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

A gallery of your favourite insect photos. We’d love to share yours too!

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.

Lily Beetle

Despite being viewed as a pest by many a gardener, for munching the leaves of their prized lilies, the lily beetle (Lilioceris Lilii) is a favourite insect of Andrew Salisbury, principal entomologist for the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). In this short film Andrew tells us a bit about the lily beetle and why he finds it so fascinating.

Are there any insects that are often considered pests that you have a particular interest in? Let us know in the comments below or via our contact us page.

A Sensational Summer School!

One of the highlights of the HOPE year is the summer school which gives young people a unique insight into both the fascinating world of insects and the equally-intriguing behind-the-scenes work at the museum.

We had to make our summer school virtual in 2020, so we were really pleased to be able to run it at the Museum this year.  The wonderful group of enthusiastic young people who joined us spent a week in August exploring the British Insect Collection and the work of entomologists, developing their skills and doing their own research.

Insight into the Museum

Monday started with an introduction to the world of insects and the ‘Big 5’ British orders, a tour of the entomology department with Collections Manager Dr James Hogan, and some live insect handling. The young entomologists then put their identification skills to the test with some insect hunting with Collections Assistant Louis Lofthouse in the University Parks.

Fantastic Photography

On Tuesday we were joined by wildlife photographer Kirk Mason who showed us techniques to develop our insect photography skills at the Botanic Gardens. The fabulous Merton borders and a sunny day meant there was no shortage of subjects! Look out for a future post showcasing the fantastic images the young people took.

Insect Investigations

On Wednesday and Thursday the summer school moved to Harcourt Arboretum where the group learned about practical insect collection techniques with Collections Assistant Ryan Mitchell. They then devised and carried out their own investigations over the two days, joined by Senior Collections Manager Darren Mann on Thursday.  We also set up a light trap on Wednesday afternoon, opening it the next morning to reveal the selection of moths that had settled inside, including the Black Arches, Lymantria monacha, pictured above.

Showcase sharing

On final day of the summer school, Steven Williams from the HOPE team led the group through pinning preserved insect specimens for themselves. We finished with a celebratory showcase event where our young entomology team shared all that they had done over the week with families and friends.

And there’s more…

Some of our summer school participants were inspired to write their own articles for the blog. Here is Ben’s post, Raising Moths, and we will be publishing more soon. If you’re feeling inspired, why not get in touch using the Contact Us page? Keep an eye on the blog for news of future events at the Museum from the HOPE for the Future Team.

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!