Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Off Piste - Beetlemania: Feature

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Off Piste - Beetlemania: Feature

Article excerpt

Nicolas Gompel's coleoptera collection, started in adolescence, has inspired his adult scientific quest: investigating the diversity of life itself.

It was a stag beetle that got me started. By European standards, they are pretty large and pretty scary: black and brown beasts a good two inches long, with (if they are males) two huge mandibles up to a third of their body size to make sure you keep your fingers away. Magnificent!

It was the end of the summer of 1987 and I had just turned 15. My family was returning from a few days in the French Alps and had stopped at the house of a friend of my parents for dinner. She had found a pristine dead stag beetle in her garden the week before and, having noticed my interest in wildlife, had saved it for me. I was in awe.

I spent the next several days trying to gather information, identify the animal and look for ways to preserve its dry, brittle form. There was no World Wide Web then, of course, but I found a nice little beginner's guide to entomology at a local bookshop, which answered many of my plethora of questions. I learned how to rehydrate a dry insect, soften it, mount it nicely to museum standards and label it. I also learned how to find many more insects and slowly started my own collection - which soon became specifically a beetle collection.

Collecting is often a pathology. I had collected all sorts of things before: stamps, stickers, matchboxes and fossils. But beetles became a deeper obsession. There were thousands of different ones all around me, and collecting them satisfied the bond I instinctively felt with nature, my love of organisation and my fascination with shapes and colours. So I carried on. I learned the basics of systematics: the science of naming living things based on dividing them into orders, families, genera and species. Long-horned beetles soon became my favourites, and I could name most of the nearly 300 species occurring naturally in France.

I joined several entomological societies, met other insect enthusiasts and developed some very close friendships that are still thriving today. And here I am, 25 years later, with 20,000 beetles that I have either collected myself or obtained from colleagues, including a handful of very rare specimens, nicely organised and labelled in dedicated drawers in my office. And I am still collecting with unflagging enthusiasm, whether it be specimens from my backyard or the more exotic fauna I gather on trips abroad.

So what? Is this just my inability to break out of childish, nerdy collecting habits?

It was only after more than a decade spent collecting beetles that I realised the practice served many different purposes for me. It is, for instance, a kind of diary. Each insect generally carries two labels: one with its scientific name in Latin, and another that indicates where it was collected, when, by whom and often under what conditions.

As an example, let me pick the minuscule dot, glued on a little piece of cardboard labelled "Bryaxis gallicus; Italy, Cuneo, Limone-Piemonte, Boero, 6 July 2011, N. Gompel". For me, this dot represents so much more than this cold information. It stands for that summer day when my friend Jean-Philippe Tamisier and I walked up a mass of fallen rocks in the Alps and reached a mountain ridge towards the end of a beautiful afternoon. We sat there silently contemplating the peaceful landscape for a while; within an hour, we saw an ibex, a mink and a pack of a dozen chamois. Then we started to sieve the soil at the base of an alpine plant known as Saxifraga and found a dozen very remarkable beetle species, including this tiny speck. It summons up all the images and feelings I experienced that day, much in the way a postcard would.

My collection is also a repository of the beauty of nature. The beetles' forms, colours, patterns and textures have as much aesthetic appeal to me as the paintings in a museum do at first sight - except that this is a museum that I visit almost daily and design and curate to my personal liking. …

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