Bugs Britannica: Let's talk about insects

First it was birds, then plants. Now our many creepy-crawlies are to get the best-selling Britannica treatment. Michael McCarthy reports
Click to follow

Why is there a moth called the satin lutestring? And a butterfly called the red admiral? Why are ladybirds called ladybirds? Is it true there are more midges in a hectare of Scottish heather than the entire human population of Britain? And that jellyfish from the Amazon are flourishing in British lakes? Or that Julius Caesar was led to invade Britain because of its mussels?

All these questions touch on the same thing: our relationships with the mini-beasts of the world, the ones without backbones, the invertebrates, or in short, the bugs (insects, spiders, molluscs, crustaceans, jellyfish, sponges, worms and other small creatures). Yet the answers are not generally to be found in biological text books or field guides, mainly because they concern bug lore rather than bug science.

All that will change with the publication of an encyclopedia-sized book in two years that will provide the first full modern account of the place of invertebrates in our lives. Bugs Britannica will be a nationwide chronicle of bug life in the 21st century, looking at why mini-beasts matter to us and why we care about them, recording our continuing love-hate relationship with small creatures and how that influences our life and times.

It will be the third in a series of books about the relationships between the human and the plant and animal world conceived by Britain's premier nature writer, Richard Mabey. His Flora Britannica, published in 1996, was a revolutionary take on botany, recording the cultural, rather than the scientific, significance of Britain's wild flowers; it was also a massive best-seller, shifting more than 100,000 copies. Then two years ago, Birds Britannica, written by Mark Cocker on Richard Mabey's model, extensively documented our relationship with every wild feathered creature from the raven to the robin, and was a similar sell-out. Now another leading nature writer, Peter Marren, will use the Mabey model to chart the links between people and invertebrates in the same distinctive way, and produce Bugs Britannica as the third volume in the series (all published by Chatto & Windus). With Mabey's co-operation, Marren will be using the imaginative technique employed for the first two volumes: asking the public to help. He is seeking details of people's encounters with British bug life, anecdotes, experiences, legends, local knowledge (with all contributions credited).

This approach paid rich dividends, with Flora and Birds unlocking a treasure trove of unusual bird and wildflower folklore from every corner of the British Isles. The two literary bug-chasers hope to repeat the feat with invertebrates under a series of themes, finding out what the British call their mini-beasts locally, what uses and entertainments we have made of them, how we attract them, how we ward them off, how we keep them as pets, how we band together in clubs to study them, how we eat them (occasionally), how we like them and how we dislike them. They have set up a web address and are keen to hear from anyone with a bug story to tell.

"We want to know about your encounters with bug life," Marren said. "Do you garden with bugs in mind, perhaps with bee-friendly flowers or a pond? Are there local names or customs involving particular insects or other invertebrates? Have you been inspired by bug activity, a spider spinning its web, or a grasshopper chirping in the long grass, or the homely shape and colours of a bumblebee?

"We go back a long way, bugs and us. British bugs are probably the best-studied insects in the world. And although our relationship with some is never far short of war (modern insecticides spell total war), with most it is surely rooted in affection, a sense of awe and wander at their beauty, their charm, their oddness and ingenuity, and their sheer numbers. A world without butterflies, bees, dragonflies and shells would be a duller place. They enrich our lives in many ways, as food and medicine, as pets and hobbies, as subjects of stories and rhymes and folklore."

Bug bites

Of the bugs that like to make a meal of us, horseflies are among the most painful, and you can tell which horsefly it is from the way it bites. Tabanus attacks bare legs, sneaky Chrysops prefers the back of your neck, and Hybomitra homes in on your crutch. Midges in Scotland are much smaller, but in the right conditions in summer they can bite in such numbers as to be unbearable (they home in on human breath), and all you can do is retreat. It is said that a single hectare of land in the Western Isles can contain more midges than the human population of Britain.

There was an old Highland defence against midges, to hang a branch of bog myrtle outside your tent. Have you tried that and does it work? Do you have any patent remedies of your own for bug attack? Let Bugs Britannica know.

Bugs as food

Fancy a toasted leaf-cutter ant anyone? If bugs sometimes bite us, we sometimes bite back. We may have eaten shellfish such as prawns or mussels, but how many of us have tried a grasshopper or a garden snail? Are there recipes for home-grown bugs? Spiders and flying ants are said to be pleasant; the latter apparently taste of peanut butter, but make sure you remove the wings first. A certain Dr Buckland, who lived near London Zoo and sampled every form of animal life he could lay his hands on said the worst thing he had eaten was a bluebottle fly. Not recommended. Any anecdotes of your own?

Bug lovers

Britain has long been a nation of bug lovers, bug students and bug collectors: the butterfly-collecting doctor or parson is a symbol of Victorian England. The Duchess of Portland was one of a group of remarkable 18th- and 19th-century women who bred insects. Charles Darwin was a fanatical collector of beetles, while Walter Rothschild (of the banking family) collected fleas; his collection contained 12 fleas dressed in tiny costumes, including a bride and groom. Neville Chamberlain, prime minister at the outbreak of the Second World War, collected butterflies, as did Air Marshall Sir Robert Saundby, number two to Sir Arthur (Bomber) Harris in Bomber Command. Now people tend to look and take pictures, not collect.

New bugs

The number of new species establishing themselves in Britain, largely moving across the Channel from continental Europe because of climate change, is unprecedented: they include the fearsome-looking but harmless violet carpenter bee and the camel-cricket. Other species are increasing their range, such as the hornet, quite rare only 20 years ago and the bee-wolf, rare only 10 years ago, which are both now very common over much of England. Among the most exotic species to have arrived is a small jellyfish from the Amazon flourishing in Lakes: it is thought to have come in with imported Amazonian water lillies.

Bug names

Some familiar bug names are so old that we take them for granted without wondering what they mean, such as ladybird. This is based on old representations of the Virgin Mary wearing a red cloak, so it is really Our Lady Bird. As for the black spots (seven in the commonest ladybird), they stand for the seven sorrows and the seven joys of Mary. (Incidentally, the collective name is supposedly a loveliness of ladybirds.)

All our larger moths have English names, some of them fantastical. They tend to have been named by 18th-century artists and textile designers after textures such as brocades, satins, wainscots and lutestrings (based on lustrine, an old word for silk). Butterflies are more likely to be named after colours, such as the red admiral. The theory that it was originally called the red admirable is a myth; it was named because its splendid hues (scarlet, black and white) resembled a naval ensign. There are many local names for bugs, all gratefully received by Bugs Britannica.

Bug clubs

The first British bug society was formed in about 1730 and was known as The Aurelians. Many were poets, artists or designers, inspired by the beauty and miraculous "transformations' of the insect world (from larvae into adult insects). Britain now has dozens of bug-based societies, from the Amateur Entomological Society, Butterfly Conservation (now Europe's biggest invertebrate charity) and Buglife, dedicated to the study and conservation of all invertebrates, to special interest groups such as the Tarantula Society, whose members (it claims) wear leather and go around on motorbikes, and the Balfour-Brown Society, dedicated to the study of water bugs.


English poetry and prose is full of insects and other bugs. Butterflies and moths feature in the works of Virginia Woolf and Siegfried Sassoon, and in The Collector by John Fowles. Flies have a darker role, as in the horror story and film, The Fly. Literature about bugs tends to be scientific, but A Moth Hunter's Gossip by P B M Allen manages to be both scientific and very funny. Suetonius, the Roman historian, says that Julius Caesar made his first visit to Britain in 55BC because the freshwater mussels in the rivers supported a very valuable pearl fishery. Do you know of novels, poems or children's stories featuring British bugs? Pass on your knowledge to Bugs Britannica.