The Big Draw: Insects!

Our next event for young entomologists, aged 10-14, will be ‘The Big Draw: Insects‘ on Wednesday 26 October 2022, 10.30am – 12pm at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford.

Timed to coincide with the half-term break for local schools and to link in with other ‘Big Draw’ events in October, The Big Draw: Insects! is your chance to try your hand at drawing insects in three different styles: artistic, scientific and cartooning.

We’ll be based in the newly-refurbished Westwood room at the museum and will be drawing a range of exciting insects from the museum’s collections. This event is suitable for all abilities from beginners to those who already enjoy drawing frequently.

The Big Draw: Insects! is free but you must book in advance by emailing us at hopelearning@oum.ox.ac.uk

If you’re interested i cartooning, ypu might be interested in this post by Chris Jarvis on Drawing a Minotaur Beetle.

The Intriguing Ivy Mining Bee

If you look at any ivy during the autumn there is a good chance that you will see bees on the flowers. They may look like honey bees but they are more likely to be the Ivy Mining Bee (Colletes hederae), which has a very different way of living.

Ivy Mining Bees feeding on ivy

Ivy Mining Bees can be seen feeding on ivy in late summer and early autumn, when it is in flower. Large numbers of these bees are attracted to the flowers and, because the females look very like honey bees, people sometimes think that they are all sisters from the same hive. In fact, the Ivy Mining Bee is quite different type of bee. They are a solitary species and each bee will have come from from its own individual nest.

Ivy Mining Bees are the last of the solitary bees to emerge each year, right at the end of summer when ivy is flowering. If you live in Southern England, they will probably be a familiar sight. You may not have seen them if you live further north because this bee is a relative newcomer to the UK. They were first seen on the south coast in 2001 and have since spread northward throughout England and Wales.

Ivy Mining Bee nests are often close together

These bees build their nests underground, preferring to burrow into bare ground on south-facing slopes, which is how they get the ‘mining’ part of their name. They like patches of bear earth but may also nest in garden lawns and vegetable patches. Although solitary, they like to build their nests together, so the ground can be pockmarked with dozens or even hundreds of tiny volcano-like burrow entrances.

The males emerge first and compete with each other to mate with female bees. Often several males will cluster round a single female bee. Females excavate underground burrows. In the video, you can see a female bee carrying soil out of the burrow and moving it away from the entrance with her legs.

Female Ivy Mining Bee excavating her nest.

The female bees then lay their eggs in the burrows they have made. They overwinter in these burrows, protected from the coldest temperatures. The new generation will then emerge the following year

Identifying the Ivy Mining Bee

Female bees are about the same size as honey bees and can be slightly larger. They also have similar colouration to honey bees but have dense ginger hairs on their thorax and very distinctive orange/yellow stripes on their abdomen. The males are smaller and are very similar to other closely-related Colletes species. This makes them difficult to tell apart from other species, but if you spot a bee on ivy in early autumn, it’s probably the Ivy Mining Bee.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to read about the Red-tailed Mason Bee. If you have spotted any bees out and about this autumn, why not ley us know via our Contact Us page?

Life, as we know it

If you have visited the Museum lately you may have noted some changes. Some sections have been closed and some mysterious sounds have been heard from behind the boards that hide the view. What is going on?

Well, some exciting changes are coming! The main court is being revitalised with the first major redisplay of the permanent exhibitions for over 20 years. Visitors will be able to experience our collections like they never have done before, with new displays showcasing Life, as we know it.

The new displays will focus on the interaction between the changing geology of our planet with how life has evolved on Earth. Our new exhibits will trace the story of life on Earth and celebrate our planet’s incredible diversity of life. They will also encourage visitors to think about the future, as well as the past. We want to inspire our 750,000+ yearly visitors to take action to help preserve global biodiversity.

Artist's impression of how some of the new displays about the diversity of life will look
Artist’s impression of how some of the new displays will look

You may have already seen the first phase of Life, as we know it. In 2018 our Out of the Deep displays were installed. The work going on now is Phase 2 of the project and we will be continuing work on Life, as we know it over the next few years, with plans to update exhibits that extend throughout the Museum.

Out of the Deep

Things might look a bit unfinished at the moment, but were doing our best to keep disruption to a minumum. Right now, you can get an exciting glimpse of the displays as they come together, including new insect exhibits. Later in the Autumn you’ll be able to enjoy the finished results!

Have you seen anything new in the Museum? Let us know by getting in touch using our Contact Us page.

Kate and Susie, HOPE Learning Officers

Kate Jaeger and Susie Glover have been Learning Officers at the heart of the HOPE For The Future project since the programme started in 2020. As their time with the project draws to an end, they reflect on their exciting role, what they enjoyed most about it, and choose their favourite insects from the many they encountered.

There are three HOPE Learning Officers and one Community Officer working on the project. We all help people learn more about insects and the museum’s collections, inspiring them to learn more, and even get more involved.

The learning officers work with young people. You may have met us at school, at an event in the museum, or you may have read an article like this in the blog. Our role includes running insect themed activities:

  • Insect Discovery Days in Schools
  • Insect Investigators Summer School
  • Insect Explorers after school club in the museum
  • Events for young people
  • Training for teachers to help them teach about insects

Of course, we also run this blog aimed at young people who want to learn more about insects, as well as developing various online resources for teachers and young people to use, and enjoy.

When did you first become interested in insects?

Kate:

I have always loved the natural world.  As a child, I lived in the countryside and my pockets were often full of things I had collected such as stones, seeds, sticks and, once, much to my mother’s surprise, a live mole!  I was especially fond of butterflies and had an I-Spy book in which I ticked off species I had seen.  Soon other books on insects, birds, fossils, minerals, dinosaurs and human evolution filled my shelves.

This interest in the natural world stayed with me into adulthood and when I became a teacher, I trained as a Forest School Leader so that I could share my love of the outdoors with others.  Working on the HOPE for the Future project has given me a unique opportunity to indulge my passion and learn much more about insects from the incredible entomology team here at the museum.  The more I find out about insects, the more fascinated I become!  The insect world is full of surprises and I am constantly amazed by these tiny creatures, without whom our planet Earth would not be able to survive.

Susie:

As a child I loved being outside, climbing trees, digging holes, investigating the different creatures in my back garden, and generally being surrounded by natural and wildlife.

I did well in school, but was particularly good at Biology. It just made sense to me, and I found it really interesting, and so I went on to study it at University. While biology is a fairly broad subject, I focused mainly on ecology, animal behaviour and evolution, learning more about the creatures all around us, including insects.

I have worked for several years teaching people about Nature and British Wildlife, including British insects, and always found them interesting. However, it wasn’t until I started my role here at the museum, working on the HOPE for the Future project that I really focused in on insects. Over the past couple of years I have learnt so much more about these fascinating creatures, and the multitude of different ways they find to survive and thrive.

What is your favourite insect?

Kate:

My favourite insect is constantly changing, but at the moment I am keen on this little true bug:  Issus cleoptratus.

Issus cleoptratus. Image credit: Fritz Geller-Grimm, CC BY-SA 2.5

Not the most beautiful of insects but a fascinating one nonetheless! This species of plant hopper is the first living creature known to possess functional, interlocking gears or cogs.  These gears are positioned on its hind legs and help to synchronise the legs when jumping, making sure the bug can hop in a straight line!

Check out this video which explains it all:

Working gears evolved in plant-hopping insects. Scientific American.

See what I mean about the insect world being full of surprises?

Susie:

I have always loved butterflies. They are such beautiful majestic creatures. When I see the first butterflies of the year, which are often the bright yellow brimstone butterflies, I feel that winter is over and summer is truly on the way. However, I think my favourite has to be one of the most common garden butterflies in England and Wales, the Peacock Butterfly (Aglais io).

The Peacock Butterfly, Aglais io

To protect themselves these butterflies use a combination of camouflage and Mimicry. When at rest they sit with their wings closed, so that all you can see are the almost black undersides of their wings that look rather like dead leaves. But when their wings are open, you can see the brightly coloured top side of the wings, with large round spots, that look like large eyes. These eyespots are there to startle and confuse predators.

What is your favourite part of the project?

Kate:

Well, I have had the privilege to work in one of the world’s most fascinating museums, with one of the best entomology collections in the UK and with some very interesting people.  I particularly enjoyed creating the ‘To Bee or not to Bee’ activity in which you have to identify the real bees among the bee mimics. It has proved a hit with all ages, from young children to seasoned entomologists, and we hope to produce an online version to bring it to a wider audience. The thing I have enjoyed most, though, is meeting hundreds, if not thousands, of young people through the course of the project, both here in the museum and in their schools.  Their interest and enthusiasm for insects and the natural world has really given me hope for the future. 

Susie:

I love coming up with new activities to help people learn about insects and the world around them. There are three activities that I particularly enjoyed developing:

  1. The Case of the Stolen Specimen – this was for an event for 10 to 14 year olds. We developed a puzzle for the young people to solve. A Specimen had been stolen from the museum and they had to solve puzzles and follow clues to find out what had been stolen, and who the thief was. It was great to see how much the participants seemed to enjoy working out the clues and rushing off to solve the crime.
  2. Food Chains – this was an activity for the Discovery Days, that is now also available online for teachers to use. It is made up from a series of cards which each have a photo of an animal on one side (mostly insects), and information about what they eat on the other. You have to use this information to build food chains and webs.
  3. Peppered Moth – this was also an activity for the Discovery Days. The participants have to put on glasses, which distort their vision, and then use tweezers to pick up as many “moths” as they can in a certain time. They can see which moths they pick up, and how the colour of the moth and background affected this.

We wish Kate and Susie all the best for their future as school teachers. If you have enjoyed this post, you might like to read about other people who work with insects on our ‘People’ section.

A Glorious Grasshopper

The cheerful chirping of grasshoppers on a warm sunny day has been described as the sound of Summer. One species that you are most likely to hear, and see, is the Field Grasshopper, Chorthippus brunneus.

Grasshoppers and their relatives the crickets belong to the insect Order called the Orthoptera. Grasshoppers have short antennae and crickets have antennae which are typically longer than their body. The Field Grasshopper is a common insect and is found throughout the UK. It is well-camouflaged. Its striped brownish colour often matches the grasses among which it lives. The species displays many colour variations, helping it to remain concealed, so you will often hear it before you see it.

Field Grasshopper, Chorthippus brunneus. Image credit: S Rae CC BY 2.0

Like other grasshoppers, their chirping call isn’t produced by its mouth but by rubbing its back legs against its forewings to make a sound. This is called stridulation. It is the males that make this sound in an effort to attract females. Entomologists often use these sounds to tell different species apart. The ‘song’ of the Field Grasshopper is a series of short ‘chirps’ repeated at intervals. You can listen to it on the orthoptera.org.uk website.

Chorthippus parallelus (top) has straight keels, C. brunneus (bottom) has indented keels (arrow). Image credit: OUMNH

There are a couple of other ways to identify the Field Grasshopper:

  • As you can see in the picture above, the ridges (called keels) at the sides of the saddle-shaped structure just behind the head (called the pronotum) curve inwards sharply in the Field Grasshopper (red arrow). In the similar-looking Meadow Grasshopper (Chorthippus parallelus), the keels are not indented.
  • Look at the underside of the grasshopper (if you can catch one!) . In the Field Grasshopper), it looks very hairy. In other similar species it looks smooth.

As their name suggests, Field Grasshoppers can be found in grassland in the countryside and in gardens. They feed on the grasses on which they live. The juvenile grasshoppers start hatching at the end of March. They grow through a series of stages, called instars, with the first adults appearing in June. They live throughout the summer and into late autumn. The females lay eggs in the soil which overwinter, hatching the following spring.

There is still plenty of time this year to spot field grasshoppers so why not have a look in a grassy area near you? We’d love to see any photos you take! If you likes this article, you might also enjoy watching this video about Field Crickets by Professor Karim Vahed.