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A Landscape of Insects (Duncan MacFadyen)

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Moira de Swardt
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Location: The City of Gold

A Landscape of Insects (Duncan MacFadyen)

Unread post by Moira de Swardt » Sat Jan 02, 2010 8:57 am

A look at some of nature's invertebrate gems of the Diamond Route.

I had been naughty. I was sitting on the floor of Mother Superior's office, legs outstretched. Moving towards me was a "gogga". I advised Mother Superior of this fact. "Good, I hope it eats you" was the response. I have ever since feared insects and other invertebrates.

The Oppenheimers (the diamond people) have contributed much to South Africa over the years, but it is for their dedication to the conservation of invertebrates for which most nature lovers will remember them. I had the privilege of attending the art exhibition at Little Brenthurst entitled "South African Invertebrate Exhibition 2008" and in the process discovering a fascinating world of insects and, on the evening I attended, spiders.

This book by Duncan MacFadyen with photographs by Shem Compion is a record of those insects which can be found in and around the diamond fields of Kimberley, the Kalahari, the Namaqualand, the Limpopo Basin, the Bankenveld Grasslands, the East Coast of Kwazulu Natal and the urban indigenous garden of Strilli Oppenheimer at Little Brenthurst. All these properties are owned by De Beers or by the Oppenheimers and are known as "The Diamond Route".

The format of the book is coffee table style rather than field guide. Indeed the book is too heavy and too big to make it easy to hold while reading and the best way of perusing it is on a table. The photographs by Shem Compion are gorgeous, many of them exquisite art pieces in themselves. Compion is a naturalist and a professional nature photographer who has been widely published, and his work is often featured in calendars and other non-technical publications, as well as in more academic publications such as the one under review.

Duncan MacFadyen holds a Masters degree in nature conservation as well as one in entomology and he is currently working on a doctorate on small mammals of the Bankenveld Grasslands. The information he gives on the various species is wonderfully entertaining and sufficiently simple for lay people to access. I have selected his writing on Meloidae (blister beetles) to illustrate this, partly because they happen to have been featured on a recent night drive I undertook in the Kruger National Park.

"Blister beetles can cause severe blistering when the substance they secrete, cantharadin, comes into contact with human skin, hence the common name of the family. Certain species are diurnal, while others are nocturnal. It is a common experience on a night drive in a game park to swat at something crawling on one's skin and find a blister there the next day.

This blistering substance is secreted from the leg joints when the beetles are threatened or in distress. Blister beetles of the genus Mylabris are very common throughout Africa and are of considerable interest because they do a lot of good at one stage of their career and may cause damage at another. The chemical is erroneously believed to be an aphrodisiac (Spanish fly). In fact cantharadin is extremely poisonous, causing blisters and possible damage to the bladder and kidneys or even death. Mylabris beetles contain large amounts of cantharadin, and there is reason to believe that some traditional doctors in Africa have used these beetles as poison."

A fascinating book for dipping into and browsing, it is also useful as a reference book, being properly indexed and referenced. A glossary makes it a lot easier for lay people to use than would otherwise have been the case.

This book goes a long way towards undoing the perception reinforced by Mother Superior of "goggas" as being horrible creepy crawlies and towards acknowledging invertebrates as being "gems" of the African conservation heritage. As Strilli Oppenheimer says: "This book is a huge step in creating the necessary awareness and improving the reader's knowledge about these wonderful creatures."

Title: A Landscape of Insects
Sub-title: And Other Invertebrates
Author: Duncan Neil MacFadyen
Photographer: Shem Compion
Publishers: Jacana
Year: 2009
ISBN: 978-1-77009-767-4
I don't get to the Parks nearly often enough, despite two trips to the KNP and one to Golden Gate this year.

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