“In­sects can inspire us. If we could learn from them, we’d have bet­ter in­fra­struc­tures, bet­ter medicines and bet­ter tech­nol­ogy”

Bugs, says Brid­get Ni­cholls, are much mis­un­der­stood. And get­ting us to share her pas­sion for in­sects, she tells Cather­ine But­ler, could just be what saves them

The Simple Things - - LIVING -

‘‘P art stand-up, part sci­en­tist, part pi­rate (no, re­ally), Brid­get Ni­cholls is not your av­er­age nat­u­ral­ist. She is, how­ever, one of that en­vi­able breed, who pulls to­gether the dis­parate strands of their pas­sions to find their true pur­pose in life. For Brid­get, a writer, co­me­dian, en­to­mol­ogy en­thu­si­ast, and de­scen­dant of the ‘pi­rate’ Cap­tain Kidd, that pur­pose is Pes­ti­val, a bian­nual bug fes­ti­val, which she founded as a pas­sion project back in 2006. “In­sects are our ca­naries,” says Brid­get, who spent much of her child­hood on her hands and knees study­ing the way bugs moved, crawled and flew. “They may be frag­ile, but they are also abun­dant, and if they are dy­ing out, when there’s up to 10 quin­til­lian of them, then you’ve got to ask your­self, what’s hap­pen­ing on our planet? Why is it so out of kil­ter that in­sects are suddenly dis­ap­pear­ing?”

In fact, the ex­act statis­tic that first moved Brid­get to ac­tion is that there has been a 45% de­cline in in­sects over the past four decades, with 42% now threat­ened with ex­tinc­tion. “I don’t see my­self as a con­ser­va­tion­ist,” she says. “I see my­self as a sto­ry­teller, and I just had this burn­ing de­sire to tell this re­ally im­por­tant story, about in­sects and how with­out them we wouldn’t be here.” The rea­sons for this mass ex­tinc­tion are of course many, with soil ero­sion, ur­ban­i­sa­tion, pes­ti­cides, and a lack of flower cor­ri­dors, among them. But, through a com­bi­na­tion of sto­ry­telling and sci­en­tific fact, Brid­get and her team at Pes­ti­val are work­ing to give in­sects a re­brand, to undo 400 mil­lion years of bad PR, and to help them sur­vive by mak­ing us fall back in love with them.

BORN CU­RI­OUS

“Ev­ery­one’s born with that nat­u­ral cu­rios­ity and love of na­ture, but gen­er­ally your par­ents stamp it out of you,” says Brid­get, whose own par­ents did quite the op­po­site with their three chil­dren, and in­stead turned their Sus­sex gar­den into an un­of­fi­cial wildlife shel­ter. Her fa­ther built aviaries be­hind their house, and con­verted their green­house into a budgeri­gar sanc­tu­ary, which be­came home to a flock of aban­doned one-eyed, one-footed bud­gies, with a rather comic ten­dency of wob­bling off their perches.

Soon, the Ni­cholls’ house be­came the lo­cal an­i­mal drop-off cen­tre, mainly for birds that would oth­er­wise have been put down, or that had bro­ken wings. From a res­cued ea­gle owl called Olly – who once es­caped only to re­turn when he re­alised he didn’t know how to hunt for his own food – to tawny owls and peacocks, the Ni­cholls’ gar­den was filled with res­cued birds, their house with an­i­mals, and the young Brid­get rev­elled in na­ture and the out­doors.

“In­stead of go­ing to the cinema, we’d all pile into the car and drive to the top of a hill to see an amaz­ing sun­set,” says Brid­get, whose mother in par­tic­u­lar, a self-taught sci­en­tist, en­cour­aged all her chil­dren to em­brace the won­der of the nat­u­ral world – al­though, says Brid­get, not in a hippy kind of way. “I quite liked that I was a bit dif­fer­ent, and ac­tu­ally it can be quite use­ful re­ally, be­cause then peo­ple ex­pect you to come up with some­thing a bit out of kil­ter. If I came home from univer­sity and said I’d de­cided to go to work in a bank, ev­ery­one would prob­a­bly have fainted.”

Once Brid­get fin­ished her de­gree in the­atre stud­ies, she moved to Lon­don to pur­sue a ca­reer in com­edy writ­ing and stand-up. Hav­ing been one of the first young vol­un­teers for The Arun­del Wet­land Cen­tre, she be­came one of the first vol­un­teers at The Lon­don Wet­land Cen­tre, lead­ing bat walks in her spare time, and host­ing her own an­i­mal ra­dio show called Crea­ture Cu­ri­ous on her lo­cal sta­tion.

THE POWER OF STO­RY­TELLING

It was through her ra­dio show, in 2004, that Brid­get was asked to judge an in­sect sci­en­tific film com­pe­ti­tion in the Pyre­nees, and this would change ev­ery­thing. “I was in the vil­lage square, drink­ing co­pi­ous cups of cof­fee, wait­ing for some­thing to hap­pen, when suddenly all the lo­cals came out dressed as in­sects; grannies in but­ter­fly wings, youths on stilts as crane fly. The com­mu­nity were just cel­e­brat­ing their lo­cal in­sects, and I thought to my­self, Lon­don needs one of these. Pes­ti­val was a happy ac­ci­dent; a bit like in­vent­ing peni­cillin.”

Sto­ry­telling and com­edy don’t seem the most ob­vi­ous ap­proach to solv­ing a world­wide en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis but, says Brid­get, who her­self is at once both earnest and witty, it works. “Through hu­mour speaks the truth, and I know how pow­er­ful tragi-com­edy can be. There’s a great scene in

Black­ad­der Goes Forth [set in the First World War trenches], and you’ve spent the whole se­ries fall­ing in love with these id­i­otic non­sen­si­cal char­ac­ters who you don’t ever think will ac­tu­ally go over the top; and then it starts go­ing into slow mo­tion, and you re­alise that they all died. Every­body re­mem­bers that scene, be­cause when you make some­one fall in love with some­thing and then take it away, it has such an im­pact. So that’s what we do at Pes­ti­val, be­cause in the same way, peo­ple don’t re­alise the im­por­tance of in­sects, »

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