Category Archives: Writing

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.

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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.

 

Roll up, roll up last available hardbacks, flying off the shelves, they are

Big news — House Guests, House Pests is now out of print as a hardback. I should know, I have just acquired the last remaining stocks. It’s still out there as a paperback, but for the true bibliophile it’s a hardback or nothing.

Soon to be collectors' items.

£15 all in, but soon to be collector’s item.

So roll up, please, and if you need the hardback email me an order to bugmanjones@hotmail.com and I’ll get right on it.

The cover price (previously £16.99) is, for a short time, specially reduced to £15, and second class postage to UK addresses is also now included. All copies can be signed by the author, although as is well known, it is the rare unsigned copies you should look out for.

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?”

 

The curious incident of the dung beetle in the night-time

My father made eye contact and said something along the lines: “Can you hear that?” To start I wasn’t sure whether he meant Radio 4 droning away in the corner of the room, my brother careening down the stairs, or the kettle whistling on the gas in the kitchen. No, he was referring to an almost inaudible tick, tick, tick, coming from the window. He had the knowing look of someone who is about to show off something new.

As a 10-year-old, it was not unusual for me to be sitting in the lounge, as we called my father’s book-lined sitting room. Whilst he sat in the centre of the room behind the large polished wooden desk strewn with pens, papers and books, perhaps a microscope and a drawer of insects, I’d be perched at the smaller bureau-style table against the wall. Maybe I’d be doing homework. Actually, I’m not sure 10-year-olds had homework then. More likely I’d be writing up my own nature diary from whatever family trek we’d been out on that day. I might even have been pinning my own insect specimens, or doodling a sketch of a plant, or a map.

The tapping was definitely coming from outside the window. We drew back the curtains, but the brightly lit aura of the room barely penetrated the dark outside. There was nothing I could see. My Dad knew better. Slipping on shoes we tripped round to the front of the house to see what was going on.

The noise had stopped when we got to the window, but Dad pointed to the windowsill, probably just at or above the level of my eyeline. There, crawling across the yellow paintwork was a beetle.

Medium-sized (12 mm), elongate, parallel-sided, subcylindrical, dark brown nearly black, it had shortish stout legs and strongly clubbed antennae. Aphodius rufipes was my first dung beetle. It had flown in from the flood-plain grazing meadows that flanked the River Ouse hereabouts. Many hundreds of metres probably. Quite an achievement for a half-inch insect.

Aphodius Reitter 3 copy

Some handsome dung beetles. Aphodius rufipes is top right.

I strain now, but I can’t quite remember whether I thought this an odd thing for a beetle. Maybe the notion of dung recycling had already crossed my radar. I certainly understood about stag beetle larvae living in rotten wood. I probably knew about drone flies breeding in flooded tree holes. It’s all decaying organic matter.

It wouldn’t be long before Dad would also show me the huge dumbledors, Geotrupes spinipes, or maybe it was stercorarius, heaving its juggernaut way through the fingers of my clasped hand, then flying off, like a miniature helicopter. The power of the toothed legs amazed me, and the feeling of that downdraft as it buzzed away stays with me still.

Dissecting a cow pat came naturally to me. Other dung beetles followed. The great glossy Aphodius fossor, slightly shorter, but thicker and heavier than rufipes, was a favourite, so too was the small mottled and rather rare Aphodius paykulli. The chunky earthmover shape of Onthophagus coenobita appeared when I graduated to dog dung, and the mythically horned Minotaur beetle, Typhoeus typhaeus was eventually dug up from under rabbit crottels in Ashdown Forest.

I still find Aphodius rufipes occasionally. In cow or horse droppings. Never at my lighted window though. But whenever I hold its  smooth elegant shape in my fingers, I still think back to the warm summer Newhaven evenings, and the delicate head banging on the lounge glass.

Another larder invasion, and a lesson in biogeography

Another average day in the life of an itinerant entomologist as I receive the following photo from Viv via Facebook.

"Richard — do you know what this is? They are ant size and invading my kitchen and I can't work out where they are coming from or what to do about them.

“Richard — do you know what this is? They are ant size and invading my kitchen and I can’t work out where they are coming from or what to do about them.

Shortly after comes the report that they are emerging from a bag of bird seed in a cupboard. My suspicions centre around the grain weevil, Sitophilus granarius, perhaps the world’s most devastating pest of stored food, but not something you come across very often nowadays. Tupperware, clingfilm and fridges have done away with so many previously important household pests, which can now no longer find their way into our food reserves. The grain weevil is not a very 21st century household pest anyway, since we no longer store whole grain wheat, ready for milling into the daily loaf, in our houses any more.

Back in a pre-industrial world, the household or village grain store would have been constantly under attack from grain weevils, laying their eggs, one in each kernel, which would then be hollowed out by the grub until the adult beetle chewed the distinctive circular hole and emerged a few weeks later. The beetles, and the hollowed remains of wheat seeds are a regular find in archaeological digs throughout the Old World. Despite being flightless, completely lacking wings, it was already cosmopolitan, occurring throughout the Middle East, Europe, North Africa and Central Asia, something like 8000 years ago, as agriculture took hold on civilized humanity. Its origins are frustratingly unknown, it has never been found in any truly natural habitat and is only known from human granaries. It does not even occur in wheat fields, or in the Horn of Africa where our cultivated wheat progenitors are thought to be native, and still grow wild.

I don’t usually make house calls, but since Viv lives just up the road I called round at no extra cost. It’s easy to collect a few specimens; one just inside the front door, several in the kitchen and one from the cat’s water bowl. Now for a closer look.

Ah, so not the grain weevil after all. But I was close.

Ah, so not the grain weevil after all. But I was close.

Turns out it isn’t the grain weevil after all, but its congener the rice weevil, Sitophilus oryzae. It has similar life history, but is Far Eastern, breeding in rice grains, rather than wheat. It will also attack other seeds and grains.

IMG_1788

Oh look, I know someone who’s written a book about household animals….

Unlike the grain weevil Sitophilus oryzae can fly, and also unlike the grain weevil it is found out in the wider world, creating natural breeding reservoirs in spilled grain near the paddy fields.

So, Viv, you’d best revisit the pantry and check out the biosecurity of your basmati, arborio, lentils and pearl barley.

Please, never say ‘poo’, unless you’re addressing a bunch of 3-year-olds

With writing of The natural history of dung well underway, I am obviously alert to every instance of excrement in the news. The trouble is that journalists seem not to be able to bring themselves to mention it without falling back on the infantile term ‘poo’. Here are some examples:

BA flight forced to land early because of smelly poo, BBC News, 16 March 2015

UK’s first poo bus goes into regular service, The Guardian, 15 March 2015

Posh village terrorised by poo bomber, Mirror, 16 March 2015

Campaign to stop pet owners leaving dog poo on the streets of Darlington, Northern Echo

Dog poo drops lead to blindness and £4K fines, Buckingham Advertiser

Let’s get this straight, ‘poo’ is in the same league as ‘plop-plops’, ‘number twos’ and ‘big jobs’ — zero gravitas, but maximum simpering coy nonsense.

The word is ‘dung’. And if this is no good, then faeces (feces even), excrement, sewage, stool, scat, droppings, or ordure are also available.

And don’t even think about turd, shit or crap; expletives are equally pathetic.

It’s dung.

Dung is not a four-letter word. Well, it is, but you know what I mean.