Turn Your Phone into a Microscope

What if you need to look at something really small but you don’t have a microscope? You can can try taking a close-up picture with a smartphone or camera (use the ‘macro’ setting if it has one) and then magnify the image by zooming in on the picture using a PC or tablet screen.

Alternatively, we’re going to show you how to hack your phone to turn it into a microscope. You don’t need any technical skills or special equipment – just some honey!

Honey Lens Hack

You can buy magnifying lenses which are designed to sit over a phone camera lens, but our video shows you how to use a drop of honey as a temporary magnifying lens. You don’t need much, just these five things:

  • Scissors
  • Clear plastic packaging (e.g. plastic fruit carton)
  • Blu tak (or similar)
  • Teaspoon
  • Clear honey (if your honey has gone solid, the video shows you what to do to solve this)

You’ll probably need to experiment a bit with the size of honey drop you use exactly how far from the lens to position it to get the best image. With a little bit of practice you should be able to make a useful temporary magnifying lens.

We would love to hear how you get on, so please let us know using the Contact Us page, or by emailing us at hopelearning@oum.ox.ac.uk.

Spiders: Super, Not Scary!

Related to insects, arachnids are a fascinating group of invertebrates. Several species of spider can be found in and around our home at this time of year, but not everyone welcomes them! Here we take a look at some of these super spiders and why there is no need to be scared.

Most spiders don’t want to come into our homes because they are too warm, too dry and there isn’t enough food (or perhaps they feel the same way about humans as many people do about spiders!). A few species do venture into our dwellings and have probably been associated with us for thousands of years and often perform a useful housekeeping job in reducing the number of flies inside the home.

House Spider (Tegenaria domestica).

The House Spider, Tegenaria domestica.

The House Spider builds a funnel-like web. It sits inside waiting for prey to land on the web, emerging quickly to trap it. Indoors, this is the spider we are likely to find in the bath! Some people feel alarmed by them, but they are completely harmless and will retreat into the plughole (or their funnel web) if they feel threatened. The males are active in the summer so when you see a house spider indoors it will probably be a male looking for a mate. The females usually eat them after mating, so the House Spiders you may find in your home in the late autumn will probably be females which can live for two years or more.

Giant House Spider (Eratigena atrica).

Giant House Spider, Eratigena atrica. Image credit: Ryan Hodnet CC BY-SA 4.0

The Giant House Spider has a similar appearance to the house spider but is larger. Females can grow up to 18mm in body length with a leg span of 45mm. Those long legs enable them to be one of the fastest running spiders: they can move at up to 0.5 m/s (1.2 mph). Their speed of movement can be startling but they are in fact easily outpaced by normal human walking speed (4 mph). They only use their speed for short bursts and the females normally stay within their funnel webs. It’s the males we see out and about in our homes in summer and autumn, looking for mates. Although the mouth parts of these spiders are theoretically capable of piercing human skin, they prefer solitude and to retreat when startled and so only bite rarely when provoked. Their venom cannot harm us.

‘Money Spider’ (Linyphia sp.)

This money sider landed on me while I was writing the article!

‘Money Spiders’ are not a single species. Hundreds of different small spiders are called ‘Money Spiders’. In the UK they usually belong to the Family Linyphidae. They get their common name from a folk saying that if one lands on you it’s lucky because it will spin you some clothes, meaning you will come into some money. If anyone has ever had a garment spun by a spider we’d love to hear about it! Money Spiders often land on us in the summer because they travel through the air on strands of silk, a method called ‘ballooning’. Money Spiders are completely harmless to humans and most go entirely unnoticed by us because they are so small.

Daddy Long Legs Spider (Pholcus phalagiodes)

‘Daddy Long Legs’ Spider (Pholcus sp.), not to be confused with a Crane Fly.

The Daddy Long Legs Spider is also known as the ‘Cellar Spider’. It prefers to spin loose strands of web in corners which it uses to capture prey. It is not to be confused with the Crane Fly, also called a ‘Daddly Long Legs’ in the UK, which is a fly, so has a pair of wings. These spiders will often start vibrating if you come close in an effort to scare you off. Alternatively, they may curl up completely and ‘play dead’. They are completely harmless.

Garden Cross Spider (Araneus diadematus).

Garden Cross Spider, Araneus diademata.

The Garden Cross Spider is usually found in the garden, but sometimes venture into our homes, as shown in the picture. They are large web-spinning spiders. Their webs are usually very noticeable on autumn mornings, revealed by drops of dew sticking to the strands. They can be recognised by the distinctive cross pattern on their back. The body of females can be up to 15mm long, although the males are a lot smaller and so we rarely notice them. Females can often be found protecting a ball of eggs or young spiderlings. They will be defensive of these, but are completely harmless.

Want to know more?

If you enjoyed reading about these house spiders, you might also like this post about the colour-changing Crab Spider.

Have you had any spider encounters at home? We’d love to hear about them! You can get in touch using the Contact Us page.

Wonderful woodlice

Woodlice are not insects but they are definitely crunchy on the outside, so we’re happy to devote some space to this fascinating group of crustaceans in the order Isopoda. Lucas Brooks, who showed us his woodlice at our recent summer school, writes about his own growing colony.

I started a colony of eighteen woodlice I collected from outside my flat.  The woodlice inside the colony appear to consist of a several types (see below). They seem to enjoy eating potatoes more than anything so I have made that their main food source, but they sometimes eat dry leaves and decaying wood. I didn’t expect them to be reproducing so fast so now there are dozens of baby woodlice running around the tank.

Woodlice get their name because they are often found in decaying wood, but Lucas’s love potato too! Image credit: OUMNH / Lucas Brooks

After a few weeks of keeping the wild woodlice, I found out about the orange variants of woodlice which sounded quite interesting. The first ‘’orange woodlouse’’ I got was a common type but with a different colour exoskeleton which is a rusty orange. I then decided to go to my local reptile shop in Kidlington and bought some Giant Orange Woodlice. ‘Giant’ for a woodlouse is up to 18mm. This type of woodlouse seems to hide more, so I don’t see them as often as the other ones. Instead of a rusty colour, these woodlice are pure orange.

An orange woodlouse (Porcellio sp.). Image credit: OUMNH / Lucas Brooks

The reason I am so interested in woodlice is because I never really investigated them before, so it was a fully new experience for me. Plus, the woodlice also being extremely bizarre and intriguing got me into keeping them as pets.

If, like Lucas, you are fascinated by an insect or other invertebrate, please get in touch to let us know! You can write us a message on the Contact Us page.

Types of woodlice

At first glance, all woodlice might look the same but there are in fact hundreds of species in the UK. The one you are most likely to find is the Common Shiny Woodlouse, Oniscus asellus. The last segment of the antennae, called the flagellum, is made up of three segments. They are usually grey but can also have yellow or orange colouration. The Common Rough Woodlouse, Porcellio Scaber, has a flagellum made up of only two segments. Both these woodlice are usually grey but can also have yellowish or orangey colouration. Pill woodlice, such as Armadillium vulgare, also has a flagellum made up of two segments, but their body is more rounded, they are usually black or brown and can roll themselves into a pill-like ball when disturbed.

Bug or Beetle? The Red-legged Shieldbug

Young entomologist Noah Davis shares his discovery of a Red-legged shieldbug (Pentatoma rufipes) he found after it had a narrow escape from a spider’s web.

Whilst out on a trip to Norfolk on Tuesday 17th August, I spontaneously decided to examine the fenceposts on a porch to see what the spiders had caught. It was mainly different species of fly. It was a very rainy day, so I also checked on the bench below a few of the webs in case some had fallen off of the extremely elastic and strong webbing. Some of the heavier prey had fallen off, along with a large, brown, beetle-like insect with a vibrant orange triangle on the centre of its back. My companions and I held a debate on what (or who) it was. Some speculated a stinkbug due to the alarming orange area, and others (quite comically) a camera that was recording, until a quick Google search told us it was a Red-legged Shieldbug.

What is a shieldbug?

The Shieldbugs, which are members of the order hemiptera, or true bugs, are moderately sized insects with sucking mouths and the appearance of a heavily-armoured vehicle (on a miniature scale). Due to the fact that they have armoured backs, they are often mistaken for beetles or stinkbugs. The difference between a shieldbug and a stinkbug is that one makes a pong, the other doesn’t. (The terms ‘stinkbug’ and shieldbug are sometimes used interchageably, but some sheildbugs are stinkier than others because they secrete a pungent fluid when handled! – Ed.).

What does a Red-legged Shieldbug look like?

A slightly damp Shieldbug! Image credit: Noah Davis

In short, a shield. Its antennae are long and so is the head segment, and it has a proboscis. It also has broad shoulders with forward-facing forelegs. The next two legs are parallel with the abdomen and the last two are near the end of the abdomen. All the legs are reddish-brown (hence its name) and the whole back is a glossy golden brown. At the tip of the abdomen, there is a notoriously bright orange point, mostly to show predators that it is dangerous (even if it isn’t, but don’t tell the birds that!). Its wings (yes, it can fly) are what forms the point at the end of its back. There are brown and pale banded ridges of fronds at the perimeter of its back. The bug is about 11mm (11/25 inches) in length.

Where are they found?

Shieldbugs are distributed all over the British Isles and continental Europe. They are found near trees or forests.

Bug or Beetle?

Noah and his friends initially thought that their shieldbug looked ‘beetle-like’. There are a couple of ways to tell the difference between true bugs (Order: hemiptera) and beetles (Order: coleoptera). Beetles have chewing mouthparts but in bugs the mouthparts are shaped into a tube, called a rostrum, used to suck liquids. This is often tucked underneath the bug. Beetles have forewings which are hardened to provide a protective covering for the delicate hindwings. When you look at a beetle’s back these make an ‘X’ shape. In shield bugs, the forewings are often thinkened at the base. When you look at at their back, the folded wings make a ‘Y’ shape.

If you would like us to share your story about interesting insect, why not tell us about it? You can get in touch using the Contact Us page, or email us at hopelearning@oum.ox.ac.uk. We’ll need permission from a parent or guardian to use your name.

Fabulous Insect Photos

Wildlife photographer and insect enthusiast Kirk Mason shares his top tips for taking fabulous insect photos, whatever camera you have.

Well done to everyone that came to the Summer School photography workshop. I was blown away with your photographs, videos and knowledge of insects – well done!

Let’s recap on some handy hints to improve your photography.

1. Getting down to the eye level of insects.

One of the things that makes photographing insects and other invertebrates so awesome is that you start to see things in photographs that you would have missed with just your eyes. Getting down to the eye level of insects makes them look bigger, more impressive and can take your viewers to a perspective they wouldn’t have seen without you. If you compare these photographs, which do you prefer?

2. Empty space.

Leaving empty space in your photographs can make your subject really stand out. It leads the viewer’s eye to what you want them to focus on or show your subjects in their environment. You can use the rule of thirds to get a feel for how much empty space you should leave – ideally the subject should take one third of the space, and two thirds empty space. Though artistic rules are made to be broken, so the best thing to do is experiment and see what you like most! Check out the examples below to see what you prefer.

3. Background is everything!

Leaving empty space can look great, but if the background is messy or doesn’t look nice to you, it can take away focus from your subject. Most insects and other invertebrates are tiny, so moving around the insect by a few centimetres can really change the look of a background and the feel of a photograph. See below for examples of a bad background made better by moving a few inches, which do you think looks better?

4. Focus on the things that you find interesting about the subjects.

They say the eyes are the window to the soul, and whilst invertebrates do not show emotion through their eyes, they are often super interesting to look at! Typically, having the eyes in focus makes for great photographs, however invertebrates have lots of interesting features that are great to see up close! Wing patterns, antennae shapes and even feet are super diverse and make for great photographs – here are some examples of things I find interesting, do you?

5. Practice makes perfect!

Photography is like many things we do in life – the more we practise, the better we become! Luckily, going out finding insects and photographing them is great fun. This makes improving feel almost effortless and with thousands of insects to find in Britain, it’s hard to get bored! Wind and fast-moving insects make it hard to get good photographs every time, so the more you take, the higher chance you have of getting the shot you want. I still throw away way more photographs than I keep! I started my photography journey three years ago and have since had my photographs on BBC Springwatch, and in BBC Wildlife magazine and several newspapers. See below for my first photograph that I was happy with and compare it with what I take today. You all took fantastic photographs and if you keep doing it, by the time you are my age, you will have taken the world by storm!

Gallery

Inspired by these top tips? Have a look at our Photo Gallery and then have a go for yourself. As Kirk says, practice makes perfect! We’d love to see the results: you can email your best photo to us at hopelearning@oum.ox.ac.uk. Please make it clear if it’s OK for us to use it on this blog. We’ll also need permission from a parent or guardian to publish your name.

Photo Gallery

If you would like us to share one of your photos, please email it to hopelearning@oum.ox.ac.uk. If you want us to use your name in the image credit, we will need permission from your parent or guardian.