If you see a big jet-black bumblebee with a red tail in Britain, its probably the Red-tailed Bumblebee, Bombuslapidarius. If it has a scruffy white collar, then its a male.
The Red-tailed Bubmblebee has extended its range northwards in recent years and is now common throughout Britain. It can often be seen in parks and gardens. The workers have short tongues and forage on flowers like daisies and thistles which have a big area for them to land on and are made up of small florets, each with a little nectar. Leaving dandelions to grow in the spring helps provide food for these and other insects early on in the growing season.
The Queens nest under stones and so are sometimes disturbed when these are moved. If you find one like this, have a look without disturbing it then just put the stone back. They may also enter our homes through open windows in search of nesting sites.
The Red-shanked carder bee, Bombus ruderarius, can look similar but is much scarcer in the UK. While the Queens of B. ruderarius are smaller. the workers of the two species can be a similar size. You can tell the difference by looking at the back legs. B ruderarius has red pollen baskets on its otherwise black legs, whereas the leg hairs of B. lapidarius are all black.
Lincoln Kwong was one of the participants at our Summer school in August. He was so inspired by the HOPE collections team at the museum that he decided to start his own insect collection. One of his first specimens was a dead red-tailed bumblebee that he found in his garden. He preserved and pinned this and recorded the data following advice from James.
Let us know if you have your own collection. You can get in touch using the CONTACT US page. We’d also love to see any pictures any would be happy to feature them in our PHOTO GALLERY!
To round off an eventful year here at Crunchy on the Outside, we have put together a quiz for you combining our two favourite things: Insects and Christmas!
There are ten questions in the video. Each of the answers is formed by smashing together the two clues. One clue is about insects, the other about Christmas. We’ve included a couple of examples at the start to help you get the hang of it. Don’t worry if a question seems tricky, it’s just for fun and we’ve included some clues below.
The scientific name of this insect is Colletes hederae.
The December Moth, Poecilocampa populi, is found all over the UK. Because it is more resistant to cold than most other moths, the adults are common in parks, gardens and woodland during late autumn and winter.
Many people don’t give moths a lot of thought. Most have incredible camouflage and they often fly at night, so we don’t tend to see them. When we do think of moths, it may be just as a kind of drab butterfly that sometimes eats our clothes. In reality, there is much more to the world of moths than we might think, and they are very important to our world.
Moths, together with butterflies, belong to the group of insects called the Lepidoptera (“scaly wings”) There are over 2,500 species of moth in the UK and only a very few will eat our clothes. Many of these moths are beautiful, either because of their spectacular colouration or because of the way their camouflage enables them to blend into their habitat.
Moths are important in ecosystems. Both adult moths and their caterpillars play crucial roles in food chains, feeding on plants and being eaten by bats, birds and other animals. It is estimated that about 35 million caterpillars are eaten by blue tit chicks every year! Moths also play a vital part in the reproduction of several plant species because of their role as pollinators.
‘Like a moth to a flame’
Adult December moths are night-flying and, like other moths, they are attracted to light at night. Entomologists are still not sure exactly why this is. One theory is that moths use the moon to navigate and can mistake a light for the moon. Another is that they normally fly with the lighter sky above them and a light source near the ground confuses them into flying downwards. This would explain why they are attracted to street lights and lit windows, and also why they fly downwards into light traps.
December moth, Poecilocampa populi. Photo: Ben Sale CC-BY 2.0
Life Cycle of the December Moth
While adult December Moths can be found throughout autumn and winter, each individual is short-lived and does not feed. They mate and the females lay their eggs on food plants. The eggs overwinter and the larvae only emerge the following spring. These caterpillars can be found throughout spring and summer taking advantage of the new growth of leaves. They are active voracious feeders at this time and will eat the leaves of a wide range of deciduous trees. When they have gained enough weight, they pupate, with the adult moths emerging to repeat the cycle in late summer and autumn.
Moths are important indicator species: their presence tells us about the overall health of the environment. Unfortunately, what moth populations seem to be telling us is that something is wrong.
Comparing the number and type of moths found in Britain today with those recorded in historic insect collections like the HOPE Collection at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, shows us that moths have declined by about 40% in southern Britain. Over 60 moth species have become extinct in the UK over the last century and many more are at risk of disappearing forever.
Other animal species which rely on moths as food are also suffering, including a decline in bats flying over farmland and reduced numbers of cuckoos, which specialise in feeding on hairy moth caterpillars which other birds tend to avoid.
We need to do more research to fully understand exactly why moth species are declining in Britain, but it is likely to be because of a combination of factors including loss of habitat, farming practices such as clearing hedgerows and the use of pesticides, and climate change.
Adult December moths in the HOPE Collection
Ways we can help moths
Fortunately, many moth species under threat are found in parks and gardens, so we can all do things to help:
Not over-tidying gardens; a more natural look is much better for insects.
Growing a wide variety of large and small flowering plants and, if you have room, shrubs and trees.
Avoiding the use of weed killers and insecticides.
Reducing light pollution from outdoor lights
Reducing your carbon footprint, for example, by driving less and walking or cycling more.
Michela Sisti is a volunteer with the Museum’s Entomology Digitisation project. Originally from Canada, she now lives in Oxford. Like many people, she has loved all sorts of creatures from the time she was a child, but the recent lockdowns really brought her close to the natural world again.
She has taken a break from helping to make images of our entomology specimens available online to tell us about one of her favourite insects: the cardinal beetle.
Can you spot the difference between these two beetles? Their bright red exteriors make each an attractive find for nature-lovers. But if you were a small insect, being able to tell these fiery doppelgangers apart might mean the difference between survival and ending up as lunch.
On the left-hand side is the Lily Beetle (Lilioceris lilii), a lifelong leaf-eater. While it might be the bane of some gardeners, other insects have no need to fear its presence. The character on the right is a Cardinal Beetle, a natural born predator capable of hunting other invertebrates right from the larval stage.
Cardinal Beetles belong to the family, Pyrochroidae. The root ‘pyro’ comes from the Greek word for fire. (Think pyrotechnics – fireworks.) The one I snapped in this photo is a Black-headed Cardinal Beetle (Pyrochroa coccinea) and is found mainly in the south of Britain. Its two cousin species are the Red-headed Cardinal Beetle (by far the most common of the trio) and the Scarce Cardinal Beetle.
On a warm clear day in late spring, you might glimpse one of these sleek hunters perched on a flower petal, soaking in the sunlight. Like many insects, Cardinal Beetles use the sun’s rays to regulate the temperature of their bodies. But there is another reason why these beetles like to idle about on flowers. Flowers attract pollinators and the Cardinal Beetle is poised for ambush. When the moment is ripe it darts forward, sinking its pincer-like mandibles into its prey.
I spotted this incredible insect shortly before I began volunteering with Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History’s Entomology Digitization project. You might say my encounter gave me the bug.
So how to distinguish a Cardinal Beetle from a Lily Beetle? Lily Beetles are rounder with dimpled cases. Cardinal Beetles have larger, narrower bodies and distinctive toothed antennae.