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Saved by the bugs

Lockdown - Saved by the Bugs

For so many people, this pandemic has negatively impacted mental health. Each of us has faced our own challenges, but the most difficult part of this experience for me as been being placed on furlough. I’m very passionate about my work and, like many others, I feel it gives me a purpose. It has been hard to adjust to a change in routine, and some mornings I have wondered why I am getting out of bed. Fortunately, being an entomologist is not just my job; entomology is woven throughout my life, from hobbies and home decor to some of my most treasured friendships. Entomology is not something that I will ever stop being passionate about, even if my work circumstances change, and during lockdown it has been my constant amongst the chaos.

So, what have I been doing to keep busy? Well, like the rest of the nation, I have been baking more than usual and getting creative at meals times. I’ve also tried to green my fingers a little, by propagating seeds, in hope of producing some nice wildflowers. City living means I’m not fortunate enough to have my own garden, but I do have a big window box that I’m filling with pollinator friendly plants, which will be beneficial to the local insects. I’ve been creative and picked up my paints and paintbrushes for the first time in years; rediscovering how totally therapeutic drawing and painting can be. I also wanted to do something for my local community, so I have upped my litter picking game.

New life emerges during lockdown; black beauty stick insects and Wildflower seedlings.

Those things have been nice distractions, but not as effective as busying myself with some entomology. In the first week of lockdown some new ‘pets’ hatched, black beauty stick insects, so I’ve been taking care of them and watching them grow with great anticipation. I’ve also been using the time to get to know the invertebrates that I already share my home with. Around the same time the sticks hatched, I was delighted to find a couple of 2-spot ladybirds, Adalia bipunctata, which had been overwintering in my bedroom without me knowing. Another species of beetle found in my flat, perhaps not as welcome, is a type of carpet beetle, Trogoderma angustum. These are a lot smaller than ladybirds, but fortunately I have a microscope to examine smaller insects like these. Then there are the spiders. Getting up close to spiders was not something I could have done 10 years ago, as I was painfully arachnophobic, but that all changed after I completed the Friendly Spider Programme at London Zoo. These days I look at them with the same eyes that I view insects and think they’re absolutely fascinating! I have so far recorded six species from my small home, and my favourite have been the small but impressive jumping spiders.

The Fleecy Jumper (Pseudeuophrys lanigera) & the Zebra Jumping spider (Salticus scenicus)

From a desire to do something else useful, I have spent some of my time volunteering as an organiser of the National Silphidae Recording Scheme, a side project that I can usually only devote a couple of hours to per month. If you aren’t familiar with this group of beetles, more commonly called Carrion Beetles, then check out my video for a very quick introduction.

A carrion beetle, Nicrophorus investigator.

Getting out for walks has definitely helped lift my spirits on dark days. As spring finally arrived in Scotland, and the trees and gorse came into bloom, there has been a burst of insect activity in my local patch. I’ve enjoyed getting to know the surrounding area better, seeking out some of the lesser known green spaces. I’m not much of a photographer; I don’t own a fancy camera, quite the opposite, I use a super cheap clip-on macro lens for my phone. Still, it usually manages to achieve the detail I need in order to record my observations and share them on iRecord. Here are a few examples from my walks:

From top to bottom : The St Marks Flies (Bibio marci), a Greentail caddisfly (Brachycentrus subnubilus) and a Gorse Weevil (Exapion ulicis).

One thing I’ve really missed is being able to share these moments, observing nature, in-person with my entomology friends. Some of my best adventures usually take place away from the city, up on the hills: poking about in dung, recording beetles and chasing butterflies around bogs …just to get a blurry photo. In the meantime, social media has been an excellent tool for sharing my observations and connecting with other entomologists and nature lovers.

Technology has been a lifeline for us all during this time, hasn’t it? I’ve certainly been grateful for all the video calls and catch ups with friends, family and colleagues. Entomology is my “thing”, my passion, my main source of learning and outlet for creativity, but it could never really provide the same comfort that the love and support of a good friend or relative can. I think as we adjust to the ‘new normal’ of a post-COVID world, we’ll all value these close personal connections much more than before. I know I will. If the interaction also involves insects… even better!

Ashleigh Whiffin is the Assistant Curator of Entomology at National Museums Scotland and NRS Co-organiser @silphidaeUk.


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