Pest in show: a rare celebration of the creepy-crawly

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The Independent Online

Cutlass-jawed, armour-plated and organised by a terrifying collective intelligence, the ants of Saul Bass's 1974 film Phase IV wage war on the human inhabitants of the North American desert. Bass filmed life-sized members of the Formicidae family chewing through cables and devouring people from the inside out, because the idea that insects dominate life on Earth is the truth. As the great Alabaman entomologist, EO Wilson, once pointed out: "If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed 10,000 years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos." The nightmare is not that the insects could wipe us out - it's that we're annihilating them.

So it's in celebration of the "the small guys that run the planet" that Bridget Nicholls and Mark Pilkington have launched The First International Arts Pestival, a fortnight of bug-based events at the London Wetland Centre. "Through appreciation of insects in art and the art of being an insect," says Nicholls, "the Pestival aims to create positive PR for this 400-million-year-old, highly evolved taxon that has had thousands of years of bad press."

"Flutter for Joy", "Pinch for Luck" and "Buzz for Love" read the fluorescent posters that guide visitors from the leafy London suburb of Barnes into the 105-acre wildlife reserve. Crossing a wooden bridge, I pause to smile at the fragile fuzz of a baby moorhen bobbing between the lily-pads beneath when a small boy in wellies hurtles past me, flapping his arms and buzzing for all his tiny lungs are worth. "That seemed to have been a success," grinned his mum. "I've not been a big fan of creepy-crawlies in the past," she acknowledges, "but I have to admit that even some of the scarier ones can be beautiful if you can get past that initial 'eugh!'"

In the art gallery I gaze at a gold-plated cockroach, lying legs-up on the floor beneath a bell jar. I smile at a Victorian-style collectors' cabinet crawling with plastic bugs, marvel at some ethereal insect X-rays and study the diaphanous charms of a lily-like sculpture made of cicada wings. Nicholls tells me that the Pestival has been "brilliant for bringing artists and biologists together. There has been a real exchange of ideas and information and other stuff - we've had painters trading work in exchange for chrysalises and discarded skins."

Two spiders are biding their time before embarking on their eagerly anticipated geometric creations. They dangle pensively from the corners of their boxes, their combined 16 legs angled inward as they wait for the fly eggs placed beneath them to mature into something worth snaring. Nephila edulis - Australia's golden orb weaver - gets its common name from the yellow threads of its web which glow gold in the sunlight.

Outside again, Martin Senior of the London Wetland Centre tells me that more than 400 moth species have been recorded on site, including classic wetland species such as the creamy-speckled Webb's wainscot. "We also have 23 species of butterfly - including the purple hairstreak, clouded yellow and holly blue," says Senior. "And 20 species of dragonfly and damselfly - including recent colonist the small red-eyed damselfly, the beautiful banded demoiselle and the large brown hawker." A pair of iridescent peppermint-green beetles alight on my wrist. We study the copulating Coleoptera. "I don't know what those ones are," chuckles Senior. "But all these insects make the centre ideal for other wildlife, from the nine species of bat which feed on the reserve, to the many waders and ducks whose offspring will feed on the insect life among the vegetation."

At the Buglife stand, Claudia Watts tells me that the plummeting population of house sparrows has been attributed to a lack of summer insects. "We have about 27,000 species of insect in the UK," she says. "Related to insects are other types of animals with jointed limbs [arthropods], such as spiders, crayfish, water fleas, woodlice and millipedes. We have well over 3,000 arthropod species in Britain, but 12,000 species of our land and freshwater invertebrates are currently listed as species of conservation concern." I ask what people can do to help. "Join Buglife," she says, "garden organically, protect brownfield sites and get involved in some of our projects. At the moment we're asking people to keep an eye out for the scarlet malachite beetle. It was once widespread across the south of England but is now only known to be hanging on in a few sites in Essex, Hertfordshire and Hampshire." This jewel of a green-and-red beetle only flies for three weeks each year in May and June. "If you think you have found one," says Watts, "please take a photo, note the exact location where you found it and contact Buglife."

Back in the courtyard, beside the magnificently mechanised Insect Circus Museum I run into Professor David Rothenberg, the author of Why Birds Sing. The American musicologist has made his name exploring what Darwin described as the innate "aesthetic sense" of birdsong. "Do birds only make their unique and complex songs to attract mates and defend territory, or is it something more?" he asks me. He's at the Pestival to jam along with crickets, poking a proboscal microphone into their darkened box and improvising on his clarinet. "They're amazing - tiny beatboxes. And they can hear all over their bodies! Who wouldn't want that skill!?"

It was through experimental music that Bridget Nicholls met her Pestival co-organiser Mark Pilkington. "I've been an entomophile since I started cryogenic experiments on ants in the family fridge as a child," explains the curator of this evening's creepy-crawly-themed film night, which will peak with a screening of Phase IV.

"It's the most sublime and pensive of all the sci-fi bug movies," says Pilkington. "It gets across the mixture of awe and fear we have looking at another fully evolved civilisation, and which outnumbers us."

On my way out, I pass a stall on which Mick Strick of the British Tarantula Society and Anna Morell of the Phasmid Study Group are exhibiting giant African millipedes, Madagascan hissing cockroaches, stick insects, scorpions and spiders. "Everyone loves the tarantulas," says Morell, wrangling a millipede back into its box. "It's great when you see some timid little child nervously reach out to have an insect placed on their hands and watch their look of horror turn to outright glee as it tickles around on their palms."

Pestival runs at the London Wetland Centre until 4 June. Entrance is free with admission to the reserve (adults £7.25, concs £6.00, children £4.50) ( www.pestival.org; 020-8409 4400; www.buglife.org.uk)

Bugs in trouble

* The New Forest cicada is one of Britain's largest insects, black with orange stripes and lovely transparent wings longer than its body. It spends eight years in a larval stage before emerging in a burst of song -- but it has not been heard since 1996.

* Folklore has it that the spots of the seven-spot ladybird symbolise the seven joys and seven sorrows of the Virgin Mary. Sorrow than joy may be in store for lovers of Coccinella septempunctata as the aphids it eats are being gobbled up by the Asian harlequin ladybird, introduced to Europe as a biocontrol.

* The shrill carder bee was widespread in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but records suggest a decline to only one third of the previous distribution by the 1970s, with just seven sites reliably identified in the south and east of the British Isles in the 1980s.

* The southern damselfly is a glorious barcode in turquoise and black. But Coenagrion mercuriale has suffered a 30-per-cent decline in its UK distribution since 1960 due to a lack of appropriate heathland management.

* The oil beetle has one of the most extraordinary life cycles of any British insect, being parasitic on various species of ground-nesting solitary bee.But only three of the nine oil- beetle varieties once found in Britain are still resident.

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