SALES PEOPLE NEEDED
I am always amazed when I hear about somebody beyond the age of twenty suddenly becoming interested in beetles, and even more so when older people become interested. Actually I am also a little baffled, especially if it is somebody older than forty. This intrigues me because I wonder what suddenly awakened their interest. And such people often have more than a passing interest, indeed some go on to display the sort of obsession that I take as part of my genetic legacy, although in my case neither parent was in the slightest interested in entomology but I assume it jumps generations or is recessive in some way so that it rarely surfaces. So, depending on one’s viewpoint I am either lucky or otherwise. Because there are advantages and disadvantages to being an entomologist, or even to being a scientist in general. I thought that one was either interested in beetles or they were not, and if they were then they would display this innate interest from a very early age, as I did. But this is wrong because I know from facebook and from my website correspondence that people become seriously interested at all ages. So it leads me to wonder what’s going on and furthermore whether there might be hope for beetle conservation after all.
I think I am lucky in that I can recall after all these years the first time I was truly fascinated by insects; and while I cannot say exactly how old I was I know I was about six, give or take no more than a year. This is because afterwards I discovered that the infant school I was attending had no books about insects and so I ventured into the junior school next door to see if I could find out about what I had seen. Turned out that what I had seen in the garden was the crane-fly Nephrotoma maculata (which I think might now be called N. flavescens), and being a very deep person I was impressed even at that early age that I never forgot the scientific name. I learned the names of a few more flies and bees and then started on butterflies, and using a book by L. Hugh Newman I was able to remember the common as well as the scientific names of the UK species and was soon able to identify them in the field. Which was handy in the mid-1960s because lots of them were very common. This continued through junior school and into senior school until I met a boy with similar interests. We went out looking for all sorts of stuff and soon had setting boards and store boxes and all the rest of it and quickly made collections of flies and solitary wasps and bees and wasps, in fact most things but not beetles. The first time I was fascinated by beetles was when we found thousands (really, thousands!) of Phyllobius pomaceus on nettles during an after-school outing to a local common. They were fantastic! Soon we were gluing all sorts of beetles to cards and the diversity seemed to be endless. But the big problem was how to identify them. We travelled to the Natural History Museum in London a few times with boxes of specimens and always came back very satisfied as the place was relaxed and there was always somebody willing to name them for us. Mike Bacchus was particularly helpful in this respect, as was, on later visits, Peter Hammond. We were both amassing impressive collections. But identification was the big problem. Then we discovered the RES handbooks and quickly learned how to key things out. Still very frustration though because they covered a very restricted range of families. This was not in isolation though, during this time we collected all orders of insects and treated all of them more or less equally. Until about 1975 when we found out (I can’t remember how) that Joy’s Handbook was soon going to be reprinted. We both placed orders in our local West London bookshop and one very exciting Saturday morning we both had our copies. We spent a few hours in my friend’s bedroom going through the volumes and trying the keys, and from that morning our interests were purely focussed on beetles.
One of the disadvantages of being an entomologist (or at least one like me) is that a lot of life passes you by. I could never talk about the things that most other children found fascinating; things like sport and pop music and comic books, I simply found such stuff extremely tedious. And the late 1960s and early 1970s were times of great change so far as children were concerned, probably because the world woke up to their commercial potential, and so suddenly children began coming to school in branded cloths and trainers and all the rest of it. None of it appealed to me at all; I had no favourite football team or pop group or brand of shirt or favourite anything really, which makes one a bit of a social outcast. But beetles and my few friends who were interested in insects more than compensated. I may not have known one end of a football from the other but I knew my Adephaga from my Polyphaga and that was more than enough. Looking back I realize that I never needed anything else, and while I felt it was rather pointless talking with most of the other children, I was noted for never shutting up when I could talk with other interested parties. I remember taking a small wooden box full of glass tubes to Hastings on my honeymoon. And building the wardrobes in our spare room specifically to accommodate entomological storage boxes. And going to barbecues simply to look at garden lights for beetles. At times I have cursed this obsession with entomology but on the whole, considering how people carry on, I think it a blessing. I only mention these memories because the real point of this blog is to ask whether somebody could be born with a natural disposition to become an entomologist. Evidence from my own experiences would suggest that to be the case, but of course there are many complications. It does seem to be the case that young children get interested in all sorts of things, and they often hold certain interests for a while and then move on to something else. In my case it was Meccano sets, Chemistry sets, model kits and railways, and in later life chess, crossword puzzles, alcoholic beverages, music and motorbikes, but I always remained powerfully fascinated by beetles and always carried on with entomology whatever else I was into.
Certain things I know for sure. Some people lose interest in entomology during adolescence and then return to it later in life; and this actually seems to be quite common. Some people lose interest during adolescence and never return. An interest in entomology can begin at any age. The ratio of men to women visiting our site, and also visiting our facebook page, is more or less one, with slightly more women in the 35-44 age group, and slightly more men in the 45-65 age groups. These figures are taken from a sample of about 1700 facebook page likes, and about 10000 site visits. So while the samples are small they probably say something. I think that some people will become interested in entomology if given the right prompting; of my three children my youngest son was never interested although he did enjoy nights out moth trapping and he certainly had the intellectual wherewithal to understand it, my daughter had a passing interest but went on to study science at university so while entomology did not particularly appeal, natural sciences did, and my older son developed a real interest in entomology and, rather weirdly, was able to remember and pronounce scientific names without difficulty from a very early age. So maybe there is a genetic component? Impossible to say because growing up in our house, it would have been difficult to avoid entomology. So maybe this is just a general thing, like children supporting a football team because their parents did, or being religious for the same reason. I would love to know how to really engage people in entomology and that must be obvious from the extent of UK beetles, but I do know that, with very few exceptions, people who have joined me in the field out of curiosity often go on to develop a more serious interest. And I am always asked the same questions such as ‘How do you remember all those Latin names?’ or ‘How do you know where to look for these things?’ This is really good because these are the people who usually become interested and then pester for more outings. I really do think that very many more people would become seriously interested with the right prompting and a little hands-on help (The Royal Entomological Society is really good at this), after all as we all know insects can be powerfully fascinating. It may just be that entomology is viewed as rather intellectual and aloof and so impenetrable for ordinary people; this was very much the case in years gone by but surely not today? Or it may be that young people have more stuff to grab their attention, and stuff that makes entomology seem rather boring by comarison. Or it may be that parents are too busy to develop these sorts of interests in their children. Or maybe there is a nature/nurture aspect to entomological interest. Who knows?
I have no idea how to promote entomology but from my wider experience of life I do know that people will take notice when things are brought to their attention, this is why most companies spend large sums of money on promotion and advertising, and how even mediocre and cheap rubbish that no sane person would normally even look twice at can be repackaged and sold as something of quality for high prices. Of course there is nothing mediocre or cheap about entomology, but the point is a valid one; people will take notice if something is presented in the right way. This is why certain sales people make large amounts of money while others struggle; they know how to sell things. That’s what entomology needs because when people realize how wonderful it is they tend never to look back. Another idea would be to teach biodiversity in schools, not as part of a biology curriculum but as a separate subject with the chance to look at specimens and with plenty of field work. Then as the subject became popular there would be more clubs and books and field trips and all the rest of it, and there would be more money for conservation and insects would begin to increase in abundance. And surely there has never been a better time to do this; many new species are added to our list every year, maybe due to climate change or increased international trade, and this gives everybody the chance to discover something really exciting. Especially now that everybody has a good camera and there are so many good websites. Are we missing a golden opportunity? Or is this just old fashioned thinking? Whatever it is I hope that future generations do not have to look back and wonder why more effort was not made while we had the chance, especially considering that we are now well aware of the steady and rather drastic decline in insects over the last four or five decades. So, as mentioned above, it’s never too late to become interested in entomology and with the right sort of guidance many more people would do so, and the benefits are awesome. Just give it a try and see!