Kirsty Brown – Conservation Project Assistant
Bugs – do you love them, or hate them?
I love them. Ever since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, I’ve been keen to have some random creature in my hand, and because of their usual accessibility and small size, these creatures have usually been insects.
Growing up in Houston in the USA, magical fireflies blinking at dusk were amongst the first to take my fancy, and I’d happily gather them gently into my bug-barn (as built by my Dad) and watch their eerie green glow. They sometimes accompanied me on the yellow school bus to take pride of place during show-and-tell. The large, green tomato horn worms (hawkmoth caterpillar) were also a favourite of mine to collect. I guess I must have been reasonably cautious in my collecting as, despite the many poisonous/stinging/biting/hairy creatures around Houston and picked up on various camping trips in the Rocky Mountains, I am happy to say I am still alive, intact, and fascinated!
When my family later moved to Eglwysbach in North Wales, my bug-barn was constantly filled with a variety of invertebrates, though I soon discovered snails didn’t make good guests, as they slimed up the inside, creating a sticky trap for my next ‘pet’. Gerald Durrell’s book ‘My Family and Other Animals’ was a great source of inspiration. Although there weren’t quite so many bright and shiny insects here compared with the USA, I raised caterpillars – impressive mini-snake-like Elephant Hawk moths, fluffy Yellow-Tail moths, and notorious Cabbage White butterflies – poring over bug books to determine their food-plants, life cycles and characteristics, watching as the caterpillars turned into chrysalises, and the magical metamorphosis into butterflies and moths. I also kept stick insects in a tank and ants in an ant-farm (which was not quite escape proof, to my mother’s delight!).
Pupation and Adult stages
At University, my dissertation was on seaweed flies – ironic because being at the University of Leicester, I was pretty far from the coast! Following graduation from University, I secured a job with a company near Edinburgh, and identified over 70,000 invertebrates as part of a project studying insect growth regulators. These insecticides disrupt pest insect development, and had been applied to livestock. The study assessed for any effect on beneficial invertebrates in the field, with particular attention paid to dung and those insects such as dung beetles and dung flies, which help break it down. I usually had the whole laboratory to myself, due to the wonderful aroma.
I’ve also worked at the Central Science Laboratory (now Fera), and helped raise a variety of invertebrates, including springtails, cabbage white butterflies, lacewings, soil mites and Eisenia fetida (tiger or compost worms). The worms were kept in huge containers, about 4x3m in size, filled with soil, and we fed them with oats, lettuce and other vegetable matter. Each summer, I identified aphids as part of the Aphid Monitoring Scheme, to help farmers decide whether insecticide sprays were required, as several species are vectors for plant diseases. I also kept a ‘pet’ praying mantis, whose head swivelled as she watched me with her huge iridescent eyes…
Insects continued to be a theme when I joined the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust as a trainee. I was able to delve into the identification of our native British species, and learned about the threats from habitat fragmentation and climate change. And now I’m working for the North York Moors National Park Authority.
At the North York Moors National Park, I see a great diversity of invertebrates almost every time I venture out to grant aid the restoration of walls and hedges, and to advance our habitat connectivity programme. This summer has been warm and dry, and so has been particularly good for butterflies and moths.
One of our regular volunteers found a lovely Golden-bloomed Grey Longhorn beetle up at Sutton Bank when we were surveying the species rich grassland. The beetle was particularly interesting as they are usually found in the south of England and not this far north.
The lovely red-headed cardinal beetle and coppery click-beetle, are amongst the prettier beetles to be found in this area.
Even on holiday…
Costa Rica has proved to be an excellent holiday destination for someone interested in entomology. I saw a click beetle with glowing ‘eyes’ in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, a terracotta-coloured longhorn beetle posed for a picture, and during a night walk, I photographed a most incredible web-casting spider. A scorpion also decided to bed down for the night in our suitcase…I couldn’t have been more delighted.
On a trip this summer to Gran Canaria, I couldn’t help photographing some of the local insects, though this huge robber fly got a bit close to my head, even for my liking! Robber flies ambush other flying insects, and even eat bees.
Never ending fascination
Over the summer, I attended the Royal Entomological Society’s European Congress of Entomology, in York. The speakers were world-class, and discussed all sorts of issues such as controlling mosquitoes to rid the world of malaria, stepping in to help the last few endemic water beetles trapped in the Sierra Nevada as Spain becomes hotter and drier with climate change, and how incredibly useful Citizen Science has become through websites and apps such as iSpot.
I know I can’t go for a walk without carefully lifting (and replacing!) various stones and logs, to see what I might find. You might be the same. You might like to have a go at building a bug hotel in your garden, then you can attract your own local mini-beasts.
We have our own North York Moors National Park wildlife recording system, and we’re always keen to know what people have seen so we can build up a picture of what is about in the North York Moors. The information you give will help us conserve these amazing and vital creatures.
We have our own Discovery Days, here in the National Park – the next one is 29 October 2014. If you’d like to get more involved with bugs in the United Kingdom, the Amateur Entomological Society and Buglife have lots of information, activities and events. Watch out for National Insect Week events, such as bio-blitzes.
There is no getting away from it, I love bugs.