This year I was feeling guilty so I did take an exhibit along

Saturday 14 November 2015 and the BENHS Annual Exhibition trolled around again. It was the second year at Conway Hall in Holborn and by way of a contrast and comparison to last year, here’s another photo-essay, facetiously captioned but otherwise comment-free.

My only criticism of the place is that the lighting there could do with some oomph, even if this were a series of table lamps.

See you again next year.

Small, but perfectly puzzling

You’re just going to have to take my word for it that this was the most interesting insect I looked at down the microscope today.

What's this then?

What’s this then?

Two millimetres long, black, moderately shining, averagely punctured, appallingly carded at an inconvenient skew, it was not immediately obvious what it was. And that was the point. That was why it was interesting.

It’s not very often I look at an insect and can’t even work out what family it’s in. This one just did not look right. My normal method of identification is to think something along the lines of “That’s a ground beetle, maybe an Acupalpus or similar”, “Ah, a robberfly, one of the shiny black ones”, or perhaps “That’s a very small Dolichopodid”. I know where to start — what family, often what genus, and very often which species group, and off I go to find a key or a picture to settle the matter.

But here I was, dithering. I just could not summon up a mental image of which group of beetles this one fitted in with. I started flicking through picture books, but the trouble with small black slightly shining beetles, is that they all  look just like every other small black slightly shining beetle. I peered at the antennae, counted the tarsal segments, eyed up the bristles on the underside of the abdomen, admired the flattened legs. Nothing.

Back to basics then, and a wade through the laborious dichotomous keys to identify which beetle family, until I eventually get to Phalacridae, pollen, flower or smut (fungus) beetles according to which book you use. But I’d already dismissed this distinctive group because it didn’t look like one. Except, now I look again, and trying to overcome my preconceived suspicions read through the descriptions given in volume 3 of the Rev. Canon W.W. Fowler’s excellent Coleoptera of the British Islands (1889) where the key immediately splits off Phalacrus caricis — the only British phalacrid that doesn’t look like a phalacrid because it is not convex and shiny enough.

And that’s what it is. It’s not rare, it’s not pretty, it’s not striking. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, except that it’s slightly flatter and slightly more granular than the others in the family. But I had never seen it before, and it presented a puzzle to me, which I eventually solved.

This, then, is my utter delight in nature. Not finding great big flashy brashy bits of animated insect bling; not rediscovering some rarity last seen a century ago; not seeing the spectacle of mass migration, or observing a deadly pursuit, or a bizarre mating ritual. It is in the simple intellectual puzzle of finding something slightly different, slightly unusual, and working out what it is, and how it fits in with the world.

I’m easily pleased.

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.


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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The small sample collection.

All in all, a successful event.

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.