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”.


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

Biodiversity: exploring the variety of life.

Biodiversity is an exhibition at the Museum of Natural History that explores biodiversity through the celebrated art of Kurt Jackson and reflections from reserchers at Oxford University.

What is biodiversity?

The word Biodiversity describes the variety of life. In any one place, the range of living things, including plants, animals, and bacteria, is called its biodiversity. It is used as a measure of how well or poorly natural life is coping with stresses like loss of habitat, pollution or climate change. The higher the number of different species, the greater the biodiversity. Biodiverse habitats are healthier because they can cope with change. When there are many different plants and animals, a change is unlikely to affect them all so many will survive.

Daddy Long Legs by Kurt Jackson

Because human activity has an impact on biodiversity we have a responsibility to look after the health of ecosystems. Each habitat has its own distinctive biodiversity, from the fields and forests, seas and streams, to the increasingly buit up places where we humans tend to live. Under the water, on a mountain, in your garden; what lives there?

What’s in the exhibition?

This exhibition shows artworks made by artist and environmentalist Kurt Jackson. The art was made in a number of different locations across the UK. Alongside it, there are displays of specimens from the Museum’s collection. These highlight the range of species found in landscapes across the UK. The artwork and museum specimens have been combined with responses from biodiversity researchers at the University of Oxford. How can we understand it? How can we protect it? What does it mean to us all?

British insects on display in the Biodiversity exhibition.

“Daily, during my time spent making art outdoors, I notice the life around me – the plants and animals that share these places with me.”

Kurt Jackson

Insects and biodiversity

Scientists measure biodiversity by looking at the abundance and distribution of species.

  • Abundance describes how numerous species are. Because they are interested in changes over time, scientists often measure relative abundance: how numerous species are compared to a point of time in the past.
  • Distribution describes how wide the area is over which species are found. Relative distribution compares this to a point in the past.

Both these measures are important. For example, having large numbers of many different species (high abundance) is good, but if they are restricted to a small area (low distribution) then they are vulnerable.

Change in relative abundance of 76 moth species. Defra 2019.

Rather than trying to measure the numbers of all the plants and animals in a habitat, scientists often monitor indicator species. These are particular plants and animals that tell us about the health of whole ecosystems. Insects can be indicator species. For example,in the UK, the Department for Environment, food and Rural Affairs (Defra) monitors 76 species of moth (as well as many other plant and animal species).

Visiting the exhibition

You can visit the Biodiversity exhibition in the Main Court of the Museum until 15 May. Entrance is free and there is no need to book

Selection of insects from the collections of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

If you would like to investigate biodiversity where you live, take a look at some of our suggestions and resources for Finding and Identifying Insects.

We’d love to hear about what you find!

Your questions answered: ‘Which is the most successful species of ant?’

Noah contacted us recently with an intriguing question: ‘What is the most successful species of ant?’. It really got us thinking! Insects are a very successful group of animals, and ants are very successful insects, but how could we decide which is the most successful?

There might be different ways we might measure success. It is the most numerous ant? Or the group with the most species? It might be the species that’s most widely spread across the globe? Perhaps it’s the longest-lived, or the largest?

Successful ants

Ants are a very successful group of insects. The biologist E.O. Wilson (who died recently) estimated that there may be a million ants for every human being, but the truth is that we don’t really know. Although they are small, there are so many of them that they may make up a quarter of the mass of all land animals!

Scientists think that ants probably evolved from a type of wasp 168 million years ago. They became really successful after flowering plants evolved about 100 million years ago. We know this because ants appear much more often in the fossil record, and we start to find many more species . One of the oldest fossil ants is Sphecomyrma, found trapped in 99 million year old amber from Myanmar.

Micrograph of a fossil ant trapped in amber. Species undetermined. 50 million years old.
Fossil Ant trapped in Amber. Image Credit: OUMNH

Features that have helped ants to become so successful include:

  • Their social nature – ants in a nest are good at cooperating.
  • They modify habitats – most animals can only survive in certain conditions but ant colonies can change their surroundings to suit them.
  • Ants can use a wide range of food sources. Some species even farm – growing fungi or ‘milking’ aphids for food.
  • Defence – ants are really good at defending themselves and each other. They are strong, have biting mouthparts and produce acid. The origin of the word ‘ant’ means ‘biter’.
  • Some species form supercolonies – huge nests containing several queen ants. This level of cooperation and organisation help some ant species to be mega-successful.
The ability of ants to cooperate helps make them successful.

Which ants are most successful?

So, ants are very successful as a group of insects. Here are some examples of ant species that might be the most successful:

Most numerous: Difficult to say, but perhaps the Argentine ant Linepithema humile.

Widest distribution: Several contenders for this, but perhaps the fire ant Solenopsis invicta.

Most different species: The genus Pheidole with over 1,000 described species.

Largest: The fossil giant ant Titanomyrma gigantuem was the largest ant to have lived. The queens were 6cm long with a wingspan of 15cm.That’s about the same size as a hummingbird!

Longest lived: We think oldest individual ant on record in a laboratory was a queen of the species Pogonomyrmex owyheei which lived to be 30 years old. Colonies of ants can survive for centuries in nature, continuing through many generations of ants.

The fossil giant ant Titanomyrma lubei, with a hummingbird for comparison.
Image Credit: Simon Fraser University CC BY 2.0

The fact is, however, that every species has most of the characteristics that make all ants successful, so perhaps the most common British ant, the Common Black Ant, Lasius niger, is as good a candidate for most successful as any? It’s also worth remembering that entomologists think we have only described about two thirds of all ant species – so there are many more left to discover!

We hope that answers Noah’s question. If you have a question about insects or the museum you’d like to ask us, just write it in the comments or send us a message using the Contact Us page.