An interview with Erica McAlister

Entomologist Erica McAlister is the senior curator for Diptera at the Natural History Museum, London. In 2017, she authored the very successful book The Secret Life of Flies which looked at their diverse lifestyles. Now she returns with The Inside out of Flies, which is a great popular science book marvelling at their anatomy.

We took the opportunity to ask her some questions about why flies matter to us all.

First off, tell us a little bit about how you got started. Why study flies? Having read your book now, I agree that they are fascinating and beautiful, but presumably, you did not know this when you started?

I have always been interested in nature, but I was more fascinated by the smaller creatures – the ones everyone else seemed to ignore. Insects were an obvious choice and I combined my love for them with my love of ecology from the beginning. Although I had worked with ants and beetles, it was the flies that properly tickled my fancy as they were the most diverse in life cycles and ecological function, and so the most interesting. They got everywhere, they did everything and they were wonderful to observe. I have a liking for all things natural – from decomposing dung heaps to parasitic lifestyles – both of which involve the fabulous flies.

You are quite involved in public outreach, speaking on radio programmes and giving public talks. Most people regard flies with a certain amount of disgust. Do you find it is easy to change people’s perceptions? 

Generally, yes. Most people just think about one or two examples of the thousands of species of flies such as the nuisance fliers or the transmitters of disease. So when I  tell them about the hoverflies, the bee flies, the chocolate pollinators, the forensic detectives, the scuba divers and so on, that opens up a whole new world to most people, and when I go on to talk about their gardens being alive with these beneficial creatures, you can see a change in many folks. Flies are animals and are essential for many ecosystems – it is odd that many naturalists seem to want to forget this!

The Inside Out of Flies spread 1After two decades of researching them, has your own attitude towards them changed?

Nope. In fact, I feel that I have got worse in my obsession with them as I realise that I have so much to learn and not enough time. Initially I was fascinated by their ecology, then their looks, then their behaviour, but there is also their genetics, their mechanics and many more other areas that we need to explore and understand. The more I have read and studied the more I realise that we have still so much to learn.

Your 2017 book The Secret Life of Flies was very well received. The design of your new book The Inside Out of Flies suggests it is a companion to the first book. Why write a second book?

Because there is so much more to write about them. We have thousands of books about mammals and there are just over 6100 of them. There are more flies in the UK than that and living in more extreme environments – the flies have adapted to all sorts of weird and wonderful habitats with a whole range of morphological changes to help them not just cope but thrive. The first book focused on their feeding ecology, this one is about their morphology, but there is still much, much more that I have left out from both of these subjects (I get emails all the time telling me so!)

The Inside Out of Flies spread 2You mention many people seem to think adult flies lack brains, this misconception being fuelled by watching them fly into windows again and again. This may seem like a very mundane question but why, indeed, do they do this?

This is a common question – but the answer is not really known. Firstly, the glass could be disorientating the flies as it blocks out UV-B which are used by the flies to help them navigate. The actual glass may be perceived as something different to them – they would realise that it was some form of wall due to the change in air currents, but we don’t know as yet what and presumably it could be multiple factors. There are many footprints of previous insects that have crawled across that pane and maybe there are hints about food sources (flies taste with their feet) that further distracts them. There is still so much about these creatures that we don’t know.

As you go through each body segment of a fly’s body in this book, you show that there is astounding variation in traits, and you back this up with some fantastic photography. One striking example was of a soldier fly species, Platyna hastata, whose abdomen is almost as wide as it is long, you affectionately call them fat-bottomed flies. Is this another example of sexual selection run rampant?

In flies – there are so many examples of extreme sexual selection and I discuss this throughout the book – from eyestalks to flags on their abdomen to hidden internal modifications. One of my favourites is the fly Drosophila bifurcata that has sperm that is 5.8 cm long and the actual adult male is but a few millimetres!

The Inside Out of Flies spread 3You explain how insect taxonomists use morphological details such as the position and numbers of hairs on their body to define species. I have not been involved in this sort of work myself, but I have always wondered, how stable are such characters? And on how many samples do you base your decisions before you decide they are robust and useful traits? Is there a risk of over-inflating species count because of variation in traits?

Ahhh there is the dilemma that many a taxonomist has faced – is it a true species??? The NHM collection has many thousands of species but often the specimen that the species was described from is the only specimen that anyone has of that species! Only time will tell if it is a true species. However, many of these characters are very stable with many of the bristle arrangements having been around for thousands of years. There is a risk of over-inflating species but then again there is a risk of under-inflating – and taxonomists fall into two groups – the splitters or the lumpers depending upon what they feel are important characters. What we do know for certain is that the sexually derived characters – the genital structures change at a faster rate and so this is why we appear to be obsessed with such things!

There are some fantastic examples in this book of the applied aspects coming out of dipterology as a field of study, with forensic entomology and miniature robotics being good examples. What are some of the most exciting applied developments that you think will make a splash in the near future?

Oh, what a question! I feel that we are on the cusp of many exciting developments – especially in aeronautics and medicine. Personally, I am loving the development of smart needles – the idea of bending these around sensitive structures is incredible and so very useful. But as technology develops so does our ability to look at these creatures and try to mimic their millennia-old adaptations.

The Inside Out of Flies spread 4
I imagine some aspects of entomology rely on decades- and centuries-old methods from when the field got started. Simultaneously, like most academic disciplines, the field has benefited from technological advances. How have new technologies changed how you work and the sorts of questions you ask? 

Yes, absolutely. I can ask so much more from the specimens in the collection at the Natural History Museum now, even though the flies may have been dead for hundreds of years. I can image them inside and out and in doing so I can see what pollen is in their guts or around their mouthparts; I can analyse their DNA and see how the populations developed or when insecticide resistance developed; and I can transfer all of this information around the world in seconds – no longer is research hindered by physical distance or financial constraints as much as it once was. And on a general level, I and many others have the resources of millions of people making observations and taking photos which massively adds to our knowledge. New technologies have made scientists out of all of us.

One of the more remarkable and little-appreciated things you draw attention to is that flies are an important group of pollinators worldwide. There has been much public concern regarding bees, pollination, and the future of our crops. Do we have reason to be concerned about the ecological function provided by pollinating flies?

We need to care about flies as much as all of the other insects that are more commonly talked about. Not only are the adults amazing pollinators but the larvae of many of these species are also carrying out key ecological roles such as predation or decomposition. And often it is only the flies that are the pollinators, especially in the more extreme habitats or crops. If you don’t look after the flies, you will find the world bereft of many food products that everyone loves such as chocolate.

Lastly, has the pandemic influenced your work and that of those around you? 

I would say yes. Hopefully, more people have realised how important the natural world is. I have spent the last couple of moths answering questions and identifying flies that folks would not have spent time observing before, and I have seen appreciation grow in all things fly. I think we have realised that we need to work more in balance with our environment and so the work that I, and millions of other entomologists undertake, is now seen with a new appreciation – we are not just going around looking at pretty flies, but are trying to help understand our climate and the impact the changes are having on it, our food security, and the impact of disease and vectors to name but a few examples.

The Inside Out of FliesThe Inside Out of Flies
By: Erica McAlister
Hardback | September 2020| £12.99 £14.99

 

 

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.

Improve your UK field skills with online ID resources

Image by Oli Haines

During this year’s lockdown and social isolation, many of us have been appreciating how important nature is to our happiness and wellbeing. It has also given us an opportunity to connect with local wildlife and develop or brush up on our identification skills.

While a good field guide is invaluable for this, there are also a huge number of really useful online resources available to help with identifying wild plants and animals. In this article we have listed a few of our favourites, covering plants, butterflies and moths, amphibians, birds, mammals and invertebrates.

We have also included links to ongoing citizen science projects for each; if you’re regularly taking note of the species you find then why not contribute this information to an organisation that can use the data to monitor biodiversity and inform conservation decisions.

At the end of the article you will find a couple of apps that can be used to record, identify and share your general wildlife findings.

Image by Andrew Coombes via Flickr

PLANTS

Identification

Plantlife’s Plant and Fungi Species – Allows you to select the time of year, flower colour and habitat to narrow down your search.

Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) Flora Search – A more in-depth key that allows you to select information relating to the plant’s location, habitat and structure in order to identify your specimen.

Makaques UK/Irish Flora Key – A new interactive key to the flora of the British Isles, this in-depth database includes information on 3221 native and introduced species.

Citizen Science Projects

BSBI New Year Plant Hunt – Start the year with a plant hunt, and help the BSBI to study how our wild and naturalised plants are responding to changes in autumn and winter weather patterns.

National Plant Monitoring Scheme – This habitat-based plant monitoring scheme provides robust and much-needed data on changes in our wild plants and their habitats.

Plantlife Wild Flower Hunt – Record the wildflowers you see while in the town, woodland or countryside and help Plantlife to map wildflowers throughout the country.

Image by peterichman via Flickr

BUTTERFLIES AND MOTHS

Identification

Butterfly Conservation’s Identify a Butterfly – Search the database using criteria such as location, size, colour and markings or search using an A-Z list of species names.

UK Butterflies Identification – Includes an extensive database of butterfly photographs, including those of immature life stages.

Butterfly Conservation’s Identify a Moth – Search the database using criteria such as location, size, colour and markings or search using an A-Z list of species names.

UKMoths – A comprehensive database of 2261 moth species found in the British Isles.

Citizen Science Projects

Butterfly Conservation Recording and Monitoring – This Butterfly Conservation page contains details of all of their current volunteer monitoring projects.

National Moth Recording Scheme – Covering over 900 species of macro-moth, this scheme hopes to benefit nature conservation, public understanding and ecological research.

Image by Erik Paterson via Flickr

AMPHIBIANS

Identification

ARG UK Identification Guides – Download a helpful range of ID guides covering amphibians and reptiles, including guides to eggs and larvae.

Citizen Science Projects

National Amphibian and Reptile Recording Scheme – Includes a range of different surveys suitable for volunteers.

Amphibian and Reptile Record Pool – The Record Pool allows users to submit UK herpetofauna sightings and makes the data available, locally and nationally, for conservation purposes.

Image by ianpreston via Flickr

BIRDS

Identification

RSPB Identify a Bird – This bird identifier lists 406 species of UK bird and allows you to search the database using a combination of physical and behavioural characteristics.

BTO Bird Identification Videos – This series of videos will help you with identifying some of the trickier species.

Xeno-canto – A comprehensive database of bird sounds from all over the world.

Chirp! Bird Songs UK & Europe – This app will help you to identify and learn bird songs. (Available for iPad and iPhone only).

Citizen Science Projects

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch – Take part in the world’s largest wildlife survey and help the RSPB to find out how our garden birds are doing. Takes place annually in January.

BTO Volunteer Surveys – On this webpage you will find a list of current BTO surveys, schemes and projects, available to suit a wide range of skills and expertise.

Image by John Campbell via Flickr

MAMMALS (including bats and cetaceans)

Identification

Mammal Society Species Hub – Find out more about the UK’s 90 species of mammal, including bats and cetaceans.

Bat Conservation Trust UK Bat Information – Learn about the 18 species of bat found in the UK and download species information sheets for each.

Citizen Science Projects

Mammal Society Record Submissions – Report your mammal sightings on this page or using the Mammal Mapper app.

PTES Living with Mammals Survey – Record your sightings of mammals and help to protect their future.

PTES Water Vole Monitoring Programme – Survey a regular site or report a one-off sighting of a water vole and help protect the UK’s fastest declining mammal.

PTES Mammals on Roads Survey – Submit sightings of any mammals (dead or alive) that you see on the roads.

Image by fen-tastic via Flickr

INVERTEBRATES / BUGS

Identification

Buglife’s Identify a Bug – Handy questionnaire to help you identify and find out more about your invertebrate specimen.

Freshwater Habitats Trust Freshwater Creatures – Learn more about our freshwater creatures (also includes information about aquatic mammals, amphibians, fish and birds).

Citizen Science Projects

Buglife Surveys – Get involved in one of Buglife’s projects, including surveying for wood ant nests and oil beetles and recording invasive species found in pot plants.

UK Glow Worm Survey – Submit your glow worm sightings using this online form.

PTES Great Stag Hunt – Help guide future conservation action for stag beetles by recording your sightings.

Riverfly Partnership Projects – Find out more about all of the Riverfly Partnership’s ongoing monitoring projects. Options are available for a range of skill and experience levels.

Apps

iSpot – Created in collaboration with the Open University and the OpenScience Laboratory, iSpot is a community-based app that allows you to record and share your wildlife sightings and get feedback from other users regarding any identification queries that you might have.

iRecord – This app enables you to get involved with biological recording by contributing your species sightings along with GPS acquired coordinates, descriptions and other information. Data is then made available to National Recording Schemes, Local Record Centres and Vice County Recorders (VCRs) to help with nature conservation, planning, research and education.

The Big Butterfly Count: NHBS Staff Photos

Common Blue – by H Drew

We’re currently midway through the Big Butterfly Count which is taking place between Friday 17th July and Sunday 9th August. It’s the world’s biggest survey of butterflies and it’s aimed at assessing the health of our environment by simply counting a selection of our most common butterflies (along with a couple of day-flying moths). To take part, all you need to do is spend 15 minutes counting butterflies on a sunny day. You can count from anywhere you like; in the garden or park, in the woods or fields or wherever you find yourself outdoors.  You can submit your results online on the Big Butterfly Count website. For a list of handy butterfly ID guides as well as some tips on how to distinguish certain species, take a look at our previous blog post here

 To encourage more people to get involved we thought we’d share some of our own butterfly photos, all taken in our gardens or on local walks. Scroll down to see what we found.

We’d also love to see what you’ve spotted – so why not let us know in the comments below.

Results

Oli discovered a few different species in his local park

Large White: 3

Ringlet: 3

Meadow Brown: 3

Gatekeeper: 2

Silver Washed Fritillary – by O Haines
Meadow Brown – by O Haines
Green Veined White – by O Haines

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harry shared some wonderful photos of two Common Blue butterflies

Common Blue – by H Drew
Common Blue – by H Drew

Natalie came across 6 Gatekeepers on her walk

Gatekeeper – by N Mawson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gemma shared photos of a Small Tortoise Shell and a Comma

Comma – G Haggar
Small Tortoise Shell – by G Haggar

Tabea managed to catch a photo of a Peacock resting on the side of the road

Peacock: 1

Large Whites: 3

Peacock – by T A Troya

Nigel discovered a few different butterflies with the help of his three children

Gatekeepers: 2

Large White: 1

Meadow Brown: 1

Small Skipper: 1

Photo – by N Jones
Small Skipper – by N Jones
Gatekeeper – by N Jones

 

 

 

 

 

Mariam found mostly Cabbage White’s in her garden

Cabbage White: 5

Tortoise Shell: 1

Cabbage White – by M Salah

Butterfly Conservation

For more information on UK butterflies and how you can help them, please visit Butterfly Conservation.org. Here you will find a wealth of information to help you find and identify butterflies and moths.

The NHBS Guide to UK Bumblebee Identification

Bumblebee by James Johnstone via Flickr

Bumblebees are familiar, much-loved animals in Britain. Together with ants and wasps, these winged insects are in the order Hymenoptera. The Latin name Bombus, meaning to buzz or boom, is wholly appropriate for bumblebees, who are frequently heard before they are seen.

Keeping an eye on brambles and purple flowering plants – both of which are particularly popular with bees – can be very productive when out on an insect hunt or daily stroll. At first glance, bumblebees may all look very similar, but take a closer look and a range of colours and stripe patterns can be spotted.

There are 24 species of bumblebee found in Britain. Seven of these are particularly widespread so are aptly named the ‘Big 7’ by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.  Due to this prevalence, these seven species are a great place to start when learning to identify bees.

The colouration of the different species is the easiest way to identify bumblebees; particularly the colour of the tail and the number and colour of stripes. In our guide we have sorted the seven species by tail colour (or overall colour for the common carder) so that easily confused species can be directly compared.

Bumblebees with white or buff tails
White-tailed bumblebee by OldManDancing via Flickr

White-tailed bumblebee – Bombus lucorum

Tail: As expected from the name, this bumblebee has a pure white tail.

Banding: Two bands of bright yellow, often described as lemon-yellow.

Other: Males of this species can be identified by the presence of additional yellow hairs on their faces.

Buff-tailed bumblebee by Jonas Myrenås via Flickr

Buff-tailed bumblebee – Bombus terrestris

Tail: Named for the orangey beige, or “buff” tail of their queen. Males and workers of this species have white tails and so are very challenging to distinguish from the white-tailed bumblebee. In some males, a thin band of yellow/buff can be seen at the top of the tail, which is absent in the white-tailed species.

Banding: Has two bands of yellow, similar to the white-tailed species. The bands on a buff-tailed bumblebee are often more of an orange-yellow than seen on the white-tailed bumblebee – although these can fade later in the season.

Garden bumblebee by gailhampshire via Flickr

Garden bumblebee – Bombus hortorum

Tail: Bright white tail that tends to go further up the body than the lucorum species.

Banding: Has three stripes of yellow unlike the other species with white tails. Although, this can sometimes appear as one band around the “collar” and another wider one around the “waist”/midriff.

Other: The garden bumblebee has an incredibly long tongue, the longest of any of our species in the UK. At up to 2cm, its tongue is the same length as its entire body. This impressive adaptation allows these bees to reach the nectar in deep flowers such as foxgloves.

Tree bumblebee by Orangeaurochs via Flickr

Tree bumblebee – Bombus hypnorum

Tail: White.

Banding: The tree bumblebee has an entirely ginger-brown thorax, with a black abdomen. This colouration makes it the most distinct of the pale tailed bumblebee species.

Other: Unlike the other six species, these bees like to nest in trees and are commonly found in bird nest boxes. The tree bumblebee is a fairly new addition to the UK, with the first individuals recorded in 2001.

Bumblebees with red tails
Male (left) and female (right) Red-tailed bumblebees by Donald Hobern and S. Rae via Flickr

Red-tailed bumblebee – Bombus lapidarius

Tail: Very bright red or dark orange tail that is difficult to miss.

Banding: Unique in that the females have no banding, they are just jet black other than the tail. The smaller males, however, have two slim yellow bands and yellow facial hairs.

Early bumblebee by Gertjan van Noord via Flickr

Early bumblebee – Bombus pratorum

Tail: Has an orange-red tail. However it is generally smaller and less bright than in the lapidarius species.

Banding: The early bumblebee has two yellow stripes on males and females.

Other: Smaller and fluffier in appearance than the lapidarius species.

Bumblebees with ginger bodies
Common carder bee by stanze via Flickr

Common carder bee – Bombus pascuorum

The common carder is similar in colour to the tree bumblebee – orangey brown. However, with this species the colour continues across its entire body and tail. Some individuals have darker bands across their abdomens, especially later in the season as the orange begins to fade

Other: There are two other species of carder bee in the UK that are orange all over, however, the common carder is the most often seen across Britain.

Find out more

If this guide has piqued your curiosity in bumblebees we recommend the following products so that you too can get outside, identifying species and learning more about these important pollinators…

FSC Guide to Bees of Britain
#171559

This lightweight fold-out guide shows a variety of bee species, including the ones mentioned above and will provide a useful reminder of their identification features when out in the field. Also includes additional information such as UK distribution.

 

Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland
#245313

The ultimate guide – this book provides a comprehensive introduction to the ecology of bees and details of all 275 species found in Great Britain and Ireland.

 

 

Bumblebees: An Introduction
#241722

This Bumblebee Conservation Trust book fills that gap by introducing these charismatic species to a wider audience. Written by Trust staff, it covers bumblebee biology and also has an essential identification guide to all UK bumblebee species, packed with over 250 colour photographs

 

A Sting in the Tale
#211475

Dave Goulson’s The Sunday Times bestseller has inspired thousands of readers to share his excitement for bees and develop a passion to protect and conserve them.

 

 

Opticron Hand Lens
#210081

A hand lens is an essential part of your naturalist kit. We offer many different magnifications and options to suit all budgets.

Hand-Held Magnifier
#202230

The size of this magnifier and its non-slip plastic handle makes it particularly suitable for use by families and children.

NHBS In the Field – NHBS Moth Trap

The NHBS Moth Trap

This moth trap is the first to be designed by and built at NHBS. It is built on the Skinner trap principle of a bulb suspended above a box, with sloping flaps descending from two sides to funnel moths into the body of the trap. The trap is very lightweight and portable and has been tested and approved by Butterfly Conservation. One unique feature of this trap is that it is clad entirely in white nylon material which amplifies the light level emitted from the single 20W blacklight bulb included in the kit. The trap electrics are supported by a stainless steel frame that is attached to the container walls, and the trap comes with a 4.5m power lead with a standard UK plug. When fully assembled the trap measures approximately 30cm wide x 30cm deep x 50cm tall and weighs around 2kg; much lighter than the typical solid plastic assemblies of other Skinner traps.

The moth trap was tucked away in a sheltered corner of a town centre garden.
How we tested

I placed the trap in my small town centre garden for two nights in early July, checking first for favourable conditions (namely little to no chance of rain). Cloud cover can be good for moth catching, especially around a full moon. Moth species vary widely in their activity, some arriving at traps during dusk (such as crepuscular or day flyers) and some arriving well into the night. As such I put the trap out at around 9:30pm on both occasions while the day was fading and when the wind was low. I also made sure I wasn’t running the trap on two consecutive nights as I don’t have space to disperse trapped moths widely in the morning and I didn’t want to trap the same individuals two nights in a row. The trap was left on through the night in the corner of my garden, tucked out of view of my immediate neighbours, where it would also utilise the white walls of my house to maximise the light and landing space.

This Buff Ermine and Nut Tree Tussock were two of the moths trapped.
What we found

On both nights I found lots of moths inside the trap, as well as some specimens resting on the outside walls due to the white nylon coating; they remained there quite peacefully to ID. I also found that it was worth looking around the trap in the morning, as many species are attracted by the light and will land on nearby walls and foliage. The catch and retention rate seemed good for the conditions and I found this trap simple to run and fun to explore in the morning! The species found are listed below.

Species recorded

Nut-tree Tussock (Colocasia coryli)
Riband Wave (Idaea aversata)
Heart and Dart (Agrotis exclamationis)
Scorched Carpet (Ligdia adustata)
Marbled Minor (Oligia strigilis)
Buff Ermine (Spilosoma lutea)
Triple-spotted Clay (Xestia ditrapezium)
Grass Veneer (Chrysoteuchia culmella)
Common Plume (Emmelina monodactyla)
Uncertain (actual name – not me being unsure! – Hoplodrina octogenaria)
Bee Moth (Aphomia sociella)
Mottled Rustic (Caradrina morpheus)
Dwarf Cream Wave (Idaea fuscovenosa)
Eudonia lacustrata
Scoparia Sp.
Caddis fly Sp.
Summer Chafer Beetle (Amphimallon solstitiale)

Our opinion
Grass Veneer

The NHBS moth trap is both lightweight and sturdy and is a breeze to set up. Simply attach the base to the walls of the trap using the Velcro strips, ensuring all of the velcro fixings are on the outside of the trap. Put some empty egg boxes inside the trap to give visiting moths some good nooks to safely rest in once inside (though some will just hang on the walls). Then slot the metal frames onto the lid of the box and rest the funnel slopes on them. The electrics slot into corresponding holes on either side of the metal frame. When disassembling the trap, always check around the framework for any hidden moths.

This is a great trap: competitively priced, bright, compact and neat and comes with a handy carry bag. It’s a perfect starting place if you’re just embarking on moth trapping for the first time and also great if you are travelling or plan to try trapping in a few places, as it really does pack down nicely.


The NHBS Moth Trap is available through the NHBS website.

To view our full range of moth traps, visit www.nhbs.com. If you have any questions on moth trapping or would like some advice on the trap for you then please contact us via email at customer.services@nhbs.com or phone on 01803 865913.

Take part in the Big Butterfly Count 2020

The Big Butterfly Count is an annual citizen science survey organised by Butterfly Conservation. This project, which is the world’s biggest survey of butterflies, aims to assess the health of our environment by counting a selection of our most common butterflies (along with a couple of day-flying moths).

Butterflies respond very quickly to changes in the environment and, as such, are useful biodiversity indicators. They can also provide an early warning system for environmental factors that may go on to impact other wildlife. Since the 1970s, numbers of butterflies and moths in the UK have decreased significantly. Monitoring this decline and any future change is an important step in studying the effect of the climate crisis on our wildlife.

The Big Butterfly Count 2020 will run from Friday 17 July to Sunday 9 August.

2019 Results

During the 2019 survey, more than 100,000 counts took place. On average, people saw 16 butterflies during the 15 minutes; this was higher than the 2018 average of 11 and the second highest number recorded since the survey began.

2019 was also notable in that it was a ‘Painted Lady year’. Painted Lady butterflies migrate over successive generations from north Africa to central and northern Europe. A Painted Lady year happens about once in a decade, and is when unusually high numbers of this migratory butterfly arrive in the UK. In 2019 they were the most numerous species spotted during the Big Butterfly Count; they accounted for more than a quarter of all butterflies reported and were more than two times as common as the next most abundant species (the Peacock).

Other increases seen in 2019 included the Peacock, Red Admiral and Small Tortoiseshell while the Large White, Small White and Green-veined White all decreased in comparison to 2018.

How to take part

To take part, all you need to do is spend 15 minutes counting butterflies on a sunny day between 17th July and 9th August. You can conduct the count from anywhere you like; in the garden or park, in the woods or fields or wherever you find yourself outdoors.

If you are counting from a fixed position, count the maximum number of each species that you can see at a single time. For example, if you see three Red Admirals together then record it as 3, but if you only see one at a time then record it as 1 (even if you saw one on several occasions) – this is so that you don’t count the same butterfly more than once. If you are doing your count on a walk, then simply total up the number of each butterfly species that you see during the 15 minutes. You can do as many counts as you like, even if these take place in the same location.

Submit your results online on the Big Butterfly Count website, where you can also download a handy butterfly ID chart. Or, carry out the survey and submit your count all in one go using the free smartphone app, available for both iOS and Android.

Butterfly identification resources

On the NHBS blog you will find a handy butterfly ID guide, helpfully split into different habitat types. Or why not take a look at one of the popular field guides below:

Collins Butterfly Guide
#173624

This comprehensive guide describes and illustrates about 440 species, depicting both males and females and – where there is significant variation – subspecies. Distribution maps accompany every widespread species.

 

Pocket Guide to the Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland
#245485

This handy pocket-sized book has become the essential guide to identifying the butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland. It contains over 600 superb illustrations of the life stages of each species, together with beautiful artworks of butterflies in their natural settings.

 

Guide to the Butterflies of Britain and Ireland
#245262

The illustrations in this guide, from originals painted by Richard Lewington, show 58 British butterfly species. The paintings are a quick identification aid to the butterflies most likely to be seen and all are drawn to life-size.

Author Interview: Andrew G. Duff, Beetles of Britain and Ireland Vol 3

In our latest Q&A we talk to Andrew Duff, keen naturalist and author of the new book Beetles of Britain and Ireland Volume 3, which joins a monumental 4-volume identification guide to to the adult Coleoptera of the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland, and the British Crown Dependency of the Isle of Man. By bringing together reliable modern keys and using the latest taxonomic arrangement and nomenclature, it is hoped that budding coleopterists will more quickly learn how to identify beetles and gain added confidence in their identifications.

Andrew has taken his time to answer our questions about his book and about the fascinating world of beetles.

 Aside from the most conspicuous species, beetles seldom seem to attract as much attention as some other insect orders. What is it that has drawn you to study this group? 

My initial attraction to beetles was by coming across some of the larger and more colourful species, as you might expect. The first occasion was in about the late 1970s. I was out birdwatching with my oldest and best friend, the Ruislip naturalist Mike Grigson, when he found a species of dor beetle. These are large black beetles, often found wandering in the open on heaths and moors. They have the most striking metallic blue undersides. Picking one up, Mike said to me: “beetles are really beautiful ”, and I can still picture him saying it. The next occasion was when I was assistant warden at the Asham Wood reserve on the Mendip Hills in Somerset, in the summer of 1982. The warden, Jim Kemp, was an expert mycologist with a side interest in beetles. One day we were on the reserve and he pointed out a black-and-yellow longhorn beetle sat on an umbel. I thought it was very exotic-looking, every bit as worthy of a naturalist’s attention as butterflies and orchids! So I resolved to find out more about the beetles found in Asham Wood. Bristol Reference Library had a copy of Norman Joy’s Practical Handbook of British Beetles and it was obvious that I needed to buy it. Once I had my own copy of ‘Joy’, there was no stopping me. I started finding beetles and was able to identify most of them. The more you study beetles, the more you realise that all of them have their own special kind of beauty, and this is what ultimately led me to become a coleopterist. That, and the intellectual challenge of identifying small brown beetles, are what continue to inspire me. 

 What motivated you to write and publish Beetles of Britain and Ireland?

Joy’s Practical Handbook of British Beetles was the standard beetle identification guide for at least two generations of British coleopterists, ever since its publication in 1932. Joy’s book provided concise keys to every British beetle in a handy two-volume set, one volume of text and one of line drawings. The trouble with this idea is that the keys were oversimplified and misleading because of all the detail that wasn’t included. By the 1980s ‘Joy’ was already long past its ‘best before date’. Talk started about somebody producing a successor set of volumes and the late Peter Skidmore made a start—after his death I was fortunate to obtain his draft keys and drawings, and in particular have made much use of his drawings in my book. Peter Hodge and Richard Jones then published New British Beetles: species not in Joy’s practical handbook (BENHS, 1995). This was a fantastic achievement because it brought together in one place a list of the species not included in ‘Joy’, as well as notice of recent changes in nomenclature and of some errors in his keys. But it was still only a stop-gap measure.

By around 2008 still nothing had been produced by anyone else. I reckoned it might be achievable and began to discuss with other coleopterists the idea of writing a new series of volumes. The turning point was a discussion with Mark Telfer at a BENHS Annual Exhibition in London. My main concern was over the use of previously published drawings in scientific papers, but Mark reassured me that provided the drawings were properly credited and that the book was clearly an original work in its text and design then it should not fall foul of any copyright issues. By 2010 I’d already made a start on Beetles of Britain and Ireland and in the summer of that year took early retirement so that I could work on it more or less full time. My own professional background is as a technical author in the world of IT and from the 1980s onwards I’d had extensive experience of what used to be grandly called desktop publishing, what we would now call simply word processing! I’d decided to go down the self-publishing route so that I could ensure the production values matched what I thought coleopterists would want: a book which was laid out clearly and would stand up to a lot of wear. It’s really for others to judge whether my volumes meet the needs and expectations of most coleopterists, but so far I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how well they’ve been received.

 How did production of this book compare to the previous volumes in the series? Was it difficult to bring together information on so many families exhibiting such a diversity of life histories?

As this is the third volume to have been completed I’d already learnt a lot about the best way to collate all of the material and summarise it, while trying to make as few mistakes as possible. The previous two volumes (vols. 1 and 4) were written in a rather erratic fashion, so that at any one time some sections would be more or less complete while others would not even have been started. This time I was determined to be more disciplined by starting with the first family, completing a draft which included the family introduction, keys to genera and species, and all of the line art illustrations, before going on the next family and doing the same again. In a way, having many families was an advantage because it meant I could use a ‘divide-and-rule’ strategy by breaking down a fauna of 1088 species into 69 smaller chunks. The fact that there are so many families in this volume didn’t generate any special problems, indeed families with only a few species like the stag beetles, glow-worms and net-winged beetles are relatively straightforward to document. But some of the family introductions were a challenge, insofar as some families are poorly defined taxonomically and hard to characterise in a way which would be accessible to amateur coleopterists. For example the darkling beetles (Tenebrionidae) exhibit a bewildering diversity which makes it well nigh impossible to say why a particular species is or is not assigned to this family. I made extensive use of the two-volume American Beetles (Arnett et al., 2002), which contains succinct summaries of nearly all of our beetle families, and this made my job a lot easier. But at the end of the day, the family diagnoses are not as important as the keys to genera and species. Most coleopterists won’t be coming to a particular family chapter as a result of methodically working through the key to families in volume 1. I imagine that in most cases people start by comparing their beetle with the colour plates, getting a shrewd idea as to what family it belongs to, and then going straight to the keys to genera and species. Picture-matching will always have its place in natural history, and I hope that Udo Schmidt’s 473 colour photos in this volume will be put to good use.

 This volume covers some of our most familiar beetles – the ladybirds and chafers, for example. What advice would you give to anyone seeking to extend their interest beyond these well-known families to the more ‘obscure’ groups? 

I would say that it largely depends on what kind of naturalist you are. What I mean by this is that there are two main ways of studying beetles, and you have to decide which path is right for you. On the one hand, many naturalists take photographs of beetles and by using the Internet or an expert validation service such as iRecord (www.brc.ac.uk/irecord/) they can usually achieve reliable identifications, at least to genus level, for medium-sized and large beetles. Some spectacular finds of beetles new to Britain have been found by general naturalists posting their images on the Internet, a very recent example being the flower-visiting chafer Valgus hemipterus, first posted to iRecord in April 2019 and already given the full works treatment in my volume 3. The problems start as soon as you try to identify smaller and more obscure beetles, because most of them are simply not identifiable from photographs. It’s not their small size and lack of bright colour patterns as such, so much as the need to view the underside, or the fore legs from a particular angle, or the head from the front, or the body orthogonally from directly above to ascertain the precise shape, which makes field photography impractical as a way to identify small beetles. So what you need to do is to go down the second path and start a beetle collection. This enables you to examine your specimen with a bright light source under a good stereomicroscope, turn it over to examine the underside, stretch out its legs to look for the pattern of teeth and spines, straighten it to measure its length and width, and if you’re feeling brave dissect out the genitalia which often provide the only definitive way to arrive at a species identification. Many naturalists balk at the thought of collecting beetles, but I would argue that the scientific value of having a comprehensive species list for a site outweighs any squeamishness I might feel about taking an insect’s life. In any case, my guilt is assuaged by the fact that insects are being eaten in their trillions every day, everywhere, by all manner of insectivorous animals and plants, so that the additional negative effect of my collection on beetle populations is vanishingly small.

Could you tell us a little about the process of compiling keys for the identification of the more challenging species? Were you able to draw upon the existing literature, or did you have to create them from scratch?

Some of the genera treated in this volume have been giving problems for coleopterists ever since the scientific study of beetles began. These are genera with a number of very similar, small and plain species that appear to have few distinguishing features. Nine genera in particular stand out for me as being conventionally ‘difficult’: Contacyphon, Dryops, Cryptophagus, Atomaria, Epuraea, Carpophilus, Meligethes, Corticaria and Mordellistena. It was always going to be a challenge for me to provide workable keys to these ‘nightmare nine’ genera, but I was keen to give it a go. It helps that I take a perverse interest in very difficult identification challenges, so I was motivated to come up with keys which would work. Fortunately I was able to pull together information from a variety of different sources until I had draft keys which could be put out for testing. The testing went through a number of iterations and by reworking the keys—for example adding my own illustrations, simplfying or reorganising couplets, or adding new couplets to account for ambiguous characters—they were gradually improved until I was happy with them. A second source of difficulty concerned the aphodiine group of dung beetles. The formerly very specious genus Aphodius was recently broken up into 27 smaller genera, and our leading dung beetle expert, Darren Mann, recommended to me that we should adopt the new taxonomy. This meant that I needed to construct a completely new key to genera, and that took a great deal of time and effort searching for characters. Incidentally I’d like to pay special thanks to Steve Lane and Mark Telfer for their advice and help with these difficult genera; I owe them both a great deal for their encouragement and support. The keys to challenging genera in this volume will certainly not be the last word on the subject, but I believe they are an improvement on previous keys.

 When gathering information on habitat and biology of the various families, did you notice any glaring omissions? Are there any families that could particularly benefit from further study?

Some of the families treated in this volume are well understood, in terms of their identification, ecology and distribution in Britain and Ireland. The scarab beetle family-group, jewel beetles, click beetle family-group, glow-worms, soldier beetles, ladybirds, oil beetles and cardinal beetles are all popular groups and have been reasonably well studied, while the ladybirds have received a huge amount of attention! But that accounts for just 13 of the 69 families treated in volume 3, and the remaining 56 families are in general much less well known. Modern identification keys in English already existed for some of the other families but for most the information is very basic. I would say that the biggest gap in our understanding concerns the synanthropic and stored-product beetles. Not only do amateur coleopterists rarely come across these species, but the information that has been gathered (mostly by food hygiene inspectors) has not been made publicly available. In a few cases it’s not even clear which country a species has been found in, and all we know is that it has been found at some time, somewhere in Britain. I would like to think that this group will one day be much better documented.

A particular favourite of mine are the silken fungus beetles (Cryptophagidae). This family contains two of the ‘nightmare nine’ genera: Cryptophagus with 35 species and Atomaria with 44 species. I’ve tried hard to produce workable new keys for these two genera, but their identification is never going to be easy and it will be necessary to validate records for a long time to come. But I hope that at least this family will begin to benefit from a greater level of interest, on the back of my new keys.

 There will be one more volume to come before this monumental series is complete – are you able to provide an estimation as to when that will come to fruition?

Volume 2 covers just one huge family: the rove beetles (Staphylinidae). This has been left until last for two good reasons. Firstly, the subfamily Aleocharinae, and in particular the hundreds of species in the tribe Athetini, are so poorly understood that it’s just not clear where the generic limits are drawn. This means I will have my work cut out trying to construct a new key to Aleocharinae genera. Preferably the key won’t involve dissecting out the mouthparts and examining them under a compound microscope, as we are expected to do now! Secondly, it has to be admitted that rove beetles are not the most exciting to look at. As publisher as well as lead author of my series of volumes it was always going to be difficult to sell a book which didn’t contain a lot of colourful plates. My plan all along, then, was to leave the rove beetles until last, in the hope that people would buy the book in order to complete their set! Volume 2 has already been started, and Udo has been working hard on the colour plates, but there is still a mountain to climb to complete the Athetini keys and illustrations to my satisfaction. My best estimate currently is that it will be published no later than 2024. Once that is done, and if I still have my wits about me, I suppose I’ll have to think about revised editions of the earlier volumes!

 

Beetles of Britain and Ireland: Volume 3 Geotrupidae to Scraptiidae

By: Andrew G.Duff
Hardback | Due July 2020| £109.00

 

 

 

Browse the rest of the Beetles of Britain and Ireland series on the NHBS website

 

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.

 

Q & A with Ben Fitch from the Riverfly Trust

Hosted by the Freshwater Biological Association, the Riverfly Partnership represents a network of organisations whose aims are to protect the water quality of our rivers, further the understanding of riverfly populations and actively conserve riverfly habitats. This is achieved via a range of ongoing projects which utilise citizen scientists to monitor invertebrates, water chemistry, physical habitat, pollution and hydromorphological functioning in order to gain a picture of overall river health.

Ben Fitch is the national project manager for the Anglers’ Riverfly Monitoring Initiative, one of the projects run by the Riverfly Partnership. This week we chatted to him about the Partnership and their projects, the importance of riverflies and how Covid-19 has affected his working life over the recent months.

Mayfly by J.Ingles-Le Nobel (a)

If one were to canvas general public opinion about flies, many people would likely think of those which they consider to be pests, such as house flies, mosquitos, greenfly, blackfly and horseflies. How would you explain to a non-specialist how important riverflies are and why we should care about them?

First of all, I would say that all insects are essential to life on this planet, with species fulfilling important roles within ecosystems  – even those ‘pesky’ flies as some may see them.

Next, I would highlight the fact that freshwater is a precious natural resource upon which all life on Earth depends. Humans are certainly no exception to that rule, but it is because of us that freshwater is under considerable and continuous threat.

I would go on to explain that riverflies contain three groups of insects, namely mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies. More than 280 species of riverflies have been recorded in the UK, most of which spend the greater part of their life beneath the surface of still or running freshwater as larvae, before emerging from the water as winged adults. Riverflies should be present in running and still freshwater bodies across the UK throughout the year, they are at the heart of freshwater ecosystems and are a vital link in the aquatic food chain as a food source for fish and birds.

Importantly, riverflies are sensitive to changes in water quality, for example chemical or organic pollution, which makes them excellent indicators of the health of a freshwater body (they are often referred to as the canaries of our rivers). Thus, by monitoring them regularly, it is possible to identify and manage pollution issues, deter would-be polluters, and protect our freshwater ecosystems.

Does Britain have any endemic or particularly rare riverflies?

There are eight rare and threatened riverfly species that have been designated as conservation priorities by the UK Government. The eight species, listed as follows, are categorised as being of Principal Importance:

Northern February red (Brachyptera putata): a stonefly that occurs only in Britain. It is found mainly in Scottish upland streams.

Rare medium stonefly (Isogenus nubecula): only known to occur in the Welsh River Dee and may now be extinct.

Scarce grey flag (Hydropsyche bulgaromanorum): a large caddisfly only known from stony areas on the River Arun in Sussex.

Scarce brown sedge (Ironoquia dubia): a caddisfly only known from three southern English sites. There are no recent records for this species.

Small grey sedge (Glossosoma intermedium) a caddisfly that has been found in only four Lake District streams. There are no recent records for this species.

Window-winged sedge (Hagenella clathrata) an orange mottled caddisfly that lives in pools on bogs and heathland at about ten sites in the UK.

Southern iron blue (Baetis niger): a widespread mayfly species whose abundance appears to have declined in some areas by as much as 80% in recent decades.

Yellow mayfly (Potamanthus luteus): an attractive, bright yellow mayfly that is found mainly on the River Wye in the Welsh borders.

[I would like to give great thanks to Craig Macadam, Conservation Director at Buglife – The Invertebrate Conservation Trust, for permitting me to use information from the Buglife website in parts of this interview, particularly above. To find out more about why bugs are essential to our planet and all life on it, visit: https://www.buglife.org.uk].

The Riverfly Partnership coordinates a number of projects looking at lots of different measurements of river health. These include surveying invertebrates, physical habitat, hydromorphological features and pollution events. What happens to the data that is collected in these projects? Who uses it and what for?

Firstly, I should clarify that the Riverfly Partnership (RP) is hosted by the Freshwater Biological Association and is a network of more than 100 partner organisations representing anglers, conservationists, entomologists, scientists, water course managers, and relevant authorities. RP carries out work according to its core aims: to protect the water quality of our rivers, to further the understanding of riverfly populations, and to conserve riverfly habitats.

As your question states, RP is involved in a number of citizen science freshwater monitoring initiatives. Here is a summary of those initiatives along with how data is collected, stored, and used in each case:

Anglers’ Riverfly Monitoring Initiative (ARMI)

The Anglers’ Riverfly Monitoring Initiative (ARMI) is a project that enables trained volunteers, such as anglers and conservationists, to protect river water quality by regularly monitoring eight pollution sensitive aquatic invertebrate groups. Data is recorded in the field before being uploaded to the national online ARMI database (once checked and verified, ARMI data is available under the terms of the Open Government Licence). ARMI complements the work carried out by statutory agency staff across the UK, such as the Environment Agency in England, primarily by reporting pollution incidents to and sharing ARMI data with those agencies directly.

Urban Riverfly

Urban Riverfly includes an additional six aquatic invertebrate groups to the eight used in the original ARMI scheme and can be used across a number of different river systems, but especially modified rivers and those influenced by conurbations. Urban Riverfly data is recorded in the field by trained citizen scientists, hosted locally through Riverfly Hubs, and used by Catchment Partnerships to inform catchment management and direct conservation action.

Extended Riverfly

Extended Riverfly uses 33 invertebrate groups, including the eight ARMI groups, to provide a more nuanced picture of river water quality according to different stressors. Extended Riverfly data is collected, stored, and used similarly to that of Urban Riverfly.

Freshwater Watch

Hosted by the Earthwatch Institute, Freshwater Watch is a global initiative for monitoring water quality and water chemistry. Data is recorded in the field and submitted online by trained citizen scientists, after which experts provide analysis and feedback to monitors and present evidence to decision- and policy-makers worldwide.

MoRPh

The Modular River Survey, or MoRPh, enables citizen scientists and professionals to be trained to assess and record physical habitat and hydromorphological functioning in their local rivers and streams. Data is hosted online by Cartographer and is used by Catchment Partnerships to inform catchment management and direct conservation action.

Outfall Safari

The Outfall Safari is a citizen science method devised to systematically survey outfalls in urban rivers in order to identify pollution and notify the relevant authorities (sharing data accordingly). It was created by the Citizen Crane project team in partnership with staff from Thames Water and the Environment Agency, and is regarded by the Environment Agency as best practice.

SmartRivers

SmartRivers, hosted by Salmon & Trout Conservation (S&TC), takes citizen science invertebrate monitoring to the highest resolution. Species data are recorded in the field then stored in S&TC’s database. S&TC staff process SmartRivers data through their unique calculator and provide data analysis that identifies specific water quality stressors in the river and pinpoints where they are occurring. S&TC use SmartRivers data to provide evidence that can help prevent pollution occurring in the first place. This evidence can also inform how to concentrate management efforts locally to achieve the best environmental outcomes.

Caddisfly by Magnus Hagdorn

Like many people across the UK, you have been furloughed as a result of the global Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic since March 2020, so are not legally permitted to work. As such, we are grateful to you for agreeing to do this interview in a voluntary capacity. Can you describe your role within the Riverfly Partnership and what a typical work day looks like for you?

My working role for the Riverfly Partnership is as the national project manager of the Anglers’ Riverfly Monitoring Initiative (ARMI). The Riverfly Partnership receives funding support for the role from the Environment Agency (rod licence revenue and the Water Environment Improvement Fund). I have also been a committed and active ARMI volunteer monitor since 2009.

At the moment, I would not describe my days as ‘typical’ for the reasons outlined in your question. I have not been able to work since late March, neither has it been possible to carry out ARMI sampling for the larger part of the same period. I am grateful, however, for the excellent ongoing support provided by the Freshwater Biological Association and I hope to be able to return to work in the near future, as soon as government advice permits and once it is deemed safe for me to do so. In the meantime, I have greatly enjoyed spending more time with my family which has largely centred around home educating our two children whilst my wife, as a key worker, has continued to work throughout.

A typical day prior to the current situation was always incredibly busy! My key responsibilities revolve around supporting and expand the ARMI network, including communications, publications, presentations, training delivery, tutor support, tutor/training workshop observations and QA, tutor development, database and website management, and much, much more. I wouldn’t feel right at this point if I didn’t thank every single ARMI volunteer, participant, partner, and supporter for their incredible commitment towards protecting our rivers. I would also like to acknowledge my colleagues Alex Domenge, Steve Brooks, Bill Brierley, Roger Handford, Lesley Hadwin, Kirsty Hadwin, Paul Knight, Nick Measham, Tom Miles, along with every RP Board member, every Extended / Urban Riverfly Working Group member, and every contact at the Environment Agency, Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Natural Resources Wales, and Northern Ireland Environment Agency. As you can see the work that I am involved in has partnership at its core.

River Exe by Adrian Scottow (c)

If people want to get involved with riverfly monitoring (or any of your citizen science projects) how would you suggest they get started? Do they need prior knowledge/experience of freshwater sampling or species ID?

Volunteering, as a river monitor or riverfly recorder, is not only an excellent way to protect the health of your local river, but also to contribute towards direct conservation action, local communities, scientific data and evidence, and sustainability.

New volunteers are always welcome and no prior knowledge or experience is necessary.

Individuals interested in becoming a volunteer Riverfly monitor should register their interest with their local Riverfly hub coordinator. To find out who that is please use the contact us page on the Riverfly Partnership website: https://www.riverflies.org

Individuals interested in becoming a riverfly recorder should visit the Riverfly Recording Schemes (RRS) page of the Riverfly Partnership website: https://www.riverflies.org/Recording_Schemes where details about the schemes and RRS coordinator contact information can be found.

Organisations interested in joining the Anglers’ Riverfly Monitoring Initiative (ARMI) must have a member who is prepared to act as a local coordinator (to serve as a contact point between the EA / SEPA / NRW / NIEA and the monitoring group) and have members attend an official ARMI workshop. The workshop includes presentations, practical demonstrations and active participation. For more information please contact us via the Riverfly Partnership website: https://www.riverflies.org

For information about freshwater invertebrate and freshwater ecology training courses, I can highly recommend the Freshwater Biological Association: https://www.fba.org.uk

What conservation actions or changes would you like to see happen in your lifetime that would have a significant (and positive) impact on river health and biodiversity?

I could list many here but I am going to go with two, off the bat:

  1. Serious, long term political commitment to the natural world and conservation thereof
  2. Wilding

If you had to tell people to google a photo of one species of riverfly which would you choose? (perhaps because it is ecologically important or just because it looks interesting!)

If I had to choose one, it would be of a flat-bodied mayfly larva (species Ecdyonurus dispar – Autumn Dun) because new volunteers often remark that it looks like an alien! If that stirs your curiosity, type ‘Ecdyonurus dispar’ in to your internet search engine of choice. If you can find an image of the white spot variant that is particularly striking.

I would also like to share this beautiful image, simply named ‘Mayfly’, photographed by Jon Hawkins. This was the winning entry to the most recent RP Photography Competition and I think it deserves to be seen! (Reproduced with kind permission of the Riverfly Partnership, copyright Jon Hawkins.)

 

 

Image credits:
(a) Mayfly by Johan J.Ingles-Le Nobel via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)
(b) Caddisfly by Magnus Hagdorn via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
(c) River Exe by Adrian Scottow via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

British wildlife in lockdown

Long-tailed Tit was a new species for Michael Scott’s garden, in north-west Scotland. Michael Scott

This is an extended version of an article, ‘British wildlife in lockdown’, that appears in the June issue of British Wildlife

Amid the enduring difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been heartening to see the resourcefulness, resilience and imagination shown by the naturalist community. To give a taste of this, we asked our British Wildlife contributors how they had spent their time through late March and April, when restrictions were at their tightest. Here we give you the delightfully varied responses that came back. I hope that readers enjoy this snapshot of life in lockdown for the naturalist.

A spectacular spring

The start of lockdown coincided with a most exceptional run of fine spring weather (April was duly confirmed by the Met Office as the sunniest since 1921). While it was somewhat torturous to watch this unfold from the confines of our homes, time outdoors was all the more invigorating for it and the usual spring arrivals and emergences were met with even greater joy than normal.

A number of our regulars have tracked the changes as spring progressed, and Simon Leach has been encouraging local recorders to do the same: ‘I’ve been recording first flowerings since 2008 in the Taunton area, replicating (sort of) a similar exercise undertaken by Walter Watson in the first half of the twentieth century. And this year, constrained by “lockdown”, it seemed like a good idea to “widen the net” to get others in Somerset recording first flowering dates as well.’ By late May more than 35 participants had been drawn to the cause, and their recording from the height of lockdown through to the time of writing, in late May, has highlighted an extraordinarily early spring: Common Dog-violet Viola riviniana, Greater Butterfly-orchid Platanthera chlorantha and Biting Stonecrop Sedum acre, for example, have all had their earliest first flowering dates since Simon started the initiative.

Spring seemed to arrive early farther north, too, as Michael Scott notes: ‘Lockdown in the northwest Highlands is not too different from normal life here, but with few tourists and without the incessant afternoon hum from the rush hours of transatlantic jets. April 17th was a red-letter day. As I ate breakfast, I spotted the first Swallow of the year. Going outside, I heard the first Cuckoo from the adjacent hill. Later, a distinctive off-key scolding from the coastal bay below the house told us that the Common Sandpipers were back, too. They were respectively one, four and two days earlier than we recorded last year, but I suspect that may just reflect more observer effort!’

And it was not just summer migrants and wildflowers that were making early appearances, but also spring invertebrates. David Christie, copy checker for BW, noted the following from his home in Southampton: ‘Among the highlights were the garden’s earliest ever Dark-edged Bee-fly, on 16th March, a pleasant sunny day which also produced a Comma, a Small Tortoiseshell and two Brimstones. On 26th, an astonishing addition was a single male Wood White, unsurprisingly the first ever for the garden — but some 6 weeks too early! I imagine that this, the daintiest of the whites, was bred and released by somebody nearby (several people have released butterflies in the area in previous years). In April Orange-tips became the commonest butterfly, and on 16th of that month a Red-tailed Bumblebee, supposedly a common species but a garden first, turned up; it stayed for several days but had apparently disappeared by the middle of the following week.’

Orange-tip butterfly on Lady’s Smock.

Peter Marren has enjoyed tracking changes on his local patch in Ramsbury, Wiltshire: ‘The sunniest side of this enforced lockdown is that I have come to appreciate home turf as never before. It helps that this has been the brightest, if not the warmest, April for some time, but this year the beauty of the meadows, woods and downs around Ramsbury has made me gasp, as if seeing it for the first time. I watched while a late spring turned into an early one. Frog spawn, flocculent and chilly, appeared in the ditch outside during the first week in March, and by the second week in April the tadpoles were already well grown. I heard the first Chiffchaff, much later than usual, on March 18th. It was joined in song by a Blackcap by March 25th. I heard the first Willow Warbler on April 5th (they are still doing well here, and have spread from the valley scrub into a belt of trees below the down, planted 15 years ago). The first Orange-tip fluttered into my garden on 9th April. The first singing Reed Warbler began –like a cold engine warming up – on the 10th, I spotted the first Swallow on the 13th and heard a solitary Cuckoo calling from the reedbed on Easter Sunday, 12th April. There was a close tie-in this year with the opening of our two cuckoo flowers, Lady’s Smock Cardamine pratensis and Lords-and-Ladies Arum maculatum. I should perhaps mention that spring usually comes late to Ramsbury. We are in a narrow east-west valley where a cold westerly blows from the Marlborough Downs and puts everything back by about a week.

‘Apart from the perennially exciting arrival of our summer visitors, I find I am looking at the small, easily overlooked things in life. This year I watched the leaves unfurl. Ash has, for once, tied with oak (so perhaps we are in for neither a splash nor a soak). Its feathery leaves push upwards in a shuttlecock from a bush of spent flowers, then angle out stiffly on their long petioles. By contrast, the leaves of oak curl softly from their buds, masked by a screen of yellow-green catkins. For a day or two, the hedgerow oaks take on an almost autumnal hue before they turn spring-green, that delicate, tender green that lifts the heart and makes you feel young again (anyone know any good oak songs?). Baby oak leaves lack the bitter tannins that build up later on. I nibble some straight from the branch – green chewing gum. Isolation makes you do strange things.

‘I’m also looking at bees. The only way I can get close to a bee is with close-up binoculars. Where banks face the sun, and especially when they are sheltered by a hedge, the mining bees are busy, locating their little, barely visible excavations, and vanishing into them bearing heavy loads of bright yellow pollen. Much of it, I note, is taken from Leylandii cones (so let’s hear it for once for that much-maligned conifer). Watching the bees at work are a whole host of parasites. On 31st March there was a brief flurry of oil beetles. Later on, nomad bees and blood bees were swarming about, each intent on laying a single egg inside the mining bee’s chamber. Patrolling bee-flies will do the same. The proper bees do not seem to notice that they are surrounded by malevolent cuckoos. Imagine a troop of hostile visitors raiding your cupboards and your fridge, sleeping in your bed, chasing away the kids. And that’s before the insecticides get you. I am glad I am not a bee. I am glad I live in Ramsbury. The swamp may be muddy yet – for the valley has taken a long time to recover from February’s floods – but it is full of life. Nature is the perfect antidote to despair in this surreal, locked-down spring.’

A number of correspondents noted what an excellent spring it has been for invertebrates, and bees in particular seem to have been popular with those wishing to use their time in lockdown to get to grips with a new group. From Anglesey, James Robertson writes: ‘I sit on a low wall, dangling my legs. After a while a queen Garden Bumblebee heads into a gap at the base of the wall by my feet. I am learning the skill my ornithologist brother tried to teach me many years ago. Then I was having none of it. Plants sat around on their bottoms, I had to search them out, keep on the move. But this year everything is different. Be still and the insects come to you. As so often, the constraints we are under force us to be creative, to learn new tricks and look at the world afresh.

Buff-tailed Bumblebee.

‘As the dominant hominid falls silent, nature booms and buzzes. The exceptional weather puts on a display of insect variety. Wasp Beetles bounce around my garden, flicking their antennae and not looking quite right for the wasps they pretend to be. Red Mason Bees investigate holes in concrete posts and Joanna’s Bee Hotel, a future bee smorgasbord for hungry Blue Tits. She has quickly mastered the identification of Early, Garden, Red-tailed and Buff-tailed Bumblebees.

‘My car windscreen is splattered with insect bodies. This is supposed to be a memory, how it was when we were children. Is this explosion of life a sign of what would happen if we stilled the great machine of our industrious world?’

It was not the abundance of bees but a single unexpected one that provided a highlight for our copy editor, David Hawkins: ‘I was delighted when a rather smart solitary bee appeared in my flat in Bristol, having blundered in through the window. I consulted Falk & Lewington at length, but was perplexed – trying my damnedest to make it an Andrena of some sort, although none of the candidates looked quite right. Plus it had very beautiful mottled dark blue-grey eyes. Then, using a hand lens, I caught sight of a small spike on the underside of the first sternite – this, apparently, is diagnostic of a male Spined Mason Bee Osmia spinulosa. It seemed very curious to encounter it in the middle of the city, but we live near a railway line and some allotments so there may well be suitable habitats there. Most interestingly, as with some other Osmia spp., it nests inside vacant snail shells.’

While lockdown may have produced a new generation of bee enthusiasts, it was perhaps not such a good time to pick up an interest in flies. Alan Stubbs reports that his garden ‘is almost bereft of hoverflies; yesterday I achieved the fourth species for the March–April period and I have never seen more than two of any on a lap of the garden. Flies as a whole are very sparse even now (23rd April), a shame in the lockdown. The current drought does not help, but there is a legacy effect from low populations and drought last year. The excessive winter rains have not been of benefit (and have possibly been a negative factor). Currently it is difficult to know how widespread the doldrums extend, but I suspect areas that have had more rain over the last four to six weeks will have fared a bit better. Reports from London and Warwickshire suggest I am not alone.’

Bringing wildlife to you

While opportunities to go out into the wider countryside were limited, many found ways to bring wildlife to their doorsteps instead. Moth-trapping has seen a surge in popularity, as Paul Waring explains: ‘Moth-trap operators are better placed than many wildlife enthusiasts to cope with lockdown arrangements. Most of us routinely operate a light-trap in our gardens, and some do so on verandas and roof-tops if they have no garden. With a light-trap the moths come to us, from the garden itself, and from beyond it, so we do not need to leave our home to record what is about. The numbers and variety of moths in the catch and the seasonal patterns of occurrence always hold some interest, even in inner city locations. One is sometimes amazed at what turns up. Facebook has been full of people reporting their garden catches, often including photos of the moths, sometimes with lively discussion, throughout the lockdown period.’

This pre-pupal Purple Hairstreak larva was found by chance when the photographer noticed it among empty Hazel nuts that his son had collected. Wren Franklin

The staff at Butterfly Conservation, unable to get out into the field, have also focused on moths in their gardens. Mark Parsons tells of some early highlights: ‘During lockdown the conservation staff at Butterfly Conservation were encouraged to run a moth trap at their homes. At least 28 staff participated, with traps being run from Devon to Cambridgeshire and north to Deeside, as well as in Northern Ireland. Although there were a few cool evenings in the first three weeks, generally conditions were relatively mild and very suitable, and as a result there were a lot of interesting observations. Of the scarcer species there were records of Silver Cloud Egira conspicillaris (Worcestershire), Small Eggar Eriogaster lanestris (Dorset), Marbled Pug Eupithecia irriguata (Devon) and the micro-moth Mompha divisella (Dorset and Glamorgan), with a Light Orange Underwing Boudinotiana notha (Surrey) being seen by day. Other interesting records included high counts of Lunar Marbled Brown Drymonia ruficornis (56) and Frosted Green Polyploca ridens (31), both on 11th April in Surrey. It really is amazing what can be found in gardens!’

A pair of Tawny Owls was captured by camera trap while bathing in the river behind Andrew Branson’s garden. Andrew Branson

BW’s Founding Editor, Andrew Branson, has been making good use of other technologies to monitor goings-on in his garden: ‘So often when we are observing the natural world we are looking at it from a very narrow perspective both in time and in space. We return to our favourite haunts looking for confirmation of the same species – the anxious scanning for returning migrants is a classic expression of this. I am always struck by the way we have a mental search pattern that reinforces what we expect to see. A classic is the way botanists with their stooping gaze on the ground will often fail to record unusual tree species right above them. In lockdown I have been trying to extend my appreciation of garden species by using a webcam to record nocturnal life. I’m lucky enough to have a garden that reaches down to a river, and have been discovering that not only do we have the expected Brown Rats, Mallards and Moorhens making regular nightly visits, but our garden also seems to be on the rounds of an Otter, an American Mink (not so welcome), Hedgehogs (first I’ve seen in the garden for years), Roe Deer, Foxes and Rabbits. Recently, the webcam captured a furtive pair of Tawny Owls having a midnight bath in the river!’

Dave Wilkinson has spent time studying some of the more obscure lifeforms in his pond: ‘Lockdown natural history: in the imagination it is snow leopards and camels as I read George Schaller’s new book Into wild Mongolia, while in reality it’s restricted to the garden and occasional short walks. In February we had a new garden pond dug, with the first water plants going in just before lockdown. With few ponds nearby it quickly attracted birds, hedgehogs and wasps; to drink, wash, or forage along the edge. Water beetles, pond skaters and water boatmen quickly followed. New ponds tend to be prone to algal blooms and ours is no exception. The torrential rains of February washed surrounding soil into the newly dug pond, adding nutrients, then the warm sunny weather of April powered algal photosynthesis – the pond first scummed with ‘blanket weed’, then turned bright green with cyanobacteria and other algae. Without lab access (no plankton net or centrifuge) some ingenuity allowed me to concentrate some plankton to view with a rather basic 50-year-old microscope. With such equipment colonial cyanobacteria – such as Aphanocaspa – were easier to isolate than smaller cells. The floating ‘blanket weed’ quickly vanished, but small patches of filamentous algae are in the shallows, including the green alga Stigeoclanium. Under the microscope these threads have the look of cells-within-cells, with small round green structures within the longer tubular cells. These structures are chloroplasts, the site of photosynthesis with the product stored as starch, staining dark when I added iodine. Back in the depths of geological time these chloroplasts evolved from free-living cyanobacteria; down my microscope I am seeing the history of our emerald planet encapsulated in the green scum of a garden pond.’

And in the terrestrial realm, Roy Watling has also been looking at some smaller organisms in his garden in Edinburgh: ‘Some years previously, when I was recovering from a medical procedure, I had to make time for exercise. I walked around the streets close to my house, gradually increasing the distance each day; I could not resist the temptation to “mycologise” though and began to list all the micro-fungi found on the vascular plant cultivars I saw in each garden. Now I am confined to my own garden because of lockdown I decided to conduct a similar survey, with surprising (to me at least) results. Thus, the tips of shoots of Irish Tutsan Hypericum pseudohenryi hosted the mildew Erysiphe hyperici, which is not uncommon on our native plants, while hidden among the erect branches of the snowberry Symphoriocarps x doorenbosii was another mildew, E. symphoricarpi. These two species are not rare but are poorly recorded in Scotland, and certainly neither has previously been recorded here on these hosts. The true mould Ampelomyces quisqualis, a parasite of a range of mildews, is equally under-recorded, although can be obvious to the keen observer. Also evident in my border was blotching on the shrub Hebe x francisciana: a rather distressing sight caused by the fungus Septoria exotica. On the north facing side of the house where it is moist and shaded, Chaetothyrium babingtonii grows prolifically in a mixed planting of various Rhododendron cultivars and hybrids. This fungus is common and widespread under the right conditions, and although it does not appear to harm the plants it looks very unsightly – thank heavens it only occurs on Rhododendron!’

Grass Snake swimming in a pond.

Frances Dipper has been observing the interactions between some more familiar species: ‘The human brain is much better than a computer algorithm at picking out patterns (hence ‘Galaxy Zoo’ – the web-based project that uses citizen scientists to classify distant galaxies based on their shape) so changing from recording fish (and other marine life) to birds and garden wildlife is proving to be a fascinating experience during lockdown. Seashore recording and diving are time-limited, but looking out at a habitat resource (i.e. the bird feeders in my large, wildlife-friendly garden) is not. As a marine biologist learning to be an ornithologist, here are some recent observations. Some Greenfinch Carduelis chloris prefer to spray out sunflower hearts from the feeder and then eat at their leisure on the ground below – memories of rich arable field pickings? Much smaller Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis will hold their ground (perch) on the feeder in the face of Greenfinch bully tactics. Starling Sturnus vulgaris are now adept at clinging on to feeders – perhaps our Cambridge ones are fast learners. Great Tit Parus major will nest in vertical holes, in this case a hollow brick column. There is also a Magpie Pica pica nest in our oak tree. A faithful Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata pair used to nest every year in the same vine until a Magpie raided its nest a few years ago. The best sighting to date? Not a bird but a Grass Snake Natrix natrix swimming across the pond and obviously unaware that Great Crested Newt Triturus cristatus is a protected species! Now how did one of the latter get into my downstairs shower room?’

And the extra time at home allowed Michael Scott the chance to notice garden visitors who might have gone undetected in a normal year: ‘Freedom from urgent deadlines has meant more time to observe how regularly a pair of Yellowhammers come to join the Dunnocks and an occasional fat Bank Vole feeding on the grain that ungrateful Chaffinches and House Sparrows regularly scatter onto the ground from our bird feeders. A small group of Long-tailed Tits in early April was a first for the garden. One was collecting the frayed ends of some garden string, presumably for a nest somewhere in the area.’

David Christie noted some apparent effects of the lockdown itself on the birds in his garden: ‘Perhaps the most notable feature of April–May was that many birds were becoming unusually tame. When I was “tidying” a corner of the garden, an adult female Blackbird walked around my feet, picking up odd items of food; feeding within a few centimetres of my feet, she occasionally looked up at me to check what I was doing! The visiting Stock Doves, too, were tamer than usual. On 24th April, a pair of Blackcaps had begun nest-building just a metre from our back window; although several Blackcaps regularly spend January–April in the area, they have never before nested here (sadly, the pair deserted at the laying stage). By the end of the month, a Blackbird pair with three fledglings showed no fear of humans, nor did a fully independent young Robin.’

Contributors reported some wonderfully serendipitous sightings to have emerged during lockdown. This Buzzard was found and rescued having got itself firmly stuck in a Rabbit hole. Rachel Barron-Clark

And Hugh Raven similarly has been musing on the possible effects of lockdown on the wildlife of his local loch and beyond: ‘Float over the deep belly of our local sealoch and look north, and you spy two rivers as they reach the sea – in plan like the outstretched arms of a mermaid’s purse. Embraced by these limbs is a verdant turf of saltmarsh fringed by a pancake of sandy mud, twice daily exposed when the tide recedes. At this time of year, it’s the haunt of sawbills. Goosanders and mergansers are by nature shy and flighty, but this year they are abundant. With human traffic around the loch and up these rivers – never heavy – a fraction of the norm, having eaten their fill they laze about on foreshore and saltmarsh preening in the spring sunshine. I counted 18 one day in late April. Sawbills are good at fishing. Research from Norway reports “adult goosander on average eat from 310 to 500g fish a day”. At this time of year they’re enjoying the feeding opportunities presented by the smolt run – that evolutionary miracle that sees juvenile salmon pour downstream as maturity, light and temperature tell them to reset their osmotic meter, leave fresh water and start to fatten up in their marine phase.

‘Salmon smolts weigh some 20g, so if they are the main source of food, each duck may eat twenty or more a day. Thousands will disappear down their gullets. The local river is noted for the freshwater pearl mussel – which depends on migratory salmonids to survive. You can get a licence to shoot sawbills, but there’s no appetite for that here. Salmon and pearl mussels, or these beautiful sleek and shiny ducks? Such are the dilemmas of conservation.’

Natural history online

The lockdown experience would surely have been very different had it happened in the not-so-distant past. Social media, and the online world in general, has changed our hobby and helped naturalists to stay connected throughout this period (see Brett Westwood’s column in this issue for more on this topic). Members of the birding community, for example, have been enjoying the rapid sharing of news, and a healthy element of competition, while working on their ‘lockdown lists’.

White-tailed Eagles have provided some excitement during lockdown; many sightings across England involved juveniles from the Isle of Wight reintroduction project, but the pictured individual, seen in Buckinghamshire, was unringed. Dan Forder

Dawn Balmer reports: ‘The movements of the released White-tailed Eagles from the Isle of Wight have been well tracked by the birdwatchers fortunate enough to spot them flying over their gardens (see https://bit.ly/2X5YXlK). I’ve also been amazed how many people have recorded Osprey over their garden, too! Both species seemed to have avoided airspace over our garden, though we were lucky enough to see two Cranes circling overhead on 20th May.

‘The first few nights of April saw a large passage of Common Scoters overland. While not a new phenomenon, it has never been documented so well. Birders stood in gardens and listened in the dark, others set recorders to record overnight – see https://bit.ly/3e5ejhj for a summary. Personally, we sat outside in our garden in Thetford (Norfolk) on the nights of 1st and 2nd April and heard Teal and Wigeon on the 1st, and Wigeon again on the 2nd. We’ve since added Moorhen to our house list – heard one fly over calling at 3.45am, and Dunlin, which flew over calling at 10.30pm one evening! With a bit more time on people’s hands, more have taken up “nocturnal migration” recording.’

Adrian Knowles has been monitoring the Facebook pages of the Essex Field Club, which has produced some notable records through lockdown: ‘Rob Smith posted a picture of the fly Bibio venosus from his daily walk patch, Headley Common in south Essex. Apparently there are only two other records in Essex, both in the north of the county. He has also recorded the mining bee Andrena cineraria from the same site – this species remains a scarce in Essex. There were two records of the ladybird Rhyzobius forestieri, a recent colonist of the UK, including one in someone’s garden. Then, on 10th April, Ed Hardy grabbed a load of wood chip during his morning walk with a view to identifying contents during his lockdown time. His finds included the beetle Rugilus angustatus, which is rare in the county, with a lack of recent records.’

Martin Harvey, David Roy and Helen Roy offer some insight into the effect of lockdown on submissions to iRecord, the online biological recording system maintained by the Biological Records Centre (part of the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology): ‘April 2020 proved to be a busy month with over 100,000 records added, up from about 75,000 in April 2019. It’s hard to know how much of this increase is the result of people taking up wildlife recording as an activity while locked down close to home, and how much is due to the combination of overall growth in records arriving at iRecord and the sunny weather that many experienced during April. But there do seem to be some changes in the patterns within these records. Not all biological records state the habitat that they were recorded in, but for those that do there has been a clear shift, with the proportion of records assigned to gardens more or less doubling, and a big fall in the number of records assigned to “wilder” habitats such as woodlands and grasslands. The most frequently recorded species during the month have been typical garden visitors, including butterflies such as Orange-tip and Peacock, the Dark-edged Bee-fly, Hebrew Character moth and Buff-tailed Bumblebee.’

‘Records arriving in iRecord are checked and verified by expert naturalists on behalf of the national recording schemes. An impressive three-fold increase in verification during April 2020 compared to the previous year is testament to the dedication of these people, and no doubt also demonstrates they have been making good use of the time that might have been spent in the field during a different year.

‘What effect these changes will have on the total pool of records available for 2020 remains to be seen, but it will be exciting to consider the ways in which these records can contribute to the long-term analyses that BRC and the recording schemes collaborate on. In the meantime, we hope that as many people as possible have been able to find ways of connecting with nature during these unprecedented circumstances.’

Butterfly Conservation has encouraged people to track species undergoing range expansions; during lockdown, a Comma was reported at Dunnet Head – its most northerly ever location in Britain. Edith Jones

The lockdown has provided an excellent opportunity to fill in gaps in distribution maps and monitor species on the move by encouraging the submission of records. Butterfly Conservation, for example, is asking the public to report on butterflies seen in their gardens, as Caroline Bulman explains: ‘Understanding the changes in patterns of emergence and distribution across the UK is vital to improving our understanding of the impacts of climate change on butterflies and other native wildlife. Wherever you live your observations are even more vital this year and particularly those in northern England and in Scotland, where you can record novel information of species which are spreading northwards, in response to a changing climate. For example, in mid-April we had a report of the most northerly Comma ever recorded in Britain, found in Caithness on the north coast of Scotland! If you’d like to get involved go to https://bit.ly/3bM1gQk to register and download a free smartphone app, or sign up to record butterflies in your garden, on your PC or laptop at https://bit.ly/2WOQ40M where you can also read the results from 2019.’

Paul Waring used the daily exercise walks to further the understanding of moth populations in his local area: ‘During lockdown we have taken the opportunity of beating for caterpillars to start recording the colonisation by moths of a hedgerow of various native broadleaf trees newly planted to screen from view a field of solar panels. We have also carried our pheromone lure for Emperor moths Saturnia pavonia with us every day to see if the large “white hole” for this species shown just south of The Wash in the newly published Atlas of Britain and Ireland’s Larger Moths reflects lack of recording or a genuine absence. Thus far it appears the Emperor really is absent, although this is certainly not the case for many other moth species for which there is a similar white hole.’

For some groups, recording need not be limited to our time outside the house either. Geoff Oxford writes: ‘The British Arachnological Society, working with Jordan Cuff (Cardiff University), has launched two “lockdown” spider surveys that can be completed around the house and garden. One is to record the species, numbers and locations of the three British cellar spiders –the very common Daddy-long-legs Spider Pholcus phalangioides, the much less common Wine Cellar Spider Psilochorus simoni and the rare Marbled Cellar Spider Holocnemus pluchei. The second, newly launched, is to record when clusters of Garden Spider Araneus diadematus spiderlings are first noticed. Details of both surveys can be found on Twitter @BASSurveys and at britishspiders.org.uk. Response so far to the first survey has been good with some 50 people counting a total of over 185 cellar spiders, some in previously unrecorded hectads.

‘The lockdown has not seen arachnologists locking away their equipment. Initiated by Richard Wilson and Chris Cathrine, naturalists nationwide have taken to surveying their garden lawns in a two-minute sample using modified garden blow-vacs. Early results include a new spider for Yorkshire, Cryptachaea blattea. The survey has led to informed discussion via Twitter @britishspiders and #lockdownsuckschallenge, creating a forum for promoting more widely spider biodiversity in gardens. Lockdown has seen an unprecedented surge in interest in arachnids more generally; we have been inundated on Twitter.’

Examination of old material produced a record of Caloplaca aractina (the grey lichen) from Muck, in the Inner Hebrides – a remarkable range extension for a species previously thought to be restricted to The Lizard, in Cornwall. John Douglass

Lichenologists, too, have been getting better acquainted with their home patches, with some excellent results – Sandy Coppins reports: ‘Lichens lend themselves to “local looking” perhaps more than several other wildlife groups. BLS Twitter suggested recording lichens on your doorstep, window sill or garden, etc. But after your initial ten lichens seen on your patio slabs, where to go next? Heather Paul, in Forres, says “I amused my neighbour by going down on my knees on the pavement outside to look at Lecanora muralis which of course I have never recorded here.” While in North Wales, Dave Lamacraft on a gentle potter to look at some nearby trees, “with a view to better learning some common things in ‘normal habitats’ for a change”, was surprised to find Ramalina lacera almost straight away swiftly followed by Schismatomma graphidioides – both pretty rare in Wales!

‘But perhaps the most surprisingly fruitful and fascinating lichen results from the lockdown came from not stepping out the door: John Douglass, in South Lanarkshire, for example, writes “I was sorting through some old boxes of specimens… and came across some C[aloplaca] aractina collected from a coastal rock face on Muck (2012). I have checked it against my collections from the Lizard and the spores etc. check out good for this species.” Apart from John’s Muck revelation, C. aractina is confined in the British Isles to coastal rocks at The Lizard, in Cornwall, so this find is a lovely disjunct extension.’

To conclude

As for the BW editorial team, while we have each been left slightly envious of those people with gardens we made the most of our daily exercise walks.

Female Hairy-footed Flower Bee. Catherine Mitson

Catherine Mitson, BW‘s Assistant Editor, reports: ‘Except in times of flooding, the Exwick spillway is a popular route for runners and cyclists alike. To one side, however, is a less frequently visited footpath that follows the natural flow of the River Exe. Here, the shrubs and trees grow a little more wild, and the tall bank to the right muffles the sound of passers-by. I can now enjoy the soundtrack of my walk, featuring the nasal ‘dzwee’ of Greenfinches, the chattering of Blackcaps, melodic Song Thrushes, and the drumming of a Great Spotted Woodpecker. This was the first time I had been here, despite living so close – a direct consequence of the lockdown. I now visit this small stretch almost every day and have seen the unmistakable flash of a Kingfisher, a Dipper on two occasions, and, looking up, there are often noisy Long-tailed Tits hopping around in the branches. During the last week of April, House and Sand Martins have arrived and are now regularly seen zipping across the river as the evening sets in. The first few sunny weeks of lockdown stirred many insects; of the butterflies I have spotted so far my personal favourites include Orange-tip, Common Blue, Peacock, Comma and Brimstone. My first Dark-edged Bee-fly of the year is always a personal highlight, but this was topped as I happened across a Hairy-footed Flower Bee nesting site in a cob wall less than five minutes from my house. These strange times have certainly opened my eyes to what lies just beyond my doorstep.’

Angular Crab found on Teignmouth beach. Guy Freeman

For myself (Guy Freeman), the lockdown highlights have come from strolls along my local beach here in Teignmouth which, naturally, have been timed to coincide with the best tides. The shore – mostly expanses of brick-red sand – does not look the most inspiring from a rock-pooling perspective, but I always enjoy the challenge of searching for life in these damp deserts. The walks during lockdown have been among the most productive I have had here, with favourite finds including some of the more weird and wonderful sand-dwelling specialists – the Angular Crab, which looks too exotic for these shores, and the more common but equally bizarre Masked Crab.

Many thanks to all the contributors to this piece who responded so enthusiastically to our initial call for submissions.

The contributors featured here write regularly for British Wildlife – the magazine for the modern naturalist

You can subscribe to British Wildlife here

The NHBS Guide to UK Butterfly Identification

Orange Tip image by L Wilkes

Butterflies are an iconic and popular sight during the spring and summer months. They are also important indicators of a healthy ecosystem and provide valuable environmental benefits such as pest control and pollination. As food for birds, bats and other mammals they are a vital part of the food chain and have been used for centuries by scientists to investigate navigation, pest control and evolution, as well as countless other subjects.

In the UK there are currently 57 resident species of butterfly and two regular migrants. Of these, it is estimated that 76% have declined in abundance, occurrence or both over the past 40 years. Almost all of these losses can be attributed to man-made changes such as habitat destruction and pollution, along with larger patterns of weather and climate change.

Recording and monitoring butterflies is a vital step in ensuring their conservation. Contributing to citizen science projects such as Butterfly Conservation’s Butterflies for the New Millenium, the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme, or via the iRecord app are vital to gain a picture of how our butterflies are faring. Although at this time it is not possible to travel to survey and record butterflies, sightings within your garden or on your own land, as well as those spotted on local walks, still provide a valuable source of data. (Please read the most recent Covid-19 statements on each of these websites before undertaking any surveys.)

In this article we have compiled a short guide on which butterflies you are likely to see outside this spring/summer, as well as some tips on the features by which you can distinguish certain species.

Gardens

For many butterflies we need look no further than our back gardens. In the UK many generalist species of butterflies survive and thrive in the network of gardens that stretch out across the country. These species are drawn in by the bountiful supply of nectar offered by flowering plants such as Buddleia, which are seldom without a visiting Red Admiral or Peacock. Gardens with unmanaged patches are even more favourable, as these can provide larval host plants such as thistles and nettles, the latter of which are used by four different butterfly species.

LOOK OUT FOR:

1. Large White: Large and often found near brassicas and nasturtiums
2. Small Tortoiseshell:
Medium-sized, often bask in open sunny spots
3. Red Admiral: 
Large and territorial with unique black and red colours
4. Painted Lady:
Large fast flyers with very angular wings
5. Small White: Medium-sized with yellowish under-wings, eat brassicas
6. Peacock:
Large, dark butterfly with distinct eyespots on its wings

Grasslands, Parks and Fields

Grasslands are an incredibly valuable habitat for many of the UK’s moths and butterflies. Semi-natural grassland, pasture, arable land, urban parkland and any areas with rough unmanaged grass will all support a variety of butterfly species. In the height of summer these areas can be teeming with Skippers, Common Blues, Ringlets and Meadow Browns. Be sure to inspect any flowering plants (particularly thistles and knapweeds) as these can act as vital nectaring points for many butterflies. Pay close attention for the fast and subtle movements of smaller species as these can often disappear against such a busy environment. A prime example of this is the Small Copper which is notoriously hard to spot due to its minute size, fast flight and discrete colouration (when its wings are closed).

LOOK OUT FOR:

1. Meadow Brown: Very common, with dull orange patches on the wings
2. Green-veined White: Have a distinct green colour around the wing veins
3. Small Copper: Small and fast, has deep brown and bright orange wings
4. Common Blue:
 Small with a vivid blue colour and unbroken white border
5. Six-spot Burnet (moth): Has distinct pattern, often feed on Thistles
6. Ringlet: Common, wings can appear black and have distinct yellow rings
7. Marbled White: Large slow flyers with a unique chequered pattern

Hedgerows and Woodland-Edge

Edge habitats are well known for their butterfly diversity and abundance, housing many threatened and elusive species. There are a few species which you are likely to see in these areas, however, bear in mind that species such as the Brimstone, Speckled Wood and Gatekeeper can also occur in several other habitats. Sunny areas with flowering shrub such as Bramble are hotspots for activity, particularly for Gatekeepers. Holly Blues may be hard to spot as they are mostly arboreal, only descending to feed on flowering plants such as Ivy. Woodland interiors are unlikely to yield many butterflies, particularly those with little light and/or limited forest floor plants, however open sunny glades are worth visiting.

LOOK OUT FOR:

1. Brimstone: Large with a powdered yellow/green colour and slow flight
2. Comma:
 Large with a uniquely scalloped wing edge and fast flight
3. Gatekeeper: Small size, often found around hedges with bramble growing
4. Holly Blue:
 Very small, flying around tree tops, especially those with Ivy
5. Speckled Wood
: Medium size, very territorial and regularly sun bask
6. Silver-Y (moth): Fast flying with a distinct silver ‘Y’ on the upper wing

Butterfly Conservation

Thanks to Butterfly Conservation for letting us use their images throughout this article. For more information on UK butterflies and how you can help them, please visit Butterfly Conservation.org. Here you will find a wealth of information to help you find and identify butterflies and moths.

Butterfly Field Guides

Guide to the Butterflies of Britain and Ireland
#245262
The illustrations in this guide, from originals painted by Richard Lewington, show 58 British butterfly species. The paintings are a quick identification aid to the butterflies most likely to be seen and all are drawn to life size.

 

 

Pocket Guide to the Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland
#245485
This handy pocket-sized book has become the essential guide to identifying the butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland. It contains over 600 superb illustrations of the life stages of each species, together with beautiful artworks of butterflies in their natural settings.

 

Butterflies of Britain and Europe: A Photographic Guide
#245243
Packed with beautiful photography, this is the definitive guide to all 482 species of European butterflies (42 more species compared to the first edition) with additional information on over 60 species found in the far east of Europe, stretching as far as the Urals and Caucasus.

 

Collins Butterfly Guide
#173624
This comprehensive guide describes and illustrates about 440 species, depicting both males and females and – where there is significant variation – subspecies. Distribution maps accompany every widespread species.

 

 

The Butterflies of Britain & Ireland
#245487
Provides comprehensive coverage of all our resident and migratory butterflies, including the latest information on newly discovered species such as the Cryptic Wood White and the Geranium Bronze. The definitive book on the subject, it includes fully updated distribution maps.

 

Field Guide to the Caterpillars of Great Britain and Ireland
#248267
This beautifully illustrated field guide covers caterpillars of the moth and butterfly species that are most likely to be encountered in the British Isles.