Category Archives: Surveys

Small, but perfectly puzzling

You’re just going to have to take my word for it that this was the most interesting insect I looked at down the microscope today.

What's this then?

What’s this then?

Two millimetres long, black, moderately shining, averagely punctured, appallingly carded at an inconvenient skew, it was not immediately obvious what it was. And that was the point. That was why it was interesting.

It’s not very often I look at an insect and can’t even work out what family it’s in. This one just did not look right. My normal method of identification is to think something along the lines of “That’s a ground beetle, maybe an Acupalpus or similar”, “Ah, a robberfly, one of the shiny black ones”, or perhaps “That’s a very small Dolichopodid”. I know where to start — what family, often what genus, and very often which species group, and off I go to find a key or a picture to settle the matter.

But here I was, dithering. I just could not summon up a mental image of which group of beetles this one fitted in with. I started flicking through picture books, but the trouble with small black slightly shining beetles, is that they all  look just like every other small black slightly shining beetle. I peered at the antennae, counted the tarsal segments, eyed up the bristles on the underside of the abdomen, admired the flattened legs. Nothing.

Back to basics then, and a wade through the laborious dichotomous keys to identify which beetle family, until I eventually get to Phalacridae, pollen, flower or smut (fungus) beetles according to which book you use. But I’d already dismissed this distinctive group because it didn’t look like one. Except, now I look again, and trying to overcome my preconceived suspicions read through the descriptions given in volume 3 of the Rev. Canon W.W. Fowler’s excellent Coleoptera of the British Islands (1889) where the key immediately splits off Phalacrus caricis — the only British phalacrid that doesn’t look like a phalacrid because it is not convex and shiny enough.

And that’s what it is. It’s not rare, it’s not pretty, it’s not striking. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, except that it’s slightly flatter and slightly more granular than the others in the family. But I had never seen it before, and it presented a puzzle to me, which I eventually solved.

This, then, is my utter delight in nature. Not finding great big flashy brashy bits of animated insect bling; not rediscovering some rarity last seen a century ago; not seeing the spectacle of mass migration, or observing a deadly pursuit, or a bizarre mating ritual. It is in the simple intellectual puzzle of finding something slightly different, slightly unusual, and working out what it is, and how it fits in with the world.

I’m easily pleased.

The good, the bad, and the downright nauseatingly disgusting

The 2015 Nunhead Cemetery Open Day Bug Hunt has just been and gone and, as ever, one of my main tactics to enthuse children is to emphasize the grim, gory and gruesome nature of insect biology. The more disgustingly yucky the better. Dung flies are always good — they eat what? I was bitten by 20 centipedes (venomous front legs) and half-a-dozen spiders (“can you see how her fangs are stuck in my skin”). We had predatory ground beetles ready to rip apart some unfortunately prey, a hoverfly larva ready to suck an aphid’s innards out, and a lesser stag beetle grub that defaecated right on cue. But it was the parasitic wasp pupa under the ladybird that really caused a stir.

“What’s this ladybird cuddling?”

I was quite excited about this one. The idea of one animal living inside another, and eating it alive from the inside, is definitely the stuff of nightmares. No prizes for guessing where Ridley Scott got the idea for Alien.

We’d already had a couple of parasitoid wasps brought to the bug hunt stall, one with long thin ovipositor, prefect for penetrating deep into the succulent flesh of a caterpillar to lay its eggs. My description got some grimaces, but any disgust was mild, and tinged (as I had planned) with a certain amount of wonder at nature’s inventiveness. No so for Dinocampus coccinellinae, the ladybird killer.

For one thing the ladybird was not dead. It had not been allowed to die. Instead, as the maggot gnawing at its internal organs had grown to maturity, its host had continued to move about and feed, constantly supplying the hungry inner passenger with fresh food. Eventually the parasitic grub had burrowed out through the beetle’s belly to spin a cocoon in which to pupate, but still the live ladybird was in its thrall, gripping involuntarily to the leaf as a protective dome.

Hypothetical caterpillars might be one thing, but here was a helpful ‘friendly’ creature from the garden, the lead character in many a children’s book, a fashionably familiar design on back-packs, clothes, bedding, jewellery, drinking bottles, kitchen timers, hair accessories and novelty chocolates. And here it was, being tormented before our very eyes.

It was at this point that someone asked if this was one of the ‘bad’ ladybirds. Since it was first found in Essex in 2004, the harlequin ladybird, Harmonia axyridis, has been a popular tabloid focus for biological woe, with all manner of garbled non-science about its tendency to out-compete native ladybird species, and even eat them, along with lots of other ‘good’ insects like lacewing and hoverfly larvae. I suspect he was after an answer something along the lines of: “Yes, this is one of those evil foreign bugs, good thing it’s going to die, you should squish any you come across too.” I don’t think he was very impressed by my short lecture on how the concept of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ animals is nonsense to a biologist, and just the artificial construct of an ill-informed sentimental society which has lost touch with nature in all its struggle for survival — disease, decay and death.

It was at this point I realized I might be losing my audience. Perhaps I was being rather too objectively rational, and just a tad overenthusiastic about the detailed mechanics of ladybird parasitism.

Ah well, I made a slight recovery by going on to explain how the harlequin had so explosively invaded Britain, and how this common ladybird parasitoid had only recently started to increase its attacks on the alien beetle, as it became evolutionarily more familiar with the harlequin’s tree- and shrub-dwelling habits, rather than the herbage-inhabiting behaviour of the 7-spot. Anyway, the captor was suitably impressed that I wanted to keep his find, to photograph and rear the parasitoid through.

Secretly, though, I think we need to try and raise the popular understanding of some of the more awkward biological concepts — murder, incest, slavery, gender inequality, caste systems, cannibalism, and being eaten alive from the inside. I realize this is something of a challenge.

What a difference three decades makes

The perspective is not quite the same, but I think you can just make out that Shirley Wheeler is standing in the left-hand of the two bridge spans.

Disused railway line, Poplar, 6 August 1984.

Disused railway line, Poplar, 6 August 1984.

Docklands Light Railway, Poplar, 4 September 2014.

Docklands Light Railway, Poplar, 4 September 2014.

This is the view just north-east of Poplar station on the Docklands Light Railway line heading up towards Stratford. The bridge carries Poplar High Street across the tracks. Just over 30 years separates the two photographs.

The first photo was taken when ‘Docklands’ was just a developer’s wild idea. The second was taken this afternoon. In the summer of 1984 Shirley was looking up at the birds nesting under the eaves of the derelict building — house martins I think they were, or swallows perhaps. We’d spent the day wandering the vast broken landscape of the Isle of Dogs, from Mudchute and Millwall up here to Poplar. Much of the former industry had been bulldozed or had just fallen down in abandonment. Everywhere was a riot of flowers and birdsong. We picked blackberries from the old railway embankments. I found the peculiar plant-hopper Asiraca clavicornis, for the first time. It’s a regular on London brownfields still, but is rare elsewhere in the UK.

The massive redevelopment started soon after our visit, and is continuing even now. Each time I travel on the DLR there is more construction going on somewhere as more plots are infilled. I don’t want to get too maudlin, but I do mourn the loss of what was, at the time, London’s largest nature reserve.

Ivydale’s inse(c)t day

It was the obvious wordplay, so I went with it. They were always called insect days in our house. Inset? what on Earth does that mean anyway? At least ‘teacher training day’ makes some sort of sense.

This way; past stinging nettles, trailing brambles, and mud.

This way; past stinging nettles, trailing brambles, and mud.

I didn’t call it a bug-hunt though (too demeaning for adults) so we indulged in the citizen science that is the bioblitz. But it was a bug hunt really. The hunters were armed with empty humous pots and sent off to see what could be scooped from the herbage of One Tree Hill off Brenchley Gardens.

I’d set up a trestle table and microscope in the small grassy clearing half way up the hill and along everyone came.

Ready to rumble.

Ready to rumble.

Not surprisingly the list of just over 60 species was really quite modest. The site we investigated was very restricted, barely a few hundred square metres of secondary woodland edge and irregularly mown grass and bramble thicket.

Nevertheless everyone seemed very enthusiastic. (Well, I did get a couple of sit-outs “Oooh, I don’t do insects”, slightly disappointing.) There were five species of bumble, including the tree bumblebee, Bombus hypnorum, and one of the cuckoo bumblebees, Bombus vestalis.

The most unusual find of the day was a single small (5.5 mm) metallic green jewel beetle. Agrilus laticornis is notionally ‘nationally scarce’, a denizen of oak woodland (there were some oaks growing here) where its larvae burrow through the bark of dead trunks and branches. It’s always a nice thing to find.

Agrilus laticornis, confirmed by examination of the shape of the prosternal plate behind the front coxae.

Agrilus laticornis, confirmed by examination of the shape of the prosternal plate behind the front coxae. Technical terms obligatory here folks.

One thing, though, became immediately clear — although older, wiser and potentially better informed, the adults could not compete with the keen and crisp eye-sight of their 5- to 12-year-old pupils. Also, being shorter, the children are naturally closer to the ground, always a useful thing when bug-hunting.

This is now my favourite daft-looking critter

Definitely also the ungainliest insect I have ever seen — a female black oil beetle, Meloe proscarabaeus.

Definitely also the ungainliest insect I have ever seen — a female black oil beetle, Meloe proscarabaeus.

This is only the second oil beetle I’ve ever found. Meloe proscarabaeus, the black oil beetle is a giant among British insects, up to 45 mm long and a great tub of a beast. Partly distinguished by her swollen abdomen, she’s full of eggs, up to a thousand of them according to the literature. She was half way into digging her egg burrow at the edge of the path down to Woody Bay, at St Lawrence, Isle of Wight last week. I nearly squeaked.

It’s usually a given, in insects, that it is the adult stage which does the flying off to start new colonies after the larva does all the eating and growing, but she can’t fly; not only is she weighed down with all her eggs, she doesn’t have any wings anyway. In oil beetles, this maxim is thrown out of the window, and it is the larvae which to the dispersing. The adult beetle is little more than a barely mobile  egg storage facility. Here’s a link to the Buglife oil beetle page which goes into the life cycle of these curious insects. In brief, the tiny but very active larvae (triungulins) hatch from the batch of eggs, scurry up plant stems and congregate on flowers waiting for a soil-nesting solitary bee to visit. They then grip tight to legs, feet, antennae, hair, whatever they can, to hitch a lift back to the bee’s nest where they invade the brood chambers, eating bee grubs and whatever nectar/pollen food stores the bee has laid up in there.

This is, as you can imagine, a rather precarious hit-and-miss strategy. The success rate of the the thousand or so triungulins is probably around the 0.1 per cent mark. So a ‘thriving’ oil beetle colony can only exist where there are bounteous bees nesting. And like all parasitoids it does not take much of a dip in host numbers to render them impossible to find for the budding brood thieves waiting atop flowers. The adult beetles are very short-lived, and only about for a few weeks in early spring; this is a good time to find the bees busily nesting, as long as the weather holds and the bees can forage, as long as the triunglins can hang on in there long enough, and don’t get washed out, or eaten whilst they wait.

Consequently, all UK oil beetle species are in trouble and even the ‘common’ ones like proscarabaeus are decidedly scarce and declining. Two specimens I’ve seen, 20 years apart — that’s a fair indication of how rare they are.

Stolen goods — an acceptable habitat?

In 1999 I was pleased to be invited to take part in an environmental survey of London Underground’s tracksides. Although the deep underground tunnels in the centre of the city are best known as “The Tube”, there are over 130 km of overground tracks running out of London, from Cockfosters to Heathrow and Amersham to Upminster. Usually these linear nature reserves are inaccessible to the general public, because of safety and security concerns, but after a training course (how not to get electrocuted or hit by a train) and a medical, I was allowed pretty good access, as long as I was accompanied at all times by a safety officer.

It was a fascinating year and lots of unusual things turned up. Water voles near Roding Valley, a muntjac deer near Chesham, the enigmatic weevil (5 UK records?) Otiorhynchus dieckmanni at Elm Park  and a small crop of cannabis plants at Barkingside. Some things were more sinister; rubbish was often dumped over fences and we’d been warned about discarded hypodermic needles near the end of ‘quiet’ station platforms. Several times we found handbags and briefcases which appear to have been dumped after being stolen. One series of plastic bags contained obviously important documents, including medical cards and two passports. Thinking I should act the upright citizen and hand them in to be returned to their owners I took them with me back into Central London after the day’s outing.

The British Transport Police were not very interested and, finding no record of any crime against the passport holders on their computer, they seemed unable to cope with lost property. So instead, I took them into the tube station manager’s office at Victoria. She was a little surprised to find out that I had retrieved them from the trackside, but I was wearing my bright orange London Underground high-vis jacket to prove I was ‘official’. She pored over the passports, which were slightly mouldy and had been partly nibbled by snails, only to exclaim when she saw a minute creature crawling across one of the pages. I immediately snapped it up and put it into a glass tube — Chthonius ischnocheles (Herm.) the only pseudoscorpion found during the survey.

Tiny, but highly distinctive, pseudoscorpions are easily overlooked, unless you are looking closely ... very closely indeed.

Tiny, but highly distinctive, pseudoscorpions are easily overlooked, unless you are looking closely … very closely indeed.

I well remember an entomologist who, on finding a very rare beetle under part of an old shoe washed up on a saltmarsh, refused to give the exact details on the data label, writing instead: “under rejectamenta”. You’ll be relieved to know that my London Underground specimen of Chthonius is correctly labelled: “Sudbury Town, 18.x.99, In old passport, dumped, stolen goods”.


PS. I was spurred to write this in response to Chris Buddle’s recent blog: Ten facts about pseudoscorpions:



Post-apocalyptic entomology

I’m left wondering if the Heygate Estate, at Elephant and Castle, South-East London, was ever the site of a gate through which hay was brought. For the last 40 years it has been the site of brutal concrete monolithic blocks of flats towering over small gloomy ‘communal’ gardens. Ever grim, in my memory, seen from the top of a passing bus, the estate became even grimmer as it was cleared of tenants, and boarded up in preparation for demolition. A year on from its final closure it stands as a Chernobyl-like shell, abandoned, desolate, empty — just the sort of place to do an environmental survey.

That’s where I’ve been today.

Actually, it was nowhere near as unnerving as I thought it might be. The sun was shining brightly, the air was alive with bees and butterflies. The gardens have run wild, the mown grass has grown shaggy, the pavements and cracked tarmac have acquired a green haze of thin vegetation. Overhead sparrowhawks were squealing.

And almost the very first insect of the day was a silver-washed fritillary. Ordinarily a relatively scarce creature of old woodlands, where the caterpillars feed on violets, growing in the dappled sunlight of coppice cycles and cleared glades, I’d have been pleased to find this in any Wealden forest. But in Elephant? Amazing.

I’m heading back there next week, for another look around. Purple emperor maybe?


Incidentally, I love the fact that, in London, you can get into a bus or a taxi, say “Elephant please mate” to the driver, and yet this is accepted as perfectly normal behaviour.

A most serendipitous insect

The sunny weather drew me out on Wednesday. There are a few things about — the odd bee-fly, some solitary bees, a comma and peacock butterflies. I bashed a stand of ivy covering an old tree on Honor Oak’s One Tree Hill, and out fell a couple of bethylids. I like these curious creatures. Although given honorary aculeate (ant/bee/wasp) status, they actually run around like tiny rove beetles in the net, an impression emphasized by their stout triangular or pentagonal heads.

At 4 mm, Bethylus boops is not large; dainty, more like.

At 4 mm, Bethylus boops is not large; dainty, more like.

These ones were Bethylus boops (pronounced “bo-ops”), a species dear to my heart because it was the first insect species I ever found ‘New to Britain’ — running about on my newspaper, as I sat reading in the garden in Nunhead, in 1992. I tentatively identified it as something highly unlikely, but when I sent it to the UK bethylid expert to check, he told me no, it was a new one. The hairy eyes are a dead give-away.

It turns up regularly in the London area, and I’ve found it several times. The National Biodiversity Network distribution map is patchy, to say the least.

Mostly, distribution maps show the distribution of searchers, not what is being sought.

Mostly, distribution maps show the distribution of searchers, not what is being sought.

London and Gretna(?), apparently. Not sure I believe that.

I’ve been a bit tardy on this one

How long does it take to publish a scientific article? In my case, just over 10 years. I’ve had a box full of specimens that I picked up on the beach in Normandy in 2002, but I only got around to working through them last autumn.

Picture 3

I quite like the idea of aerial plankton.

My excuse is that there is always something else that needs doing. Pathetic I know. Sorry. I’ll try and do better in future.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

And, by the way, thank you to John Badmin, editor of British Journal of Entomology and Natural History, for permission to post the PDF of this article.

Specimen number 1

I’ve been rearranging my weevils. I like the weevils, despite some relatively tricky groups (for example Apion, Ceutorhynchus, Sitona, Phyllobius and Bagous), many have friendly patterns of brightly coloured scales and distinctive bold, domed, shapes. But my reference collection has become cramped to the point of near uselessness over the last 25 years.

Partly spurred on by the now complete set of weevil identification handbooks by Mike Morris, and partly by a glut of storeboxes, I’ve been spreading them out, allowing me to combine many boxes of ‘various’ specimens, and bringing them into one uniform, useful, series.

And I found this.

Specimen number 1. Liparus coronatus.

Specimen number 1. Liparus coronatus.

When I first started collecting insects, I numbered them in sequence, and wrote details in a catalogue. At some point in the early 1970s I acquired a proper insect cabinet. It cost me a tenner, and was a fairly rough, home-made affair, but it had drop in framed-glass lids — better than the four small cork-lined stationery (?) drawers I was using up until then.

At this point I threw out all the specimens being destroyed by museum beetles, Anthrenus. These were probably mostly butterflies, moths and hoverflies. I then renumbered the survivors. For some reason I numbered a queen buff-tailed bumblebee from 1968 as specimen 1, but my catalogue clearly shows the first entry was specimen 1A, Liparus coronatus, found in Friston Forest, on 11 June 1967.

With hindsight I think this was a good place to start.