Saturday, 28 February 2015

Helping Out At The Tropical Butterly House & Moths Return To Our Garden

I spent the afternoon ensconced in a humid glass house talking to the Public about Butterflies. 

Tropical Butterflies, as it's still too chilly for our native lovelies to be out and about in any number.

These beauties had been mail ordered by a local country park in pupa form. The pupas are hung in rows on bits of wood in a special tank and when they e-close (hatch) they are transported into the glass house where they live for about two weeks before dying. The public are invited in to admire them during the month of Feb each year, and yours truly was booked to explain the life cycle/ ecology/ habits to lots of fascinated tiny weeny people and their (sometimes terrified) parents.

 Set aside the ethics of mail-order butterflies who are hatched out only to die without mating/ laying eggs/ caterpillaring/ pupating/ becoming flutters again (which I feel is dubious) it did at least provide a good opportunity to pass on a bit of education and learning to folks who were, by and large, interested and receptive, plus I had the delight of spending a couple of hours in the company of these fantastic insects and the slightly smug enjoyment of being able to have them sit on my finger when no one else was allowed to :o)

By and large the kids were great. They kept their hands off the flutters and absorbed every word I said. Even the tiniest little person who (her granny told me) was only 2. She was fascinated and was very certain indeed that the butterflies really liked marmite more than fruit :o)

The funniest dad was the one who told me they had a glass house at home but it contained a jacuzzi, and the funniest grandpa was the one who's other half was petrified of anything with wings and remained firmly on the other side of the door with her nose pressed against it staring in.

Then there was a little girl (aged about 3) who screamed her head off when a large Owl butterfly landed on her dad's head, and a teenager who took lots of photos then told me she was frightened of them!

It gave me the opportunity to explain how vitally important butterflies and moths are and why we need to look after them, how they do the same job as bees and how without them we wouldn't have all the food we did. Predictably, most of the visitors hadn't got a clue about the pollinating aspect of these marvellous insects and were interested to learn that aspect of them, so for me it was Job Done in that respect.

I was also able to explain how camouflage works by showing the little ones the empty pupa cases which all look like dried leaves and which they loved.

Also how aposematic colouration works as an anti-predator device. Think yellow and black warning colours of bees and wasps, or red and black cinnabar moths which are poisonous to birds. This flutter was my example and very kindly sat still on my finger for ages so I could show the kids how his colours worked. Dark on the top to enable him to hide in shady places, then a flash of red and black underneath as a warning if he was worried. He has no venom of course, so this kind of warning colour is called Batesian, meaning harmless.


The box full of pupas which were still to hatch was an eye opener. They drill holes in wooden batons, stuff them with cotton wool, dab a blob of PVC glue on the cotton wool and attach the pupas to it. The box is maintained at the correct temperature and kept humid with regular additions of water and the flutters hatch out after 7-10 days. You can just see the large Owl flutter who has not long e-closed and is hanging on waiting for his wings to fill with fluid and become viable.

Of course, these butterflies can not survive outside in our climate so the glass house was also maintained at the correct temperature and humidity for them. This Swallowtail (below) had not long emerged from his pupa so we moved him in to the glass house, much to the excitement of the watching children who oohed and aahed at him sitting on my finger :o)

On a linked theme, I had the Moth Box out this week and lo and behold we got six species of moth in it, leading me to believe that Moth Season is well and truly getting started. 

One species was new to the garden, and that is a Spring Usher, which I like the sound of. We got two slightly different colour forms which was nice. These are both boys - Mrs Spring Usher is flightless and therefore wingless and therefore can be mistaken for a fat grub on occasion!

Also paying us a visit were...

Pale Brindled Beauty

Hebrew Character

March Moth

Acleris notana (I think)

Hebrew Character

Dark Chestnut (although it could possibly be a Chestnut. If it is a DC it will be a good record as there aren't many of them about in my neck of the woods)



It was lovely to see them all and have them near once more.

I have worked out what's wrong with my finger, BTW- I've strained the tendon, so unfortunately this means less computer work and therefore blog writing/ reading/ commenting for a while till it's better. Please forgive me if I'm not around as often as usual for a while. Luckily, it doesn't impinge my sewing with Phyllis :o)

Hope everyone is well and enjoying the weekend?

CT :o)

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Behind The Scenes At Oxford's Natural History Museum Where I Fell In Love....

Well, it's not even ten o'clock and so far this morning I have: dropped L at school, done the food shop for the weekend, walked the dogs and had a blood test. Busy, busy, busy.

Yesterday, we had a college trip to the Natural History Museum in Oxford which has to be one of the best places for naturalists and entomologists in the country.

I have been before, but never behind the scenes to where the researchers work and the oldest collections are housed. We had a guided tour by the Head of Life Collections and saw things that, if you're keen on natural history, you would find amazing and spine-tingling.

Those of you who know your Evolutionary History will know that the Oxford Museum houses the room in which the Great Debate between pro-Darwin Huxley and anti-Darwin Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, took place on June 30th 1860. Darwin's theory of Evolution by Natural Selection had been published the previous year and as such was a revolutionary concept strongly resisted by the Church. The arguments for and against it that were voiced in this room were as fierce as you might imagine.

I have seen the room in a documentary on tele before but I still got goose bumps when we actually went and stood inside it..

Now it is lined with lots of cabinets containing numerous important collections...

It also has beautiful windows...

The museum houses some vitally important collections, such as the Zoological Collection and the Hope Entomological Collection. Together these comprise several million specimens, including many that are now extinct, such as this display of British butterflies which includes two specimens of Bloxworth Blues (Short-Tailed Blue), extinct in the UK and only seen as a rare migrant...

They also have a room dedicated to British entomological species which contains examples of every insect in the UK. It is used for taxonomic and species checking purposes. Of course I asked to see the Moths, and we were able to hold this display of Hawk Moths which Dave is modelling for me :o)

Here's a close up of the Death's-head Hawkmoth from that display. It is the only moth to make a noise (it squeaks). Just look at the size of the caterpillar!

Among the collections are specimens brought back by Darwin from his voyage around the world on the Beagle, 1831-1836. His presence on board as the Ship's Naturalist made it one of the most famous ships and journeys in the world. The picture below shows insects caught by Darwin in Australia and brought back to England where they were eventually given to the museum. You can see from the label that one of them was named after him. It is amazing to me to think these creatures were last seen alive by Darwin, a hundred and fifty years ago.


The museum also some Tsetsee flies caught and labelled by Dr Livingstone (famous explorer and campaigner for an end to the slave trade who disappeared in 1864 in Africa, only to be found again by Henry Stanley in 1871 with the immortal words: 'Dr Livingstone, I presume?'). You can just make out his name above the squashed insects on the middle paper.

The next photo is a collection of bees, showing the biggest bee in the world (middle row, 2/3 of the way down).

 And here is one of beetles...

And here we all are looking at another collection of beetles which was instrumental in preventing the mis-identification of a type of beetle as a new taxa. Cutting edge science, eh? :o)

As well as all the insects, the museum also has the only surviving specimen of Dodo from which soft tissue and therefore DNA can be taken. As a result of this, scientists from Oxford University were able to confirm that the Dodo is closely related to pigeons and thus solve once and for all the question of its ancestry.
This is the leg bone of the Dodo from which the DNA was taken for this research- you can see the cut where the DNA was removed...

After all that you could be forgiven for thinking that no further excitement could possibly be had or indeed taken, but you would be wrong, because we then went to see the live specimens and that is where I fell in love.

You don't think a dried, crumpled, brown leaf is a fair thing to fall in love with?

How about now?

She's a Ghost Mantis. And they are very shy, nervous little creature. Ghost Mantids eat flies but bigger prey can often frighten them. I was Utterly Captivated by her- in fact, she had a strange effect on most of the members of the class. She moved very gracefully and delicately and when she grew brave enough she turned her little head to look carefully at everybody. She sat on my finger for ages and I would quite happily have taken her home, although I did allow my buddy Dave to hold her - for a while :o)

Amazing camouflage eh? (that's the Mantis, not Dave).

We were also given the opportunity to hold Hissing Cockroaches- the boy hissed, his wife was quieter...

And then this gorgeously coloured Praying Mantis. She was much bolder than the Ghost and kept leaping about all over the place...

She Quite Liked my camera :o)

There was also this incredible Leaf Insect...

While I was busy being captivated by my little Ghost Mantis, the rest of the class suddenly gathered round and oohs and ahhs were emitted....

If, like me, you are NOT a spidery person, skip the next photo. 

Fortunately, the Tarantula didn't stay out long and then we were all entertained by the Scorpion, who turned bright blue when the light was switched off and the ultra violet went on...

When the normal daylight returned, he faded back to black..

Apols for the blurry pic- he was a right old wriggler and wouldn't keep still :o)

Science has no consensus on why they've evolved to glow under ultra-violet light, but one theory is that it's to do with converting the moon and stars' ultra-violet light into the colour they see best, which is blue-green. The suggestion is that they do this by turning their entire bodies into light collectors and it may help them locate shelter.

Scorpion stings, are, of course, toxic and painful. The rule of thumb is that fat tails and thin claws indicate more highly toxic stings than thin tails and fat claws. This chap pinches his handler whenever he's nervous and stings him about once a year! He was worried when he was in his house and raised his tail to warn us to Keep Away, but he soon settled down enough to be picked up (although not by any of us).

It was a Top Day Out. I learned so much and saw so many things I really didn't expect to see. The museum is well worth a visit as the public-access areas have amazing things on display with well written and simple information boards that help you understand what you're looking at. There is also the Pitt Rivers museum next door which is an interesting place too.

Hope you enjoyed all of that. In a break with tradition, and because I think she deserves it, I will leave you with a final picture of my beautiful and graceful Ghost Mantis...

Hope you are all well?

CT :o) 

PS- Ive edited to add these amazing stone carvings which are part of the Victorian building. Also, a very old indeed hand axe made from flint and this equally ancient venus (Jennifer, the carvings are for you!) x