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:

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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.

Amiable but authoritative boffin-speak — my signature style is defined

From one height of smugness to another. A couple of days after an advance copy of the book plonked through the letterbox, this splendid book review appeared in BBC Wildlife. Book of the month, no less.

Sometimes good things get added to the to-do list.

Sometimes good things get added to the to-do list.

Ooh, look what the postman just brought

I wasn’t expecting this quite yet — an advance copy ahead of publication in February, so am feeling very smug.

One person's irritating larder infestation is another's amusing after-dinner anecdote.

One person’s irritating larder infestation is another’s amusing after-dinner anecdote.

Most of the after-dinner anecdotes are my own infestations; I would never mock anyone else’s house cleanliness. Although only a minor part of the book, the identification guide, more a rogues’ gallery of usual suspects, has 144 entries — one gross, how cool is that coincidence?