I’ve just returned from the fair city of Dublin and my first trip to a Royal Entomological Society conference, in fact my first visit to any 100% insect themed event! This was a momentous occasion considering that I first joined the School of Biological Sciences at Reading as an MSc student (back in 2010) because I was a birder who fancied turning bird conservation into a career. So how did I end up with two extra pairs of legs and one extra pair of wings?!
I’ve never been completely uninterested in insects. As a child I remember pottering around our garden watching life in our two back garden ponds and around the flower beds. I collected and kept a dragonfly exuviae, though can’t say I treasured it that carefully since it eventually fell to pieces. I watched hoverflies and knew what they were – I certainly didn’t mistake them for bees! But I guess that side of natural history took a back seat to other not entirely unnatural interests, like the weather, and I ended up studying Meteorology at university. I regret quite how much meteorology I’ve since forgotten in the last 10 years, but that’s a story for another day.
So I can’t put my finger on when exactly insects and I got it together. I like to call birds a ‘gateway drug’*, which is what they were for me (and I think many others), a kind of easy route back into the full wonders of natural history. Ironically I started devoting a large part of my free time to looking at insects whilst working as an RSPB field research assistant back in 2012. At that point I hardly needed birding as a hobby since I was being paid to do it!
It was my supervisor Graham Holloway who suggested, the following year, that I pursue an insect PhD. And I genuinely believe that the most interesting research questions – and quite possibly the most pressing conservation questions – are insect or more broadly invertebrate related. We don’t know everything about every species of bird in the world, but working somewhere exotic has never particularly appealed and in Britain, if there’s something we don’t know about birds you can bet somebody else is already trying to find out.
People – mostly old birder friends – still ask me why I’ve not pursued birds in a ‘professional’ capacity and aside from taking the opportunity to tell them just how wonderful insects are, I also explain that there’s something nice about holding at least one of your hobbies sacred. For me, birding is most definitely leisure time (even when, on MSc field trips, I’m technically still paid to do it – lucky me!), and on those rare occasions when I just go out birding – pure, unadulterated birding – it still affords the same pleasure and stress release for me as it did a decade ago.
But then, nor do I now consider insects ‘just’ my work or research**. They mean so much more than that. A life spent interested in insects could never be dull: there’s always something new to see, learn or discover. Ento ’15 may have been my first all-entomology event, but I doubt it will be my last.
The poster I presented at Ento’ 15 can now be viewed online! Further reflections with more on the actual content of the conference should follow here, once I’ve begun tackling the pile of marking on my desk…
*An analogy that would repay full exploration, I think.
**Nor do I wish to be pigeonholed, or even beetleholed. I hope I’ll have the opportunity throughout my career to work on pretty much whichever organisms happen to take my fancy at the time.