Make a butterfly feeder

In the last post Kate told us all about her favourite butterfly. In this post I will be showing you how to make your own butterfly feeder, from items you might commonly have at home, to help attract butterflies, and other insects, to your outside space. I had to raid my recycling bin for key materials.

Here are the same instructions on how to make a butterfly feeder, as can be seen in the video:

What you will need:

  • Cardboard
  • Coloured pens or paints
  • String or wool
  • Glue or sticky tape
  • Scissors
  • Bottle top
  • Hole Punch
  1. Take a piece of cardboard and draw a flower with five petals, roughly 20cm wide.
  2. Decorate your flower in any way you wish.
  3. Cut out your flower.
  4. Fix the bottle top to the middle of your flower using glue or sticky tape.
  5. Use a hole punch to make a hole at the edge of each petal of your flower.
  6. Cut five pieces of string or wool, each roughly 40cm long.
  7. Tie the five pieces of string together at one end.
  8. Turn your flower over and thread a piece of string through each hole, and tie the five pieces of string together.
  9. Tie an additional piece of string, or wool, to the knot.
  10. Hang your butterfly feeder in a sunny, but sheltered, spot outside.
  11. Mix together sugar and water, or take a small piece of overripe fruit (e.g. orange or banana), and put it in the bottle lid.

Watch to see any butterflies, or other insects, that visit your feeder. You could investigate which foods different species prefer.

Please tell us about your butterfly feeders and investigations. We would love to see photos of them. Contact us or email at hopelearning@oum.ox.ac.uk.

chafers

During the summer you may notice large beetles flying around in gardens and other green spaces. These insects are called ‘chafers’. While they may look similar, there are in fact several different species all known by this common name.

The name chafer comes from the Old English word for beetle, ceafor. It is similar to the modern German word for beetle, käfer. So, ‘chafer’ really just means ‘beetle’ but in English it came to be used for beetles that were particularly noticeable. Chafers got themselves noticed because they are large, the adults can fly and often emerge in large numbers at the same time of year, sometimes making a buzzing noise as they fly. They are attracted to lights, so often fly in open windows, then bump around the room trying to get out. Farmers and gardeners often think of them as pests because they can damage plants.

Chafers all have a similar life cycle. The larvae live in the soil or dead wood, often for several years. They are sometimes thought of as pests because they may feed on the roots and other parts of plants, but they are important recyclers, feeding on dead, decaying material and helping to return the nutrients it contains back into the soil. The larvae then pupate and survive the cold winter months in this form. The adults emerge in late spring, or summer, depending on the species. It may seem that large numbers of beetles have suddenly appeared out of nowhere, but in fact these adults have just emerged at the same time. The adult beetles mate and lay eggs which will become the next generation of larvae.

Cockchafer, Melolontha melolonta

The largest of the British chafers is the cockchafer (Melolontha melolontha). The adults emerge in late April or May, giving it another common name, the ‘Maybug’. They fly in a wobbly way and make a buzzing noise. This can make them seem a bit alarming but they are completely harmless to humans.

Cockchafers were once a huge agricultural pest and could emerge in such numbers that people were encouraged to eat them! A French recipe for cockchafer soup was published in the 1800s (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cockchafer_soup) and in the 1920s, German children were reportedly eating sugar coated cockchafers.

Pesticides brought this marvellous beetle to the brink of extinction in the UK during the last century. Now changes in agriculture and pesticide use mean that cockchafers are making a comeback and they can be found across England, although they still rarer in Scotland. The nationally much rarer Northern Cockchafer (Melolontha hippocastani) is found in Scotland, Northern England and Ireland.

The Summer Chafer (Amphimallon soltitiatis) looks a bit like the cockchafer, but is smaller, at about 20mm, and had a rounded, rather than pointed tail end . Traditionally, this beetle is associated with the Summer Solstice, or longest day of the year, because the adults often emerge in the second half of June. In fact, the Summer Chafer can be found all over Britain in June and July. Kate and Susie found lots of Summer Chafers on a visit to Orchard Meadow Primary School in Oxford on 23 June this year and have seen it in the grounds of several other schools we have visited.

Another similar beetle is the Welsh Chafer Hoplia philanthus which, despite its name, is not restricted to Wales, but also found in Southern England and the Midlands. It is smaller and less ‘hairy’ than the other chafers and can be recognised by the single large ‘claws’ on the end of its legs.

Welsh Chafer, Hoplia philanthus. Image Credit: Neil Stanworth

Eleanor and her father kindly sent us this picture of a Welsh Chafer they caught in their garden in the Midlands recently using a pitfall trap they made after watching Kate’s video from a few weeks ago. We’d love to see pictures of beetles and other insects you have found.

Some chafers are a striking green colour. One of these is the Rose Chafer (Cetonia aurata) which flies between May and October. Gardeners may consider it as a pest, particularly if they grow roses, because the beetles feed on their plants but, like the other chafers, these beetles are also important recyclers.

Noble Chafer, Gnorimus nobilis. Image credit: Flickr/Gail Hampshire CC BY 2.0

Another green chafer is the Noble Chafer (Gnorimus nobilis). You can tell the two apart because the Rose Chafer has smooth wing cases but the Noble Chafer has wrinkled ones and is metallic green with white speckles. While adult Noble Chafers feed on plants like hogweed, the larvae live in the decaying wood of old fruit trees. Because of this, the Noble Chafer is found in traditional orchards. As these have disappeared, so has this beautiful beetle which is now rare and a priority species under the UK biodiversity framework.

So, look out for chafers this summer and send us pictures of the ones you find. You may even come across one that’s quite rare!

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.

Make a pitfall trap

Try out a new technique for finding insects with HOPE Learning Officer, Kate.

Have you found any interesting insects lately?  Along with the other HOPE Learning Officers, I have been out and about in Oxfordshire schools where we have found some fantastic insects.  Among my recent favourites is the thick-legged flower beetle, Oedemera nobilis

These beautiful beetles are distinctive with their stunning emerald-green colour and their chunky thighs which are seen only in the males.   We have also found lots of varied species of ladybird including cream spot, 14-spot and eyed ladybirds. Generally, we collect insects using sweep nets and beating trays but, of course, you might be lucky enough to find some interesting insects just by looking in the right places.  Under stones, logs, leaves, in amongst long grass or on flowers are all excellent places to start.  Insects, however, are very good at hiding so why not make a pitfall trap? This can be a great way to find a range of insects, particularly ground beetles.

Here are the written instructions.

You will need: 

  • A small pot such as a clean yoghurt pot
  • A trowel for digging
  • A few stones
  • A small piece of wood or a flat stone to act as a rain cover

What to do:

  1. Find a good spot for your trap on level ground, amongst vegetation.
  2. Dig a hole big enough to sink your pot so that it is completely level with the ground.
  3. Place the pot into the hole. You can put a few leaves, small stones and twigs in the pot to make any insects you catch feel at home.
  4. Build a cover over the trap by placing stones around the pot and resting a flat stone or piece of wood on top.  Make sure there is enough space for insects to crawl under.  This will stop the pot filling with water if it rains.
  5. Wait for a few hours or, better still, overnight.
  6. When you are ready, empty your pot carefully into a tray so you can see what has fallen in.  Take photos so that you can have a go at identifying what you have caught.
  7. Remember to check your pitfall trap every day and return any creatures carefully to a sheltered spot in vegetation.

We would love to know what you find! Let us know by commenting below or by using the Contact Us page.  Happy insect collecting!

Insect investigators Summer School

This post was first written in June 2021. The summer school is now full and booking has closed. You can find lots of insect activities on the Museum of Natural History webpages for our 2020 virtual Six Legs of Summer summer school.

We are very excited to announce that we will be running an Insect Investigators summer school at the Museum of Natural History during the week 2 – 6 August 2021.

If you are aged between 10 and 14, discover the amazing world of beetles, bees and butterflies at our free Insect Investigators Summer school, 10am to 3pm on 2nd6th August 2021.

The summer school will be for 10-14 year olds and is free of charge, thanks to generous funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Those taking part will gain a behind the scenes insight into the British Insect Collection and the work of museum, photograph insects at the Botanic Gardens with a wildlife photographer, learn how entomologists collect and study insects with practical sessions at Harcourt Arboretum, and carry out their own insect investigation. Perhaps you’ll even have an insect added to the collection!

Past summer school participants have added to the British Insect Collection

If you would like to know more, or want to book a place, please get in touch using the Contact Us page, or email Rodger, Susie and Kate at hopelearning@oum.ox.ac.uk. We’re looking forward to hearing from you!

Why collect insects

As part of the HOPE project, Kate, Rodger and I take insect specimens from the collection out to schools. Two questions I have been asked a number of times are:

  1. Are they real?
  2. Why did you kill them?

The answer to the first question is fairly simple. Yes! They are real insects that were once alive, but are now dead and have been carefully preserved.
The answer to the second question is a little more complicated. The British Insect Collection, at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, consists of over 1 million specimens, collected over a period of about 200 years. I think the real questions are why do we keep this vast assortment of insects and what are they used for?

Identification

When investigating insects, it often is not possible to identify them out in the field, or from photographs. Some insects need to be looked at under a microscope, or even dissected, to tell them apart and identify them to species level. Also, just think how small some insects are, it could be very easy to miss them altogether. As a result, entomologists sometimes use insect collecting methods that involve killing the insects, and taking them back to their labs for identification.

The collection is also used to help with identification. If an entomologist comes across an insect species they have not seen before, or are struggling to identify, they can compare it with those already in the collection. Getting a correct identification is really important. It helps entomologists know if they are talking about the same insect.

Historical record

In the collection each specimen has a label which gives key information regarding where, when and by whom it was found. The collection contains specimens for almost the entire history of British entomology, giving us information on the biodiversity of Britain, during this time. From this we can see how insect populations have changed, for example how the numbers of the different forms of the Peppered moth (Biston betularia) varied during and after the Industrial Revolution. Scientists from all over the world regularly use and reference the British Insect Collection as part of their research.

The collection offers an amazing glimpse into the natural world with dozens of iconic species now considered extinct in the UK, including the large copper butterfly and the blue stag beetle. It also contains many examples of the first British capture of insect species.

Education

We use the collection to help people to learn about the wonders and importance of insects in our world. While it is very valuable for people to see living insects in their natural environment, they often move around very fast. It is much easier to use specimens from the collection to look at and understand the features of different insects.

In my experience of taking specimens into schools, seeing these insects up close in this way not only inspires a sense of wonder, interest and excitement, but also allows those who are more nervous of these little critters to gain confidence as well as understanding.