Category Archives: Books

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.

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.

Another larder invasion, and a lesson in biogeography

Another average day in the life of an itinerant entomologist as I receive the following photo from Viv via Facebook.

"Richard — do you know what this is? They are ant size and invading my kitchen and I can't work out where they are coming from or what to do about them.

“Richard — do you know what this is? They are ant size and invading my kitchen and I can’t work out where they are coming from or what to do about them.

Shortly after comes the report that they are emerging from a bag of bird seed in a cupboard. My suspicions centre around the grain weevil, Sitophilus granarius, perhaps the world’s most devastating pest of stored food, but not something you come across very often nowadays. Tupperware, clingfilm and fridges have done away with so many previously important household pests, which can now no longer find their way into our food reserves. The grain weevil is not a very 21st century household pest anyway, since we no longer store whole grain wheat, ready for milling into the daily loaf, in our houses any more.

Back in a pre-industrial world, the household or village grain store would have been constantly under attack from grain weevils, laying their eggs, one in each kernel, which would then be hollowed out by the grub until the adult beetle chewed the distinctive circular hole and emerged a few weeks later. The beetles, and the hollowed remains of wheat seeds are a regular find in archaeological digs throughout the Old World. Despite being flightless, completely lacking wings, it was already cosmopolitan, occurring throughout the Middle East, Europe, North Africa and Central Asia, something like 8000 years ago, as agriculture took hold on civilized humanity. Its origins are frustratingly unknown, it has never been found in any truly natural habitat and is only known from human granaries. It does not even occur in wheat fields, or in the Horn of Africa where our cultivated wheat progenitors are thought to be native, and still grow wild.

I don’t usually make house calls, but since Viv lives just up the road I called round at no extra cost. It’s easy to collect a few specimens; one just inside the front door, several in the kitchen and one from the cat’s water bowl. Now for a closer look.

Ah, so not the grain weevil after all. But I was close.

Ah, so not the grain weevil after all. But I was close.

Turns out it isn’t the grain weevil after all, but its congener the rice weevil, Sitophilus oryzae. It has similar life history, but is Far Eastern, breeding in rice grains, rather than wheat. It will also attack other seeds and grains.

IMG_1788

Oh look, I know someone who’s written a book about household animals….

Unlike the grain weevil Sitophilus oryzae can fly, and also unlike the grain weevil it is found out in the wider world, creating natural breeding reservoirs in spilled grain near the paddy fields.

So, Viv, you’d best revisit the pantry and check out the biosecurity of your basmati, arborio, lentils and pearl barley.

The womanly bow-wing

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.

Toxoneura muliebris, pen and ink, by Verity Ure-Jones.

Toxoneura muliebris, pen and ink, by Verity Ure-Jones.

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.

Caterpillar, caterpillar

Anyone who’s ever read The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle, will know the usual story of maggot-to-butterfly transformation. Any entomologist who’s read it will wonder at the bizarre mix of foodstuffs consumed by the unlikely beast, and come to question whether poetic license has actually been stretched to the point of poetic nonsense.

So when my 15-year-old daughter told me that her English homework was to work on a caterpillar story-poem aimed at young children I was more than a little bit proud that she had decided to eschew chocolate cake, swiss cheese, lollipops and cherry pies.

Here is her work. And I think it’s a masterpiece.