Category Archives: General Stuff

It’s my standard line — “I did a survey there”

It’s become a bit of a clichéed joke in my family that whenever we’re out and about I can point casually out of the car window and claim “I’ve done a survey there, you know”. Part of the reason for the hiatus in this blog is that I have been busy out on field survey visits since April. This year I found myself at a site that I had not surveyed before, nevertheless, I knew of the place, in a reverse sort of way, from almost forgotten family history.

Travelling by train to Hampton Court Station to visit nearby Hurst Park, I see from the map that this block of land, next to the Thames, opposite Hampton Court Palace is called Cigarette Island, named, so the interpretation boards tell, after a large and impressive houseboat so called, which used to be moored here. I know that boat. My Dad used to live aboard.

Dad was always rather quiet about his past. He wasn’t one to regale us with tales of when he was a boy. I knew he’d lived on a houseboat at one point, but the exact details were sketchy until he wrote a short autobiography — a prelude to an explanation of his botanical records, diaries and notebooks which were to go to the Library of the Natural History Museum on his death. It was in this brief document that he described and named the boat.

“My mother was Henriette Lucy Jones neé Luxton who came from Yorkshire and my father Reginald Bernard Jones described as ‘blacksmith (journeyman)’ on my birth certificate, although as this was the time of the slump I gathered he did any jobs he could find. We were poorly off and at one stage my father, mother and I lived on a long houseboat called The Cigarette described as ‘Dr Walford Bodie’s Floating Palace Houseboat, The Lawns, Thames Ditton, Surrey (opposite Hampton Court Palace)’ on a post-card that I have.”

“My father was in some way a caretaker on board whilst it was empty, presumably temporarily. It had, as far as I can remember, kitchen, dining room, about five bedrooms and a long lounge/ conservatory and had bridges connecting it to the land at each end. Unfortunately this was my father’s undoing for in March 1934 he went out on the ledge that went all the way round the houseboat to get a loaf out of the River Thames with a broom for the swans and must have fallen in. I gave the alarm (at the age of four and a half) “Daddy’s in the water”. He drowned.”

“My sister was born two days later. From then onwards we were even poorer, with my mother going out to do office cleaning, supplemented by a government widow’s pension of 18 shillings a week. Sometimes we lived in one room (three of us, always in London). I looked after myself from the age of 6, with a front-door key. I think someone looked after my sister. They were hard times, but we knew no other.”

Apparently The Cigarette, was originally owned by Sir Henry Foreman (1852-1924), Member of Parliament and Mayor of Hammersmith. According to the Molesey History Society website, it and the other boats were given notice to quit in October 1931 and this is presumably when it took up its new mooring a few hundred metres away downriver at The Lawns in Thames Ditton. When he was alive my father never mentioned Walford Bodie (1869-1939), but the inernet is awash with his exploits as celebrity, showman, hypnotist, entrepreneur, and quack doctor who mock-electrocuted people on stage and made all sorts of medicinal claims about his galvanizing ‘treatment’. According to the Wikipedia entry on Bodie, his houseboat was actually called La Belle Electra, a name also used by his glamorous onstage assistant, who may or may not have been his sister-in-law. Who knows, maybe the boats were one and the same, renamed under new ownership?

Today there are still expensive houseboats on the River, but these are a kilometre further upstream opposite Hurst Park. I cannot find the post-card Dad mentions but have a vague memory of a black and white image of a vessel something like a smaller version of the Mississippi paddle steamers you sometimes see in westerns. Today The Lawns offer gentle views across the River Thames to Hampton Court Palace. A place of quiet reflection, to contemplate times gone, things half remembered, and people never met.

I’m not the only one finger-tip searching

On a bright and sunny 9 June 2004, I left London down the A2, exited through Strood, across the Rochester Bridge, and turned sharp left into the bluntly named Gas House Road. Parking near the gas storage holders, I emerged from the car to find, not the rolling Kent countryside, but a post-industrial landscape of derelict warehouses, disintegrating riverside wharfs, and piles of bulldozed rubble. Acres of old tarmac lay crumbling beneath broken street lights and straggly bramble bushes; there were several burnt-out cars, and fly-tipping by the lorry-load had been carried out on a criminal scale. A perfect place to look for insects.

This may not be everyone’s idea of prime habitat, but the brownfields of South Essex and North Kent, now grandly titled the Thames Gateway, have revealed many invertebrate wildlife wonders over the last 25 years. The crushed brick and concrete from buildings demolished long ago has become mingled with a meagre topsoil, and nature has taken back what was once her own. It’s hot and well-drained, but sparse vegetation sprouts, just enough to give a delicious softening green haze to the harsh edges of half-buried foundations and crumbling walls.

Rochester Castle overlooks prime wildlife habitat as far as I’m concerned.

Brownfields are poorly named — this, like many, was a riot of colour as sea aster, ox-eye daisy, yellow hawkbit, bristly ox-tongue and yarrow flowers vied for my attention. And with the wild flowers, more diverse than on ancient chalk downland, come the insects: this is why I was here.

Anticipation was high, and my excitement was soon justified. A green hairstreak, living up to its name, dashed past at full pelt over a sunlit corner of bramble flowers, and a six-belted clearwing moth flitted by soon after. The tiny round yellow fly, Gymonsoma nitens, was visiting the white flowers of wild carrot. A parasite of shieldbugs, it was thought to be virtually extinct in Britain until it was found in the Gateway — it’s now a regular.

Brownfields are particularly good for ground beetles; they thrive on the hot sunny ground. I soon adopted the standard entomological pose — head down, bum in the air, scrabbling with my fingers in the crumbly root-thatch and loose soil. This being an official environmental survey I decided to put in some pitfall traps for them — plastic disposable cups, tops set in flush to the ground to catch whatever might fall in. Unfortunately, the broken rubble was completely defeating my garden trowel. Undeterred, I started to use my sheath knife, the one with the stout 20-cm blade. On my knees, using bone-jarring double-handed stabs into the hard ground I was making some headway when I noticed I was being watched by a smartly dressed man carrying a clip-board.

Not the knife I use to cut the apple in my packed lunch.

I stopped and looked up, thinking he must be a planner or engineer connected to the proposed redevelopment of the site. He introduced himself: he was a police detective. A body had recently been hauled from the River Medway nearby, those uniformed men over there were the finger-tip search team examining the area where the sawn-off shotgun had been found, and I was in the middle of a murder enquiry.

The Rochester Police search line.

Trying not to look too guiltily at the large Bowie knife in my hands, I explained what I was doing. He was mildly interested, but unconcerned. Maybe, though, I could keep a look out, during my own hands-and-knees searches, for anything that might be helpful to their enquiries. I unhesitatingly agreed.

Needless to say, I spent the rest of my time in Rochester in a state of heightened wariness. Now I can make light of it, but I’m still thankful I didn’t find anything more suspicious than a drift of bee orchids and a nationally scarce tortoise bug. Oh, and there were several interesting ground beetles.

In case of emergency — break glass

I’m not sure what sort of emergency will see me needing 50 Mexican pesos in a hurry. Nevertheless, this is the latest bit of framed entomological ephemera to grace the wall of my office. The entomological bit is small, but fascinating.

Cincuenta pesos y tres mariposas.

The reverse of this note shows three butterflies in celebration of the Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, a natural wonder when it hibernates in the oyamel firs in a small valley in central Mexico in such numbers that it is known to break limbs from the trees under the sheer weight of the insects. Although locals in the valley knew of the Monarchs’ appearance each year, it is only since 1975 that this phenomenon has been widely known to the outside world. It is already being threatened by human encroachment and interference as logging takes its toll on the forested hillsides and eco-tourism makes the once isolated site more vulnerable to disturbance.

The Monarch had already been celebrated on Mexican stamps, and on an earlier bank note in 2000, but when this note was issued in 2004 it contained an artistic blunder. One of the three butterflies was not a Monarch, it was a different species the Viceroy, Limenitis archippus, in a wholly different subfamily.

The Viceroy (upper left) has a continuous black band across the marginal cells of the hind wing. The Monarch (bottom right) has markings bordering groups of wing cells.

Similarly shaped and similarly coloured, it was once thought that the Viceroy was a mimic of the poison-packed and warningly coloured monarch, but it turns out it is equally foul-tasting to predators and the matching colour scheme benefits both species by emphasizing the dangers to any bird foolish enough to try and take a bite. Just as predators might mistake the two butterflies, so too did the Banco de México artist when seeking source material for the design. The note was altered in subsequent printings.

As soon as I read about this, I thought it would be an interesting item to have framed in my office. I already have a fine array of insect stamps, post-cards, cigarette cards and other assorted collectibles. It would demonstrate the use of insects on national bank notes, butterfly mimicry, and how easy it is for artists and picture editors (even in one of the most quality-conscious sectors of the print industry) to muddle the species and make mistakes.

Originally I tried to just print off a copy of the note from an online picture. The quality and resolution was good enough that a framed picture would look just like the real thing. It didn’t really have to be the real thing, after all, it was simply a decorative object. But I could not get it to work. No matter what I tried I kept getting an error message “reading pixels failed” and a blank piece of paper was ejected from the ink-jet printer. What was going on?

Nothing to do with tech-failure, or butterflies; I had not run out of ink or lost wireless connection to my HP Deskjet, I had stumbled on an anti-counterfeiting mechanism built into my computer and/or the printer. It turns out that there is a series of markers (The EURion or Omron rings) in this case decorative orange circles, arranged a bit like recurring orion constellations or quincunxes, which are an internationally recognized sign only used in the printing of bank notes and which trigger a failure if anyone tries to print out from their home computer. Have a look on the fivers in your wallet and there they are.

I’ve been looking for this note ever since, and finally tracked one down on eBay for £4.50. Mint condition. Bargain. I photocopied the obverse though, so my printer isn’t quite up to exact EURion cancellation calibration.

The move to the country

Torendo, 11 Station Road, captured by local artist George Sims, showing a deceptively vehicle-free street, as it no doubt was in July 1968.

When my family moved from urban terraced Croydon to a sunny detached house in Newhaven, in Sussex, in 1965, the great vistas of the South Downs, Sussex Weald and English Channel were laid out before us, and we leapt at them with extensive family rambles most Saturdays and Sundays from March to October. Before we owned a car those family trips took the form of picnic hikes over the Downs  — quite literally just out the door and up the hill. Or we’d take short journeys by bus and train to Friston Forest near Eastbourne, Mount Caburn on the outskirts of Lewes, or particularly the famous Victorian naturalists’ destination, the Abbot’s Wood complex at Polegate. But for my 6-year-old mind, just stepping into the garden was an adventure.

Our Croydon house (15 Suffolk Road, South Norwood) was a corner end-of-terrace. It had three floors and four bedrooms, but it only had a tiny courtyard garden. Mum could water the whole thing by angling a short 1-metre stretch of thick hosepipe out of the window, from the kitchen tap, and using her thumb over the end to squirt the tiny rug of lawn and the narrow surrounding flower bed. My tricycle took three pushes on the pedals to get from one corner of the side passage, where the old washing machine was gradually filling with rain water, to the door of the coal shed, or whatever the dim airless former outside toilet was now used to store.

But I thought Torendo was a palace. It had a broad staircase with elegant dark-wood acorn-topped newel posts and a polished curving banister rail, and at the half-landing there was a bloody great stained glass window. I’d only ever seen things like this in a church or a manor house. I was agog. Nobody really knew where it had come from, or why it was there. My Dad had got the notion that it showed three of Apollo’s muses, but he’d never showed a great knowledge of classical literature or art on which to base this. Who knows? The story had also gone that the original builder had scavenged different sized doors and windows to fit the place out, and so the leaded glass had probably come from some sort of scrap yard — architectural salvage it’d be called nowadays.

It was quite a few years before I realized that stained glass windows like this don’t often feature in standard family homes.

The house was one of the oldest buildings on Mount Pleasant, the hill above Denton Corner, and on old Ordnance Survey maps it could be seen, a lone square grey spot, just up the hill from the Ouse flood plane and the sweep of the A259 Eastbourne-to-Brighton coast road, passing below. It occupied a large plot over which its white cube form presided regally. At least it did until we bought it. Just before us, the house and grounds had been bought by a developer, a Mr Fish, who lived further up Station Road. He’d then severed off two plots of land down the hill of Station Road and two plots along Beresford Road, on which four new houses would be built, leaving the Torendo we bought now in a much reduced square of land in the corner.

An aerial photo of the house in its original large corner plot. This can only have been taken a year or two before we moved in.

When we moved, the only signs of these future houses were some meagre wire fences and the trenches now filled with concrete foundations. Needless to say I went exploring, fascinated by the offcuts of reinforcing steel, rubble remains of some demolished outbuilding, and the large buddleja bushes abuzz with bees and hoverflies and the occasional red admiral butterfly. Building site security is a bit more stringent nowadays.

Torendo was named, apparently, for a previous owner’s three children, taking the first few letters of their names — Tom, Renie and Donald. In its heyday it had been a bed-and-breakfast guest house. The original painted metal sign, long mouldering in the loft, now hangs in my living room and still proudly announces its credentials. The TORENDO typeface, with its mid-line swash detailing is similar to that used on BONANZA and RAWHIDE, the famous western TV series of the 1950s and 60s, and was presumably meant to give the place an exotic air. When the new houses were built in Torendo’s former garden, number 3 of the 4 of them was called Tol Pereth, perhaps having a West Country sound to it, but it was actually an anagram of ‘plot three’.

A very 1930s colour scheme.

When we first arrived I also remember a series of large wood and hard-board signs in the shed; they were battleship grey, painted with white block letters proclaiming, vertically: ICES, TEAS and OPEN. I guess they were propped up against trees or road signs down on the main road, to entice passing traffic to stop over for light luncheon refreshments.

At first, the garden was like a jungle. The house had been unoccupied for many months and even when we bought it we didn’t move in for some time until Dad’s office finally relocated from London to Lewes; this was the motivation for our move to Newhaven in the first place. A massive privet bush, 3 or 4 metres high, in the middle of the garden, made a fine den for my brother and me to play in and an old apple tree outside the kitchen door afforded good views past the house to the grazing meadows that stretched away off towards the sea. The garden was dominated by red valerian, growing out of the broken concrete paths and thin soil just a few centimetres deep over the solid chalk rock. Of a summer evening it smelled strongly, and attracted hummingbird hawks and other moths, and above the roof any outfliers were picked off by the clouds of bats that thronged around the lamppost on the pavement nearby. I was in awe of these animals’ aerial prowess as they flapped about madly like deranged black handkerchiefs, scattering flurries of disembodied insect wing fragments.

Mr Sims’s rear view of the house, showing the stained-glass window, but also the disreputable shed and some attractive drain pipes.

The garden clearance started piecemeal each weekend as Mum and Dad found the time. The privet thicket was felled and a couple of old china butler sinks were set in as ponds — soon colonized by frogs, dragonflies, damsels and water boatmen. Digging the thin earth became an adventure too, as the ground everywhere was littered with large spent rifle shells and the occasional impressive live bullet. Prior to the D-Day landings just over two decades earlier, the house had been a billet for Canadian infantry and they must have been target-practising regularly. Every so often Dad and I would take the live rounds and hand them over the counter at the police station in Newhaven. Here it was, on the community noticeboard, I first saw the ‘wanted’ posters for Colorado beetle, the potential potato pest insect that had recently become unassailably established in Europe, and about which British farmers were rightly concerned. The cartoon style watercolour showed the shining striped and domed adult beetle, and its blobby plasticine-like larvae busy demolishing a ragged-looking potato crop. It seemed a peculiar juxtaposition to be handing over murderous ammunition under its gaze. Not that I really knew much about police work — my information came from Dixon of Dock Green and the occasional gossip from my police inspector uncle about vandalism on North Kent farms or a bungled robbery in a village post office.

That year we arrived, 1965, had seen one of the hardest winters in living memory. Unoccupied because we were not moving down until Dad’s office relocation was complete, one of the water pipes in the bathroom had frozen and with the thaw it burst and leaked, bringing down the kitchen ceiling. It also damaged the cheap veneer parquet-style flooring that covered the floorboards downstairs. All that had to come up and the ceiling had to be replastered before the house was habitable. My Dad being a hoarder, salvageable bits of the parquet were knocking about in the shed for years afterwards. They were all pretty bashed up, not just with water-staining, but from the dimple puncture marks of countless stiletto heals — the results of wild dance parties organized by those Canadian soldiers, we were informed.

With the repairs done we finally moved in May. I have no memory of the removals lorry, partly because I was not there when they packed up. But I do clearly remember my arrival in our new home. On the day before the move, Dad and I came down by train and we camped in the empty house overnight. The tiny box room, my sister’s bedroom for all the time I lived there, had a built-in wooden cot-type bed, with cupboards and drawers underneath it. This was where Dad slept. I was on the camp bed next to him. Goodness knows how anybody ever went camping in those days. This ostensibly moveable bit of furniture was actually a heavy and unwieldy contraption of thick articulated wooden struts and a sagging slung hammock of stiff hessian cloth and webbing. Maybe you were supposed to have a sherpa or a bearer to carry it about for you? Two perhaps. Anyway, fish and chips from the local shop for dinner and an off-the-cuff bedtime story about Willie Stag Beetle and his family, and I was nearly out. But I’d forgotten my cuddly toys. Never mind, hero Dad to the rescue as he brought them out of his rucksack — the unimaginatively named Dog and my broken-nosed threadbare teddy Patch. Calm resumed.

We soon settled into a routine of household life. Every morning my mum would come down to the kitchen and rake out some of the slag from the square, grey, coke-burning stove that heated our water. I never quite understood why it ran on a different fuel from the coal of the open fires elsewhere in the house; we had to have two concrete storage bunkers outside to separate them. Strange that I should recall a dirty, antiquated and slightly dilapidated boiler, except that I remember it was made by the Glow-worm brand. On the front it had a metal serial-number plate adorned with a logo which I immediately knew was a very anatomically incorrect caterpillar/ worm type thing with happy bulbous eyes and a shining light-bulb tail. Ever seen an indignant know-it-all 6-year-old? That was me.

Because we never really knew the house with its former grounds still intact, I never felt hard done by or resentful that we only had limited space to play. Anyway, we had the South Downs at our back and the ditch-lined meadows below. Within minutes we could be collecting sheep snails from the chalk hillsides, chasing clouded yellow butterflies across the clifftops, or picking out crabs and sea slaters from under the muddy rocks that edged the creek down at Tide Mills. So many worlds were our oysters, and there were pearls aplenty.

An aside on church visits

I like old churches, I like them very much indeed. Which is something of a paradox for someone who is very strongly atheist. I think it’s because I find a familiarity in them which, despite my views on organized religion, I do not find threatening. They also have, for me, an aura of nostalgia. This is not the all-too-frequent nationalist yearning for some imagined Miss Marple England; it is a genuine series of memories from my childhood during the late 1960s.

When our family moved from terraced urban Croydon to a bright detached house at the foot of the South Downs in Newhaven in May 1965, my father’s natural history wanderlust took the family hiking across the hills, squelching across the flood plains of the nearby Ouse, and padding deep into the woods of the Weald. This was a time before we owned a car, so all these weekend rambles were by bus and train. Heading off was a quick march down to the Number 12 bus-stop at Denton Corner, or along the Drove Road to Newhaven Town Station to catch our scheduled train to Lewes and beyond.

We’d head to Friston Forest, Abbot’s Woods, Vert Wood, Birling Gap and the Seven Sisters, the South Downs escarpment from Itford to Willingdon, and the meandering valley of the River Cuckmere from Alfriston to the sea. At the end of the day we’d amble back to the bus stop to head home. This would inevitably be in one of the endless tiny villages and hamlets that dotted the area, and in the half hour or so that we waited for the small green and white charabanc to appear, we’d inevitably take a turn round the local churchyard to eye up lichens on the pollution-free gravestones and filmy ferns betopping the ancient flint-and-mortar walls. We might even pop inside to admire the stained-glass windows or browse the local history exhibited on the memorials lining the nave.

Lullington was one of many claiming to be the smallest church in England, at only a few metres square it could hold (barely) a congregation of a couple of dozen people. Beddington had sheep grazing around the stones to save the warden the time and effort of scything. The tower at Jevington had a feral honeybee colony, with an endless flight of workers coming and going from an air vent or hole in the brickwork high up one face. It’s probably still there.

Most of these churches were all or part Norman, flint walls with pointed  arches on doors and windows, although most had been added to, repaired, restructured, or rebuilt in the subsequent 9 centuries. Some retained Saxon features, or floorplan, or some notion of pre-conquest religiosity. I always thought there was a pagan power in the glistening silica of the napped flint, a stone from an antediluvian world, formed from sponge spicules or some other vaguely imagined animal origin as the shells of countless marine organisms formed the chalk that enveloped it at the bottom of some ocean long ago. The crumbly cream lime mortar contrasted with the obsidian black of the flint and always looked organic, rather than made by human hands, as if it had been extruded from the very earth. If we were lucky, we’d also get a treat from the village shop, a 6d orange lolly for us kids, and a 1/- orange maid for Mum and Dad; later, if it were just me and my father, he might splash out on a choc-ice — ooh, luxury beyond belief, it was.

Some years later, when a family car meant we could venture further afield, even into the wild unknown of West Sussex, I remember catching a glimpse of a strange church tower as we whisked along the A27 past Worthing. It had oddly chamfered corners and four diamond-shaped roof slopes meeting at a short but delicate point. Of course there was need to go loitering there waiting for a bus any more, so this distant fleeting minaret was all I knew.

This year I visited a survey site in Worthing, just on the north-east edge of the town, and as I sat having my packed lunch on a fallen tree trunk I could see that distinctive tower sticking up above the trees away across the meadows. I had to visit.

The church of St Mary the Blessed Virgin, Sompting, West Sussex. Nowhere to get a choc-ice, though.

I’ve been working on a new book

It’s been several months since my last blog. I’ve been busy. Mostly I’ve been writing a book about ants. But I’ve also reinvigorated an idea from March last year — A natural history of insects in 100 limericks might be an unlikely title but it’s been picked up and Pelagic Books (Call of nature, 2017) are publishing it later this summer.

I like the quirky irreverence of the limerick, with its silly subject matter and it’s ability to weather some of the the worst storms of poetic licence. All gravitas can be swept aside and there is a certain charm in the sometimes quite frankly challenging rhyme clashes.

To some extent the book is a vehicle for Calvin’s Line drawings, which he did when he was still 13.

No prizes for guessing that this is a bumblebee.

Calvin and I spent several months tinkering and doodling respectively. And in the end some of the hardest decisions were which ones to leave out. After deciding to make the book just insects it was obvious that the arachnids would hit the cutting room floor.

And anyway, maybe the world’s not quite ready for poems about cannibalism.

A wolf spider carried about,
Her young on her back,there’s no doubt.
But when her strength left,
Her babes weren’t bereft,
They ate her until she was nowt.

Watch this space. And please don’t be too unforgiving in your assessments.

The Jones index of implied menace

US entomologist Justin Schmidt has carved out a place in entomological history by putting together the Schmidt pain index to measure the intensity of insect stings. These range from a score of 1 the tickle of sweat bees (Halictus species etc) to 4 the kind of pain that makes you lie down and scream (bullet ant, Paraponera clavata). The pain index is referenced throughout the internet, but this is the Natural History Museum’s take on it.

Not wanting to be outdone I’ve decided to launch the

This is the opposite of a pain index, because none of the insects has a sting. They just look threatening.

It seems obvious now, that stinging or poisonous models might be copied by harmless mimics, to trick potential predators into thinking that they were painfully dangerous, but it wasn’t until naturalist and explorer Henry Walter Bates formalized it in 1861, that the idea gained widespread understanding. It is now known the biological world over as Batesian mimicry.

The Jones index of implied menace is an irreverent unpicking of Bates’s mimicry, aligned on a scale from Woah! to Oh how cute. At menace level 4 even the hardened entomologist might take a step back and stand cautiously for a moment or two as they size up the target insect. Menace level 1 just brings a smile to your face and the thought: “What pretty colours”. Even more so than Schmidt’s pain scale, my index is subjective in the extreme. But it works for me.

4. Hornet robberfly, Asilus crabroniformis.

Damn this thing looks pure evil.


Arguably Britain’s most striking fly, the hornet-mimicking Asilus crabroniformis. Taken from its well-deserved place on the frontispiece in Colyer & Hammond’s (1951) Flies of the British Isles.

3. Hornet moth, Sesia apiformis.

A moth? Really? Are you sure?

The hornet moth, Sesia apiformis, is one of the clearwings, named for their narrow, transparent, unscaled and unpatterned wings which make them not at all moth-like, but very wasp-like, very wasp-like indeed.

2. Phantom hoverfly, Doros profuges.

Sleek, but with that sinister-looking narrow waist and menacingly darkened wing edges….

The ‘phantom’ hoverfly, Doros profuges. I’ve filched this as a screenshot from the excellent website; I hope they don’t mind.

1. Ant beetle, Anthicus floralis.

Looks a bit like an ant — if you squint.

Anthicus floralis does look remarkably ant-like when it runs about at top speed on the ground. But it’s hardly a thing of nightmares.

Like Schmidt, I’m prepared to allow some latitude, breaking out from the 4-point scale, when necessary. The brightly coloured craneflies, Ctenophora, look creepy as well as being threateningly coloured, enough to score 3.5 maybe.

For some people the creepy long legs do it, for others it’s the intimidating upturned spike of a tail. But, like all craneflies, a female Ctenophora pectinicornis is completely harmless.

Most hoverflies would rank 1, although I might make an exception for Volucella zonaria, and give it a 3, if only because of its menacing size.

Even dead in the hand it looks unnerving — Britain’s largest hoverfly, Volucella zonaria.

On the other hand conopids, which are visually superb wasp mimics actually look too cuddly, so only get 2, except for Sicus ferrugineus which, with its curled can-opener tail, looks a very sinister 2.7.

The brightly coloured wasp longhorn, Rutpela maculata, scores 2 when it walks, but a waspish 3 when it flies.

The wasp longhorn, Rutpela (Strangalia) maculata is a frequent flower visitor and does that hawking bobbing flight so characteristic of wasps.

So next time you stare in wide-eyed startlement at some large buzzing bug, beetle or fly, which you first thought was a wasp, but now realize is a mimic, remember to take a moment during your stand-down relaxation to ask yourself the question: “Yes, but what Jones score did it elicit?”

Hallelujah — a beetle larva to bring me to my knees

Apparently I let out a triumphal cry and sank to my knees to greet this wonderful creature — the bizarre, secretive larva of Drilus flavescens. I’ve never seen one before, but instantly knew it from photos that other people had taunted me with. And it features on the cover of the newly published Royal Entomological Society handbook on beetle larvae. Click on the photos to see the Youtube videos we took of it rippling along the South Downs Way near Plumpton Plain just west of Lewes.

Drilus larva undulating along the South Downs Way behind Falmer, East Sussex, 11.viii.2019. Click on the picture to see my Youtube video of it rippling about.

Drilus is a snail predator. The feathery appendages are a protection against it getting mired in the snail’s copious defensive slime. Click on the picture to see another Youtube video of it galumphing along the path.

The beetle is rather local, on chalk downland in southern England. At least the male is. It looks just like a beetle — its wing cases are brown, its head and thorax are black, and its long feathery antennae are very distinctive. It flies readily and I’ve caught it in my bare hands in my parent’s garden at the foot of the South Downs in Sussex. The female, on the other hand, is a flaccid bag of eggs, lacking wings or wing-cases and weighing 50–100 times as much as a male. On 18 June 2003 I was similarly brought to my knees by this beetle when I found a mating pair walking across the footpath at High Elms, near Downe in Kent. 

Sexual dimorphism at its most extreme? At the time I thought this was likely to be the first photograph ever taken of Drilus flavescens mating.

Entomology is one of the most fascinating studies in the world. There is always something new to see, to discover, to get excited about. I thrive on what some people might call a childish enthusiasm. And it makes me smile.

Treasure. Look at that grin.

Why fossils shouldn’t really exist

I’m writing a book about ants. It’s still many months from completion. A chapter on ant evolution must mention fossils, so I thought I’d throw this suggestion into the internet maelstrom to see how it should be honed. Or binned.


Recognizable ants have been around for at least 100 million years. We have exquisitely preserved fossils in amber to prove it. A quick internet search shows that ants preserved in amber are widely available from dealers. I was tempted by several in the £15–£30 price bracket. The ants were all tiny, 2–4 mm, but with low monetary value they were unlikely to be fakes. However I was not temped by the mating ‘queen and drone’ for sale from a US website at $49,500. If memory serves, this is the same item that I came across over 10 years earlier when I was researching ‘the most expensive insect’ (Jones, 2010, Extreme insects, HarperCollins), and which was then on offer for $100,000. No matter how rare such an event might be to get fossilized, this seems to be a fairly arbitrary sum, even if now knocked down by 50%.

But it at least got me thinking.

Dinosaurs have captured the popular imagination, but this las led to some completely silly and imaginary ideas about fossils. Fossils are real, but they are so rare that they do, actually, verge on the mythical. I casually wondered out loud what might be the chances of something getting fossilized. This seemed like quite a straightforward question to me, but I soon found out that nobody was willing to offer up any calculations. Taphonomists (fossil palaeontologists) openly mocked my question, claiming that ‘putting odds on it is impossible’. Having thought about it a bit more I’m tempted to agree with them. Nevertheless, having set the metaphorical ball of fiery curiosity rolling through my brain, I here offer some back-of-the-envelope calculations.

Firstly — how many ants have ever been available for fossilization? We have to start with a calculation from over half a century ago, by C.B. Williams (1960, The range and pattern of insect abundance, The American Naturalist, 94: 137-151). Extrapolating from bird counts, insect trapping surveys, log–normal biodiversity indices and world-wide species lists, he estimated 1018 insects on the planet at any given time, of which say 1% were ants; this would give us 1016. Assuming some sort of conformity with modern faunas, and allowing each ant to live 1 year, the last 100 million (108) years would therefore have produced 1016 x 108 = 1024 ant individuals having crawled on planet Earth.

Secondly — how many fossils are known? It turns out that about 750 fossil ant species are described from, say, 10,000 ant fossils. At the final count this does not seem like very much at all. 

Finally — what proportion of fossils have we humans found? Of course humans have only discovered a tiny fraction of the fossils buried in the soil. This is where the calculations and guesswork start to get a bit fanciful. For the sake of argument, I’d suggest that humans have only discovered 0.001% of ant fossils;  this is a figure I admit to having arbitrarily plucked out of the air. I dare somebody to disagree with me.

So, if 10,000 known fossils represents 0.001% of the total, that total number might be 109. This would still give the ratio of all ants to fossil ants at something like 1024 : 109  or in more conventional usage 1015 : 1. These are incomprehensibly small odds.

Given that the chance of winning the UK’s National Lottery is reportedly 4.5 x 107 : 1 (45 million to one), the chances of an ant becoming fossilized are about on a par with the same person winning the lottery two weeks running. Given that 32 million people are reputed to do the lottery each week, my increasingly tenuous grip on mathematics suggests that it might take 613, 278 years for them all to have just a single win. For someone to win twice in a row seems mathematically (and morally) untenable. For an ant to become fossilized must be equally dubious. 

It’s that unknown how-many-more-fossils-are-left-in-the-ground part of the equation that gives me most anxiety. But even if my guesstimate is out by a million-fold (even a billion-fold) the odds are still vanishingly small. Really, in any sensible world, fossils shouldn’t exist — each and every one of them is a tiny miracle of geological chance. Perhaps I was being a bit dismissive of that mating ant pair in amber.

Matchbox production line

Clearing out the parental home and I come across these almost antique collecting boxes. My dad used to make these out of matchboxes, and I did too. Quality father/son bonding time, it was.

First cut a rectangular hole in the top using a naked ‘safety’ razor blade (a Stanley knife might have been available later). Wooden matchboxes, back in the day, were easier to cut than the cardboard ones. Next glue a cover of clear cellophane over the window using that gaggingly smelly animal glue boiled up in a home-made bain-marie on the gas ring. Finally give it a neat paint job, and a number.

For at least my first decade these were our collecting boxes of choice. They were ideal for the sorts of creatures we were finding — hoverflies, greenbottles, weevils, leaf beetles, longhorns, moths, water boatmen, shieldbugs, grasshoppers and caddis flies. Anything too small could often squeeze out of a gap. Sometimes a large solitary wasp would chew a hole in the corner and escape.

I was probably 13 or 14 when I made the change to glass tubes, and although Dad did too, he often also carried a few of these old boxes in case he found a particularly large water beetle or a big fluffy moth. He’d then make an entry in his field notebook, of the painted number on the back, what he’d found, and where.

During the last 10 years of his life he hardly collected any insects, he spent all his fieldwork hours recording plants. But when I’d visit he’d pull out some of the latest things he had found and was struggling with. They were all small fry — the sort of thing you could only put into a small glass tube, not a loosely fitting matchbox. But he still kept these, along with a few similarly painted tobacco tins of uncertain provenance. Just in case.