Ed#452 Creatures Great & Small

21 February 2014 Alan Attwood

Ed#452 Creatures Great & Small

As a young and impressionable teenager in the early 1970s I was alarmed by a film called The Hellstrom Chronicle. Nobody then used the term ‘mockumentary’, which, in retrospect, is what it was. No, on our school excursion I watched agog as a scientist called Dr Hellstrom outlined his theory that in an inevitable battle for supremacy between humans and insects, the insects were bound to prevail because of their superior adaptability and reproductive skills. The poster – one I probably walked past, quaking, on my way out – had a creepy close-up of a sinister-looking insect and the concluding words: “in the end, only they will survive”. They meant all the flying and crawling and buzzing things that, until then, like all adolescent boys, I had probably been treating with indifference, contempt and sometimes cruelty. And here was this doctor, in a documentary (so it seemed), assuring me they were going to come out on top. They probably had a list of all their former persecutors, too. I hadn’t been so worried since I’d read the book Chariots of the Gods? and became convinced there were aliens in our midst. As I said, I was young and impressionable.

Since then, I’ve probably over-compensated by (usually) being nice to insects. Well, most of them. (I can’t find too many redeeming features in flies, for example.) But spiders have never bothered me much and I’m happy to leave ants alone so long as they do the same with my sugar and honey. In northern Greece one time, I took time out to study the comings-and-goings of a tribe of ants that seemed to have a city of sorts close to my feet. What else was going on down there, I wondered. No, the idea for this edition (which is historic, as insects have never starred on a Big Issue cover before) was not born way back then. To be honest, I’m not sure where it started. I do recall that when we were checking out the winning pictures from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, some of which we featured in Ed#450, I was astounded by one taken by Isak Pretorius, from South Africa, in the Seychelles. It showed a bird, a seafaring noddy, trapped in a spider’s web. Yes – a bird, not a moth or a fly, stuck in a web. Admittedly, this web was the creation of a red-legged golden orb-web spider. Female spiders, which are much bigger than the males, can grow to the size of a human hand. Their webs are built on a similar scale – sometimes up to 1.5 metres across. They are deliberately positioned high above the ground so as to catch insects and sometimes also passing bats and birds. This noddy, exhausted by a long migratory flight, seems resigned to its fate. It was saved, apparently, by human intervention. But it shows how much ingenuity there is at the less glamorous end of the animal world.

So let’s hear it for bugs. All kinds of bugs. Including creepy crawlies, germs and even the car known as the Beetle. Special thanks go to Ken Walker, guru of insects at Museum Victoria. Here is a man who loves his work. He shared some of his knowledge with me (including the derivation of ‘bug’ to denote a computer glitch) and then took me on a tour of some of the museum’s extraordinary insect collection, housed in a climate-controlled room: rows and rows of cabinets, each with drawers containing an array of creatures with a seemingly infinite array of shapes, colours and sizes. If Dr Hellstrom were a real person (rather than a character played by an actor, as I found out much later) he would have felt right at home.

» Alan Attwood is Editor of The Big Issue.

This article appeared in Ed#452 of The Big Issue magazine.