By Adrian Durkin (Exhibitions Officer, Dudley Museum and Art Gallery, Dudley, UK)
Many years ago, on a dark and wet Saturday in October, I attended the Amateur Entomological Society (A.E.S.) fair at Hounslow Civic Centre, London, England. In many ways this was an ideal location for such an event because the building is clad in what appears to be Purbeck Roach Stone. Regrettably this does not refer to the fossil content but none the less it is of interest as it is mostly composed of the internal moulds of gastropods.
Quite close to the entrance I encountered a young entomologist selling quite a number of different invertebrates but with a marked bias towards cockroaches. At that stage I had been collecting them myself for about a year or two and had possibly eight or so species. It is so long ago now that I cannot recall what first attracted me to these insects. I think however it was the number of different forms and the subtle variation within the group. I had graduated to cockroaches from their fellow orthopteroids, stick insects. It is hard to imagine a greater contrast between groups which in evolutionary terms are quite closely related.
As the day went on and the stalls became less busy it was possible to engage the proprietor of the stall in conversation. Surprisingly he had not sold all of his roaches, indeed far from it, there seemed little demand. His name was Darren Mann and as our conversation progressed it became clear that he too was a cockroach enthusiast and had a similar number of species to myself, although different ones. Instantly, allowing for some duplication, the combined culture list had grown to about 12 species.
It was instantly apparent that the same idea was forming in each of our minds, that of forming an appreciation society. However the revelations of the day did not end there because Darren introduced me to his friend George Beccaloni, who, like Darren, was just a young innocent! And fresh-faced student in those days. It transpired that George too kept cockroaches and had a few that neither of us had. The collective culture list jumped for the second time that day to about 15 and the likelihood of there being an appreciation group evolved further.
As time went on it was decided to develop the idea and we publicised ourselves through appearances at fairs such as one in Leicester and of course the A.E.S. The first hurdle was to find a name for the group. I personally felt that it was a bit pretentious to call ourselves a study group as there was no guarantee that we would do any studying. I was also anxious to keep the group down-to-earth by calling it the Cockroach Culture Group. I was able to convince the others about the culture element but they felt that a scientific name was preferable and so we became the Blattodea Culture Group. I now realise that this was the right decision not because it was scientific but because it obscured the truth. No one feels threatened by blattids whereas they start getting paranoid if you keep cockroaches!
In the early days the group went well and membership peaked at around 120, whilst I think that the species list went up to about 40. We began the newsletter too (that was in 1986). The first edition was just two pages and did not have much about cockroaches, even the second edition was not a major study document although it did carry an article pondering how many different Blaberus species there were in captivity. However after five or six years problems began to develop. It seemed to be the usual one, amateur members did not consider themselves competent enough to write articles whilst many of the professional entomologists in the group could not get the time to write articles. None the less the group continued producing newsletters up until Volume 14 in 2000. Both Darren and George became professional entomologists although George corrupted himself by doing his PhD on butterflies (traitor). Fate however has moved events full circle. Darren is now a curator at one of the two most important collections of cockroaches in England, that of the Hope Collection at the Natural History Museum in Oxford. George on the other hand has recently become curator of the other, the Orthopteroidea collection of The Natural History Museum in London. Neither of these things in themselves would have resurrected the fortunes of the group but we have been fortunate to get the interest of Ingo Fritzsche who has managed to mobilise much support for the group in Germany. He has been able to bring on board the valued services of Roland Dusi from the German chemical firm frunol delicia. It was with kind support from them that we were able to have a re-inaugural meeting at Delitzsch near Leipzig in Germany. The company keeps over 100 different species of cockroaches in their research collection and they were kind enough not only to host the meeting but to give us access to the collection. In the face of inspiration like this it would be impossible for the group not to feel a new sense of purpose and we therefore hope to resurrect the society. Who says phoenixes have to be birds?