The Verrall Association of entomologists has existed in one form or another since 1887, almost as long as the Museum itself, and was founded by the noted dipterist, Conservative MP and horse-racing official George Henry Verrall (1848-1911), as an informal annual gathering and supper for entomologists, professional and amateur. It has continued in much the same capacity for over a century, at some stage in that long history acquiring a lecture before the supper and you can enjoy the history of the Verrall Supper in your own time.
It is my privilege this year to be giving what has come to be called the Verrall Lecture, which will take place in the Ondaatje Theatre of the Royal Geographical Society, just up the road from the Museum on Wednesday 2 March. The topic is appropriate for a crossover between the Museum, the Royal Entomological Society and the Royal Geographical Society, as the title is ‘Collections: the last great frontiers of exploration’.
Scientists often don’t have time for romance. We are married to our science; the data we generate is millions of little babies lovingly brought forth into the world, all with the potential for greatness. For us natural scientists working in Museums, it is our collections we love and care for. And then, digging deeper, what motivates this love? It is (I like to think for most) a passion for the world and all its natural organisms. And there is no greater passion for a natural scientist than to experience those organisms in their natural environment.
Natural environments are under threat, as we face the 6th great extinction we custodians of the creatures of the world, arbiters of our understanding of our notion of what is a species, may be racing against time. And so we venture forth into the remaining natural habitats of the world in order to document their biodiversity. Not only to build upon the collecting legacy of previous great natural scientists (I heart Darwin) but to discover the ‘new’ and what this ‘new’ can tell us about the natural world. For this, there is no better organism than the beetle (I heart beetles #beetlebias)
Well as 2015 becomes an ever distant memory and we scuttle, creep, scurry, amble and roll (for this is how beetles move right?) into 2016, let us look back on a very successful year of collection enhancement.
The collection here is a big one, and serves to represent the world’s known Coleoptera biodiversity as comprehensively as possible but it is an uphill task to curate, much in the same way as a dung beetle may struggle against the desert sands with its dung ball prize.
Weevil researcher Dr Chris Lyal elucidates on the darker side of weevil life-histories and they are not as friendly as you may have imagined…
Weevils are perhaps the most inoffensive of beetles – well, unless you’re a farmer, forester or horticulturalist, in which case you may take a rather dimmer view of them, since some species of this huge group are major plant pests. However, to focus on the animals themselves and ignore inconvenient economics, they seem to look out at the world through immense soulful eyes, and trundle rather erratically along like one of those clockwork plastic children’s toys with slightly more legs than are truly manageable.
As herbivores, they spend their lives up to their antennae in plants, nibbling at leaves and flowers, buds and roots. They may have a long projecting rostrum at the front of their heads, but they do not behave like horse-flies, bed-bugs or any of the rest of the blood-sucking brigade and try and force it through your skin and suck out your life-juices. Adult weevils are covered in scales and sometimes very brightly coloured, but they have a previous existence as a larva, chomping their vegetarian way inside fruit, stems, leaves or roots. Larvae are fat, white, legless comma-shaped beasts, almost blind and apparently interested only in food.
Again, not one of nature’s bad boys (unless, as I said, you are concerned with keeping plants alive, in which case I may be irritating you by now). However, not all is as it seems. Some weevils, it turns out, have a darker side to their nature. Some are killers. Some are cannibals.
The date in the title of this post marks the sad passing of one of the Museum’s tiniest volunteers: in early February I discovered Beetah, my Carabus violaceous, lying still on her coconut substrate and to be honest, a little dried out.