Dragonflies, Butterflies and other invertebrates photogrpahy workshop
6 June 2019
Despite the risk of being blown away on a very windy day, RSB members scoured the brush at Essex’s Wat Tyler country park in the search for dragon and damselflies.
We had a brilliant seminar led by experienced wildlife photographer Neil Phillips, who shared some of his top tips for snapping our photogenic invertebrates. Our members then braved the gusty day and captured some fantastic images of damsels, dragons, scorpions and butterflies. It started off pretty rough with several sites yielding very little, despite one, very photogenic lizard who enjoyed posing for the camera a bit too much. As the day progressed and the winds died down one keen eyed member spotted a beautiful hairy dragonfly perched on a branch. A few of our members managed to grab some wonderful pictures before it took off and disappeared into the greenery.
Photo credit: Dr Theresa Pell MRSB.
As the morning drew to a close and it became clear that our subjects had far too much energy to stand still, we called it a day. It was almost unanimous, our members from novice to expert, had all learnt something new and thoroughly enjoyed the event.
Charlie Brown AMRSB
Bat Walk in Fairlands Valley, Stevenage
26 April 2019
Thirty bat spotters gathered in a car park on the outskirts of Stevenage to meet Roger Havard of the Hertfordshire and Middlesex Bat Group. Roger gave a fascinating talk about the diet (vast numbers of insects), habitat (buildings and hollow trees), breeding (one baby each year) and that bats can live for up to 30 years. We were introduced to a rescued bat with only one wing, which is now used as a teaching specimen (pictured).
We learned that all UK bats eat insects which are caught and eaten in mid-air. Bats find prey using a remarkable navigation system called echolocation, whereby they emit high pitch sounds and the returning echoes give the bats information on insects in the vicinity. Because bat calls are beyond the human hearing range, Roger provided hand held detectors which converted the high pitch sounds into audible frequencies.
At dusk the group set out to survey the trees of Fairlands Valley. We not only identified a number of species (Pipistrelle, Noctule) by their call but could see bats swooping around us.
Once properly dark, Roger used a super bright torch over the lake and we marvelled at the sight of bats sweeping close to the surface. Finally, we saw Daubenton bats fishing for insects at the foot of the lake.
Stevenage is my place of work and I now appreciate the extent of wildlife in this largely urban environment.
Dr Jacqui Piner CBiol FRSB
The Biology and Benefits of Cannabis
22 February 2019
David Potter, GW Pharmaceuticals, provided us with an interesting background to the use of cannabis plants over time to 32 RSB members and guests. He talked about the history of cannabis use over the centuries and that it finally became classed as an illegal drug in 1971. The plant has a variety of uses from ropes, canvas, hemp, cannabis oil and it is used in a variety of polymers such as in the doors or Mercedes cars.
It was in 1997 that the British Medical Association started to look at the therapeutic uses of cannabis. GW Pharmaceuticals was set up to carry out clinical trials – one of its potential uses is to relieve some of the symptoms of multiple sclerosis.
It is a dioecious plant and the active ingredient is found in the flowers of the female plant. It is a fast growing plant and its seeds can be found in health food shops and also in bird seed mixtures – hence some people find a plant accidentally growing in their garden!
Frances Evans CBiol MRSB
The whisky collection – an intimate afternoon with spectacular Birds of Prey
30 September 2018
Charlotte of C J Birds delighted members and guests by fondly and intimately introducing her feathered friends, in turn describing their natural hunting behaviour unique characters. She captured imaginations by weaving in colourful stories about her relationship and adventures with each of the birds, while raising awareness about their powerful hooked beaks and deadly sharp talons.
Her collection included spectacular Hawkes and eagles which both tend to soar and fast and agile falcons, which often hover and 3 delightful owls who she explained can be nocturnal, diurnal or crepuscular .
Branch member Mary Parsons said interacting with the impressive collection of birds in the flesh (or feathers) was really special. “I’ll never forget the experience of holding Jura the crowned hawk eagle from RSA and feeling her huge, sharp talons at the tip of her muscular feet through the thick leather gloves.”
We all left in good spirit quite simply because each of the birds was named after a whisky. Jura, Saki, Ouzo, Jerry, Bud, and James to name but a few.
Dr Theresa Huxley FRSB
Basildon Street Science
9 September 2017
Residents of Basildon in Essex were treated to a day of science activities and dialogue with scientists at the town centre as part of this Beds, Essex and Herts regional event, The Basildon Street Science fair – which had over 600 visitors engaging at the stands throughout the day.
Also exhibiting at the fair was Anglia Water, who got us thinking about what we throw down our sinks and flush down toilets through their interactive educational activity.
Essex Wildlife Trust took us on an expedition into the wild as we learnt about the rich wildlife in Essex. Kids were excited about the fluorescent cell they designed and were encouraged to "take a cell-fie" with the Biochemical Society. After, they explored biological models with Ian Harvey from Cambridge Hills Road Sixth Form College and made brain hats to take away with the help of our volunteers.
Other activities on the day included 'science busking' by Ignite Futures and an interactive epigenics dice-rolling game at the Royal Society of Biology stand. Finally, despite the somewhat windy and cloudy day, visitors took off for space, glimpsing the sun from a telescope (safely) and enjoying immersive experiences about space food.
The highlight of the afternoon was the visit from the Basildon MP and former chair of the science and technology select committee, Stephen Metcalfe, who commended and endorsed the fair for its impact on the community. "If we can inspire the next generation of scientists by events like this then we have achieved what we set out to do," said Metcalfe.
Basildon Street science returns on Saturday 8th September in Basildon town centre. Contact us if you're interested in running an activity or helping out.
Hephzi Angela Tagoe MRSB
Zoo Trip and AGM
24 September 2017
The group were blessed yet again with a lovely sunny day for an eagerly awaited event, the talk and tour behind the scenes at Colchester Zoo after our AGM. In total there were 25 of us in the party and Andy Moore, the zoo's learning manager, spent over four hours with the group.
After the AGM, Andy took us to four pre-arranged experiences - Amur leopard training, bears of the rising sun training, behind the scenes with spotted hyenas, and feeding the mandrill monkeys.
We watched animals being trained to help facilitate health checks. Using clicker training with a chicken reward, the rather vocal female leopard was made to stand up and lie down to allow physical examination. As soon as there was no chicken left she walked off.
They are also trying to train her to be quiet so a stethoscope can be placed on her chest to hear heart sounds. The challenges of sexing hyenas and the difficulties of giving birth based on their unique anatomy were discussed and came as a revelation to many.
Team photo in front of a painting in the Kalahari lecture theatre with our facilitator, Andy Moore, fifth from the right.
Afterwards we returned to the lecture theatre for a talk on health, welfare and diet. Diets in zoos have reverted back to natural foods, rather than the extruded type, as these are considered less boring for the animals. There was discussion about feeding practices and whether live food or whole carcases should be given – Andy felt the British public would not be receptive to this if the law allowed it as in other countries.
Andy had three poo samples for us to identify and confirm if there were any parasites present. Once the lids were opened the aroma from the carnivore faeces was very strong. Everybody seemed to have a fascinating time and no one held back with analysing poo!
Mary Parsons AMRSB
The four Ps at Linslade Sewage Works
25 July 2017
Five BEH regional members attended the tour and talk on sewage recycling at Linslade. Caroline Donnelly was passionate about the subject and informative.
The whole process takes 24 to 36 hours depending upon the volume arriving – Storm Doris had recently generated a lot of volume.
No chemicals are used in the process, which starts with sludge. Initially, non-organic matter is filtered out, generating 'rag', the non-organic component which cannot be recycled and goes back into land fill. Recycled water at Linslade is returned back into the river at 62 litres per second. The rag is collected into skips, and if all the skips from Anglican Water were stacked one on top of each they would reach the height of Mount Everest in a year.
It was interesting to see what people flush down the toilet. Toilet wipes and cotton buds cause a lot of problems in the filtering process and we even saw empty pill packets. Some manufacturers have changed cotton buds from plastic to card to help mitigate the problem.
Caroline emphasised the impotence of educating people about the environment and that only four things should be flushed down the toilet. These are the 3Ps = paper, poo, pee (and water). I said to add 'puke' making it the 4Ps!
Everything else should go in the bin, yet it remains a challenge to stop people wanting to flush everything down the toilet.
Besides non-organic matter, we also got to see organic matter that does not break down in the human gut. The yellow bits in the gravel were apparently sweetcorn, and the tomato plants growing in the redundant skips on rag are from tomatoes seeds not broken down in the human gut.
Mary Parsons AMRSB
Green Island Garden Tour
21 May 2017
It was a beautiful sunny day and the Beds, Herts and Essex group set off on an excursion to Green Island Gardens, near Colchester in Essex. Here around a dozen of us took a guided tour lasting just under two hours with the garden designer and garden creator Fiona Edmonds.
We all posed for a ‘team’ photo. Fiona on the far right in pink.
Fiona took us through the history of how the gardens were established from nothing while she battled personal illness in the mid-1990s. Much of the woodland had been destroyed in the storm of 1987 and the native trees had been swamped by sycamores.
She informed us about the different areas of soil in the 20acre gardens and planting decisions based on that. We learnt a huge amount in terms of types of soil and planting for leaf shape, colour and smell, such as the burnt sugar smell of the katsura tree and how that tree had behaved when challenged in a drought year to preserve itself.
Of course there were the pretty flowers and an impressive colour array with the different flowering azaleas and rhododendrons, and Fiona is a great fan of acers so many different types were growing. She shared her years of experience with acers and said not to believe what the books say about growing them. I want to go back in the autumn and see the effect of her incorporating changing leaf colour in her design.
As a garden designer, Fiona had seen many clients wanting wisterias growing up their house and explained how that could damage the buildings. Fiona suggested growing stand-alone wisteria trees and showed us two wonderful specimens.
These are not stuffy formal gardens, but a personal journey of her private gardens attached to the family house, which has been opened up to the public to share. She seems to be a fan of the unusual and hunts out rare specimens to grow in this microclimate. The wooden sculptures are good for both young and old and the cafe was great for light snacks. Well worth multiple visits in the changing seasons.
Mary Parsons AMRSB
Life sciences student-led poster symposium
1 February 2017
This event was conducted by some Cranfield students in order to practice skills in research communication.The informal event was attended by Dr Jacqui Piner FRSB who represented the Beds, Essex and Herts branch and chatted with the participants.
Dr Jacqui Piner FRSB
AGM and Lee Valley River Cruise
18 September 2016
After a few damp days we were blessed with good weather for our cruise. Adults and children spent a very pleasant couple of hours cruising on The Pride of the Lee along the canal and through Carthagena Lock, with a few mallards and coots seen along the way.
After a brief AGM, which saw new members being proposed and other committee members changing roles, a very ample cream tea was served with lashings of whipped cream and jam. During the cruise an informal scientific quiz was held which saw many people with their heads down concentrating.
Attendees had their memories tested of things learnt at school along with children’s wildlife television going back to the 1950s, plus some contemporary knowledge about endangered animals and birds.
There was lots of chat and networking, and overall, everyone said they had a very enjoyable and relaxing time.
Mary Parsons AMRSB
Nightingales at Paxton Pits
14 May 2016
Paxton Pits Nature Reserve is listed as an SSSI and our visit was facilitated by two Paxton Pits volunteers, Grania and Ann. Over two dozen of us set off at on a lovely evening in search of the voice if not the sighting of the nightingales. Sometimes there was a dim sound which our facilitators said could be a nightingale warming up, but sadly, it cannot be said with 100% certainty we heard any.
The reserve does highlight areas along the paths where nightingales can often be heard to help the novice, but none appeared to be around on our visit.
Apparently, the nightingales were very noisy the weekend before! It did not a lovely long walk through the ever changing scenery of this nature reserve. We saw the Gadwall ducks that the reserve is noted for in its SSSI and lots of other birds, fauna and insects, such as the cetti’s warbler and burrowing bees. But there was one site which caused most of the party to get their cameras/phones out, and that was of a spectacular specimen of a sulphur coloured fungus called “chicken of the woods”, allegedly because it tastes like chicken if you feel inclined to try it.
Certainly there is a lot to see and do here and the reserve holds frequent events. One bird we may have seen or heard without noting was the great reed warbler. Less than 48 hours after our visit a deluge of ‘birders’ with all their kit descended onto the reserve to see this bird.
Mary Parsons AMRSB
The Polar Museum, Cambridge
20 January 2016
Naomi Chapman, education and outreach officer of The Polar Museum and Scott Polar Research Institute, conducted a very insightful tour for 19 members from across East Anglia and Beds, Herts & Essex.
The geologist Frank Debenham formed ideas for the establishment of a polar research centre, having been trapped in Antarctic blizzards in 1912. In 1920 he established the Scott Polar Institute, and the museum was completed in 1934. It remains a repository for over 10,000 polar artefacts, with a rolling exhibition and other artefacts kept in deep freeze vaults.
Of course there are many exhibits belonging to the ill-fated Scott exhibition of 1912, including personal letters – it was difficult not to be moved by these. Scott heavily documented his expedition which has proved of immense historical value.
The museum has many items from the polar regions from old to new such as a beautifully beaded anorak from West Greenland and the much travelled telescope from HMS Discovery (British Artic Expedition, 1875-76) and Scott’s ship Discovery (British Antarctic Expedition, 1901-04), which was taken into space on the shuttle Discovery in 1984.
Having visited this museum many times before, one thing I learnt from the guided tour was that penguins are hidden in the paintings of the Artic and Antarctica on the ceilings of the Memorial Hall. The paintings were completed by Macdonald Gill in situ in 1934. The penguins are not painted in, so are challenging to see, but if you want a tip look at the Astrolabe Peninsula.
There is a repeat unguided visit on the 1st October 2016.
Mary Parsons AMRSB
Tour of the Houses of Parliament
15 April 2016
Our lively visit began with the Society’s director of parliamentary affairs Stephen Benn giving a colourful review of past and present events at the Palace of Westminster and insight into how the RSB interacts with parliamentarians.
Stephen himself had been instrumental in setting up "Voice of the Future", an annual event where the House of Commons Science and Technology committee invites young scientists and engineers to question Ministers, MPs and officials about the issues that matter to them.
Unexpectedly Stephen was able to secure us access the ornate Chapel of St Mary Undercroft. In pairs we squeezed inside the tiny broom cupboard where we viewed the plaque put up by Tony Benn MP in 2001 to commemorate Emily Wilding Davison (the militant activist who fought for women's suffrage in Britain, also well known for throwing herself under the kings horse at the Derby) who famously spent the night here in order that her place of residence for the 1911 Census be given as the "House of Commons".
Tour guide Frank Bettram then knowledgeably weaved in biological themes into the official tour. We had a refresher in anatomy as he described the statutory penalty of hanging, drawing and quartering bestowed on men convicted of high treason, with graphic detail about how they were emasculated, disembowelled and beheaded before the quartering!
The entomologists amongst the group spotted moth traps' positioned on the end of the lords' benches. This lead to a discussion about ‘the Woolsack’, the traditional seat in the House of Lords for the Lord Speaker. Apparently in 1938, it was discovered (probably by a keen biologist) that the Woolsack was, in fact, stuffed with horsehair. Today the Woolsack has been re-stuffed with wool from all over the Commonwealth as a symbol of unity.
Branch member Dr Linda Townsend commented that there “was a lot more to see than expected and the talks were delivered in such a lively and interesting way that it all made for a very enjoyable and informative trip.”
Dr Theresa Huxley FRSB
Star lit Cruise on the Ouse
26 September 2015
A cruise on the River Ouse, watching elegant swans along Bedford's wildlife rich embankments, was the setting for an exquisite evening of wine and cheese pairing.
The evening was led by Stephen and celebrity Dawn (of The Alan Titchmarsh Show fame) from The Happy Brewer, Bedfordshire's home brew and winemaking specialists.
The couple did a fantastic job guiding guests through a bespoke selection of wines and complementary canapés as the crew of the John Bunyon community narrow boat navigated under the stars. Guests were serenaded by live music by a very talented local duo Circero Buck (Joe Hughes from the group co-wrote 'No More I Love You's', by Annie Lennox).
Each of the wines was lovingly paired with a specific fine cheese before the cruise concluded with a distinctive port style ruby dessert wine paired with a chocolate brownie.
The evening was full of rich insights into the art of home brewing and free advice to suit individual tastes and lifestyles.
Member Mary Parsons said the event made home brewing sound so easy she was tempted to give home brewing a go. "The wines were superb. I find it hard to believe they were all home made from kits," she said.
Dr Theresa Huxley FRSB
Shuttleworth Swiss Cottage Gardens
12 July 2015
Despite an afternoon of variable weather, our visit to the Swiss cottage gardens at Shuttleworth was well attended. Margaret Bracey, our tour guide, provided an enlightening talk whilst we ventured amongst the ten-acre romantic gardens, sometimes accompanied by an inquisitive peacock.
Recently restored having received £2.8 million heritage lottery funding, the gardens were splendid, with many rare shrubs and trees some of which date back to the 1800's. Lord Robert Henley Ongley originally created the garden in 1830. Joseph Shuttleworth purchased them in 1870 and thus a unique style of regency and Victorian has been blended together with much of the layout remaining today.
Many of the features include ornate metal bridges spanning lake and pond areas and the garden boasts beautiful thatched buildings, a chapel, underpass and a most interesting grotto and fernery lined with tufa.
We were shown the Handyside Night and Morning vase, based on Bertel Thorvalden's Night and Day plaques. A stone book with a poem engraved in it marks the spot where sadly a diseased oak had to be felled, yet the garden has many large trees including a monkey puzzle (Araucaria araucana) and tulip tree (Lirodendron tulipifera).
Inspired by school children's ideas, wooden carved statues line the woodland walk. Ferns and other botanical sculptures reach high above the foliage adding interest and art to the area. Despite the heavy rain, our guide battled on, as did many of the party, and it was a very enjoyable afternoon.
Susan Izzard CBiol MRSB
30 June 2015
GlaxoSmithKline is a science-led healthcare company celebrating 300 years of company heritage; Plough Court Pharmacy was established by Silvanus Bevan in London in 1715. To observe this milestone, GSK is hosting learned society meetings at Ware R&D during 2015.
What better way to commemorate this scientific legacy than to nurture our scientists of the future? So on Monday 30th June around 60 early career biologists converged at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in Ware, Hertfordshire for an event designed to facilitate scientific engagement and collaboration.
Professor Sreenivasaprasad and Dr Nigel Sansom described areas of biological science available at University of Bedfordshire and Anglia Ruskin respectively and Emma Roberts described postgraduate research opportunities at GSK. This was followed by 9 platform presentations from early stage biologists ranging from epigenetic regulation of helper (CD4+) T Cells to development of a high-throughput assay for anti-myofibroblast activity in Peyronie's disease. In addition there were 20 posters presented for discussion. The day ended with tours of pharmaceutical industry laboratories.
We sincerely hope that the day provided inspiration for future research and formation of valuable connections. We may provide a similar format in 2016.
Dr Jacqui Piner FRSB
23 May 2015
Nestled behind the allotments in Old Hale Way, Hitchin, is the area's community Bee garden, Buzzworks.
Our group, some of whom are bee keepers, where met by Robin and John from Buzzworks who provided us with a morning of informative talks on the different species of bees, how they pollinate plants, how a swarm becomes a hive and can number 50,000 individuals. And, of course, how they produce honey.
The yearly life cycle of the bee was explained, as well as bee predators such as wasps and hornets and diseases like vorroa mite and colony collapse disorder.
The group lunched in the pleasant surroundings of the bee flower garden with access to the bee demonstration shelter where exhibits explaining the science of bee life and bee keeping were available to view.
After lunch we visited the bee centre, where the hives are kept. Here we donned the typical protective gear, coloured white because bees have an aversion to the colour black. Once we were kitted out, the hives were opened, using smoke or water mist to keep the bees calm. Various bee types - including the queens, who are marked by the beekeepers with a white dot for quick recognition – could be seen. We learnt more about how the hive survives and reproduces throughout the year.
At the end of the afternoon, our group had the exciting opportunity to observe how a newly gathered swarm of bees is introduced to a hive. After preparing an empty hive a 'box' of bees was emptied onto wooden ramps leading to the hive's entrance. Here the bees settled for a few minutes and then the fascinating process, resembling something like Brownian movement, gradually began, with the bees entering the hive in a quiet and orderly fashion.
Our thanks go to Robin and John who provided a very enjoyable and informative hands-on day. As we left we were given a final tip on bee protection. Much of the honey we buy is imported, and in order to stop the spread of disease we should wash empty honey jars before discarding them, preventing bees from feeding off of honey remnants and possible spreading such diseases.
Sue Izzard CBiol MRSB
Antibiotic resistance: what are the alternatives?
13 May 2015
Professor La Ragione, head of the Department of Pathology and Infectious Diseases at the University of Surrey and director of its Veterinary Pathology Centre, provided an overview of the use of antimicrobials in animals and the current concerns with regard to the emergence of antibiotic resistance. He went on to discuss the common types of resistance and how resistance is acquired. He also detailed some of the important drivers of resistance in zoonotic pathogens.
Professor La Ragione's talk then focused on alternatives to antibiotics and he described the characterisation and use of pre and probiotics as novel control strategies for animal and human pathogens, including Salmonella and Brachyspira. The talk stimulated a significant amount of discussion around how antibiotics are prescribed and administered in animals. Furthermore, there was much discussion on how antibiotics could be used more prudently and or in conjunction with novel alternatives such as pre and probiotics.
Professor Roberto Marcello La Ragione FRSB
Badger watching at Tewin Orchard Nature Reserve
27 September 2014
Our guide for the evening was Pete Butchers, Royston area co-ordinator for the Herts and Middlesex Badger Group. A low mist crept in as Pete escorted the group through the apple trees towards the wooded mammal hide. The hide itself was unexpectedly spacious, with chairs and a large windowed front beyond which was a patch of illuminated scrub which borders onto a meadow and woodland.
Pete introduced the group to the 30-hole badger set at Tewin and set the scene for the evening. We were advised the badgers arrive about an hour after dusk and can remain for up to two hours to feed in front of the hide. Peter then departed wishing us good luck for our evening of Badger watching.
Apparently badgers have been present in the British Isles for at least 300,000 – 400,000 years. The word badger is said to derive from the French bêcheur' meaning 'digger'. A male badge is called a bore, the female is a sow and the young are called cubs, and interestingly the Welsh name for badger is 'moch daear' which translates to 'earth pig'. They actually belong to a family called Mustelidae, the same family as ferrets, weasels and otters.
We sat quietly as darkness fell and we didn't have to wait too long before the first visitor, a brown rat, was spotted taking advantage of the dried dog food and peanuts. Five minutes later a voice whispered to look to the left, and out of the darkness two white streaks waddled up through some long grass. In total we counted 10 badgers feeding within five feet of where we were sitting. We noted one adult appeared to have a slightly weeping eye and we enjoyed watching them interact with occasional squeals and shrieks when they disagreed over a peanut. It was a wonderful evening, and great for families.
Theresa Huxley MSB CBiol
Thurrock Thameside Nature Park
12 July 2014
Built on a former landfill site, and affording wonderful views over the Thames estuary, stands Thurrock Thameside Nature Park. Members, family and friends met at the innovative visitor centre where naturalist and author Ross Gardner inspired us with his talk about British wildlife.
With extracts from his book Never a Dull Moment, Ross took us on a virtual journey from Hadleigh in Suffolk to the Norfolk dunes, onto Dartmoor and into Scotland, describing the flora and fauna of each place. Some highlights of Ross’s career were finding species such as long-winged conehead crickets (Conocephalus discolor) and finally spotting a Eurasian Golden oriole (Oriolus oriolus), a rare bird on our shores.
After lunch, we explored the 120-acre nature park with a guided tour from the wildlife trust. Skylarks hovered above us while we searched for crickets, bees and hoverflies with experts on hand to describe the various species.
The site will eventually expand to 845 acres, providing a variety of habitats along with cycle and walking paths, and creating what will surely be a bird watchers delight.
Sue Izzard CBIol MSB
Cruising the River Lee
25 May 2014
Members and friends enjoyed a relaxing and delightful cruise on the Pride of Lee river boat on a sunny bank holiday weekend. Over 200 bird species, 35 species of mammal and a huge variety of insects have been recorded in the Lee Valley, so the group came prepared with cameras, binoculars and reference books.
During the two hour cruise guests were not disappointed. The weather was perfect with temperatures a balmy 19 degrees, perfect for spotting various species including dancing dragonflies, red damsel and male banded Demoiselle flies, while swifts darted overhead and families of ducks enjoyed exploring the water's edge. Skipper Ged expertly navigated the River Lee's lock we were served a traditional afternoon tea with homemade scones, jam and a generous dollop of fresh cream.
Dr Theresa Huxley FSB
National Stud Visit
26 April 2014
Our behind the scenes visit to the National stud at Newmarket, the home of the horseracing industry, provided an intriguing insight into the racehorse breeding industry, its complexities and the science involved. Emily, our tour guide, gave a detailed presentation, from conception of a foal through to yearling sales and the costs involved. She made members and visitors aware of the typical problems that may be encountered during the breeding season and the care concerned in keeping healthy mares, foals, yearlings and stallions.
Over ninety foals had been born at the stud so far this year and we were able to view foals from just a few days old in their 'safe nursery' paddocks, to those a few weeks old, turned out and socialising with other mares and foals. Three stallions at the stud were segregated in their individual paddocks.
Conception takes place inside the covering yard - natural conception, as opposed to artificial insemination, is used to ensure that the numbers of foals conceived and born to one stallion are limited, avoiding any narrowing of the gene pool.
Finally everyone was encouraged to meet and participate in feeding peppermints to the now retired Amberleigh House, who was the winner of the 2004 Grand National and clearly enjoys visits.
Sue Izzard CBiol MSB
I am a biologist
31 March 2014
'I am a biologist' was the intriguing title of a careers event hosted by Hitchin Girls School and run by our branch in co-operation with STEMNET Hertfordshire (www.stemnet.co.uk).
The event attracted year 12 students across the Beds, Essex and Herts area who were interested in understanding more about career options in biological sciences.
Students and parents heard 6 short presentations from senior biologists whose careers had led them to specialise in very different fields of biology ranging from horticultural and cosmetic science, marine biology to pharmaceutical, medical and veterinary science.
The presentations really demonstrated the breadth of careers founded on biological science. Dr Theresa Huxley (Sainsburys Supermarkets ltd) explained the role horticultural science plays in putting fresh produce on supermarkets shelves while Dr Mojgan Moddaresi (director at Cosmetics Innovations & Technologists Ltd) spoke about her career in the cosmetics industry and the science behind the development of new cosmetic products.
David Hall (APEMLTD) shared insight into the fascinating role of a marine biologist identifying and surveying the marine ecosystem. Jacqueline Piner (senior scientist from GalaxoSmithKline) explained the opportunities for scientists in the creation and discovery, development, manufacture and marketing of new pharmaceutical products.
Finally Susan Izzard (microbiologist) and Professor Roberto Laragione (head of the Department of Pathology and Infectious Diseases, University of Surry) talked about their ground breaking achievements in medical and veterinary science respectively.
The Society of Biology links naturally to the work of STEMNET and we all agree that the evening and similar evenings have great potential as ways of inspiring the next generation of biologists.
Dr Theresa Huxley FSB
22 February 2014
David Thompson and Patricia Eagland brought to life the fascinating journey of a wheat grain processed by Miller William Jordan in 1900.
In his then state-of-the-art Flour Mill, Nr Biggleswade hessian grain sacks weighing more than 200lbs were brought to the Mill and lifted to the top using a series of pulleys. The water power of the River Ive was ingeniously harnessed to clean, temper, and grist the harvested cereal before the grains were milled between groved 'break rolls' and smooth 'reduction rolls'.
David explained that the resulting meal starts out coarse but with repeated grinding and sifting through a series of machines becomes fine white flour, wheat bran and wheat germ.
"It's fascinating that the milling process can either produce completely distinct products from a single type of grain. These can then be packaged and sold separately or milled together to produce a whole grain flour or blended to form different flours through a sequence sifting.
"I was expecting to see traditional mill stones so was fascinated to see the original Gilbert & Gilkes water turbine still working and to hear it transmits 25 horsepower to the rollers and other machinery on the four floors of the mill. Who would believe it took an hour in 1900 to turn a whole grain into fine white four" said Michael Muir.
In 1985 Bill Jordan MD of W Jordan (Cereals) Ltd co-founded The Conservation Grade Farming Scheme for his cereal growers. Under the scheme farmers are required to put aside at least 10 per cent of their crop area to create a habitat for wild plants and animals. The Jordans Mill Market gardens adjacent the old Mill Building were designed by Chelsea Flower Show winners Toll + Kitson. They were inspired by ancient field layouts and hedge patterns illustrating how cereals, vegetables and fruit can be grown in a sustainable manner by promoting biodiversity.
Dr Theresa Huxley FSB
The Happy Brewer Talk
30 January 2014
From great guzzler to fine wines! An evening to tantalise the taste buds was provided by Steve and Dawn Black from the Happy Brewer in Bedford. The branch received a fascinating and detailed talk about home brewing and wine making, at the Buck's Head in Little Wymondley.
Steve talked about making beers from kits, half mash beers from malt extracts and for the real enthusiasts, the longer process of starting beers from grain. Beer kits are now manufactured by commercial breweries and have improved considerably. There has been a move away from traditional British ale yeast strains as new yeasts from New Zealand and malts from America have become available. Interestingly there are now gluten free beer kits available and dry enzyme kits where all the fermentable sugar is utilised making a possible beer for the diabetic consumer.
Dawn spoke about wine making, again from either kit or the slightly longer process of producing hedgerow or vegetable wines. The variety of yeasts now available to the hobbyist enable changing the characteristics of a wine. The amount and properties of the juice will influence the quality of the final product. Dawn continued by informing us how to stabilise and clear wines and an insight into the chemicals used at various stages e.g betonite allows for a more even fermentation.
A very useful tip for the mead makers was not to use honey from Australia and New Zealand as the bees collect pollen from the eucalyptus tree and the flavour will come through to the mead!
Steve and Dawn shared thirty years' of expertise, with an enthusiastic audience consisting of many beer, cider and wine makers. The evening closed with much discussion, questions and naturally some sampling.
Sue Izzard MSB
Computational biology talk
15 October 2013
Penny Coggill, a computational biologist at Sanger Cambridge joined us at the University of Hertfordshire for our AGM. Penny played a key role in developing and building an internet database of protein domain families called Pfam. Each family is represented by multiple sequence alignments and profile hidden Markov models (HMMs).
After a degree in natural science, a masters in animal nutrition and 2 years as research assistant in dairy-cow nutrition Penny began working for Beecham Pharmaceuticals in their London medical information group. When the company opened a European HQ in Brussels she went out to inform the medical directors about the company's products and new drugs for trialling. Penny returned to England where she brought up her family with a full understanding of the challenges women face pursuing a career in science. She undertook voluntary work supporting women in their scientific life, helping them to overcome prejudices that make it that difficult for a woman in science to progress. During this time Penny met Joan Mason who had recently set up AWiSE.
AWiSE is a regional network for women in science, engineering and technology (SET) in both industry and academia. The groups bring together women with common interests and act as a source of support, information and inspiration. They aim to help women stay in SET and make the most of their careers providing regular talks, workshops, networking opportunities as well as information through their website and newsletter. Penny is currently chair of Cambridge AWiSE.
Penny's takeaway message was that networking is key to finding out how to improve one's chances and invited everyone to take a look at the AWise website.
'Odette Toilette' then ran an unusual but absolutely fascinating interactive session centred on the senses. Using perfume strips, material of different textures and shapes the audience explored the human senses. The session was fascinating and data gathered from the audience of 48 demonstrated that we all subconsciously link fragrances to colour, shape and texture. We learnt that within the group we all had a tendency to link heavy perfumes to darker colours and lighter floral perfumes to pastels.
The evening was a great success with students, members and guests having the opportunity to network over refreshments and learn more about the Society from regional coordinator David Urry.
Dr Theresa Huxley FSB
27 September 2013
The annual Science Uncovered event at the Natural History Museum in Tring was attended by our branch for the third year in succession. Although the overall visitor numbers were down when compared to previous years, the enthusiasm and interest of our visitors was undiminished.
Our challenge of the day - which is the odd one out from spider/fly/butterfly - provided correct answers but very different reasons. Well done to the young biologist who declared "the spider of course, it is an arachnid!" The peacock feather led to discussions about a physics biology link - what gives a peacock feather its colour?
Vivienne Heys CBiol MSB and Jacky McPherson CBiol MSB
A day down on Jimmy's Farm in Suffolk
16 June 2013
Educating young people about biology of food and farming are key to inspiring the next generation and vital for the future of farming. Jimmy's Farm at Wherstead, North Ipswich, is the brainchild of Jimmy Doughty and provided a great environment for sharing biological knowledge.
Jimmy a zoology graduate with experience of biological research and teaching animal ecology and animal philosophy set the farm up in 2003 when he decided it was time to make his dream of living the good life a reality. He left London and without any experience or knowledge of farming, took on a leasehold of a 100 acre farm near Ipswich in Suffolk. Jimmy's roller coaster journey to change this derelict farm into a rare breed pig farm was followed in a BBC2 series called Jimmy's Farm. The farmyard trail provided an introduction to past and present farming methods, and food production.
We met a family of cute goats, llamas and rheas small Jacob sheep with very curly horns. We fed a range of different free range chickens and guinea fowl and a flock of very friendly young geese who had just got their first white feathers. We paddled in the pond and saw lots of native Suffolk dragonflies darting above the surface of the water. We watched wild birds coming to the water's edge to drink and bathe and beautiful exotic looking butterflies in Jimmy's tropical house.
Furthermore, we saw a number of rare breeds including Gloucester Old Spots, British and Essex Saddlebacks. The rare breeds of today are the commercial pigs of yesterday, back when pork had real flavour with crackling that really crackles. Rare breed pigs are slower to grow, resulting in their meat having a superior taste. Commercially they don't make sense to farm on a large scale. They also tend to have fewer piglets in a litter compared to the traditional, hybrid pig – although this tends to differ between the rare breeds, Gloucester Old Spot have bigger litters than Tamworth's for example.
The children loved the nature trail through the woods and the new zip wires and climbing pyramids and we all enjoyed bacon baps and real dairy ice cream.
Dr Theresa Huxley FSB
Discovering Sandy Heath and Quarry
8 June 2013
The Lodge nature reserve at Sandy is the UK headquarters of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). The reserve sits along the Greensand Ridge and covers 180 hectares of woodland and heathland. Andy Schofield reserve warden equipped with nets and hand lenses, led our group which included 4 young enthusiastic future biologists. Andy explained how a new area of commercially planted pine, purchased by the RSPB in 2003, was being restored to heathland. Once completed this area will be the largest area of heathland in Bedfordshire and be home to rare heathland birds such as woodlark and nightjar.
It was a bright but cool day and overhead swifts were flying low. We learnt that they are a summer visitor; arriving in late April and leaving in August to spend the winter in Africa. They feed exclusively on spiders and insects caught on the wing, only landing to nest and lay eggs. Andy was brilliant with the young biologists who particularly enjoyed netting insects on the heath and challenging him to identify them. How excited they were when they caught electric blue damselflies and found the skeleton of a grass snake on the heath.
In the wooded area we saw evidence of and heard woodpeckers hammering on tree trunks to excavate nest cavities and to find insects to eat. Woodpeckers hammer to communicate and it's part of their courtship behaviour. Did you know a woodpecker taps an estimated 8,000-12,000 times per day?
Dr Theresa Huxley FSB
Online Veterinary Anatomy Museum
20 November 2012
I was very pleased to have been invited to the launch of the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) collaborative project of the Online Veterinary Anatomy Museum (OVAM) which marked a major development in online resources available to learners of veterinary anatomy the world over.
If I may quote from the press release:
As the world's largest online veterinary anatomical resource collections, OVAM will not only support the education of veterinary students, but hopes to inspire learners everywhere to engage with animal anatomy and science in an inspiring, interactive and informative way.
OVAM offers learners free access to resources including:
- Interactive and annotated diagrams and images of specimens
- Three dimensional imaging of skeletons, radiographic imaging and interpretation
- Podcasts and potcasts of anatomical specimens
- Anatomy with a clinical relevance and an anatomical link to WikiVet content
- Comprehensive videos of dissection techniques which will greatly reduce the need for duplication of procedures
My personal view, was that it was amazing to watch digital dissections and to see 3D images in different planes, and to be able to add muscle and skin to the skeleton in order to reconstruct the animal in a life like form. To be able to "see" inside a horse's hoof without undertaking a detailed dissection.
More information is available the museum's website.
Vivienne Heys CBiol MSB
Fungi where are you?
21 October 2012
Despite lots of rain and damp conditions it has proved to be a bad year for fungi. The autumn display of fungi at Ashridge Estate in Hertfordshire in October proved to be disappointing but our guide mycologist Alan Outen was a mine of information. He explained how some of the most poisonous fungi would pass all the morphological tests for being edible and how even the experts had been poisoned and some had died. When asked why some fungi are poisonous Alan said it is unclear why the toxins are present and why even within the same group of fungi the toxins will be different in members of the group. It all adds to the mystery and the challenge of these organisms both to identify and predict their possible effects. We didn't find any edible fungi but we did find the highly poisonous but brightly coloured fly agaric Amanita muscaria (below).
The rain came down as we returned to our cars but it was a very enjoyable couple of hours.
Vivienne Heys CBiol MSB