My Favourite Butterfly

This I-Spy Butterflies and Moths book was one of the reasons I became fascinated by insects as a child.  I loved the Red Admiral on the front cover, particularly because they were not so easy to find where I lived and so seeing one felt very special.  Here is a photograph I took last year of a Red Admiral near to where I grew up.  Maybe I am getting better at spotting them! 

Although the Red Admiral is a beautiful butterfly, it is not my absolute favourite.  The butterfly I came to love above all others, and the one that I look forward to seeing every year, is the Peacock butterfly, Aglais io.   These beautiful butterflies are out and about in our gardens, woodlands and open spaces right now.  On a sunny day, see if you can spot one basking in the sunshine.  Read on to find out why Peacocks are my favourite butterflies.

Masters of Disguise

One of the most distinctive of our butterflies, and surely one of the most beautiful, there is no mistaking the Peacock.  I just love their stunning wings with their dark red background topped with four iridescent eyes resembling the feathers of a peacock bird. In fact, the Peacock butterfly is a master of mimicry.  The eyes make it look like something much scarier than a butterfly. When you look at the body and the eyes together, they look, I think, remarkably like the face of an owl.  That would certainly put off a smaller bird from trying to have a peck! The underside of the Peacock is also worth mentioning as its woody, bark-like colour and patterns provide excellent camouflage when the butterfly’s wings are closed.

Peacock Butterfly – Ventral view (underside)

 

Don’t get stung

Looking for a Peacock caterpillar?  Then there is only one place you should look – in a bed of nettles!  Be careful not to get stung, this is where the adult females lay their eggs. What a great adaptation to use the plant’s stinging capabilities to protect your young!  Other species of butterfly also do this, including the Red Admiral and the Small Tortoiseshell.  This is one of the reasons why it is so important to allow nettles to grow in your gardens.  Without them, several important butterfly species have nowhere to lay their eggs.  Try to leave a wild area in your garden to encourage the widest variety of insects possible.  Pretty flowers are important but they are not the only plants that insects need! 

Peacock Caterpillar Flickr Mark Seton CC-BY-NC 2.0

Hidden Winter Treasures

Peacocks are one of the few butterflies in this country that hibernate in the winter as adults, emerging in the spring to mate and lay the eggs for the next generation. The other butterfly species that over-winter as adults are the Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae), the Comma (Polygonia c-album), the Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni) and the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta). We may also be able to add the Large Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis polychloros) to this list.  Once widespread, this butterfly has been lost in the UK since the 1960s.  However, sightings in Southern England have been increasing and it is hoped that this butterfly is making a comeback.  To find out more, check out this interesting article Tracking down the Large Tortoiseshell.

Every now and again, you might be lucky enough to find a Peacock butterfly sheltering in a quiet corner of your house or in your garden shed during the winter.  If you do, don’t disturb them as they need to stay asleep until spring.  As a child, I remember finding a hibernating Peacock butterfly in the folds of some rarely-drawn curtains in the cold spare bedroom.  I kept peeking at it regularly until one early spring day, the butterfly was gone. 

Next week, check out Susie’s post showing you how to make a butterfly feeder to help attract butterflies to your outside space. 

Do you have a favourite butterfly?  I’d love to hear about it.  Contact us or email hopelearning@oum.ox.ac.uk

Make a pitfall trap

Try out a new technique for finding insects with HOPE Learning Officer, Kate.

Have you found any interesting insects lately?  Along with the other HOPE Learning Officers, I have been out and about in Oxfordshire schools where we have found some fantastic insects.  Among my recent favourites is the thick-legged flower beetle, Oedemera nobilis

These beautiful beetles are distinctive with their stunning emerald-green colour and their chunky thighs which are seen only in the males.   We have also found lots of varied species of ladybird including cream spot, 14-spot and eyed ladybirds. Generally, we collect insects using sweep nets and beating trays but, of course, you might be lucky enough to find some interesting insects just by looking in the right places.  Under stones, logs, leaves, in amongst long grass or on flowers are all excellent places to start.  Insects, however, are very good at hiding so why not make a pitfall trap? This can be a great way to find a range of insects, particularly ground beetles.

Here are the written instructions.

You will need: 

  • A small pot such as a clean yoghurt pot
  • A trowel for digging
  • A few stones
  • A small piece of wood or a flat stone to act as a rain cover

What to do:

  1. Find a good spot for your trap on level ground, amongst vegetation.
  2. Dig a hole big enough to sink your pot so that it is completely level with the ground.
  3. Place the pot into the hole. You can put a few leaves, small stones and twigs in the pot to make any insects you catch feel at home.
  4. Build a cover over the trap by placing stones around the pot and resting a flat stone or piece of wood on top.  Make sure there is enough space for insects to crawl under.  This will stop the pot filling with water if it rains.
  5. Wait for a few hours or, better still, overnight.
  6. When you are ready, empty your pot carefully into a tray so you can see what has fallen in.  Take photos so that you can have a go at identifying what you have caught.
  7. Remember to check your pitfall trap every day and return any creatures carefully to a sheltered spot in vegetation.

We would love to know what you find! Let us know by commenting below or by using the Contact Us page.  Happy insect collecting!

PEOPLE: ERICA MCALISTER

Meet Erica McAlister, Senior Curator of Flies and Fleas (Diptera and Siphonaptera) at the Natural History Museum in London. In this video, Erica tells us about her work and how she became interested in insects.

Let us know what inspired your interest in insects by adding a comment below.

insects: the meat of the future?

Did you know that around 2 billion people around the world choose to eat insects as part of their regular diet? The practice of eating insects is called entomophagy (say en-toe-moe-fay-gee) and is most common in tropical areas where larger species can be found all year round.  Around 1900 different species are regularly eaten, including beetles, caterpillars, bees, ants, grasshoppers and crickets. These insects are an important part of people’s diets as they are rich in protein and vital minerals and vitamins. 

Across the world, 90% of people are meat-eaters. Of course, most of the meat eaten comes not from insects but from larger animals such as cows and sheep. With the world’s population set to reach 9 billion by 2050, the huge demand for animal protein is growing all the time.  We are using more and more land to farm animals for food, contributing to potentially catastrophic climate change and biodiversity loss (the variety of different living things found in the environment).

Herd of cattle graze in a pasture near a village/Image credit: World Bank Photo Collection , CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Deforestation / Image credit: World Bank Photo Collection , CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

You may think that eating insects sounds disgusting. Many of us don’t like the idea of munching on a mantis or crunching a cricket but, with rising demand for meat protein, could insects provide a solution for this global problem? 

Insects to the rescue?

At the moment, most insects that are eaten come from the wild but there are lots of good reasons to consider farming insects. 

The demand for meat and dairy products has resulted in more and more land being used for farming, leading to the destruction of many habitats. This is having a devastating effect on our planet’s biodiversity as many plant and animal species have nowhere to thrive and many are now under threat. Farming insects, however, needs much less land and water.  For example, 400 square metres of land are needed to produce just 1 kilogram of beef, but 1 kilogram of crickets can be produced from just 30 square metres. 

Another problem with cattle farming is the production of greenhouse gases. Cows and other large animals produce huge quantities of methane; a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.  At the moment, livestock are responsible for more greenhouse gases than all the cars, planes and other forms of transport in the world. In contrast, most insects don’t produce methane gas as a waste product. 

Of course, it’s not as simple as just switching from farming cows to farming crickets.  What about the millions of farmers around the world who rely on rearing cattle for their living?  What would happen to all the land that is currently being used to farm livestock?  Is it ethical to kill insects for food?  Read on for some suggestions about where to find out more about these issues and debates.

Find out more

If you are interested in finding out more about sustainability of meat production and consumption, including the idea of eating insects, why not:

  • Visit Meat the Future. This exhibition, opening on 28th May 2021 here at Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History, looks at the health, environmental, social and economic impacts of meat and dairy production and consumption, and explores the future of food by examining the findings of the Livestock, Environment and People Project (LEAP).
  • Take a look at these videos and articles which talk more about the issue of sustainability in farming and discuss the pros and cons of eating and farming insects:

Should we eat bugs?  

Arguments against eating insects

What do you think?

We would love to hear what you think on this issue. Do you think farming insects is a good idea? Would you eat a beetle burger? Do you think there are other ways to cut global consumption of meat and dairy products? Let us know you thoughts below or by using the Contact Us page.

Insect super powers: dodging death

Being near the bottom of the food chain isn’t ideal.  Insects have many different predators including lots from the insect world itself and that’s before you’ve even started to take account of all the birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians and mammals that consider insects an important part of their diet.  So how do insects dodge death and defend themselves against predators?  Read on to find out about some cunning techniques and surprising solutions!

Chemical Warfare

Did you know that some species of ladybird have clever, and some rather disgusting, ways of deterring predators?  Not only do many species display the bright warning colours of red or yellow combined with black, but some can exude a stinky yellow liquid through their knees when in danger.  This is called reflex bleeding because the liquid is made from their blood.  You may have noticed it if you have picked up a ladybird and seen yellow spots of liquid on your hand. 

Other insects can squirt noxious fluids into the air when they feel threatened.  Wood Ants, for example, spray formic acid.  The incredible Bombardier Beetle (seen here on the right) can combine two different liquids stored in separate chambers in its abdomen to produce a boiling hot chemical that literally explodes from the beetle’s rear. I wouldn’t like to be on the receiving end of that!

Cloaks of Invisibility

For many insects, protection from predators is all about not being seen.  There are some amazing masters of disguise whose camouflage is so good we have trouble spotting them.  For example, many moths are almost invisible when resting in their preferred habitat such as on the bark of trees.

How many insects can you spot?

Another form of camouflage is to disguise yourself as an object of no importance, such as a twig.  When threatened, this beetle (Platyrhinous resinosis) rolls over, draws in its legs, lies very still and looks just like a bird poo!

Platyrhinous resinosis

Masters of Disguise

If you can’t blend in with your background, you could always be a master of mimicry and pretend to be something really scary! This Hornet Clearwing is not actually a hornet with a powerful sting. It’s a moth, but by mimicking the colours and form of the hornet it will manage to put off many a hungry bird!

Serious Weaponry

Some insects have formidable weapons that may serve to fend off rivals, help catch prey and deter predators.  Look at the ferocious jaws of the Stag Beetle or the sharp pincers, or forceps, at the rear end of the earwig.  They might make you think twice before tackling these guys! In fact, the jaws of the Stag Beetle are all show!  They are actually quite weak and may even prevent Stag Beetles from feeding in their adult form. The fact that they exist at all just shows how effective they are at warding off predators.

Let us know if you have a favourite story about how insects dodge death and survive in a world full of predators.

Make do and Mend!

The HOPE British insect collection includes specimens from the early 19th century to the present day.  This means that some are very old and delicate.  Of course, all of the insects are very delicate and easily damaged.  Just think about the width of the legs or antennae of some of the insects you have seen in your garden!  Not much more than a hair’s breadth!  It isn’t surprising then that some of the specimens are showing their age and some are damaged.

In this post, learn how Tom Greenway, Junior HOPE Collections Assistant, repairs the damage and what happens to the bits that can’t be stuck back on!

“It’s always sad to see a damaged specimen but with a little bit of patience, and a mix of PVA glue and distilled water, we can make repairs to get them looking like new again!” 

Tom Greenway, Junior HOPE Collections Assistant

It isn’t unusual for the abdomen to fall off, as you can see here! Watch this video to see how we repair specimens.

Sometimes specimens will build up verdigris; a bluish-green crust made by a chemical reaction between the old pin, the insect and oxygen. We use a small brush to lightly remove it. Pins sometimes become rusty or damaged need to be replaced.  For that job we use special stainless steel entomology pins.

Any parts that may have fallen off, but can’t be assigned to a particular specimen, are collected and stored in a gelatin capsule. This can be useful for any researchers looking to analyse DNA. The capsule gets pinned at the end of the specimen drawer so that it is kept with the correct species.