Mystery insect found in Museum garden

Press release - 15 July 2008

An insect discovered on the doorstep of the Natural History Museum is baffling the experts who work there. A tiny red and black bug has appeared in the Museum’s Wildlife Garden that has never been seen in the UK before. Insect specialists at the Museum are still trying to identify the mystery newcomer.

The almond-shaped bug is about the size as a grain of rice and was first seen in the Museum’s Wildlife Garden in March 2007 on the seeds of some of the plane trees that grow in the Museum grounds. It increased in numbers so quickly that by August 2007 it was the most common insect in the Wildlife Garden. It was also been spotted in Regent’s Park and Gray’s Inn in London in 2006. The bug appears to be harmless, but there is potential for it to spread throughout the UK.

The Museum holds the national insect collection, which totals over 28 million specimens, but there is no exact match for this new bug. It closely resembles the fairly rare species Arocatus roeselii that is usually found in central Europe. However, the roeselii bugs are brighter red than this new bug and they are usually associated with alder trees rather than plane trees. The National Museum in Prague discovered an exact match to the mystery bug in their collections – an insect that was found in Nice and had been classified as Arocatus roeselii.

Max Barclay, insect expert at the Museums says, ‘It seems strange that so many of these bugs should suddenly appear. There are two possible explanations – that the bug is roeselii and by switching to feed on the plane trees it could suddenly become more abundant, successful and invasive. The other possibility is that the insect in our grounds may not be roeselii at all.’

The Museum will be working with international colleagues to analyse the bug’s body shape, form and DNA to see whether it is a newly discovered species or if it is in fact Arocatus roeselii.

Max Barclay further commented, ‘With international trade and climate change, several new insects are showing up in London every year. Some of the invaders come from southern Europe, but others are from as far away as Australia The fauna of the city is changing all the time now.’

Ends

Notes for editors

• The Entomology Department is one of six science departments at the Natural History Museum. The Entomology collections amount to 28 million specimens stored in 140,000 drawers. Scientists in the department study insects and other terrestrial arthropods, including spiders and mites in a wide range of research projects across the world.
• Set in the grounds of the Natural History Museum, the Wildlife Garden reveals a range of British lowland habitats, including woodland, meadow and pond. It demonstrates the potential for wildlife conservation in the inner city.
• Scientists at the Natural History Museum have established the first ever freely accessibly online insect identification gallery featuring photographs from members of the public and any questions can be addressed in the bug forum and discussed with other enthusiasts www.nhm.ac.uk/identify-bugs
• Selected by Time Out in 2007 as one of the Seven Wonders of London, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in 68 countries.