Friday, December 22, 2017

So long 2017 it's been good to know you...

The December edition of 'It's a Bug's Life' that has just been published, will be my last contribution to Magnet magazine. When I started writing for them in 2014 I expected that perhaps it might be something I would be doing for a year or two at most. As it turned out, it was four years. 

I really enjoyed the experience and had, and still have, a great relationship with everyone at Magnet. I wish them continued success and thank them for the opportunity to be a part of the team for those four years. 

This from Magnet editor Adele Tratham:

"I hope you appreciate this decision is purely for the fact we have to continually evolve and change.
You have been an absolute delight to have as a contributor and have always delivered great content on time, with your wonderful images, and I know our readers have enjoyed your features very much.

Can't thank you enough!"


I will leave the published articles here as an archive for the time being. Here is my last contribution, which will also be on the 'Magnet' tab at the top of the home page of my blog.

I will still be writing my articles each month for the Wealden and look forward to what will be my sixth year of contributions.

An update on the Indian moon moths: the eggs that I had seem to be unfertilised, as none are showing any signs that caterpillars may emerge soon. The moths themselves were delightful to have around for the few short days that they live. I managed to keep a male and a female that were in reasonably good condition after passing away naturally. I thought I would try to mount and frame them if I could preserve them well enough.

I Googled some instructions and constructed a board to pin them. They were to stay like this for 4 to 5 weeks until set. Here's a close-up of the male; you can see that there is just one pin through the abdomen. This would later be cut close to the body so that it wouldn't show when framed. 

The first one that I mounted and framed was the male, which went well and I was quite pleased with the result. The female however was something of a challenge. It broke into pieces as I released it from the pin-board and so I had to try and reassemble it. I think it worked out reasonably well considering my ignorance of the process...

A while ago wildlife artist Gordon Corrins asked if he could use my photograph of a green hairstreak butterfly as a reference for a painting he was wanting to do. When it was completed, he was kind enough to send me an original print of the painting. I have framed the print now, but below is the scan he emailed to me, next to my original photo...

There has been little time or opportunity to get out looking for bugs over the past few weeks. I doubt there is much of interest to be seen at this time of year anyhow. I did spot a spider moult in the garden shed though and thought it would make an interesting subject to photograph, as the moult also included its fangs!

Female Giant House Spider Moult

That's about it for this year then: goodbye 2017

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Possibly four days too early...

Hard to believe, but it was almost exactly seven years ago that I  sat down and wrote my very first blog update. Saturday December the 10th 2010 to be exact. 

The winter of 2010 was very cold with lots of snow...

If I publish this latest update on Dec 10 of this year, then it equates to about 2550 days or over sixty one thousand hours between then and now. It occurred to me that as a long-term sufferer of migraine headaches, I calculate if my average count per month is 6 (and sometimes it can be as many as 13) then during those years I have experienced at least 500 attacks. A sobering thought, and seeing it written in black and white like this, makes me wonder how I have remained at all sane!

Comfort's Wood in the grip of winter 2010

On a lighter note, most people it's said pee between 6 and 8 times per day. Let's call it seven shall we. That would mean I have emptied my bladder almost eighteen thousand times. I would tell you how many times my pulse  beat in those seven years, in fact, once I find it, I will! By the way, who was it that recently said that they thought 'PPI' was what you got at the swimming baths?

That's more than enough about my medical frailties, this isn't 'Ask The Doctor'. Let's 'crack on' (unless that is also a medical condition). Now that winter is threatening the lovely county of Kent, finding bugs to blog about is becoming a real challenge. The stars did align one day recently though and I had an hour to spare when the weather was behaving, so dusted off the macro and headed for the high weald, high veld.... 

 Dicyrtomina saundersi (Collembola)
Yes, one thing you can rely on being able to find come winter, Collembola. You'll need keen vision though, most are about 2-3mm as adults. Here's another of the same species that I found...

 And a similar, yet different species...

Dicyrtomina ornata

These tiny creatures that are also known as springtails come in a huge variety of forms. Here's the funky spacehopper edition...

Monobella grassei

This species can be located under rotting wood that you find lying around the countryside - don't you? Well, you should then! More photos? Certainly...

Before we move on from these fascinating critters; you might remember some time ago I found a springtail that had an image of Michael Jackson on its abdomen. Well, I thought it looked like him, there were other suggestions, I think 'are you sure it's not a pigment of your imagination' might have been one of them...

I think Jagger and Jim Morrison were also what other people thought. The point is that it was the strangest one I had ever found. That is until I spotted this next oddity...

Dicyrtominia trumptonia

Curious huh? Not even too sure which is the front end!

Moving on before I make an arse of myself; just about the only other thing I found whilst out with the camera, was this teeny plant hopper...

Unfortunately it seemed to have been affected, and indeed, infected, by fungus... 

My final discovery was of this hairy snail: yes, there is such a thing as a hairy snail...

Trochulus hispidus - A Hairy Snail

That's about it for this update. It's getting colder by the day and my cockles need warming. IF I am not back here with another update before the Christmas season begins, I would like to wish you all happy holidays and offer my sincere thanks for supporting me through yet another year of blogging. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

Lillith the lynx and more...

'Safety was paramount': council defends decision to shoot Lillith the lynx

I felt I had to begin with this outrageous story today: Nov 11 2017: An Eurasian lynx was shot after straying into a caravan park near Aberystwyth town centre almost two weeks after its escape from Borth Wild Animal Kingdom. Asked why the animal could not have been darted, Andrew Venables, a marksman said, it was necessary to get within 10 to 15 metres of an animal to tranquilise it, with the the dart then taking up to 15 minutes to take effect. 

The animal park that owned Lillith said it was devastated and outraged at her killing. Me too!!!

The park had said the 18-month-old lynx did not pose a danger to humans but had warned the public against getting too close. There have never been any recorded attacks by a lynx on a human, according to the park.

I have abridged this text above because there was and is plenty more to say. I am disgusted by what happened here. Once again, there were spurious claims by farmers of it attacking their sheep and there seems to have been a knee-jerk reaction. Just look at this beautiful animal! When are we EVER going to learn to respect an animal's right to life?

I have had my little rant (which I sanitised from what I really felt) but if you disagree and think I am wrong, I would be happy to hear about your reasons too.

During the first week of November this year, I spotted a strange looking roadkill. I had to turn the car around and investigate. This is what it turned out to be (apologies for posting a photo of a dead animal, but it's an important part of the story)...

I still wasn't sure if this was a ferret, polecat, or a hybrid. Whilst chatting to my good friend and entomologist Tim Ransom one evening, it dawned on me that he might be the best person to ask for advice and so I shared my photos with him.

Tim pointed out that it's hard to be sure from a photo and that it can be tricky to tell hybrids from true polecats, but in his opinion, it might well be a polecat.

Next stop was Kent Wildlife Trust, who have been asking for any rare animal sightings. Here is the reply from Stephen Weeks - Medway Valley Warden :

Hi John
 It’s always tricky to tell them apart from photos and I’m no expert, but your photos does show one of the characteristics you’d expect from a polecat (the dark markings on the face extend to the nose – on a ferret there is usually a pale band across the top of the nose). However ferrets can be very varied in their patterns.
 One thing to check, if you still have access to the body, is whether there is a pale throat patch (in polecats it is absent or less than 5cm – greater than 5cm in ferrets). Also, the black along the back shouldn’t have any white guard hairs in polecats, but scattered white hairs in ferrets.

And so, I did check as suggested: no throat patch and no white hairs along the back.

The Wildlife Trust pointed me in the direction of The Vincent Wildlife Trust who had carried out a nationwide survey in 2014/15 and interestingly had no reports of polecat sightings at all in this part of Kent.  They did produce an interesting leaflet though with identifying tips...

I had this reply from Lizzie Croose - Mustelid Conservation Officer:

Hi John

Thanks for your email. As you’ve noted, we didn’t receive any records of polecats in West Kent during the national polecat survey (2014-2015). Of course, that doesn’t mean there weren’t any in the area, as it’s plausible they were present in low numbers but went unrecorded. We have not been collecting polecat records since the national survey finished at the end of 2015, so unfortunately I don’t know what has happened since then, but it’s possible polecats have spread into West Kent. The Kent Mammal Group may know as they may have received more records.
Sorry to not be of more help. 
Best wishes

I fired off an email to the Kent Mammal Group and the very next day had this reply from them:

Hi John
Thanks for getting in touch and your sighting is very interesting. I believe that hybrid polecat/ferrets are living wild in Kent but sadly the chances of finding a genetically pure polecat are very slim. I have however passed your message to a colleague who may be able to give you some more information, he is currently away but will I’m sure be in touch with you soon.
 In the meantime can I ask if you were able to get a photo of the animal you found? in particular its face?
Thanks again John.

I mailed Jason the pictures that I have and am now awaiting a reply. I will update you as soon as I do hear back. I am really hoping that this can be identified as a true polecat, even though I acknowledge the chances are slim. It would be a very exciting find.

As this entry has by default been a tad wordy, I shall cut and run here and return with another update soon. Thank-you to anybody who was interested enough to get this far.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

It's a sad goodbye to the Stig....

Yes indeed: time for another weblog. I recently read a couple of quotes about blogging; here's the first: 'The first thing you learn when you're blogging is that people are one click away from leaving you. So you've got to get to the point, give them some value for their limited attention span.' 

How rude! You don't have a limited attention span do you? Hello...hello.....H-E-L-L-O !

OK...OK, I can take a hint -

The other quote I read was this one: 'I think blogging, by and large, is basically therapy. I think a huge percentage of people who are blogging are doing it for self-therapy.'

Pull up a couch then, I feel the need to confide...

A female moon moth (Actias heterogyna).

I wasn't really expecting this but just 20 days after pupating, one of my moon moths emerged as an adult. How gorgeous are these? Totally! My AES care-sheet had this information: Adults often emerge from the cocoons four-six weeks after pupation. This is a female and a few days later I also had a male...

Apologies, it isn't a great picture of the male is it (these are both just phone shots). I will try to get a better one for a future update. They are living in my studio now, as they cannot be released and do not feed. They actually only live for about a week or so anyway. 

One morning when I checked on them they had left me a little gift...

But are these eggs fertile? I have no idea whether the two of them 'got it on' but according to the information I have they do seem to be the right colour: the infertile ones tend to be a blueish colour. I am caring for them as suggested and will update you should the circle of life start over. 

Speaking of the - 

Last week I had to say goodbye to my friend 'Stig' the stick insect. He was quite an old man in insect terms though; I had cared for him for over a year, which is a good age for his species. I needed to ensure he had a decent and dignified internment and so I constructed a little casket from cardboard, painted it up and placed him inside. He's now in the back garden...

Alright, I know! He was only an insect, and I really don't care if this is thought of as over the top: I like to think that as a captive bug, which he would have been whether I had him or not, I gave him as good and peaceful life as was possible and I shall miss the contact. RIP Stig.

We've talked about new life and the end of a life and so how about something that might be considered half-way between? What am I talking about? Hibernation. The bug count on my walks is falling faster than an MP's reputation now, but I did spot this hibernating parent bug wrapped inside a leaf recently...

Elasmucha grisea - A Parent Bug
Think how short our own lives would feel if we hibernated. They say that we already sleep an average of 25 years over a lifetime. The other thing that always strikes me is that they cannot close their eyes, no eyelids! 

I actually saw a number of parent bugs and most were afflicted by a parasite egg...

This is most likely the work of the tachinid fly, Subclytia rotundiventris which is a specialist endoparasite of females. The fly strategically places the egg at this point so that the bug is unable to reach to remove it. After hatching, the larva feeds on its host. At the beginning the parasite feeds only on the non-vital parts of the bug, but finally it kills it.

Interestingly, the larva ‘permits’ the parent bug to continue caring for the juveniles until their third stage. However, the adults often die before the end of maternal care. Not that the ones I am seeing now will be about to give birth - wrong time of year.

On the same walk, I saw this spider walking on tippy-toe...

I think this has all been pretty cathartic for me and I am sure that your short attention span has been stretched to the max, so I shall apply the brakes at this point and end with another of my Japanese bugs that I found just yesterday in the garden...

Stephanitis takeyai - Andromeda Lacebug (Tingidae)

They sure are strange looking bugs when you look closely...

This information is from the excellent British Bugs website: This species is a fairly recent arrival in the UK and was first recorded in 1998. It is native to Japan, where it feeds on Pieris japponica and has been introduced into the USA and Europe via the plant trade. As well as Pieris, it also uses Rhododendron and azaleas as hostplants and is regarded as a pest in ornamental gardens.

Friday, October 27, 2017

"Seriously, we’re all going to die: Insect populations are at apocalyptic levels"

You may have read in the news of a catastrophic decline in insects based on research conducted by scientists from Radboud University in the Netherlands and the Entomological Society Krefeld in Germany. It has been all across most news platforms for the past few days and makes for worrying reading. 

The number of flying insects has declined by more than three-fourths since 1989, threatening food supplies

This is the conclusion of a study published on Wednesday in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS One:

"Our analysis estimates a seasonal decline of 76 percent, and mid-summer decline of 82 percent in flying insect biomass over the 27 years of study, we show that this decline is apparent regardless of habitat type, while changes in weather, land use, and habitat characteristics cannot explain this overall decline."

The study added, "Loss of insect diversity and abundance is expected to provoke cascading effects on food webs and to jeopardize ecosystem services."

The plight of honeybees has been well documented and it is now widely believed that a type of pesticide known as 'neonicotinoids' are responsible for the precipitous decline in honeybee populations.

Coincidentally, I have been reading Rachel Carson's 'Silent Spring' which deals with an ever-growing threat posed by insecticides and pesticides. She points out in quite graphic form how there is a global threat from the misuse and over-use of these chemicals, together with intensive farming methods. The really sad thing is that her book was published 55 years ago, and we seem to have learned nothing!

Or maybe we have, but just don't care, because nature comes second to the pursuit of the dollar!

Even that back-stabbing numpty Michael Gove had this to say on the subject: The Environment Secretary said "heavy farm machinery and overuse of chemicals was boosting short-term productivity but would render large tracts of soil infertile within a generation."

A reminder from LWEC (Living With Environmental Change) about why pollinating insects are vital to our ecology:

Why are insect pollinators important?

Bees, flies, wasps, beetles, butterflies and moths are part of a nation’s biodiversity and natural capital. They have intrinsic value and provide environmental and economic benefits because:

 — Pollinators improve or stabilize the yield of three-quarters of all crop types globally; these pollinated crops represent around one third of global crop production by volume.

 — Many fruit, vegetable, oil, seed and nut crops that provide vital nutrients for human diets worldwide, including more than 90% of our vitamin C, are pollinated by insects.

— The cultivated area of pollinator-dependent crops has risen, raising worldwide demand for insect pollination services three-fold since the 1960s. Globally the crop production attributable to insect pollination was valued at US $215 billion in 2005.

 — Honeybees, but also bumblebees and solitary bees, are managed and traded commercially for their pollination service. Wild pollinators are at least as important as managed pollinators in providing these benefits.

That opening to this update was a bit heavy eh? In fact it was heavier than regret! And so in true BBC 'One Show' fashion, let's move on to something  a bit more ...

My last update was all about caterpillars, which by the way are doing fine, there are just 2 left eating now, the others have all pupated. It is strange though how they all came from the same batch of eggs and yet the final two are about three weeks behind the others. Anyway, I will continue the theme with some more caterpillars in this update. 

Here's what the excellent UK Moths website has to say about the Convolvulus Hawk-moth:

A large species, with a wingspan of over 10cm, this is a migrant in Britain, appearing sometimes in fairly good numbers.
It most often occurs in late summer and autumn, usually with influxes of other migrant species, when it turns up in light traps and feeding at garden flowers, especially those of the tobacco plant (Nicotiana)

Although larvae are sometimes found in Britain, usually on bindweed (Convolvulus), it does not regularly breed.

I was very lucky to get some early (probably 2nd) instar larvae to rear. They came to me looking a little like Twiggy on a diet (ask yer gran who Twiggy is, and I don't mean Ramirez!) Oh! Hang you are look, this Twiggy...

You get the picture now? Well, if not, here it is...

Quite an aerial though eh?

What to feed them on then? The clue is in the name of 'Convolvulus'. But what exactly is convolvulus? It's this...

The gardeners enemy: good old-fashioned bindweed. Should be easy enough to find plenty of bindweed? Maybe so, although it is getting quite late in our year to find any that is still growing and green. Then there is the little matter of me looking like a right plonker gathering the one weed that everybody else seems to hate. No matter, most folk around here think I am retarded anyway! Being spotted laying in wet grass, or photographing what looked like (and was) a cow pat...that kind of thing, hasn't helped my cause. 

And so it was that I went out and scored my bag of weed to feed to the hungry caterpillars. They appreciated my offering and probably gave my efforts short shrift as they devoured it. It wasn't long before they began to moult and look like this...

It is a good thing that these are hungry little blighters, because, once cut, bindweed soon wilts like a flower without sun, or a woman without love. By the time of the next moult, they were looking different again...


Oh yes! They were now entering their 'new-wave' period: they even acquired 'Adam Ant' face stripes. Some of them moved on further, to what I am going to call the 'Buster Bloodvessel' period. You know the one - the chubby chappy from Bad Manners... 


I don't usually add YouTube videos in the midst of an update for fear you might not return to the remainder of my writing, however, you are reading this right, so you must still be here. Why is there nothing as silly as this in today's music, who dumbed it down?

Where were we? Oh yes, they were starting to get a bit portly themselves...

It was at about this time that the difference between the fastest growing larvae and the slowest became quite apparent. In fact, prior to the smaller ones moulting again, the large green ones had already dug into the soil to pupate. Right before this happened, I measure one: it was 75mm long...

When they did eventually moult, something amazing happened: they changed from green to almost black...

Just completing a moult

Free from the moult

A few hours later and they looked like this (apologies, I have run out of music genre analogies)...

And finally this...

And that just about brings us up to date. There are two of these blackish caterpillars still eating, but I am expecting them to pupate at any time. Will I get any adult moths emerge come spring? Certainly hope to.