Brian contacted us recently with this question. He is planning a nature garden and wants to attract pollinating insects. That means attracting, not just the adults, but providing food for the larvae too.
The best advice is to to include a range of plants in your garden and to avoid using pesticides. This will attract a range of different insects to your garden. While many adult insects are generalists, feeding on a range of flowers, their larvae are often adapted to a specific species. An example is the Small Tortoiseshell butterfly, Aglais urticae. While the adult butterflies feed on nectar from many different flowers, the caterpillars feed only on the common nettle. The problem is that many gardeners are happy to grow lots of pretty flowers but sometimes less keen to give space to ‘weeds’ like nettles.
In this post, we’re taking a festive look at an insect that rely on Mistletoe. Humans may enjoy kissing under it, but for the Mistletoe Marble Moth, Celypha woodiana, it’s food for their caterpillars.
Munching on mistletoe – don’t try this at home!
It would be a bad idea for us to try eating mistletoe because it’s poisonous to humans. For the Mistletoe Marble Moth, however, this is the food plant for their larvae. These overwinter snug inside mistletoe leaves. As the weather warms up the larvae become active and feed on them throughout the spring. In the picture above, you can see the trail the larva has left as it munched through the leaf.
In early summer, when they have grown large enough, the larvae pupate. The adult moths then emerge and fly in and around woodland and orchards containing fruit trees like apple.
The apple trees are important because they are a host for the mistletoe plant. Mistletoe can’t grow in it’s own. It relies on other trees. The berries are very sticky and when birds eat them they clean their beaks on by rubbing them on the bark of trees, the seeds get stick in tiny crevices and begin to grow out of the tree. The mistletoe plant grows into a ball on the brach of the host tree.
Apples are one of the trees mistletoe prefers. Sadly apple trees are becoming more scarce in Britrain because there are fewer orchards. This means there is also less mistletoe and that means that the Mistletoe Marble moth is becoming rarer. It is a priority species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan because scientists are worried that this species may become extinct in Britain.
Other insects on mistletoe
This moth isn’t the only British insect that relies on mistletoe. The Mistletoe Weevil Ixapion variegatum feeds on the part of the stem behind buds and there are several bugs that feed on sap of the plant, and another that is a predator: so there can be a whole food chain on a sprig of mistletoe!
We won’t ask if you’re planning on kissing anyone under the mistletoe this year, but for those who like to bring it into the house, please remember that we also need to conserve it, and the many insects that rely on it, in the wild.
If you enjoyed reading about the Mistletoe Marble Moth, you may be interested in this article about the ways in which other insects survive the winter.
Many people are wary of wasps, they like interrupting our picnics, they can look a bit fierce, and some have a sting in the tail, but it’s well worth getting to know this amazingly diverse group of insects. Our next Crunchy on the outside event for young people interested in nature, and insects in particular, is Wonderful Wasps! It’s at the Museum on Wednesday 28 December, 10.30-12.00pm.
We’ll be finding out about some amazing wasp species, looking at the Museum collections to see the fantastic range of different wasps in the UK, and making our own wasp models.
Take part in this exciting ecology project and become a fabulous Fly Finder! Scientists are trying to understand how humans are changing mountain lakes. Insects that live near water are a crucial food source for birds, frogs, and bats. Climate change and predators introduced by humans may be affecting these important species.
Scientists have caught insects in traps and need your help to count the different types. In this citizen-science project from Zooniverse, you will be shown a picture of some flies. The insects you’ll see were hatched in lakes high above sea level in California, where they feed and grow until they’re ready to emerge as flying adults. These adults are often eaten by animals like birds. This makes them a perfect ‘pipeline’, delivering nutrients and energy from the aquatic environment of the lake to the terrestrial environment surrounding it! Your effort on this project will help scientists understand what changes threaten this connection, and what we can expect in years to come.
Start by following this link to Fly Finder. Click on ‘Identify insects’ to start. You can click on ‘Learn more’ first if you want to find out more about the project.
You will see an image of a sticky white card that has been used to catch flies. Looking at the image, you first have to decide what types of fly you can see. That might sound tricky, but there is an on-screen field guide to help you and most of the time you just need to decide whether it’s a ‘small fly’ or a ‘medium fly’. One you have decided, you just select the correct category from the list by clicking on it, then move your mouse (or your finger on a tablet) and click (or tap) on the fly. This will mark it for the researchers.
Some of the images show several flies, others show quite a lot and a few will have none at all. You can do as few or as many pictures as you like. Lots of people doing a little each soon creates a lot of results for the scientists. This shows them which types of insect, and how many, are found in the different places where the traps were set.
If you enjoyed Fly finder, or your like the idea of taking part in other projects, why not have a look at our Make and Do page?
Hayleigh Jutson is the HOPE For the Future Community Officer. She is working with the HOPE project team to develop and deliver a programme for working with community groups across generations and making the Museum as an 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”.
How did you first become interested in insects?
I have always been interested in insects and all things in Nature – ever since I can remember. I grew up in the South West of England, playing on Dartmoor and the glorious beaches of Devon and Cornwall. I was always out in Nature with my brother, cousins and friends, looking for slowworms, caterpillars, crickets, stick insects – all sorts. That interest and sense of awe and wonder has never left me and I think I’m even more excited about it all now, as an adult.
What does your work on the HOPE project involve?
I run a programme of natural history focussed activities at the museum for older people, called Age of Nature. I also take specimens out to Community groups around Oxfordshire to engage older adult social groups. With community groups, I run projects for older people and intergenerational projects. These often involve grandparents and their grandchildren. I’m working to make the museum an Age-Friendly space so that our older visitors can enjoy it as much as everyone else.
What is your favourite insect?
This is a really hard question, because there are so many to choose from!
I recently fell in love with the Summer Chafer (Amphimallon solstitialis). These clumsy not-so-little coleopterans look a lot like the common Cockchafer, but smaller. From around June – August you’ll see these cute, chunky beetles wobbling around in gardens or inelegantly flying around the tops of trees, bashing into each-other and everything else around them with a great clonk. Around July – August this year, I had around 10 summer chafers per night, come through my house and crashing into my windows, sending themselves into a half-conscious daze. They often land on their backs and immediately try to fly, but because they’re upside down, they end up whizzing around in circles, quite loudly, like they’re taking part in some sort of breakdance battle – it’s quite entertaining!
They’re very cute and gentle creature, and while I was up and down picking them up and taking them back outside, I had the pleasure of seeing them up close and watching their funny little characters and antics. There were so many above my tree, certainly hundreds – they made it sound electrified, with all their zipping and zapping of their wings colliding with each other. Who couldn’t fall in love with this little face?
I’m also quite fond of Stick-Insects. I mentioned that I used to go looking for them when I lived down in Devon and Cornwall when I was young. Stick-Insects are not actually native to this country and often when I tell people I used to play with them in the wild when I was little, they say “you must be mistaken, they couldn’t have been Stick-Insects – you don’t get them in the UK”. The reason I used to find lots of stick insects everywhere when I was younger, is because, three species of stick insects from New Zealand were released in Devon and Cornwall between 100 – 50 years ago. They came here by accident, when plants from New Zealand were shipped to plant nurseries in the South West of England, which were hosting the phasmid’s eggs. Phasmids are insects in the Order Phasmatodea, which Stick-Insects belong to. ‘Phasma’ means phantom in Greek.
Stick-Insects always used to fascinate me with their expert camouflage, which used to give me hours of challenging entertainment, when my brother and cousins and I were playing in the woods, seeing who could spot the most Stick-Insects. I love the way they move too and now that I work here at the museum, we have quite a few live Stick-Insect species that I love to stop and watch as I walk by. We also have some live, large, blue Metallic Stick Insects (Achrioptera manga) that we take out to community groups and school groups for people to see and hold. They are so beautiful and the more I’ve gotten to handle them, the more I’ve seen that they each have their own little personalities! There’s one that often gets a bit grumpy and flares his wings out with a bright red flash of colour. And there’s the dopey one, who is really placid and likes to put his two front legs up and it wiggle side to side, like he’s showing us a little dance, before walking off the edge and falling on the floor. They’re really very sweet and cute.
If you enjoyed Hayleigh’s description of the Summer Chafer, you might like this blog post all about Chafers. We haven’t written about stick insects yet but perhaps we should? Let us know what you think using the Contact Us page.
Come and see us at Harcourt Arboretum on Monday 24 October. The HOPE For the Future stand will feature lots of insect specimens and our ‘To Bee or not to Bee’ challenge.
We will be joining our friends at the Arboretum to support The Wonderful World of Insects, an interactive family show from WhatNot theatre company that explores themes of biodiversity, the importance of insects and their declining populations, and the connections between plant life and insects.
The show will run at 12.30pm or 2.30pm encourages us all to learn to love, respect and care for our six-legged friends. It is included with entry to the Arboretum but registration is required. Please book your day ticket as normal (not needed for annual pass holders or Friends) and then reserve your space for either show here. (Note: this is a link to an event booking site)
You don’t need to register for the Hope For the Future stand – just pop along and see us during your visit to the Arboretum! We will be there from 12pm to 3.30pm.
Still time to book for The Big Draw: Insects! on 26 October
We still have a few places left for The Big Draw: Insects! at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford. Aimed at 10-14 year olds, this is your chance to try out different styles of drawing, see amazing art from the Collections, and be one of the first visitors to enter the newly-refurbished Westwood Room. Please use the Contact Us page or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to book a place.