Category Archives: General Stuff

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.

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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

 

Curiouser and curiouser

The new schedule of Curious Entomologist workshops continues, and Saturday 24 September 2016 saw us in the faded grandeur which is the mansion house at Beckenham Place Park.

The portico frontage of John Cator's grand house in Beckenham Place Park.

The portico frontage of John Cator’s grand house in Beckenham Place Park. Arrival by coach and horses no longer obligatory.

As in the previous incarnations, the rationale was simple:

  1. Convince people that insects are worth studying,
  2. Show them how to find insects,
  3. Show them how to kill, preserve, mount, and label sample insects in a basic collection.

After the usual short introduction we set off into the park.

Back in the house the ‘laboratory’ was set up in the grand board room. Despite the formal elegance of the Georgian mansion, the natural light wasn’t perfect, but we made do with small desk lights and built-in microscope lights.

It seems so obvious to me, as an entomologist, that some insects have to be killed in order to identify them, but this is still an issue that some people find at odds with the credo of nature conservation and the wider appreciation of wildlife. In an earlier blog on my collection of ladybirds I tried to discuss just why entomologists still need to kill and keep dry dusty museum specimens.

One of the most important reasons for studying insects (apart from their astonishing abundance, their mind-numbing diversity and their total dominance of the middle portion of virtually all terrestrial food-webs) is that you really do not need any expensive technical paraphernalia to get going.  At the bottom of this blog, one of the hand-outs is a crib-type sheet offering easy and cheap domestic alternatives to what might otherwise be expensive specialist equipment and materials.

This is my portable laboratory. It contains everything I need: hand lens, pins, gum, fine paint-brushes, card, mounting strips, tweezers.

This is my portable laboratory. It contains everything I need: hand lens, pins, gum, fine paint-brushes, card, mounting strips, tweezers.

In the high-ceilinged room the aura of hushed concentration was emphasized as everyone set to work pinning and carding. This is the fiddly bit. I’d picked out an old travel box fitted with setting boards. I must admit that I never use these nowadays; in fact I have to put my hands up in the air and admit, straight out, that my setting is rather slapdash. If I can get a pin through it, or can tease out a few legs and the odd antenna onto the gummed card, then I’m happy.

As usual, plenty of unusual and odd things turned up. Here’s just a selection of species. All of these are under 6mm long, and virtually impossible, even for a specialist in any of the groups, to firmly identify in the field. I particularly liked the shiny black parasitoid Psylus. Choose your statistic here, but there are claims that one in five of all species on the planet is a parasitoid wasp. They are hugely numerous and diverse in the UK, but sorely under-studied and under-recorded. I’ve got several specimens of this genus, and I’m tentatively happy with my identifications using a translation of an old Russian key. But have a look at the National Biodiversity Network database and it lists only 20 records split amongst the eight UK species. This is nothing to do with the insects’ true rarity, just the rarity of people studying the group.

The final workshop this year is a full-house at Devonshire Road Nature Reserve (1 October).


Curious entomologist handouts:

Easy equipment and materials

Easy equipment and materials

List of entry-level books to get started.

List of entry-level books to get started.

Setting styles and data labels

Setting styles and data labels

______________________________________________________

And a few useful links:

The basics of collecting, pinning, carding, labelling and curating a collection are pretty well covered in plenty of books, a few sources are available on-line, especially in the USA:

This is from the University of Arkansas

And this from the University of Minnesota.

This rather quaint book, How to make an insect collection, is nevertheless very useful.

Equipment

Much equipment can be home-made. Here is a list of easy and cheap alternatives to many expensive items. When starting out, entomological pins are important, finer, better quality and corrosion-resistant compared to sewing pins. A good hand lens (x 10 magnification is fine) will also be a great help. Here’s a guide to getting a lens. However, for a full range of everything from micro-pins to research-quality microscopes, there are several commercial suppliers including:

Watkins and Doncaster

Anglian Lepidopterist Supplies

B&S Entomological Services

Some of these companies also sell microscopes, otherwise there are:

Brunel Microscopes

And GX Optical

To start, a stereomicroscope may seem a bit of a luxury, but cheap models are available for around £80. The most important point is low magnification rather than high: x10 or x20. A stereo-scope with swiveling turret, allowing you to swap easily between x10 and x30 is perfect, starting at £100-£150. A zoom microscope giving a range of about x10 to x45 is a delight from £350. Here’s a brief guide to buying a budget stereomicroscope.

Naming insects

Identifying insects can be tricky. There are now upwards of 200 years of complex entomological monographs and identification guides. Although on-line help is becoming available, much of what we know about insects is still hidden away in books and journals and finding the right identification key for the right insect can be a daunting task. Before launching into book-buying, perhaps the easiest path is to see whether particular groups of insects appeal to the individual more than others. At least by specializing in limited insect orders you can narrow your field of search for identification answers.

There is no point in trying to get a comprehensive list of British insect books together. So many of them are highly technical or complex, enough to baffle even the relative expert. As someone develops an interest in particular groups, they will come across further references to increasingly obscure and arcane papers published in scientific journals; they may also decide to invest in expensive modern monographs or even more expensive antiquarian books.

So here is a list of books that I think might be useful to the novice British entomologist. It is, I admit, a personal list, and it’s just a taster.

Picture books are a start, but they often fail to indicate just how many ‘similar’ species (virtually identical to the naked eye) are not illustrated. I always recommend Collins guide to the Insects of Britain and Western Europe by Michael Chinery, as a good starter because it has so many excellent pictures. It appears to be out of print at the moment, but copies are usually to be had on ebay or through second-hand bookshops and websites.

I also recommend iSpot for getting photographs of insects named. This is a great site, run by the Open University and regularly browsed by experts ready to name whatever is posted up. This would also be the place to post a picture of a pinned or carded specimen too.

Beyond the first ‘easy’ species, the best way to get an insect specimen named is to seek help and advice from an expert. And although they may not be open to naming box-loads of specimens sent unsolicited, many entomologists running recording schemes, or studying particular groups of insects, are often more than pleased to receive material, especially from a new source. Just make contact first to see what help might be on offer.

Local museums often have reference collections of insects, donated by local entomologists, and sometimes the museums are also connected with regional recording schemes. They are often more than happy to allow interested visitors behind-the-scenes access to these collections, either to allow visiting experts to re-identify specimens and confirm names, or to allow others to bring in their own specimens for checking. The Natural History Museum has the Angela Marmot Centre for UK Biodiversity, set up specifically to encourage people to make their own identifications using the facilities available. Here is my take on the centre, and here is a link to their own website.

Further information

Here, to start, is a series of links to societies, recording schemes and the like. They have links to other sources of help and information too.

Amateur Entomologists’ Society Society for the beginner. Publishes a good series of introductory handbooks to various insect orders. An annual exhibition is held each autumn with large numbers of exhibitor stands selling books and equipment, new and secondhand.

Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society Excellent website covering this natural grouping of stinging, but fascinating, insects.

Biological Records Centre, Recording Schemes List Contact details of each of the very many recording schemes; scroll down to find the insect ones.

British Bugs On-line photographic identification guide.

British Dragonfly Society On-line news, identification and fact sheets and recording details.

British Entomological and Natural History Society The society for the up-and-coming ‘field’ entomologist, running field meetings, advanced identification workshops and publishing some excellent identification guides.

Buglife The Invertebrate Conservation Trust, campaigning for insect conservation.

Butterfly Conservation Campaigning for butterfly and moth conservation.

Dipterists Forum Specialist fly-recording society, but useful website.

Field Studies Council Various publications, field courses and wildlife information.

Koleopterologie German on-line photographic identification gallery for beetles.

National Federation of Biological Recorders Names and addresses of regional and county recording schemes.

Royal Entomological Society For the expert or professional, but a large society which publishes important identification guides (some rather technical). The ‘Useful Links’ section of their website is very extensive and useful.

UK Moths On-line photographic identification guide to moths.

Watford Coleoptera Group Includes an on-line photographic gallery.

Other sources of help are: local natural history societies, local museums (which often have insect collections behind the scenes even if not on show in the exhibit galleries), or perhaps even a friendly local entomologist.