Happy Platinum Jubilee, Your Majesty. A lifetime of service and dignity, and I wouldn’t want your job for a big pension – though I will probably be your age by the time I get my state pension! So, in tribute, we thought we’d have a right royal blog this week.
But one of the first things that strikes you in the nomenclature of nature is that ‘queens’, or indeed even ladies’ names, are relatively few and far between. Often, if something is large, or spectacular-looking, it instantly gets labelled ‘king’. And some truly warrant the description – this King Eider, crowned with the most glorious and ridiculous orange forehead.
Or the Kingfisher, resplendent in azure and orange.
Sometimes the honour is more dubious. The spectacular-but-not-exactly-attractive King Ragworm, anyone?
It’s even possible to find Emperors at Forvie – the Emperor moth and, just the once, the Emperor dragonfly.
Emperor moths make cocoons on the heather before emerging in all their acid-green, pink-spotted splendour. They put me in mind of a motorised gherkin, slowly chugging their way along the footpaths on the heath.
The adult moths themselves are also large and striking, with a set of alarming eye-spots, designed to scare off predators. You might see one of these day-flying moths bombing past you at high speed on a fine afternoon in late spring and summer. But it’s very unusual – and a royal treat indeed – to find one settled among the heather, where its beauty can be properly appreciated. Or better still, as in the photo below, a pair – an emperor and an empress.
I suppose the naming conventions are understandable in what, in the west, has been a male-dominated society for generations, but I wonder if many plants or animals were named today, if that would be different? Many names date from the era of gentlemen collectors and/or scientists, when this sort of thing was perceived as No Job For A Lady. So women didn’t really have the opportunity to ‘discover’ a species (i.e. to be the first person to write about / draw / shoot and stuff something. NB: merely being a native who’d known about it all your life didn’t count). Or, even if they worked alongside male colleagues, their contribution was sidelined, as happened with Caroline Herschel, Mary Anning, or Rosalind Franklin. So we see relatively few female names in natural history.
One female name that does recur, amusingly, is Isabel – Isabelline shrike and Isabelline wheatear – both named after Queen Isabella of Castille. Both birds are a rather mucky brown colour and, so the story goes, are named for the colour of the lady’s underwear. Apparently, she promised her husband she would not change her pants while the siege of Granada lasted – which turned out to be 8 months. Not sure that’s the most flattering way to get something named after you!
The most frequent use of the word ‘queen’ in natural history relates, of course, to social insects. In many species of bees, wasps and ants, it’s well known that at the centre of each colony – physically, genetically and socially – is the queen. She builds around herself an entire society of her own offspring – her subjects if you like. And what a job these social insects do for the natural world – pollination, pest control and waste recycling (bees, wasps and ants respectively) to name three quick examples.
In the seven decades of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, the world has seen some extraordinary changes. We can only hope that in another 70 years, we still have wildlife around us to enjoy and to wonder at. And that perhaps we might repair our relationship with the natural world, and reverse some of the damage we’ve done. A nature-rich future? Now that would be cause for a right royal celebration.