The Dark Edged Bee-Fly

The Dark edged bee-fly, Bombylius major, is one of the most conspicuous insects to emerge in early spring because of it’s large size and ability to hover in mid air. It is the most common species of Bee-fly in the UK and can be seen in woodland, heathlands, grasslands and gardens from February to June. It has several other common names known as the ‘dark bordered beefly’ or ‘large beefly’. They get these names from their large size and from the dark wavy leading edge of their wings.

Dark edged bee-fly, Bobylius major. Image credit – Flickr / Jean-Marie Hamon, CC BY-SA 3.0

So, is it a bee or a fly? The single pair of wings tells us that this is a fly. A bee would have two pairs of wings. Why would a fly evolve to look like a bee? We think this is to trick predators into thinking it is more dangerous than it is. It certainly works with humans: many people think that the beefly has a large ‘sting’ at the front. In fact, this is just part the fly’s mouth and is quite harmless. The proboscis is adapted to drink the nectar from a wide variety of early-flowering plants. These include primrose, bugle, blackthorn, and cherry blossom. Because they transfer pollen from flower to flower, they are important pollinators in the spring.

Bee-fly feeding on nectar. You can see pollen grains on its legs and body. Image credit – Flickr / Robert Ault, CC BY-SA 2.0

Bee-flies may be harmless to humans but their life cycle is a bit grisly! Females lay their eggs in the underground nests of solitary mining bee nests such as Clarke’s Mining Bee (Andrena clarkella), the Early mining bee (Andrena haemarrohoa), and the Tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva). They collect sand or dust at the end of their abdomens. This sticks to their eggs, making them heavier. It may also help camouflage them. They then flick their eggs into the nest burrows of the bees. Once the eggs hatch, the bee-fly larvae crawl further down the burrows and wait for the bee larvae to grow until they are near full size. The bee-fly larvae then begin to feed on the mining bee larvae, drinking their body fluids and gradually eating them alive. When they have finished feeding, the bee-fly larvae then pupate and overwinter inside the burrow. The next generation of adult bee-flies then emerges from the burrows the following spring.

The Twany mining bee, Andrena fulva. Bee-fly larvae feed on its larvae. Image credit – Flickr / Line Sabroe, CC BY 2.0

You might think that means that bee-flies are bad for other bee species, but this is relationship evolved a long time ago and is part of the complex interaction between living things that exists in all ecosystems. Bee flies do feed on individual mining bees, but there is no evidence that they are harmful to bee populations.

If you spot a bee-fly this spring or summer, you can add your sighting to the national database by completing a simple online form on the Bee-fly Watch website. Why not let us know too? You could even take a picture or draw a picture. Who will spot the first bee-fly of 2021?

Arctic Pollinator Watch

Become an arctic pollination investigator without even putting your coat on! Scientists investing pollinating insects in the arctic need your help. By spotting pollinators in images taken by remote cameras, you can help teach a computer system how to identify these insects which are vital to arctic ecosystems.

Bees, butterflies, beetles and many other insects are pollinators. Image credit – Image by Mabel Amber from Pixabay

Insects are important pollinators all over the world, including the arctic region around the North Pole. By moving pollen from flower to flower, insects enable new seeds and fruits to form. These seeds will grow to become the next generation of plants. Without pollinators, many species of plant would die out because there would be no young plants to replace the old ones.

The Department of Bioscience at Aarhus University in Denmark have set up time-lapse cameras at various arctic locations. For the past three years, these cameras have gathered thousands of pictures of flowers. It would take an enormously long time for humans to locate and identify pollinators in these pictures, so the researchers now want to train a computer to do it. A computer has already identified pictures that include flowers (although it may not always get tis right). The researchers need your help spotting any pollinators that may have visited the flowers in these pictures.

Become a ‘polliwatcher’ on the Pollinator watch website

You can join the project by visiting the Pollinator Watch pages of the Zooniverse website. You can then click ‘Learn more’ to read more about the project and the researchers, or ‘Get started’ to start hunting for pollinators. There is a short tutorial to help you learn how to spot the insects, and then you can hunt through as many pictures as you like.

You don’t need to register with the site to take part but if you want to, make sure that an adult gives permission. Signing in means you can keep up to date with the project and you will get credited if you find something special!

Don’t forget to let us know how you get on by sending us a message on the Contact Us page.

People: Ellen & Frederick Hope

We step back in time to meet the two people who founded the original ‘bug and butterfly’ collection, Ellen Meredith and Frederick William Hope.

Frederick and Ellen were both born near the start of the 1800s. The two young people had a number of shared interests including collecting engravings and learning about nature. What fascinated them the most was entomology – the study of insects. This was to lead to a shared lifetime of learning about them.

Wytham Woods – a great place to look for insects. Image credit – Alan Wood / Wytham Great Wood CC BY-SA 2.0

Frederick had become fascinated by wildlife as a student at Christ Church College, Oxford. He had spent a lot of his spare time collecting insects at Shotover Wood, Port Meadow and Wytham Woods. These are still all good places to look for insects today. Ellen had not studied for a degree because at that time women were not allowed to go to university! She didn’t let that get in the way of pursuing her interest. She became as equally knowledgeable as Frederick, and was elected as the first female Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society in 1835.

“A life as the wife of a politician would have been a very dull one indeed.”

In 1833, Ellen had turned down a proposal of marriage from Benjamin Disraeli (who would later become Prime Minister) because “a life as the wife of a politician would have been a very dull one indeed”. Two years later she married Frederick and they set up home together at 37 Upper Seymour Street, Marylebone, in London.

With two avid insect collectors living in the same house, their home rapidly became a small museum! Frederick and Ellen opened their collection to the public on certain days, and it soon became a popular meeting place for entomologists and others interested in natural history. Many famous naturalists became regular visitors, including Charles Darwin.

The Museum of Natural History became the new home of the Hope Collection

As their collection expanded, they realised that it would eventually outgrow their home. They also wanted to find a way for more people to see and learn about the insects they had collected. In 1849 they offered their entire collection, known fondly as the ‘bug and butterfly’ collection to the University of Oxford. When the Museum of Natural History opened in 1860, it provided a home for the Hope collection, and we have been looking after it ever since.

Sadly, Frederick died in 1862 but Ellen continued to support the Museum as they had done together. She up a £10,000 trust fund to provide for the Keeper of the collection of engravings, the Hope Professor of Zoology, and for the curators of the insect collection, so they could look after and continue to add to it.

Ellen Hope continued to contribute to the collection after Frederick’s death.

Ellen remained actively involved in the Hope collection, donating both money and new insect specimens. Shortly before she died, in 1879, she wrote a stern letter to the university authorities opposing their plan to merge the position of Hope Professor with another job and reminding them that this would break the agreement they had made. She wanted to make sure that the Hope collection would be given the attention it deserved.

The Museum of Natural History will soon install a new Ellen Hope Gallery in the space next to the room that held the original collection. The gallery will look at habitat loss, changes in biodiversity, and the value of museum collections in understanding these changes and their impacts. The insects Ellen and Frederick collected all those years ago, and generations of scientists have added to, will now help us understand how to look after the natural world today and in the future.

If you live in or near Oxford and would like to look for insects in some of the same places Ellen and Frederick did, you could visit these places:

Please check the sites for opening times and rules before you visit.

MOVING A MILLION!

A big part of the HOPE for the Future project is re-curating more than one million British insects.

Tom Greenway, Junior HOPE Collections Assistant, explains how he and the team are making sure the insects that make up the unique HOPE collection will be preserved for future generations.

Moving a million insects is a big job!  The insects are currently kept in wooden trays inside cabinets in the Westwood Room, upstairs at the museum.  We have to move every single insect specimen into new up-to-date storage to preserve the collection for the future. At the moment, we are moving the insects in cabinet 75 which contains members of the order Coleoptera (beetles).  There are 151 cabinets in total, each with 20 drawers of insects so although we have already moved around 253,000 insects, there is still a long way to go! 

Two of the old drawers done… only another 3,000 to go!

These are some of the tools of the trade!

  • Tweezers
  • Forceps
  • Scissors
  • Entomology pins
  • Glue

When working on a drawer, we put it inside a fume cabinet like this one to protect us from a chemical called naphthalene. This was used in the past to help stop specimens being damaged by pests, such as moths, which see the collection as a huge banquet!

A fume cabinet provides protecton from napthalene

Each specimen we move needs a new label containing vital information about the specimen:

  • binominal name (Genus / species);
  • the name of the person who discovered the species;
  • the year it was first classified; and
  • a location code.
Watch this video to see how Tom moves the insects

Once a tray is full, we add a data label containing the specimens’ information, along with a checklist number, which in this case relates to the current checklist of classified Lepidoptera (the order that includes butterflies and moths). 

A finished tray

We then add each finished tray to one of the new pest-proof drawers. The completed drawers are then ready to go to their new storage space where it will be accessible for teaching and research.

A completed drawer – looking good!

PEOPLE: TOM GREENWAY

Meet Tom Greenway, Junior HOPE Collections Assistant.

Tom plays a crucial role in the HOPE for the Future project.  He is one of a team of five who are carefully preserving our amazing British insect collection for future generations. 

“The coolest thing about my job is getting to see

all the weird and wonderful specimens we have in the collection!” 

“Who are you calling weird?” The Acorn Weevil, Curculio glandium. ©OUMNH

Tom hasn’t always worked in museums.  He studied music production and performance at college and then worked in a record store for 13 years where he organised events with acts such as Mcfly and We are Scientists (do you think the names of these acts were trying to tell you him something about his future?!). After leaving the record store, Tom had lots of different jobs including touring with a band in Europe, playing festivals and recording albums! 

Weevil, Weevil Rock You!

Tom saw an advert for an apprenticeship on the HOPE project and thought this would be a great chance to work in a museum.  He didn’t have a background in science or nature but has always loved museums and is passionate about environmental issues. He sees his work as an important contribution in helping us and future generations understand the effects of human actions on our planet, including climate change, habitat loss and industrial agriculture.  Tom has recently been promoted from Apprentice to Junior HOPE Collections Assistant in recognition of his excellent work on the project.

“I think the most surprising thing is learning about the classification of organisms that shows evolutionary relationships between species that you would not expect to be related. I’ve also enjoyed learning about the history of entomology and the history of the classification of insect species.”

What have insects ever done for us? with George McGavin

The impact of insects on the natural world is colossal. Without them, the Earth would be a very different place and most terrestrial vertebrates that depend on them directly as food would become extinct. The loss of bees alone might cause the extinction of a quarter of all life on Earth. A total loss of insects would be devastating for the human population.

After 25 years as an academic at Oxford University, George McGavin became an award-winning television presenter. He is an Honorary Research Associate of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, an Honorary Principal Research Fellow at Imperial College, and an Honorary Life Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society.  As well as his many TV documentaries, George has written numerous books on insects and other animals. In 2019 he became the President of the Dorset Wildlife Trust.

George gave this live online lecture on 4 November 2020 and responded to questions asked by people watching at the time. You can watch a recording of What have insects ever done for us? on youtube.