How to fall in love with the wonderful world of creepy crawlies
PUBLISHED: 07:00 29 March 2020
Picture: Ruby O’Grady/John Innes Centre
Take a closer look at the bugs in your back garden, and you might be surprised - and delighted - by what you find, says insect expert Darrell Bean.
Each month, those working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. Read their stories here.
Not many people can boast that they have ants as colleagues, but you can. Why is that?
I’m a facility assistant on the entomology team at the John Innes Centre, which is a plant science research institute. That means I rear and look after the insect colonies here, and advise on any problems that scientists might face when doing research that involves insects.
For instance, we might work with the Barberry Moth Project, which bridges the gap between conservation and protecting crops. The barberry carpet moth is a protected species in the UK – but it’s natural habitat, the barberry shrub, also hosts a fungal disease affecting wheat crops. So we lend our expertise on projects like that.
We have non-native and native insects in our insectary, and because we’re based at Norwich Research Park, we work with the other bioscience institutes here as well as science organisations nationally and internationally. We keep everything ticking along and make sure everything follows the regulations set by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
How did you end up in this job?
My route wasn’t as straightforward as some working in science. After finishing school I didn’t know what I wanted to do; I grew up in a bit of a run-down estate and, although I loved natural sciences,
I didn’t know about opportunities within science – I thought you could only be a scientist or a science teacher. So I bounced around jobs, working in factories, restaurants, things like that. At 25 I finally just wanted to do something I enjoyed.
I took a Natural Sciences access course at City College Norwich, which I loved, and from there I studied Ecology at UEA. This is my first job after graduating last year.
Going back to study was really important for me and now I get to combine my passions for insects and science.
What is it about insects and natural science that you love?
I’ve always liked being outside and exploring. In other countries there are big animals to be wowed by, but there’s so much wonder to find here in the UK on a smaller scale. Even in a bit of woodland there’s so much to see.
Insects are an unknown world for lots of people – for example, lots of hoverflies mimic wasps, which means that many people try to swat them. But they’re actually really important pollinators. I think I’ve saved quite a few from death, just from explaining this! It’s always interesting to see that shift from wanting to kill something to wanting to protect it.
Hoverflies were one of my first entomology passions, it’s what got me really into insects. Now I just look at everything that I walk past – even small patches of nettles, might reveal two or three different species of insects.
It must take you a long time to walk anywhere!
Yes, it does!
What are some of the best things about working at Norwich Research Park?
Everyone’s got their own area of expertise, and they come together to understand how these different things affect the wider ecosystem. One day I’ll be working with leading scientists, and other days I might have someone come and ask me to identify an insect they’ve seen in their garden. You’re constantly learning new things.
When you’re not looking after the insects, how do you spend your spare time?
I set up an insect society with a PhD student from UEA – so there’s a group of us that go out and we all have different interests. There are so many insects out there, so you can’t be an expert in them all. One person might be really good at identifying beetles and I would show them stuff about hoverflies. So it’s an exchange.
We’re sort of an offshoot of the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalist Society; they’ve shared their tips on creating traps that allow us to humanely identify different species.
It’s really important to exchange knowledge between generations, otherwise that expertise gets lost. I want the society to be an open place for people, young and old, to develop their interest in insects. It’s great to interact with nature respectfully, it makes you think about how we impact the environment around us.
Lots of us are academics or scientists but anyone can have an interest in insects, it’s not just for a few people.
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