Marian Hill: The Beetle Lady

The threat to our environment from climate change can feel overwhelming. But there are many things you can do to protect not just wildlife, but the insect species who work to keep your garden in balance. Emma Clegg met up with illustrator Marian Hill to find out more.

We used to spend hours crawling through long grass to play. I hated ball sports, so for me cut lawns meant formal picnics and ball games and long grass meant freedom and fun.”

So says artist illustrator Marian Hill who spent her childhood in the landscape of the Mendip Hills. This connection returned to her years later after having worked for a long period as a professional illustrator when she took her illustration students at UWE to the Natural History Museum collection in London.

“They have 80 million specimens in the vaults of the museum and they are photographing them to get them online as a research resource. We had a tour and Gavin Broad, the Principal Curator In Charge of Insects, gave us a talk in the insect department. He touched on why digitisation is important and why insects and the environmental habitat need to be recorded. That set something off in my head. A year or so later I started illustrating insects in the garden. I thought I could act as a mini version of what the National History Museum are doing by recording everything and telling everybody what’s there – then people might care about it, look after it and adopt nature friendly gardening techniques.

Insects that thrive in long grass and wild flowers

“I thought it would take me two or three weeks to record the insects in the garden. I just had no idea. I’m way over 200 illustrations in and I’ve barely started. I’d say at least half of those are in our garden, and many more are really local.”

Marian’s insects are not painted, but are collaged from cut-up magazine pages and other papers. This means it is a technique that children can easily use, something that Marian takes full advantage of by running children’s workshops. “I do think if you hook kids in the grown-ups follow. The best feedback I had was when I was putting the rubbish out and a lady stopped me on the street and said, ‘Are you the beetle lady?’ And then she said, ‘Since you put your posters up I’ve stopped squashing things in my garden, and now I look at them.’ I think that’s it – that’s what I’m trying to do.”

I’ve got really attached to my insects. We’ve got tortoise beetles nesting in the mint – they are so beautiful

To maximise the potential for insects Marian transformed the management of her garden from regular lawn mowing and keeping neat beds to something more freeflowing. “I’ve just let the garden go a bit, not completely, but by not digging, and not mowing as much as possible. I trim the grass so we’ve got a sitting area but I do that by hand because we’ve got slow worms and I don’t want to hurt them.” Other garden strategies are creating stick and log piles, having a tiny pond for water insects, and leaving piles of roots and dead sticks around.

“I have got really attached to my insects. Things like grass bugs which have started to thrive in the garden because I’ve let the lawn grow and seed. And we’ve got tortoise beetles nesting in the mint – they are so beautiful. They chomp through my mint but they don’t kill it. I’m going to plant extra mint this year to feed my beetles.”

Marian has been working with Bathscape (who promote the natural landscape around Bath) on what she calls her Buzz and Scuttle project. They put her in touch with local entomologist and ecologist Mike Williams who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of insects and local history. “Mike gives me species lists for local insects, I send him photographs and he’ll identify insects, checks my illustrations and points out any errors. I soon realised that entomologists get rightly frustrated when artists make obvious blunders when illustrating insect species, so I try and get details right and welcome feedback from experts.”

With Mike’s help Marian creates posters of groups of insects and works with Bathscape to get them into parks and schools. “I cannot believe the positive response from the community. My main problem is I haven’t got enough hours in the day.”

The posters cover themes such as waste disposal, pest control and pollinators, showing how useful insects are to a garden. “Many people don’t realise that insects are doing jobs for us. They think they need to destroy them because they get out of control, but pests don’t get out of control if you’ve got insects in the garden to help maintain the balance naturally.”

Marian is also contributing to Bee Bold, a WECA funded pollinator project, working in collaboration with Bath Parks Department and Blooming Whiteway to redesign eight sites across B&NES to create pollinator habitats. “Working in partnership with local communities, these open spaces should become better places for both people and insects. “We are aiming to communicate to residents why long glass and wild flower verges are so important for wildlife. With insect numbers falling so radically, it’s vital that we all help to create insect habitat wherever possible and maintain green spaces in a way which nurtures wildlife.”

Marian explains, “My insect project is working because I’m trying not to preach too much. It has to come from people understanding and loving insects.”

Here is how to make a difference in your own back garden.

Marian will be running a workshop on 11 June at the Festival of Nature in Bristol (9–18 June);;;;