The unofficial book club no 3

Looking at those extraordinary anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci from 510 years ago, which feature a stillborn child plucked from the womb of its deceased mother, you realise that one of the world’s most celebrated artists seldom felt a demarcation between his aesthetic exploration and what one could broadly call his scientific investigation of life. Art and knowledge were two parts of a single practice and the driving heart of it was one of the most curious, tender and wonder-filled minds ever to have evolved.

It has always struck me that art still has a central part to play in modern natural history. Although the deep connection is partly being broken or, perhaps one should say, continued by photographers, there is still an important place for painters in nature. Illustrations of wildlife have changed the way we see other creatures. The American Roger Tory Peterson, for one, made birds accessible to millions of us in the twentieth century. I think equally of the bird plates of the Swede Lars Jonnson. Theirs isn’t perhaps art in the same vein as Leonardo’s Mona Lisa but, rather like the latter’s anatomical drawings, the work of these naturalist painters enables us to enter worlds and see things that we barely knew.

If I am asked to name a contemporary illustrator who has done an enormous amount to change how we see British nature I immediately think of Richard Lewington. His astonishingly accurate, painstaking depictions of butterflies, latterly of moths and most recently of the 275 species of British bee, are among my favourite paintings by a modern illustrator. His images adorn several key groundbreaking field guides and for many thousands of people they have given access to a whole new world of insects.

And rightly so, you would say, because insects can be beautiful (look at the Atlas moth above). There is now also a deepening and rather belated public recognition that insects are astonishingly important to life. I think there are 24 insect orders and just four of them – flies (diptera), moths and butterflies (lepidoptera), bees, wasps and ants (hymenoptera), and, last but not least, the gargantuan order of beetles (coleoptera alone contains 400,000 species) – include somewhere in the region of 770,000 species and perhaps close to half of all life forms that humans have pinned a name to.

Part of the problem of insects is the sheer size of that taxonomic list. Britain is pretty poor for insects with a modest total of only 24,000+ species. When the animals are this numerous and diverse and taxonomically unstable it means their names and the hypothetical order in which they are arranged change regularly. It also demands that the nomenclature for them is largely based on scientific Latin and Greek. Unfortunately it places one of the planet’s most important classes of life behind a pay wall of near impenetrable complexity. The price you have to fork out is an intense effort to master all the complicated terminology and detail. The result: insects have languished in a place of deep human ignorance and we see them very often as just nasty little bugs that have us reaching for the spray can.

If you are in any doubt about the terror inspired (I say this humorously: in fact, one of the great cultural gifts made by insects is the inspiration they’ve provided for most of the horror genre in world cinema!) by these creatures then look at the extraordinary jaws on the green tiger beetle that I saw the other day in the Goyt Valley. But I also bid you look again at this completely harmless little fellow and see how stunning are its colours. And those are my finger tips: he or she is tiny and anything but scary.

At a time when there are reports suggesting a 80 per cent collapse in entire European populations of insects we really have to change our attitudes and practices towards them. An idea once falsely attributed to Einstein was the notion that if honey bees were to go extinct, humanity would have about four years before its own demise. It is untrue and he never actually said it, but a world without insects is genuinely one that would suffer monumental disruption. And while life would continue, humans almost certainly would not. Insects are at the very heart of the business of plant pollination. They are the great refuse disposal agents of the planet, recycling nutrients to ensure healthy plant communities in all terrestrial environments. Forests probably would cease to function without insects. This class of life is ultimately the foundation of most food chains and without insects almost every creature on Earth would be adversely affected.

So cometh the hour, cometh the man. Paul Brock has possibly done more to change how we see, recognise, grasp, understand, and, therefore, care about insects than any one else in Britain. His original 2014 book A Comprehensive Guide to Insects of Britain and Ireland (Pisces publications) was an instant bestseller and changed the landscape of insect recognition overnight. It was partly the beautiful lay out, the inclusion of pretty accurate distribution maps on the same page as the text, the presence of so many really pin-sharp photos, and partly his coverage of more insect species than any previous single volume. He then did a companion A Photographic Guide to Insects of Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, which widened the geogrphical range of his focus. Now here comes a new improved stab at the whole business.

Britain’s Insects: A Field Guide to the Insects of Great Britain and Ireland by WildGuides (£25, first published on 5 July 2021) is a whopper! It is not perhaps a field guide in the sense that you would carry it around easily in your bag, but you could have it in the car and most all-round naturalists will definitely want it on their shelves. What it does brilliantly in 600 clearly laid out, if busy, pages is to put at your disposal the most comprehensive single text yet produced for British insects, packed with key up-to-the-minute data and with 2,600 superb images of nearly 1500 species.

There are 1-2 innovations and a whole lot that was excellent in the earlier books which Paul has carried over into this new one. One of the most important for me is the inclusion of as many English-language names for species as he possibly can. There’s a famous Spanish-derived adage quoted everywhere by naturalists these days – ‘you cannot love what you do not know’. I would modify it slightly to argue ‘you cannot love what you cannot remember’. English names are pivotal to the dissemination of knowledge and, thus, of real attention and devotion to any branch of natural history. Of course you cannot easily have English names for all 24,000 insects, but you can work on the principle that accessibility is everything. The editors at WildGuides are past masters at this stuff and I could not recommend their collective project more highly.

One detail I must mention before I close and let you go off and pre-order it. I am a passionate devotee of grasshoppers and crickets, partly because, like birds, they up and fly away, making them an enhanced challenge in the field. But they also produce some of the most glorious vocalisations of the British summer. This book has a system of QR codes for every member of the group so you can use your mobile phone to find recordings and thus hear these orthopteran melodies in real time as you are looking and listening to the beast itself. What a great innovation. Congratulations Paul Brock. Congratulations to the team at WildGuides.

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