Many years ago, something like 1983 I’m guessing, I sat at the table at a friend’s dinner party in her flat in West Hampstead, when someone pointed to a small animated speck waltzing across the ceiling high above us.
Without even standing up, I announced ‘Toxoneura muliebris’, more to myself than anyone, without even thinking I might be speaking out loud. There then followed some light-hearted mockery at what might now be considered slightly impressive geekiness, but which was then regarded as rather daft dorkiness on my part.
It’s a pretty little thing — pale-bodied with a distinctive sinuous hair-pin stripe of brown and black around each wing. As it walks, it flicks its wings, first one, then the other, in some sort of discoordinated semaphore. I don’t know if this is related to courtship or territoriality, but it makes it a highly distinctive creature, even from several metres away. I’d seen it before, several times, in the old woodlands and wooded river valleys of the Sussex Weald.
At the time I assumed it had flown in through an open window and its dance on the ceiling was an accidental error of behavioural judgement, but I now believe otherwise. Several entomologists have commented that they, too, have found this fly indoors, and that it is probably a natural predator of carpet beetles.
This is exciting news, because it means that I can include it in House pests, house guests, and I have this illustration by Verity, my 16-year-old daughter, to go with it.
Through the vagaries of scientific nomenclature, it is currently placed in the genus Palloptera, but I prefer its older name, if only because Toxoneura (sometimes Toxonevra) comes from the Greek toxon (bow) and neuron (nerve) presumably for the bow-shaped band across the wing nervature, and muliebris is Latin for womanly. Not sure what that’s all about, though.
Fascinating. I found one of these on my kitchen ceiling in Cardiff last week, and assumed it had flown indoors – but perhaps not. We do have carpet beetles in the house.