So this week I have stepped aside to enable a way superior creative force to write the blog piece- in fact I should retire and pass it over to her completely…..
Frances Slabolepszy is one of the visitor services people front of house – she assists the public, promotes our work and every now and then waves at us 'behind the scenes' people as we walk past enclosed behind the glass windows. She and some fellow front of house staff (Henry Marks, Mark Humpries and Daniel Osborne) were persuaded to go hunting and killing with us for insects and other arthropods as part of our project with the Ministry of Defence Project working on Porton Down. We have been collecting insects on site for a while now but I will let Frances tell you the events of the day……
At a top-secret military location with scientists from The Natural History Museum of London.
The sky is overcast. A red flag flaps in the wind. A buzzard takes off from its perch on the flagpole. Three Land Rovers – one red, one white, one blue – turn off the road and into the long grass.
Patriotic landrovers.....image from Mark Humpries
“This is one of the few places where red flags fly at all times.” This is the voice of our guide Stuart Corbett, “that’s because it’s dangerous at all times.” Our convoy passes below a mounted security camera and our location is reported to security on the radio. A fox is disturbed and streaks across our path. A roe deer takes fright and runs into the distance. The Land Rover’s bump over rabbit holes and we veer off into an area of scrub, out of sight of the road. We are surrounded by thick bushes and trees. We stop. We have our orders: “When I say ‘Kill now’, you kill.” We have been told that if we stumble upon anything vaguely military-looking in the long grass, we should not kick, lick or sniff it. To be honest, I’m a little terrified.
This may possibly be because I don’t love insects, yet now I find myself on the last Specimen Collecting Field Trip of the season with a rabble of entomologists at a top secret military testing station called Porton Down. It’s not that I hate insects, I don’t mind them and I’m not afraid of them but they always seem to be ruining otherwise pleasant experiences. Insects are what sting you or bite you at picnics, or land in your food, or stop you sleeping at night with their incessant whine or appear unannounced in your sleeping bag. Bugs – up until this moment in my life – were to be avoided. Now I’m surrounded by nets, pooters (whose sinister function I have only just discovered) and universals (small tube containers for the specimens) and I am here – just for bugs. (Incidentally I will no longer be using the term ‘bugs’ in the future.)
I have barely climbed out of the vehicle and the entomologists have all disappeared. Rhinaixa is a swirling cloud of white nets in the distance, Duncan is on his hands and knees digging through soft sand, Erica is bashing wildly at some grasses, Jan is labelling and organising frantically and from behind a tree Jon calls out: “Is anyone interested in isopods? I’ve found some!” And so it begins.
Jan Beccaloni (second from right) - resident spider expert at NHM alongside Porton Down staff (Stuart and Sarah 2nd and third from left) and volunteers from both the NHM and Porton Down.....image from Mark Humpries
The first thing I have to learn is how to catch the insects. To start with you catch the specimens in a big net. I noticed quite a few different approaches to this: there is the graceful swirling net technique, or the more aggressive bashing and slashing with the net technique, or if you are looking for spiders you put your net under a tree and then hit the tree with a metal bar until the spiders fall out. Once you’ve got a net full of activity it’s: “Pooter’s at the ready!” (a scientific term frequently used by Erica McAlister) and then the fun really starts. I must say here that when I first saw a pooter (that morning) and Duncan said: “And this is for sucking up the specimens,” I laughed loudly to show that I thought his joke was hilarious and then said, “No, really...” and he said: “No. Really. These are for sucking up insects.” There is not a great deal of irony around pootering.
A slightly larger than necessary net containing a henry with Erica and myself observing...image from Peter Turnbull
But after a while, once you’ve got over the rather counter-intuitive process of selecting and sucking up insects with your mouth a new feeling starts to emerge, which I had already observed in the scientists. There is a sense of mouth-watering anticipation as their pooters hover over the flying, jumping, crawling creatures in their net. There is a sensuousness to it - as if they were going to choose something delicious to eat rather than suck a spider into their pooter. It’s a beautiful thing to watch. And once trapped inside the universals the specimens are greeted with the warmth and familiarity of old friends. There is an almost parental pride as the scientists cluck over the specimens that mean the most to them. And then they kill them. Or sometimes the specimens in the pooter start killing one another. To avoid this we were given the order to “Kill!” when we are told to kill, otherwise those of us who cannot identify the carnivores or cannibals from the rest, might lose valuable specimens. This has happened before: “And it’s always the ones that you want!” sighs Erica.
Pootering - just look at the concentration....image from Mark Humphries
To kill the specimens you blow a piece of toilet paper dipped in Ethyl Acetate into the pooter and they are all gassed inside. If, like me, you stick the wrong end of the pooter into your mouth later, you will also go some way to gassing yourself.
I really began to appreciate what I was seeing after looking at a Machimus Robberfly through a magnifying glass. It was the sort of magnifying glass that you have to put right up against the universal and hold right up to your eye. It means you come face to face with the insect in a way that makes you feel like you are right in there with them. It’s extraordinary, looking at them in such extreme close-up, the rest of the world drifts away and it’s just you and this unbelievable (and huge) alien creature. You cannot help but be impressed. I took the magnifying glass away from my eye and suddenly I was back in the world of humans, standing in a field – but I had changed. I had the fever now. I understood what it meant to be totally enthralled by insects and I wanted more!
We made three stops during the day in areas with different terrain, and over the course of the trip I was amazed by so many new ideas and by the scientists themselves. I felt very privileged to be among such passionate people. Get Jan started on spider web evolution and she will tell you things you never thought possible, it sounds like she is describing an entirely different universe - which she is, of course. Duncan showed me the little white lungs of a woodlouse which totally blew my mind. And to hear Erica talk about her love of flies is to fall in love with them yourself – which is not an easy thing for ordinary people! And I even learnt how to sex spiders. The secret’s in the tips of their palps, which are on their heads and look like antennae.
My specimens ...image from Mark Humphries
By the end of the day I felt like I had entered another world, one that had existed like a parallel universe alongside me all my life. But one I have chosen in the past to swat away, to squash, to whine about or simply to ignore. Not after this Collecting Trip though, not ever, ever again! To come eye to compound eye with a Hoverfly is to be changed forever.'
Frances was truely one of the most enthusiastic people I have taken into the field...now to get her into the lab and identifying the material...this is not the last that you will her from her....