Extreme insects: Bitten by the bug?

They are among the planet's most varied and vibrant creatures, and are vital to our very survival – so why don't we love creepy-crawlies? Gillian Orr reports

A A A

If someone were to announce that they had head lice, those around them would most likely respond with mild disgust, before making a swift exit. Not Richard "Bugman" Jones, however. He would be fascinated, for it is insects – the good, the bad and the ugly – which are his life-long passion.

A childhood interest in creepy-crawlies inherited from his nature-loving botanist father turned into a full-blown love affair after he finished studying biology and was working in medical publishing and realised that his heart was in entomology.

"Through looking at insects," Jones excitedly announces, "you can study the world – the whole natural environment – far better than you can by looking at humans. In fact, there's a lovely idea that, if an alien civilisation landed on Earth and had limited time and resources to study life, all it need do is study beetles and dismiss everything else as a sampling error, because you can understand the whole of evolution, ecology, genetics, physiology – the whole way life on earth works – just by studying insects."

Jones begun writing articles for publications such as BBC Wildlife and various gardening magazines until he found he could support himself purely with his love of bugs. Now that passion can be seen in his stunning new book, Extreme Insects.

Featuring huge, close-up vivacious images of over one hundred different insects, the chances are you would never have seen them in such detail. Jones selected the ones featured – a tough job considering there are millions of insect species – by highlighting the most extreme kinds. There's the shiniest (golden chafer), the loudest (dog-day cicada), the heaviest (giant weta), the shortest lived (mayfly) and so on.

Accompanying the striking pictures are descriptions of the insect, why its behaviour or appearance is so extreme and why it has evolved that way. It beautifully highlights the wonder that is nature and serves as a fascinating look at creatures many people are quick to dismiss as a nuisance.

Jones wanted people to get to know insects better. "People can look at birds and mammals and reptiles and can see that they're big or small," he explains.

"They have an idea what they look like because people are used to seeing them – they know their colours and their shapes – but they're not used to insects, and it's not until you look at them under a hand lens or microscope that you can see and appreciate their completely bizarre and unique structure."

He breaks down the insects into three categories: extreme form, extreme evolution and extreme impact, allowing him to show us the insects' physical features, behaviour and influence. But how did he decide on the different titles?

"I just started with the biggest, fattest, smallest, thinnest and longest and worked my way through some of the obvious ones. Those ones were fairly easy but there are not many of those; you get those out of the way quite quickly.

"Then it was a case of running my mind through some of the extreme structures that insects have, and some of the extreme behaviours. Insects are all manner of peculiar shapes and sizes and have very different functions."

Even his children got involved in brainstorming ideas for categories.

Once he had the various insects he wanted to include, he had to find suitable images. "It was a question of going through quite a few picture libraries, trawling through their catalogues to see what images they had."

Unfortunately he found that he had to abandon some of his choices merely because there were no decent pictures. One included the most pollution-tolerant insect, a fly found in California that lays its eggs in the crude oil that seeps out of the ground then feeds on other insects that have been poisoned on impact with the oil.

"It has been known that this exists for about 100 years and people have studied it because they're interested to know how on earth this critter can survive in such a toxic environment, but we just couldn't find a good image. All we had was a tinned specimen of the adult fly in a museum".

Even if he could get a photograph, it was sometimes not of the quality he was after. "They had to be bright, startling images which would show off the feature that we wanted to talk about. It's quite difficult because we had things like the most cold-tolerant, and you can't really show an insect tolerating cold, so we'd just get a bright portrait. On others we managed to get the behaviour going on."

The insect with the most generous nuptial gift – the male hump-winged cricket, which allows the female to devour the wings of the male while mating – was a particular challenge. "Eventually, though, we came across some really nice pictures." The gruesome action has been caught on film and makes for a fantastic image.

On one occasion the Natural History Museum came to his rescue. The rarest insect, a particular species of duke water beetle that was discovered in 1882 by the distinguished British entomologist David Sharp and brought back to the Natural History Museum, has never been seen in the wild again.

"That photo didn't exist until I approached them," Jones recalls. "A colleague of mine there supported me to get a photo of it. It's quite a spectacular beast, so they took the photo of their specimen especially for us. Now that photo is ready for anyone who wants to use it."

Talking with Jones, you can't help but get swept up in his enthusiasm for bugs. So what was his favourite tale that he came across? "The most dramatic recovery from near-extinction, which was the Lord Howe Island stick insect was just a fantastic story," he enthuses.

"As soon as I read about Lord Howe Island I wanted to go there on holiday. It's a nice story – it was a peculiar insect that people thought was extinct because of the rats and goats and other domestic animals which had been released on to what was a virgin paradise back in the Victorian age, and now it has been rediscovered and they're breeding it."

Aware of its limited appeal, Jones and other entomologists are concerned about who will carry their work on, though he hopes that his time spent with schoolchildren will spark an interest in insects among some of them. "It's nice because children are still absolutely fascinated with insects, especially when they learn something new.

For instance, I'm always asked, "Are ladybirds poisonous?" and I explain to them that yes, they are, but you have to eat quite a lot of them for them to do you any harm. Immediately their faces grimace and they realise, "Wow, birds don't like eating ladybirds, that's why they're brightly coloured" and you've immediately got across quite a basic biological concept about warning colours to a five-year-old."

Jones is also thrilled that natural history and the environment seems to be creeping on to the school curriculum, certainly more so than it was 20 years ago, he feels.

After all, without insects, life would be very different. "Insects dominate the middle ground of every food web in the world and if you got rid of them, then everything ahead of them would die, and that would effectively change the whole planet. Also, insects eat plants, and, while you don't want them to eat crops, they also eat weeds. If those plants were to go unchecked, it would alter everything and cause disruption to the ecosystems of the world."

Jones wants to share his love of insects with the public and he doesn't worry about what people make of him and his peculiar interest. "I suppose it's not like studying birds or going fishing, which are quite popular. You draw attention to yourself and you have to be a bit accepting of the mild eccentricity that you obviously show to the world if you are wandering around with an insect net."

He continues: "It goes with a lot of walks of life – if you're doing something slightly out of the ordinary. But I'm quite happy to be regarded as a bit strange."



'Extreme Insects' is published by Collins (£30). To order a copy for the special price of £27 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

Suggested Topics
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker