The Big Draw: Insects!

Our next event for young entomologists, aged 10-14, will be ‘The Big Draw: Insects‘ on Wednesday 26 October 2022, 10.30am – 12pm at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford.

Timed to coincide with the half-term break for local schools and to link in with other ‘Big Draw’ events in October, The Big Draw: Insects! is your chance to try your hand at drawing insects in three different styles: artistic, scientific and cartooning.

We’ll be based in the newly-refurbished Westwood room at the museum and will be drawing a range of exciting insects from the museum’s collections. This event is suitable for all abilities from beginners to those who already enjoy drawing frequently.

The Big Draw: Insects! is free but you must book in advance by emailing us at hopelearning@oum.ox.ac.uk

If you’re interested i cartooning, ypu might be interested in this post by Chris Jarvis on Drawing a Minotaur Beetle.

The Intriguing Ivy Mining Bee

If you look at any ivy during the autumn there is a good chance that you will see bees on the flowers. They may look like honey bees but they are more likely to be the Ivy Mining Bee (Colletes hederae), which has a very different way of living.

Ivy Mining Bees feeding on ivy

Ivy Mining Bees can be seen feeding on ivy in late summer and early autumn, when it is in flower. Large numbers of these bees are attracted to the flowers and, because the females look very like honey bees, people sometimes think that they are all sisters from the same hive. In fact, the Ivy Mining Bee is quite different type of bee. They are a solitary species and each bee will have come from from its own individual nest.

Ivy Mining Bees are the last of the solitary bees to emerge each year, right at the end of summer when ivy is flowering. If you live in Southern England, they will probably be a familiar sight. You may not have seen them if you live further north because this bee is a relative newcomer to the UK. They were first seen on the south coast in 2001 and have since spread northward throughout England and Wales.

Ivy Mining Bee nests are often close together

These bees build their nests underground, preferring to burrow into bare ground on south-facing slopes, which is how they get the ‘mining’ part of their name. They like patches of bear earth but may also nest in garden lawns and vegetable patches. Although solitary, they like to build their nests together, so the ground can be pockmarked with dozens or even hundreds of tiny volcano-like burrow entrances.

The males emerge first and compete with each other to mate with female bees. Often several males will cluster round a single female bee. Females excavate underground burrows. In the video, you can see a female bee carrying soil out of the burrow and moving it away from the entrance with her legs.

Female Ivy Mining Bee excavating her nest.

The female bees then lay their eggs in the burrows they have made. They overwinter in these burrows, protected from the coldest temperatures. The new generation will then emerge the following year

Identifying the Ivy Mining Bee

Female bees are about the same size as honey bees and can be slightly larger. They also have similar colouration to honey bees but have dense ginger hairs on their thorax and very distinctive orange/yellow stripes on their abdomen. The males are smaller and are very similar to other closely-related Colletes species. This makes them difficult to tell apart from other species, but if you spot a bee on ivy in early autumn, it’s probably the Ivy Mining Bee.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to read about the Red-tailed Mason Bee. If you have spotted any bees out and about this autumn, why not ley us know via our Contact Us page?

Kate and Susie, HOPE Learning Officers

Kate Jaeger and Susie Glover have been Learning Officers at the heart of the HOPE For The Future project since the programme started in 2020. As their time with the project draws to an end, they reflect on their exciting role, what they enjoyed most about it, and choose their favourite insects from the many they encountered.

There are three HOPE Learning Officers and one Community Officer working on the project. We all help people learn more about insects and the museum’s collections, inspiring them to learn more, and even get more involved.

The learning officers work with young people. You may have met us at school, at an event in the museum, or you may have read an article like this in the blog. Our role includes running insect themed activities:

  • Insect Discovery Days in Schools
  • Insect Investigators Summer School
  • Insect Explorers after school club in the museum
  • Events for young people
  • Training for teachers to help them teach about insects

Of course, we also run this blog aimed at young people who want to learn more about insects, as well as developing various online resources for teachers and young people to use, and enjoy.

When did you first become interested in insects?

Kate:

I have always loved the natural world.  As a child, I lived in the countryside and my pockets were often full of things I had collected such as stones, seeds, sticks and, once, much to my mother’s surprise, a live mole!  I was especially fond of butterflies and had an I-Spy book in which I ticked off species I had seen.  Soon other books on insects, birds, fossils, minerals, dinosaurs and human evolution filled my shelves.

This interest in the natural world stayed with me into adulthood and when I became a teacher, I trained as a Forest School Leader so that I could share my love of the outdoors with others.  Working on the HOPE for the Future project has given me a unique opportunity to indulge my passion and learn much more about insects from the incredible entomology team here at the museum.  The more I find out about insects, the more fascinated I become!  The insect world is full of surprises and I am constantly amazed by these tiny creatures, without whom our planet Earth would not be able to survive.

Susie:

As a child I loved being outside, climbing trees, digging holes, investigating the different creatures in my back garden, and generally being surrounded by natural and wildlife.

I did well in school, but was particularly good at Biology. It just made sense to me, and I found it really interesting, and so I went on to study it at University. While biology is a fairly broad subject, I focused mainly on ecology, animal behaviour and evolution, learning more about the creatures all around us, including insects.

I have worked for several years teaching people about Nature and British Wildlife, including British insects, and always found them interesting. However, it wasn’t until I started my role here at the museum, working on the HOPE for the Future project that I really focused in on insects. Over the past couple of years I have learnt so much more about these fascinating creatures, and the multitude of different ways they find to survive and thrive.

What is your favourite insect?

Kate:

My favourite insect is constantly changing, but at the moment I am keen on this little true bug:  Issus cleoptratus.

Issus cleoptratus. Image credit: Fritz Geller-Grimm, CC BY-SA 2.5

Not the most beautiful of insects but a fascinating one nonetheless! This species of plant hopper is the first living creature known to possess functional, interlocking gears or cogs.  These gears are positioned on its hind legs and help to synchronise the legs when jumping, making sure the bug can hop in a straight line!

Check out this video which explains it all:

Working gears evolved in plant-hopping insects. Scientific American.

See what I mean about the insect world being full of surprises?

Susie:

I have always loved butterflies. They are such beautiful majestic creatures. When I see the first butterflies of the year, which are often the bright yellow brimstone butterflies, I feel that winter is over and summer is truly on the way. However, I think my favourite has to be one of the most common garden butterflies in England and Wales, the Peacock Butterfly (Aglais io).

The Peacock Butterfly, Aglais io

To protect themselves these butterflies use a combination of camouflage and Mimicry. When at rest they sit with their wings closed, so that all you can see are the almost black undersides of their wings that look rather like dead leaves. But when their wings are open, you can see the brightly coloured top side of the wings, with large round spots, that look like large eyes. These eyespots are there to startle and confuse predators.

What is your favourite part of the project?

Kate:

Well, I have had the privilege to work in one of the world’s most fascinating museums, with one of the best entomology collections in the UK and with some very interesting people.  I particularly enjoyed creating the ‘To Bee or not to Bee’ activity in which you have to identify the real bees among the bee mimics. It has proved a hit with all ages, from young children to seasoned entomologists, and we hope to produce an online version to bring it to a wider audience. The thing I have enjoyed most, though, is meeting hundreds, if not thousands, of young people through the course of the project, both here in the museum and in their schools.  Their interest and enthusiasm for insects and the natural world has really given me hope for the future. 

Susie:

I love coming up with new activities to help people learn about insects and the world around them. There are three activities that I particularly enjoyed developing:

  1. The Case of the Stolen Specimen – this was for an event for 10 to 14 year olds. We developed a puzzle for the young people to solve. A Specimen had been stolen from the museum and they had to solve puzzles and follow clues to find out what had been stolen, and who the thief was. It was great to see how much the participants seemed to enjoy working out the clues and rushing off to solve the crime.
  2. Food Chains – this was an activity for the Discovery Days, that is now also available online for teachers to use. It is made up from a series of cards which each have a photo of an animal on one side (mostly insects), and information about what they eat on the other. You have to use this information to build food chains and webs.
  3. Peppered Moth – this was also an activity for the Discovery Days. The participants have to put on glasses, which distort their vision, and then use tweezers to pick up as many “moths” as they can in a certain time. They can see which moths they pick up, and how the colour of the moth and background affected this.

We wish Kate and Susie all the best for their future as school teachers. If you have enjoyed this post, you might like to read about other people who work with insects on our ‘People’ section.

A Glorious Grasshopper

The cheerful chirping of grasshoppers on a warm sunny day has been described as the sound of Summer. One species that you are most likely to hear, and see, is the Field Grasshopper, Chorthippus brunneus.

Grasshoppers and their relatives the crickets belong to the insect Order called the Orthoptera. Grasshoppers have short antennae and crickets have antennae which are typically longer than their body. The Field Grasshopper is a common insect and is found throughout the UK. It is well-camouflaged. Its striped brownish colour often matches the grasses among which it lives. The species displays many colour variations, helping it to remain concealed, so you will often hear it before you see it.

Field Grasshopper, Chorthippus brunneus. Image credit: S Rae CC BY 2.0

Like other grasshoppers, their chirping call isn’t produced by its mouth but by rubbing its back legs against its forewings to make a sound. This is called stridulation. It is the males that make this sound in an effort to attract females. Entomologists often use these sounds to tell different species apart. The ‘song’ of the Field Grasshopper is a series of short ‘chirps’ repeated at intervals. You can listen to it on the orthoptera.org.uk website.

Chorthippus parallelus (top) has straight keels, C. brunneus (bottom) has indented keels (arrow). Image credit: OUMNH

There are a couple of other ways to identify the Field Grasshopper:

  • As you can see in the picture above, the ridges (called keels) at the sides of the saddle-shaped structure just behind the head (called the pronotum) curve inwards sharply in the Field Grasshopper (red arrow). In the similar-looking Meadow Grasshopper (Chorthippus parallelus), the keels are not indented.
  • Look at the underside of the grasshopper (if you can catch one!) . In the Field Grasshopper), it looks very hairy. In other similar species it looks smooth.

As their name suggests, Field Grasshoppers can be found in grassland in the countryside and in gardens. They feed on the grasses on which they live. The juvenile grasshoppers start hatching at the end of March. They grow through a series of stages, called instars, with the first adults appearing in June. They live throughout the summer and into late autumn. The females lay eggs in the soil which overwinter, hatching the following spring.

There is still plenty of time this year to spot field grasshoppers so why not have a look in a grassy area near you? We’d love to see any photos you take! If you likes this article, you might also enjoy watching this video about Field Crickets by Professor Karim Vahed.

Help Save Bees With The Big Bee Bonanza!

Measure beautiful bees from around the world to help biologists understand why bee species are declining.

The Big Bee Bonanza is a new citizen science project investigating the size of bees held in university and museum collections. Scientists want you to help measure bees using a simple online tool which will add your data to the project. The results will be useful both to bee conservation biologists and everyone interested in nature. Researchers will use these data to help understand why bees are declining. You get to see beautiful bees from around the world and help us save the bees at the same time!

You can join in by following this link: https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/md68135/notes-from-nature-big-bee-bonanza/classify

Once you are on the site, we think it’s a good idea to watch the tutorial video first. You can do this by clicking on the ‘Field Guide’ tab (shown above). A video will then slide out from the left of the screen. When you are happy you know what to do, click the ‘Field Guide’ tab again to close the video. You can start measuring bees.

There are two steps. First measure part of the scale bar, to tell the computer the size of the image, then measure the distance between the tegulae at the base of the bee’s wings. Tegulae are structures that protect the wing where it joins onto the body.

We hope you have fun measuring bees. You can measure as few or as many as you like; it all provides useful data for bee researchers. If you’re interested in bees, you might want to take a look at our post on queen bees.

Insect Investigators 2022

By Yiwen Chen

2022’s ‘Insect Investigators’ Summer School’, organised by ‘Hope for the Future’ Project, has been a wonderful experience for me. Not only was I able to learn new facts and skills, I also took my interest in insects to the next level. I also met new people and made new friends!

Catching insects

One of my favourite activities was catching insects. We tried this at different places (like the Oxford University Park and Harcourt Arboretum)
and on different days. We were given a large sweeping net, a transparent bag, a tray, and some tubes with lids to contain the insects. The sweeping net was used in the long grass. You sweep in loops, making infinity signs whilst walking through the field. Then, a friend could help you to empty the things caught inside the net into the transparent bag. You then place it upon the tray and see what you have caught. If you want to examine it closer or if you find it unique and interesting, you can gently put the insect into one of the tubes and then use the many insect guide books (brought from the museum) to identify them.

I always felt excitement growing when looking at what I had swept up in the net. I was not only able to learn this new skill, I have also learnt about the many insects I came across: there are larvae which have three pairs of ‘real legs’ and little bags of fat for the rest; grasshoppers drop their legs sometimes to divert their predator’s attention when being hunted (the legs won’t be able to grow back if they are adults); and a wasp nest contains all sorts of hidden treasures like beetles and their larvae.

Photography

It was an absolute delight to go to the Oxford Botanic Gardens on our second day. Even more so to learn about taking photos of various insects.
Insects are small creatures, hard to spot, even harder when amongst the enchanting plants and beautiful flowers. But we were told where to look: upon the bitten leaf, beside the blooming flower, within the fallen apple… There, we find the angle, adjust the focus, and carefully, snap!

A black ant tending to a line of green aphids along the vein of a leaf they are feeding on.
Ant ‘farming’ aphids. Image: OUMNH / Yiwen Chen


As we took photos, I was able to learn more about the insects I’d found. For example, on one of the leaves of a tree, I found an ant upon a group of small insects. I later found out that the black ant was eating the sweet sap that aphids (small sap-sucking insects) produce from the tree. The ant then protects the aphids in exchange. It was very interesting. There were also many bees including honeybees and bumblebees that were all busy feeding off the nectar and pollen. This meant that they did not mind us so I was able to snap many good pictures of them. There was a Seven-Spot Ladybird on the smallest leaf of a plant, a few Flea Beetles beside some small flowers, and a Hoverfly resting on a leaf. I even saw a Red-Eyed Damselfly upon a lilypad.

It was stunning to see the beauty of nature around us, and to search for the hidden ones like detectives trailing clues. Photography allows me to capture the special moment and I also love it as a hobby.

Investigation

Near the end of the week, we were able to put everything we know together to create an investigation. I chose to compare the number of
grasshoppers in two different places— fresher grass and dry grass. My prediction was that there would be more grasshoppers in fresher grass than in dry grass. To make it a fair test, I used the same net, I always made 5 loops/infinity signs when sweeping, and I was always 5 steps in the grass when catching insects.

Pencil sketch of a grasshopper by Yiwen Chen.

I was very happy when my results showed that my prediction was correct, My conclusion was that there were more grasshoppers in fresher grass than in dry grass which may be because of five things. First, grasshoppers eat grass and would naturally prefer fresher grass over dry grass. Second, grasshoppers lay their eggs beneath the grass in the soil. Dry grass usually means more exposed to the sun, which means hard and crusty soil— hard to burrow through. Third, some species of grasshoppers are green so they could camouflage better in the fresher, greener grass to escape predators. Next, fresher grass means better conditions, which means a variety of different plants that could provide for them. And last, more plants and fresher grass could also attract other insects. This could either divert their predators’ attention, or work together like the aphids and ants. This was a great way to put everything we’ve learnt together. I’ve enjoyed it very much.

Hope for the Future

As I’ve said before, insects are small creatures, but they are able to make great changes to the world. Looking back and seeing all these little
creatures continuing on with their daily routines, it reminds me of their similarity with us— humans. For we are also creatures very much like them, except we have evolved and created trouble (like climate change and global warming) as well as solutions. Although this brings some sadness into me, I am also filled with hope. My hope for the future is for all humans to be brought together to face problems and to tackle them. Just like the aphids and the ants, we can help each other out. In a way, part of our future relies on insects, so we should spend our time wisely to look at them and see them for what they can do, and achieve. I believe that this ‘Hope for the Future’ Project has done an amazing job to make everything run smoothly, as well as making me enjoy every second of it! They have given me this chance to explore and learn, and I hope to take part in more of their programme!

The next event for young entomologists is ‘Entohunt’ on Wednesday 31 August 2022, 10am-12pm at the Museum. It’s free but you need to book a place in advance.

Email us at hopelearning@oum.ox.ac.uk to book a place.