At first I thought we had a pet hornet

When I let the hornet out for the third time, I’d begun to think she may have been part of a slightly worrying in-gîte colony. I love hornets, but my family are slightly less enthusiastic about them, and because we don’t see them very often they always look huge. Hence also threatening. They are much more common here in France, than in southern England.
So I am mightily relieved, later, when It transpired that the well-worn wooden threshold to the upstairs doorway is perfect hornet nest material and she (or maybe several different shes) has simply taken a wrong turning into the bedroom after a chewing session, and become disoriented by the skylight. We’ll probably be seeing her again, but this time we’ll know what she’s after.

Another larder invasion, and a lesson in biogeography

Another average day in the life of an itinerant entomologist as I receive the following photo from Viv via Facebook.

"Richard — do you know what this is? They are ant size and invading my kitchen and I can't work out where they are coming from or what to do about them.

“Richard — do you know what this is? They are ant size and invading my kitchen and I can’t work out where they are coming from or what to do about them.

Shortly after comes the report that they are emerging from a bag of bird seed in a cupboard. My suspicions centre around the grain weevil, Sitophilus granarius, perhaps the world’s most devastating pest of stored food, but not something you come across very often nowadays. Tupperware, clingfilm and fridges have done away with so many previously important household pests, which can now no longer find their way into our food reserves. The grain weevil is not a very 21st century household pest anyway, since we no longer store whole grain wheat, ready for milling into the daily loaf, in our houses any more.

Back in a pre-industrial world, the household or village grain store would have been constantly under attack from grain weevils, laying their eggs, one in each kernel, which would then be hollowed out by the grub until the adult beetle chewed the distinctive circular hole and emerged a few weeks later. The beetles, and the hollowed remains of wheat seeds are a regular find in archaeological digs throughout the Old World. Despite being flightless, completely lacking wings, it was already cosmopolitan, occurring throughout the Middle East, Europe, North Africa and Central Asia, something like 8000 years ago, as agriculture took hold on civilized humanity. Its origins are frustratingly unknown, it has never been found in any truly natural habitat and is only known from human granaries. It does not even occur in wheat fields, or in the Horn of Africa where our cultivated wheat progenitors are thought to be native, and still grow wild.

I don’t usually make house calls, but since Viv lives just up the road I called round at no extra cost. It’s easy to collect a few specimens; one just inside the front door, several in the kitchen and one from the cat’s water bowl. Now for a closer look.

Ah, so not the grain weevil after all. But I was close.

Ah, so not the grain weevil after all. But I was close.

Turns out it isn’t the grain weevil after all, but its congener the rice weevil, Sitophilus oryzae. It has similar life history, but is Far Eastern, breeding in rice grains, rather than wheat. It will also attack other seeds and grains.

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Oh look, I know someone who’s written a book about household animals….

Unlike the grain weevil Sitophilus oryzae can fly, and also unlike the grain weevil it is found out in the wider world, creating natural breeding reservoirs in spilled grain near the paddy fields.

So, Viv, you’d best revisit the pantry and check out the biosecurity of your basmati, arborio, lentils and pearl barley.

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.

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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.