If you see a big jet-black bumblebee with a red tail in Britain, its probably the Red-tailed Bumblebee, Bombuslapidarius. If it has a scruffy white collar, then its a male.
The Red-tailed Bubmblebee has extended its range northwards in recent years and is now common throughout Britain. It can often be seen in parks and gardens. The workers have short tongues and forage on flowers like daisies and thistles which have a big area for them to land on and are made up of small florets, each with a little nectar. Leaving dandelions to grow in the spring helps provide food for these and other insects early on in the growing season.
The Queens nest under stones and so are sometimes disturbed when these are moved. If you find one like this, have a look without disturbing it then just put the stone back. They may also enter our homes through open windows in search of nesting sites.
The Red-shanked carder bee, Bombus ruderarius, can look similar but is much scarcer in the UK. While the Queens of B. ruderarius are smaller. the workers of the two species can be a similar size. You can tell the difference by looking at the back legs. B ruderarius has red pollen baskets on its otherwise black legs, whereas the leg hairs of B. lapidarius are all black.
Lincoln Kwong was one of the participants at our Summer school in August. He was so inspired by the HOPE collections team at the museum that he decided to start his own insect collection. One of his first specimens was a dead red-tailed bumblebee that he found in his garden. He preserved and pinned this and recorded the data following advice from James.
Let us know if you have your own collection. You can get in touch using the CONTACT US page. We’d also love to see any pictures any would be happy to feature them in our PHOTO GALLERY!
To round off an eventful year here at Crunchy on the Outside, we have put together a quiz for you combining our two favourite things: Insects and Christmas!
There are ten questions in the video. Each of the answers is formed by smashing together the two clues. One clue is about insects, the other about Christmas. We’ve included a couple of examples at the start to help you get the hang of it. Don’t worry if a question seems tricky, it’s just for fun and we’ve included some clues below.
The scientific name of this insect is Colletes hederae.
The December Moth, Poecilocampa populi, is found all over the UK. Because it is more resistant to cold than most other moths, the adults are common in parks, gardens and woodland during late autumn and winter.
Many people don’t give moths a lot of thought. Most have incredible camouflage and they often fly at night, so we don’t tend to see them. When we do think of moths, it may be just as a kind of drab butterfly that sometimes eats our clothes. In reality, there is much more to the world of moths than we might think, and they are very important to our world.
Moths, together with butterflies, belong to the group of insects called the Lepidoptera (“scaly wings”) There are over 2,500 species of moth in the UK and only a very few will eat our clothes. Many of these moths are beautiful, either because of their spectacular colouration or because of the way their camouflage enables them to blend into their habitat.
Moths are important in ecosystems. Both adult moths and their caterpillars play crucial roles in food chains, feeding on plants and being eaten by bats, birds and other animals. It is estimated that about 35 million caterpillars are eaten by blue tit chicks every year! Moths also play a vital part in the reproduction of several plant species because of their role as pollinators.
‘Like a moth to a flame’
Adult December moths are night-flying and, like other moths, they are attracted to light at night. Entomologists are still not sure exactly why this is. One theory is that moths use the moon to navigate and can mistake a light for the moon. Another is that they normally fly with the lighter sky above them and a light source near the ground confuses them into flying downwards. This would explain why they are attracted to street lights and lit windows, and also why they fly downwards into light traps.
December moth, Poecilocampa populi. Photo: Ben Sale CC-BY 2.0
Life Cycle of the December Moth
While adult December Moths can be found throughout autumn and winter, each individual is short-lived and does not feed. They mate and the females lay their eggs on food plants. The eggs overwinter and the larvae only emerge the following spring. These caterpillars can be found throughout spring and summer taking advantage of the new growth of leaves. They are active voracious feeders at this time and will eat the leaves of a wide range of deciduous trees. When they have gained enough weight, they pupate, with the adult moths emerging to repeat the cycle in late summer and autumn.
Moths are important indicator species: their presence tells us about the overall health of the environment. Unfortunately, what moth populations seem to be telling us is that something is wrong.
Comparing the number and type of moths found in Britain today with those recorded in historic insect collections like the HOPE Collection at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, shows us that moths have declined by about 40% in southern Britain. Over 60 moth species have become extinct in the UK over the last century and many more are at risk of disappearing forever.
Other animal species which rely on moths as food are also suffering, including a decline in bats flying over farmland and reduced numbers of cuckoos, which specialise in feeding on hairy moth caterpillars which other birds tend to avoid.
We need to do more research to fully understand exactly why moth species are declining in Britain, but it is likely to be because of a combination of factors including loss of habitat, farming practices such as clearing hedgerows and the use of pesticides, and climate change.
Adult December moths in the HOPE Collection
Ways we can help moths
Fortunately, many moth species under threat are found in parks and gardens, so we can all do things to help:
Not over-tidying gardens; a more natural look is much better for insects.
Growing a wide variety of large and small flowering plants and, if you have room, shrubs and trees.
Avoiding the use of weed killers and insecticides.
Reducing light pollution from outdoor lights
Reducing your carbon footprint, for example, by driving less and walking or cycling more.
Related to insects, arachnids are a fascinating group of invertebrates. Several species of spider can be found in and around our home at this time of year, but not everyone welcomes them! Here we take a look at some of these super spiders and why there is no need to be scared.
Most spiders don’t want to come into our homes because they are too warm, too dry and there isn’t enough food (or perhaps they feel the same way about humans as many people do about spiders!). A few species do venture into our dwellings and have probably been associated with us for thousands of years and often perform a useful housekeeping job in reducing the number of flies inside the home.
House Spider (Tegenaria domestica).
The House Spider builds a funnel-like web. It sits inside waiting for prey to land on the web, emerging quickly to trap it. Indoors, this is the spider we are likely to find in the bath! Some people feel alarmed by them, but they are completely harmless and will retreat into the plughole (or their funnel web) if they feel threatened. The males are active in the summer so when you see a house spider indoors it will probably be a male looking for a mate. The females usually eat them after mating, so the House Spiders you may find in your home in the late autumn will probably be females which can live for two years or more.
Giant House Spider (Eratigena atrica).
The Giant House Spider has a similar appearance to the house spider but is larger. Females can grow up to 18mm in body length with a leg span of 45mm. Those long legs enable them to be one of the fastest running spiders: they can move at up to 0.5 m/s (1.2 mph). Their speed of movement can be startling but they are in fact easily outpaced by normal human walking speed (4 mph). They only use their speed for short bursts and the females normally stay within their funnel webs. It’s the males we see out and about in our homes in summer and autumn, looking for mates. Although the mouth parts of these spiders are theoretically capable of piercing human skin, they prefer solitude and to retreat when startled and so only bite rarely when provoked. Their venom cannot harm us.
‘Money Spider’ (Linyphia sp.)
‘Money Spiders’ are not a single species. Hundreds of different small spiders are called ‘Money Spiders’. In the UK they usually belong to the Family Linyphidae. They get their common name from a folk saying that if one lands on you it’s lucky because it will spin you some clothes, meaning you will come into some money. If anyone has ever had a garment spun by a spider we’d love to hear about it! Money Spiders often land on us in the summer because they travel through the air on strands of silk, a method called ‘ballooning’. Money Spiders are completely harmless to humans and most go entirely unnoticed by us because they are so small.
Daddy Long Legs Spider (Pholcus phalagiodes)
The Daddy Long Legs Spider is also known as the ‘Cellar Spider’. It prefers to spin loose strands of web in corners which it uses to capture prey. It is not to be confused with the Crane Fly, also called a ‘Daddly Long Legs’ in the UK, which is a fly, so has a pair of wings. These spiders will often start vibrating if you come close in an effort to scare you off. Alternatively, they may curl up completely and ‘play dead’. They are completely harmless.
Garden Cross Spider (Araneus diadematus).
The Garden Cross Spider is usually found in the garden, but sometimes venture into our homes, as shown in the picture. They are large web-spinning spiders. Their webs are usually very noticeable on autumn mornings, revealed by drops of dew sticking to the strands. They can be recognised by the distinctive cross pattern on their back. The body of females can be up to 15mm long, although the males are a lot smaller and so we rarely notice them. Females can often be found protecting a ball of eggs or young spiderlings. They will be defensive of these, but are completely harmless.
Want to know more?
If you enjoyed reading about these house spiders, you might also like this post about the colour-changing Crab Spider.
Have you had any spider encounters at home? We’d love to hear about them! You can get in touch using the Contact Us page.
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.
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.
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.