Family favourites

There are many successful father and daughter teams in modern society. Think of acting and you might cite Henry and Jane Fonda, or John Voight and his daughter Angelina Jolie, whilst in music there was Frank and Nancy Sinatra. Entomology (the study of insects) hasn’t been left out of the father-daughter stakes. Dr. Graham Rotheray is curator of insects at the National Museums of Scotland and ably supported by his talented daughter Ellen.


Graham and Ellen Rotheray

Graham and Ellen Rotheray

It is curious how an interest in a topic such as natural history can run in families, although it is probably not so much a product of nature as of nurture. It was Graham Rotheray’s mother who encouraged her three children with nature walks. He is now a distinguished entomologist (studies insects) with his own daughter currently carving out a similar career.

Early in his youth Graham Rotheray’s family moved from Yorkshire to an Essex farm, which provided him with a rich and varied landscape to explore. “I suppose I started looking at birds, and their nests, then took an interest in mammals, and things then just got smaller and smaller. I remember being impressed by hedgerows in the spring, just how wonderfully full of insects they were, of all types, sizes, shapes and colours. It was a fascination for that diversity that got me going. And then I discovered I could actually do things with insects, studying them in ways that I could not with other forms of wildlife.”

As a child he had been intrigued by flies buzzing around his parents’ vegetable garden, especially the hoverflies. I did not know what they were, but wasps –which looked so similar in appearance –were attacking them and ripping them apart. Most insect-eating birds do not hunt wasps and hoverflies protect themselves by mimicking the wasps’ appearance. “The wasps could tell the difference of course.”  Hoverflies have long been his particular speciality.

Hoverflies have come under the 'Rotheray' microscope

Hoverflies have come under the ‘Rotheray’ microscope

Graham went on to study for a PhD, devising both laboratory and field experiments to investigate parasitic insects that attacked the larval stages of hoverflies. In 1980 he then applied his expertise to a study of parasites of a major pest species in the eastern United States, the introduced gypsy moth, in an attempt to devise a biological means of controlling their spread. His son and daughter were born at this time and after two years the family returned to Britain where Graham was appointed Curator of Insects with what is now the National Museums of Scotland, based in Edinburgh, a post which he still holds.

Fly closeThe study of insects continues to grow in popularityup

The study of insects continues to grow in popularity

Ellen remembers growing up with tubes of insects in the family freezer, or the airing cupboard. “What impressed me was my father seemed to know everything – any insect, bird or plant – and I wanted to be like that too. But he let us find our own path. I never found creepy-crawlies scary and could exploit my elder brother’s fear of spiders. All I needed to do was pick up a fat, juicy spider and my big, strong brother would shoot off. So did my Dad actually! ”

During a zoology course at Glasgow University, and for two years afterwards, Ellen went on various expeditions abroad –to the tropical forests of Costa Rica, to a gibbon rehabilitation centre in Thailand and to Australia. “It was only when I returned to do a Master’s Degree in wildlife conservation and management at Reading University that I rediscovered British wildlife. I had always avoided insect projects at university, not wanting to be accused of following in my father’s footsteps, but that feeling wore off.”

At the museum Graham was charged with developing the collections of Diptera, since so many of his predecessors had concentrated on groups such as moths, butterflies, dragonflies, beetles, bees, wasps and ants. “It is essential that we recognise the importance of Scotland. There is so much to be discovered, especially up here in the Highlands, and it is so important that we enthuse young people to take up the challenge.” Graham’s work is not only adding to the Museum’s collections, but includes applied research to advise on conservation management, as well as handling general enquiries from the public, and facilitating study by specialists and students alike.

He developed a keen interest in ancient Scottish woodlands, especially in one of the ‘big three’ deadwood Scottish hoverflies that occur there, the rare Callicera rufa. It had been discovered in the pinewoods of Strathspey in 1905 but many decades later Graham and six colleagues were to discover it much further north, in the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve in Wester Ross. Triumphant they decided that same evening to form themselves into a select team called the Malloch Society (after a famous Dipteran specialist), dedicated to the study of rare and significant fly species.

It was another rare hoverfly species, the aspen hoverfly, Hammerschmidtia ferruginea, that Ellen choose for her MSc project. “I asked my Dad about it and got quite enthused, but we worried that we would not be able to find enough to work on.”  Graham explained that the larvae require decaying aspen logs but these are a scarce resource and aspen is spread thinly in little clumps.

Hoverfly with spot of paint for monitoring

Hoverfly with spot of paint for monitoring

Ellen soon developed a keen eye for finding larvae in dead wood of the appropriate age and when she set emergence traps there she was able to catch adults for marking. Her deft fingers applied a little spot of enamel paint to the thorax of each before it was released again. Finding them again was a different matter and, teased by her friends, Ellen was getting somewhat discouraged. She had discovered however that the males would defend territories beside suitable fallen logs and wait for the females to come and deposit her eggs.

“The day I was sitting there and found my first marked individual I was so elated that I just had to get straight on the phone to my Dad.”  Eventually she was to recover a remarkable 10% of her marked flies. She discovered that they could travel up to 4 km from where they had emerged and could easily traverse wide and windy areas, even fields and roads. One female actually lived for 60 days, three times longer than expected based on the longevity of other hoverflies. This particular individual constantly returned to the same log, but might disappear for days, presumably visiting other suitable sites in the vicinity.

Ellen’s work has inspired a wider interest in aspen. Previously the tree was seen as a minor element of birchwoods, but it is now known to harbour a wide array of specialised insects, some of them very rare. Although aspen trees are normally encountered in clumps of five hectares or so, a few can extend to 20 or 30 ha. “In Scotland we have some of the best stands of aspen anywhere in Europe, so it is very important that we look after them”, Graham added.

“I have spent hours sitting beside these logs and I loved it!”  Ellen admits. “Getting to know one particular species intimately was so rewarding. Specialists might have decades more experience but here I was, new to this game, and an expert in my own right, if only in one particular species. I was amazed how people who came to see what I was doing soon got interested in this wee insect. It has inspired me to try and promote it even more.”

Ellen is now a notable scientist in her own right and got off to a wonderful start as a research assistant to Professor Dave Goulson author of the best-selling A Sting in the Tale book about Bumblebees.


A Sting In The Tale by Professor Dave Goulson

A Sting In The Tale by Professor Dave Goulson


This biography of Graham and Ellen Rotheray was originally produced for SNH’s HIghland Naturalists project – part of our contribution to 2007 The Year of Highland Culture.


Images courtesy of Ellen Rotheray


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