BREAKING NEWS: Once in a lifetime insect emergence

There is a secretive and enigmatic species of moth that will only emerge from their pupa in very specific conditions, on the first day of April. These once in a lifetime conditions are due to be met in the Oxford area today.

The caterpillar of this insect sub species, known as the Lesser April Jester moth (Stulte aprilis dies), will find a sheltered, confined space in which to pupate. In nature, cracks in rocks are an ideal location, but it has adapted to built environments by using the gaps between paving stones. Here it will stay, for years or even decades, until the required environmental conditions are met. When a cold snap follows an unseasonably warm spell, the adult will emerge from the pupa. Entomologists from Oxford University Museum of Natural History believe that the weather we have experienced recently meets these conditions, and is the best chance to see emerging adults for several decades.

Specimen of Lesser April Jester moth (Stulte aprilis dies), collected in Oxford in 1951

The moth will exit the pupal case and, if necessary, will tunnel to the surface, squeezing out through the cracks in the pavement. It will unfurl its glorious, clear wings, displaying the red, blue, green and yellow stripes, on its back, for all to see. It will then fly off to find a mate, to ensure the next generation of this rarely seen insect.

Burrow of Lesser April Jester moth (Stulte aprilis dies) in pavement of Parks road, 1 April 1951

Unfortunately so many jester moths never make it out of their pupa, whether due to the required conditions never being met, or to not having enough energy to dig their way to the surface. If you wish to help, gently inserting and then removing small twigs between paving stones to loosen the soil can help to ease their paths.

The last know sightings in Oxfordshire occurred on Parks Road in Oxford on 1st April 1951. Please let us know if you catch sight of this moth, and even better please share any photos you may take either in the comments below, or via the Contact us page.

Bee-flies: A sign of Spring

At this time of year, after the long winter months, we are all looking for signs of Spring.   One thing that entomologists look forward to is the first sightings of bee-flies.   These very cute, furry flies start to emerge in late February and early March.

Bombylius major, the dark-edged bee-fly, is one of Erica McAlister’s favourite British insects and she tells us why in this video.

Find out more about Bee-flies

To find out more about bee-flies, check out this page on the Dipterists Forum. There is also an excellent guide to bee-fly identification which you can find here.

In addition, the Dipterists Forum run an annual Bee-fly Watch which gathers together records of sightings.  This is really important for monitoring changes in distribution and flight period.  You can contribute to this important science project by adding your sightings here:

Bee-fly Watch | Soldierflies and Allies Recording Scheme (brc.ac.uk)

Have you seen any bee-flies yet this Spring? Let us know, too, by telling us below or by using the Contact Us page.

CSI: Crime Scene Insects

How can insects help solve crimes? In this video, forensic entomologist Dr Amoret Whitaker discusses her work and how she came to work with some common flies that can provide important clues.

The blow flies that Dr Whitaker talks about are a family of flies (Diptera) called the Calliphoridae. They often have bodies with a metallic sheen and are also known as carrion flies, bluebottles and greenbottles. The fly pictured in the video is Cynomya mortuorum, known as the yellow-faced fly or sometimes, more gruesomely, as ‘the fly of the dead’.

Forensic entomology is just one way in which scientists work with insects. If you would like to know more about different entomologists and what they do, visit the People section of the blog.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

February 14th is St Valentine’s Day, traditionally a day to celebrate love!   To mark this special day, we thought it would be fun to look at love in the insect world. Of course, insects don’t go on dates but how do they go about securing a mate?  There is a dazzling array of ways in which insects have evolved to attract a mate, as well as some bizarre mating behaviours; some rather romantic and some definitely not!

Tokens of Love!

The Empididae family of flies, also known as dagger flies because of their piercing mouthparts, include some species where the male fly will tempt females into mating by offering them a so-called nuptial gift.  This gift is not a lovely box of chocolates or a dozen red roses, but a juicy item of prey carefully wrapped in silk.  The male gives this nuptial gift to the female who catches his eye.  Females of some species have evolved special features to attract males, such as feathery scales on their legs or inflatable abdominal sacs.  Entomologists have even discovered that there is a relationship between the size of the gift given and the time that the females will spend mating.  So the bigger the gift, the more likely the mating is to be successful. 

© Lennart Tange, CC BY-NC 2.0

Off with his head!

Rather less romantic, is the alarming mating behaviour of the praying mantis. With more than 2,400 known species ranging from 1cm to 18cm in size, praying mantises (Order: Mantodea) are a diverse group of insects found in many different habitats.  Most are found in warmer regions, particularly in tropical and subtropical climates, although they can also be found in some areas of Southern Europe. 

© CatDancing, CC BY-NC 2.0

Highly-skilled hunters, praying mantises eat insects and other small invertebrates such as spiders, but larger species have also been known to eat mice, small amphibians, snakes, and even birds and bats!  When it comes to mating, the male takes his life in his hands! Hungry females, who will soon need to lay eggs, need all the food they can get and if the male isn’t very careful, he can find himself turned into a meal as the female munches into his head whilst they mate. Read this article and watch this video if you dare!

Deadly Praying Mantis Love

Happy Valentine’s Day to you all!  Do you know any other examples of bizarre or interesting insect behaviour that you would like to share? Let us know in the comments, or by using the Contact Us page

The Natty Winter Gnat

There aren’t many insects out and about at this time of year but on a warmer day you may see clouds of winter gnats (Trichocera annulata and related species) ‘dancing’ in the sunlight.  

Trichocera sp. swarming © Tuomo Tuomikoski, CC BY-SA 4.0

What persuades these small flies to come out in the depths of winter? Well, the dancers are males hoping to attract females. It’s thought that gathering together in a group like this makes it easier for the females to spot them. The trouble is, each individual male then has to compete for her attention!

If you are out for a walk, it may seem that a group of gnats is following you around; that’s because they are! If you are the warmest thing around, they will stay near you and make the most of your body heat.

You don’t need to worry about being bitten: although these gnats look a bit like mosquitos, they are completely harmless. The adults aren’t interested in drinking your blood, they feed on nectar. The larvae can be found in leaf litter, feeding on fungi, leaf mould and other decaying matter.

You can find out more about Trichocera on the Bug Life website: https://www.buglife.org.uk/bugs/bug-directory/winter-gnat/

Red-Tailed Bumblebee

If you see a big jet-black bumblebee with a red tail in Britain, its probably the Red-tailed Bumblebee, Bombus lapidarius. 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.

Let dandelions grow in spring to help insects. Image credit: Pixabay / Claudiu Mladin CC0

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.

Bombus lapidarius. Image credit: Lincoln Kwong

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!

Featured image credit: Gail Hampshire CC BY 2.0