The water boatman’s song

January 12, 2012 • 4:02 am

by Matthew Cobb

File:Notonecta glauca01.jpg

The insect in this picture (from Wikipedia) is a bug (and I *mean* bug – it’s a member of the order Hemiptera) that lives under water. This picture is taken just at the surface of the water – the insect is at the bottom, the reflection is at the top. The bug is variously known as a water boatman (in the UK), but also in the US as a backswimmer (for fairly obvious reasons).

Earlier this week, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a rather poetic account of the sounds to be heard underwater in Pollardstown Fen in Ireland (see below), in a programme entitled ‘The Song of the Water Boatman’, as part of its Nature series.

Photo: Jim Schofield

‘Acoustic ecologist and sound artist’ Tom Lawrence, who sadly died in October (eerily, his website gives no sign of this), spent over a year recording the noises made by various insect species in the fen, including the water boatman: ‘Tapping, knocking, hammering, drumming, clicking, creaking, cracking, croaking, buzzing, fuzzing, bleeping, winding, reeling, revving, puttering, pattering, humming, pulsing, squealing, shrieking’. Presented by Paul Evans, along with his pal Jim Schofield, this marvellous 30 minute programme will take you into another world. Put your headphones on, shut your eyes, and listen…

You can access the programme, from anywhere in the world, here.

10 thoughts on “The water boatman’s song

  1. How sad, but what a great legacy. I shall listen this afternoon while searching for articles on tinnitus for a researcher who lost his references… seems appropriate!

  2. I’m not sure about the UK, but in the U.S. water boatmen and backswimmers are two separate families. Water boatmen, family Corixidae, swim right-side up and are mostly herbivores. Backswimmers, family Notonectidae, swim upside down and are predators. The latter is shown in your photo: note the long, pointy beak.

    1. Armed with that info, I found a recent article with a fabulous fossil one from China –
      Zhang W.T., Yao Y.Z. & Ren D., Phylogenetic analysis of a new fossil Notonectidae (Heteroptera: Nepomorpha) from the Late Jurassic of China. Alcheringa, 1–12. ISSN 0311-5518
      DOI:10.1080/03115518.2012.628165

  3. Cool! Pollardstown Fen. I spent so much of my time there, summertime especially; it’s near my home.
    Brings back so many memories.

  4. what riveting programme.This is quality not expected in todays output.Used to hear it years ago….nice to hear it at long last,again.well done,bbc and everyone concerned.mike in Marraksh.

  5. Radio 4 has various beautiful sound tracks played during programmes from wildlife sound recordists.

    Currently, I am listening to someone talking about paintings with birdsong in the background. It could and should be a life enhancing delight

    It allows us to hear what the film and television crews can enjoy during their trips.

    Unlike them, we are only allowed to listen to wildlife for a millisecond here and there. Producers have such an irrational terror of tranquility that they overlay a nearly solid wall of sound to drown out all trace of nature.

    On t.v., they play music or commentary or sometimes both at once. Radio is regrettably beginning to fall into irrelevant music use too. We at home have been obliged to watch wildlife programmes with the sound turned off, to avoid the muzac din.

    We can follow the commentary with subtext.

    While engineers were testing for coverage of a new radio station, they broadcast a test loop of birdsong recorded in a garden. It was pre-internet, so people only found it by mistake. Even so, it was enormously popular.

    Please could the wildlife sound archives be broadcast as a radio channel without commentary? Please could they re-dub and replace the muzac and chatter of previously broadcast t.v. programmes, substituting what the sound recordists heard to go with what the camera crew saw?

    Oh, by the way, there would be a double benefit of re-editing, because the footage showing the presenters mouthing to camera could also be removed, allowing us, the audience, to immerse in the sights and sounds and even silences of nature

    If we wanted to watch people while listening to someone else’s choice of music, we could watch a video stream of singers who mean nothing to us. The natural history teams can do something far better, by letting us see and hear natural history

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