanding and often disgust.

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No group of people I’d rather stand under an enormous ant with.

Serendipitously, our visit fell just a few days after the biggest entomological, if not scientific, news story of 2019 (so far): Insectageddon. This led to a very interesting talk on how the RES fields media interests and re-directs them to experts who would be willing and able to talk about the story whilst fielding sometimes unrelated information about everything insect. Emphasis was put on the need to read the source material and know who the ‘good’ journalists are, as well as how to best communicate entomology in an accessible way.

Luke Tilley and Outreach and Engagement Executive Fran Sconce presented the range of science communication events which the society runs and participates in, including the Big Bang Fair, Insect Week, and Field to Fork- keep an eye out for Harper students at these events in future!

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Eerie wilderness or potential insect haven?

Once the talks had finished, we had some more free time. Some of us went outside to explore the abandoned Royal National Rose Society Garden, which is now owned by the society. Abandoned fountains and mossy paths provided the perfect opportunity for some of us to have a cheeky insect hunt whilst others of us just suppressed the urge to push them into the water.

 

After our little explore we were treated to a lovely lunch (shout out to the range of vegetarian options, especially the goat’s cheese mini croissants) and the opportunity to chat with staff, visit the council room, and peruse the range of entomological publications merchandise on offer before starting our long journey back to Shropshire.

In many ways this trip provided a gentle introduction to important information and networking opportunities. For example, whilst in awe of the colour plates of the insect guides, we were told that we are welcome to use the texts there and that librarian Val McAtear will be happy to help us where required. The presentation on the different conferences and meetings introduced us to the opportunities to engage in the entomological community both as students and in the future as we enter our entomological careers. My main takeaways from the day were an understan

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One of the Ento Masters found a novel use for the phone holder.

ding of the opportunities, publications and support offered by the society, a pending membership application and a plastic phone holder from the 00s which definitely doesn’t fit my phone in but which I am determined to find some use for.

 

On behalf of all the Masters students, I’d like to thank the Royal Entomological Society for their warm welcome.

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Insects: today’s fashion icons

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Creobroter gemmatus doing a little turn on the catwalk. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Insects are no slaves to fashion – they’ll evolve their looks according to what’s needed for survival, whether that means growing enormous horns on their head, losing their wings, or turning the colour of a pollution-stained surface.

But that doesn’t stop the creators of taste and style having a go at shoehorning insects into the fashion world. Members of the orders Lepidoptera and Coleoptera have been consistent influences on the work of the fashion house of Alexander McQueen, for example, while Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana have gone big on bees.

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McQueen’s bag-based take on insects. Photo: Bagaholicboy.com

It could be argued that this marks a considerable shift into the mainstream. Insects have always had their fans among subcultures, and if you attend an entomological fair, you’re very likely to be doing so along goths and metal fans as well as purist insect enthusiasts. Yet this latter-day aesthetic admiration seems different. Never have insects been so on-trend; not underground but out and proud.

It’s quite possible to argue, though, that the visual power of insects has been tapped almost as long as there’s been civilisation, from the Scarabs of the Ancient Egyptians to the totemic insects of aboriginal peoples. There’s no doubt that insects look cool, and have been making an impression for time immemorial. Every single student on the Entomology MSc this blog aims to represent would strongly agree with this position.

The problem is, it’s not clear whether looking cool is proving any use to them in this age of maximal human destruction. At the same time as all this high praise of the aesthetics of arthropods, the other notable high profile insect-related theme is their decline – so much so that the issue recently made the front page of the New York Times Magazine. Our very own Prof. Leather has also commented on the phenomenon of ‘insect apocalypse’ extensively, calling for long-term data sets to counter the shifting baselines of successive generations which mean a full understanding of changes in insect populations is never grasped.

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Photo: Gucci.com

How can the doyen of designers also be the enormous arthropod in the room when it comes to the global threat to species’ survival? It appears we’re culturally confused about insects in the culture known as ‘The West’ – we’ll happily co-opt their image, but see a living insect in your home or near your picnic and it’s likely to be a case of smack, goodnight. Add to that the deranged media panics about disease-laden ladybirds and mosquitoes, or even the ultra risk-averse responses to the notorious non-insect, the false widow spider, and it seems clear that there’s a huge gap in perception between threat and fashion that needs to be filled, urgently.

On the subject of spiders, Camilla Brown, an arts writer friend of mine, went deep into our confused attitudes around arachnids, with a specific focus on gender, for her MA final work ‘Spider Woman’ (NSFW content warning). It looks at notable spider-themed works of art and embedded childhood fears, certainly touching on themes that are also relevant to the discussion of insects in culture and society more broadly.

So, what are insects to us? The miniature bogeymen stalking our waking dreams, convenient ornaments, or not worth thinking about at all? Perhaps worse than a panic about insects and the rest of the arthropods is an indifference to their ecological relevance.

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Oak treehopper, Platycotis vittata –another big player in the style stakesPhoto: Wikimedia Commons

Finding a solid middle ground between fetish and fear needs to start with a greater understanding of the myriad roles that insects play. They are far from just pollinators (even though that’s hardly much of a ‘just’); they’re also pest controllers and decomposers of the highest order, and an enormous supply of meals to animals higher in the food chain. Without them, careful balances may become irreparably skewed.

It seems apt to brush off the shallow wants and desires of the human in the era where their consumption seems to be akin to a declaration of war on the other residents of planet Earth. Yet nature and our culture are not mutually exclusive entities: they’ve been deeply entwined since we were out in the wild and we started to try and make sense of our surroundings in a more profound way than addressing basic needs. Fashion designers riffing off insect wing venation is simply an extension of this.

So outright-dismiss insects making an impact in the Instagram age at your peril. More visual presence for insects can hardly be considered a bad thing – and there’s maximum scope to do much more than haute couture. Interestingly, on this theme, it was recently mooted that insect-related street art could be a way of bridging the gap between the visual and the actual by providing a constant reminder of the vitality of nature in people’s everyday lives.

Perhaps in the coming years we’ll see more attempts to bring science and culture together in a very necessary joining of dots – moves like the University of Nebraska-Lincoln offering an Insects in popular Culture module as part of its entomology qualification. Science is in no way discredited by the suggestion that the zeitgeist may have to be ridden from time if we’re to become more even-handed participants in a world shared.