“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
‘‘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.
“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, »