Category Archives: Surveys

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.

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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”.

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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?

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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.

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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.

Less is more

At 1.3 millimetres long, Liocyrtusa vittata is less than your average beetle, and tricky to identify even under a microscope, but it’s very scarce.

I’m wondering whether its scarcity has anything to do with its diminutive size. I’m not sure I would have noticed it ‘in the field’ but was able to recognize it as more than a shiny speck of protoplasm when it landed on the old sheet I was using as a backdrop to the mercury vapour moth light I’d lit up on 28 June 2011.