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.

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!