Category Archives: Insects

Death’s Head H/Moth … 2021

Howse, P.  2021, Bee Tiger: The Death’s Head Hawk-Moth through the Looking-glass. Brambleby Books. pp119. ISBN  978-1-908241-62-7  9-781908 24 1627  £13.99

 

                         

There have been precious few books on a single moth, with the exception of perhaps the Silk moth, Bombyx mori or one of the moon moths or emperors or some of the glamorous day-flying moths. This is not so much an entomological treatise on the Death’s head hawk-moth than a comprehensive discourse on skulls, bones and all interpretations of these patterns and messages as we may see them;  it is all in the sub-title, ‘through the looking glass’. Mimicry, which is the author’s passion, and nature’s gift, is full of visual interpretation of the dynamic living world and thus subject to vagaries in our understanding. There is a tendency to anthropomorphosise. And so it is with this hawk-moth. It is a large lumbering moth which has evolved to be a honey thief within honeybee colonies. For a large lumbering moth it must have an acute sense of smell to search out and find honeybee colonies, and as for its large size, it does need this to go deep in a hive and plunder the goods. It may of course be too big for bats to handle, as bats weigh less.  Unusually for hawk-moths the death’s head has a very stubby proboscis which it pierces the capped brood and feeds unmolested by the bees. Philip Howse, describes how the morphology of the moth, and its sounds, mimic the piping of the queen bee and it may thus sooth the behaviour of the colony.  Of the bright colour of this moth, the contrasting yellows and black we are told mimic the warming colours of wasps and hornets – more for the daytime predators, birds and reptiles than bees.  And, as for the scary death’s head, this is also for daytime predators – especially if seen from in front, rather than as we conventionally view a moth as settled or set. The classic medusa head of ancient Rome and Pompeii are invoked, especially with hair entwined with snakes. Photos of heads and skulls are shown, including Picasso’s ‘In Voluptate Mors’. Philip Howse is a poet and he publishes a few of his lines as well as many others, and cites quotations from a host of others including Homer, Faust, Proust, Jung, Darwin and more recently Miriam Rothschild who also was enthralled by the moth.  The book is relatively short with nine blank pages at the back (printing problem?) and there is a bibliography, index and glossary of 28 colour plates.   There are nine chapters, three of which are linked, the honeybees’ tale, the bat’s tale and the bird’s tale – all expressing how mechanisms have evolved in these groups over millions of years to feast and forage. The author goes to extraordinary lengths to describe the colour vision of birds and then at the end of the chapter to show how birds might view the moth. The same for the bat’s tale chapter, and exposé of the bat’s capabilities in detecting prey on the wing, all backed up with up to date technical research and discoveries.  With an exciting cover, and a good in-depth read around the subjects, this book will appeal to entomologists, naturalists and members of the general public. The author is Professor Emeritus in Biological Sciences at the University of Southampton and is the author of a number of general natural history books.

 

Much Ado About Mothing

Much Ado About Mothing; a year intoxicated by Britain’s rare and remarkable Moths. 2021. By James Lowen. London, Bloomsbury Wildlife. £18.99. 384pp.  ISBN 978-1-4729-6697-1   9 781472 966971

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We have already had a butterfly enthusiast run around Britain in a year to shoot all the butterfly species, in the name of Patrick Barkham in his ‘The Butterfly Isles’; he reviews this book on the cover as ‘Here is colour, wonder, surprise – and fun’.  Now we have James Lowen setting himself the target of chasing rare and remarkable moths around the islands, from Cornwall to the Cairngorms. Not that he is chasing all the moths – an impossible task with about 40 times more moths than butterflies.

Lowen was initially inspired to all things moths by a poplar hawk-moth which he had to hand. Most people are enthralled by the beauty and evolution of animals, and essentially this is what this book is about, it celebrates the enthusiasm that one man has for moths. James is completely moth-centric. He exudes moth enthusiasm the way other people pursue particular wildflowers, fungi, bryophytes or even tardigrades.

James is an all-round naturalist, whose grass roots were in Yorkshire which set his seed for the living world, and he has explored South America and the poles; he writes for various papers and has a number of books to his name.  His conversion to moths has been recent and profound, not least encouraged by the enthusiasm of his daughter, Maya who figures in the book, especially in the eight pages of colour photographs in the middle of book which figure 15 species of moth, but which mostly shows venues, equipment and techniques. Oh for more illustrations for a group with 2,500 species.

There are 20 chapters starting with winter-spring and ending in autumn. Although only four chapter headings give a clue about the subjects (Hawk-Moths, Kentish Glory, Clearwings and Blues – read Clifton Nonpareil), the rest are very discursive and story-like, on how a site visit was formulated, with advice from whom, how they got there, what it was like on arrival, the type of habitat and finally the exaltation of finding the target.

The book is well researched and his sorties to various far flung habitats is usually to link up with regional moth experts to explore last known locales and pabula. Local contacts from wildlife groups and from Butterfly Conservation (which also conserves moths) and RSPB (yes moths too) and national projects such as ‘Back from the Brink’ are often the source of his targets.  He has included classic lep stories and research involving Miriam Rothschild and Bernard Kettlewell and waxes lyrical about the new arrival the horse-chestnut micro. Where would he be without his treacle ropes, actinics and other entomological paraphernalia.

His writing is florid and descriptive to an intense or even excessive level; his descriptions of moths are flowery and romantic, whether it is the Old Lady, Scotch burnet, Netted carpet, Crimson underwings, Merveille du Jour or hawk-moths. In his quest to find moths James clocked up 14,000 miles over 258 days and visited 139 locations across 27 counties of equivalent.  A job well done.  But only touching the surface of moth biodiversity.

The book is ideal for general readership. A good read for moth-ers without the scientific clutter. The book will be of interest to naturalists, entomologists and lepidopterists and as a book on moths it is unique and unrivalled. There is an index, a bibliography and list of acknowledgements which runs to four pages. The cover is exciting and colourful. It’s a good book to hand, especially with the colourful and exciting cover.

From the flyleaf blurb it says…’no animal may be better placed to inspire the environmentalists of the future.’  Good luck with that then!  Moths will still continue to have a bad press (as most are brown, hairy and scary to the general public), even though they are more biodiverse than butterflies and in many cases more colourful than butterflies such as the day-fliers which James covers in his travels.  Let’s hope this book has started a revival in their fortunes.

 

Ladybird Books & App

 Three ladybird books & and a Ladybird App. – all coloured red! Two of the books are by different Helens.

 Ladybirds’ by Michael E. N. Majerus. Collins, 1994. ISBN 0-00-219935-1 (originally £14.99 in pb) 367pp.

 Ladybirds’ by Helen E. Roy, Peter M.J. Brown, Richard  F. Comont, Remy L. Poland and John J. Sloggett. 2012. Naturalist’s Handbook 10. Ladybirds. Revised from Majerus and Kearns 1989. ISBN 987-1-907807-0707. 9 781907 807077. Reprinted by Pelagic Publishing. £22.98 142pp

 A Field Guide to Harlequins and other Common Ladybirds of Britain and Ireland.’ By Helen Boyce. 2021. Published by Pelagic Publishing. A Pelagic Identification Guide.  ISBN. 978-1-78427-244-9   9 781784 272449. 106pp.

 

‘European Ladybirds App’ v.   2021. v1.1.1(1) The app was hand crafted by Karolis Kazlauskis, and authored by a team of 14 scientists from UK, ITA, CZ, SK, BE and PT with financial support from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) and Anglia Ruskin University (Faculty of Science & Engineering). Two of the authors, Roy and Brown are co-authors of one of the books above. It is free, simple and quick to download and is conceptionally easy to use. Thirty nine species and forms of ladybird are illustrated with common and latin names. A digest on each species describes size, legs, colours, spots, plants on which it is likely to be found and and food, and habitats. After an initial registration with name and address the app knows where you are an applies a 6-figure OS map reference, and all that is required is to note which species found, in what sort of habitat (a choice is given) hit send record, adding a photo if you wish. This is a user-friendly app which you can carry on your android for field identification and reporting records.

There are other ways to record ladybirds, for instance in the long running UK Ladybird Survey via www.coleoptera.org.uk/coccinellidae) or via the iRecord app.  

 The classic and highly collectable book on Ladybirds by the late Michael E.N. Majerus stated in 1994 that there were 42 species in Britain. It remains the best original book on ladybirds. The figure is now updated by Helen Boyce’s book who states that there are now 47 species of ladybird in Britain and Ireland, but only 26 of them, now including the Harlequin are conspicuous – thus setting the scene for her book.

 The Helen Boyce book is a short but succinct book of colour photographs and explanations in double-space text for identification; the Helen Roy et al book is much longer and more of a digest and thorough scientific treatment of ladybirds with chapters on ladybirds in the environment, their enemies, variation, population and evolutional biology and identification with keys to adult British ladybirds, all adult British Coccinellidae and larvae of British ladybirds. The field and lab techniques are particularly useful. The Helen Roy book is a fair substitute, and up to date too, for the Majerus book which might be difficult to find cheaply. It is all that beginners would need to get started on ladybird identification, a good concise book.

 If you have difficulty identifying a Harlequins from other Coccinellids there is a 32 pages of subtle chararacteristics in the Harlequin book, such as i) only Harlequins have two ‘shoulder spots’, ii) they never have ‘Angel Wings’, iii) they are 5-8mm long, iv) ‘the only black ladybird that has full, round white ‘cheeks’ is the harlequin v) harlequins do not have white spots on their wing cases vi) they have ‘pinched’ dimples on the rear of the abdomens and viii) they have a lip on the elytra.  There is also a photographic guide on how to distinquish harlequin larvae from other ladybirds, and the most interesting one are the branched spines known as scoli. There are references and index in both of the more recent books.

 All readers have a an affinity with ladybirds, and after befriending an individual the question is often which species is it. Both books will help at this stage, though in the field the app is invaluable and the best choice, even though both books will fit into a jacket pocket.  The classification of ladybirds according to the number of spots is deceivingly simple, but as with many things in nature the more you look the more alternatives come forward.

 All these books are useful.  In a world before Harlequins (introduced into the UK in 2003 and spread to many areas at 100km a year) and in a world that Dr Majerus did not know about, the widespread occurrence of Harlequins introduced another level of variation amongst ladybirds, If you thought that the range of variation amongst ladybirds was great, then Harlequins are at another level. Thus the need for a book on Harlequins and how to distinguish them. This aim has been discharged well.

 Do the books have an answer to this intriguing colour variation?  Helen Roy et al say that factors producing these variations are unknown in many species’. There is much discussion about genetic effects, but the environment has something to do with it too. It is ‘expected that ladybirds will be negatively affected by climate change’ and it was interesting to learn about the dark melanic forms of ladybirds, especially that ‘darker forms are associated with cooler humid climates’.  

 2-spot and 10-spot and the Harlequin are the most variable of ladybirds, and some reliance is had in the Helen Roy book of the old classification of the German entomologist who listed 119 colour forms in his research in 1926-37. By 1945 more than 200 colour forms of the Harlequin ladybird had been listed for Europe with only three in the Britain.

 The colour red has been evolved especially for aposematic purposes by these ladybirds, and also in combination with black and white, and yellow. It is as if ladybirds have cornered the red market for defence in a lively world of predators, but it is not the case. Many other insects use red for great effect.

 

 

 

 

 

Pollinators & Pollination 2021

Pollinators & Pollination. Nature and Society. By Jeff Ollerton. Published by Pelagic Publishing. ISBN 978-1-78427-228-9.  2021. 286pp. £24.25

As the blurb states Prof Jeff Ollerton is ‘one of the world’s leading pollination ecologists’ who works at the University of Northampton. Most of his 30-year’s research is poured into this major work and it has plenty of graphs as an evidence base for his ideas and theories. He states that he has pitched the book ‘at a very broad audience, and is intended to be comprehensible to anyone with an interest in science and the environment.’ He has succeeded admirably in this aim, and it covers an area not explored by other bee experts whose work is discussed. This is the first time I have seen a blanket acknowledgement for all his academic contacts rather than mentioning bee experts by name. This is not just about bees and pollination – though it may seem that way as Apis mellifera is a major pollinator – it is about all pollinators, birds, reptiles, mammals and invertebrates. There are an estimated 350,000 terrestrial vertebrates and invertebrate species that move pollen, for the estimated 352,000 species of flowering plant: so flowering plants are well catered for and co-evolution is patently evident.  Invertebrates are the commonest pollinators: the estimated number of species, from the largest to the smallest as listed, are Lepidoptera (141,500 species), through Coleoptera (77,300), Hymenoptera (70,000), Diptera (55,000) and Thysanoptera (1,500 species).The book has 14 chapters ranging from ‘To be a flower’ to ‘Agricultural Perspectives’ to ‘New Bees on the Block’ – mostly about the Tree Bumblebee and The Ivy Bee, and the 17 species of bee, wasp and true-flies that have turned up in Britain since 2000. A lot of the collation has been by BWARS.  He even has a chapter on ‘The politics of pollination.’ There is a section on neonics in which Ollerton reminds us they are chemically similar to naturally occuring nicotine, which used to be used a long time ago. He debates all sides of the issue, but unfortunately just missed the latest UK authorisation of neonics prior to publication. In reviewing the literature he shows that some recent research ‘strongly implicated as a likely driver of those declines.’  It is good to see that Buglife-The Invertebrate Conservation Trust is mentioned, as well as the National Pollinator Strategy. As the author states ‘I have tried to provide a personal, state-of-the-art overview of what pollinators are, where they are to be found, how they contribute to the pollination of both wild and agricultural plants, supporting the wild ecosystems…’ etc.  There are just a few colour photographs dotted about the book, but it really offers extended essays on topics rather than pretty photos that can be found in a host of other bee books.   The References run to 32pp and there is an index.

Oates’s Purple Emperor

Matthew Oates. 2020. His Imperial Majesty, a natural history of The Purple Emperor. London, Bloomsbury Wildlife. 416pp £20.00 HB

The author, retired from The National Trust, is the UK’s expert on the Purple Emperor, and this book reflects his particular obsession with ‘His Majesty’. The title is borrowed from the Victorian era. The sub-heading accounts for the minutiae of the species whose preferences have led Oates a merry dance amongst the woodland, scrub and farmland throughout the UK, notebook in hand over the last few decades. Oates says that the book could not be written without his involvement with the wilding project at Knepp (West Sussex), and Isabelle Tree, the co-owner of Knepp, has written a lively Introduction. Of Knepp he says it has become the foremost Purple Emperor site in Europe, and later says that a private estate in East Sussex is the best breeding ground he has ever seen. Oates has had to change his views on the habitat preference of the Purple Emperor, away from its perception as a forest species, even though he variously says in the book that it is an arboreal species and a canopy-loving species.  He argues that the species is now widespread and not rare any more, and he champions the species as the National Butterfly. What about the Swallowtail, or Large Blue? Oates is quick to say that various lepidopterists are wrong or have differing opinions: Heslop, Frohawk and Pratt. Of Heslop he says it is a pity he did not publish his notes, and Oates goes on to rely heavily on Heslop’s work. As the author points out, the book is clearly written in an anthropomorphic manner with a few concessions to science, principally the reproduction of distribution maps. His penultimate chapter is on Conservation Issues, but you have to work hard to find any bullet points on how to conserve the insect, mostly focusing on sallow management. He says that he is not convinced that the species actually ‘needs some thinking and practices of contemporary nature conservation.’ That said Oates argues for a rigorous peer-reviewed scientific work on the ecology of the Purple Emperor and gives useful tips for future research topics. This book, that embodies his almost complete dedication to the species, will not do, even though the 17 chapters are packed with day to day factual ecological information from his exhaustive and laudable time in the field over the last few decades. The book is a little repetitive and could have been more tightly edited, and there are bits about Christine Keeler, and Pygmy Hippos that could have been edited out. Many lepidopterists are mentioned, but some like the Rothschilds (Charles and Miriam) are not. Miriam was also a lover of butterflies. There is a short glossary, references and further reading, but the best, previously unpublished section is the Appendix which runs for 50 pages and describes county by county, wood by wood, the varying and increasing range of the species that has not been collectively drawn together elsewhere. Excellent. The book is an interesting read and will appeal to all the followers of Purple Emperors, of which there is a fan club.

Wasp by Richard Jones

Wasp. Reakton Books Ltd. 2019. 207pp

Almost 100 titles in the ‘Animal Series’ have been published by Reaktion Books, and they all good reads, and collectible. The author is a leading UK entomologist and has already written the ‘Mosquito’ book. The books follow a familiar format showing how the species has been illustrated and written about from the earliest times, in this case since the Egyptians, 5000 years ago. The black and yellow wasp ‘brand’ is explored, and even the book cover is black and yellow. The book has interesting chapters on ‘warning colours’, ‘paper architecture’, ‘tabloid mayhem’ and ‘what is the point of wasps’; on the latter it is pointed out that they are part of biodiversity and are useful predators of other insects. The book covers wasps worldwide (the 4000 species of vespid hymenopterans) and in relation to the recent arrival of Asian Hornet into the UK, this is up to date to 2019. For those who like wasps, this book is an excellent exposé of their capabilities, their form and function, and their niche in the world. The wider context of wasps in the world is rather more interesting than the entomological detail.  In the next edition the small tortoiseshell on p. 51 should be corrected to the large tortoiseshell.

Bees of the B.Isles – review

Handbook of The Bees of The British Isles by George R. Else and Mike Edwards. Published by The Ray Society, 2018. Two Volumes. Vol.1: 332pp Vol.2:776pp. £137.50

 

This has to be the bee book of the century. It will not be surpassed for decades. It is written by two experts who have put several decades of dedicated work on these hymenoptera into the book. George Else, who I originally met in the virgin rainforests of Sulawesi in 1985 on Project Wallace, worked at The Natural History Museum in London as curator of bees and certain aculeate wasps, until he retired in 2007. Mike Edwards was originally at Leeds University and helped to set up BWARS (Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society), latterly running his own ecological consultancy. The germ of this book was realised by George Else who has a great debt of gratitude for Mike Edwards becoming co-author of these mighty tomes. Many entomologists and hymenopterists are acknowledged for inputting their information, data, diagrams and photographs, and on the latter Paul Brock is mentioned as the ‘all round entomologist…and outstanding insect photographer’ who has supplied many of the photographs. And they are excellent.  The aim of the book was to photograph all bee species in the UK in the wild, which was achieved, save for the two only known from museum specimens: Halictus subauratus and Bombus pomorium. On their count there are 277 species of bee species have been recorded from the British Isles. Of those 171 are known from the Channel Islands, including 11 species that are unknown in the mainland of Britain.   George’s original idea was not to include any photographs which would have been a bad idea. All the photographs are included on a handy CD.  Volume 1 includes information on recognition of bees, how to photograph them, where to find them and identification of pollen loads. After the comprehensive keys to bee genera the book launches into the systematic review of all species, with maps, that flows over into Volume 2. The photographs throughout are excellent for identification purposes but it is not likely that the amateur entomologist or naturalist will ever pay the £137.50 for these wonderful books.  Only serious bee enthusiasts will.

Mulberry by S.J.Bowe, Review

S.J. Bowe 2015. Mulberry, the material culture of mulberry trees. Liverpool University Press. 124pp.

Mulberry Book

If ever there was an introduced tree that has such a fascinating historical record in the grand gardens of Britain it is the mulberry. The book looks at both the white and black mulberry species and how they are wound up in the silk industry and associated with people such as James 1 and Shakespeare as well as Morris, More and Milton. The unique part of the book is its approach to the use of mulberry in the Japanese sashimono furniture tradition, highly regarded and often used in the tea ceremony. It is beautifully illustrated in colour showing many artefacts such as whisk shapers, tea containers all made from mulberry. This is a serious, almost academic book though accessible for general readership – the author is Senior Lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University – magnificently published and ideal for dendrologists, especially those keen on the historical perspective of the Morus genus, as well as antique dealers and enthusiasts of Japanese art. Each of the five chapters has exhaustive references and there is a good bibliography and useful list of 100 UK gardens where mulberries continue the tradition. 

Bumblebees of Kent, Review

Nikki Gammans and Geoff Allen, 2014. The Bumblebees of Kent. Kent Field Club. 164pp.

BB of Kent 2013

Kent has more bumblebee species than anywhere else in the UK, and it has Dungeness as an almost unique habitat that supports many. Drawing all the information together has been Nikki Gammans and Geoff Allen who have produced a key work on all the species, past, present, cuckoos and invaders. Each species has information on identification, distribution maps, autecology, and habitats together with colour photographs showing features. The book is strong on ecology, mimicry, classification and conservation with copious information on field work, and has references and glossary. It is for all field naturalists and published by The Kent Field Club from whose excellent stable other key works have been produced – a lesson for neighbouring Sussex. Dr Gammans leads the Recovery Programme for the Short-tailed Bumblebee – where national work on bumblebees is progressing well in Dungeness. Look out for all her work on bumblebee recovery.