Let there be Light!

When is a worm not a worm?  When it’s a glow-worm… because a glow-worm is actually a beetle!

Male glow-worms look like typical beetles with wing cases (elytra) covering their second pair of wings, but the females are very different, having no wings and resembling beetle larvae.  It is the females who emit a greenish-orange glow from their back ends by a process called bioluminescence. Light is produced by energy released from chemical reactions occurring inside the glow-worm’s body.  In nature, bioluminescence occurs in many different types of organisms from bacteria to marine vertebrates and invertebrates.  It serves different purposes such as to warn or evade predators; lure or detect prey; or, in the case of the glow-worm, as a means of communication. The female glow-worms use the light to attract males.  Male glow-worms have large eyes with a high degree of sensitivity to light, so they are well adapted to being able to spot females in the dark. Once the glow-worms have mated, the females stop glowing and lay their eggs. If you are out for a night time walk in an area of grassland in June or July, you may be lucky enough to spot these amazing insects glowing in the dark! Glow-worms can be found in England (particularly in the South), but also in lowland Scotland and Wales.

Ferocious Predators

Glow-worm larva hunting snails. Image credit: CC-BY-SA-4.0, Hans Hillewaert

It is not only the female glow-worms who can glow, however.  The larvae are also able to flash a light on and off and it is thought that this is to deter predators or to help with their night time hunting. Glow-worm larvae are ferocious hunters of slugs and snails!  They have formidable mandibles and inject toxins into their prey which paralyses and liquefies them.  The toxin can take a while to take effect so the larva may ride around on the shell of the snail, waiting for it to die! The larval stage of the glow-worm lasts for between 2 and 3 years.  Winters, when prey is scarce, are spent in a state of torpor under logs and stones, or buried in the ground. 

The Race is On!

Once the larvae have pupated, the glow-worms need to mate as quickly as possible.  They do not eat as adults and only have enough stored energy from their larval stage to survive for about 10 days before starving to death.  Hopefully with a bright lantern to attract the males, the females will mate successfully and have her eggs fertilised before dying.   

Have you seen a glow-worm recently?  We would love to hear about it.  Let us know in the comments below or via the contact us section of the blog.

Make Your Own Pooter

A pooter is a great device for catching small insects. It’s easy to make your own at home.

An assembled pooter

What you will need:

  • A transparent plastic food container with a lid.
  • Two drinking straws or 30cm of plastic tubing.
  • Plasticine or Blu-Tac
  • An elastic band
  • A piece of cloth
  • Scissors
  • A grown-up

How to make your pooter

  1. Make the tubes.

You can use two drinking straws. Ones with bendy ends work best. Even better is plastic tubing because it is bendier than a straw and less likely to get crushed. Car parts shops sell it as ‘washer tube’. Whatever you use, make sure it is clean.

Washer tube from a car parts store is ideal for a pooter

Using the scissors, cut two lengths of tubing, one about 10cm long, the other about 20cm long. If you’re using straws, cut one of them to about 10cm (including the bendy bit, if there is one). Leave the other straw as it is.

  1. Make two holes in the lid.
Use scissors to make holes in the lid.

Start with a clean used transparent food container. The ones that shops use for houmous, dips, etc. work well. Place the lid of the food container on a flat surface. Put something underneath it like a cutting board or thick piece of cardboard underneath to protect the surface you are working on. Here is where you may need a grown-up to help: using the sharp point of a scissor, make two holes on the lid. They should be about 2cm from the edge of the lid and least 3cm apart. Use the scissor blade in a circular motion to gradually make one of the holes large enough until the tube (or straw) is a snug fit through it. Be careful not to make it too big. Repeat for the other hole.

  1. Fix the tubes in the lid.

Push the short tube (or the cut straw) about 2cm into the lid. Use the plasticine or Blu-Tak to seal the hole round the tube, both inside and out.

Seal round the tube with Blu-Tak or Plasticine

Push the long tube (or uncut straw) about 2cm into the other hole and seal this one in the same way. If you are using a bendy straw the short end should go inside the pooter.

  1. Add the filter.
Add the filter to the tube you will such through.

The filter goes on the short tube (or cut straw) and will stop you accidentally sucking up insects into your mouth! You can use a piece of thin cloth, old tights, or even paper tissue. Make sure it’s clean. Use the elastic band to fix the filter on to the end of the short tube that goes inside the pooter.

  1. Test it!

Put the lid into the food container. Now test your pooter to check that it is sealed properly by trying to suck up something small like a grain of rice or a tiny piece of paper. Point the end of the long tube close to your object and suck through the short tube. A short sharp suck of breath will work better that a long indrawn breath. If it doesn’t work well, check the seals aren’t letting in any air.

A finished pooter.

Using your pooter

Your pooter is now ready to go!

Have fun collecting insects and watching them inside the pooter. Look for insects on the leaves and stems of plants. Don’t forget to check the underside of leaves. When you have found something interesting, and smaller than the width of the tube, point the end of the long tube at it, as close as you can get. Then quickly suck on the short tube. The insect should be sucked up into the pot where you can look at it. Don’t worry if it doesn’t work first time, most people need a bit of practice at pooting!

Don’t leave your insects inside the pooter for more than a few minutes. Make sure to let them go where you found them. Don’t forget to send us your pictures – we’ll put them in the Gallery.

You can find more great makes in our Make and Do section.

Queen Bees and Royal Jelly

As Britain celebrates the Platinum Jubilee of Elizabeth II, HOPE For the Future Community Engagement Officer, Hayleigh Jutson takes a look at the queen at the heart of every honey bee hive and find out why royal jelly is crucial to her reign.

Honey bees on honeycomb.

Social bees are species that live together in groups called colonies. These colonies are very structured, with different bees having specific roles. Social bees include honey bees and many species of bumblebee. A queen bee is the only bee in a hive of social bees that produces eggs. Larvae will hatch from these eggs and develop into adult bees, so the queen bee will be the mother of most of the bees in the hive.

A queen bee in a hive. Image credit: OUMNH

The queen bee governs the colony. Most of the other bees are female worker bees and nurse bees. Workers are responsible for foraging, caring for the nest looking after the rest of the colony. Nurse bees raise the queen’s offspring, who are also their sisters. All these female bees develop from fertilised eggs. Later in the year, the queen starts to produce some male bees called drones. These drones develop from unfertilised eggs. Their only job is to mate with queen bees. They don’t even feed themselves! Instead, the female workers have to feed them.

Queen cells containing larvae surrounded by royal Jelly. Image credit: Waugsberg CC BY-SA 3.0

Towards the end of summer, as well as producing unfertilised males eggs, the queen bee also lays some eggs in specially constructed queen cells. What makes these specially chosen individuals grow-up to be queen is a substance called ‘royal jelly’. This is a milky secretion that comes from glands within the heads of nurse honeybees. While all the bee larvae receive some royal jelly in the first few days after hatching, the one selected to be queens are fed large amounts of it from their larval stage to adulthood. A special protein in the Royal Jelly called ‘royalactin’ enables the larvae to develop ovaries so they can produce eggs and, perhaps become queen of their own hive.

Queen Bumblebees

Queen bumblebees overwinter underground, and are usually the first to emerge in early spring. When the queen bees awake from their long slumber, they are extremely hungry and in a hurry to start a new colony of their own. The queen begins by feeding on early-blooming wildflowers and tree blossoms, which provide her with all the nutrition she needs with protein-rich pollen, and high-energy nectar.

Queen Tree Bumblebee. Image Credit: Hayleigh Jutson

Once she has filled up on all the nutrients she needs, the queen will then find a suitable nest site. Different species choose different sites. She will collect a ball of pollen and lay her first batch of eggs inside it. Bumblees incubate their eggs, like birds do, and even have a bald-patch on their abdomens, to ensure suitable distribution of their body heat over their eggs. The queen builds a store of honey to feed from, while she does this. When they hatch, the larvae eat their way through the pollen and the queen continues to care for them, until they are fully-grown adults.

If you are interested in bees, have a look at our post about the red-tailed mason bee. She is a solitary bee who chooses a very unusual place to lay her eggs.

Hayleigh is working with the HOPE project team to develop and deliver a programme for working with intergenerational groups in the community and making the Museum an Age Friendly space for older people. She wants  “museums to be a space for all to enjoy and develop their sense of wonder and imagination, no matter what age they are”.

FREE workshops coming up in May and June

The Case of the Stolen Specimen

Irreplaceable insect specimens have been stolen from the Museum! Help us solve some insect-based clues to unmask the thief.  Explore behind-the-scenes at the Museum to learn about the importance of the entomology collection, and why it must be protected.

Here are all the details you need:

WHAT: FREE workshop – The Case of the Stolen Specimen

WHEN: Tuesday 31st May 2022 , 1pm to 3pm

WHERE: Museum of Natural History, Parks Road, Oxford, OX1 3PW

WHO: 10 to 14 year olds

Booking is essential, email hopelearning@oum.ox.ac.uk to secure your place.

Insect Field Craft

Celebrate National Insect Week by taking a closer look at the wonderful world of insects on our doorstep.

Come out and about with us to learn how to find insects outside. You’ll even get a chance to make and use an insect pooter. We will start by making our pooters in the Museum and then – weather permitting – will test them out in University Parks. There will also be a chance to try out other entomological collection methods.

Here are all the details you need:

WHAT: FREE workshop – Insect Field Craft

WHEN: Saturday 25th June 2022 , 10am to 12pm

WHERE: Museum of Natural History, Parks Road, Oxford, OX1 3PW

WHO: 10 to 14 year olds

Booking is essential, email hopelearning@oum.ox.ac.uk to secure your place.

Fabulous Fig Wasps

Many insects are important pollinators helping plants to make seeds from which new plants can grow. One of these is the fabulous fig wasp. In this video fig wasp researcher Sotiria Boutsi explains the amazing life cycle of the fig wasp, and why without it we wouldn’t have any figs!

Sotiria Boutsi shares her fascination with fig wasps

Sotiria shared her interest in fig wasps with Crunchy on the outside while she was a Professional Intern in Public Engagement at the Museum of Natural History. She has a Master’s degree in Conservation Biology and is currently researching for a PHD at Harper Adams University on using genetic information to study how different species of fig wasp are related to each other.

You can find out about other amazing insects in the Insects section of the blog.

Update: So, are there wasps in figs we eat?

Sotiria’s video sparked some debate on social media about whether there are wasps in the figs we eat. This is a complicated subject, but the short answer is ‘no’. Many figs that are produced for sale in supermarkets and greengrocer’s shops are ripened without the need for them to be pollinated by insects. Some figs produced for sale are pollinated by fig wasps, but the fig produces a chemical that dissolves the wasps.

So, any crunchy bits inside a fig are seeds, not wasps!

Header image: Fig wasps, Philocaenus rotundus, on a fig. Alan Manson CC BY 4.0

The Marvellous Maybug

As the month of April fades into May a certain beetle can be found flying noisily about its business. Cockchafers, often called Maybugs, are relatively large members of the Scarab beetle family. There are three different species of Cockchafer found in Europe;

  • The common cockchafer, Melolontha melolontha
  • The forest cockchafer, Melolontha hippocastani
  • The large cockchafer, Melolontha pectoralis

Cockchafers spend most of their lives, 3 to 4 years, as larva, living underground, munching away at the roots of plants. In large numbers they can become pests, doing significant damage to crops.

It is as adults that they emerge above ground, flying around for roughly 5 to 6 week looking for a mate and feeding on the leaves of trees. They can usually be spotted making their noisy flight at dusk on warm evenings. You may even find them flying into and around your outside lights.

Common Cockchafer (Melolontha melolontha) © OUMNH

They are around 3cm long, with reddish brown wing cases and distinctive fan shaped antennae. Despite their intimidating size and noisy flight, they are actually harmless to humans. I once had one fly in the house and land on my big toe, waking me up from a nap!

Pesticides used farming in the mid-1900s brought them to the brink of extinction in the UK. However, changes in farming practises and pesticide use has allowed them to make a comeback. They can now be found across England, are particularly common in the south of England and the Midlands. They are much rarer in Scotland.

Do you know of any other insects that are considered pests by farmers? Let us know in the comments below or via the contact us section of the blog.