The ghosts of collections past

The images stopped me in my tracks. These are the haunting signs that will make any entomologist hang their head in melancholy regret at things lost and gone forever.

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Echoes of the butterflies what were once stored in this box.

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… and the swallowtails that were once here.

These shadowy outlines were stained into the paper lining a couple of store-boxes I recently picked up at the Booth Museum of Natural History, in Brighton. They are all that is left of the butterfly specimens earnestly collected, carefully mounted and proudly pinned into the cork by some long-gone entomologist.

Imagine what would happen to the dried insect specimens, pinned into the box (the boxes stored flat to allow some stacking), if the butterfly bodies and wings suddenly and magically turned to fine dust. The dust would fall and settle on the white paper beneath, in exactly the same shape as the insect that was once above, and over the months or years the undisturbed dust would impregnate the white fibres of the lining, casting a tinge of discoloration. All that remains are the naked pins and the small rectangles of the data labels. Now the pins and labels have been removed, leaving their own echoes too.

There is no magic involved, though, just the depredations of the larvae of museum beetles — Anthrenus species. ‘Undisturbed’ is the operative word here. Undisturbed, unmonitored, unseen inside the boxes, a population of museum beetles chewed through the butterflies until there was nothing left but the beetles’ powdery dusty droppings.

Every museum in the world will have horror stories of some precious and irreplaceable collection reduced to dust like this. Store-boxes are especially prone, because they are apt to be left shut up for years or decades at a time. Glass-topped cabinet drawers, at least, can be easily pulled out and examined for the tell-tale dusty signs of an infestation — hopefully caught early on.

Like many museums, the Booth is glad to get rid of all the store boxes it can, transferring the many specimens into standard glazed drawers. And as I’m discussing this with the curators they shake their heads and bemoan the state of so many collections that come their way. This is all very significant for me, because I have just helped them transfer the nine cabinets of my father’s insect collections into the museum, along with a cabinet of snail shells and his herbarium, all of which he bequeathed to the Booth in his will. During his lifetime he was lucky that he never had any Anthrenus infestations.

The museum can heave a sigh of relief that the Alfred W. Jones bequest is pest-free, and there are no signs of any ghostly shadows on the paper linings of the drawers.

Can you tell whether I’m a cat person or a dog person?

Final proofs for House Guests, House Pests are in and it won’t be long before the print button is pressed. The content is, of course, mostly insects, but there is a light scatter of non-invertebrate subject matter too.

Bats in the belfry, dormice in the loft and porcupines interfering in the garden shed all get a mention. Not everything is a pest. There are plenty of animals we seem to tolerate in our houses.

Take this for instance. I’m pretty certain you should be able to tell where my loyalties lie.

Do house guests include cats and dogs?

Do house guests include cats and dogs?

What a difference three decades makes

The perspective is not quite the same, but I think you can just make out that Shirley Wheeler is standing in the left-hand of the two bridge spans.

Disused railway line, Poplar, 6 August 1984.

Disused railway line, Poplar, 6 August 1984.

Docklands Light Railway, Poplar, 4 September 2014.

Docklands Light Railway, Poplar, 4 September 2014.

This is the view just north-east of Poplar station on the Docklands Light Railway line heading up towards Stratford. The bridge carries Poplar High Street across the tracks. Just over 30 years separates the two photographs.

The first photo was taken when ‘Docklands’ was just a developer’s wild idea. The second was taken this afternoon. In the summer of 1984 Shirley was looking up at the birds nesting under the eaves of the derelict building — house martins I think they were, or swallows perhaps. We’d spent the day wandering the vast broken landscape of the Isle of Dogs, from Mudchute and Millwall up here to Poplar. Much of the former industry had been bulldozed or had just fallen down in abandonment. Everywhere was a riot of flowers and birdsong. We picked blackberries from the old railway embankments. I found the peculiar plant-hopper Asiraca clavicornis, for the first time. It’s a regular on London brownfields still, but is rare elsewhere in the UK.

The massive redevelopment started soon after our visit, and is continuing even now. Each time I travel on the DLR there is more construction going on somewhere as more plots are infilled. I don’t want to get too maudlin, but I do mourn the loss of what was, at the time, London’s largest nature reserve.

Anyone in Britain seen a map lately?

Has anyone in Britain seen a map lately? Clouded yellows — two a penny. Swallowtails — already plenty of sightings along the South Coast. But a map, now that would be something.


Map of France, from Burgundy actually.

The European map butterfly, Araschnia levana, is named for its prettily marked underside with its criss-cross of white lines supposedly resembling the radiating compass marks superimposed on old maps and nautical charts. It’s common enough on the Continent, and occurs through much of France, where this picture was taken a few years ago. What’s more, its caterpillars feed on the ubiquitous stinging nettle and it has been spreading through Europe, having extended its range hundreds of kilometres further north and west during the last few decades. It’ll be here any day now.

The weird thing about this butterfly is that it has two strikingly different colour forms on the upper surface. The spring butterflies, emerging from overwintered chrysalides, are bright orange on the upperside, patterned with a series of black spots and blotches — form levana. These lay eggs and the caterpillars feed through the summer, pupate, and emerge a few weeks later. The late-summer emergers are jet black above, with a strong white flash down each wing — form prorsa. There are plenty of galleries available to look at, here and here, for example.

Its possible that when the butterfly finally gets here it may only have one generation a year, as it does in northern parts of its range, and up mountains; this would be the chrsalis-overwintering orange form levana.

The map already has a tenuous claim in Britain, because 100 years ago it was established in the Forest of Dean. The story goes that it was deliberately released by some well-meaning, but ill-informed enthusiast around 1912. The tale continues that a less enthusiastic entomologist, one A.B Farn, was so incensed at this foreign transgressor that in 1915 he vowed to exterminate it by destroying every individual he could find. It seems unlikely that one butterfly maniac could eradicate a thriving colony; much more likely that this insect was floundering anyway, well away from its comfort zone in central Europe.

Today things are different and as that comfort zone appears to be expanding northwards, colonization of Britain now seems inevitable.

The working copy

Some time during the late 1940s and early 50s my father’s burgeoning interest in natural history embraced flies. However, hampered by lack of a microscope and books, his options were limited. He wrote to eminent dipterist Leonard Parmenter and was pleased to be invited to his house. Parmenter was helpful and encouraging and although Dad was mainly a botanist, a few of his published articles were on hoverflies.
Just as today, the Syrphidae offered a good introduction to flies, many of which other groups offer taxonomic difficulties that still give experts nightmares. They are generally large, bright, attractive and distinctive species, and there was a good ID guide available.
At that time the masterful monograph on the hoverflies, by the great George Verrall, was the most important book on the group, but it was huge, at over 800 pages, and was an expensive purchase beyond my father’s meagre means.
Instead, over a period of several months, he borrowed a copy of the book from Paddington (I think) public library and laboriously copied out various parts of it longhand into three large ruled hardback exercise books, pictures and all. This he used to identify and research the flies.
Years later he was able to get hold of the 1969 facsimile reprint of Verrall’s book, still quite an expensive book even then, but he kept his manuscript copy, now a poignant memento of an earlier time.

A proof-louse

It stands to reason that a head-louse lives on heads, a plant-louse lives on plants, a bark-louse lives on tree trunks, so a proof-louse occurs on proofs.

Hopefully not a sign of a lousy book.

Hopefully not a sign of a lousy book.

This is what crawled over the photocopy proofs of House Guests, House Pests whilst I was reading through them on holiday last week. It’s one of the book/bark/flour lice (order Psocoptera), something like Liposcelis which is often found damaging paper, or in stored food. We have them living in various cupboards in the kitchen and that’s probably where this one came from originally.

However, it had been on a long journey, because it crawled out of the proofs in Strobl, in the Austrian Alps, after I took them from the brown envelop that I had been carrying in my small hand-luggage back-pack.

I suspect my bag, long used on family trips to hold packed lunches, savoury snacks, sweets, and various other food items frequently spilled, has its own internal ecosystem and that there is actually a thriving colony of Liposcelis living at the bottom of it.

I’ll give it a bit of a shake-out before I use it next.


Snatched from the jaws of death

That’s not always the optimistic line it’s made out to be. Sadly, for this moth, they were the jaws of a dragonfly, and the moth was already dead.

The emperor dragonfly, Anax imperator, is a large and dramatic insect on any occasion, but when one rattled past my face with a huge moth in its mouth it was particularly startling. I tried to creep up on it for a photo, when it came to rest on a bramble leaf, but I was squelching near ankle deep in muddy water and pushing my way through waist high rushes so my approach was not gentle and I disturbed the poor beast. It dropped the moth, but got its meal, since most of the highly nutritious moth body was missing.

Even from the damaged and worn remains I can tell this is a male gypsy moth, Lymantria dispar. Hmmm. Despite the name being used positively for an acrobatic biplane and Sir Francis Chichester’s round-the-world yacht, the gypsy moth of the insect world is a notifiable forestry pest, so how do I break the news to the ecological wardens of London’s Olympic Park that they might have an infestation on their hands?

Unfortunately a lone male doesn’t tell us much. They migrate far and even before genuine breeding colonies were discovered in the London area they turned up irregularly in southern England.

There are infestations of gypsy moth in several parts of London, so another in the Olympic Park would be no surprise. The gardening staff will have to keep an eye out for the gregarious caterpillar masses.

In the mean time let’s hope that the park’s healthy population of large dragonflies can continue their biocontrol efforts.