Author Archives: Richard Jones

Seeing through the caricature

What is this thing doing in Ham House?

Ostensibly it’s a simple stylized tile around one of the fireplaces below stairs at the splendidly handsome 17th century National Trust property Ham House, near Richmond. And despite its wiggly tail and unfeasibly long legs of uncertain number, it is obviously a dragonfly. But what species?

Ordinarily it would not matter, and anyway identification would be impossible, because the artists of most insect-themed antiquarian objets more or less made up the designs based on rather vague patterns that appear to have been copies of copies of copies of imaginary beings.

But this one actually looks like a genuine and obvious insect. The 12-spotted skimmer, Libella pulchella, is a beautiful and distinctive North American dragonfly, with pale blue body and strongly spotted wings.

12-spotted skimmer, image filched from Wikipedia.

Could this really be a North American species that has somehow been morphed through Chinese-influenced Low Countries ceramic tiles to end up in a Home Counties manor house?

Or perhaps I’m imagining things.

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Anatomically correct — a challenge is issued

Perhaps there is nothing more smart-arse than the spiteful sci-fi critic piping up from the back of the room “Well, that’s scientifically impossible”. We’ve all done it. But some of us keep doing it, and it’s usually a derisory sneer at an insect drawing along the lines of “Well, that’s not anatomically correct”.

An uncertain number of legs, a hazy knowledge of wing or body morphology and a cavalier disregard for antennal structure are the usual fails. It’s just not good enough.

So here is my challenge. If I can do a passably identifiable image using pancake mix, then I expect anyone else to do at least as good.

Anything less is unacceptable.

 

Horse and stable door, cat and bag, caterpillar and eradication programme

I found this lovely bristly caterpillar in the garden a few days ago. I’m not sure whether it was eating the peony flower, or leaves, but it was perfectly posed, including a few morsels of frass.

Caterpillar of Lymantria dispar, the gypsy moth.

The gypsy moth, Lymantria dispar, was once native to Britain, more or less limited to East Anglia, but had disappeared after the widespread draining of the fens during the 18th and 19th centuries. When it re-established itself in the London area at the end of the 1990s there was a flurry of activity trying to control what could potentially be a major forestry pest. In some parts of Europe, and in North America (where it was deliberately released during the 19th century for a putative domestic silk industry), it can cause defoliation of large swathes of trees.

The moth, however, seems to be well-esconced here, and eradication plans have subsided. When I found an adult moth in the Olympic Park near Stratford a few years ago there was some mild consternation from the park authorities, but there is precious little anyone can do unless the gregarious caterpillars can be found early enough and the whole nest of them cut out and destroyed.

I’m not sure where my singleton on the peony came from. There are several very large pear trees in neighbouring gardens and we’ve got an apple. I’ll have a closer look over the next few days. The only time I ever saw the caterpillars before, they were feeding on oak trees at the London Wildlife Trust nature reserve at Gunnersbury Triangle. Here they were creating their characteristic silk trails up and down the trunks, moving upwards in procession to feed on the leaves during the night, but returning, following the silk lines down, to huddle in a great knot on the bark during the day.

Earlier this week a London environmental email group produced several reports of sightings in north and east London. It’s obviously doing well in London.

There has also been a spate of recent sightings of the oak processionary moth, Thaumetopoea processionea, in London. Like the gypsy moth it appears to have colonized Britain very recently, and its caterpillars also move in long lines, follow-my-leader style, but only on oak trees. Again, there has been some activity to try and get the public to report outbreaks so that they can be located and destroyed. I’ve just had a notice of work going on in Catford. Concern is centred on possible tree damage, but also on the caterpillars’ long brittle hairs which contain a venom and which can cause irritation in some people. There is a risk of rashes if the caterpillars are handled, or of eye-irritation or asthmatic breathing difficulties since the hairs break and fragments float in the air.

At the moment there is still an expectation that outbreaks should be reported and attempts made to contain and destroy them.

London has a long history of ‘dangerous’ caterpillars, ever since the serious 18th and 19th century outbreaks of browntail moth, Euproctis chrysorrhoea, caused the local beadle to offer a bounty of 6d per bushel for their silk-strand nests cut from the orchards of Clapham and Battersea. There was a massive bonfire to destroy them. Every so often there is a plaintive warning about the stinging browntail caterpillars from various London borough councils, and warningly titled information sheets are circulated.

I can be fairly blasé about browntails since I seem to be able to handle the larvae with impunity. But my sister suffered many years of tearful eye complaints because she lives on the south coast where the moths and their caterpillars are always common. I’ll expect to come across more oak processionary and gypsy moth caterpillars, and will handle them cautiously when I do.

We’re back

We missed the Nunhead Cemetery Open Day in 2017 — we were told it must not happen again. So this year we made our come-back.

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The photo-shoot before the usual mad rush. Please note the insect-themed cowichan-style jumper I’m sporting — that’s a minotaur beetle and a stag beetle you can just make out on the front.

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You’ll notice the hornet on my back. And what’re they near my neck? Neck-biting deer flies, Chrysops, obvs.

Lillian was in charge of putting together the display boards, which featured a selection of Extreme Insects spreads, some gate-fold identification guides to popular groups, and various show-off book covers.

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Featuring the all-new displays, plastic bug toys, bug-bunting and bags of large pebbles to stop the gazebo blowing about.

And on they came. We reckoned on something like 200 visitors. Cardinal beetles, Pyrochroa serraticornis, were frequent finds, as were Lithobius centipedes (none bit me this time), the usual woodlice (four species), the scarce brown tree ant, Lasius brunneus, and then this lovely….

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By the end of the day you can tell I’ve had a good time by the grubbiness of my fingers. A false widow spider, Steatoda nobilis. And no, Daily Mail, of course it did not bite me, what a notion!

Everyone left clutching their precious certificate.

 

Are you an actor?

He wasn’t the first person to peer inquisitively over my shoulder that day, but he certainly had the most questions.

“Are you an actor?” was his first.

“No,” I reassured him earnestly, “I really am an entomologist”. As if to prove the point, I stared even more intently into the microscope. I continued to manipulate the fly specimen carefully under the light and then pored over the identification key. Almost subconsciously, as if to further support my claim, I muttered to myself, probably something like: “Hind femur…terminal anterodorsal bristle…present.”

“And you do this all the time?” he followed up.

“Yes,” I claimed, “but this is the first time I’ve been on public display.” I could tell by his penetrating look that he wasn’t completely convinced. He tried another tack.

“This is a really nice shed.”

Looking about carefully at the joinery, he stated this with the extreme authority of someone who knows their stuff, someone who is, perhaps, an internationally acknowledged expert on temporary wooden structures, possibly a garden building twitcher, a doyen of sheds. “Did you build it?” I had to admit that I had not built it.

“Really nice.”  he repeated, cocking his head slightly as he appraised the roof joists. “Really well built. Was this your idea?”

Again, I had to rebuff his admiration and acknowledge that, no, it was not my idea. I declined to join him in further shed appreciation, merely nodding and coughing and gripping the microscope even more firmly.

But he persisted. “I’d really like a shed like this.” I didn’t like the way the conversation was going. There are too many anecdotes about odd men in sheds, and here was I, carrying out the relatively eccentric activity of studying insects, in a shed, being quizzed by someone who was probably only marginally less peculiar than me. I was beginning to think that maybe he was someone too sad even to have his own shed, but who coveted those of his neighbours. “It’s clever the way the skylights are arranged; that’s a neat design feature.”

By now I was dreading an extended conversation on tenon and mortise joints, door furniture, all-weather paint treatments and the benefits of shiplap over featheredge. But luckily some other visitors arrived and he had to move out of the way to let them see what I was up to.

And just what was I up to? Well, I must admit, I still have an anxious feeling that I’m not entirely sure what I was up to. Ostensibly I was collecting and cataloguing the insects from a tiny derelict garden next to Camberwell’s South London Gallery. That much is fairly straightforward. But this was not part of some academic enquiry into garden insect biodiversity, nor was it an ecological study or an environmental impact assessment. No, I was making art. I was being part of art. In fact I was part of an art installation. It was all very odd — very, very odd.

Part of the newsletter from the South London Gallery explaining what the shed and its contents was all about. The giant dead mole was inside the main gallery — that’s another story.

The “Secret Garden Biological Field Unit” was designed by American artist Mark Dion. It was an octagonal wooden building about 3 metres in diameter and 4 high. It had windows and skylights, mains power, heating, lighting, furniture and with its varnished marine ply, aluminium flashings and weatherproof fitted windows it was, as my inquisitive visitor had so keenly observed, really well built.

It was provided with a binocular microscope, insect cabinet, entomological pins, glass vials, alcohol, card, plastizote mounting strips, ethyl-acetate, tweezers, scalpels, fine brushes, hand lenses, petri dishes, and all the other basic laboratory paraphernalia a field entomologist might require. And it was my place to sit there, for ten days during August and September 2005, to catch insects in the “garden” (now mostly bramble, bindweed, nettles and other rank weeds), mount them, identify them and display them for all to see.

It was not an onerous or arduous task. Admittedly it wasn’t the most enticing site I’d ever studied, but I am well used to visiting derelict brownfield sites, with disused buildings and overgrown gardens and finding the most unusual things.

There were some of the ‘usual’ oddities. Kalcapion semivittatum is a tiny weevil which feeds on annual mercury. Once regarded as exceptionally rare, it is now well established in London and the south-east and appears to be spreading. Agrilus sinuatus is a beautiful reddish pink jewel beetle. Once given red data book status it has since proved to be more widespread since the characteristic sinuous burrows its larvae make through dead hawthorn bark have been recognized. The distinctive D-shaped exit holes peppered a sad-looking branch of the straggling hawthorn bush in the garden. And although I don’t usually rate buddleja very highly as a nectar source it did bring in the huge hornet-mimicking hoverfly, Volucella zonaria. Again, once very scarce, as a rare migrant to Britain, it has increased in the last 50 years and is now firmly established breeding in the UK and is fairly common in London. And finally, the much media-hyped harlequin ladybird, Harmonia axyridis, turned up in various colour forms. I duly labelled the specimens and added short notes with a bit of commentary to some of the more interesting species. I tried to make the cabinet display as aesthetically pleasing as I could.

I was not alone in my ‘art’. I was joined at times by Lucy Smith, a botanical illustrator from Kew Gardens who was painting precise and delicate water colours of some of the ‘secret’ garden’s plants, and Victoria Papworth, botany curator from the Natural History Museum, who was constructing a herbarium collection of pressed plant specimens. Sometimes our visits coincided so we were able to chat over Radio 4 and exchange ideas about this unusual project. Even if we did not meet up on the same day, I could tell if one of my confederates had earlier passed through by the rearranged paper and brushes and by the extra sheets pinned up on notice-boards or piled into the plant press.

When we weren’t there, visitors could peek in through the windows to see our equipment scattered across the desks — some new flowers in a vase next to the latest painting, a glass-topped drawer full of carefully labelled specimens, and the odd identification guide supposedly left casually open on the tabletop. It reminded me, somewhat, of Charles Darwin’s study at Down House. There, various glass jars, notebooks, pens, ink, and lenses are now arranged on the desk, just as if the old man had, moments ago, interrupted his studies and decided to take a short walk in the garden, but would be back any minute.

However, it was not this tableau that was the art, neither was it the labelled display of my insect specimens, nor ironically the delicate water-colour flower paintings, nor even the very well built shed itself. It was the whole setting of garden, laboratory and the ‘naturalists’ working within. It was the whole installation and the interaction of visitors with the resident scientists.

As I sat there collecting, curating and identifying the 128 species that I eventually found, I contemplated the strangeness of my unusual situation. Should I be ‘performing’ to the visitors that quizzed me? Should I be ‘in character’ wearing a Panama hat or a pith helmet? Was the perceived triviality of collecting insects being mocked? And perhaps more fundamentally, how had what I normally regard as the ‘science’ of entomology been turned around into art?

I had long conversations with the many visitors to the gallery: teachers, schoolchildren, students, artists, art critics, the curators of the gallery, and even the originating artist, Dion, himself. We discussed the basics of insect taxonomy and ecology. I was able to enthuse about nature all around us, even in art galleries. I tried to infect my audience with the awe of the multitudinous microcosm that is the study of insects. We mused on the mutual significance (or was it insignificance?) of artistic interpretation and scientific understanding. We philosophized about beauty, and creation (but thankfully not creationism).  We even considered the parlous state of funding, for both arts and science, in the UK. And although I enjoyed my time on display, I must admit that I am still slightly baffled by the whole scheme.

However, I have come away the wiser, because I have decided on one basic tenet of the human condition— the distinction between art and science is now clear to me. It does not matter how big or small the project; how significant the potential outcome to influence our future lives, or how practical or ephemeral the subject of our attention. Science and art share a sacred truth, a truth based on who and where, not on why and what for. It’s simple — science is what scientists do in laboratories, art is what artists do in art galleries.

And so it continued, for the ten days of what I now look back on fondly as my sabbatical, when I was co-opted, briefly, into the art world. And I never knew who would walk through the door next. It turned out to be an art critic for one of the nationals. She peered over my shoulder, then looked around.

“This is a nice shed, are you the artist?” Oh no, here we go again.

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This piece was originally published in Antenna, newsletter and bulletin of the Royal Entomological Society, 2007. I’m reprinting it today after discovering that Mark Dion is back in town with a new exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery.

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.

 

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.