Friday, 21 November 2014

Entomology Launch 11th December

Entomology will be launched on Thursday 11th December 6pm at Manchester Museum, Oxford Street, Manchester. There will be readings and the delightful Dr Dmitri will be there to deliver pearls of Entomological wisdom. There'll be tea and coffee and I'm baking cookies in the shape of insects.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Meet the Insects - Rose Aphid

Rose Aphid Wikipedia Creative Commmon Karl 432
For a long time I've been both fascinated and repulsed by parthenogenesis - the process by which a female insect (or plant, or maybe even a reptile, amphibian or fish) creates offspring on her own, without any input from a male. The young are formed from an unfertilised egg which somehow is triggered to divide. In humans it's fertilisation, the fusing of the egg and sperm which triggers the cell divisions that eventually form a child. When Dolly the sheep was made the nucleus from an udder cell was placed inside the an egg cell so that had the nucleus removed. This cell was triggered to divide by an electric shock. Mary Shelley wasn't so far off with Frankenstein and galvanism.

Partly it's Frankenstein that haunts us. "Curiosity killed the cat" a student said to me in our Frankenscience Project.  But with parthenogenesis it's more. The thought of all those identical insects horrifies me - perhaps because like most human beings I prize, perhaps even over-invest in my individuality. Identical twins don't horrify me, perhaps because human experience never allows anyone to stay the same for long.

It's also the fear of the plague, the fear of reproduction out of control. It's the dread of every other American Senator apparently - the fear of women's sexuality and fertility out of control.

But I don't think that's my deep down horror (thankfully). I think it's all these generations of females each indistinguishable from the mother, the grandmother, the great grandmother. Freud, or maybe Lacan would have a field day.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Meet the Insects - Solitary Bee

Osmia bicolor. Wikicommons. Jeffdelonge.
I bought one of these for my solitary bees. They have eschewed it. Not chewed it. (Sorry, getting carried away).

Instead they have found homes in the uncemented stone walls I built around my raised vegetable beds and I love them all the more for it.

They won't be organised into apparatchik tower blocks - unlike the lovely folk of Paradise Moscow. They live with me in the way they chose and like little anarchists build their lives from the earth and their own labour, thinking for themselves, acting freely, and living fully.

We're used to bees being a symbol of organised society, but solitary bees don't quite fit.

They look like honey bees but you can tell them apart by the pollen brush (look at this one - and check out the rest of the blog - amazing pictures!). Unlike the honey bees, they don't feed their young - they build or find nests and leave them there.

There are over 200 species, including miner bees that dig into the ground, and mason bees (like Osmia) that find holes in stonework - or snail shells or any other bits and pieces. I think of mason bees as being the hermit crabs of the insect world. There are also cuckoo bees that do unto bumble bees what cuckoos do to other birds. Leaf cutter bees cut neat circles from leaves and petals and use them to build nests in dead plant stems or plant pots.

They're  really important pollinators, so if you're worried about bees you could do worse than buy or make a bee house, but most importantly allow a little disorder into your outside space. Like most of nature they're shut out by our need for neatness, our desire to straighten the edges and fill in the gaps. They like the messy places in between, the unexpected cranny, the forgotten corners, the kind of places we all need to live and create as we chose.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Meet the Insect - Cockroach

Wikipedia Commons - lmbuga
I can tell you two things about cockroaches which you may already know. They are supposed to be able to survive a nuclear war, and they are tremendous fun to google.

So first of all, here's a lady that seems to know about the nuclear war thing. Apparently humans can withstand 5 rems of radiation safely and 800 rems would kills us. It would take about 100,000 to kill a German cockroach. I've not really got a way of imagining what a rem is - but lets just say it they can take over a 100 times more radiation than us. But if it was anywhere near the blast the heat would vapourise a cockroach instantly pretty much the same as everything else.

Let's just hope we never find out. Although  if a cockroach did survive, there wouldn't be a scientist around to verify it. Or anyone else. There's a thought experiment for you.

So, back to google. Louis Armstrong was fed cockroach soup for colds and sore throats. Not sure that's a recommendation. Much as I love Satchmo, his is not a voice that cries out "my larynx has been cosseted all my life".

But if the bare necessities has inspired you to look for help from nature here's a rather unsettling list of insects you can use to cure yourself. And for those with a really strong stomach here's some news from a Chinese cockroach farm.

And here's something to terrify star treak fans - a cockroach cyborg

You gotta love 'em. Sort of.

And of course here's the link to the pamphlet with the cockroach poem in it.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Meet the Insects - Damselfly

Pyrrhosoma nymphula female Charlesjsharp Wikipedia Commons
Resisting the temptation to go all Monty Python on you (oh go on then), in the insect world sperm is a precious resource. Male insects can't go around wasting it on the wrong species or on a female who is likely to have already been fertilised or who's going to end up getting fertilised by somebody else. This is why every species of insect has genitals that work like little puzzle pieces and only fit with the genitals of a mate of the same species.

It's also why entomologists apparently spend a great deal of time teasing apart insect genitals under a microscope - it's the only reliable why to figure out which species you have on your pin. It's the reason that the Manchester Moth (when we get there) has most of its abdomen missing - having been relentlessly teased in this way.

Once the pieces fit, he then removes any sperm that might have been left by a previous mate - the one that he's probably dislodged - and makes as sure as he can that he doesn't get dislodged by holding on to her until she's laid the eggs.

Likewise a female insect can't afford to waste her eggs by letting them be fertilised by a male who doesn't pass muster, so she has a way of making sure he can't get to her. To mate properly he has to grab hold of her neck - if she wraps her front legs round her neck, she makes sure this can't happen. 

Lots of male mammals including squirrels and leave a copulation plug in their mate - a kind of jelly that hardens off and blocks the vagina. It saves the male the bother of guarding his mate, but apparently it can sometimes get nibbled out. 

Did I mention chastity belts...

Entomology now in the Happenstance shop... 

Monday, 9 June 2014

Cover design - sneak preview

Just heard from Nell. Gillian's managed to get the illustration done after weeks of new house dramas and I love it.

Have a look. Isn't Ginny pretty?

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Meet the Insects - Assassin Bug

Stenolemus bituberus dhobern Flickr. from

It's unlikely many of my readers will meet this one - unless my readership is much more international than I realise - as it's an Australian species. You can see some British species of assassin bugs here 

But it's this one that caught my attention after a piece of research was posted on the BBC website detailing the way it lured it's play. One of the researchers Dr Anne Wignall explains. 

"However, reliance on vibratory cues and predictable responses leaves web-building spiders vulnerable to predators that aggressively mimic prey stimuli to gain control over their behaviour," they wrote.
"If you imagine an insect such as a fly when first hits the web, it'll generate a huge intial vibration, and then it will begin struggling violently, buzzing its wings," explained Dr Wignall.
"During these first vibrations, the risk of the prey escaping from the web is largest, and so spiders will tend to move in quickly on prey producing these sorts of vibrations in the web.
"But, as time goes on, an insect may get more tired, and the vibrations it produces will be much smaller. The spider can take more time approaching these insects as it's less likely to escape from the web," she told BBC News.
"These are the sorts of vibrations assassin bugs are mimicking, and it makes sense as a spider is very dangerous prey for a bug. If the spider approaches too fast, the risk to the assassin bug is much higher." 

I can't add much to that - although if you're not too squeamish (and I've noticed that not many people's squeamishness extends to creatures without warm blood, fur and feathers), you can watch Stenolemus bituberus in action here

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Meet the Insects - Emperor Dragonfly

Anax Imperator
Emperor Dragonfly
Anax Imperator. Photo svdmolen wikicommons

This is the first in a series of blogs giving background information on some of the insects featured in Entomology. As it happens this particular insect was also featured in Bug Music - a series of insect poems for children I wrote 15 years ago (you can see this condition of mine has been active for some years...)

When I talk about the dragonfly to school children I usually ask if any of their teachers claim to see out of the back of their head. Look at the picture and you can see that dragonflies really can - though what they see we really can't imagine.

This insect also has a set of big scary jaws which crunch up midges and mosquitoes and uses four independently moving wings to fly perform aerial acrobatics that allow it to hunt on the wing. It's a perfectly designed predator. Remember when TV aliens always tended to look like insects? A giant dragonfly would be terrifying.

But dragonflies also have fascinating life cycles. All insects have fascinating life cycles. It might be a while since you stopped to think what actually happens to a caterpillar! Dragonflies don't have quite such a profound metamorphosis and they do it bit by bit. The egg hatches into a larvae, which we call a nymph (entomologists are a romantic lot) which sheds its hard skin 3 times as it grows and changes into a fully grown dragonfly. Some nice young biologists from Sri Lanka have posted some great pictures here.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Poetry after Pain

Anish Kapoor: The Healing of St Thomas
Mollusc was a work of solace, Entomology of curiosity. Mollusc was 10 years worth of the poems that had to write, poems that poured out of me because no-one was listening, because I was existing in a claustrophobic marriage with a man who though occasionally well-intentioned was only vaguely aware of me as a separate human being. Those poems were easy to write. They were the valve on the pressure cooker. Those were the poems that I needed to write at a time I needed to be a poet because it seemed the only point in a life that had rarely been other than lonely and unhappy.

Mollusc starts with my marriage, Entomology with the divorce, though in actuality the first poems were written several years later, as I was learning to be happy. There were years in between when the mental chaos was too great even for poetry, and years when poetry took a back seat because, frankly, life was better than poetry.

I had that choice offered to me very bluntly in the end. Part way through the writing of Entomology I was suddenly struck with chronic pain, most likely due to damage to the pudendal nerve of some unknown cause. The medication which would stop my pain, and which would have to be titrated up overmany months, would most likely affect my mental acuity. I considered the possibility that it would impact on my ability to write, and then decided I didn't care that much. Life was more important than poetry.

In actual fact the medication affected my capacity to live every bit as much as my capacity to write and it took a couple more years before I found a medication that worked without the terrible side effects. But in the mean time I learnt something about my priorities and I learned something about living with pain.

Pain, for me, was only bearable if I could live in the moment. Behind me stretched a 'before' an unattainable state of normality. Before stretched more pain. The moment was only a moment's work of pain. And the moment contained the whole universe. To exist within myself was for pain to be everything. To be connected to a universe in which my pain was only a part was joyful. That introversion no longer worked, that focussed wallowing which is the generation of so much poetry no longer worked.

These days I'm only in occasional pain, more often discomfort - but then find me a middle-aged person that isn't! I'm not lonely. I'm not unhappy. I don't need poetry. I don't need to be a poet. I'm perfectly content with knowing I am a good poet rather than a great one, though I've a good few years to work at being a very good one.

Entomology, for all it focusses on these tiny creatures is a pamphlet about being in the world, about human relationships, imperfect and wonderful. It's about figuring that out, it's about learning to be alive.

I don't need to write poems any more. But I think I'd like to. I don't particularly want to write poems about pain. They'll come of course, because life will continue to bring pain. I'll lose people I love. I'll be hurt, disappointed, frightened sick. But not all the time. I can live a different kind of life and I want to write a different kind of poem. I want to write poems that say "Look! It's fucking amazing!" I think they might be the hardest poems of all.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Why I've not been blogging

I've just realised it's been over a year since I made that last post - and it's been a year in which poetry has taken a back seat.

Last week I was approved to foster young people. Because of a debacle with Barnardos (far too sordid to mention on here - but if you see me, do ask) it's taken over two years. During that time, apart from the hours of interviews leading to hundreds of pages worth of reports, I've stripped painted, polyfilled, carpetted, knocked down shelves, stripped, polyfilled and painted some more, upholstered, curtained and become the queen of the flat pack. I've learned to do all those things I've always assumed one needs a man for, and I've got triceps and biceps and whatever you call that muscle in the lower arm that look so sexy when it's well developed on a man.

Today I'm taking a break from knocking layers of cement, whitewash and lime off the outhouse that has been and will be an outside loo. Tomorrow I'm learning to point. But I'm getting a man in for the plumbing.

Then I'm painting it pink and orange, hanging mexican curtains and Frida Kahlo prints (that's right I'm having a Kahloo). Then I'm done.

Soon, there will be children staying here. Just at weekends and holidays at first. And in between I shall readdress myself to poetry.

It has become a strange thing to build things from words, to wrestle with things that don't hurt my shoulders, to wield a metaphorical chisel. There's a simplicity and reward to physical work that is rarely mirrored in poetry. It's so much easier to see what is made, because what is made surrounds you and is lived in, it exists in a place other than the mind of another.

And a job ends in a way a poem never does - at least it does if you are able to apply the principle of 'good enough' to your home, and I am.

In a few days I shall down my tools and pick up my pen. It does not fit snugly. I'd rather dig.