Category Archives: General Stuff

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.

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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.

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.

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.

 

BENHS 2016 — less of the same

This way in please.

This way in please.

Yesterday, 12 November, was the 2016 BENHS Annual Exhibition, held at Conway Halls, Holborn. As usual it was a chance to meet up and chat with old friends and colleagues, and have a look at the exhibits they’d brought up. The old friends were there, apart from the ones that weren’t. Yet again, I think numbers were down. Exhibits were up, maybe, mostly. But I did notice the British butterflies section was completely empty.

Over the years the popularity of various insect groups exhibited at the annual exhibition has been a compass of the direction of entomological interest of the members. When I first joined (1976) Lepidoptera was very big, divided more or less evenly between butterflies, macros and micros. The ‘other’ orders together barely made up the fourth quarter. Things have changed. Coleoptera, Diptera, Hemiptera and Hymenoptera now have their own significant sections of the hall. There aren’t many ‘other’ orders left — Trichoptera and a few odds and sods.

This year there was not a single British butterfly exhibit. Showing wild-caught butterflies has always been fraught — frowned on my some, mocked by others —but there were usually several examples of breeding experiments to work out the genetic control of pattern formation and aberration. Where were they? Who knows?

The point of the exhibition, in terms of meeting other entomologists, communicating findings, exchanging ideas, has changed since the society was founded 144 years ago. There is now something peculiarly archaic about poring over trays of pinned insect specimens. Except, this is still an important and useful way of learning. Comparing specimens of the pied shieldbug Tritomegas bicolor and the newly discovered T. sexmaculatus really does highlight the distinctions in the white markings. And I can now confirm that the blue jewel beetle Agrilus biguttatus can occur as a metallic green morph too, I saw it with my own eyes — just the thing to cause confusion if ever the emerald ash-borer A. planipennis, reaches the UK, on its seemingly inexorable spread through Eurasia.

Nevertheless, so much quick and easy communication takes place privately now, that the public arena of the annual exhibition is looking less relevant in some quarters. Maybe the butterfly breeders feel the exhibition is no longer their venue of choice.


Previous British Entomological and Natural History Society annual exhibitions:

BENHS 2015 annual exhibition

BENHS 2014 annual exhibition

BENHS 2013 annual exhibition

BENHS 2012 annual exhbition