Tag Archives: insects

BENHS 2016 — less of the same

This way in please.

This way in please.

Yesterday, 12 November, was the 2016 BENHS Annual Exhibition, held at Conway Halls, Holborn. As usual it was a chance to meet up and chat with old friends and colleagues, and have a look at the exhibits they’d brought up. The old friends were there, apart from the ones that weren’t. Yet again, I think numbers were down. Exhibits were up, maybe, mostly. But I did notice the British butterflies section was completely empty.

Over the years the popularity of various insect groups exhibited at the annual exhibition has been a compass of the direction of entomological interest of the members. When I first joined (1976) Lepidoptera was very big, divided more or less evenly between butterflies, macros and micros. The ‘other’ orders together barely made up the fourth quarter. Things have changed. Coleoptera, Diptera, Hemiptera and Hymenoptera now have their own significant sections of the hall. There aren’t many ‘other’ orders left — Trichoptera and a few odds and sods.

This year there was not a single British butterfly exhibit. Showing wild-caught butterflies has always been fraught — frowned on my some, mocked by others —but there were usually several examples of breeding experiments to work out the genetic control of pattern formation and aberration. Where were they? Who knows?

The point of the exhibition, in terms of meeting other entomologists, communicating findings, exchanging ideas, has changed since the society was founded 144 years ago. There is now something peculiarly archaic about poring over trays of pinned insect specimens. Except, this is still an important and useful way of learning. Comparing specimens of the pied shieldbug Tritomegas bicolor and the newly discovered T. sexmaculatus really does highlight the distinctions in the white markings. And I can now confirm that the blue jewel beetle Agrilus biguttatus can occur as a metallic green morph too, I saw it with my own eyes — just the thing to cause confusion if ever the emerald ash-borer A. planipennis, reaches the UK, on its seemingly inexorable spread through Eurasia.

Nevertheless, so much quick and easy communication takes place privately now, that the public arena of the annual exhibition is looking less relevant in some quarters. Maybe the butterfly breeders feel the exhibition is no longer their venue of choice.

Previous British Entomological and Natural History Society annual exhibitions:

BENHS 2015 annual exhibition

BENHS 2014 annual exhibition

BENHS 2013 annual exhibition

BENHS 2012 annual exhbition


Curiouser and curiouser

The new schedule of Curious Entomologist workshops continues, and Saturday 24 September 2016 saw us in the faded grandeur which is the mansion house at Beckenham Place Park.

The portico frontage of John Cator's grand house in Beckenham Place Park.

The portico frontage of John Cator’s grand house in Beckenham Place Park. Arrival by coach and horses no longer obligatory.

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.

After the usual short introduction we set off into the park.

Back in the house the ‘laboratory’ was set up in the grand board room. Despite the formal elegance of the Georgian mansion, the natural light wasn’t perfect, but we made do with small desk lights and built-in microscope lights.

It seems so obvious to me, as an entomologist, that some insects have to be killed in order to identify them, but this is still an issue that some people find at odds with the credo of nature conservation and the wider appreciation of wildlife. In an earlier blog on my collection of ladybirds I tried to discuss just why entomologists still need to kill and keep dry dusty museum specimens.

One of the most important reasons for studying insects (apart from their astonishing abundance, their mind-numbing diversity and their total dominance of the middle portion of virtually all terrestrial food-webs) 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.

In the high-ceilinged room the aura of hushed concentration was emphasized as 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.

As usual, plenty of unusual and odd things turned up. Here’s just a selection of species. All of these are under 6mm long, and virtually impossible, even for a specialist in any of the groups, to firmly identify in the field. I particularly liked the shiny black parasitoid Psylus. Choose your statistic here, but there are claims that one in five of all species on the planet is a parasitoid wasp. They are hugely numerous and diverse in the UK, but sorely under-studied and under-recorded. I’ve got several specimens of this genus, and I’m tentatively happy with my identifications using a translation of an old Russian key. But have a look at the National Biodiversity Network database and it lists only 20 records split amongst the eight UK species. This is nothing to do with the insects’ true rarity, just the rarity of people studying the group.

The final workshop this year is a full-house at 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.

I just can’t remember a time before insects

I inherited my interest in natural history from my father. When asked, he would claim to be ‘just a botanist’, but he always carried an insect net, and during his lifetime he amassed a large collection of insects across all orders. He also knew a thing or two about snails.

Even before we moved to Newhaven (in May 1965), I remember being out with Dad, or with the family, walking in the Surrey woods or along the North Downs. My first taste of fizzy orange juice was at the cafe near Box Hill railway station, surrounded by crowds of mods and rockers. I didn’t like the bubbles on my tongue, ‘hot’ I thought. The motorcycle policeman suggested we get on the train with the mods, rather than the more unstable and possibly more violent rockers.

I don’t quite remember this though.

Selsey v.60028

Two-year-old me.

It seems the indoctrination had started early. This was from our holiday to Selsey Bill, in May 1960. Even before this I was apparently dragged about the countryside, literally, in a large-wheeled push-chair, adapted for rough terrain by the addition of a stout pulling chain to the front axle, when extra power was needed to get along muddy bridleways.

My earliest insect collection (mostly butterflies, dragonflies and bumblebees, if I remember right) no longer exists, but a few surviving specimens linger  in the drawers today. According to my old catalogue, specimen 1a was the giant weevil Liparus coronatus from 1967 . Some of the memories are there though. Around the time of our first arrival in Newhaven I chased clouded yellows across the cliff-tops at Telscombe. A short walk over the downs to Bishopstone and it took several bites from saucer bugs (Ilyocoris cimicoides) and water boatmen (Notonecta species), before I worked out that I had to be carefully picking things out of the pond-dipping net.

I grew up thinking it was perfectly normal to spend every sun-lit weekend hour squelching across the marshy meadows of the Sussex river valleys, scrambling up the stepped sheep-rutted scarps of the chalk beacon hills, and pushing through the dense woods and copses of the Weald; then to sit down at a desk in the evening to pin insects onto setting boards, or fair-copy write-up my nature notes.

This picture is from much later, July 1983, when I was visiting my parents, but similar images from the previous 25 years would have shown the same thing — a shared interest in natural history. Thanks Dad.

July 1983015

Father and son.

Insective adjectives

A chance tweet from the Horniman Museum Walrus (yes, he has his own Twitter account) suggested that the English language was all the poorer for not having an adjective for all things of a walrus nature. His own suggestions — walrussian, walrusite — were quickly followed by walrusful, walrusellian, tuskous, odobensine and, my own modest contribution, walrish.

This immediately got me thinking that there are also precious few insectival adjectives.

A quick search comes up with just a very few in common use, many of these pejorative:

Antsy (like an ant), Apian (of, or belonging to bees), Formic (of or from from ants, but really limited to acid), grubby (having lots of grubs, slightly archaic), Larval (like, or of, a larva, mostly technical talk though), Lousy (like, or infested with lice), Maggoty (full of maggots), Mothy (really just an alternative for moth-eaten), Waspish (although this is not often applied to wasps).

Admittedly there are plenty of pseudo-English adjective-like words, but these are merely clipped versions of Latin names used in academic texts — things like carabid, tachinid, capsid, for example, from Carabidae, Tachinidae, Capsidae, or dipteran and lepidopteran from Diptera and Lepidoptera. Dropping one of those casually into the conversation usually means stopping and explaining, something not very helpful to the flow of easy dialogue.

I’ve had a go at drawing up some more colloquial adjectives. So here are a few to be getting on with. First the easy ones: Aphish (like aphids), Beey (like a bee), Bugly (I prefer this over ‘buggy’), Bumblebling (just to differentiate from bumbling, which is unfair on bumblebees), Caterpillory, Caddish, ChaferousCicadian (like a cicada), Clegular (like a cleg, or indeed other horsefly), Crickish, Dumbledoric (like the large black dungbeetle of that name), Earwiggly, Grasshopeful, Locustardly, Mantish (or Mantic), Gnatty, Midgely, Roachy, Scarably, Silverfishy, Sticky (like a stick insect, obviously), Termighty, Thripsical (like or of thrips), Whirligiggly (like a whirligig).

Several butterflies and moths can have their own adjectives: Angleshady, Bloodvain, Brimstoney, Burnetly, Cabbish-white, Clifden-unparalleled, Eggarly, Fritillarious, Hairstreaky, Looperior, Orange-tipical, Peacocky, Reddish- and Whitish-admirable, although I’m not quite so sure about Speckled-woody, Small-coppery or Small-heathy.

And finally, a few slightly more subtle ones, based on my best bastard pidgin Latin: Cicindelicious (of tiger beetles, or glow-worms, depending on your classical bent), Coccinelly (to do with ladybirds), Grylled (of crickets), Libellulous (of dragonflies), Sphingy (like a hawkmoth).

All further suggestions welcomed….