Category Archives: Surveys

Rare versus obscure? — 2

Faced with over a thousand small pots of pickled insects from pitfalls in Regent’s Park, I quickly remembered why I don’t like trapping insects. It isn’t the slightly acrid stench of decay that the industrial alcohol is valiantly attempting to restrain. Nor, indeed, is it the texture of the slugs, which take on a resilient wine-gum plasticity after six months in vodka. (The delivery of denatured ethanol had not arrived by the May launch of Mission Invertebrate, so a couple of bottles of Sainsbury’s own-brand hooch was acquired.) It is the sheer numbers of insects that have to be painstakingly sorted under the microscope.

The problem with pitfall trapping in a London park is that species diversity is hovering around the zero mark. A few common ground beetles (ubiquitous Nebria brevicornis and Pterostichus madidus dominate), rove beetles (devil’s coach-horse, Ocypus olens and some large Philonthus), black ants (Lasius niger), and several very common woodlice made up 99.9% of the catch. It was so very mundane.

In the normal course of entomological activity — the sweep net my weapon of choice — there is a subliminal sifting, by which 99.9% of the activity in the net can safely be ignored whilst they fly or crawl off; amongst them the more unusual insects can be sought. Under the stereoscope, though, every scrap of protoplasmic matter has to be shifted aside, until a nugget is revealed. And so it was with this, my rare-versus-obscure find from the haul — Parabathyscia wollastoni.

Parabathyscia wollastoni. Small, but perfectly formed, except in the eye department.

What Parabathyscia gets up to, nobody is quite sure. It has been recorded under decaying rhubarb and lettuce leaves, in rotten seed potatoes, and in a bumblebee nest. The National Biodiversity Network Atlas lists only 14 records, but the beetle has no official conservation status — the implication being that it is rarely recorded because it is so easily overlooked. It may be overlooked because it is almost certainly a subterranean insect. It is blind, completely lacking eyes. Weird.

 

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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.

Beetling in public

In 1998 Ian Menzies found a crushed leaf beetle on the busy walkways opposite the Shell Building, near Waterloo Station. Despite its unfortunate broken state, the specimen was immediately obvious as the pretty and distinctive Chrysolina americana. Not American in the least, this southern European species had been found occasionally in the UK: emerging from some pine cones in a Cheshire kitchen (brought back from a holiday on the Continent, 1963), and on some rosemary bushes growing in the RHS Wisley Gardens in 1995. This beetle had been spreading through Europe, increasing its range, over the previous decade so its arrival here had long been anticipated.

A pretty rubbish picture of Chrysolina americana, the rosemary beetle, but clearly showing the metallic red and green stripes.

A rubbish picture of Chrysolina americana, the rosemary beetle, but clearly showing the metallic red and green stripes.

Since Waterloo was right on my doorstep, I arranged to drive up with Peter Hodge to go and hunt for the thing. The many hundreds of lavender bushes had obviously been planted pretty recently, part of the Jubilee Gardens landscaping for the London Eye which was being erected nearby. It was on these that the beetle was chewing, and it wasn’t long before we found some.

Wandering around with an insect net, I often get approached by passers by curious to know what I’m up to. Here were Peter and I, presenting a strange tableau: two blokes on their hands and knees, heads down, backsides in the air, grubbing about at the edge of the paving stones, and occasionally bashing a small lavender bush unceremoniously over the nets. It wasn’t long before someone paused and asked what I was doing. “Looking for a beetle” was my response, but before I could go further into its biogeography or potential horticultural importance, he’d come back with “Where did you lose it?”

 

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.

Dacres Wood — first of the new batch of curious entomologists

Saturday 10 September saw the first of the new schedule of Curious Entomologist workshops. 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.

And I think it all went off very well. A small select group of attendees came along to the Dacres Wood visitor centre near Forest Hill and after a short introduction and enthusiastic arm-waving we set off into the local nature reserve.

Someone with an insect net, and it's not me. Dacres Wood is, as its name suggests, mostly woodland, but there is a pond-cum-marshy area too.

Someone with an insect net, and it’s not me. Dacres Wood is, as its name suggests, mostly woodland, but there is a pond-cum-marshy area too.

After a fair bit of thrashing about in the undergrowth using sweep nets and beating trays we returned with our samples to the laboratory. As far as I’m concerned, any room containing a desk, and possibly a microscope, is a laboratory. But as I explained, one of the beauties of entomological science 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.

My favoured T-shaped desk arrangement. I can demonstrate on the stem of the T and the trailing extension lead to power the lights can be draped under my feet.

My favoured T-shaped desk arrangement: I can demonstrate on the stem of the T and the trailing extension lead to power the lights can be draped under my feet.

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. Nevertheless I managed to arrange the wings of a caddis fly surprisingly neatly; of course I couldn’t find any acid-free tracing paper so I just used cut strips of grease-proof paper from the kitchen drawer as the pinned braces to hold the wings in place.

And just as on other occasions some interesting things turned up. Perhaps the most unusual was the wasp nest beetle, Metoecus paradoxus. After the female lays a batch of eggs on a section of rotten wood or tree trunk, the tiny active larvae (triungulins) grab onto any passing insect. Their aim is to hitch a lift on a social wasp landing to chew the wood into paper pulp. On returning to her nest the triungulins move into the brood combs to devour the wasp grubs. The beetle is seemingly quite widespread in England (and Wales?), but is scarce and seldom recorded probably because it is very secretive.

All this augurs well for the series of workshops organized through London Borough of Lewisham’s Environmental Department. Next up are Beckenham Place Park (24 September) and 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.

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.

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.