There's no flies on him

10th February 2006 at 00:00
An exhibition opening today gives you a ground-level view of the world of insects. Deedee Cuddihy reports

Monster Creepy Crawlies Royal Museum Chambers Street Edinburgh February 10 to May 28

David Attenborough refused to call them "creepy crawlies" in his latest television series about insects. But folk at the Royal Museum in Edinburgh know that, when it comes to bugs, that's just the kind of language people respond to. And if you can get the word monster into the title of an exhibition, so much the better.

"Monster Creepy Crawlies", then, was off to a head start even before it opened. Whatever they decided to call it, the exhibition, which aims to show us how insects live in the wild, looks set to be a monster success.

Designed to provide a "bug's-eye" view of things, this family-friendly exhibition is based around 11 giant models, some of them magnified up to 400 times. These monster models include a stag beetle, butterfly, ladybird, cricket, scorpion, praying mantis and snail. There is also a giant wasp, spider, fly and ant.

All the monster insects are displayed in their "natural" habitat, going about their daily business. The ladybird, for instance, can be observed chasing white flies up a rose stem. Two stag beetles (already impressively big in real life) lock horns in battle, as do a pair of combative Emperor scorpions. The wood ant (increasingly rare because its habitat is disappearing) is shown moving its head from side to side, and an animated praying mantis is on the look-out for food. Meanwhile, Helix aspersa - the snail - can be seen wriggling its horns contentedly in a strawberry patch.

Displayed alongside each insect are its vital statistics plus bite-size chunks of fascinating - and occasionally repulsive - information. The Wartbiter cricket, for instance, was so named because they were sometimes used "as living corn removers to bite off skin". The common wasp makes paper to build its nest by chewing up tiny pieces of wood with spit.

As well as the giant insect habitats, visitors can explore bug life in a kitchen setting, an artificial pond and a garden shed. As the exhibition points out: "Insect pests infest cereals, food refuse, and natural fibres in clothing or carpets and, given the chance, will help themselves to the dinner from under our noses."

Kitchen drawers and cupboards display household beasties such as termites, booklice and cockroaches. Here, you can learn about the pesticides developed to kill our creepy crawly enemies; and the insects, such as Mulberry moths and bees, that give us silk, honey and wax.

In the garden shed area, discover which insects are the friends or foes of gardeners and farmers and how crops can be protected without damaging the ecosystem.

You can find out about insects that live above and below the water without getting your feet wet. The pond display sheds light on the activities of, among others, dragonflies, diving beetles, pond skaters and waterspiders.

No exhibition about insects would be complete without the real thing. You can see vivarium cases of live ants, ladybirds, beetles, spiders, crickets and scorpions. And there is a video of a praying mantis in the wild, seizing a greenbottle fly. Is the mantis doing us a favour by hunting down the greenbottle?

Considering that flies are said to be "the most dangerous creatures on the earth" because they contaminate our food by "vomiting their digestive juices onto it to make a 'soup' before sucking it up", you'd think the answer would be Yes. But according to this show, flies are also "vital helpers: without them, the earth would be covered in dead plants, animals and lots of other rubbish that flies deal with."

There is an interactive zone, where visitors get a chance to see, smell and sound like an insect. There are books, games and puzzles on a bug theme in the play area; a display of insect photographs and a compilation of B movie clips showing how (badly) insects have been portrayed in film over the past 50 years.

Dr Graham Rotheray, principal curator of entomology at the Royal Museum, says: "Insects, other arthropods and molluscs are often seen in a less-than-positive light, when in fact we couldn't survive on this planet without them. From hoovering up rubbish to pollinating flowers, they carry out thousands of tiny miracles which enrich our daily lives."


An events programme will run for the duration of the exhibition, featuring everything from beeswax candle making to live cockroach handling. For schools that book in advance, entry to the exhibition is free. Two workshops linked to the environmental studies curriculum have been devised especially for schools. Both cost pound;1 per pupil. "Meet Mr. Bug", running in March and May, lets participants come face-to-face with live animals and is suitable for P1 to S2. "Busy Bees", for P1 - P7, runs in April and focuses on real bees in a hive. To book, tel: 0131 247 4041

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