FREE workshops coming up in May and June

The Case of the Stolen Specimen

Irreplaceable insect specimens have been stolen from the Museum! Help us solve some insect-based clues to unmask the thief.  Explore behind-the-scenes at the Museum to learn about the importance of the entomology collection, and why it must be protected.

Here are all the details you need:

WHAT: FREE workshop – The Case of the Stolen Specimen

WHEN: Tuesday 31st May 2022 , 1pm to 3pm

WHERE: Museum of Natural History, Parks Road, Oxford, OX1 3PW

WHO: 10 to 14 year olds

Booking is essential, email to secure your place.

Insect Field Craft

Celebrate National Insect Week by taking a closer look at the wonderful world of insects on our doorstep.

Come out and about with us to learn how to find insects outside. You’ll even get a chance to make and use an insect pooter. We will start by making our pooters in the Museum and then – weather permitting – will test them out in University Parks. There will also be a chance to try out other entomological collection methods.

Here are all the details you need:

WHAT: FREE workshop – Insect Field Craft

WHEN: Saturday 25th June 2022 , 10am to 12pm

WHERE: Museum of Natural History, Parks Road, Oxford, OX1 3PW

WHO: 10 to 14 year olds

Booking is essential, email to secure your place.

The Marvellous Maybug

As the month of April fades into May a certain beetle can be found flying noisily about its business. Cockchafers, often called Maybugs, are relatively large members of the Scarab beetle family. There are three different species of Cockchafer found in Europe;

  • The common cockchafer, Melolontha melolontha
  • The forest cockchafer, Melolontha hippocastani
  • The large cockchafer, Melolontha pectoralis

Cockchafers spend most of their lives, 3 to 4 years, as larva, living underground, munching away at the roots of plants. In large numbers they can become pests, doing significant damage to crops.

It is as adults that they emerge above ground, flying around for roughly 5 to 6 week looking for a mate and feeding on the leaves of trees. They can usually be spotted making their noisy flight at dusk on warm evenings. You may even find them flying into and around your outside lights.

Common Cockchafer (Melolontha melolontha) © OUMNH

They are around 3cm long, with reddish brown wing cases and distinctive fan shaped antennae. Despite their intimidating size and noisy flight, they are actually harmless to humans. I once had one fly in the house and land on my big toe, waking me up from a nap!

Pesticides used farming in the mid-1900s brought them to the brink of extinction in the UK. However, changes in farming practises and pesticide use has allowed them to make a comeback. They can now be found across England, are particularly common in the south of England and the Midlands. They are much rarer in Scotland.

Do you know of any other insects that are considered pests by farmers? Let us know in the comments below or via the contact us section of the blog.

Insect Friendly Gardens

I often hear people say that it is important to make green spaces “Insect Friendly”, but what is meant by this?

It is providing and encouraging a variety of different habitats that provide food and shelter for a range of different insects, and avoiding things that would do harm to insects, like using pesticides.

The focus is often on bees and butterflies, and their importance as pollinators. However, not only are other insects important pollinators, but insects have other vital roles in nature, including as food sources for many other animals and as recyclers of natural materials (dead plants, dead animals and poo).

Here are some ideas of positive things you can do to make a garden insect friendly:

Plant a range of trees, shrubs and plants that flower at different times of year

These will provide for insects all the year round. You can find some insect friendly planting guides on the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) website.

Create a dead wood habitat

Many insects, including a number of beetle species, like the cold damp conditions in a dead wood habitat and even eat the dead and decaying wood. Three ways to create one is set out by Gardener’s World.

Have a compost heap

As well being a means of recycling vegetable and garden waste, compost heaps also provide food and shelter for decomposers, many of which are insects. If you would like more information and advice about composting the RHS has an online guide.

Leave an area to grow wild

Areas of long grass are good for certain insects, e.g. for skipper butterflies to lay their eggs. Not mowing as often allows wildflowers, like daisy and buttercups to bloom. These, along with other plants often considered weeds, such as nettles, provide important food sources for insects.

Make an insect hotel

Insect hotels provide hiding places for insects to shelter. We have instructions for making a simple insect hotel on the museum website. If you want to find out more about making a more involved hotel, the RSPB have a guide on their website.

Have you made your garden more insect friendly using these, or any other methods? Tell us about what you have done in the comments below, or via the contact us page.

All photographs © Susie Glover. All rights reserved

Ryan Mitchell

Ryan, a Collections Assistant for the HOPE for the Future Project at Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History, tells us about the important work of the project, and how he first became interested in insects.

Ryan mentions catching grasshoppers in his hands as a child. Have you found any insects in your garden or local green space? What were they? We would love to hear about them in the comments below, or through our contact us page.

According to Type

Tucked away in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History’s Entomology (insect) department, are a series of mysterious looking cabinets, all labelled with a yellow circle with” PR (Priority Rescue)” on them. But why? What does this mean? What is in these Cabinets?

Priority rescue is referring to the fact that in case of a fire, or other emergency that could cause damage to items within the museum, these cabinets are to be rescued first, before other items. But they aren’t filled with expensive technology, or millions of pounds of precious gems. They contain something totally irreplaceable and priceless: type specimens.

What are Type Specimens?

When it comes to Taxonomy, type specimens have a really important role. Taxonomy is the process of naming, describing and organising living things. It involves choosing names for organisms based on the features they share with other organisms.

For example Bombus subterraneus and Bombus terrestris have the same genus name “Bombus” but have difference species names “subterraneus” and “terrestris”. This means that they are closely related and have similar features, they are still different species. Can you spot some differences?

Short-haired bumblebee, Bombus subterraneus ©OUMNH
Buff-tailed bumblebee, Bombus terrestris ©OUMNH

When a taxonomist names a new species, they will designate a particular specimen the “type specimen”. A type specimen is the physical example of a particular species that all other specimens of that species are compared to.

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History has over 5 million insect specimens. Around 20,000 of these are type specimens, the first specimen of a species to be described and named.

Type specimen for Dixeia pigea erubescens © Oxford University Museum of Natural History
Type specimen for Sangala beata © Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Just to make things more complicated there are some different types of type specimen. Here are just a couple of examples that we have come across:

Holotype: a single physical example of a species, used to describe that species.

Syntype: a series of specimens of a species, used together to describe that species.

Paratype: additional specimen or specimens used, alongside a holotype, to help describe a species.

Iconotype: a drawing of a specimen that is used to describe that species, and serves as the type specimen. At the museum we have a book, William Jones’ Icones. It contains many species of butterflies and moths that are described for the first time and are classed as iconotypes.

By why is it important to have designated type specimens? What do you think? How might they be used? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below, or using the Contact us page. Also, it can be quite a confusing concept, so please do ask us any questions.

Cartooning with Chris: Adding perspective and colour

Previously, Chris Jarvis showed us how to draw a mighty Minotaur Beetle (Typhaeus typhoeus) complete with its own ball of dung! In this video Chris returns to add some finishing touches to this picture. He shows us how to convey the size of the beetle, and how to use colour to great effect.

We’d love to see any pictures you draw of insects, whether it is an ant, bee, caterpillar or your very own Minotaur beetle. Share with us at