Captivating Cardinal Beetles

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.

Find out more:

Pyrochroidae | UK Beetle Recording. (n.d.). Coleoptera.org.uk. Retrieved 10 October 2021, from www.coleoptera.org.uk/family/pyrochroidae

Red-headed cardinal beetle | The Wildlife Trusts. (n.d.). The Wildlife Trusts. Retrieved 10 October 2021, from www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/invertebrates/beetles/red-headed-cardinal-beetle

Ashleigh Whiffin

Ashleigh Whiffin tells us about her work as Assistant Curator of Entomology at National Museums Scotland, as well as the slightly unusual way she first became interested in insects, leading to her pursuing a career in entomology.

Ashleigh mentions finding out that carrion insects can help solve crimes. How cool is that? Can you think of any other ways that insects help us? Let us know in the Contact us section of the blog.

people: amo spooner

Meet Amo Spooner, Collections Manager for Coleoptera, Hemiptera and Small Orders.  Her job, here at the Museum of Natural History, indulges her love of both insect collections and animals in general.   I met up with Amo to find out what sparked her interest in the natural world, how she began working at the Museum of Natural History and what her current job involves.

How did you first become interested in insects?

I have always loved the natural world and have a very vivid memory of being woken up in the early morning by my Grandad who wanted to show me some dragonflies emerging from their nymphs in our pond.  We rushed out to the pond where dragonflies were pulling their bodies out of the last of their nymph exoskeletons and emerging as adults. I kept the nymph skins as a souvenir and even have a tattoo of an adult dragonfly emerging from its nymph stage to remind me of that time.

How did you come to work in entomology?

After leaving school, I went to college to do a First Diploma and a BTEC National Diploma in Animal Management.  At college, I learnt how to care for a wide range of animals from guinea pigs to geckos and helped to run the Exotic Unit.  Once I had completed my qualifications, I decided to train as a Veterinary Nurse.  It was during the final year of my degree that I first volunteered at the Museum of Natural History and by the time I finished University, I realised that I really wanted to work at the museum, particularly with the insect collection.  I moved to Oxford, volunteered at the museum during the day and worked at Waitrose in the evenings to fund my time at the museum. 

After volunteering for around 1000 hours, I got my first paid job at the museum! This was working on a collection of entomological specimens that Oxfordshire County Council had donated to the museum.   Much of the collection was damaged, but it was possible to save some specimens and incorporate them into the wider museum collection. 

What is your role here at the Museum?

I have now worked at the museum for around 11 years and have had several different roles during that time, including re-curating the World Coleoptera collection housed in the Huxley Room.  Now, I am on secondment from my Collections Manager role for Coleoptera (beetles), Hemiptera (true bugs) and Small Orders (Dragonflies, praying mantis, cockroaches, lacewings, grasshoppers and allies), leading the collections team responsible for re-curating the British insect collection as part of the HOPE for the Future project.

(See our blog post on Tom Greenway to find out more about this re-curation.)

Together with one of my team, I am also responsible for looking after the museum’s collection of live insects and other invertebrates.  These include Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches, Tarantulas, Stick insects and a Peacock Mantis.  I enjoyed designing and working with an expert to build their new tanks a couple of years ago. 

Madagascan Hissing Cockroach

Can you tell us about any particularly challenging aspects of your role?

One of the most challenging aspects of my job is the battle to protect the specimens from insect pests!  When live insects infest specimen drawers they can cause considerable damage and it is part of my job to ensure that drawers are checked on a regular schedule to ensure any infestations do not get out of control.  This has been particularly challenging during the pandemic when the museum has been closed and access to the collections, even for those of us who work here, has been limited.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I am fascinated by the history of the collections.  For example, my favourite entomology collection in the museum is the Baden-Sommer collection which dates back to the early 1900s.  It is housed in its original furniture, and is really rich in a wide variety of species, including an incredible number of type specimens.  I really enjoy understanding how specimen data labels and pinning techniques have changed over time.  For example, when faced with an undated specimen, the handwriting on labels and how an insect is pinned can give you clues about its age. It’s like being an insect detective!

I take great pride and comfort in the fact that my work helps to keep the collection safe for future generations.  The work that I am currently undertaking on the British Insect collection as part of the HOPE for the Future project is a great example of this, and will result in the collection being accessible to the public online, and available for teaching and research for many years to come. 

Thank you so much, Amo, for some fascinating insights into your role at the museum. Good luck with the Hope for the Future project!

People: Karim Vahed

Professor Karim Vahed tells us about how he first became interested in insects and his work with Bush Crickets at the University of Derby. He explains what makes them so fascinating and why this is his favourite insect.

Professor Karim Vahed on why Bush Crickets are his favourite insect.

Do you have a favourite insect? What is it about it that you like?

Dr Andrew Salisbury

Dr Andrew Salisbury tells us a bit about his work at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), the world’s leading gardening charity. He also shares how he first became interested in insects, as a child.

He mentions a particular memory of an encounter with a Brown-tail moth caterpillar. Do you have any specific memories of insect encounters? Tell us about them in the comments below.

PEOPLE: ERICA MCALISTER

Meet Erica McAlister, Senior Curator of Flies and Fleas (Diptera and Siphonaptera) at the Natural History Museum in London. In this video, Erica tells us about her work and how she became interested in insects.

Let us know what inspired your interest in insects by adding a comment below.