Join us at the Museum this half term for some fabulous, free insect fun. We have a Science Show for you on Tuesday 26th October, and drop in activities on Monday 25th and Tuesday 26th October. Read on to find out more!
Insects: Bestie or Beastie? A Family Science Show
Join us for our brand new, interactive family Science Show on Tuesday 26th October at 2pm or 3.30pm. Find out what happens when an insect-phobic visitor to the museum meets a giant talking dung beetle! It promises to be a lot of fun! Tickets to the show are completely FREE but you do need to book.
Drop in on Monday 25th and Tuesday 26th October, 1pm – 4pm, for some insect fun in the museum main court with an afternoon of insect crafts, plus getting up close and personal with some fabulous insect specimens. No need to book; just drop-in!
If you love spiders, as well as insects, then this post is just for you! HOPE for the Future Collections Assistant, Steven H. Williams, tells us about a fascinating spider with the ability to change colour; Misumena vatia, the flower spider.
Gerald Durrell wrote in his famous book: My Family and Other Animals, that he excitedly discovered little spiders that ‘could change colour just as successfully as any chameleon’. He was referring to a family of spiders commonly known as crab-spiders. Crab-spiders get their name due to the position in which they hold their front legs that resembles a crab’s claws, and their ability to walk sideways like a crab. Although we cannot be clear which species Durrell had found, we know that a colour-changing crab spider which is quite common in the southern half of Britain during May-August is Misumena vatia (the flower spider).
Only about 30 species of crab-spider can change colour, most stay as different shades of brown or green with a slight pattern on the abdomen, but some species, including our native Misumena vatia, can alter their appearance quite drastically to blend into the background.
Crab-spiders do not spin webs like orb-weaving spiders would, instead they wait, poised for action, ready to attack insects that stray into their path. Misumena vatia (the flower spider), as its common name suggests, sits on flowers ready to pounce on any insect that chooses to land near it, often hover-flies or even bumblebees. The venom inside crab-spiders is quite strong as they can kill insects much larger than themselves but don’t worry, the flower spider and all other British crab-spiders only have small jaws and cannot hurt humans!
The flower spider is mostly seen as pure white or a lemony-yellow colour with a red mark on either side of its abdomen, but it has also been found green and even faintly slate-blue.
The total transformation from one colour to another takes several days and it is easier to go from yellow to white than white to yellow. These spiders can choose from many different types of flowers as they easily disappear into their surroundings. The favourite flower of Misumena vatia in Britain appears to be the ox-eye daisy, but it has also been seen on ragwort, and other flowers with white or yellow petals. Only the females can make these drastic colour changes though, the males are much smaller and sadly cannot change colour.
So next time you are out exploring for insects and spiders why not see if you can spot a Misumena vatia inside a flower?
Meet Amo Spooner, Collections Manager for Coleoptera, Hemiptera and Small Orders. Her job, here at the Museum of Natural History, indulges her love of both insect collections and animals in general. I met up with Amo to find out what sparked her interest in the natural world, how she began working at the Museum of Natural History and what her current job involves.
How did you first become interested in insects?
I have always loved the natural world and have a very vivid memory of being woken up in the early morning by my Grandad who wanted to show me some dragonflies emerging from their nymphs in our pond. We rushed out to the pond where dragonflies were pulling their bodies out of the last of their nymph exoskeletons and emerging as adults. I kept the nymph skins as a souvenir and even have a tattoo of an adult dragonfly emerging from its nymph stage to remind me of that time.
How did you come to work in entomology?
After leaving school, I went to college to do a First Diploma and a BTEC National Diploma in Animal Management. At college, I learnt how to care for a wide range of animals from guinea pigs to geckos and helped to run the Exotic Unit. Once I had completed my qualifications, I decided to train as a Veterinary Nurse. It was during the final year of my degree that I first volunteered at the Museum of Natural History and by the time I finished University, I realised that I really wanted to work at the museum, particularly with the insect collection. I moved to Oxford, volunteered at the museum during the day and worked at Waitrose in the evenings to fund my time at the museum.
After volunteering for around 1000 hours, I got my first paid job at the museum! This was working on a collection of entomological specimens that Oxfordshire County Council had donated to the museum. Much of the collection was damaged, but it was possible to save some specimens and incorporate them into the wider museum collection.
What is your role here at the Museum?
I have now worked at the museum for around 11 years and have had several different roles during that time, including re-curating the World Coleoptera collection housed in the Huxley Room. Now, I am on secondment from my Collections Manager role for Coleoptera (beetles), Hemiptera (true bugs) and Small Orders (Dragonflies, praying mantis, cockroaches, lacewings, grasshoppers and allies), leading the collections team responsible for re-curating the British insect collection as part of the HOPE for the Future project.
(See our blog post on Tom Greenway to find out more about this re-curation.)
Together with one of my team, I am also responsible for looking after the museum’s collection of live insects and other invertebrates. These include Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches, Tarantulas, Stick insects and a Peacock Mantis. I enjoyed designing and working with an expert to build their new tanks a couple of years ago.
Can you tell us about any particularly challenging aspects of your role?
One of the most challenging aspects of my job is the battle to protect the specimens from insect pests! When live insects infest specimen drawers they can cause considerable damage and it is part of my job to ensure that drawers are checked on a regular schedule to ensure any infestations do not get out of control. This has been particularly challenging during the pandemic when the museum has been closed and access to the collections, even for those of us who work here, has been limited.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I am fascinated by the history of the collections. For example, my favourite entomology collection in the museum is the Baden-Sommer collection which dates back to the early 1900s. It is housed in its original furniture, and is really rich in a wide variety of species, including an incredible number of type specimens. I really enjoy understanding how specimen data labels and pinning techniques have changed over time. For example, when faced with an undated specimen, the handwriting on labels and how an insect is pinned can give you clues about its age. It’s like being an insect detective!
I take great pride and comfort in the fact that my work helps to keep the collection safe for future generations. The work that I am currently undertaking on the British Insect collection as part of the HOPE for the Future project is a great example of this, and will result in the collection being accessible to the public online, and available for teaching and research for many years to come.
Thank you so much, Amo, for some fascinating insights into your role at the museum. Good luck with the Hope for the Future project!
We are open! After months of being closed due to the pandemic, Oxford’s Museum of Natural History finally reopened in May, and we are absolutely loving the fact that the museum is once again full of life, laughter and learning.
If you live near Oxford, or are planning a trip to this part of the world, remember to visit us this Summer. We would love to see you! We have over 7 million historical and modern specimens, of which around 5 million are insects. So, if you are interested in insects then this is the place to come!
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.
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!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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:
Find a good spot for your trap on level ground, amongst vegetation.
Dig a hole big enough to sink your pot so that it is completely level with the ground.
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.
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.
Wait for a few hours or, better still, overnight.
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.
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!