The book started life as a set of fun tips for rebugging which I wrote on my phone on a long train journey somewhere when I’d just seen new evidence showing bug losses worldwide. My to do list got longer, deeper and more political. We can’t just tweak. And I could not help myself. Somehow, as is often the way with words, it developed into a bigger idea which the publisher Chelsea Green seemed to like.
Who do you think is your typical reader, if such a person exists? Who would you love to read your book?
I think it would suit anyone from 16 to 100 as I’ve written it with lay readers in mind so it’s not too technical…. but they are likely to find out things they do not know – from extraordinary bug lives to how companies lobby against good pesticide policies. Its full of tips and tales too.
Who taught you to how to look for (and find!) tiny creatures, and when? Have you always been fascinated by wildlife?
I have always had the bug bug so to speak and was interested in wild things.. I used to collect ants when I was little. but a particular 6th form biology teacher was both inspiring and also helpful as she found me a summer job in a bee research lab – which probably cemented by bug love. You’d be hard pressed to not love bees if you spend time with them.
The COVID-19 situation has affected us all in different ways. How did you manage during the lockdowns?
I have medical conditions which meant I had to stay at home for a year (though I sneaked out on my bike a couple of times) but finishing the book, some big work commitments (I was campaigning on new farm legislation) helped to distract me. What really saved me though was my tiny garden which is messy and full of bugs.
Access to outdoor space is so important for people’s mental health, and lockdown really brought that home to so many of us. Would you encourage people to try to get outside more?
It is such a great healer in so many ways so yes. We know, from peer reviewed evidence, that people feel better and heal faster around trees and green spaces. What better excuse do you need to get rebugging outside and in your community – working to make local green bits more bug and human friendly?
Virtual socialising in lockdown has been invaluable. Now that we’re allowed to meet up in person again, who would be on your fantasy garden party list and why?
What a fabulous question. It would include the greats like David Attenborough and the whole BBC Springwatch team, but also Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell at the Knepp Rewilded estate as they’ve such great bug experience, and I’d invite great farmers helping bugs that I know, and I’d try to find some insect conservation volunteers such as those at BugLife or Back From the Brink to tell their stories. Also Merlin Sheldrake (author of Entagled Life) who is so compelling on the role of fungi – and how it’s existence is so intertwined with bugs as well as us! And Caroline Lucas MP who would, in a very nice way, ensure we did not forget to get political, with a small p!
You are the head of Farming at Sustain UK. How engaged are the farmers you deal with, and what are they doing to help reverse the decline in insect life?
They are the most interested I’ve seen in 30 years. So many farmers now see the role of invertebrates and why zapping them out of existence on the farm is not such a great idea. Having more diverse crops, keeping stock on mixed pasture, cutting out the chemicals and keeping messy bits and habitats across the farm are all being done by many more farmers now. But they can only do things better if they get the right support from us, the government and the market.
There is an organic farm not far from us in Wiltshire which plants colourful wildflowers along the edges of its fields. How helpful is this kind of action, other than making the countryside much more beautiful?
That’s beauty with a purpose. Those wildflower strips can provide, shelter, food, mating places and nest places, for so many beneficial insects such as moths, bees and other pollinators but also pest predators like tiny wasps that lay eggs in pesky aphids and beetles that eat slugs. The strips can also help soils around the edges, keeping it from eroding in heavy rain.
The decline in insect life is a huge issue, and can feel incredibly daunting to most of us. What can we all do as individuals to help out?
It is daunting, like climate change, but we all can do something as I explain in my book, from quick actions – like buying food that helps bugs, or reusing clothes and not mowing to lawn so much.. to bigger ones getting you involved in rebugging local green places or local politics to save a green space or make it better. If you are in an institution like a school, or workplace you can talk to people there about how you can rebug the space around – even if its concrete you can have flowers and bushes in pots which could provide an essential rest place or food source for a passing butterfly.
Do you have your own beehives at home? Would you recommend anyone taking up beekeeping?
I went to a bee keeping talk and realised my space is a too small and hives ideally are in elevated areas - I have no access to the roof. I think beekeeping is great and if you have a big garden, the time and willingness to learn about doing it really well (avoiding diseases etc), then give it a go. But the rest of us can do so much too; create bee hotels; grow bee friendly plants in the garden, window ledge and community; and you can encourage bee keepers by buying local honey and organic foods as that reduces the chemical load out there for the bees.
How should we change our shopping and eating habits to benefit insect life? Is there something individual consumers can do to make a difference?
There are so many ways to help bugs through what you buy. In my book I go through issues around food (such as buying organic, local and fresh where possible, avoiding junk and overprocessed foods are not good for anyone, and eating less and better meat as rainforests are cleared to grow feeds for factory farms), what you wear as non-organic cotton is one of the most harmful forms of farming involving huge pesticide spraying and loss of water and biodiversity. Avoiding artificial fibres too is good as these create huge levels of micro-plastic pollution in rivers and oceans. Basically, the most sustainable item of clothing or furniture you have is probably the one you are using right now! Buy less and recycled if you can, of everything, from furniture to gold, so we put less pressure on the land.
If you were teaching children how to look for insects, how would you begin, and where would you send them?
The wonderful thing about insects and other invertebrates is that you don’t have to go far to find some- even on a grass road verge. I always say is one of the best ways is to go somewhere with a bit of green plants and stay still. Lie down even. And they will come. Keep your eyes and ears open and stay quiet. Digging and lifting up bricks and stones is also fun as the worms, ants, spiders, centipedes and springtails will emerge for a brief hello. Rewilding is often talked about in terms of large spaces, wild areas in the countryside or in mountains with large mammals. Rebugging is right on your doorstep.
What’s the most unusual insect or invertebrate you’ve ever found, and what would you absolutely love to discover?
Every time I see a new bug I’ve not encountered before it’s a thrill– I saw a lovely young bush cricket a few weeks ago that was a joy and stayed still enough for me to take a fantastic photo on my smart phone. I remember my first cockchafer (or maybug) like it was yesterday and yet it happened in the late 1980s! But getting a Hummingbird Hawk Moth in my garden recently was unbelievably exciting – they are gorgeous, large moths with long tongues to suck nectar and hum as their wingbeat is so fast. I would love to discover a new species – it would not matter what type.
Do you think social media is useful in informing the public about issues such as the decline in wildlife and habitat?
Social media provides a huge tool to reach new audiences with news not only of the decline but how you can get involving in helping restore habitats and help wildlife. Getting involved in citizen science projects such as butterfly week or bee watch is fabulous and easily done through digital tools …and you can also lobby your politicians via email and social media– something that really matters to get big changes we need to laws and policies that can harm bugs. And the sheer number of great photos on Instagram or twitter can’t fail to excite more people too.
What would your perfect day look like, and what’s the first place you want to visit once we can travel freely again?
My perfect day is exploring, ideally in sunny weather, a wildlife filled place such as a wildlife reserve, with no real objective or destination to reach so I can dither about and stay still for ages, looking and listening for bugs up and down the plant canopy. This also requires good snacks and water supply and a well charged phone to take pics. I do want to go to the Cairngorms in Scotland and see the wood ants, but I did manage to go to a great place recently – the Mens Wildlife reserve in Sussex which mixed woodland and meadows – magical. But I can also spend the whole day in my tiny garden discovering things.
Do you have a favourite genre or author? What books or authors would you say were significant influences on you?
I’m an eclectic reader but would always recommend Barbara Kingsolver as she writes fabulous novels with great plots usually focussed brilliantly on nature in some way – Flight Behaviour being my favourite. The recent slew of great non-fiction nature narrative books are fantastic and so many to read now - such as Dancing with Bees by Brigit Strawbridge Howard, Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake, and Wilding by Isabella Tree.
What are you reading at the moment? I’ve just started Bringing Back the Beaver by Derek Gow – about getting a keystone species the wonderful beaver back into the UK – just like the worm and the wood ant – keystone bugs that have such a huge and important impact on their ecosystem.
What was your favourite book as a child?
I did love the Mrs Pepperpot books but, inevitably, adored the Beatrix Potter little books which may have also drawn me into a life obsessed with nature!
Thank you very much for speaking to us, we wish you every success with the book.
Rebugging the Planet is published on 16 Sept 2021, and can be pre-ordered HERE