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Dr George McGavin, author and tv presenter, talks to Rachel McLeod

Published short version

 

 

Dr George McGavin and Rachel McLeod

 

This interview was 5000 words long but I only had 2000 words to write it in.  I selected out of the full interview what I thought most people would find interesting.  I wanted people reading to engage fully in entomology, then make it their career. 

 

If you take out all of the short sentences that donít really have much in them, to make things shorter, it changes the way people speak and it doesnít sound like them if you read it to yourself. Even if in your mind you say it in their voice, it still doesnít sound like them.  Look at my website, www.rachelmcleod.com/interviews and look at the full transcript of this interview.  You can also listen to it.

 

I chose to interview George McGavin because he was the Head Curator of the Natural History Museum in Oxford .  He also wrote the most amazing, wonderful book about insects, Essential Entomology.

 

If you were to keep only one insect, which would it be and why?

I do like eating them of course, as you may know, so I do rear them and I do fry them up sometimes which is very nice. the Black African Cricket, which sings, and are very good fried in a wok.

Whatís your favourite place to do field collecting and why?

Well itís got to be a rainforest - most animal species in the world live in rainforest.  Youíve got around 6% of the land surface area is rainforest and thatís where probably 60% of everything lives. 

Whatís your favourite place in the UK ?

Well again, it has to be wild, it has to be unspoilt. it would have to be forest, an ancient forest,  and one of my favourite woodlands is actually Windsor Great Park in Berkshire which is not that old.

Tree in Windsor Great Park

 

What was your favourite trip?

Well, letís go through them.  Himalayas, Belize, Venezuela, Guyana, three times to Africa, Papua New Guinea twice, Borneo, Indonesia.   I think the Guyana trip where we filmed last year. We spent six weeks in Guyana .  Thatís a very interesting country because its 80% unspoilt.   

What do you think is the best way to get people involved in entomology?

I think the best way to get them involved is to show them. And to start young. Lots of kids find insects and things really interesting and they lose this as they get older.

Why is entomology important to you?

Iíve written books and Iíve travelled and Iíve done lots of interesting things, and itís still my passion, And it is quite amazing, sometimes I have to pinch myself because somebody is actually paying me to go around the world and look at bugs! 

What does my generation need to do in terms of entomology?

What you need to do, what we all need to do is to conserve habitats. That is the key. When I was born in 1954, there were 2.6 billion of us and there are now over six billion, so thatís more than a factor of two in 55 years. Rainforest. Less than 6% of the total land surface area. If we just conserve that, if the world says, ĎThis is important. Letís conserve just 6% of the land surface areaí, by doing that we save the majority of species on Earth.

 

What skills do people need if they are going to become an entomologist?

Observation. Look and learn. Thatís the key. And in fact if people looked and learned about spiders and insects more, they would eventually come to enjoy them. So look, learn and love.

What is the most expensive piece of equipment you have bought for a trip and why?

I had to buy a very good camera.Thatís actually one of the ways that you can interest people in insects, is by taking really fantastically good shots of them, and because some of the most interesting ones are quite small, you need a good bit of kit. And the other piece of equipment that everybody should have, is a microscope, and the best one that you can buy, because thatís an instrument that you will use every day, or every other day.

Are you scared of any arthropods?

No. On expeditions, and this is absolutely true, the biggest cause of accidents and death are cars and driving. And the only animal Iím scared of abroad isÖ Have a guess? Humans. Human beings are the only really dangerous, nasty bit of work. Having said that, of course, on all my trips, I meet lots of people who are absolutely wonderful, very helpful, very kind, very generous. But as a general rule the only time Iíve been scared is when human beings have other ideas about what youíre doing there and why youíre there. Poachers, for instance, in Africa . We had to hide for about three hours in the field because there were armed poachers who were hunting game, and if theyíd seen us, rather than be caught or whatever, they could even have shot us, so we had to just keep still. Thatís a case where you donít go, ĎExcuse me, now you shouldnít be doing this, shooting game. Did you know this is a wildlife reserve.í So you just hide, basically. Or have an even bigger gun.

What is the most embarrassing thing that has happened to you?

Yes, I can tell you this. We were in East Africa, in Tanzania , and I was picking a bug off a flower head, and I didnít realise I was standing right in a column of driver ants. Now the interesting thing about driver ants is that they will swarm up the inside of your trouser leg, but they will not bite you until they get to the top, which as you know is quite a sensitive area, at the top of your legs there. So I was standing there, and then suddenly was aware of these ants swarming up the inside of my trousers, and then suddenly they all went bite, bite, bite. And of course all the African guys who had been standing back said, ĎWe did not know if we should tell you about the ants. We thought you could see them.í And I had to take my trousers and my pants off, and I was standing in the field starkers, picking off these ants, because theyíve got very big jaws, as you know, and they can go right through your skin, and they did. So I had to pick about 50 ants off my Ďintimate regionsí. It was pretty embarrassing. The African guys thought it was pretty funny. They didnít offer to help. So that was pretty embarrassing.

Army ant

What is your favourite thing to do about your job?

Go places. Travel in the field. The fact that I now get to go on these expeditions and they pay me to go. They say, ĎGeorge, where are we going to go? Somewhere really hot and nice, with loads of bugs. Letís go there. Hereís some cash. Donít worry about anything. Hereís your flight, hereís your accommodation. New boots you want? Fine, there you are, have new boots.í Itís great.

How do you become an entomologist in your sort of job?

Very briefly, how it happened was that at school I loved biology. I was always interested in animals and plants, so after having come top in biology for ever at school, it was the obvious thing to do a degree in zoology at Edinburgh . And in my second year in zoology at Edinburgh I discovered insects. I mean, Iíd always realised they were there, but everybody was hunting for owls and badgers and stuff, and having a hell of a time finding them, because theyíre rare. And yet at my feet there were lots of ants running about doing interesting things, and I thought, you know, why hunt for things that are hard to find when there are these things all over the place? After that I went on to do a PhD in entomology at Imperial College , and then I did five years at Imperial College in research, and then I came here [Oxford Universities Museum of Natural History]. And then, like, ĎWow! Youíre in charge of the biggest insect collection outside the Natural History Museum. Yay!í

How difficult is it to become an entomologist?

At your age, itís not difficult to become anything. What you have to have is passion. Ok, it may change, it may change into something else, but when theyíve got the passion youíve got to feed it. Itís like a small flame, youíve got to put fuel on it and youíve got to blow it and fan it, otherwise itíll eventually go out.

What do you think would happen to insect populations if we suddenly disappeared off the surface of the earth?

Oh, they would go Ďwheeeeeí. Insects would do great. As we all know, the world would do very, very well without humans. It would be fantastic. It would be a riotous hotbed of biology and insects and animals all doing fantastic things. So when we become extinct or leave for elsewhere, one thing you can be sure of is that insects will still be around. Insects have been around for 400 million years on land, and we have only been around for less than a million. So basically, they will see us off without any trouble at all, whatever we do. Which is a nice thought, isnít it?

What have you contributed yourself to entomology?

Iíve found a few species here and there, and Iíve done some articles in the press and Iíve written some text books, and books for kids. Basically, what I think is the most valuable thing Iíve done is to make other people interested. Iíve taught here for 25 years, and lots of people Iíve taught are now entomologists and ecologists, and doing behaviour and genetics of insects and other things, and thatís exciting. So if I in any way opened their eyes to the wonderful world of bugs, then I think that is what I leave behind.

 

What are the biggest challenges facing entomology today?

 

Theyíre the same challenges facing us all. The fact that there is a general habitat loss. Animals and plants are going, habitats are going. Because we have to find out about [insects], because a sixth of our crops are eaten by bugs, and one person in six is affected by an insect-borne disease. So we still have to find out lots and lots about them.

 

What is the most important question I could have asked you?

Thereís no stone which has been unturned here, Youíve been through just about everything, I think. But I think the key point about all this is the bit I said earlier: if you have a passion, follow it. Youíre very young. This isnít a rehearsal, though. We donít come back again. Iím afraid youíre only on this Earth once. So enjoy it while you can. Have fun. And whatever you want to do, if you have a passion for it, youíre going to do it.

 

Special thanks to George McGavin for allowing me to interview him.  You can look at Georgeís website on http://www.georgemcgavin.co.uk to look at what heís done as an entomologist.  For more information on the Oxford University Natural History Museum see http://www.oum.ox.ac.uk/.