Tag Archives: Bug Hunt

It may be indoors, but it’s not a household creature

I was brought this yesterday. A couple appeared at the Nunhead Cemetery Open Day bug-hunt and when there was a gap in the stream of children they leant in and handed me a small plastic pot containing a longhorn beetle — Phymatodes testaceus.

Phymatodes testaceus is sometimes testaceous (reddish) sometimes metallic blue, sometimes both, but always striking.

Phymatodes testaceus is sometimes testaceous (reddish) sometimes metallic blue, sometimes both, but always striking.

It’s a beetle I don’t see very often, and although widespread in most of England and Wales I’d consider it very local. Where had it come from? Their Kent living room — quite a few of them apparently, flying about over the last few days. They were slightly worried in case there was an infestation. They could tell from my sceptical expression that this was unlikely.

There is no way that this is a domestic insect, it’s a species of old broad-leaved woodlands, breeding in the dead logs that litter the woods. Ah! A look of understanding crossed their brows. They must have been in the logs — brought in during the winter for the log-burning stove. Sorted.

They went away well pleased, but declined a bug-hunt certificate.

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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.

Almost the first bug-hunter back and we have a kill

It’s always the slightly gruesome ecologies that best capture the kids’ attention, so what good luck that almost the first hunter back to last week’s annual Nunhead Cemetery Open Day Bug Hunt stall had found a dung fly with its hapless prey.

Dung fly, Scathophaga stercoraria, with muscid victim.

Dung fly, Scathophaga stercoraria, with muscid victim.

This one was doubly pleasing because of the scatological habits of its larvae. It breeds in ….. Incidentally, never use the word ‘poo’ unless you are talking to primary school children. It’s undignified, and when speaking about dung, excrement, or faeces, you generally need all the dignity you can muster.

Not that dignity is something I worry about too much on the Bug Hunt.

Another year, another Bug Hunt

Perhaps I should have been thinking about the long game, when we first started running Bug Hunts at Nunhead Cemetery’s annual Open Day. I can’t actually remember when we began. The consensus seems to pick 1986 as our starting point. The Open Day had been run for a couple of years before, but this was to be the big one, and the Bug Hunt was born.

The premise was easy, the kids would come up and collect a plastic container, see what bugs they could find whilst they wandered about through the huge overgrown burial ground, bring them back to the stall to have them identified by yours truly, and receive a really cool certificate with what they found, Latin names and all. We were mobbed. And we have been every year since.

Pleasing simplicity from 1988

At first, it was just me, a few photographs and a simple trestle table. We were a bit more formal in them days. One dressed for the occasion, of course. That’s my favourite red bow-tie, I still wear it. I probably used a fountain pen to write the certificates.

The 1990s was all about big hair and shoulder pads.

I’m still not entirely sure what was going on with my hair in 1990. I vaguely remember thinking it was my Oscar Wilde look. I just looked like my mother. We had splashed out on a table cloth, but the signs were still all hand-written.

2002 — I have an ice-lolly pout and that’s first-born with the ice-cream.

Every so often we would be caught out by the weather. The Bug Hunt would become a Slug Hunt and I would have a raging cold from sitting in the drizzle. By 2002 we had a gazebo to offer some protection from the elements. My father would come and help with the hordes (he’s just out of shot here), and my children would loiter in the background, peering over at the prizes brought back by eager bug-hunters. I’d usually still wear a tie, but the seriously greying hair is starting to look like faded astroturf.

For the last three years Lillian has been my amanuensis.

So this is us in 2012 — casual chic, sans tie, sans hat. My father has decided, aged 82, that he no longer fancies the long drive up into the madness of London’s congested roads, so Lillian has been roped in to help. She writes out the certificates as I breeze on about woodlouse names (Porcellio scaber = “scabby little pig”), pretend to eat the occasional strawberry snail or describe in elaborate gory detail just how a parasitic wasp’s maggots eat the poor caterpillar alive, from the inside, to a disgusted, but enthralled, 5-year-old.

It’s usually a sedate and easy start.

But we soon get hemmed in by the queuing bug-hunters.

It’s all great fun. It’s exhausting, but immensely satisfying. Some of the kids come back year after year, and their parents proudly tell us that they have kept all the Bug Hunt certificates going back to… well, however many years it might be. And occasionally, it really comes home to us how long this has all been going on — when someone arrives with her 3-year-old, to do the bug hunt, just like she herself did it, 25 years ago.