Author and scientist Dr Nick Crumpton's new book, Everything You Know About Minibeasts is Wrong, illustrated by Gavin Scott, gives us a close-up look at bugs and insects.
After growing up on a diet of David Attenborough documentaries, Nick Crumpton studied ecology at Leeds University before writing a PhD in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge. He has worked at the BBC Natural History Unit; the Natural History Museum, London and the Zoological Society, London. When he's not writing for children, he works as a zoological consultant. www.nickcrumpton.com
Gavin Scott was born in Salisbury, England. He grew up in the Dorset countryside where, as a young child, he would often be found covered in mud at the bottom of the garden, holding up a grass snake or some other interesting creature to draw. Gavin studied Natural History Illustration at University and later went on to enter the world of character design and children's illustration. He now lives with his family in Somerset.
Everything You Know About Minibeasts is Wrong (Nosy Crow)
In this spectacular new book by biologist and author Nick Crumpton and illustrator Gavin Scott, we learn how much of what we think we know about minibeasts is wrong! Do bees actually die when they sting you, and do centipedes really have 100 legs?
Nick Crumpton and Gavin Scott tell us more about their research and what we'll discover in Everything You Know About Minibeasts is Wrong!
Download an extract from Everything You Know About Minibeasts is Wrong
Find out more about Everything You Know About Dinosaurs is Wrong
Q&A with Nick Crumpton
1. How did you start writing about nature?
I wrote my first book for children when I was in the middle of writing my PhD in zoology (I guess it was the ultimate procrastination), but by that time I'd already worked as a Science and Nature journalist for the BBC and I'd discovered that talking to children about the natural world was my calling. However, I suppose the earliest writing I composed about nature were my dinosaur comics scribbled back in 1993.
2. Your first book in this series is Everything You Know About Dinosaurs is Wrong; why did you decide to set the facts right about dinosaurs?
When I'd worked as a research palaeobiologist, I'd been stunned by how many myths and misconceptions about dinosaurs were still commonly regurgitated whenever I was talking to people about prehistoric animals. Usually it was adults who were the main offenders - but I realised this wasn't because they weren't interested in dinosaurs (who isn't?), it was that they had been told, and then remembered, old facts.
Science works quickly, and every year facts change and alter - that's what's exciting about science: it's fluid, plastic nature. By myth-busting dinosaurs I got a chance not only to present what palaeontology (and being a palaeontologist) looked like in 2021, but I also got to explore how science works in the 21st century, through the conduit of crazy-looking extinct reptiles.
3. Why did you want to follow this up with a look at insects?
In Everything You Know About Dinosaurs is Wrong I wanted to explore science - how it's a slippery, ever-changing thing but with the second book in the series I wanted to explore the dizzying reality of biodiversity - and how what you might think you might know about one species might be true for that particular kind of animal, but isn't necessarily the reality of what other closely related species act like, or look like.
For instance if someone asks you what bees look like, pretty much everyone would be tempted to say that they are yellow and black and with a sting in the tail. But the truth is there are over four times as many types of bees as there are all species of mammals on Earth (from tigers and monkeys to whales and hedgehogs) and they come in all shapes, sizes and colours (including blue!). Many don't have stings, and not all live in hives or even in communities. And that's just bees!
When it comes down to it, I wish I'd studied invertebrate biology rather than concentrating on things with backbones as the true diversity of life on Earth is overwhelmingly squishy (or covered in an exoskeleton) - and I hope this book helps everyone that reads it look a little closer at our innumerous friends.
4. What are your top three surprising facts about insects?
Firstly, the idea that insects aren't intelligent is wrong - robber flies can predict the future, bumblebees can teach others how to forage food from puzzles and some species of ants even use tools! Also, the fact that woodlice aren't insects, and are more closely related to crabs and lobsters is a doozy. Finally, you have to talk about numbers - it's likely there are about 200 million insects on earth for every single human… I'm still trying to get my head around that one!
5. Can you tell us about Everything You Know About Minibeasts is Wrong?
Insects and their relatives have a ludicrously bad reputation. From being called 'creepy crawlies' to being sources of (unnecessary) fear, they seem to be resented by most humans - even though we have so much to thank them for. They should be looked at with wonder and amazement, not repulsion! So by turning commonly held misconceptions upside down, that's what this book tries to do!
6. There's a lot of information in the book - how have you organised it to help make it clear?
The main setup of the book is the same as for Dinosaurs - each spread tackles a particular common myth and unpicks it. But the invertebrates are a huge group of animals, so we grouped certain animals together - the insects, arthropods... and then towards the end of the book dealt with more global issues, like conservation and entomology in general.
7. How do the illustrations support this?
Although there's a huge amount of information in the book, it's split up into digestible paragraphs surrounding Gavin's extraordinary illustrations. The first time I saw his illustrations for Dinosaurs I couldn't believe how lucky I was to be working with such a talented illustrator, but his work on minibeasts has just blown me away. His anatomical expertise is evident on each page, but he brings such warmth and fun to the animals. Even if a reader isn't quite sure they like arthropods, the illustrations are so welcoming.
8. How much research did the book involve?
A lot! Although I was trained as a zoologist my background is firmly as a researcher of animals with backbones - the vertebrates. So although I was excited to write about the incredible world of invertebrates I had a lot of reading to do. Luckily, I was able to double check my writing with a whole swarm of biologists I've been lucky enough to know and work with, who were able to check that all my research was as up-to-date as possible.
9. Did your research include trying out any insect-based burgers / food?
I've already done that! As a flexitarian I'm a huge fan of entomophagy and consider it a very feasible way of lowering carbon emissions while delivering calories and protein to human populations. All that's necessary is to make it palatable to a bizarrely sniffy Global North that somehow considers pate and mammal muscle acceptable, but not crunchy cricket or mealworms. We'll get there, but it may take some time.
10. How long did you spend researching and writing the book?
About half a year - most of it during the first covid-19 lockdown in between looking after my new-born daughter and catching up on sleep! The weather was incredible that spring and summer, so on our once-a-day exercise walks I'd be sure to take my hand lens and pooter out as well as our baby in her pram so I could get my fix of insect IDing.
11. Which insects emerged as your favourites?
I've always had an inordinate fondness for weevils, and the Madagascan giraffe-necked weevil has to be near the top of my list of favourite insects!
12. What can we all do to help insect life?
It's now thought that over 40% of all insect species are declining, and a third of all insects are endangered. Considering that insects are incredibly important not only as the basis of many animal food chains, about 80% of all plants on earth rely on insect pollination, but that they are also responsible for fertilising a huge proportion of crops humans eat, that's really important for us to take notice of.
There are a few simple things we can do to help insects. Planting wildflowers is a great start, especially bee-friendly flowers. Building simple bug hotels is a great idea too to help insects find a new habitat, as is keeping a pile of deadwood for detritivores to burrow into. If you're lucky enough to have a garden, keep at least a little bit of it messy! The most important thing to do though is the easiest - read about them! It's hard to care about things if you don't know about them. And the more you read about minibeast, the more fascinating they become.
13. Are you planning another 'Everything You Know About...' book?
Yes! The third book in the series is in its final stages of being edited and will be swimming (hint!) off to the printers soon. Fingers crossed there might even be a fourth following that…
Q&A with Gavin Scott
1. How did you get involved in illustration, and what kinds of things do you illustrate?
When I was at school I loved drawing animals. I had a book called Animals of Asia and I used to copy a lot of pictures from it, in fact I still have it. I then went on to study Natural History Illustration at art college and later moved into character design and children's book illustration. When I first started at college I painted super real/photo realistic images, but I found this a little boring after a while. Hopefully my illustrations have more character now :).
2. Why did you want to illustrate the Everything You Know ... books?
Well, mainly because I love drawing animals. It was a dream come true really! It gave me an opportunity to illustrate animals that were realistic but also had an element of fun too. I also love the problem solving aspect of coming up with a layout that really works well, and involves lots of different animals doing their thing. The ‘Everything You Know…' books contain information that isn't that well known, so it's really interesting learning about all the animals- and to realise that what you thought you knew isn't always true!
3. How much research did you need to do for this book into what the insects look like?
Mainly it's just getting really good photographic reference, and making sure Nick (the author) and the other experts were happy that everything is accurate. They were very helpful in providing reference that I couldn't get hold of on my own. When I was drawing wasps for the book a wasp actually flew into my studio and landed on my desk. That was the best bit of reference I've ever had!
4. Do you now have a favourite insect or two?
Panda Ants are a real favourite of mine (although they are actually wasps!) Orchard Mason bees are really beautiful too. My favourite spread to work on was Centipedes Have 100 Legs, although they are quite tricky to draw. The great thing about Minibeasts is that they are absolutely everywhere - you only have to look! Woodlice in your backyard are just as fascinating as anything else.
5. How much preparation / doodles do you need to do before you can start the illustrations?
I normally jump straight in as soon as I have good photographs to work from. Then I refine my work as I go. Sometimes good photographs aren't always possible, so you have to use other similar animals as reference too.
6. How do you create your illustrations?
I mainly use a Wacom drawing tablet that I can draw straight on to, which is connected to my computer. My style is a mix of collage and digital painting and drawing. I also use some interesting textures that I scan in. I use lots of layers to build up my images gradually.
7. At what stage do you decide what the layout of a page will be, and where the illustrations will go on the page?
I usually work alongside a designer (in this case Tina Garcia) who gives me an idea of what will be going on in the spread, and an initial starting point. Then I cut out shapes of all the elements and position them on the pages. If that's all working okay I can start creating a more detailed rough and go from there.
8. What other illustration projects are you working on currently?
It's really exciting because I'm working on the next book in the ‘Everything You Know…' series. I'm also working on some board books for younger readers which makes a nice change from the more detailed non fiction work. It's great to work on different types books, and for different ages. I'm really lucky to be able to work on a variety of projects.