first person

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 August, 2005, 12:00am

Architect Christophe Barthelemy, 42, has been photographing insects in the New Territories for the past six years for a book to be published in autumn. He explains why people should pay more attention to the creepy-crawlies living around them.

I like insects because they are unliked. Insects are seen by most people as obscure, unpleasant things we want to squash. Human beings should look at insects with a bit more interest. They are as important as we are.

If insects were to suddenly disappear, I can guarantee we would follow suit very quickly. Our existence would be unsustainable.

They are the primary food supply for a number of higher organisms - snakes, birds and other mammals. They provide essential services in dealing with waste.

You don't find carcasses in the woods because insects have got to them before you find them. They are overwhelming in their numbers. In the Amazonian rainforest, the biomass of all ants put together is four times the biomass of the land vertebrae.

I started looking at bugs when I was about 10 in my parents' garden in France. I remember rearing ants. I would make notes saying, 'This ant is doing this' and 'This ant is doing that'.

I have always been interested in nature, in the environment and ecosystems, and the relationship between the different elements. I am fascinated by life on the planet. Then when I came to Hong Kong nine years ago, I was faced with this amazing tropical diversity and it reawakened my interest in insects.

Hong Kong is amazingly rich in insects because it has a range of habitats. It goes from mountaintop to valley and shorelines. There are about 250 species of butterfly, 150 species of dragonfly and more than 200 different species of wasp. It goes on and on.

I started taking pictures of insects six or seven years ago. I have recorded more than 600 species, but there will only be about 60 in my book. Of the species I have in my collection, 75 per cent can't be identified. There are many species that are not even known to science.

Taking the pictures was easy. Insects are everywhere. All the insects in my book were photographed in my own garden in the New Territories. I found them all 20 metres or so from my living room.

My book shows only a small selection of Hong Kong insects. Compiling a book on all Hong Kong insects would be virtually impossible, you would be opening a Pandora's box. It would not be physically possible in a lifetime.

There are essentially 1 million known species of insect in the world. Conservative estimates put the total number of species at 5 million. Some estimates put it at 100 million species. So we are talking about a scientific knowledge of insects of only between 1 and 20 per cent of the actual quantity.

There is virtually no knowledge base in Hong Kong - maybe four or five people who are interested in the subject, if that. I have to call people in Australia, Taiwan, Korea and so on for help in identifying species.

There is no university curriculum in Hong Kong on entomology. One of the problems is that Hong Kong isn't a scientific city. It isn't a place where science is renowned, except perhaps in medicine.

It is also because people live in cities and we are very much disconnected from the natural environment.

Fifty years ago, Hong Kong people lived in the countryside. They were all farmers, with very tough lives, trying to make a living out of the land.

People's attitude is, 'We suffered enough out there. We are happy with our Mercedes-Benz and air- conditioners in town'. Life out there as farmers was tough. Anything that relates to that is a bad memory, so people choose to forget it.