Category Archives: General Stuff

More curious entomologist workshops in the offing

Three prime localities in Lewisham are set to host the first workshops.

Three prime localities in Lewisham are set to host the first workshops

How to be a curious entomologist

Insects are everywhere. They are so many, and so varied — fascinating, beautiful, mysterious, bizarre. Through their mind-boggling biodiversity they offer us a window into the ecological complexity of life on Earth, and give us a powerful insight of the workings of the natural world. But their small size means they can easily be overlooked or ignored. However it doesn’t take much specialist equipment to have a closer look. Using simple methods and materials provided, this 1-day workshop will look at techniques to find and observe a wide variety of different insects, then how to preserve sample specimens for examination under the microscope.

In the morning, we’ll tour the reserve, finding and discussing the many different insect groups — looking at their structure, behaviour, life histories, and some easy identification pointers. In the afternoon, during the laboratory session, there will be the opportunity to look at some in more detail, and consider how studying insects can contribute to our understanding of nature, and the contribution it can make through citizen science.

Curious? Why curious? Entomologists might, at first, seem a bit eccentric, but they pursue their study of the natural world with a passion fuelled by curiosity.

Richard Jones is an acclaimed expert entomologist, a fellow of the Royal Entomological Society and a former President of the British Entomological and Natural History Society. He writes regularly for BBC Wildlife, Countryfile, Gardeners’ World and Sunday Times. He has written several books on insects, including Extreme Insects, The Little Book of Nits, House Guests — House Pests, and Call of Nature — The Secret Life of Dung.

That time I nearly killed my grandmother

My father was always a bit vague about how he got his interest in natural history. He remembered an aquarium full of freshwater life at his primary school. He spoke of finding caterpillars and moths on his paper round, and a mole cricket when he was evacuated to Yorkshire during the Blitz. By the time he was a young man, it was deeply ingrained and he spent hours trooping across Wimbledon Common, Bookham Common and the City of London bombed sites collecting insects and plants. Wherever it came from, he certainly did not get any wildlife interest from his mother — she hated creepy-crawlies, and although she fed the sparrows in her garden, she could not pick up a frog, and a newt would probably have given her conniptions.

I always found it odd that though ‘Nana’ was such a tough old bird, she had the squeamishness of a parody Victorian maiden. Widowed, with my 5-year-old father, and a newborn babe-in-arms, at age 24, she worked as a single mum in an era when this carried a terrible stigma — surviving bombed-out London during World War 2, becoming a supervisor in a munitions factory, before remarrying, out-living her 8 siblings, a second husband and a late-onset boyfriend, and surviving scrawny but vigorous until she was 93. Yet she despised mud and dirt, could not stand the sight of blood, and I nearly caused a significant family rift when, as a young teenager, I tried to use the word ‘guts’ in a scrabble game.

When I was about 12 Nana and Grandad Clifford came to stay in our house in Newhaven, when we went off to Swanage for our family summer holiday. Whilst we trekked across the Purbeck hills to see Old Harry Rock, Lulworth Cove and Corfe Castle, she and Cliff would visit the pub in Newhaven for a half of Guinness each, or potter in the garden. I never questioned the sleeping arrangements: she would be in my room, Cliff would be next door in my Brother Peter’s.

Her delicate sensibilities emerged within minutes. The first thing she made me do was take down a long narrow poster showing a cut-away diagram of a Saturn V rocket. About half way down, a round-oval fuel tank was helpfully coloured in bright red, but she said it looked too much like the stomach of a medically dissected dead body. It had to go.

Bemused, I took it down and we left, but although I did not realize it, I had left her a much worse time-bomb resting on my chest of drawers.

The caterpillars of the privet hawk moth, Sphinx ligustri, had come to me as hatchlings, tiny 10-mm worms from a neighbour’s garden. They had done well in an an old aquarium covered with a strip of net curtain. I had remembered to replenish the privet stalks fairly regularly, and nearly a year later, by the time they were fully grown, electric blue and as big as my thumb, nine of the original twelve larvae had survived to pupate in the few centimetres of soil at the bottom of the tank.

When we returned from the Purbeck, that August, we were getting compaints before all the suitcases were even in the front door. The giant moths had started to emerge, and after they had hung from the twigs to expand and dry their wings, they began to make exploratory flutterings late one night after Nana had turned in. Very soon their were several large vigorous hawk moths beating their powerful wings against the restraining gauze of the lid. This ghostly quivering was too much for Nana. Rudely roused from sleep, and on the verge of a heart attack, she had abandoned the bedroom, closed the door, and did not return. Next day she sent Cliff in to gather up her belongings. She was still visibly shaking as she recounted the terror that had been unleashed on her that night.

When I went upstairs to check on them, some of the hawks were still alive, but they were all worn and battered, frayed and faded, almost beyond recognition, as they had awoken each evening to try again to fly off into the night.

To this day I have never seen another live privet hawk moth, or the giant sphinx-like caterpillars, but people occasionally send me pictures, asking what is the monster they’ve found in the garden. Nana continued to abhor insects. I once had to go round to her house in South Norwood to retrieve a giant stag beetle she’d imprisoned with a flower pot on the lawn, and which she would not venture near.

I’m sorry she was so frightened of my moths, and I try to be understanding now, when other seemingly well-adjusted adults exhibit unreasonable fear of large insects. But I still remember my disappointment at seeing the damaged and abraded results of my year-long rearing experiment. One or two might have been preserved for the collection, but none looked anything like the handsome pink and chocolate  beasts I had seen in the picture books, and which now taunt me from the email attachments of my correspondents.

They wanted answers, I left them with questions

Every year the Horniman Museum runs various family events around the Big Butterfly Count. Sometimes I get involved. On Wednesday 27 July I took hordes of net-toting children along the nature trail, the old Crystal Palace and South London Junction Railway line. Despite early rain we found six butterfly species, so I won my bet with Natural History Keeper Joanne Hatton. She still owes me.

On Thursday I was asked to talk about the difference between butterflies and moths in the museum’s hands-on base, where the young enthusiastic audience would be able to handle small glass-topped cases with real butterfly and moth specimens from the collections. My theme was ‘What is the difference between a butterfly and a moth?’

Butterflies? Moths? They're all the same to me.

Butterflies? Moths? They’re all the same to me.

We looked at brightly coloured species, but these were both butterflies and moths. We looked at drab camouflaged species, but these were both moths and butterflies. We looked at small species (both again) and large species (yes, both). We looked at antennae, wing angles at rest, foodstuffs, life histories, feeding mechanisms, flight, and scales.

And before they knew it I was telling them that it didn’t really matter anyway — they’re actually all moths as far as entomologists are concerned. Butterflies, it turns out, are just a small group of pretty, obvious, day-flying moths, which humans have arbitrarily lumped together in a group and given a special name.

That told them. I’m expecting the complaints to start trickling in any time now.

A spider-eating fly is nearly as good as a man biting a dog

According to my in-depth research on Wikipedia just now, the man-bites-dog aphorism about news-worthy stories has been attributed to several media magnates and journalists. No dogs were bitten in the writing of this blog, but I suspect very many spiders were eaten by flies.

This is the fly that made the news.

The microcephalic hunchback that is Ogcodes pallipes.

The microcephalic hunchback that is Ogcodes pallipes.

Look at the dark-edged squama on that thing.

Look at the dark-edged squama on that thing.








It’s a strange-looking creature, with the semi-official but not very politically correct English name ‘black-rimmed hunchback’. I’ve never come across a member of the bizarre spider parasitoid fly family Acroceridae before. They (three UK species) all appear to be widespread, across southern England at least, but they are very scarce, and records are few and scattered. Not having functional mouthparts means the adults are short-lived, probably only surviving for a few hours or days.

I’m left wondering why the small head? Perhaps it’s like a jumbo jet, the cockpit remains the same size no matter how much you enlarge the fuselage. In the case of the fly the body of the female (which this is) is simply an egg manufacturing and storage facility, with up to 4000 microscopic eggs being laid by a related non-British species. The tiny (0.3 mm) larvae actively seek out spiders to parasitize, and of course a fly that attacks spiders is definitely news-worthy.

And here is the news that it made:

Screen Shot 2016-07-18 at 06.47.24

I had my picture taken with the mayor too, but London Wildlife Trust wisely decided I was the least photogenic member of the cast and edited me out in favour of the hunchback.

Nice weather for water beetles — not

One of the delights of entomology is that you can always find insects — any place, any time of day, any time of year. They are so many and so diverse that you can find them everywhere. On Monday 20 June 2016 my thesis, however, was about to be sorely tested. At the height of the British summer (quite literally, since this was the day of the summer solstice this year), it was tanking down. And insects really don’t like the rain.

When I started the ‘Curious Entomologist‘ workshops my title was partly inspired by Simon Barnes’s book How to be a bad birdwatcher. His credo was similarly based on the notion that if you look out of the kitchen window on a winter’s day you will see no mammals, reptiles or amphibians — but you will see birds. You can always find birds; and you can always find pleasure in them. This is even more true of insects. You might have to look a bit harder, a little closer perhaps, but they are always there, and they can always be found.

This, then, was to be my pompously grand claim when offering a two-day class to some London Wildlife trainees; “Let’s go and find some insects” I said, as we peered through the rain splattered classroom windows, off into the sodden undergrowth of Devonshire Road Nature Reserve. No-one seemed very enthusiastic. Nevertheless, we trudged off into the deluge.

I hate to tell you, but you're holding that beating tray upside down.

I hate to tell you, but you’re holding that beating tray upside down.

We caught one butterfly; sort of.

We caught one butterfly; sort of.

The plan behind the workshop was to introduce the environmental management trainees to some of the basics of entomology — how to use nets, beating trays, collecting tubes, hand lenses and microscope. How to find insects, if necessary how to deal with sample specimens collected for identification, and how to mount, label and store them for later examination, or for forwarding to someone else to look at. We were struggling at the ‘find’ stage, though.

Previous LWT events at the reserve were alive with insects — butterflies and bees flying past our ears, and the sweep nets thronging with small fry to look at back in the make-shift laboratory. Today I was going to be happy finding a few watery woodlice and some damp springtails. If this were an environmental survey, I’d have taken one look out of the kitchen window and immediately rescheduled. Insects really, really, do not like rain — even water beetles. Entomologists aren’t that fond of it either really.

Back in the classroom I was given the butterfly bucket of tea to try and revive me.

Back in the classroom I was given the butterfly bucket of tea to try and revive me.

Despite our meagre findings, microscope work is still very rewarding — everything, but everything is revealed as a miniature marvel of colour or form.

Despite our meagre findings, microscope work is still very rewarding — everything, but everything is revealed as a miniature marvel of colour or form.

We’d found a few waterlogged grass bugs, a couple of speckled bush-cricket nymphs, bedraggled dung flies, some centipedes, and those woodlice. OK that was enough to be getting on with I suppose, and there was a fair bit of interest as we examined them under the stereoscopes. Then there was this.

Gymnosoma rotundatum, nationally rare (red data book) shield-bug parasitoid.

Gymnosoma rotundatum, nationally rare (red data book) shield-bug parasitoid.

This scarce southern fly had occurred on the site before (2007), but to have one turn up in the net of the proverbial tyro was a gift. It proved there was an ongoing colony here, in what is one of its most northerly and most urban localities. This is exactly the thing to demonstrate how beginners can find unusual and scarce things, but that they are usually small, need to be collected and need to be preserved so that an expert can spot them. A very positive end to the day.

Thankfully day two was brighter and, more importantly, drier. Now we could get stuck in.

Two more unusual finds confirmed that you do not need the accustomed eye of the hardened bugman to find scarce insects:

Female of Eucera longicornis. A more obviously long-horned male turned up further down the railway line, at Hither Green, in 2008. Good to know there are established colonies in this area.

Female of Eucera longicornis. A more obviously long-horned male turned up further down the railway line, at Hither Green, in 2008. Good to know there are established colonies in this area.

A tiny weevil, Acalles misellus; not necessarily scarce, but secretive, and new to me. A 'dead hedge' species, declining in an age when dead hedges are

A tiny weevil, Acalles misellus; not necessarily scarce, but secretive, and new to me. A ‘dead hedge’ species, declining in an era when dead hedges are no longer a common boundary construction.

So we ended on a high — the trainees enthused that unusual and weird bugs loitered in every hedge bottom and me that we could, after all, find insects no matter the weather.

Not a powerpoint presentation in sight

Last Friday saw me at London Wildlife Trust’s newest reserve at Woodberry Wetlands, off the Seven Sisters Road in North London, giving a workshop grandly entitled: Identifying butterflies, moths and invertebrates. So just all insects then.

Like other conservation organizations, London Wildlife Trust can get great exposure, and some extra funding, by offering events like this to a fee-paying public. But just how to pitch the vast and complex world of entomology to 10 strangers with little or no expert knowledge of the natural world? My dilemma was compounded by the fact that I’d be getting there by public transport, travelling through central London in the rush hour, and trekking from Manor House Tube on foot.

Actually, that more or less sorted it — travel light. So in the spirit of less is more I was able to follow my usual path of avoiding powerpoint presentations and concentrated on waving my arms about, then waving a net.

There was arm and net waving from the very beginning.

There was arm and net waving from the very beginning.

One of the delights of entomology is that anyone can study insects with a minimum of equipment, and with immediate success. We were armed with rudimentary sweep nets and beating trays and an assortment of plastic tubes and bottles. As usual, it was all very Heath-Robinson.

Just look at the childish glee on that face, and yet I've seen it all before.

Just look at the childish glee on that face, and yet I’m the one who’s seen it all before.

This, then, was my message, delivered with a smirk and an exuberant shirt: the only equipment you need is your eyes. We went off with no expectations and no prior knowledge of the site to see what would turn up, and to try and fit that into how insects are classified, how we might tell them apart, and how even a beginner can contribute through the multifarious tendrils of citizen science.

Woodberry being a lake, almost the first insect we found was the water ladybird, Anisoticta novemdecimpunctata, and the record was uploaded to the UK Ladybird Survey within minutes. Job done. This was shortly followed by the smaller  Coccidula scutellata, another reed-bed ladybird.

During our circuit of the reservoir we found plenty to occupy us, and a list of species has been supplied to the trust. We finished off back at the classroom where I quickly set a couple of flies to have a look at under the microscope.

All you need is a basic (and cheap) stereomicroscope with low power, nothing fancy.

All you need is a basic (and cheap) stereomicroscope with low power, nothing fancy.

I’ve already come up with my own short list of introductory identification guides, it might need a bit of updating occasionally. This is the one that stands out at the top:

Full of superb pictures and concise clear text, you can see how much wear my copy has had.

Full of superb pictures and concise clear text, you can see how much wear my paperback copy has had.

All in all, an enjoyable day for me, to be able to chat about and demonstrate even quite common insects to an enthusiastic party. More in the future I hope. Thanks to Penny Dixie, a volunteer at the reserve, for taking so many photos. Here is another selection:


It may be indoors, but it’s not a household creature

I was brought this yesterday. A couple appeared at the Nunhead Cemetery Open Day bug-hunt and when there was a gap in the stream of children they leant in and handed me a small plastic pot containing a longhorn beetle — Phymatodes testaceus.

Phymatodes testaceus is sometimes testaceous (reddish) sometimes metallic blue, sometimes both, but always striking.

Phymatodes testaceus is sometimes testaceous (reddish) sometimes metallic blue, sometimes both, but always striking.

It’s a beetle I don’t see very often, and although widespread in most of England and Wales I’d consider it very local. Where had it come from? Their Kent living room — quite a few of them apparently, flying about over the last few days. They were slightly worried in case there was an infestation. They could tell from my sceptical expression that this was unlikely.

There is no way that this is a domestic insect, it’s a species of old broad-leaved woodlands, breeding in the dead logs that litter the woods. Ah! A look of understanding crossed their brows. They must have been in the logs — brought in during the winter for the log-burning stove. Sorted.

They went away well pleased, but declined a bug-hunt certificate.

Acting in a suspicious manner is all in a day’s work

I couldn’t imagine anything more mundane. Verity and I had been out for a walk in Bostall Heath Woods (Greenwich), and as we were walking back to the car, along the scrubby overgrown verge of the A206 I saw a broken road sign lying in the long grass — it was just asking to be turned over. Over it went to reveal an ant nest (complete with larvae), various woodlice and some spiders. Nothing out of the ordinary, but you never know. See a log, roll it over. It’s a mantra that the curious entomologist utters; and for the sake of ecological completeness, ‘log’ can also mean plank of wood, sheet of MDF, broken fence panel, old mattress, discarded clothing, rubbish, litter or a broken road sign.

Here's one we found earlier — the lesser stag, Dorcus. Charming, chunky and chewing it's way through a log.

Here’s one we found earlier — the lesser stag, Dorcus. Charming, chunky and chewing it’s way through a log.

All manner of things can turn up. Earlier that day we’d found a lesser stag beetle, Dorcus parallelipipedus, and the largest pill millipedes (Glomeris) I’ve ever seen. That there was nothing of great note under the road sign was of no matter. I will turn over the next log, or rejectamenta, with keen anticipation and I’m sure there will be treasures beneath.

We regained the verge and continued walking, whilst wondering what the plonker in the silver Ford Focus was doing, reversing down the other side of the busy A road towards us. It was only when he came level with us that the Metropolitan Police sign on the door became visible. He wound down the window and called out. He’d seen us veer off the roadside and crouch down in the thick herbage, and ‘wondered if we were alright’. In other words, he’d seen some unusual behaviour and was checking us out.

I immediately turned into my Dad and adopting my best cheery Radio 4 voice announced that I was looking for insects. It just came out like that. I couldn’t stop myself. I could have added “…my good man” and I wouldn’t have been stepping out of character.

Seemingly he bought it, shouted something along the lines of “well, enjoy the rest of your day”, and drove off.

Could things have gone differently? I’m reminded of the tale, most likely apocryphal, of the Reverend Edmund James Pearce (1903–1982), a renowned coleopterist specializing in the tiny rove beetles Pselaphidae. He was apt to be a bit absent-minded, and was once found excitedly flapping about in his cassock somewhere deep in the moors having just discovered some tiny insect of great note — probably under a ‘log’. Unfortunately, the police who found him were supposedly in pursuit of a madman, who had escaped from an asylum dressed as a clergyman.

There was no holding cell for me today. My cover is still intact.

Call of nature — the secret life of dung

We have a cover concept, and a title. And I’m very pleased to see that the spine of the book will be adorned with an elephant’s bottom. Publication, some time in October I think.

Elephant trumpeting = calling; there's a visual pun thing going on here too.

Elephant trumpeting = calling; there’s a visual pun thing going on here too.

From chapter 13, Glossary: Call of nature, idiomatic expression of a general need to urinate or defecate. The only euphemism I will allow myself, but only if accompanied by the natural act itself, somewhere out in nature.