This bee broke my Dad’s arm

On 30 March 1980 my father picked me up from my student flat in Brighton and we headed off to the old sand pit in Rewell Wood near Arundel West Sussex. It was a fine day and the disused quarry promised some unusual early spring bees and wasps, just starting their nest burrows in the scrubby but still sun-exposed vertical sand faces.
Dad and I often met up like this, a chance for father/son wanderings together in the Weald or across the South Downs of Sussex. As usual I’d mainly be looking at insects and he’d also be recording plants, but the sand pit, at the start of our countryside ramble, offered common interest in the Hymenoptera.
We hadn’t been there long, however, when Dad came over to me looking slightly sheepish. He’d tripped whilst trying to net a bee, and hurt his shoulder. He wasn’t in excruciating pain, but complained of discomfort in his upper left arm. What to do?
He was unable to drive with only one arm, but the thought of calling an ambulance only added to his embarrassment. So I set off the country mile to the pub at the next road junction to phone a friend.
We knew Mike Edwards, who lived in Midhurst, slightly. I’m not sure we’d ever been to each other’s houses, but had met him at entomological meetings on and off. He was the nearest help I knew. I made the call from the coin-operated phone on the bar. And amazingly he was in. He would rush out immediately.
Half an hour later he was there to pick up me and Dad and we headed off to Midhurst A&E. Despite a town fair completely blocking the streets with traffic, Mike negotiated inconvenient pavements and oncoming traffic as he drove down the wrong side of the road. By noon we were in the waiting room as Dad explained, trying to keep a straight face, that he had taken a tumble chasing after a bee.
He’d cracked his upper arm bone, his humerus, ha ha very amusing. No plaster was necessary, but arm in a sling for a month, and how to get back to our homes?
I can never thank Mike Edwards enough. He rounded up fellow local entomologist Chris Haes and we headed back to Rewell Wood to collect our abandoned motor. Mike would drive Dad to Newhaven, Chris would drive Dad’s car with me navigating. Having dropped off Mr Invalid, they then drove all the way back into deepest West Sussex, dropping me off in Brighton on their way through.
Sorting out some of Dad’s things I thought I’d try and find that bee. Sure enough, there it is in the catalogue against specimen number 3879: “Flying in gravel pit, Rewell Wood, Tortington, 30.3.80, female Andrena clerkella. P.S. Caused a broken arm.”

Less is more, or small is beautiful, but certainly two is a colony

It’s the little things that get me excited. Take this tiny (4 mm) longhorn beetle, Nathrius brevipennis. The longhorns are a diverse group of beetles, but most of them are relatively large (some UK species to 50 mm not including the long antennae) and others are brightly coloured. Nathrius must rank as our smallest and dullest.

Nathrius brevipennis is too small to have an English name, but at 4 mm I'm thinking "short longhorn".

Nathrius brevipennis is too small to have an English name, but at 4 mm I’m thinking “short longhorn”.

But when this one crawled over my small garden table on Monday (14 July) I nearly fell off my chair. Nathrius, I knew, is very rare; so rare, in fact, that it is barely regarded as being British at all. Some of the older books do not include it, some others say “naturalized”. Occasionally specimens emerge from decorative twigs of uncertain provenance bought in florist shops, others chew their way out of wicker baskets imported from who knows where. Records in genuine outdoor habitats, in the wild, are scant.

My Nathrius is special, not because it is so rare, or even because I found it out of doors, but because it is the second specimen I have found out of doors in my garden. The first specimen crawled over my arm as I sat outside reading the newspaper on 18 July 2010. Of course I enthusiastically reported its presence in the entomological press here.

So, two specimens in 4 years makes my garden the largest known UK colony of this small but fascinating insect.

Ivydale’s inse(c)t day

It was the obvious wordplay, so I went with it. They were always called insect days in our house. Inset? what on Earth does that mean anyway? At least ‘teacher training day’ makes some sort of sense.

This way; past stinging nettles, trailing brambles, and mud.

This way; past stinging nettles, trailing brambles, and mud.

I didn’t call it a bug-hunt though (too demeaning for adults) so we indulged in the citizen science that is the bioblitz. But it was a bug hunt really. The hunters were armed with empty humous pots and sent off to see what could be scooped from the herbage of One Tree Hill off Brenchley Gardens.

I’d set up a trestle table and microscope in the small grassy clearing half way up the hill and along everyone came.

Ready to rumble.

Ready to rumble.

Not surprisingly the list of just over 60 species was really quite modest. The site we investigated was very restricted, barely a few hundred square metres of secondary woodland edge and irregularly mown grass and bramble thicket.

Nevertheless everyone seemed very enthusiastic. (Well, I did get a couple of sit-outs “Oooh, I don’t do insects”, slightly disappointing.) There were five species of bumble, including the tree bumblebee, Bombus hypnorum, and one of the cuckoo bumblebees, Bombus vestalis.

The most unusual find of the day was a single small (5.5 mm) metallic green jewel beetle. Agrilus laticornis is notionally ‘nationally scarce’, a denizen of oak woodland (there were some oaks growing here) where its larvae burrow through the bark of dead trunks and branches. It’s always a nice thing to find.

Agrilus laticornis, confirmed by examination of the shape of the prosternal plate behind the front coxae.

Agrilus laticornis, confirmed by examination of the shape of the prosternal plate behind the front coxae. Technical terms obligatory here folks.

One thing, though, became immediately clear — although older, wiser and potentially better informed, the adults could not compete with the keen and crisp eye-sight of their 5- to 12-year-old pupils. Also, being shorter, the children are naturally closer to the ground, always a useful thing when bug-hunting.

Almost the first bug-hunter back and we have a kill

It’s always the slightly gruesome ecologies that best capture the kids’ attention, so what good luck that almost the first hunter back to last week’s annual Nunhead Cemetery Open Day Bug Hunt stall had found a dung fly with its hapless prey.

Dung fly, Scathophaga stercoraria, with muscid victim.

Dung fly, Scathophaga stercoraria, with muscid victim.

This one was doubly pleasing because of the scatological habits of its larvae. It breeds in ….. Incidentally, never use the word ‘poo’ unless you are talking to primary school children. It’s undignified, and when speaking about dung, excrement, or faeces, you generally need all the dignity you can muster.

Not that dignity is something I worry about too much on the Bug Hunt.

I give you — the farting beetle

Today I took along a bombardier beetle, Brachinus crepitans, to Ivydale Natural History Club. I’d found it earlier in the day, near Dartford, slightly crushed at the edge of a footpath, but it was still alive and active in a three-legged sort of way. I would try to get it to perform.

In the class I pontificated about canons, bombardment, chemical explosives and the useful deterent of being able to secrete stable neutral chemicals from abdominal glands, mix them inside a reinforced internal crucible reaction chamber, and then squirting a directable jet of boiling hot hydroquinones into the face of your would-be attacker. There were a few skeptical looks, and maybe 2 seconds before one quipped: “What, it farts?”

Well of course a bombardier beetle word search will have the word 'bottom' in it.

Well of course a bombardier beetle word search will have the word ‘bottom’ in it.

I had their attention now; getting them to quiet down to listen took a bit of time. Of course the beetle gets its name from the audible pop of its defensive mechanism. But at only 7 or 8 mm long, even the beetle’s loudest output would need complete silence in the group of 20 giggling 8- to 10-year-olds.

I waited, whilst the beetle shuffled about in its tissue-lined pot, and the general hubbub subsided to calm expectation. Using some fine watch-maker’s tweezers I gently tweaked its back leg and there came the report. The looks on the assembled faces were priceless. Not a pop, not a bang, not a fizz, but a tiny, clear, slightly musical ‘toot’. Perfect.

Pollinators are like, well, cyclists really

This ostensibly strange thought came to me as I was cycling up to Westminster early on Wednesday morning. Pollinators were on my mind because I was heading up to the Houses of Parliament for the launch of Buglife’s grandly titled Pollinator Manifesto. A lord, an MP and a Cambridge research scientist were due to speak to the assembled breakfasters about the parlous state of Britain’s insects as manifested in the well documented declines in our native bees, wasps, hoverflies and various other key flower pollinator groups.

Pollinators are important, not just because they fertilize a few wild flowers to produce seeds, but because they have a potentially measurable financial impact in industrial agriculture. Major international farming industries around orchards, soft fruits, almonds, legumes and, of course, garden flowers, rely on these insects to take pollen from one flower to the next to ensure the crop

There has recently been a move to put a financial tag on wildlife, trying to encourage the free market economy to take it seriously. I think the adage goes along the lines of: if you don’t value it, why should you worry about it and why would you bother to protect it. Sadly value often has to mean monetary wealth rather than spiritual worth, but money talks to many people. With newspaper headlines about colony collapse disorder of honeybees and the mass disappearance of bumblebees, the market (and the politicians) have finally started to think about these diminutive creatures, and the possibility that they may not always just be there to carry out their free service for farmers.

Part of me worries that by promoting pollinators, other less commercially significant insects might be seen as irrelevant, less worthy of support and understanding. It’s all very well getting the farmers, the public and the politicians in favour of helping out the poor pollinators, but what about all the other less well known specks of animated matter flitting about in the disappearing and dwindling countryside? Just because something is not a pollinator species, will it be viewed as a second-class organism?

This kind of pick-and-choose favouritism, though, already exists, particularly in the world of insect conservation. Large charismatic species like butterflies, dragonflies, bumblebees and stag beetles are already promoted as flagships. Luckily, the proposals to help the beleaguered pollinators will also benefit the wider insect community.

It’s all down to the state of the environment. Lord de Mauley (Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Natural Environment and Science) was not able to attend the meeting, but Barry Gardiner (Shadow Minister, Natural Environment and Fisheries) spoke enthusiastically on parliament’s serious view of pollinator decline and the consultation recently launched to garner ideas and suggestions. Lynn Dicks (that Cambridge researcher I mentioned) captured the necessary environmental state for recovery in a single word: “resilience”. This is a key concept in conservation, even more fundamental than “sustainability”, because it brings with it the idea of a world that can cope with knocks — a strong and vibrant environment, not one barely surviving in meagre scattered nature reserves, which are easily snuffed out.

To get the pollinators working the broader countryside has got be healthier — it has to be unpolluted by pesticides, it has to be reunited not fragmented, it needs to be interlinked by real natural corridors (‘bee lines’ in Buglife jargon), it needs to have wild flowers reinstated, and especially it needs people to be aware that habitat degradation is occurring, and that insects of all sorts and inclinations (not just pollinators) are suffering major losses, both in terms of numbers and in terms of species diversity, because of human actions in the environment.

It was at this point, having noticed that most of the pains au chocolat had gone from the buffet table, that I started to craft my epic simile about cyclists. You see, cyclists travel about, just like pollinators. And just like bees, cyclists are flagship road-users, highlighted because of low carbon dioxide emissions and personal fitness benefits. Like bees, cyclists are vulnerable, not to population collapse perhaps, but to sudden left turns by concrete lorries, so they need safe friendly routes (like bee lines) to encourage them. They need air free of pollution from both neonicotinoids and exhaust fumes, so they can go about their business without being poisoned. They need forage zones (or at least places to park their bikes) which are secure and open. They need drivers (and pedestrians) to be aware of them, on the look out for them, respectful of them even. In effect they need a pleasant varied non-industrialized road system that is suited to diverse users, not just motorists. Just like the bees need a resilient varied interconnected environment suited to the diverse needs of wildlife, not just farmers.

If you’ve made it this far through my rambling discourse, well done, and thank you. It may still need some work. I’m not going to cycle in a black and yellow fluffy jumper quite yet.

This is now my favourite daft-looking critter

Definitely also the ungainliest insect I have ever seen — a female black oil beetle, Meloe proscarabaeus.

Definitely also the ungainliest insect I have ever seen — a female black oil beetle, Meloe proscarabaeus.

This is only the second oil beetle I’ve ever found. Meloe proscarabaeus, the black oil beetle is a giant among British insects, up to 45 mm long and a great tub of a beast. Partly distinguished by her swollen abdomen, she’s full of eggs, up to a thousand of them according to the literature. She was half way into digging her egg burrow at the edge of the path down to Woody Bay, at St Lawrence, Isle of Wight last week. I nearly squeaked.

It’s usually a given, in insects, that it is the adult stage which does the flying off to start new colonies after the larva does all the eating and growing, but she can’t fly; not only is she weighed down with all her eggs, she doesn’t have any wings anyway. In oil beetles, this maxim is thrown out of the window, and it is the larvae which to the dispersing. The adult beetle is little more than a barely mobile  egg storage facility. Here’s a link to the Buglife oil beetle page which goes into the life cycle of these curious insects. In brief, the tiny but very active larvae (triungulins) hatch from the batch of eggs, scurry up plant stems and congregate on flowers waiting for a soil-nesting solitary bee to visit. They then grip tight to legs, feet, antennae, hair, whatever they can, to hitch a lift back to the bee’s nest where they invade the brood chambers, eating bee grubs and whatever nectar/pollen food stores the bee has laid up in there.

This is, as you can imagine, a rather precarious hit-and-miss strategy. The success rate of the the thousand or so triungulins is probably around the 0.1 per cent mark. So a ‘thriving’ oil beetle colony can only exist where there are bounteous bees nesting. And like all parasitoids it does not take much of a dip in host numbers to render them impossible to find for the budding brood thieves waiting atop flowers. The adult beetles are very short-lived, and only about for a few weeks in early spring; this is a good time to find the bees busily nesting, as long as the weather holds and the bees can forage, as long as the triunglins can hang on in there long enough, and don’t get washed out, or eaten whilst they wait.

Consequently, all UK oil beetle species are in trouble and even the ‘common’ ones like proscarabaeus are decidedly scarce and declining. Two specimens I’ve seen, 20 years apart — that’s a fair indication of how rare they are.