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Opinion_

Dear Mum

10 May 2017
An open letter from an entomologist

This Mother’s Day, Dr Eliza Middleton from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences shares her personal reflections on her professional realm, and thanks her mum for being human in a world of less-than maternal invertebrates.

Dr Eliza Middleton

Entomologist, Dr Eliza Middleton shares a vote of thanks to her Mum.

Dear Mum,

I’d like to say thanks this Mother’s Day. Thanks for raising me into adulthood. I was nurtured, educated, given the freedom to be myself. I’ve ended up an entomologist, probably not the career choice you had in mind as I grew up, but surely you saw me sifting through the leaf litter as a kid, finding all different kinds of critters and being thoroughly fascinated by their morphology and behaviour. I’m sure it came as no surprise that I turned this into a career. But looking at the insects I devote my research to, I realise that maybe I should give you a bigger vote of thanks. Not once was I in danger of infanticide, or betrayal, nor did I have to sacrifice you for me and my sisters’ survival.

A giant water bug diving

Giant water bug

Growing up in a small town, you didn’t have to hobble the knees of other kids to ensure my success, unlike the female giant water bug (Lethocerus deyrollei). When she finds a male guarding his brood, she destroys all the eggs to ensure he will only raise hers. Gruesome. I know you would have sacrificed anything for me to succeed, but at least you didn’t have to do that.

An earwig with her eggs and nymphs in a nest

An earwig with her eggs and nymphs. Photo: Tom Oates, 2010

 

Speaking of sacrifices, I know you gave up a lot to raise my sisters and I. You ensured we had enough food, good clothes, a safe, warm place, and we were never want for anything. I definitely do not wish to take that for granted, but it also makes me glad that you never had to make the ultimate sacrifice; your life for mine. Hump earwig (Anechura harmandi) mothers dutifully tend their young until they reach an age where the best chance at their survival is for her to sacrifice her life; the babies eat her. I can’t imagine growing up without you and I’m glad I haven’t had to.

Two giant burrowing cockroaches crawling over Eliza's hands

Two of Eliza's giant burrowing cockroaches in residence at the Insect Behaviour and Ecology Lab in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences.

I imagine that you would have wanted me to stay at home longer. I say I wouldn’t want to have grown up without you, yet I know in my late teens I was desperate to leave home. I smiled when I learnt about giant burrowing cockroaches (Macropanesthia rhinoceros). The family lives together in their burrow for a surprisingly long time, given that most young insects are out on their own as soon as possible! It’s sweet to see these cockroaches in their permanent burrows, a ‘little’ family of around 30 babies, and I can just imagine how much you wanted me to stay just a little bit longer before I ventured out into the world.

A female spiny leaf insect on Eliza's hand

Eliza handles a female spiny leaf insect from the Insect Behaviour and Ecology Lab.

Thirty babies seems quite a lot, but that’s pretty standard for insects. They have large clutch sizes to ensure some of the babies survive to adulthood. I remember thinking three girls was a lot for you to have. Kind of interesting that my sisters and I have turned out so differently. If a female spiny leaf insect (Extatosoma tiaratum) can’t find a male, she simply clones herself so all her babies, all her daughters, are identical!

Thank you, Mum. I never could have become an entomologist without your encouragement. Considering that insects make up the majority of animal species on the planet - a conservative estimate sits at around 85%, I think I have a long career ahead of learning new and interesting things about insects, and not just about their parenting behaviours.

Love,
Eliza

Follow Dr Eliza Middleton on Twitter

Postdoctoral researcher interested in resilience in social insects and broader human parallels, collective behaviour, and ecology.

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