Dr Jess French: Two legs, good – six legs, better! One woman and her many minibeasts

Aug 12 2019

Veterinary surgeon, writer and television presenter Dr Jess French joins David Oakes in this episode of Trees A Crowd

David Oakes

David Oakes


Dr Jess French


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About this episode:

Dr Jess French is a veterinary surgeon, writer and television presenter. She fronts the CBeebies show Minibeast Adventure and has recently published the book, How to Help a Hedgehog and Protect a Polar Bear, both aimed at getting our younger generations excited by the world they have a part share in. Unflinching when it comes to handling insects, as a child she didn’t realise her love of tiny creatures was unusual – but it eventually earned her the nickname ‘the bug girl’, and ultimately a career she loves. Prodding David with an “Are you scared?” as she unveils the millipedes, this fascinating chat is full of many wonderful moments of distraction, from a tarantula in a box firmly labelled ‘do not open’, to a leaf insect climbing onto the microphone.

David's thoughts:

Upon arriving in Norwich at Jess’s family home, I found a very worrying sign attached to the front door. It advised postmen to handle the numerous large parcels that arrived at the address extremely carefully and to take them to the large shed at the back of the house. It seemed that the insect trade was booming – and indeed crawling – in this corner of Norfolk, and that the postmen, whether they knew it or not, were complicit in a mass movement of wee beasties that would have made Noah proud!

The shed mentioned is Jess’s father’s, and contains his substantial collection of arthropods, big and small. It’s really quite a sight to see! A vast array of species inside. Scientists have identified around 1.7 million species of animals and plants on our planet, with an estimated five million additional species that remain unclassified; a great percentage of these millions are most likely insects.

Here’s a bit of a history lesson for you about our early insect discoveries:

In the early 1500s, an Italian writer and explorer called Antonio Pigafetta (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_Pigafetta), whilst sailing the undiscovered world with Magellan, first recorded the discovery of a brilliantly camouflaged mini-beast. He wrote:

“In this island are also found certain trees, the leaves of which, when they fall, are animated, and walk. They are like the leaves of the mulberry tree, but not so long; they have the leaf stalk short and pointed, and near the leaf stalk they have on each side two feet. If they are touched they escape, but if crushed they do not give out blood. I kept one for nine days in a box. When I opened it the leaf went round the box. I believe they live upon air.”

The sheer quantity of insect species is mind blowing – let alone the variety of unique distinct adaptations – and Pigafetta’s aptly named ”leaf insect” could not look more like a leaf of it tried. 

Sitting beside Jess and hearing her joy-inducing enthusiasm for mini beasts as I allowed a leaf insect to circumnavigate my hand was a real treat. But it was incredibly fortunate that a microphone was running, otherwise, being so enthralled by the insects, I would have had no idea what she had said!

Here’s a list of the insects we handled during this episode:

(1) Leaf insect (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phylliidae)

(2) Sphodromantis (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sphodromantis)

(3) Golden silk orb-weavers / Nephila (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_silk_orb-weaver)

(4) Tarantula (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarantula)

(5) Whip Scorpion (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thelyphonida)

(6) Millipede (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millipede)

I love meeting people whose interests and creative outputs straddle multiple disciplines. Jess’s enthusiasm for insects is perfectly matched by her creativity, and by her joy at enchanting and informing the next generation. Whatever she decides to commit herself too next, I doubt not that it will be something of genuine worth in our frequently harsh world.


Dr Jess French – http://www.jessfrench.co.uk/


Jess’s Father’s ”Bugz” – https://www.bugzuk.com/


The peculiarities of the Giraffe’s laryngeal nerve – https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Laryngeal_nerve


Grants Zoology Museum – https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/grant-museum-zoology


Primate Society of Great Britain – http://www.psgb.org/


Quetzalcoatlus (Wikipedia) – https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quetzalcoatlus


“Insect-a-geddon” – https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320718313636


“The Lost Words” – https://www.thelostwords.org/

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