Help Save Bees With The Big Bee Bonanza!

I wrote this post for the ‘Crunchy on the outside’ blog from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. It’s a Zooniverse citizen science project that might be of interest to anyone running a school science club from KS2 upwards.

Measure beautiful bees from around the world to help biologists understand why bee species are declining. The Big Bee Bonanza is a new citizen …

Help Save Bees With The Big Bee Bonanza!

Your questions answered: ‘Which is the most successful species of ant?’

All about ants! I wrote this for the Crunchy on the outside blog in response to a question we received that really made us think about ants and what ‘success’ means in terms of a species.

Noah contacted us recently with an intriguing question: ‘What is the most successful species of ant?’. It really got us thinking! Insects are a very …

Your questions answered: ‘Which is the most successful species of ant?’

Turn Your Phone into a Microscope

In case you need a microscope but only have… some honey!

Wrote this for, initially so kids could take part in a fruit fly survey even if they didn’t have a hand lens or microscope. I produced two versions of the video, the more sedate version included in the blog post and this 45s one intended for social media platforms with a faster pace. Let me know what you think.

45s portrait version of video

What if you need to look at something really small but you don’t have a microscope? You can can try taking a close-up picture with a smartphone or …

Turn Your Phone into a Microscope

Supporting Learning: a sci-fi / fantasy writing pack

Who writes the future? is a creative writing resource for schools from the Bodleian Libraries. Based on materials and activities used in a Summer School writing course, I developed this pack into a workshop for visiting schools. Drawing on lessons learned from these workshops, the pack is now available for free download from the Bodleian’s Resources for Teachers webpage.

Image from the  Bodleian’s Resources for Teachers webpage
Link to the resource from the Bodleian’s Resources for Teachers webpage


The original course was the brainchild of researcher Jacob Ward and a project in public engagement with research. A group of fifteen young people explored speculative writing from the past and learned about current research in computing at the University of Oxford before developing their own stories under the guidance of author Jasmine Richards. They also worked with illustrator Nurbanu Asena who developed a striking image to accompany each story. Their work was published in an anthology, a PDF version of which is included in the pack. My role was to plan, facilitate and evaluate the project.

Developing a writing resource

The summer school achieved all its original aims successfully, but we wanted to ensure that the format and resources we had produced would help young writers beyond the original group. We first developed a workshop in which visiting school groups developed one aspect of the original five-day course. This was usually conceiving a story idea, world building, or developing a central character. The process of drafting and revision could then be continued back at school.

These workshops also helped me to develop the resources from a series of individual elements into a coherent pack. I used the feedback from visiting groups to refine some of the elements. These refinements included clearer definition of the elements in world building, redesigning the character template, and explaining other sections more clearly. I also produced a set of teacher notes to assist those using the pack in class or in a writing group.


The resource pack includes the following elements:

  • Teacher notes
  • Student Booklet, designed to be printed as an eight-page A4 booklet.
  • Historical examples of speculative fiction, written at the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth centuries and including predictions made about our present.
  • The Who Writes the Future? anthology produced by the young writers in the original summer school.

Student writing pack

The student booklet takes students through seven steps, culminating in a first draft of their short story:

  1. Decide on a specific setting. Start to build a world for the story.
  2. Select your story idea / concept. Students are asked to think about the particular impact of a technology, but taking this ‘hard sci-fi’ approach is not essential.
  3. Select a theme. There is a list of suggestions but students may wish to choose another.
  4. Decide on the point of view, i.e. first, second or third person narrative.
  5. Develop your character. A template is included to help students think about the central character(s) in their story.
  6. Outline your story. Students are encouraged to plan an outline before writing their first draft.
  7. Write your story. We have included a few lined pages.

I hope the pack will prove as successful for school classes and writing groups as it has been in our workshops. I’d love to hear feedback from teachers who have used it. If you have enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in my other posts on Supporting Learning.

Decolonization in exhibition trails: first steps

Increasingly museums and galleries are addressing the colonial nature of their collections with audiences. My work as an Education Officer involves producing resources to help school groups explore the themes of exhibitions and displays. Roots to Seeds is an exhibition exploring 400 years of plant science in Oxford, currently open at the Bodleian Libraries.

The curator, Professor Stephen Harris, and the team at the Bodleian Libraries and Oxford Botanic Garden who are behind the exhibition, have acknowledged the colonial nature of some of the material on display with statements at the centre of the exhibition space.

A Matter of Justice

A matter of justice acknowledges the marginalisation of people involved in the collection and exploitation of their knowledge.

Supporting Decolonization

Supporting decolonisation explains the current frameworks under which botanists operate and the work to address centuries of inequality.

I wanted to address the issue in an exhibition trail I created for Roots to Seeds. The aim of the trail is to help children and young people explore themes of the exhibition. The content touches on themes within the exhibition, rather than providing comprehensive coverage. Open questions encourage exploration of the texts and objects on display.

Trails can be used by visiting school groups making a self-led visit and the Education Team may also use them as a starting point for a taught session; we also make them available for use by visiting families.

A trail is usually two A4 sides and includes text, questions, illustrations and, in the case of Roots to Seeds, some space for responses.

I decided to include a version of the A Matter of Justice statement in the section about plant collecting called ‘A World of Plants’:

As European botanists began to explore the world, they found many plants they had not seen before. Local people explained which plants were useful as foods or medicines. We often don’t know the names of these people because the explorers didn’t record them.

I was aiming the language level at Key Stage 3. In a later Art Trail, I changed ‘local people’ to ‘local experts’ because I thought this phrase better emphasised indigenous understanding of local flora rather than simply the knowledge of where to find particular plants.

I’m interested to know readers’ views on the approach I took. Is this enough? Should I have included something about current practice? Could I have taken a different approach? I’m interested to hear your views.

Roots to Seeds is open at the Weston Library, Broad Street, Oxford, until 24 October 2021. Admission is free.

‘Do earwigs really eat your brains?’ and other pressing questions.

An interview for the University of Oxford Environmental Sustainability Group about my schools outreach work with the HOPE for the Future project at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford:

You might also be interested in the Insect Investigators Summer School we are running in August 2021, and the online resources we produced for young people at home.

First published 24 July 2021

Picture credit: Barry R Dean CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Lost for natural words?

Galium aparine.
Image credit: Eveline Simak CC-BY-SA 2.0

What would you call this plant? For gardeners it might be a weed, for naturalists, a wildflower, and to botanists it’s Galium aparine. For our ancestors, it was an important natural resource: edible, medicinal, useful as animal fodder, and important in cheese production.

For generations of children, though, it has simply been a source of fun. The stems, leaves and seeds are covered in tiny hooks. These evolved because they assist seed dispersal when they become caught in animal fur. This means that the plant will also easily stick to clothing leading to games and pranks that young children love.

Surface of G. Aparine fruit.
Image credit: Stefan Lefnaer CC-BY-SA 4.0

For these reasons, G. aparine has a host of common names. You may know it as ‘goosegrass’, ‘cleavers’, ‘stickybob(s)’, ‘sticky willy’, ‘hitchhikers’, or perhaps ‘Velcro plant’. It has also been called ‘bedstraw’ because it was once used as a mattress filling. It has many other names, and that’s just in English. The plant is known to many cultures because it has a widespread distribution across Europe, North Africa and Asia. It is also found in North America and has become naturalised in Central and South America, and many other parts of the world.

Despite its long social history, our connection to this plant might be becoming lost to modern children. I hope that the wonderful names for this plant are not disappearing as one of the ‘lost words’ described by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris in their wonderful book of the same name.

In my work for the HOPE For the Future project at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford, I visit schools for ‘Insect Discovery Days’, helping them to discover new things about insects and their importance in ecosystems. While we frequently find children who are a fount of knowledge on this topic, when we begin to explore local green spaces, especially in urban areas, I find that children are disconnected from nature and may not have words to describe even common plants and animals that they find.

To my surprise, this happened recently when children were lost for words to name this common plant. There was a lot of new growth across the ground in a wooded area and it began to stick to children’s socks and trousers, as we explored the copse. Some children found that it then stuck to the arms of their coats as they tried to pick it off, much to their delight.

For many of the group this seemed to be a new experience. When we began to discuss it, it became clear that most children did not have a name for the plant. When I asked them what they would call it, I had one response of ‘sticky bobs’, but most children responded with adjectives like ‘sticky’ or ‘prickly’ rather than common nouns.

I responded with some names I knew it by and explained how the tiny hooks made it stick to clothes. We also found some aphids feeding on it.

I was glad to have introduced them to part of the natural world (anof course, the insects we were there to study) as well as a little of its folklore, but remained disconcerted that this information, such an intrinsic part of my own generation’s childhood, was so new to them.

Fortunately, that school has a well planned and protected wildlife area and are partners in a community orchard – especially welcome in an urban setting. Perhaps, as we all emerge from the restrictions of lockdown, we can take some time to reconnect with nature, and help children share in the simple delight that previous generations found in the natural world around them.

Working for HOPE

This post was originally published as a Series of tweets in a social media thread from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History as part of my ‘Twitter Takeover’ week in November 2020. It gives an insight into my work with schools in the learning team of the HOPE for the Future project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. You can also read more about this in my post Supporting Learning: HOPE for the future.

It’s time for another Twitter #takeover! This week, Learning Officer Rodger will be sharing about the work of the #HOPEForTheFuture Learning Team. Find out more about the HOPE project:

Together with the other HOPE Learning Officers, Kate and Susie, I visit local schools to provide insect Discovery Days, host school visits at the museum and create digital resources for children and young people to use at school or for home learning.

The HOPE Learning Officers

Thanks to generous support from the #HeritageLotteryFund, we can provide these visits and resources free of charge. We’ve worked with schools on using masks, social distancing, handwashing and sanitizing so everyone stays safe.

We don’t only teach children, though, we also learn from them. We love hearing about the ideas they have and questions they ask. Can you really age a ladybird by its spots? Do earwigs actually eat your brains? Find out this week!

During early autumn, spring and summer, we visit schools for Insect Discovery Days. Children learn about the vital role of insects in ecosystems, the importance of the HOPE collection, and investigate insects in their own school grounds.

As well as insects, we find a lot of other ‘minibeasts’ such as woodlice, spiders and centipedes when we visit schools. Specimens from the collection help children sort the insects from these other arthropods.

We often find that children use different words to describe the same animal, or the same word for two different ones. Which of these would you call a ‘Daddy long-legs’?

Which would you call a ‘Daddy Long-Legs’?

The Twitter poll that followed this image drew 123 votes, with the following results:

Left: 62%

Right: 7%

Neither: 30%

Both: 1%

Another aspect of my work I really enjoy is helping to connect children with researchers. I’m really looking forward to George McGavin’s upcoming talk ‘What have insects ever done for us?’

The talk I referred to was a live webinar, but you can watch a recording of George’s fascinating talk on YouTube here:

Another aspect of my job is teaching school visitors to the museum about insects. I’m hugely lucky to be able to draw on the vast Hope collection of over 3.5 million British insects and the expertise of the collections team.

Some of unique museum resources that we are able to use with schools include insect specimens collected by Charles Darwin. It was his observations of the natural world that led him to propose his theory of evolution.

Insect specimens collected by Charles Darwin

Another unique resource that we use is the collection of peppered moths, Biston betullaria, from Bernard Kettlewell’s study of natural selection. Many students who learn about this at school have never had the opportunity to see a peppered moth before.

Specimens from Kettlewell’s collection

We also teach how historical collections help us track present day changes in populations. Several insects became extinct in Britain in the last century and more are at risk, but there have also been successful reintroductions, such as the Large Blue Butterfly, Maculinea arion.

More now than ever, the learning team are producing digital resources which can be used at school, at home, or by community groups. You can explore these on the museum website (see the link above)

Wherever we are working, children always love finding ladybirds and learning about the different types of this beetle. At Thameside School in Abingdon for example, we found six different species in the school forest area.

A lot of folklore surrounds ladybirds. Many children tell us you can tell a ladybird’s age by counting its spots. This is a myth, but the markings can help us identify which species it is. We also learn about insect life cycles and what larvae look like. 

Everyone loves a ladybird!

Children often know rhymes about ladybirds, but the words can vary depending on where you live. What would you say is the next line to this rhyme? ‘Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home…’

This tweet prompted a range of comments, with the most common variation completing this rhyme with the line ‘… your house is on fire and your children are gone. I was also reminded by my colleague at the Bodleian, Rosie Sharkey, that it was this rhyme that originally prompted Iona and Peter Opie’s decades of research into children’s songs, rhymes, and games.

An insect that we always find when we visit schools is the earwig. Children are fascinated by these animals and sooner or later someone will always ask ‘Do they really go in your ears?’ or the even more worrying ‘…then burrow into your brain and lay eggs?!’

Do earwigs really go for our ears?

So can brain-burrowing earwigs really drive you insane? The short answer is no. We probably have Pliny the Elder to blame for this widespread misconception but thankfully there is no evidence that earwigs have an affinity for ears, nor that they do us any harm.

Earwigs are in the Order Dermaptera and have remarkable characteristics. They’re excellent at wiggling into small spaces, have a pair of forceps on their rear end and they can fly. They protect their delicate wings by some virtuoso origami folding when they aren’t in use.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s insight into the work of the Hope Learning Team. Do you know any interesting insect myths or folklore? We’d love to hear about them!

My Twitter week for the Museum May be over, but I,d love to hear your comments on anything mentioned here, or your own favourite insect myths and folklore. If you’re a teacher, you might like the practical application of entomology in my post Wasp in the classroom.