Insect stamps launch

15 April 2008

Outstanding images of insects adorn a new set of 10 first class stamps, launched by the Royal Mail today.

Museum photographer Harry Taylor captured the images from specimens in the Natural History Museum's collection of 28 million insects.

The hazel pot beetle, red-barbed ant and the stag beetle are some of the 10 highlighted insects, all of which are under threat of extinction in the UK, mostly due to habitat loss.

'The insect stamps are absolutely spectacular,' says Julietta Edgar, Head of Special Stamps at the Royal Mail. 'Most people jump a mile when you talk about insects! The latest set of 10 stamps demonstrates perfectly how important and amazing each insect is, and also how beautiful and delicate they really are.'

Eighty per cent of world species

There are more species of insect in the world than any other group, representing about 80% of the world's species. Insects play a vital role in nature, pollinating plants, recycling animal dung and much more.

Museum collection

The Natural History Museum looks after one of the world's most important entomology collections. The 28 million specimens have been gathered over the last 400 years and are studied by scientists at the Museum and all over the world.

Stag beetle
Stag beetle

Stag beetle

The stag beetle is Britain's largest beetle and despite its fearsome looking mandibles (jaws) it is entirely harmless. They live in London and it is urban development and humans that are the threats to this species. The beetles seem to be attracted to warm tarmac and pavements making them prime targets for unintentional crushing. Intensive landscape management has deprived the female beetles of the damp, decaying timber they need for laying their eggs.

'The good news,' says Stuart Hine, insect expert at the Museum, 'is that stag beetles can be encouraged by every keen gardener. They do a great job at eating rotting wood, returning all the minerals back to the soil, but won't touch living plants or shrubs.'

Adonis blue
Adonis blue butterfly

Adonis blue butterfly

The adonis blue is a small, sky-blue butterfly that went into dramatic decline in the 1950s when much of its habitat of chalky, short grassland was lost. Some research suggested this decline was connected to the outbreak of myxomatosis that ravaged the rabbit population and meant that grassland was not grazed.

'Thanks to conservation projects the adonis blue has returned to Dorset and Wiltshire' says Hine. 'Officially recognised as a priority species, habitat deterioration remains the adonis blue's greatest threat.'

Southern damselfly
Southern damselfly

Southern damselfly

With vivid blue and black colouring, the small southern damselfly is recognised as internationally endangered. 'Estimates put up to 25% of the southern damselfly global population in the UK' says Hine. 'Being globally under threat, the British Isles remains its last stronghold.'

The southern damselfly has very specific habitat requirements. Rising stream levels and reduced grazing on heathland has greatly impacted on the UK population, which over the last 40 years has declined by 30%.

Purbeck mason wasp

Purbeck mason wasp

It is found in the New Forest of Hampshire and the Preseli mountains of Pembrokeshire. Smaller colonies have also been recorded in Devon, Dorset, Anglesey, Gower and Oxfordshire.

Purbeck mason wasp

The Purbeck mason wasp is a small, red, black and yellow wasp. It has very specific habitat requirements and is restricted to just seven heathland sites in the Poole Basin area of Dorset.

Red-barbed ant
Red-barbed ant

Red-barbed ant

One of the UK's rarest native species, the red-barbed ant, is restricted to just one site in Surrey on mainland England. Loss of habitat has been blamed for its critical status as many heathlands have become overgrown or destroyed through urban and industrial development.

'I am particularly pleased to have had an opportunity to push the red-barbed ant forward,' says Hine. 'It is on the brink of extinction in the UK and is to be afforded some serious, and welcome, conservation efforts during 2008.'

Barberry carpet moth
Barberry carpet moth

Barberry carpet moth

The barberry carpet moth was once widespread in the UK with its population reaching from Cornwall to Yorkshire. Removal of ancient hedgerows and woodland margins commonly containing the larvae's main food source - the barberry bush - led to the moth's near extinction in the 1950s.

The barberry carpet moth is now officially protected and the reintroduction of the barberry bush and a captive breeding program has enabled it to begin to recover in Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Dorset.

Hazel pot beetle
Hazel pot beetle

Hazel pot beetle

The hazel pot beetle is so called because its larvae are hatched in 'pots' made of dung. The reasons for the small, red beetle's dramatic decline is not fully understood but research has indicated it could be due to the reduction of hazel coppicing and widespread removal of birch from heathland. Colonies are found in Lincolnshire, Surrey and Berkshire.

'Thanks to efforts by conservationists the colony in Lincolnshire is thriving. More needs to be learnt about the beetle's behaviour to help other groups develop their own strategies,' Hine adds.

Field cricket
Field cricket

Field cricket

Twenty years ago the field cricket was reduced to just one site in West Sussex and is now one of the UK's rarest native species. Changes to land management have caused much of the species preferred habitat of bare ground to deteriorate, while changes in climate may also have impacted on the cricket's reproduction cycle.

Now officially protected, a captive breeding programme has resulted in the reintroduction of two smaller colonies of field crickets in southern England.

Silver-spotted skipper
Silver-spotted skipper

Silver-spotted skipper

The sliver-spotted skipper butterfly was once widespread in the UK but went into dramatic decline in the 1950s. Within 30 years its population had depleted by as much as 89%. Thriving on open, chalky grassland, colonies have been reported across the South and North Downs.

'This is one of the few butterflies to have actually expanded its own range,' says Hine. 'Since the 1980s numbers have increased by about 30%. These figures have now stabilised.'

Noble chafer
Noble chafer

Noble chafer

A jewel-like metallic-green beetle, the noble chafer occurs in old orchards and some woodland areas. Wood management and the removal of many orchards have deprived the female beetles of the damp, decaying timber they need for laying their eggs. The beetle has been rare for over a century but is now found only in pockets - mainly in old fruit growing regions - in the New Forest, Evesham and Wyre Forest.

'The noble chafer is shy and retiring and spends much of its life as a grub. Subsequently, we know very little about them,' says Hine.

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