The things that made us ecologists

Ecologists can be a diverse bunch, from a variety of backgrounds. Some of them were indeed involved in conservation clubs from school age onwards, or keen gardeners at the age of five, or collecting snails in boxes under their bed. Others manifested their interest later, or in different ways. Some discovered an interest much later in their life.

I always liked playing in the garden. I always found living things interesting. As a child growing up in Sheffield we were lucky enough to live close to Ecclesall Woods, a gorgeous ancient woodland, and so I have many fond memories of trampling around there in search of the Woodcutter’s Grave (well, strictly speaking, charcoal burner’s grave), and one particularly memorable guided fungus walk in which I learned that sulphur tufts look pretty but do not taste very nice.

But I’ve come to recognise later that I was also very lucky in the choice of books floating around the house when I was small, and I’ve recently tracked down a few of my childhood favourites. As Simon Leather recently highlighted on his blog, well-written children’s books on biological and ecological topics can get the first sparks of interest lit in the minds of curious young people.

Flower Fairies of the Wayside by Cicely Mary Barker was first published 67 years ago now, so by some people’s standards is rather dated, but it has an enduring charm. The Flower Fairies series featured the poems of fairies associated with different British wildflowers, illustrated with beautiful butterfly-winged fairy paintings. I think poetry can be a really cunning way of sneaking facts into children’s brains – to this day, I remember some of the fairy poems fondly:

Why are we called “black”, sister
when we’ve yellow flowers?

I will show you why, brother:
See these seeds of ours?
Very soon each tiny seed
Will be turning black indeed!
The Black Medick Fairies

And so I learned that black medick was yellowed-flowered, but could be recognised by seeds that turned black as they ripened.

And of course, my favourite:

O, what a great big bee!
Has come to visit me!
He’s come to find my honey!
O, what a great big bee!

O, what a great big clover!
I’ll search it well, all over,
And gather all its honey.
O, what a great big clover!
The Red Clover Fairy

(Leaving out that a bee visiting clover is probably more likely to be female…though in the painting, I could be convinced that the bee depicted is a male B. terrestris…) Perhaps it’s not so surprising I ended up in pollination.

It’s not just the Flower Fairies, though. I also had a wonderful book called How to Hide a Butterfly, by Ruth Heller. It’s another book all in rhyme, this time about how invertebrates camouflage themselves. It featured diverse taxa, including moths, butterflies, praying mantids, stick insects, and hoverflies.

I forgot a lot of the rhymes, but the one that stuck in my head was something along the lines of:

“…the fly has just one pair of wings
While bees, you see, have two…”

…and a memorable snipped like that serves you amazingly well into adulthood. It’s not always easy to see the second set of wings in Hymenoptera, but if you can be certain there isn’t a second pair when looking at a chunky yellow-and-black insect, you know enough to look again before assuming it’s an unfamiliar bee species.

Perhaps more scientists should be encouraged to stretch their creative writing muscles and write appealing children’s books, to get the next generation informed and interested early!