Archive for March, 2018

Copris lunaris

Horned Dung Beetle (Copris lunaris; family Scarabaeidae) from the collection of the Manchester Museum. © Martin Wilson.

About 25-30% of the visitors to the Manchester Museum’s Entomology Department are designers, artists and photographers who come to get inspired by the great diversity of shapes, colours and forms of millions of insects that are retained there. One of the photographers who have been attracted and inspired by our insect collections is Martin Wilson, a photography student from University Centre Blackburn College (accredited by Lancaster University). The aim of Martin’s current project is to create a series of high-quality macro photographs of endangered British insects, some of which – like the Horned Dung Beetle (Copris lunaris) depicted above – are in decline or already became extinct. From November 2018 till March 2018, the Manchester Museum will hold an exhibition of the excellent photographs created by Martin Wilson in order to draw attention of our visitors to their phenomenal beauty and the need to protect and conserve them. The humanity needs insects not only for the ecological services they provide (e.g., here), but also for the sake of their own beauty that has been inspiring artists, poets and entomologists for generations.

“Rare beetles and molluscs which daytime abhor,

Fly larvae, pale woodlice all come to the fore

Midst wood boring creatures with death-tapping call

For savings allotted from decades of store” – by Chris Terrell-Nield (2017)

Lixus paraplecticus

A rare species of British weevils (Lixus paraplecticus; family Curculionidae) from the collection of the Manchester Museum. © Martin Wilson.

Although the Manchester Museum has offered the exhibition space for Martin Wilson for free, some funding for production costs are required, such as the cost of printing, framing and promoting this exhibition. You could help Martin Wilson to produce this exhibition by providing a donation, no matter how small. If you are in the position to help, please, go here for further details.




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Fig. 00. Young specimens of Migratory Locust (Locusta migratoria), NE Kazakhstan. The photo demonstrates distinct colour differences between solitary (left), intermediate (middle) and gregarious (right) forms. © Victor V. Glupov (Novosibirsk, Russia).

It seems that apart from Locust (and perhaps fleas) there are no other insects which could have been so destructive to human affairs and civilizations. When conditions are favourable, vast migrating swarms of Locusts can appear as a cloud that darkens the sky and rapidly devour all plant material on their way, from field crops to the foliage on trees. So great is their apocalyptic quality in human minds that, since the time of the Pharaohs, Locusts have been seen as a symbol of destruction – the wrath of God or a sign of cosmic disorder.

At first glance, Locusts look like large, short-horned and harmless grasshoppers, but their behaviour is different. Unlike grasshoppers, when Locusts are present in large numbers they tend to crowd together, forming vast swarms that can migrate long distances and cause catastrophic plagues. Large swarms can invade an area of Africa and Asia that extends across 57 countries and covers more than 20% of the land surface of the Earth (Fig. 1).

A single swarm may contain many million individuals, with an overall mass of several tonnes. Since these insects eat approximately their own mass of vegetation daily, they cause immense destruction of crops and pastures. For instance, 2.5 square kilometre’s worth of locusts – 100 to 200 million individuals – can consume 220 to 270 tonnes of food, which is enough to feed 200,000 people. In a single day, an average swarm can eat the same quantity of food as 2,500 people.


Fig. 1. The invasion area of the Desert Locust (Schistocerca gregaria) and areas in which outbreaks are known to have occurred (from Logunov, 2006).

The apocalyptic quality of Locusts in human minds seemed to be the reason why their grotesque figures – gargoyles – were sometimes carved into the architecture of churches and monasteries (Fig. 2), perhaps creating a symbolic representation of hell. Furthermore, of some 98 bug species mentioned in the Revised English Bible, the Locust is referred to at least 31 times (see also here). For instance, “…When morning came, the east wind had brought the locusts. …They devoured all the vegetation and all the fruit of the trees that the hail had spread.” – The Bible, Exodus (10: 13–15). Indeed, it could be an apocalypse for those people who observed Locust swarms in action.


Fig. 2. A Locust gargoyle in the two-storey cloister of the Jerónimos Monastery (16th century, Lisbon, Portugal). © Dmitri V. Logunov (Manchester, UK).

Therefore, it is hardly surprising that ecclesiastic institutions of early medieval Christian Europe portrayed Locusts as chimeras, demonic and malevolent creatures (Fig. 3, on the left). Such visualization reflected the prevailing theological conceptions of Locust as an instrument of divine vengeance. Its more or less human-like head reflected the mind needed to separate sinners from pious people; the strong wings were needed to fly over humans in order to administer the justice; the scorpion-like tail was the main tool of chastise; etc. Such depiction of the Locust is a striking example of the distortion of human perception induced by the symbolic view of reality, which was introduced by theologians. No doubts, even in the sixteen century people knew very well how real insects look like (Fig. 3, on the right).


Fig. 3. Two contrast depictions of Locusts. On the left: A section of the Monogrammist HW, “Natuerliche Contrafeyhing…”, dated 1556, a diabolic depicting of the locust (Zürich; modified from Ritterbush, 1969: fig. 2). – On the right: A section of the plate from “Archetypica studiaque patris Georgii Hoefnagelii”, dated 1592, a realistic depiction of the locust; from the archives of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (from Smith, 1986: plate 13).

Despite some Locusts are great pests in many parts of the world, human attitude towards them is not particularly cruel. In India, when a swarm of Bombay Locusts (Nomadacris succincta) comes, people just try to scare them away by lighting fires, beating brass pots, and ringing the temple bell. In Uttar Pradesh, people catch one Locust, decorate its heard with a spot of red lead, salaam to it, and let it go; thereupon people believe that it will immediately depart with all its companions.

There is at least one benefit of having locusts in swarms: they can be harvested and used as food (Fig. 4; see also here). The Arabs boil them with salt, and then add a little oil or butter; sometimes they toast them by the fire before eating them. In Madagascar, there is a common saying: “One needs to waken early in the morning to catch grasshoppers”. About 80 grasshopper/locust species are consumed worldwide. In Morocco, even the price of provision falls when the Locusts appear. The main problem with consuming Locusts is that due to their status of agricultural pests they may be sprayed with insecticides in governmental control programmes, which makes them a polluted food.


Fig. 4. Locusts are ready for consumption. © J. Princess.

In some other cultures, for instance, those of Native Americans, the relationships between Locust-like insects and man were less dramatic than in medieval Europe, although not fully friendly. The following animation ‘Banquet’ is loosely based on an old folktale by Yaqui people from northern Mexico. It is about a Grasshopper and a Cricket that attended an Indian banquet. They ate and drank with the Chief but behaved badly, so that Yaqui people did not want them coming back.

Created by Eva Akesson, a BA Animation student of the Manchester School of Art at the Manchester Metropolitan University in 2016. Music composed by Peter Byrom-Smith and performed by the Guild Hall Collective, conducted by Rod Skipp.

Control of Locusts is a challenge. Some says that no attempt to control locusts or bring down the swarm has ever succeeded – in each case the plague disappeared only when nature had run its course. Globally, the costs of combating this plague were colossal, over 300 million US$. It is believed that recent plagues happened mainly due to the decline of co-operation between neighbouring countries. Survey and control operations often have to be carried out in important breeding areas in which access is severely restricted due to civil conflicts and general insecurity (some regions of Algeria, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan and others). Thus, the true key issues of locust control now are not the lack of scientific knowledge or technical means, but a problem of socio-political organization which cannot be controlled by scientists. Unless this basic issue is resolved, alas, humans will always be at the mercy of nature when it comes to dealing with locust plagues.

 Further reading

Chapman, R.F. 1976. A Biology of Locusts, Studies in Biology no. 71, Edward Arnold, Great Britain.

Logunov, D.V. 2006. Locusts: God’s wrath or revelation. Biological Sciences Review, 19(1): 6-9.

Kritsky G. & Cherry R. 2000. Insect Mythology. Writer Club Press, San Jose, New York, Lincoln, Shanghai.

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A view of the cockroach collection of the Manchester Museum.

Any online dictionary (e.g., here) can provide a clear definition of what is a human civilization. For instance, it is “the stage of human social development and organization which is considered most advanced”. Such advanced stage is achieved by bringing out of a savage, uneducated or unrefined state, and is commonly measured by a high level of culture, science, industry and government (whatever the latter could mean). Certainly, such definition is rather egocentric and likely to reflect human’s own pride. Possible side effects of any human civilization are rarely considered, not to mention that all such civilizations are developed and thrive at the expense of the Nature surrounding them.


Fig. 1. A visual history of the cockroaches, from the world it shared with dinosaurs to the urban world it shares with man, by Brian Raszka, 1999 (from M. Copeland, 2003, ‘Cockroach’).

All human civilizations create a specific urban environment, which is not sterile and inhabited by plethora of living beings, such as: rats, fleas, bed-bugs, mosquitoes and other wicked bugs. Collectively they are called synanthropic species, i.e. associated with man. These creatures live with us only because we have provided them with a suitable environment and food. More importantly, their presence is difficult/impossible to control (Fig. 1) – they always are and will be wherever humans do. They share the civilization with us regardless of what we think of them. Thus, why not to accept them as a legitimate part of a ‘human civilization’?


Fig. 2. Cockroaches as victims of the humans, ‘Executions’ by Catherine Chalmers (from M. Copeland, 2003, ‘Cockroach’).

Cockroaches are among those wicked bugs that are particularly hated by humans (Fig. 2). They are regarded as public health pests, but hardly deserve such a bad reputation. Cockroaches do not sting and do not eat our crops, though may occasionally transmit some pathogens (e.g., salmonella, staphylococcus, etc.) on their feet or their presence may cause an allergic reaction. They have been living alongside the man for hundreds of years, apparently from the time of cave man. The main problem with cockroaches seems to be that we cannot control them. If the environment is suitable (i.e., the right humidity & temperature and the availability of food) – which is usually correct as far as human dwelling concerned – they will always be there. Thus, if it is us who provide cockroaches with a suitable accommodation and lots of food, should we really blame/hate them for staying with us?

In human dwellings, cockroaches hide in cracks/crevices and service ducting. The following short animation was created by Eifion Crane, a BA Animation student of the Manchester School of Art at the Manchester Metropolitan University in 2016. The story tells us about our unwelcomed neighbours who share our civilization with us.

Cockroaches feed on almost anything, from conventional foodstuffs to any kind of organic waste, including faeces. The main reasons why cockroaches become pests are because they are highly mobile, able to feed on almost anything and very prolific. For instance, during its life one female of the German Cockroach can produce 8 egg cases of 40 eggs in each, thus giving birth to some 3,200 youngsters.

There are about 4,500 described cockroach species worldwide (compare with 5,400 described mammal species); of them about a dozen are considered pests. Cockroaches are one of the oldest insects on the planet, dating back 350 million years (Fig. 3). As Don Marquis put it in his ‘Archy and Mehitabel’ (1913), “…I do not see why men should be so proud, insects have the more ancient linage…”.


Fig. 3. The comparative evolutionary history of the cockroaches and humans, based on Lippman cartoon (from M. Copeland, 2003, ‘Cockroach’).

Cockroaches are gregarious, tending to live in large groups and fouling the environment with their droppings, castings or regurgitated food; they also produce specific smell. This is why in most human cultures cockroaches represent the clichéd symbol of dirtiness, and their presence can cause great distress to housekeepers. The most common house cockroach-mates in Britain (Fig. 4) are the Oriental Cockroach (Blatta orientalis), German Cockroach (Blatella germanica) and American Cockroach (Periplaneta americana).


Fig. 4. Oriental (two on the left), German (in the centre) and American (right) Cockroaches; from the collection of the Manchester Museum, UK.

Is there any real remedy to get rid of cockroaches? Well, at least one can be suggested straight away. Based on the experience of our ancestors from the 19th century, it could be prudent to appeal to cockroaches’ common sense and intelligence, and to write them a letter: “Oh, Roaches, you have troubled me long enough, go now and trouble my neighbours”. This might help, but if not, then you are right: these cockroaches do not belong to such advanced civilization in which we all live. Something else is to be done (e.g., see here or here).

Cockroaches have had the long-standing relationships with humans, living alongside them since cave dwelling, and will apparently live after we’ve long gone. Knowing that the lethal dose of radiation for a cockroach is many times higher than for a man, one can say with certainty that they are more likely to survive an atomic explosion than us. Cockroaches have a resilience to survive, thriving off our cast-offs, and as humans, we have unknowingly fostered the creatures, which became part of any human civilization.

The following short animation was created by Emily Dobson, a BA Animation student of the Manchester School of Art at the Manchester Metropolitan University in 2016. Music composed by Peter Byrom-Smith and performed by the Guild Hall Collective, conducted by Rod Skipp. Enjoy the animation.

It seems that now there are fewer/no cockroaches in many houses than there used to be. Some say that this is because of electromagnetic waves generated by computers, smartphones and other gadgets we all use. Hooray!  The final remedy to get rid of cockroaches is found. However, is it really a good thing not to have cockroaches in/around our dwellings? If even cockroaches – the most resilient creatures on the planet – cannot survive in our dwellings, we could ask ourselves whether such dwellings are really healthy and suitable for us?


The fable of the cockroach and the housewife, both do have the long-standing relations (from M. Copeland, 2003, ‘Cockroach’).

“When cockroaches roam, through your family home,

Don’t panic, just do what I say,

Remember with love, the Lord up obove

And say to each other ‘Let’s pray’ (Let’s spray).” – John Seville

Finally, we do need cockroaches to thrive and be around; if they gone, the existence of our own civilization will be at great danger as well.

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