Hey, did you know? — I was on the telly

In case it had passed you by, I was on the telly. Here I am on BBC2’s Springwatch Unsprung, episode 3. Unfortunately, because of the convolutions of copyright and licensing agreements, this episode is only available until 15 July 2017. So if you’ve come across this blog after that date you’ll probably get an error message if you click on the link, and you’ll just have to take my word that I was a natural.

So was the book, about which I was being interviewed: Call of nature. I can’t believe it all went down so well, Chris Packham enthused wildly about it. You could not pay good money to get this kind of advertising.

The episode may be back on the interweb some time in the future, but if not, here are a few screen-grabs, just to prove that I was there, and so was the book.

Chris reads an extract to an obviously enthralled Lindsey Chapman

I sat on the sofa and brought out a box of bugs. Chris isn’t letting go of his copy of the book though. Yes, those are real droppings glued to a board.

Product placement at its best.

Messing with the data

Last week, walking through the Marks & Spencer’s Newport Isle of Wight store, my attention was caught by a distant croaking bird song “ca-caw, ca-caw” — Russell, the wilderness explorer scout from Disney/Pixar’s Up personified. This has become the ‘Oi, we’re over here‘ call of choice for my family. And it works very well.

My father had a similar call for when, out on elaborate rambles (usually trespassing), he and I would get separated. If I’d stopped for a few minutes to examine a mouldering log and he had walked on through the woods, he would then give a perfectly passable rendition of a cuckoo to indicate where in the impenetrable thicket he had suddenly found himself alone. This was my cue to chivvy myself up and hurry along.

I’ve often wondered if his mimicry had ever confused a local ornithologist into miss-recording what was fast becoming a relatively scarce bird in Britain. Perhaps someone had even written in to The Times to report an unusual location, or unseasonal occurrence.

It turns out that he was not the first to have potentially messed with the data.

It seems that the tradition of writing into the papers to report the first cuckoo of the year began on 4 February 1913, when naturalist and geologist James Lydekker wrote to The Times to announce he had distinctly heard one, not a quarter of a mile from his Harpenden home. This was an unprecedented early date, some 2 months before the usual arrival of these migratory birds.

Unfortunately, he was forced to recant his observation a few days later when it transpired that it was not an avian songster, but a bricklayer’s labourer working on a house nearby. The British public rose with the usual semi-sarcastic mockery and have been writing in every year to enquire whether their local cuckoo was, indeed, the first to be heard calling that year.

Luckily Russell’s ‘ca-caw ca-caw’ is unlikely to result in any miss-reported bird species. The data is safe.

Digging up a minotaur is really quite a feat

I found a minotaur, here it is, the minotaur beetle, Typhaeus typhoeus, and a male at that, with the three long prongs on the front of the thorax.

A dung beetle in the hand is worth….

It’s one of the few dung beetles active in the winter, October to March especially, and it is a secretive species, digging deep into the soil. In Britain it’s renowned for being one of the deepest diggers, with tunnels up to 2 metres long. Such was its engineering prowess that whenever I used to find a hole next to some rabbit crottels on Ashdown Forest I didn’t even bother trying to excavate, since the sandy soil meant the beetle was probably well beyond the range of my modest troweling.

In a hole in the ground there lived a …..

So when I found this burrow in Knole Park, Sevenoaks, on 25 February, I was chancing my luck. But maybe the cold weather had slowed its progress — the beetle was only a few centimetres down. It consented a pose for a few photos.

It’s not the kind of crass fact real dung beetle researchers like to brag about, but I had a brief scour of the literature to find the deepest recorded dung beetle tunnel. The best I can offer is the aptly named Florida deepdigger scarab, Peltotrupes profundus, with a burrow recorded by Henry Howden (1952) down at least 9 feet (2.7 metres).

Please consider that a challenge.

Nature calls

Call of nature: the secret life of dung drops onto the literary landscape in February, and will be coming to a bookshop near you. Or, at least, it’s coming to a bookshop near me — Bookseller Crow on the Hill, at Crystal Palace.

A tasty menu to get the intellectual juices flowing.

A tasty menu to get the intellectual juices flowing.

The launch is set for Thursday 2nd February, 19:30 hours, and I’m in good company.

There have already been a couple of reviews, one in The London Naturalist, and this one from BBC Wildlife:

I'll go with

Yes, I’ll go with “friendly yet informative”. Thanks Jules.

 

Roll up, roll up last available hardbacks, flying off the shelves, they are

Big news — House Guests, House Pests is now out of print as a hardback. I should know, I have just acquired the last remaining stocks. It’s still out there as a paperback, but for the true bibliophile it’s a hardback or nothing.

Soon to be collectors' items.

£15 all in, but soon to be collector’s item.

So roll up, please, and if you need the hardback email me an order to bugmanjones@hotmail.com and I’ll get right on it.

The cover price (previously £16.99) is, for a short time, specially reduced to £15, and second class postage to UK addresses is also now included. All copies can be signed by the author, although as is well known, it is the rare unsigned copies you should look out for.

BENHS 2016 — less of the same

This way in please.

This way in please.

Yesterday, 12 November, was the 2016 BENHS Annual Exhibition, held at Conway Halls, Holborn. As usual it was a chance to meet up and chat with old friends and colleagues, and have a look at the exhibits they’d brought up. The old friends were there, apart from the ones that weren’t. Yet again, I think numbers were down. Exhibits were up, maybe, mostly. But I did notice the British butterflies section was completely empty.

Over the years the popularity of various insect groups exhibited at the annual exhibition has been a compass of the direction of entomological interest of the members. When I first joined (1976) Lepidoptera was very big, divided more or less evenly between butterflies, macros and micros. The ‘other’ orders together barely made up the fourth quarter. Things have changed. Coleoptera, Diptera, Hemiptera and Hymenoptera now have their own significant sections of the hall. There aren’t many ‘other’ orders left — Trichoptera and a few odds and sods.

This year there was not a single British butterfly exhibit. Showing wild-caught butterflies has always been fraught — frowned on my some, mocked by others —but there were usually several examples of breeding experiments to work out the genetic control of pattern formation and aberration. Where were they? Who knows?

The point of the exhibition, in terms of meeting other entomologists, communicating findings, exchanging ideas, has changed since the society was founded 144 years ago. There is now something peculiarly archaic about poring over trays of pinned insect specimens. Except, this is still an important and useful way of learning. Comparing specimens of the pied shieldbug Tritomegas bicolor and the newly discovered T. sexmaculatus really does highlight the distinctions in the white markings. And I can now confirm that the blue jewel beetle Agrilus biguttatus can occur as a metallic green morph too, I saw it with my own eyes — just the thing to cause confusion if ever the emerald ash-borer A. planipennis, reaches the UK, on its seemingly inexorable spread through Eurasia.

Nevertheless, so much quick and easy communication takes place privately now, that the public arena of the annual exhibition is looking less relevant in some quarters. Maybe the butterfly breeders feel the exhibition is no longer their venue of choice.


Previous British Entomological and Natural History Society annual exhibitions:

BENHS 2015 annual exhibition

BENHS 2014 annual exhibition

BENHS 2013 annual exhibition

BENHS 2012 annual exhbition

 

Beetling in public

In 1998 Ian Menzies found a crushed leaf beetle on the busy walkways opposite the Shell Building, near Waterloo Station. Despite its unfortunate broken state, the specimen was immediately obvious as the pretty and distinctive Chrysolina americana. Not American in the least, this southern European species had been found occasionally in the UK: emerging from some pine cones in a Cheshire kitchen (brought back from a holiday on the Continent, 1963), and on some rosemary bushes growing in the RHS Wisley Gardens in 1995. This beetle had been spreading through Europe, increasing its range, over the previous decade so its arrival here had long been anticipated.

A pretty rubbish picture of Chrysolina americana, the rosemary beetle, but clearly showing the metallic red and green stripes.

A rubbish picture of Chrysolina americana, the rosemary beetle, but clearly showing the metallic red and green stripes.

Since Waterloo was right on my doorstep, I arranged to drive up with Peter Hodge to go and hunt for the thing. The many hundreds of lavender bushes had obviously been planted pretty recently, part of the Jubilee Gardens landscaping for the London Eye which was being erected nearby. It was on these that the beetle was chewing, and it wasn’t long before we found some.

Wandering around with an insect net, I often get approached by passers by curious to know what I’m up to. Here were Peter and I, presenting a strange tableau: two blokes on their hands and knees, heads down, backsides in the air, grubbing about at the edge of the paving stones, and occasionally bashing a small lavender bush unceremoniously over the nets. It wasn’t long before someone paused and asked what I was doing. “Looking for a beetle” was my response, but before I could go further into its biogeography or potential horticultural importance, he’d come back with “Where did you lose it?”