Interviews / Wildlife

Interview: George McGavin

George McGavin covered in bees.

George McGavin covered in bees. Because… why not? Photo credit: The Independent

When an expedition team of specialist zoologists, explorers and film makers trekked across the wilderness and jungles of Bhutan within my television screen three years ago, my finger automatically stopped flipping through the channels and I settled down to watch Lost Land of the Tiger. It was a great program, where the explorers each go off on their own missions to try to track down the elusive tigers and find out more about the wildlife in this remote, mountainous region of the world.

However, one member of the team was not fixed on the same resolute mission as the rest, and was literally distracted by every twitch, scuttle and flutter around him: the entomologist, Dr George McGavin. This wee scotsman’s enthusiasm leapt through the screen and I couldn’t help grinning and getting excited with him as he found beautiful specimens of moon moths, fireflies and dung beetles. I immediately looked him up, and found that he had studied Zoology at the University of Edinburgh… At this stage, I had just submitted my UCAS application to study Zoology at Edinburgh and was thrilled to discover that, if I got in, I might be following in his tracks.

I eagerly found his email address and sent him a gushing email asking if he would come and give a talk at my school. To my delight, I received a reply the next day, but he explained that he was a bit too busy and lived too far away to come and give a talk, much as he would love to. Ah, well.

However, a few years later I decided to try again and this time set up an interview to ask him all the questions that a young biologist such as myself, or anyone interested in the life of a wildlife documentary presenter who began at our university, might ask.

A little disclaimer… Every answer he gave made me profoundly jealous of the creatures he has met, the encounters he’s had and the life he’s living.

But it all began in this very university, George explained, “it was my second year at Edinburgh when we went on a field course to the West of Scotland that I realised for the first time how important insects are. On this course, which was a week, everybody was looking for eagles and badgers and owls and stuff and not finding them, but at our feet in the forest were just millions of ants running about and doing stuff. And insects, you know, are essential to ecosystem function, they have a much larger effect on us as a group of animals than everything else added up, we would be absolutely stuffed- big time- without insects.”

Insects are fascinating, and judging by the experiences he described, any biologist is missing a trick if they don’t pay serious attention to them. George had me guffawing loudly at his first story, of when he was sent down into a cave in Texas, hanging off a rope to observe ten million free-tailed bats as they leave for their night endeavours. “I got into position at the entrance of the cave on a rope about half an hour before they were all due to fly out. And they fly out over a period of an hour and a half and they fly around the cave first, do a few laps in a big circle before they fly off. So I’m hanging on a rope and these ten million bats start flying around me and they were all pissing in my face! It was really unpleasant, I was hanging on this rope going “Oh Jesus, agh!” The air was just full of bat pee.”

And that’s not the worst of it, for an intrepid insect explorer. “I had a driver ant experience in South Africa. I was driving around collecting samples with a group of Africans who were looking at me in a very puzzled way, and I wasn’t quite sure why, but it turns out that I was standing, more or less, in a driver ant column, trying to pick up an interesting bug off this plant and totally focussed on it, and suddenly I get this unpleasant tickling sensation as the driver ants swarm up the inside of my trouser leg. Interesting observation: they did not attack me until they got to the top. So they basically got to about here then eurgh! I had to take my clothes off! I had to strip off in the bush, pants off and everything and the Africans were pissing about laughing “Oh, this is very funny.” “Why didn’t you tell me?” “Oh well, we thought you knew what you were doing.”

Speaking of, George has a bit of a weakness for the culinary uses of his precious insects, and taught Heston Blumenthal how to cook insects, and claims the famous chef complemented his bug bread. “In hot countries, from Mexico to Japan to South Africa, where insects are large and small, it makes sense, so it has evolved socially in those areas. That’s where you’ll find insect eating. Eating insects per se, is a very good idea because they’re very high in carbohydrates, and proteins, high in fat, low in fibre, in fact if you ask an African man what the ideal diet for a human being would be he’d say “Termites and honey”. And that is probably about right. We certainly evolved with our ancestors eating a lot of insects.” He went on to explain that I should start off by frying crickets, or roast some mealworms with Bombay mix, and offer them to my friends. I laughed, and explained that if I left that in the interview I’d probably never have to entertain again. We’ll see.

But it’s not all good news and fried treats, as George seriously explained the anxiety he feels over the plight of the bees. With all the pesticides and chemicals being used on all our crops to make them a certain colour, size and texture, our fundamental pollinators are in serious trouble. “I’m absolutely convinced that the billions and billions of pesticides, a huge per cent of which do not reach the target organism at all and are a waste of the environment, will kill off (if we don’t do something about it very quickly) bees and we will lose a humungously long list of crops and flowers and fruits that we eat and will no longer have.”

There are many avenues for those of us interested in the environment to choose to go down, but after speaking to George it is apparent that whichever one I choose, I’ll never be able to stay away from insects. They make up the majority of the world’s biomass and are crucial to many of the processes we take for granted, as well as having a fascinating and barely explored biology.

Originally published in the Student, March 2013.

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