Author Archives: Richard Jones

Rare versus obscure? — 2

Faced with over a thousand small pots of pickled insects from pitfalls in Regent’s Park, I quickly remembered why I don’t like trapping insects. It isn’t the slightly acrid stench of decay that the industrial alcohol is valiantly attempting to restrain. Nor, indeed, is it the texture of the slugs, which take on a resilient wine-gum plasticity after six months in vodka. (The delivery of denatured ethanol had not arrived by the May launch of Mission Invertebrate, so a couple of bottles of Sainsbury’s own-brand hooch was acquired.) It is the sheer numbers of insects that have to be painstakingly sorted under the microscope.

The problem with pitfall trapping in a London park is that species diversity is hovering around the zero mark. A few common ground beetles (ubiquitous Nebria brevicornis and Pterostichus madidus dominate), rove beetles (devil’s coach-horse, Ocypus olens and some large Philonthus), black ants (Lasius niger), and several very common woodlice made up 99.9% of the catch. It was so very mundane.

In the normal course of entomological activity — the sweep net my weapon of choice — there is a subliminal sifting, by which 99.9% of the activity in the net can safely be ignored whilst they fly or crawl off; amongst them the more unusual insects can be sought. Under the stereoscope, though, every scrap of protoplasmic matter has to be shifted aside, until a nugget is revealed. And so it was with this, my rare-versus-obscure find from the haul — Parabathyscia wollastoni.

Parabathyscia wollastoni. Small, but perfectly formed, except in the eye department.

What Parabathyscia gets up to, nobody is quite sure. It has been recorded under decaying rhubarb and lettuce leaves, in rotten seed potatoes, and in a bumblebee nest. The National Biodiversity Network Atlas lists only 14 records, but the beetle has no official conservation status — the implication being that it is rarely recorded because it is so easily overlooked. It may be overlooked because it is almost certainly a subterranean insect. It is blind, completely lacking eyes. Weird.

 

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Shameless plug alert

Hardback and paperback; a minor rejig of the ladybird group, but otherwise a matching pair.

It’s here. Publication day is set for 25 January 2018. It’s been nearly four years since Mark Telfer sidled up to me at the 11th British Entomological Society Coleopterists’ Day at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and enquired under his breath whether I’d heard from Sarah Corbet yet, about the idea for a beetle volume in the New Naturalists series. I nearly dropped my cup of tea. It seemed that feelers had been put out for a victim to be approached, Mark, it transpired, had landed me in it.

The thought of such a commission was daunting, to say the least, but I knew that if the offer came I’d hesitate for all of 2.5 seconds and then accept. When it came, I did.

Producing the book has been even more daunting than I imagined at the time, and although it has been long and exhausting in the researching and writing, it has also been intellectually and emotionally rewarding beyond measure. My eternal thanks go to Mark, and I look forward to returning the favour with some equally monstrous task for him in the near future.

Rare versus obscure?

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At 5 mm long, narrow, and black, Pseudisobrachium subcyaneum is understated, to say the least.

This is perhaps the rarest insect I’ve seen this year. Or it may just be the most obscure. The Bethylidae are technically (along with bees, wasps and ants) part of the Aculeata (they mostly have stings at the pointed end), but whereas those more familiar insects have a popular following and at least some popular recognition, bethylids are mired in darkest obscurity. This is certainly the largest bethylid I’ve ever seen, but at just over 5 mm it is minuscule beside yellow-jackets and bumblebees.

I like the bethylids, mostly because I started finding them when looking for beetles. They have a most un-wasp-like way of running around in the sweep-net, not flying, rather like a tiny rove beetle; they are dark, parallel-sided with shining thorax and a triangular or pentagonal head a bit like Sunius or Rugilus. I now have quite a collection of them thanks to my confusion.

It seems likely, though, that most other coleopterists ignore them, as do most hymenopterists. Consequently they are poorly understood and seldom recorded. There are zero records for Pseudisobrachium on the National Biodiversity Network database. According to the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society page, there are old (19th, or early 20th century?) records for Kent, Surrey, Isle of Wight and Dorset; the only modern record is from South Essex in the 1990s.

This is a male; females of Pseudisobrachium are blind and wingless and possibly live in some association with ants, although nobody seems quite sure. This does mean that as a species it is very poorly adapted to finding and colonizing new sites, but well-suited to declining and become locally extinct.

I found it near Hounslow Heath, a worthy remnant of sandy heathland in west London. Sadly this area is under constant threat from urban encroachment, development and habitat degradation. There is now nothing remotely heathy about the once richly biodiverse Heath Row a few thousand metres away north-west, now buried under runways, hangars and shining terminal buildings.

The single specimen, swept on a sunny but cool 15 September, was just outside the genuine Heath, on the abandoned golf course. Here, a year after the course closed, the fairways have grown into long grass, but apart from some yarrow, plant variety is almost a herb-poor monoculture of coarse grasses. The only variation was in some of the old sand bunkers, and sure enough this is where Pseudisobrachium occurred.

Golf courses have a mixed reputation for nature conservation. On the one hand they are green open spaces with roughs and copses and hedges and trees, but on the other they are sometimes savagely manicured to within an inch of their wildlife.

But if left alone for a short while, strange creatures may eventually crawl out of the hazards — even if they are tiny, mysterious creeping things about which we know virtually nothing.

I’ve been rather busy

No blog post for 2 months — what is going on? Well, I’ve been rather busy, not least shooing the final proofs of the Beetles volume of the New Naturalist Library out of the door.

It’s on the website, though the front cover has yet to be finalized.

Nevertheless, the publication date of 30 November seems to be quite prominent, and the blurb is correct. [Note: just received notification from the publishers that although I might expect an advance copy some time in late October, the official publication date will now be 11 January 2018.]

Watch this space.

Suddenly my office is full of entomologists

This is the third year that London Wildlife Trust have been able to fund a traineeship scheme in environmental conservation, and for two days in June they agree to be indoctrinated in entomology.

The theme is the familiar one — How to be a curious entomologist. In practice this means learning how to go out and find insects, look at them closely, then collect sample specimens for later identification. The simple act of making a small insect collection is fascinating, fun, and yet still scientifically worthwhile.

First find your insects, and this year’s habitat of choice is the Devonshire Road Nature Reserve in Lewisham. Unlike last year, when the monsoon came, the weather was perfect; comfortable for both insects and entomologists alike.

Devonshire Road has a classroom, easily converted to a laboratory, and a walk in the woods can now settle down to take on a scientific air.

Suddenly my office is full of entomologists.

As usual everything looks amazing down the microscope, but the importance of an insect collection is not aesthetic, it is scientific, and many of the finds are unusual.

After several years of running London Wildlife Trust trainee courses, and similar one-day events for all-comers, the Devonshire Road insect collection is starting to look good.

Work in progress. Many specimens have already been extracted, identified and incorporated into my and others’ reference collections.

For some of the back story to the workshops, go to this previous blog entry from the workshop at Beckenham Place Park in 2016, and the original workshops in 2012. There are links onwards to further workshop reports, links on making and curating insect collections and other entomological websites.

There will be more entomologists at Devonshire Road later in the year — 22 and 23 July. At the time of writing there are still places available on both days.

Open to all.

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.