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I love a good war hero story: my great uncle was a flying ace in the Battle of Britain and I relished hearing about his feats of daring (... and will gladly recount them given the slightest prompting). However, my tale today is of the wartime exploits of Museum entomologist Graham Howarth. They might not be grand in the combat sense (though he was awarded a medal for saving a senior officer during the Blitz earlier in the war), but in the scientific and curatorial sense, they are as bold and heroic as any you will probably hear.

 

During WWII Howarth was enlisted for army service in Southeast Asia. He was stationed in Singapore and tasked with identifying the breeding grounds of malarial mosquito species and disrupting their habitat in the hope of eradicating the tropical disease. As a result of his work, Howarth says it was 'safe to say that Singapore was a malarial-free zone'. But, in February 1942, Singapore surrendered to the Japanese and Howarth was taken as a prisoner of war. He recalls:

'The war was over as far as I was concerned, but a new one, a much more insidious affair, was about to begin. A war against boredom, starvation, pestilence, and death.'

 

He was held prisoner for three years, first at Changi and then Jinsen, Korea. But, ever the entomologist, Howarth - known as 'The Prof' to his fellow captives - maintained his scientific curiosity by collecting insects. He says:

'(Collecting) gave me something to think about rather than the boredom of being confined to an area with a hell of a lot of other people, with nothing very much to do. We weren’t worked too hard. And as long as you exhibited a certain amount of respect for the guards, and didn’t stick your head above the parapet too often... Of course, with a butterfly net, I would tend to be a bit conspicuous, but I didn’t flaunt it, shall we say.'

 

He had fashioned a net from a piece of galvanised wire and some mosquito netting, and if he saw ’a butterfly or a living insect or a flying insect'  he would catch it, kill it, paper it and put it in an empty cigarette tin. His most important and remarkable find came in July 1944 when he spotted a caterpillar in the POW camp's garden.

'We had a flowering cherry in the garden, and on one occasion I looked up and there was a little caterpillar and I collected that. I didn’t recognise it, being something foreign to me. I found some more and I took them in and fed them on the cherry and bred them out. And (when I got home and properly identified them) it turned out to be a new species.

 

That's right: in between the forced labour and subsisting on meagre, weevil-infested rice rations as a prisoner of war, Graham Howarth discovered a never-before-documented moth.

'It was nice to discover a species new to science in, shall we say, rather difficult circumstances.'

 

On his return to the Museum he described his discovery as Apatele cerasi, after Cerasus, the scientific name for the cherry on which the larvae fed.

 

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Apatele cerasi documented by Graham Howarth in the Proceedings and Transactions of The South London Entomological and Natural History Society 1949-50.

 

But, aside from finding the larvae, breeding it out, recognising it as something different and keeping his collection below the radar of the guards, it was the getting it all back to the Museum that was another feat in and of itself. By the time he was liberated, Howarth had amassed about 1,500 specimens and he had to beg kit bag space from his comrades to help bring it all home.

'(When I got back to the Museum) I set them and documented them, and they’re still there, 1,500 of them.'

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Part of the Graham Howarth POW collection, which fills 13 trays and includes 1,115 Rhopalocera, 347 Heteroera and nearly 100 specimens of other orders. And, of course, Apatele cerasi.

 

The Museum's Lepidoptera collection consists of around 10 million specimens stored over four floors and curated by 5 scientists. Butterfly curator Blanca Huertas says it is the largest collection in terms of time and geographical range, represents 65% of all known species and contains more type specimens than any other museum. You can discover more about the collections and how they are maintained in Alessandro Giusti's Curator of Lepidoptera blog.

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I had to smile when I read our news story about digitising our collections and the task of transcribing 'sometimes illegible' handwritten specimen labels. I smiled because bad handwriting was something the Museum actively sought to avoid in the pre-digital era. So much so that scientists were required to prove the quality of their penmanship when applying for a job here.

 

Clare Valentine, Head of Life Sciences Collections, says:

'We requested handwritten covering letters for curatorial posts until the late '90s for Zoology curators. Curators were also trained to "refine" their handwriting to produce legible labels for the collection to last in perpetuity and be completely understandable.'

 

Theresa Howard, Head of Entomological Collections, concurs:

'All applications used to have to be handwritten, not typed. We didn't get our first computers until the early '80s. However, even once computer generated documentation became the norm, the Entomology Department used to insist that all curatorial applicants hand write 10-20 specimen labels as part of their interview.'

 

Zoe Jay Adams, a Research Assistant in the Life Sciences Department, took the specimen label writing test when she was interviewed in 1993, and recalls:

'I was alarmed, because I don't have the neatest of handwriting.'

 

While contemporary specimen labels are written in a small but clear and tidy hand, old labels in our historic collections often feature the copperplate script preferred by Victorians, which can sometimes be difficult to read.

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Gordon Paterson, Museum zoologist and head of the iCollections project, says: 'Difficult is not nearly a suitable term for some of these labels!' (left). 'But on the brighter side there are examples of good, clear writing.' (right).

 

Lawrence Brooks, a database expert in the Zoology Department who is working on digitising the historic Mollusca collection, says that deciphering labels is 'equal parts luck and hard work'.

'Context is your friend. It helps narrow the field from “this could say absolutely anything at all” to “this is a species of mouse”, giving you somewhere to begin your search. Sometimes though, you’ll always be on a hiding to nothing. Like trying, for instance, to decipher the spelling of a colloquial place name for an oasis somewhere in northern Africa that has never been formally recorded. '

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Last week I went to a pub in south London and enjoyed a winter barbeque and a few glasses of beer. But it wasn't just any beer. It was beer brewed with hops grown in the Museum's own Wildlife Garden.

 

Back in spring, Greenwich craft brewery, Meantime, planted hundreds of hop plants all around the capital (from Royal parks to roof gardens and even on roundabouts) as part of its mission to make a 'true brew' of London.

 

The hop crops were harvested in September (actually, a little earlier in the Museum's case, as our regular sheep visitors took a fancy to our plants), and last week I was one of the first people to taste the result  of the 'crowd sourced' beer project at the launch of Hop City Porter.

 

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Meantime says Hop City Porter is 'a complex, dark malt porter that’s full of flavour and character, including hints of chocolate, coffee and caramel and a distinct hop freshness'. Me and my fellow drinkers agreed that it tasted pretty nice and found it, surprisingly for a dark beer, light and refreshing.

 

Hops are the female flower of the hop plant, Humulus lupulus, a perennial of the Cannabaceae family (which also includes cannabis) and are native in hedgerows, scrub and fen carr (woodland). The flowers are made up of papery, leaf-like bracts. At the base of their cone-like structure, underneath the bracts, are oily glands of lupulin. It is this glandular substance that is used in the brewing process.

 

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Hops is one of the basic ingredients in beer brewing, along with grain (barley and wheat), yeast, and water. The bitterness of hops balances the maltiness of the grain and also acts as a preservative.

Photograph © Radio Tonreg.

 

But it's not just barflies that benefit from hops. Our Wildlife Garden  grows hop plants in several locations (in the interests of a biodiverse habitat, not just bespoke beer projects) and they serve as an important food source for the comma butterfly. Plant lore-ist Roy Vickery says that hop plants can also be used as a sleep aid, and are said to bring good luck when hung in the house.

 

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The comma butterfly, Polygonia c-album, is so named for the little cresent, comma-like, marks on the underside of its wings.


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The sale of a Diplodocus skeleton for £400,000 at auction in West Sussex last week brought to my mind a little titbit about our own specimen. The Diplodocus in the Central Hall, affectionately known as Dippy, is a cast taken from the type specimen of Diplodocus carnegii that was unearthed in Wyoming, USA in 1898.

 

When it was originally put on display in the Museum in 1905, the long tail drooped downwards and trailed along the floor.

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Dippy’s lavish unveiling ceremony, attended by 300 people, on Friday 12 May 1905.

 

I learned from Professor Richard Fortey that this placement was not popular with staff:

Unscrupulous visitors would occasionally steal that last vertebra from the end of the tail. There was even a box of 'spares' to make good the work of thieves so that the full backbone was restored by the time the doors opened the following day.

It wasn't until 1993, as scientific understanding of dinosaur biology improved, that Dippy's tail was repositioned to curve above visitors heads, which is how it is seen today.

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Dippy’s tail was remounted after research showed that the tails of these dinosaurs did not drag along the ground, as had been assumed for many years. It was found that they stuck out straight behind the animal and were held clear of the ground.