Wonderful woodlice

Woodlice are not insects but they are definitely crunchy on the outside, so we’re happy to devote some space to this fascinating group of crustaceans in the order Isopoda. Lucas Brooks, who showed us his woodlice at our recent summer school, writes about his own growing colony.

I started a colony of eighteen woodlice I collected from outside my flat.  The woodlice inside the colony appear to consist of a several types (see below). They seem to enjoy eating potatoes more than anything so I have made that their main food source, but they sometimes eat dry leaves and decaying wood. I didn’t expect them to be reproducing so fast so now there are dozens of baby woodlice running around the tank.

Woodlice get their name because they are often found in decaying wood, but Lucas’s love potato too! Image credit: OUMNH / Lucas Brooks

After a few weeks of keeping the wild woodlice, I found out about the orange variants of woodlice which sounded quite interesting. The first ‘’orange woodlouse’’ I got was a common type but with a different colour exoskeleton which is a rusty orange. I then decided to go to my local reptile shop in Kidlington and bought some Giant Orange Woodlice. ‘Giant’ for a woodlouse is up to 18mm. This type of woodlouse seems to hide more, so I don’t see them as often as the other ones. Instead of a rusty colour, these woodlice are pure orange.

An orange woodlouse (Porcellio sp.). Image credit: OUMNH / Lucas Brooks

The reason I am so interested in woodlice is because I never really investigated them before, so it was a fully new experience for me. Plus, the woodlice also being extremely bizarre and intriguing got me into keeping them as pets.

If, like Lucas, you are fascinated by an insect or other invertebrate, please get in touch to let us know! You can write us a message on the Contact Us page.

Types of woodlice

At first glance, all woodlice might look the same but there are in fact hundreds of species in the UK. The one you are most likely to find is the Common Shiny Woodlouse, Oniscus asellus. The last segment of the antennae, called the flagellum, is made up of three segments. They are usually grey but can also have yellow or orange colouration. The Common Rough Woodlouse, Porcellio Scaber, has a flagellum made up of only two segments. Both these woodlice are usually grey but can also have yellowish or orangey colouration. Pill woodlice, such as Armadillium vulgare, also has a flagellum made up of two segments, but their body is more rounded, they are usually black or brown and can roll themselves into a pill-like ball when disturbed.

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.

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.

Raising Moths

Ben brought in some Poplar Hawk Moths to show the other participants at our recent summer school. Here he describes how he raised them from eggs he received as a gift from his grandfather.

Last year during lockdown my Grandpa gave me 32 hawk moth eggs: 30 eyed and two privet. Not the most common of presents you might think, but these turned into the most enjoyable gift. I was very excited as I tore open the parcel and found the eggs safely packed in a small tube. It took roughly a week for the leafy-green eggs to turn into the most delightful little caterpillars. I decided to call them all Jim. The first thing they went towards was the fresh willow that lay in a small, water-filled jam-jar.

Poplar Hawk moth caterpillar with Ben’s hand for scale. Photo credit: Ben Atwell

Immediately, they started taking chunks the size of their heads out of the leaves until there were no leaves left inside the tank. I was very surprised by how much they ate in proportion to their size. Every day they grew bigger until, within 4 weeks, they were the length of my index finger! They were bright green with white stripes, pink spots and little pointy tails. To help them grow, they shed their skins every few days. Sadly, one little Jim got stuck in his skin whilst shedding and died. Willow-collecting took a lot of effort as it involved daily trips to the canal, but this was a welcome break from staring at my computer all day during online school.

Poplar Hawk Moth larva feeding. Photo credit: Ben Atwell

One morning we found that a lot of the caterpillars were wandering around, banging their heads on the bottom of the tank. They were also turning a darker green which (after a bit of research) we found out meant they needed to bury and become a chrysalis. We put a deep layer of soil into the tank and within minutes they had disappeared. We tucked them up in the shed for winter and waited.

After months of hibernation, they started emerging this spring with crumpled wings, looking very like dead leaves. After stretching out their wings we noticed that we couldn’t see the eyes that the eyed hawk moths are known for, but as we later realised, they only show the eyes as a defence mechanism if they were under attack. Normally it would take a while for the males to seek out the females using their fanned antenna, but because they were in a large tank, it was easy for them to find each other and mate. Within a few days they had laid over 1,000 little green eggs! So, the process of willow collecting began again, but this time, after checking with the county moth recorder, we released the little caterpillars (who this year I called Jeff) into our local wildlife reserve, hoping that they survive and go on to repeat the process in the wild this year.

Poplar hawk Moth adult. Photo credit: Ben Atwell

We are still waiting for the privet chrysalises to hatch, but to keep me busy, my Grandpa sent me 15 poplar hawk moth eggs this spring. These have already been through one cycle of eggs-caterpillars-chrysalis-moth-eggs and I gave some of the eggs to the museum during the Insect Investigators Summer School. I hope the staff have time to collect all that poplar!

The Poplar Hawk Moth, Laothoe populi, is a beautiful insect found thrououghout the UK and is common wherever their foodplants can be found: mainly the poplar trees from which they get their name, aspen and willows. Ben describes the voracious appetite of the larvae well. The adults don’t feed at all and so are short-lived. You can find the adult moth from May to July and the caterpillars from June to October. In Southern England there may be a second generation of adults in the autumn.