Creepy crawly alert: Norfolk ‘insect wrangler’ puts bug collection on show in new David Attenborough series
TV antennae will be twitching as a new programme which aired last night featured Norwich 'insect wrangler' Martin French's incredible collection of creepy-crawlies in magnificent 3D.
In Micro Monsters, a new six-part series on Sky 3D (and in 2D on Sky1), Sir David Attenborough will reveal the secret lives of bugs using pioneering macroscopic techniques to explore a world normally hidden from the human eye.
From armies of killer ants to spiders weaving silken trap doors, ferocious scorpions with paralysing stings to beetles shooting boiling chemicals at their enemies, each episode will explore a different aspect of the lives of insects.
Half the insects featured in the new programme belong to Mr French, who not only created many of the naturalistic sets used in the show but also helped to 'stage manage' the insects thanks to his extensive knowledge of insect behaviour.
One challenge he recalls was persuading an emerald wasp to sting an American cockroach in a six-inch square area, a process which sees the cockroach become a 'zombified' host to a parasitic wasp which then feasts on its victim before emerging as a young adult.
'You have to work with the insects and understand their behaviour in order to get them to behave in certain ways,' said Mr French, who runs a letting agency in Norwich and is a chartered accountant.
'In a studio with hot lights, lots of noise and people, it's not easy. It took 10 hours to film the wasp and the cockroach and when it finally happened, exhilaration doesn't even come close to how I felt!
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'Filming insects, like all animals, takes time and patience. You have to do your best to create the right conditions but even then they'll only 'perform' in their own time.'
Mr French was encouraged to take up a hobby by wife Lorraine and his initial insect house, a 6ft by 4ft shed, was swiftly replaced by a larger shed, supplemented by garage space.
'My first purchase was six praying mantis nymphs. I watched them shed their skins over-and-over and grow from 1cm babies to beautiful creatures with wings and that was it: the interest was sparked,' he said.
'Within six months I had 30 to 40 different species of praying mantis and had started swapping them with other enthusiasts. I then started to sell them, which gave me the money to buy different species and it's snowballed from there.'
From his website, www.bugz.com, Mr French sells exotic insects and offers advice to enthusiasts. He was contacted by a member of the Sky team to offer his expertise and eventually spent weeks filming, culminating in meeting Sir David Attenborough, who narrates the show.
'For a natural history enthusiast, to work with Sir David was the most incredible thing ever,' said Mr French, who is assisted in his insect house once a week by Simon Pagani.
'I spoke to him for hours and you end up forgetting that you're speaking to an icon and concentrating on the fact that you're talking to a fellow enthusiast.
'For me, insect wrangling is a dream job: working with state-of-the-art cameras filming the stuff I'm most interested in and observing the behaviour of insects in a whole new way – it was perfect.'
Mr French's insects – more than 550 different species – are housed in a 60ft shed in his back garden.
Like an insect library, the shed is packed with aerated containers full of all manner of creatures, the air thick with the smell of their favourite food, bananas.
In the corners of the shed, an arachnophobe's worst nightmare: huge spiders hang in their webs, a few of the 150 different varieties of spider kept by Mr French which include tarantulas of all colours and sizes.
'I walked into the shed carrying four boxes the other day and straight into a huge web – it was quite elastic, but my face was covered in it and I was eye-to-eye with the spider!' he laughed.
'Insects aren't like cats or dogs, they don't give you cuddles, the most you can hope for is that they'll sit on your hand, but what you do get is wonderful interactions with beautiful creatures who will never cease to amaze you.'
Since filming with Sky, Mr French has been asked by Sir David to assist on another programme for the BBC. Currently under wraps, the sequel to a previous natural history show is due to air in November.
Sir David said: 'Every damn drama you see is with people on TV, and you know what the conflicts are, what the stories are, what the limitations are. And that's what's so exciting about making a film about insects: all the stories and motivations are so bizarre and unpredictable.'
Micro Monsters 3D is next on Sky2 tonight at 6pm.