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.


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.

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: