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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_01

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_02

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_03

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_04

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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Writing a poem seems to be a mystery for many people, and it is indeed an act of creativity by those who are able to observe the world within or around them and to perceive it in a new way. A poem can be about anything, from old love memories to a crawling bug; it is about capturing a feeling that you have experienced. However, it’s hard to know where you should start. Helen Clare, a freelance writer and poet from Manchester, presents a possible approach to how to write a poem on the basis of, say, a visit to the Manchester Museum. If you want to know how to write a poem, this story is for you.

Below you can listen to the poem narrated and presented by Helen Clare. The printed text of the poem can be found here.

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One of the aims of our field work in Iceland was to visit the areas with the native forest of Downy Birch (Betula pubescens). We’ve visited several places with the birch forest, for instance, the site in the southern shore of the Lake Myvatn and the forest along Logurinn fjord in eastern Iceland. In both places the forests were full of edible mushrooms, and I could not help myself and collected some, which then we cooked and eat together. Here are the photos or some of those edible mushrooms we encountered during our trip.

Milky Mushroom (Lactarius resimus), or ‘Груздь’ in Russian, is considered a delicacy in Russia and some other countries of Eastern Europe when pickled in salt.

Milky Mushroom (Lactarius resimus), or ‘Груздь’ in Russian, is considered a delicacy in Russia and some other countries of Eastern Europe when pickled in salt.

Slippery Jack (Suillus luteus), one of the most popular edible mushrooms; especially tasty when pickled.

Slippery Jack (Suillus luteus), one of the most popular edible mushrooms; especially tasty when pickled.

Woolly Milkcap (Lactarius torminosus).

Woolly Milkcap (Lactarius torminosus).

The Brown Birch Bolete (Leccinum scabrum) is typically used in soups and also commonly added as a component of mixed-mushroom dishes. Very delicious when fried with onion in soared-cream, as we did in Iceland.

The Brown Birch Bolete (Leccinum scabrum) is typically used in soups and also commonly added as a component of mixed-mushroom dishes. Very delicious when fried with onion in soared-cream, as we did in Iceland.

More information about each mushroom can be found online at the following links: Milky Mushroom (Lactarius resimus); Woolly Milkcap (Lactarius torminosus) or here; The Brown Birch Bolete (Leccinum scabrum) or here; and Slippery Jack (Suillus luteus) or here.

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While travelling from the Town of Stykkishólmur to the Town of Grundarfjördur (road No.54, along the northern coast of Snaefellsnes Peninsula), about half-way, we came across a road sign depicting a shark (see on photo). The information desk below this sign said that there the place Bjarnarhöfn is named after Björn Ketilsson from Norway who settled in here around 900AD and also that there is one of the oldest churches in Iceland built up in 1856-59. Being puzzled we immediately turned to the place and were not disappointed.

The road sing and the building of the Shark Museum at Bjarnarhöfn, Iceland

The road sign and the building of the Shark Museum at Bjarnarhöfn, Iceland

What we found there was one of the most eclectic Museums I’ve even seen, the Shark Museum. The Museum contains all sorts of objects related to every-day life of a small fishing farm in Iceland: anything one can image from the kitchen tools or a gramophone of the early 20th century to taxidermy of Icelandic variety of chickens and models of Viking or more recent fishing boats. However, the main story was about shark fishing and the production of shark meat. The guests of the Museum are met by the friendly curator and owner, known as the famous ‘Shark Man’ Hildibrandur of Bjarnarhöfn. Details of the shark fishing industry (mostly on the large local Greenland shark – Somniosus microcephalus) in Iceland were shown on a big screen, and all the kinds of relevant fishing equipment, from the shark-fishing boat to harpoons and fishing nets, were exhibited on the walls and display cases. Shark-liver oil was once an important export commodity for Iceland. The shark meat was cured with a particular fermentation process to make the notorious Icelandic delicacy known as hákarl (see also here).

The boat and equipment needed for fishing the Greenland shark; the Shark Museum at Bjarnarhöfn, Iceland.

The boat and equipment needed for fishing the Greenland shark; the Shark Museum at Bjarnarhöfn, Iceland.

A variety of museum objects reflecting an every-day life of a shark-fishing village in Iceland, plus something else; the Shark Museum at Bjarnarhöfn, Iceland.

A variety of museum objects reflecting an every-day life of a shark-fishing village in Iceland, plus something else; the Shark Museum at Bjarnarhöfn, Iceland.

We were able to visit the drying house where shark and fish meat is hung to dry for four to five months before use. Shark meat (hákarl) and dried fish (harðfiskur), as well as nice pieces of traditional Iceland knitting, could be purchased from the Museum. We also found out, the owner offers individual/personal guided tours of the Museum. Unfortunately, as he does not speak English, a personal tour was not an option for us.

Drying of shark and fish meet; the Shark Museum at Bjarnarhöfn, Iceland.

Drying of shark and fish meat; the Shark Museum at Bjarnarhöfn, Iceland.

One of the oldest wooden churches of Iceland built up in 1856-59; Bjarnarhöfn, Iceland.

One of the oldest wooden churches of Iceland built up in 1856-59; Bjarnarhöfn, Iceland.

We were more than impressed by the Shark Museum (and the old wooden church, see on photo below), as what we saw was a true authentic story of the life of an individual shark-fishing village told by those who have been involved in their family business for generations. I am sure that the content of this Museum sooner or later will become an essential part of a National Museum of Icelandic Culture and Lore, should such museum be ever organized in Iceland.

Dmitri Logunov (the Curator of Arthropods at the Manchester Museum) and the owner of the Shark Museum,  Hildibrandur of Bjarnarhöfn.

Dmitri Logunov (the Curator of Arthropods at the Manchester Museum) and the owner of the Shark Museum, Hildibrandur of Bjarnarhöfn.

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During the field trip to Iceland, we have visited many places of interests, including of course pebble-beaches on sea shores made of  grey, smooth basalt pebbles.

Grey basalt pebbles on the sea-shore of western Iceland (Londrangar, Snaefellsnes)

Grey basalt pebbles on the sea-shore of western Iceland (Londrangar, Snaefellsnes)

To my surprise, the same pebbles can be found on shelves of many gift- or craft-shops that are available virtually in every hamlet, village or town of Iceland. However, the pebbles in shops are nicely hand-painted, representing examples of mini-artworks, often naive but always touchy (see on the photos below). In one shop the painted pebbles were crafted as ladybirds of various shapes and colours (from yellow and green to the traditional red-coloured beetles).

Lovely ladybird crafted from pebble, NW Iceland.

Lovely ladybird crafted from pebble, NW Iceland.

I don’t know whether it is indeed a national Icelandic tradition to hand-paint pebbles, such craft is suitable to everyone, from children to enthusiastic adults, allowing everyone to become a master of own mini-masterpiece. Someone called this the ‘beach stone craft’; further instruction and inspiration of this craft can be found here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Han-painted pebbles with diverse wishes, craft festival at Hrafnagil near Akureyri, NW Iceland.

Hand-painted pebbles with diverse wishes, craft festival at Hrafnagil near Akureyri, NW Iceland.

A collection of artworks (=painted pebbles) produced by students of a local primary school on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Natural History Museum in Heimaey Island.

A collection of artworks (=painted pebbles) produced by students of a local primary school on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Natural History Museum in Heimaey Island.

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On the second day of our field trip to Iceland, we visited the interesting site lying in the southern municipality of Reykjavik, called Garðabær, which literally means ‘Garden Town’. We walked around the beautiful Lake Urridavatn surrounded by boggy meadows full of sedge, dwarf bushes (like blue berry) and cotton grass (see on the photo).

Boggy meadow with cotton grass (left) and the blue berry bush (right) near Lake Urridavatn in Iceland

Boggy meadow with cotton grass (left) and the blue berry bush (right) near Lake Urridavatn in Iceland

On the meadow side of the path to the lake we found a plastic cup thrown by someone a few days ago. Incidentally, the cup, which was partly filled with rain water, became a deadly trap to insects and spiders. Having inspected the content of the cup I found two specimens of crab spiders (Xysticus sp.; male and female), one specimen of the ground beetle (family Carabidae) and one harvestman (family Phalangiidae). So, the cup ‘worked’ exactly in the way as true pitfall traps (see also here) that are used by scientists for ecological surveys. A poor thinking or maybe carelessness of someone who threw this plastic cup away instead of dropping it into a waste bin resulted in some casualties of minibeasts. Throwing a plastic cup (or any unwanted plastic item) away is hardly seen as a great deal or an action causing any threat to wild life. However, my short and simple story seems to say otherwise. In simple words, it reminds us that recycling waste is essential to both natural environment and humans, minimizing an unnecessary risk of damage to the environment and helping out our planet be a better place to live in. More about recycling can be seen here and here.

The plastic cup that became a deadly trap to a number of minibeasts near Lake Urridavatn in Iceland. See also a short video below.

The plastic cup that became a deadly trap to a number of minibeasts near Lake Urridavatn in Iceland. See also a short video below.

 

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