Category Archives: Books

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.

Obeying the call of nature

This is the only euphemism I will allow myself.

When I worked in scientific publishing I spent some time editing out the word ‘sacrifice’ from manuscripts submitted to The British Journal of Experimental Pathology. The most famous article ever published in this respected and long-standing, but rather staid, journal was ‘On the antibacterial action of cultures of a penicillium, with special reference to their use in the isolation of B. influenzae‘ published in 1929, and written by one Alexander Fleming. It took a few years to register, but this is now seen as the seminal article that paved the way for the discovery, study, manufacture and widespread use of modern antibiotics.

By the early 1980s, much of the work published in the journal was on T-cells, ‘helper’ cells, ‘natural killer’ cells and various others, all types of lymphocyte (white blood cell) important in the body’s immune response. Living up to the experimental part of the journal’s name, the experiments were carried out in rats and mice, rather than in humans. Between the experimental disease development and the examination of the cells under the electron microscope (or in some biochemical analysis) there came the necessary procedure of quickly getting the cells out of the laboratory rodents.

It was at this point that many of the authors claimed to ‘sacrifice’ the experimental animals. Some even tried to suggest the animals were ‘immolated’. I was having none of this. The Incas (or was it the Aztecs?) sacrificed their unfortunate victims on the altars of pagan gods, cutting out hearts in unholy bloody rituals, by all accounts. Self-immolation is the protest suicide of many religious cultures, even in modern times, tolerated perhaps because of the cleansing, auto-cremation of the flames. Lab rats are neither sacrificed nor immolated in the name of some scientific pseudo-deity, they are simply killed. They are killed out of scientific necessity, or at least out of expediency, but they are killed, not sacrificed. Just as animals are killed for food, or because they are agricultural pests, or because they do us harm.

This was just around the time that antivivisection feelings were beginning to run rife. Words like ‘kill’, ‘death’, ‘slaughter’ were coyly avoided by some scientists, aware of the cultural weight these simple and previously convenient terms now carried.

Perhaps it was because I was an entomologist, so I was used to killing insects. I never sacrificed one at the communion table of entomology, and I never immolated any either.

I subedited the journal for a year or so. During that time I doubt anyone (certainly not the editors, and probably not even the authors themselves) noticed my attempts to cleanse their research papers of this particular euphemism. The next subeditor more than likely turned a blind eye to these particular turns of phrase. We all have our foibles. Abhorrence of euphemisms is mine.

Except….

When caught short, out in the wilds, obeying the call of nature is sometimes a necessary function. Two functions, perhaps. It can, on occasion, add several species of Scarabaeidae to a site species list, but on no account should the records give, as they did in several early 20th century beetle lists, ‘in stercore humano’.