More curious entomologists

Following on from the earlier how to be a curious entomologist workshops covering basic entomological techniques, London Wildlife Trust asked me, in June, to take some of their trainees through a brief introduction to finding insects, making a collection and using identification guides.

There was a time when collecting insects was a common hobby amongst anyone who lived in the countryside. But since far fewer people now live outside cities, and with a certain uneasiness about killing wildlife, what I once took to be an easy introduction to studying nature is now an alien, potentially suspicious, activity carried out by oddball eccentrics. In one of my previous blogs I’ve argued why collecting insects is still vitally important, here’s the link.  These workshops, run erratically and piecemeal as sponsor organizations approach me,  are all part my effort, as a fully paid-up eccentric, to start normalizing entomology again.

First set up your laboratory

First set up your laboratory.

Over the years I’ve accumulated half a dozen simple stereomicroscopes. Starting at about x10 magnification, these were perfect for learning how to set beetles, gluing them onto offcuts of white card. Some came with their own in-built lights, for the others I had a selection of cheap desktop lights. All set.

Next head out into Devonshire Road Nature Reserve in Lewisham. The combination of small classroom space and wildlife site was perfect.

I’ve also accumulated a selection of nets and beating trays. It was glorious weather, so finding the insects was easy. Entomologists are so thin on the ground, that I still marvel when I see anyone else using a net. Here were six others. A gaggle?

The old climb-in-with-them technique of collecting flies.

The old climb-in-with-them technique of collecting flies.

Lots of interesting things turned up, including the scarce flower beetle Mordellochroa abdominalis, ringlets applenty, lesser stag beetles Dorcus parallelipipedus, the recently arrived hollyhock weevil, Rhopalapion longirostre, and this scarce picture-winged fly, Acinia corniculata.

Acinia corniculata.

Acinia corniculata.

This is listed as an endangered species, red data book category 1, and I first found it only about 250 metres away at the Honor Oak Covered Reservoir about 15 years ago. It lays its eggs in the flower heads of knapweed, a common enough plant, but obviously needs something more. It may be turning up more regularly now, but is still scarce. Two specimens found close together in a thick bundle of knapweed showed that there was a breeding colony here.

Back in the makeshift laboratory there was carding, pinning and setting.

It all looks very professional.

It all looks very professional.

With only a few mishaps.

Pin the wasp, not the thumb. PIN THE WASP, NOT THE THUMB.

Pin the wasp, not the thumb. PIN THE WASP, NOT THE THUMB.

We did find a live female stag beetle in the log pile, but these bits of a male found nearby were added to the collection.

We did find a live female stag beetle, but these bits of a male were added to the collection.

This must have been a very diminutive male when it was alive.

All in all, a successful event.

The small sample collection.

The small sample collection.

If you go down in the woods….

I recently went down in the woods, and although I didn’t get any big surprises, I got into a bit of trouble. It wasn’t any trouble I could see, or feel, and I didn’t even realize it was trouble until I got the email the next day. There were no dangerous animals. There was barely any dangerous terrain (beyond some slightly muddy bits along a narrow stream). I had not offended the landowner or the locals. I had not caused criminal damage. I had simply been wandering around a rather pleasant old broad-leaved woodland with a sweep-net, looking at insects. The site, an SSSI, and pheasant shooting wood, was delightful, and reminded me greatly of Plashett Wood, a fabulous private estate near Lewes, which I used to visit with my father when I was a boy.


Here I am. I don’t really need a high-vis jacket, I have high-vis hair.

My trouble was that since I was being employed on an environmental survey, and that I was working alone (lone working it’s called in corporate-speak), I was out of regular contact with the office, and this was ringing alarm bells, almost literally. It did not help that the company director responsible for health and safety was somewhere else on the outskirts of the wood, trying to meet me to see what an entomologist gets up to. This, apparently, was not acceptable. One of the problems with working for large companies is that their bureaucracy appears impenetrable, inflexible and unwieldy, from the outside — nowhere more so than in heath and safety. That my temporary isolation in a mobile-unfriendly pocket of Buckinghamshire should be causing anyone consternation never even crossed my mind. Next thing I know is that I am issued with an email ultimatum and a satellite phone heavy enough to bang in nails; I am to telephone in to the office every hour to confirm that I am alive and well, and, if this device cannot get a signal I am forbidden to enter a site.

It’s at this point that I am tempted to scoff. I don’t, but I am sorely tempted. I wonder if I am being cynical when I muse that nowadays safety really means the safety of the company, and its protection from the threat of potential litigation. I wonder what has changed from 10-year-old me pottering about Plashett Wood with my dad, to now. Are there really any dangers to my health and safety from which I need to be protected? Is me wandering about the countryside with an insect net really a danger that someone has to worry about? I doubt it. It’s at this point that I offer my own considered health and safety policy. In the spirit of “less is more” it is simply this:

be aware,   be wary,   beware.

To continue, in the appropriate bullet point style of the executive health and safety briefing:

  • Be aware of your environment, look around, know where you are, what is going on and act sensibly within it.
  • Be wary of anything unusual or untoward, use caution and discretion when required.
  • Beware of anything obviously dangerous.

At one end of the health-and-safety spectrum, working on a busy construction site, in a treacherous bog or saltmarsh, or at the side of a working railway line, all carry their own special dangers, which need to be addressed. This may mean a buddy system of working in pairs, an accompanying safety marshall, or regularly contacting the office; it might require hard hat and high-vis gear, steel-impregnated footwear, first-aid kit, extra water, emergency rations, or a satellite phone. But at the other end — moseying about in the woods — I now have my own criterion for assessing whether or not to cross into the site, and it harks back, again, to my Dad taking 10-year-old me across the South Downs and through the woods of the Sussex Weald. I imagine that I have my own 10-year-old son with me. So, if this is the sort of place that I am happy to take him for a nature walk, then in I go, mobile phone reception or no.

The horror has emerged, and it’s quite pretty really

A postscript to the last blog on the ladybird parasitoid, and Dinocampus coccinellae has emerged from its cocoon.

The ladybird survived for just one more day, but the adult wasp emerged after a fortnight.

The ladybird survived for just one more day, but the adult wasp emerged after a fortnight.

The delicate little insect is hardly the drooling monster. Just another energetic tiny creature going about its usual business of keeping ladybird numbers down.

The good, the bad, and the downright nauseatingly disgusting

The 2015 Nunhead Cemetery Open Day Bug Hunt has just been and gone and, as ever, one of my main tactics to enthuse children is to emphasize the grim, gory and gruesome nature of insect biology. The more disgustingly yucky the better. Dung flies are always good — they eat what? I was bitten by 20 centipedes (venomous front legs) and half-a-dozen spiders (“can you see how her fangs are stuck in my skin”). We had predatory ground beetles ready to rip apart some unfortunately prey, a hoverfly larva ready to suck an aphid’s innards out, and a lesser stag beetle grub that defaecated right on cue. But it was the parasitic wasp pupa under the ladybird that really caused a stir.

“What’s this ladybird cuddling?”

I was quite excited about this one. The idea of one animal living inside another, and eating it alive from the inside, is definitely the stuff of nightmares. No prizes for guessing where Ridley Scott got the idea for Alien.

We’d already had a couple of parasitoid wasps brought to the bug hunt stall, one with long thin ovipositor, prefect for penetrating deep into the succulent flesh of a caterpillar to lay its eggs. My description got some grimaces, but any disgust was mild, and tinged (as I had planned) with a certain amount of wonder at nature’s inventiveness. No so for Dinocampus coccinellinae, the ladybird killer.

For one thing the ladybird was not dead. It had not been allowed to die. Instead, as the maggot gnawing at its internal organs had grown to maturity, its host had continued to move about and feed, constantly supplying the hungry inner passenger with fresh food. Eventually the parasitic grub had burrowed out through the beetle’s belly to spin a cocoon in which to pupate, but still the live ladybird was in its thrall, gripping involuntarily to the leaf as a protective dome.

Hypothetical caterpillars might be one thing, but here was a helpful ‘friendly’ creature from the garden, the lead character in many a children’s book, a fashionably familiar design on back-packs, clothes, bedding, jewellery, drinking bottles, kitchen timers, hair accessories and novelty chocolates. And here it was, being tormented before our very eyes.

It was at this point that someone asked if this was one of the ‘bad’ ladybirds. Since it was first found in Essex in 2004, the harlequin ladybird, Harmonia axyridis, has been a popular tabloid focus for biological woe, with all manner of garbled non-science about its tendency to out-compete native ladybird species, and even eat them, along with lots of other ‘good’ insects like lacewing and hoverfly larvae. I suspect he was after an answer something along the lines of: “Yes, this is one of those evil foreign bugs, good thing it’s going to die, you should squish any you come across too.” I don’t think he was very impressed by my short lecture on how the concept of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ animals is nonsense to a biologist, and just the artificial construct of an ill-informed sentimental society which has lost touch with nature in all its struggle for survival — disease, decay and death.

It was at this point I realized I might be losing my audience. Perhaps I was being rather too objectively rational, and just a tad overenthusiastic about the detailed mechanics of ladybird parasitism.

Ah well, I made a slight recovery by going on to explain how the harlequin had so explosively invaded Britain, and how this common ladybird parasitoid had only recently started to increase its attacks on the alien beetle, as it became evolutionarily more familiar with the harlequin’s tree- and shrub-dwelling habits, rather than the herbage-inhabiting behaviour of the 7-spot. Anyway, the captor was suitably impressed that I wanted to keep his find, to photograph and rear the parasitoid through.

Secretly, though, I think we need to try and raise the popular understanding of some of the more awkward biological concepts — murder, incest, slavery, gender inequality, caste systems, cannibalism, and being eaten alive from the inside. I realize this is something of a challenge.

Please, never say ‘poo’, unless you’re addressing a bunch of 3-year-olds

With writing of The natural history of dung well underway, I am obviously alert to every instance of excrement in the news. The trouble is that journalists seem not to be able to bring themselves to mention it without falling back on the infantile term ‘poo’. Here are some examples:

BA flight forced to land early because of smelly poo, BBC News, 16 March 2015

UK’s first poo bus goes into regular service, The Guardian, 15 March 2015

Posh village terrorised by poo bomber, Mirror, 16 March 2015

Campaign to stop pet owners leaving dog poo on the streets of Darlington, Northern Echo

Dog poo drops lead to blindness and £4K fines, Buckingham Advertiser

Let’s get this straight, ‘poo’ is in the same league as ‘plop-plops’, ‘number twos’ and ‘big jobs’ — zero gravitas, but maximum simpering coy nonsense.

The word is ‘dung’. And if this is no good, then faeces (feces even), excrement, sewage, stool, scat, droppings, or ordure are also available.

And don’t even think about turd, shit or crap; expletives are equally pathetic.

It’s dung.

Dung is not a four-letter word. Well, it is, but you know what I mean.

Don’t mention the unmentionable

There was a time when talk of excrement was more or less unacceptable in polite society. This could have been a handicap for anyone interested in dung beetles. Luckily, there was a way out — by reverting to the Latin of scholarly discourse.

When Thomas Vernon Wollaston (1822–1878) wrote “On certain coleopterous insects from the Cape de Verde Islands” in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History (1857, new series, volume 20, pages 503–506) he used the stock phrase to describe just where the beetle had come from — stercore.

Screen shot 2015-02-11 at 11.54.57

Phaleria clarkii is not one of the usual dung beetles, it is a scavenger, and while I have found the British species Phaleria cadaverina under a discarded half orange from someone’s picnic (not a cadaver as its name might suggest), probably almost any decaying organic matter could support it.

There is something more than a little taboo about delving into human excrement. Squeamish associations with dirt and disease, thrown out of the window when examining a cow pat or sheep droppings, can be a barrier, even to the hardened entomologist.

There is a tale, less than apocryphal, but clouded by the fact that different versions have been told to different  listeners. My old friend Roger Dumbrell told of a beetling trip where he and A.N. Other, went to Camber sands, back in the early 1970s. Walking onto the dunes from the car park they passed a large dropping and paused to consider whether or not to examine it. The used tissue close by gave no doubt that this was a human discharge. One of them walked on, unwilling to cross that taboo but the other gingerly turned the dung over with a stick. The beetles underneath were the very rare Onthophagus nuchicornis, and as the cry went up the unwilling coleopterist shelved disgust and dismay and came back to join in the exploration. Who walked on, and who dived in, is now lost in the debate fogs of hazy memory, but the specimens remain in the collection.

Nowadays, entomologists are brashly cavalier about recording their finds. This from a recent report on an insect survey from Hampshire:

Screen shot 2015-02-11 at 11.59.16

The knowledge that this was human dung is incontrovertible. The tissue nearby was a dead give-away, and anyway, it was deposited earlier in the day by the surveyor himself.

So now I’m left wondering, who of Gray and Clark actually found the beetle, and how did they know it was stercore humano?

How many coleopterists are there anyway?

Saturday 7 February 2015 and to Oxford to attend 12th Annual Coleopterists’ Day at Oxford University Museum of Natural History. There was a time when a gathering of beetle enthusiasts would have numbered a handful — scroll down to the end of my 2013 Coleopterists’ Day blog and count them on one-and-a-half hands.

But with social media and an all-inclusive invitation, Coleopterists seem to be crawling out of the woodwork. I estimated 60 people in the lecture theatre audience. Not a bad turn out.

Anyway, here are some pictures.