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The Dark Side of Weevils

Posted by Blaps Jun 9, 2015

Weevil researcher Dr. Chris Lyal elucidates on the darker side of weevil life-histories...they are not as friendly as you may have imagined...




Weevils are perhaps the most inoffensive of beetles - well, unless you’re a farmer, forester or horticulturalist, in which case you may take a rather dimmer view of them, since some species of this huge group are major plant pests.  However, to focus on the animals themselves and ignore inconvenient economics, they seem to look out at the world through immense soulful eyes, and trundle rather erratically along like one of those clockwork plastic children’s toys with slightly more legs than are truly manageable. As herbivores, they spend their lives up to their antennae in plants, nibbling at leaves and flowers, buds and roots.  They may have a long projecting rostrum at the front of their heads, but they do not behave like horse-flies, bed-bugs or any of the rest of the blood-sucking brigade and try and force it through your skin and suck out your life-juices. Adult weevils are covered in scales and sometimes very brightly coloured, but they have a previous existence as a larva, chomping their vegetarian way inside fruit, stems, leaves or roots. Larvae are fat, white, legless comma-shaped beasts, almost blind and apparently interested only in food. Again, not one of nature’s  bad boys (unless, as I said, you are concerned with keeping plants alive, in which case I may be irritating you by now). However, not all is as it seems. Some weevils, it turns out, have a darker side to their nature. Some are killers. Some are cannibals.


Damnux sp nov.jpg


Damnux species, a seed predator of dipterocarp trees in Thailand.


Our first instance is rather sad, albeit with a shocking element. Most weevil females drill a hole in the host plant using their rostrum – the projection of the front of the head at the end of which is the mouth. They then turn around and carefully lay their egg in the bottom of the hole they have produced. This process, to the observer, can be tense – how does the female know where the hole is? Will she find it, probing blindly with her ovipositor? Not always, it turns out. Several species of European Ceutorhynchine weevils, including the stem cabbage weevil Ceutorhynchus napi, occasionally lay their eggs too soon, and miss their carefully drilled hole. The larva would not survive, were the egg to even hatch. Pragmatically (though not sentimentally – but one can take anthropomorphism too far), rather than waste the resource the female will eat the egg, and therefore be able to use the nutrition to develop more eggs[1] . More deliberate is the elegant Ludovix fasciatus, which lays its eggs in the stems of the water hyacinth, Eichornia crassipes. This is no simple placement in the plant tissue – the female probes with her long slender rostrum until she finds eggs of the grasshopper Cornops, already laid inside the stem. On finding a clutch, she inserts her rostrum into one and, rather like drinking milk from a coconut through a straw, drains the contents. She then lays a single egg and the larva, when it hatches, eats the rest[2] .  Even more extreme is Anthribus nebulosus, another European weevil, which has taken on some of the characteristics of a parasitoid. In this case the female searches out scale insects on coniferous trees, just after the scale produces eggs. The beetle chews a hole in the scale and lays an egg in the ovisac; when the larva hatches it stays where it is, feeding on the scale’s eggs and nymphs before pupating in the same place. When the adults emerge they feed on the remains of the scale, with the occasional pause to imbibe some honeydew as an accompaniment.  Scale insects are not the only Hemiptera to suffer at the mouths of weevils. Researchers in a lab in New Zealand a few years ago, studying resistance of grasses to the pest weevil Listronotus bonariensis, noticed that aphids accidentally included on the grass vanished during the experiments.  Closer examination revealed the adult weevils, if they encountered an aphid as they walked across the plant, would ‘grasp and rupture the aphid with the mandibles, followed by mastication and ingestion’[3]. Nice



A  ramezei larva.jpg

The larva of a molytine weevil, Alcidodes ramezei, in a dipterocarp seed.

The instance that led me to this curculionoid underworld, however, is more extreme, and that was a paper that came out recently on a seed-feeding weevil, with an intriguing title: “Curculio Curculis lupus: biology, behavior and morphology of immatures of the cannibal weevil Anchylorhynchus eriospathae[4] . Many weevils feed on plant seeds as larvae. This is a very good source of food, neatly packaged and concentrated. With one exception, the bizarre cycad-feeding brentid Antliarhinus (of which more, perhaps, another time) generally only one or, more rarely, a few, weevils can develop in a single seed. In fieldwork I sometimes find, on opening a seed, a weevil pupa fully occupying the interior, neatly packaged and waiting to emerge. How weevils arrange this singular occupancy is not clear. In some cases, perhaps, females can detect if another female has already oviposited and avoid the fruit; in others, there may be so many fruit and so few weevils that competition is rare. Perhaps if there is more than one larva there is simply not enough food and one or both starve – so-called ‘scramble competition’.  Maize weevils normally produce several adults from a single seed however many eggs are laid, and aggression between larvae has been seen by X-raying the seed. In the case of two weevils feeding on fruit of the palm Syagrus, however, the mechanism is known, and it’s not pretty. Most weevil larvae have broad triangular mandibles, suitable for chewing plant tissue.




This is the case of the older larvae of weevils in the genera Revena, a baridine, and Anchylorhynchus, a curculionine.  In both cases, however, the first instar larva is different.  The mandibles are long, slender and pointed – predator’s mandibles.  With such mandibles chewing plant material would be difficult, but piercing and killing other insects – that is where one sees this morphology in other beetles. The first intimation of what was happening was in a paper by Cecilia Alves-Kosta and Chrisoph Knogge in 2005[5] , where they discovered the first instar larvae attacked and killed one another, should more than one egg be laid in a fruit. The larva remained in this killer instar until the endocarp of the fruit hardened and no more eggs could be laid, after which it moulted into the more ‘normal’ second instar.  The story was elaborated more recently by Bruno Souza de Medeiros and his colleagues who last year published the paper mentioned above on the ‘weevil wolf’, Anchylorhynchus eriospathae.



Larval mandibles 1st.jpg

Anchylorhynchus eriospathae larval mandibles (redrawn from de Medeiros et al, 2014):  first instar, dorsal and ventral.

Larval mandibles 2nd.jpg


Anchylorhynchus eriospathae larval mandibles (redrawn from de Medeiros et al, 2014): 2nd instar, dorsal and ventral.


Like Revena, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th instar larvae have blunt triangular mandibles and, like Revena, those of the first instar are long, slender and pointed. In this case the eggs are laid on the flowers before the fruit are formed, and the larvae, flattened and with long setae to detect their competitors and prey, slide between the sepals and petals of the flower and fruit, fighting and killing others they find.

Unlike Revena they then eat them, a so-far unique observation of cannibalism in weevils. Some cases have been seen of more than one later instar in a fruit, but in this case the ignore one another, other than feeding at opposite ends of the fruit in scramble competition to mature earlier than their competitor – other weevil larvae entering the fruit may still be killed, however.  The two beetles showing this amazing development of the first instar are not closely related, and similar adaptations have not been seen elsewhere in seed-feeding weevils (other than in congeneric species on the same hosts).  On the other hand, not many people have looked.  In fact, we apparently need to look even more widely. Since I wrote the text above another paper has revealed intraspecific aggression in weevils with a totally different lifestyle, where the larvae live externally on the plant – members of the subfamily Hyperinae. Jiří Skuhrovec and his colleagues found that fighting to the death can occur in cultures of two different hyperfine species, Hypera postica and Brachypera vidua[6]. In this case there does not seem to be cannibalism or modification of the mouthparts (although they have introduced some wonderful terms: ‘offensive larva’, ‘defensive larva’ and ‘combat ball’).

What would lead to the evolution of the behaviour and morphology in these weevils, especially those attacking the Syagrus seeds? The leaf-feeding Hyperinae only demonstrate the behaviour when there is insufficient food.  For the seed-feeders one perhaps critical factor is the very high seed-predator load of the plant; it is not unusual for 100% of the seeds to be attacked. This would lead to intense competition, driving the weevils to develop means of eliminating other larvae competing for the same resource – and maybe obtain some extra nutrient at the same time.  One thing is clear – there can be only one.   



[1] Kozlowski, M.W., 2003, Consumption of own eggs by curculionid females (Coleoptera: Curculionidae: Curculioninae, Ceutorhynchinae) – Weevil News:, No.10, 4pp., CURCULIO-Institut: Mönchengladbach (ISSN 1615-3472).

[2] Zwolfer, H. & Bennett, F.D., 1969, Ludovix fasciatus Gyll. (Col., Curculioninae), an entomophagous weevil. Entomologists Monthly Magazine, 105: 122-123

[3] Barker, G.M., 2006, Predation on aphids by the herbivorous weevil Listronotus bonariensis (Kuschel) (Coleoptera: Curculionidae: Brachyceridae).  The Coleopterists Bulletin, 60(2), 164-165.

[4] de Medeiros et al. (2014), Curculio Curculis lupus: biology, behavior and morphology of immatures of the

cannibal weevil Anchylorhynchus eriospathae G. G. Bondar, 1943. PeerJ 2:e502; DOI 10.7717/peerj.502

[5 Alves-Costa CP, Knogge C. 2005. Larval competition in weevils Revena rubiginosa (Coleoptera:

Curculionidae) preying on seeds of the palm Syagrus romanzoffiana (Arecaceae).

Naturwissenschaften 92:265–268 DOI 10.1007/s00114-005-0620-6.

[6] Jiří Skuhrovec, Pavel Štys & Alice Exnerová (2015) Intraspecific larval aggression in two species of Hyperini (Coleoptera: Curculionidae), Journal of Natural History, 49:19-20, 1131-1146, DOI: 10.1080/00222933.2014.974704


The above date marks the sad passing of one of the Museum’s tiniest volunteers: In early February I discovered Beetah, my Carabus violaceous lying still on her coconut substrate, and to be honest, a little dried out.



My little pet worked hard in life to inspire the public with entomological wonder of what living gems can be found in local parks, let alone the wider world, so I think it’s only fair to take time and reflect on her life and service upon her passing.



Obituary: This Carabus violaceus specimen was collected live while Hillery Warner was taking a walk in Nonsuch Park with her 1 ½ year old son, Dominic on 29/08/2013. Dominic christened the specimen "Beetah" on the spot and it was kept as a family pet until its death of natural causes in early 2015, at which point it was brought to the Museum to join the collections on 11/02/2015. 


Beetah led a lavish life for a ground beetle, feasting on fish cakes and the finest chunks and jelly from packets of cat food. She apparently reproduced while in captivity and two of her offspring are also in the collection.  While not an official front of house Museum employee, Beetah wore her public-engagement-purple elytral margins with pride, inspiring visitors at Science Uncovered 2013 and 2014. She also acted as an entomological ambassador during National Insect Week, 2014 where she met artists and UK celebrity Jonathan Ross. While the lights have left the multifaceted ommatidia of her compound eyes, she may yet "see" another Science Uncovered as she continues her service to the Museum in death as she did in life, entering her new role as museum specimen.


I found my beetle back in 2013 in a park near my home while walking with my then 1 ½ year old son. As I keenly showed my son this lovely large black beetle with iridescent purple pronotal and elytral margins, he enthusiastically named it ‘Beetah’ and I detected some bonding going on, so I decided Beetah would live with us as a pet. I initially added a snail or two to her tank but soon discovered she was much happier to dine on my husband’s fish cakes. In fact, she ate so much fish cake that I noticed not long after that single meal that she had plumped up so much that her plural suture stretched enough that the underlying membrane was showing. I thought she was just fat.


Some time later there were a number, (at least 5), carabid larvae running around the tank (I’m sorry I called you fat, Beetah). How did this happen with just one beetle? In short, it didn’t, but insect reproduction is amazing and entomologists never pass up an opportunity to talk a bit about genitalia!



The christening of “Beetah”:   Almost as good as the whole Mofasa/baboon/Simba thing from that ’90’s movie.



Internal female genital structures of carabid species Badister amazonus (Erwin & Ball, 2011).

Female insects have an internal genital structure called a spermatheca.  Upon mating, sperm is stored in the spermatheca rather than going straight to the eggs for fertilization.  The release of sperm from the spermatheca is under hormonal control and so the female can wait until conditions are ideal for reproduction before releasing the sperm from this structure to fertilize her eggs.  This could mean waiting to find a suitable insect host for a parasitoid wasp, or finding enough fish cake to suitably supply the eggs with nourishment for pet Beetahs'.  Lady insects have quite a lot of control over this and scientists have reported carabids going for as long as 10 months without contact with males before ovipositing (Gilgado & Ortuño, 2012) and honey bees can store sperm for over 3 years (Gullan & Cranston, 2000).

While both mother and larvae enjoyed cat food, I noticed that the larvae were active and fed during the day while mum was nocturnal.  (I often described having a pet carabid like having a 6-legged carnivorous hamster due to the audible night time scrabbling sounds coming from her tank).  This division of activity surely reduces the likelihood of intraspecific predation in nature.  (Metamorphosis is a generally fantastic strategy to reduce intraspecific competition).  I won’t comment on what happened to the larvae.  Truthfully, I don’t know for sure (ref. 1).  I’ll just let the mystery be.


Not long after that exciting event, Beetah began her work as and Museum volunteer.  Her first public outreach event was Science Uncovered, 2013 where she assisted Dr. Eggleton and Dr. Inward in delighting the public with the wonders of soil associated invertebrates.  In 2014 she participated in both a second Science Uncovered and National Insect Week activities where she met artists and an English television and radio presenter named Jonathan Ross, among other visitors.

I did rather wonder if she might make it to a third Science Uncovered (alive) but alas, she saw her last sunsets in early 2015. So what did I do with the husk of my fallen friend?  Put the kettle on for her, of course.  One of the quickest ways to get a desiccated beetle specimen relaxed for mounting is to pop it into warm water (ref. 2.)  So after a few minutes of steeping a Beetah tea, I pulled her out of the hot water, wrapped her in moist tissue, and took her to work.



Steeping beetle tea prior to mounting.  These are Rothschild bequest beetles I prepared from our dried accession material.



Beetah all set on her mounting board.

Once at the Museum, I pinned and set Beetah with extra-special care - after all, a Beetah’s work doesn’t finish just because haemolymph stops pumping through her dorsal vessel (or “heart”- but insect circulatory systems are very different to vertebrates’.  See ‘Insect Circulation in Short, below).  Oh no, I fully expect her to continue public outreach duties long after death- no rest for the dead in entomology! Normally, I would tuck a specimen’s antennae a bit closer to its body to make them less vulnerable to breakage and save them best for taxonomic preservation and study, but Beetah is a common species, already identified and described long ago so setting her for a really attractive dorsal habitus with no limb overlap won out over supreme specimen protection.


Once set out nicely and (re)dried, it was time to label her up and database her.  We here at the Museum hope to digitize our entire collection.  With 80 million objects, this is no small ask so we’re coming up with snazzy ways to do this as efficiently as possible, but Beetah, being a single and super special specimen, I entered into our digital catalogue individually, manually, myself.  Her unique identifier is now and forever 1681080.  The data matrix attached to her pin jutting out clearly visible from above can be read by computers and smart phones to quickly access all her collection information.  The details of where and when she was collected are now digitally stored along with her species determination, (obituary), and where she’s kept in our cavernous labyrinth of cabinets so she can be easily retrieved for, oh, I don’t know maybe I will make her make an appearance for her third Science Uncovered in September….


P.S.- If my son asks any of you where Beetah is… she’s at the Museum.  Just leave it at that.

Insect Circulation in Short: One of the more basic zoological divisions in the animal kingdom is that of deuterostomes vs. protostomes.  These terms roughly translate to “second mouth” vs. “first mouth”.  When the first divot forms in the blob of cells that eventually grows into an animal, it is destined to either become a mouth, or a bottom.  Our cell-blob-divot becomes an used-food exit route, so we’re deuterostomes.  Insects’ divot becomes a mouth.  So right from the start insects couldn’t be much more different to us.



A rather useless diagram showing the end destination for the blastopore in both protostome and deuterostome blastocysts.


Other equally fundamental differences in development mean that while our nerve chord is in our back, insects’ are in their chests.  Our heart is in our chest. Insects’ “hearts” are in their backs.  But the location of an insect heart isn’t the only huge difference to our circulatory system.  Our blood carries nutrients and oxygen to cells, but insect blood only carries nutrients.  Our blood is closed into veins, arteries, and capillaries.  Insect blood washes more or less freely around the body cavity.  The insect “heart” is basically a tube with muscles and valves that takes in haemolymph from around the midgut of an insect where nutrients from digested food diffuses into the “blood” and then pumps it into the head where it’s released to freely wash over the all-important primary ganglion (brain) and then wishily washily work its way back to the tail end of the insect; feeding cells and picking up waste on its way.

Terms Badly Explained

Desiccated- Dried up.  Because scientists decided one word with 4 syllables is more efficient communication than two one-syllable words.
Dorsal habitus- The view normal to the lateral plane of the animals’ body.  Whatever that means.
Elytral- Of the elytra, which are the hard forewings of a beetle.
Haemolymph- Insect blood.  It’s not Haemoglobin because it doesn’t bother with oxygen-carrying globulin proteins.  There are exceptions- some larvae in oxygen deprived environments have proper haemoglobin but this is a badly explained term, not another blog topic.
Intraspecific- Within a species.  Interspecific would be between species.  Like interstates are roads that travel between states.  Intrastates would be roads that don’t cross state lines.  Like a roundabout in the middle of Kentucky.  I’m clearly an American.
Parasitoid- Like a parasite but much much more dark and disturbing.
Plural Suture- Where the top tough exoskeleton bits meet the bottom exoskeleton bits on the side of
an insect’s belly.  The side-seam.
Pronotal- Of the pronotum.  Which is the first notum.       (Which is the top part of the thorax.  The thorax is divided into three sections).
Spermatheca- a copulatory receptical.
Substrate- Stuff on the ground.  Dirt.  Leaves.  Gravel.  Bark.  Sand.  And such.


Ref 1. Two of the larvae joined the collection.
Ref 2. This works for any insect that isn’t overly hairy or scaly but is bad for DNA.


Erwin T, Ball G (2011) Badister Clairville, 1806: A new species and new continental record for the nominate subgenus in Amazonian Perú (Coleoptera, Carabidae, Licinini). ZooKeys 147: 399-417. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.147.2117

Gilgado, J. D., & Ortuño, V. M. (2012). Carabus (Oreocarabus) guadarramus La Ferte-Senectere, 1847 (Coleoptera, Carabidae): first instar larva and reflections on its biology and chorology. Animal biodiversity and conservation, 35(1), 13-21.

Gullan, P.J. & Cranston, P.S.. (2000) Insects: An Outline of Entomology, 2nd edition. Blackwell Science, 502 pp.


Staph we did this summer

Posted by Blaps Nov 30, 2014

Emeline Favreau, our long-standing volunteer and recently graduated MRes in Biosystematics from Imperial College, London, and Josh Jenkins Shaw, also a long-standing volunteer and MSc Entomology student at Harper Adams share a little of what they did at the Museum this summer.


We have been quite busy this summer investigating the diversity of beetle infra-order Staphyliniformia. This is the group of Coleoptera whose popular members have short elytra (Staphylinidae), like the devil's coach horse. Using the same method as in the Biodiversity Initiative, we have used their DNA to unveil the evolutionary relationships between species.


The Devil's coach horse, Ocypus Olens, Müller, 1764


The idea was to understand the evolution of this group, as scientists have yet to pin point the exact placement of some families in the tree of life, like Pselaphidae for example. If we identify the close relatives to the Pselaphinae, we would be able to understand how this family evolved from a common ancestor. How would this common ancestor look like? What would have been its preferred habitat? What would it have been eating? These are the questions we want to answer.


In the laboratory, we first get the DNA from Staphyliniformia specimens and we spend (quite a lot of) time on a computer to figure out their evolution from molecular data. We use algorithms that convert the DNA into meaningful data, which in turn is used to create the tree of life (see the recent research on all insects). And this is when Josh comes in, as a fantastic volunteer in the molecular lab and here at Origins:


“I'm Josh, a volunteer in the molecular systematics lab at the NHM but I have previously volunteered in the beetle collection during the summer of 2011. Now I'm bringing the two areas together to complement each other.



Josh might be a little confused; this looks like the ladybird section; or is he just looking for out-groups?


This summer I've been working with MRes student Emeline Favreau trying to understand the phylogenetic and evolutionary relationships of the infra-order Staphyliniformia (that is the series that contains the Histeroids, Hydrophiloids and Staphylinoids - basically a lot of beetles - more than 74,000 described species!!)


Other than looking at DNA sequences on a computer and scratching my head a lot when faced with using odd computer programmes, I have been trying to identify specimens which have had their DNA sequenced already. Building phylogenetic trees is brilliant, but they only really make sense when the end points (nodes) have a name at the end! Identifying beetle specimens is often made much easier when you have a reference collection to hand, so it's rather fortuitous that the Coleoptera collection is two minutes' walk from where I've been based!


I also assisted Beulah with putting together a Staphylinid loan which mostly consisted of specimens belonging to the genus Bolitogyrus - a geographically interesting lineage, but they are also extremely cool looking!


josh coll.jpg

A collection drawer packed full of Bolitogyrus!


I recommend having a read/look at the photos in a recent taxonomic revision by Brunke & Solodovnikov:


A revision of the Neotropical species of Bolitogyrus Chevrolat, a geographically disjunct lineage of Staphylinini (Coleoptera, Staphylinidae)


This revision uses NHM specimens and also describes many new species. Some of the NHM specimens were collected over 100 years ago and form part of the BCA collection.



Ladybirds getting in on the act once more! Emeline at last Christmas' Coleoptera party...Happy Christmas!


Dr Livingstone I presume?

Posted by Blaps Oct 23, 2014

Max Barclay, collections manager for Coleoptera and Hitoshi Takano, leader of the Coleoptera section's Africa expeditions including extensive exploration of Tanzania and Zambia,  tell us about a very exciting find for us... Dr. Livingstone's beetles...


Livingstone on the Zambezi


David Livingstone returned to England a national hero in 1856 after becoming the first man to undertake a trans-continental journey from the port of Luanda on the Atlantic Coast of Angola to Quelimane in Mozambique where the Zambezi River meets the Indian Ocean. He published a book of his travels in 1857 titled Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa selling a remarkable 70,000 copies making him a very wealthy man. With the huge amount of public support behind him, he persuaded Lord Clarendon, the Foreign Secretary and Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister to finance an expedition to the Zambezi River to open it up as an ‘economic highway’ to allow cotton and sugar to be grown in large quantities on the floodplains of this river. Livingstone abhorred slavery and had hoped that it could be banished through legitimate commerce.


web livstat.jpg

Dr David Livingstone at Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park



On the 10th March 1858, Livingstone set sail from Liverpool docks with his team which consisted of his brother Charles, naturalist and medical doctor John Kirk, geologist Richard Thornton (who came with a glowing recommendation by President of the Royal Geographical Society, Sir Roderick Murchison), artist and storekeeper Thomas Baines RA and engineer George Rae.


Within only a few months of arrival, the expedition was doomed. On his earlier voyage down the Zambezi, Livingstone was told about, but did not investigate, a set of rapids known as Cahora Bassa (in modern day Mozambique). This set of rapids made it impossible for any vessel to sail up the river even at full flood at the end of the rains. Despite this disappointment, he navigated a tributary of the Zambezi, the Shire River, and became the first Westerner to accurately document Lake Malawi.

The expedition was eventually recalled from London as the results could not justify the cost.

The major positives to come out of the expedition were the scientific specimens and observations made by Livingstone and his team.



Hitoshi on the banks of the Zambezi at Ngonye Falls


The natural history specimens


There were large quantities of natural history specimens (plants, birds, mammals and reptiles) collected on this expedition. In the years following the return of the expedition (1864-1865), many lists and new species were published in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London. Heinrich Dohrn published on the mussels, George Robert Gray & John Edward Gray on birds/mammals/reptiles, Albert Gunther on reptiles/fish and Kirk on mammals (and birds in the journal IBIS). Many of these specimens are in the NHM.

It is interesting that there were no lists of insects published from this expedition despite the fact that in the very same year (1864), the insects collected by Captain John Hanning Speke on his pioneering trip to the Great Lakes of Africa were published by Frederick Smith of the BMNH.

Livingstone himself writes in the introduction of his book 'Narrative of and expedition to the Zambesi and its tributaries' (1865) on p.11 that "the collections, being government property, have been forwarded to the British Museum and to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew; and, should Dr. Kirk undertake their description, three or four years will be required for the purpose."


But where did the beetles go?

150 years after the 2nd Zambezi Expedition, two beetle specimens were known.kirkianus.JPG

Goliathus kirkianus Gray, 1864; Holotype BMNH 1864-10

This small number is remarkable when one considers that Livingstone’s was a major, government funded expedition at the height of the age of exploration and collecting. For comparison, Alfred Russel Wallace, during eight years in the Malay Archipelago (1854-1862), almost single-handedly collected more than 83,200 beetles, that is over 10,000 a year, and it is hard to spend a day in the collections without finding more of his material. Of course Wallace was not government funded, and collected at least in part in order to pay his expenses by selling his specimens through Stevens’ Auctions in London, a major Natural History auction house that was patronised by the collectors (and indeed the museums) of the world.

If we look at the two ‘known’ Livingstone specimens, the first, difficult to overlook because of its huge size and striking pattern, is a Goliath Beetle described as a new species in 1864 by G. R. Gray who states “Dr. Kirk has, on his return from the Zambesi, added to our knowledge a species of the genus Goliathus, which he obtained as long ago as November 1858 when he picked it up among the hills of Kebrabassa”. Kebrabassa is the same as Cahora Bassa, the site of the rapids that were to doom the whole expedition, and Kirk evidently stumbled across the beetle during the first year of the trip, and dutifully traipsed it around Africa for more than half a decade, bringing it to Gray soon after his return along with a motley collection of other curios. He was rewarded by a very swift description and a name in his honour; perhaps it was all a bit too swift, because Goliathus kirkianus was soon synonymised with the widespread Goliathus albosignatus Boheman, 1857, which had trumped it for priority by 7 years. The Holotype remains in the collection of the NHM, and bears the registration number ‘1864-10’. It was hoped that by following up this registration number in the immaculately written massive, longhand leather-bound registers held in the library, that we could learn more about what else came back from the expedition, but the register entry for ‘1864-10’ (‘presented by Dr. Kirk and collected by himself’) lists only 16 specimens – a motley selection of 11 leaf beetles (‘Cassida’ and ‘Haltica’), a hermit crab with a shell, a locust, an assassin bug, and two caterpillars in spirits! It doesn’t even mention the goliath beetle. It seems that Gray, perhaps in his haste and excitement at finding such a gem in a mixed bag of African oddments, skimped on the paperwork and failed to list the specimen. Of course, this raises the question of what else might have been put in the collection without being properly listed, and may still be lurking there. The registers are much easier to search through than 22,000 drawers of almost 10 million beetles.

This brings us to the second specimen, a common flower chafer Marmylida impressa, found by Hitoshi Takano in a drawer full of the same, common, species but distinguished by a small typewritten label next to it saying ‘specimen collected by Dr. Livingstone’. This label was apparently provided by a curator, probably former scarab curator Mick Bacchus in the 1960s or 1970s, to draw attention to the specimen’s interesting provenance. The specimen itself is labelled ‘Zambezi, Coll. By Dr. Livingstone’ and has a registration number ‘1924-176 E. Y. Western’. Western was a private collector, whose collection of some 10,000 unsorted beetles was presented to the Museum by his daughter after his death in 1924.


Marmylida impressa (Goldfuss), 1805

That was the end of the story until, in 2014, curator Max Barclay was doing a routine inspection of some old boxes of unincorporated material. Every museum has unincorporated accessions, though in recent years we been systematically sorting, recurating, databasing and incorporating ours into the main collections, where the specimens are safe from pests and available to the world scientific community. After many years of concerted efforts in this direction, we are getting to the bottom of the barrel where old unincorporated accessions are concerned, and most of what is still in loose boxes has been picked over and judged to be of little interest by successive generations of curators. One particular box was identified as a priority for incorporation - not because it was ostensibly special material - it was 19th century specimens of common beetles with poor data and in relatively poor condition - but the box had warped and split, and posed an unacceptable risk to its contents.

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The original E.Y. Western store box in much need of curatorial care

While recurating the material a decapitated histerid beetle of the giant species Pactolinus gigas caught Max’s attention, initially because it needed to be repaired - until he noticed the label ‘Zambezi, Coll. By Dr. Livingstone’, identical to the one on the Marmylida flower chafer found in the main collection by Hitoshi. Looking at the side of the box Max saw the initials ‘EYW’ and realised that these few last dusty boxes were the remaining few residues of the 10,000 specimen collection donated by E. Y. Western, the rest of which had been incorporated in the 90 years since the collector’s death. Western was the same collector who had provided the Marmylida. Hastily Max went through the remaining half dozen boxes and found spread among them a total of 14 specimens of 9 species and three families, all labelled in exactly the same way. All were common African species. 


Beetles from E.Y. Western's store box of beetles collected by Livingstone

Western’s collection in 1924 would have consisted of hundreds of boxes, and for nearly a century, most of the curators employed on the beetle section would have extracted, accession-labelled, and incorporated whatever they considered to be of interest. The Elateridae would have been processed by Christine von Hayek, the scarabs by Mick Bacchus, tenebrionids by Martin Brendell, melyrids and dermestids by Enid Peacock, staphylinids by Peter Hammond, chrysomelids by Sharon Shute, weevils by Sir Guy Marshall and Richard Thompson, water beetles by Balfour-Browne, coccinellids by Bob Pope - the gaps in the boxes read like a roll-call (maybe a rogue’s gallery) of curators and researchers of the past. What is left, by extension, is what was not considered to be of much interest by anyone, though it is apparent that they were all looking at it from a taxonomic rather than a historical point of view. In those days the modern curatorial practice of taking a box and emptying it, in order to reduce the number of boxes and systematically complete recuration and incorporation one collection after another, and then making a record of what you did, was not established.  Therefore, it seems likely that the 14 specimens remaining in the boxes were but a fraction of the Livingstone material possessed by Western. It was not held as a separate collection, but placed taxonomically across his series, so it seems likely that the vast majority of it has already been incorporated, but the logistics of searching for individual specimens in a whole collection without knowing what species they belong to makes looking for a needle in a haystack seem a matter of routine. We did experiment with picking common species likely to occur in Zambezi and then searching through the main series, and this revealed 4 specimens of the very common flower chafer Diplognatha gagates, but so far nothing else has been traced. Systematic databasing of the collection will no doubt eventually reveal everything, but this is a slow process and has only just begun.

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Max Barclay with the Livingstone beetles in the Waterhouse building of the  Natural History Museum

So, the interesting question is, how did Edward Young Western (1837-1924), a lawyer based in Craven Hill, Bayswater, come to have Livingstone collected materials, especially considering Livingstone’s belief that the specimens were ‘government property’? The most parsimonious explanation is that another member of the expedition had fewer scruples, or less financial security than Livingstone, and specimens were sold.  The registers show the Natural History Museum in 1862 purchased 9 Zambezi specimens at Steven’s Auctions from ‘Dr. Livingstone’s exhibition [sic]’. This is interesting because in 1862 Livingstone was still in Africa- it could be that someone was sending material back to Stevens for sale without the boss’s knowledge. There may have been other lots where the Museum did not bid, or was outbid, and possibly these, or some of these, were bought by Western for his private collection. 

Of course, if well looked-after, the life-span of an insect specimen is many times the life-span of a collector, so private collections like E.Y. Western’s usually come to museums, like rivers and streams ultimately flow into the sea. The clearing of accessions and unincorporated material, as well as widespread databasing and digitising of material in the collections, will no doubt continue to throw up surprises and treasures for years to come. Livingstone explored with maps, a bible and a gun, and a medicine chest, but today some of the last frontiers for exploration are the great Natural History Collections themselves. How much of Dr. Livingstone’s material remains to be discovered in such collections, we can only presume.


There has been some press coverage on the discovery of Livingstone’s beetles, including a brief BBC Radio 4 ‘Today Programme’ interview with Max Barclay



The story was covered on the Natural History Museum’s website


Other press coverage includes


The Independent, 20.09.14, Pg 32




The Times of India


The Livingstone specimens were first shown to the public at ‘Science Uncovered’ on 26th September by Hitoshi Takano, and are now available to view in ‘Dinosaur Way’ in the Public Galleries of the Natural History Museum, for a limited time only.



Termophilum alternatum Bates, 1878


As the countdown to Science Uncovered 2014 begins, we have been busy behind the scenes thinking about how we talk about our science. How we make it interesting to YOU and how we can get YOU involved.


Making science accessible to all is one of our big challenges as a leading natural sciences organisation. With upwards of 80 million specimens (10 million of those are beetles!) we have a wealth of data that if only it were publicly mobilised would be even more relevant to the world at large, not just researchers in the natural sciences. Essentially we want to share our data; but, if I told you for our 10 million beetles we have just six curators, how is it even conceivable for us to make that data accessible?!


It took the creative mind of Ivvet Modinou the Museum's science communication manager and one of the leading people behind the Museum's participation in the EU's Researchers night to come up with a grand plan that would unite scientists and our visitors (YOU!) in making our data ever more accessible to the world at large. A few meetings later with Max Barclay (Coleoptera collections manager), Ben Scott (Data Portal Lead Architect) and Laurence Livermoore (digital analyst) the fledgling idea became reality.



Max with just a few beetles that we would love to be imaged!


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Laurence in the heady days of Hemiptera (true bug) research in the Coleoptera and Hemiptera  section before he moved over to the dark side...

Taking our Beetles and Bugs Flickr pages as a model the idea developed into something much more ambitious, and we want YOU to help us achieve this on the night! All you need is to turn up, be able to read and possess a smartphone or tablet – easy! Are you ready?


Ben explains, 'Live on the night we'll be showing the entire process of digitising specimens; from transcribing a label & crowd sourcing to data outputs via the Data Portal and visualisations.'


So how are we going to do this?

First we take a photo of the specimen which we upload to our Flickr site. After this a transcription app pulls the image from Flickr, and we ask any willing member of the public to transcribe the image. Once transcribed these data are added to our "Science Uncovered Transcriptions" data set. Then it's up to you to tweet about your good work!


You can even do it whilst having a beer! Don't worry if you're concerned about data accuracy, we've thought about that too.  Every specimen label will be transcribed multiple times, building up the level of accuracy and we will have our experienced team of digitisers and geo-referencers on hand to answer questions. After the event the dataset will be cleaned up by Ben, and then Max and Ben will work with the data to prepare it for entry in to our Museum database (imagine a database that has to cope with 80 million records!).


So this is very exciting and a new way of looking at and accessing our collection. The Coleoptera team have already come a long way with digitisation of specimens. Our beetles and bugs Flickr page has been online since 2012, has had well over a million visits, and has led to an unprecedented rise in interest in our collections as a result. Not only do we use it to highlight specimens of special note, like this one collected by Alfred Russel Wallace,


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Thaumastopeus agni (Wallace A.R., 1867) image taken by Helena Maratheftis.
Species was named after the collector, a Mr. Lamb, but Wallace translated his name into Latin.


but also to get specimens identified. Each year we receive upwards of 50,000 specimens into the collection from recent collecting trips such as this beetle collected by me and Max in Borneo in 2013.


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Lepidiota stigma (Fabricius, 1798) collected in Borneo - a beetle capable of producing the purest form of white colour known to science.

Image taken by Helena Maratheftis



Identifying these beetles can be a lengthy process so putting them up online allows a first look for researchers and taxonomists all over the world. If they see something they think is interesting we can then send those specimens out on loan; eventually they will be returned identified and quite often there will be a few new species too!


Darwinilus sedarisi Chatzimanolis, 2014 Staphylinidae: Holotype newly described from Charles Darwin's collection held in the Museum


Hillery Warner (beetler and top specimen mounter) was one of the pioneers of our Flickr site, and here she explains why we began this most ground-breaking of projects.


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Sometimes, beetles just aren't enough to keep Hillery busy; she has to dabble in the dark arts of Mantodea too...


"The Flickr project started off as a way to see if our unidentified material might be voluntarily identified by specialists around the world if we provided it online.  While we did have some success with this, the project quickly evolved into not only a fantastic public outreach outlet, but also a way of maximising the usefulness of our digital loans.


Scientists scattered across the globe need to see specimens in our collection in order to do their work- identifying, describing, and revising life on earth.  Sometimes they need to take a really close look at every detail of a specimen, which means they have to fly over to London, (which is expensive), or we need to actually put the insects in a box and post them out on loan.  But sometimes they just need "to see it".  This is when the very best option is to take a picture and send it.  Job done.  We call that a "digital loan". Before the Flickr site, we would email the attachment to the scientist who asked for it, and we were the only people to ever see it.  What a waste!  These people are working on cool stuff.  And you should get to see it, too.  So now, we put it out onto Flickr for you too!"


Since the inception of our Flickr site the Museum has began digitising collections on an even larger scale and now employs a team of people to image and transcribe. They work on dedicated projects; the most recent one for Coleoptera being the digitisation of 9000 specimens of beetles belonging to the family Chrysomelidae (the leaf beetles), of which many species are known to be economically important crop pests, as part of the Crop and Pest Wild Relatives Initiative.


Here's some of the digitisation team you will meet on the night,


From back to front: Gerardo Mazzetta, Peter Wing, Joanna Durant, Flavia Toloni, Sophie Ledger, Elisa Cane, Jasmin Perera and Lyndsey Douglas



A drawer from the Coleoptera collection of members of the leaf beetle genus Diabrotica - all imaged and label data transcribed by the digitiser team


So, we look forward to working with you on the night! Let's see how many specimens we can transcribe… and remember, we need you to help make this a success!


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Image taken by artist and photographer in residence to the Coleoptera section, Helena Maratheftis


This is the first in a series of blogs about the Museum’s Biodiversity Initiative and its ambitious endeavour to research novel ways of describing insect species (though naturally our priority is beetles!) in tropical forests around the world. We endeavour to bring together DNA methods and traditional morphological taxonomy to help us make statements and answer questions on species richness and turnover, diversity and distribution as well as simply increasing our knowledge of the incredible (and seemingly infinite) diversity of species in the world’s most threatened of habitats, primary tropical forest.


Project assistant Julien Haran unwittingly demonstrating the scale of the forest in Santa Fe National Park.


As fieldwork and collections co-ordinator for the Panama project I had to make sure that any fieldwork we undertook was approved and regulated by the relevant authorities. As one of the world’s foremost institutions in natural history, we are governed by a strict code of practice and adhere to international regulations on Access and Benefit Sharing and the Convention on Biodiversity.


In order to fulfil our obligations to the countries and institutions we collaborate with, a permit will be agreed upon setting out the conditions and commitments we must abide by in order to collect insect specimens for scientific research.


On our collecting trip to Panama in March and April 2014 we were fortunate to have the opportunity to collaborate with the University of Panama, and Panama Wildlife Conservation - without their assistance this project would not have been possible.


Fast-forward four months and today is an exciting day. Finally, after months of tense negotiations with international couriers, many phones calls, texts and emails flying between Panama and the UK, we are finally expecting a very large package of carefully preserved insects…Those long minutes spent on hold to our excellent couriers listening to 'Aint no river wide enough' - on a loop, paid off...



The very wide and deep river we crossed everyday to get to our field site. Foreground, Luis Ureña, one of the project leaders in Panama and background, Julien Haran, with hopefully dry underpants!


So, this is a backwards way of introducing a major project on beetle genetics and Natural History Museum collections development but most importantly a very big thank you to all the amazing people and organisations that helped us realise this project.


In particular we want to thank Vayron De Gracia & Bernardo Peña who we kind of left behind in the field in Santa Fe NP once our three weeks of collecting were over! As part of our commitment to collaboration with Panama, it was important to us to exchange expertise and knowledge; essentially capacity build. Our intention was to collect in the dry and rainy season which meant being in the field for at least 2 months (my tolerance for roughing it extends to three weeks maximum!) and also there is always a financial constriction on how much time we can spend in the field.



Vayron de Gracia with a fancy lizard (photo bomb Julien Haran!).



A somewhat nervous looking team we are about to leave behind to continue collecting. From left to right: Vayron Cheffin's Father, Bernardo, Julien, Cheffin, Senior Pastor; and most importantly, the faithful Rosinante!


It was an ideal situation to find two excellent, willing and able biology students from the University of Panama; eager to accompany us on this trip into the darkest interior of Santa Fe National Park to a locality previously never collected for insects before.



Learning all about yellow pan traps.


Vayron and Bernardo didn’t seem to mind living in a chicken pen and eating SPAM for weeks at a time (more on that in later instalments!) so they proved the ideal field companions! We trained them in biological recording techniques and beetle family identification which helped them to put the theory learned on their university course to practical use in the field. When we left (just on the edge of the dry season) Vyron and Bernardo stayed on for another five weeks to continue collecting using the methods they had learned from us.



Here's home for eight weeks!


lunch-image_jpeg700.jpg'Lunch' on the go - combining beetle-sorting and lunch.



Arguably a more sanitary lunch break in the field with one of the project leaders, Eric Flores (left foreground).



Learning how to process insect samples in the field (no sign of lunch!).

Here is what they have to say about their experience working on a Natural History Museum fieldwork expedition (all good of course!)


And thank you Vayron and Bernardo; we can’t wait to start working on the specimens and finding out more about the beetle biodiversity of the beautiful country that is Panama!


Report on the training of Panamanian field assistants

By Vayron De Gracia & Bernardo Peña


The collecting of insects developed in the Santa Fe National Park, allowed us for the first time to learn about collecting methods and about the traps used to capture insects in tropical forests. This was the first time we worked with these type of traps, in understory (FIT and Malaise), upper canopy (SLAM), on the ground (Pitfall) and Winkler traps (leaf litter); and the Yellow pan traps at ground level to capture other orders of insects such as Hymenoptera.


As undergraduate biology students at the University in Panama, we have only been taught about trapping for aquatic insects. Another important aspect was the way the traps were deployed on a plot by plot grid system that can be used in any tropical forest anywhere in the world, not just Panama. We did not know about this methodology to capture insects, in summary this was all new knowledge for us.


Julien, Bernardo and Vayron light trapping, with fierce competition from the moon!

This is the first Project of its kind in Santa Fe National Park (SFNP) and it has been an exciting experience to be part of it from the very beginning and to witness how traps need to be deployed -  the organization and methodology used in the field with experts from the Natural History Museum. Moreover, the data generated as a result of this study will be new for the SFNP and for Panama regarding the entomological fauna.


When Google maps go wrong - our plot design; co-ordinates for Santa Fe.


Now we have the capacity to transfer the information to other people on how to conduct insect collecting and to collaborate with other scientist in the future. It was also valuable to deal with the traps and collecting in the following months after the team from the Natural History Museum departed. For example, the harsh climatic conditions, some landslides near the path to the plots, and the damage to the SLAM traps.


On one day of normal field collection, we left the Isleta camp to empty our traps and we were astonished to find the SLAM traps of Plot 1 had some holes in the sheet, and the plastic pots were perforated (see pics). Our first guess was that the guilty guys were crickets and woodpeckers! We were really worried because we were alone in the field and had to solve the problem in situ, after all we were in charge of collecting in the field. Masking tape was the temporary solution to the damage of the traps and luckily it worked out until the end of the dry season sampling in Santa Fe.







Electrical tape saves the day!

Funny note:

Frequently communication was a barrier from the beginning since our level of English was really poor. However there were always funny moments and anecdotes. For example “Chefin” our field guide use to say “Hay cantidad” (There is a lot) of anything he thought could be important for us. At the end this phrase was learnt by Julien Haran who one day working toward the plot claimed: “Hay cantidad”, referring to many cockroaches wandering on the leaf litter…


It’s Science Uncovered time again beetlers! We can’t wait to show off our beetles to the thousands of you who will be visiting the Natural History Museum on the night. We'll be revealing specimens from our scientific collections hitherto never seen by the public before! Well, maybe on Monday at the TEDx event at the Royal Albert Hall we did reveal a few treasures, including specimens collected by Sir Joseph Banks and Charles Darwin, as seen below.



Lucia talking to the audience of TEDx ALbertopolis on Monday 23rd September.


lydtedweb.jpgLydia and Beulah spanning 250 years of Museum collections at TEDx Albertopolis.


Last year we met with about 8,500 of YOU – so that’s 8,500 more people that now love beetles, right? So, as converts, you may be coming back to see and learn some more about this most speciose and diverse of organisms or you may be a Science Uncovered virgin and no doubt will be heading straight to the beetles (found in the DCII Cocoon Atrium at the Forests Station).

This year the Coleoptera team will be displaying a variety of specimens, from the weird and wonderful to the beetles we simply cannot live without! Here’s what the team will be up to...

Max Barclay, Collections Manager and TEDx speaker
For Science Uncovered I will be talking about the diversity of beetles in the tropical forests of the world. I have spent almost a year of my life in field camps in various countries and continents, and have generally come back with thousands of specimens, including new species, for the collections of the Natural History Museum. I will explain how we preserve and mount specimens, and how collections we make today differ from those made by previous generations.


Crocker Range, Borneo - it's really hard work in the field...but, co-ordinating one's chair with one's butterfly net adds a certian sophistication.



The Museum encourages its staff to be respectful of and fully integrate with local cultures whilst on fieldwork. Here is Max demonstrating seemless cultural awareness by wearing a Llama print sweater in Peru.


I will also talk about the Cetoniine flower chafers collected and described by Alfred Russell Wallace in the Malay Archipelago, and how we recognise Wallace’s material from other contemporary specimens, as well as the similarities and differences between techniques used and the chafers collected in Borneo by Wallace in the 1860s, Bryant in the 1910s, and expeditions of ourselves and our colleagues in the 2000s.


Lydia Smith and Lucia Chmurova, Specimen Mounters and trainee acrobats
As part of the forest section at Science Uncovered this year we are going to have a table centred on the diversity of life that you may see and hear in tropical forests. Scientists at the Natural History Museum are regularly venturing out to remote locations around the world in search of new specimens for its ever expanding collection.


L&L acrobatic team on an undergraduate trip to Borneo with Plymouth University.


Maliau Basin, Borneo: Lucia injects some colour into an otherwise pedestrian flight interception trap


We will be displaying some of the traps used to catch insects (and most importantly beetles!) along with showing some specimens recently collected. We will also have a sound game where you can try your luck at guessing what noises go with what forest creatures. Good luck and we look forward to seeing you!


Hitoshi Takano, Scientific Associate and Museum Cricketer

Honey badgers, warthogs and Toto - yes, it can only be Africa! This year at Science Uncovered, I will be talking about the wondrous beetles of the African forests and showcasing some of the specimens collected on my recent fieldtrips as well as historic specimens collected on some of the greatest African expeditions led by explorers such as David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley.



Museum cricket team, The Archetypes (yes, really!). Hitoshi walking off, centre field, triumphant! Far right, Tom Simpson, Cricket Captain and one of the excellent team organising Science Uncovered for us this year.


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Mount Hanang, Tanzania: Jungle fever is a common problem amongst NHM staff. Prolonged amounts of time in isolated forest environments can lead to peculiar behaviour and an inability to socialise...but don't worry, he'll be fine on the night...


There are more dung beetle species in Africa than anywhere else in the world - find out why, how I collect them and come and look at some of the new species that have been discovered in the past few years!!


Beulah Garner, Curator and part-time Anneka Rice body double

Not only do I curate adult beetles, I also look after the grubs! Yes, that's right, for the first time ever we will be revealing some of the secrets of the beetle larvae collection. I can't promise it will be pretty but it will be interesting! I'll be talkng about beetle life cycles and the importance of beetles in forest ecosystems. One of the reasons why beetles are amongst the most successful organisms on the planet is because of their ability to inhabit more than one habitat in the course of their life cycles.



Crocker Range, Borneo: fieldwork is often carried out on very tight budgets, food was scarce; ate deep fried Cicada to stay alive...



Nourages Research Station, French Guiana: museum scientists are often deposited in inacessible habitats by request from the Queen; not all breaks for freedom are successful.


On display will be some horrors of the collection and the opportunity to perhaps discuss and sample what it will be like to live in a future where beetle larvae have become a staple food source (or entomophagy if you want to be precise about it)...go on, I dare you!


Chris Lyal, Coleoptera Researcher specialising in Weevils (Curculionidae) and champion games master

With the world in the throes of a biodiversity crisis, and the sixth extinction going on, Nations have agreed a Strategic Plan for Biodiversity. The first target is to increase understanding of biodiversity and steps we can take to conserve it and use it sustainably. That puts the responsibility for increasing this understanding fairly and squarely on people like us. Now, some scientists give lectures, illustrated with complex and rigorously-constructed graphs and diagrams. Others set out physical evidence on tables, expounding with great authority on the details of the natural world. Us – we’re going to play games.



Ecosystem collapse! (partially collapsed).


Thrill to Ecosystem Collapse! and try to predict when the complex structure will fall apart as one after another species is consigned to oblivion. Guess why the brazil nut tree is dependent on the bucket orchid! Try your luck at the Survival? game and see if you make it to species survival or go extinct. Match the threatened species in Domino Effect! Snakes and ladders as you’ve not played it before! For the more intellectual, there’s a trophic level card game (assuming we can understand the rules in time). All of this coupled with the chance to discuss some of the major issues facing the natural world (and us humans) with Museum staff and each other.



Here Chris tells us a joke:

'Why did the entomologists choose the rice weevil over the acorn weevil?'

'It was the lesser of two weevils'

IMG_7063.jpgJoana Cristovao, Chris's student and assistant games mistress!

Big Nature Day at the Museum: Joana with a... what's this? This is no beetle!


One last thought, things can get a bit out of hand late at night in the Museum, it's not just the scientists that like to come out and play once a year, it's the dinosaurs too...


We look forward to meeting you all on the night!


Curating Historical Specimens #1

Posted by Blaps Aug 8, 2013

Hello Beetlers!


Here Collections Manager Max Barclay talks us through the re-pinning process of historical beetle specimens. Along with Coleoptera Section volunteer Mellissa Williams, we learn about the importance of retaining historical data.


The star specimen, Carabus auratus, is 118 years old and is just one of thousands of specimens that were bequeathed to the Natural History Museum from the collection of AA Allen, who was a prolific British collector and expert entomologist.


Originally described in 1761 by Carl Linnaeus, C. auratus is not a British native and rarely encountered here. Native to west and central Europe it is a beautiful beetle with a rather unattractive habit of feeding on slugs, snails, worms and grubs; in fact there are records of this voracious predator even attacking young snakes! It's a sun loving species (thermophilic) and can be found on cultivated land, grassland and forest edges. This beetle disappears in the winter, hibernating until emerging to mate in the following spring.



A fishy (work) experience

Posted by Blaps May 31, 2013

Hello Beetlers,


The end of  another busy week and the comings and goings of the Coleoptera section. This week we hear from Jordan Rainey, who was lucky enough to spend a week with us on work experience from school. Here's Jordan enjoying a tour of the collections:



These Dynastine beetles have such large horns that they have to live in a deepened drawer!


This week I have been lucky enough to do my work experience placement at the Natural History Museum, in the Coleoptera (beetle) section! I have been performing a variety of tasks overseen by one of the coleoptera curators, including preparatory work (mounting beetles on pins or on cards) and attaching accession labels to specimens so they can be put into the main collection or sent out to a specialist of that family/genus. I have also been sorting beetles into continents, and the recently collected material from Borneo, in alcohol, into families.


Pinning beetles into position ready for labelling and identifying



I was the very lucky person that got to sort the carrion trap material that Beulah talked about in a previous blog update. It smelt awful, of the rotting fish guts that were used as bait to attract to beetles! I was sorting the scarabs, non-scarabs and the Hydrophilidae into separate pots of alcohol. The Hydrophilids went into molecular strength alcohol so that the DNA could be preserved.


Jordan puts on a brave face - those beetles may look clean but they sure are smelly!


I was also sorting the Passalidae (Bess beetles) into countries and then continents. Most of them were unidentified and the localities were all mixed up, so I had to look at each individual locality label on every specimen and determine where it was collected. Some of the Passalids dated back to the 1800’s and a few may have been from Alfred Russell Wallace’s collection! I ended up with nine drawers full of hundreds of beetles all sorted to continents.


The hundreds of unidentified Passalids...


I would like to say a big thank you to the entire Coleoptera section, especially Max Barclay, Michael Geiser and Beulah Garner for making this an amazing and unforgettable week!

Thanks Jordan!



Some interesting results came from this exercise, in particular the repatriation of some specimens with their original data. When curating a collection with 250 years of history behind it, it is no surprise that some detective work must be employed on occasion. Take the specimen below, one of the Passalids that Jordan has been sorting. He came across it and noticed that there was very little data and no discernible 'BM' number (the number that all specimens must have once they are accessioned into the Museum collection). What he found was the small brown disk and nothing else. From this we assumed that '39' may well be the year the specimen entered the Museum and 432 be the accession number (the consecutive number assigned to an individual specimen or any number of specimens in a discreet collection in any given year).


Before the advent of computers of course all records were hand written, and our accession registers go back to the beginnings of the Museum around 1881! They are big leather-bound heavy tomes with entries written by quill and ink and are a portal into the history of the Museum!  One thing leads to another and we were soon delving into the history of a certain Mr. J.G. Children which can be read below. We can see this beetle was collected a good few years before there was even a Museum in which to deposit it!


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Though George Children was what one might say, unlucky in love, he certainly enjoyed an illustrous career in the natural sciences; here is his obituary from The Coleopterist


CHILDREN, John George (18 May (July?) 1777 - 1 January 1852)


The only son of George Children, a banker and wealthy landed property owner.Educated at Tonbridge Grammar School, Eton and Queen's College, Cambridge. He intended to join the church, but after marrying at the age of 21, Anna Holroyd who died shortly after, he abandoned this career, and travelled to Portugal and then to Canada and the United States of America. He returned to become a Captain in the West Kent Militia, but gave this up in 1805 as a result of ill health.Having studied mechanics, mineralogy and electricity at Cambridge, he then took up scientific pursuits becoming FRS in 1807. In 1808-09 he married for a second time but lost his wife a few months later. It was at about this time that he made a second visit to Spain.


In 1816, two year's before his father's death, the family lost all their properties as a result of the failure of the Tonbridge Bank. Through the kindness of Lord Camden he received an appointment as Assistant Librarian at the British Museum, first in the Department of Antiquities and subsequently in 1823, as a result of the intervention of Sir Humphry Davy, in Natural History. When the Zoological Department was created in 1837 he was appointed the first Keeper, a post which he held until 1839-40, when, as a result of failing health and the death of his third wife, he was obliged to retire.


Although not primarily an entomologist, Children did collect insects and was one of the founder members and first President of the Entomlogical Society. The meeting at which it was decided to found the Society took place in his house, and Children contributed the Introduction to the Society's first volume of Transactions (see Neave & Griffin (1933), for an account of Children and his involvement with the Society).


Children's collection of insects certainly included beetles and appears to have been large. His obituary in the Proc.LSL, 1852, p.137, described the collection as 'one of the most extensive in England' and noted that he had purchased the collection of Count Bilberg. He certainly gave specimens to the Entomological Society and, in 1839, to the British Museum. When the collection was sold by Stevens between 30 March and 4 April 1840 it amounted to 950 lots, many of which were bought by the British Museum. (These are listed in the NHM Entomology Department's Register. Entomology, 2 , 12 October 1839-2 April 1840 which records many thousands of specimens including 4,490 Coleoptera. Catalogues of this sale, and of his library at Sothebys between 6 and 8 March 1840, are preserved in the NHM. The insects have been amalgamated into the general collections. There are also specimens collected by Children in the Bracy Clarke collection at the NHM found by Dr Easton in an antique shop.


Davis & Brewer (1986) note that a collection of worldwide insects is in the Hancock Museum donated in 1830 by 'George Children' which is presumably this Children.


Letters to Thomas Hope, 1834, 1837, are in the HDO (Smith (1986) p.71)


Jonathan Cooter tells me that Sandra Children, who married the last survivor of J.G. Children's line, has exhibited at Hereford Museum.


FLS from 1807. Secretary of the RSL 1820-27 and 1830-37.


Gilbert (1977) p.67, lists further references in E. Miller, That Noble Cabinet, 1973, pp. 227-231, and in A.E. Gunther, A Century of Zoology at the British Museum 1815-1915, 1975, pp.56-62. (MD 3/02)


Lydia Oliva, a photographic historian from Barcelona, informs me that Children's only daughter, Anna Atkins, (on whom she has been working) published a book of photographs in 1843 (i.e. before Fox Talbot’s Pencil of Nature) and that she was introduced to photography by her father. Children went to live with his daughter in Halstead Place, London, after he retired. (MD 10/03)


Somethin’ fishy about Borneo

Posted by Blaps May 10, 2013

Dear Beetlers,

This prolonged absence may have something to do with your good authors finding themselves abandoned somewhere in the Crocker Range in darkest Borneo with the sole purpose of collecting beetles! As you will come to learn over the next few blogs there are many methods, both creative and gruesome, for collecting in the field.

It takes a huge amount of planning and resources to transplant four game entomologists from their cosy little nest at the Natural History Museum to one of the remotest and under-explored parts of the world, namely Sabah (formerly British North Borneo). So, with limited time and a mission to collect as much of the area’s biodiversity as possible over the period of just one month, we really had to think about what methods we would employ to maximise our collecting.


So why not use rotting fish? I know, it’s obvious!


It all began within the sanitised environs of one of the many air-conditioned shopping malls to be found in Kota Kinabalu, the region’s capital.


First choose your ‘bait’.



Here is Max Barclay and retired Head of Collections, Howard Mendel, carefully selecting just the right type of frozen fish to attract our little beauties.


Before heading in to the field, we had a days’ shopping to procure everything we needed for three weeks in camp. This included luxury items such as wet wipes and instant coffee, as well as the above bait, and the essential fieldwork tool, the panga, (yes, dark thoughts did set in after about week one…)



Max possesses - or becomes possessed by - the 'blade of Borneo'


As the fish was frozen, this allowed us to transport it into the field and it be relatively ‘fresh’ for making into bait. Max ‘like a fish to water’ took to the role of fishmonger. It was almost as if he were born to it, so expertly did he fillet!



Actually filleted fish and not the remains of one's colleagues...


We use fish as bait as it rots down quite ‘nicely’ (for want of a better word!), and it really, really stinks - apparently with an attractive smell to many beetles. Given the temperatures on average were around 31°C, and humidity was high, this facilitated the rotting process and it was interesting (really, it was!) to see the changes in beetle fauna over the advances in decay.


Here is our delightful bait: from fresh to semi-decomposing in about four days!


Ours was not a precise science; and it is very difficult to work in a controlled way in the field when there are so many variables to affect the outcome of our trapping methods. So basically we chopped up the fish, put various parts into sections of cut up opaque tights (see how we recycle!) and hung them over a bucket that, in turn, was hung over a tree branch or some such so as to not be taken by carnivores (though one would have to be desperate to take this rotting fish!). The beetles should be attracted to the bait and fly to land, falling in to the bucket from which they cannot escape! We set four traps and checked them every few days as the rotting process was so accelerated.



Here is the somewhat alarming final stage of decay which resembled porridge with blueberries, or some such – breakfast, anybody?! Beetles were retrieved using a pair of forceps and precise dexterity!


As you can imagine (but I understand if you dont want to!) this was a very messy and smelly business. Managing to empty the traps without covering oneself with mushy-maggot-infested-rotting-fish-guts was a challenge, and there were a few near misses. Despite my most careful emptying, the smell would linger for a few days afterwards, just in time to empty them once again!

As for the results, well this is quite exciting. We think we collected between 30-50 different species of beetle. The main families were the Hybrosoridae (vertebrate and invertebrate carrion feeders as we would expect!), Scarabaeidae and Staphylinidae, and two specifically exciting species (well to us at least!) were Phaeochroops gigas Arrow, 1907 (Hybrosoridae), and Synapsis cambeforti Krikken, 1987 (Scarabaeidae) described from Brunei and endemic to Borneo; this species is considered really quite rare and only collected from a few localities (though this might be why we consider it rare!). The beetles are now here at the Museum and will be distributed to experts for identification. We expect to have results for some groups within six months!

I shall leave you with some images of us actually enjoying fish, which was not rotting.


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Well okay, not actually fish but in close proximity to: Beulah and Alessandro share a well earned deep fried squid, it was a beautiful moment!


Again, not actually fish, but the world's largest prawn, swiftly consumed by the Fishmonger of Borneo (I'm not mentioning the T-shirt, it speaks for itself...!)


Dung, fog and more dung in Borneo

Posted by Blaps Mar 25, 2013

This blog is from one of our excellent specimen preparators and research assistants,  Lucia Chmurova who was lucky enough to spend some time on one of the Museum expeditions to Borneo. Here she gives us an insight into beetle collecting in the tropics!


'I was very lucky to join a big NHM expedition to Borneo in August 2012. I was extremely excited because I have missed Borneo ever since I returned from my first trip there in 2010. Upon Max Barclay's advice I agreed to sample dung beetles as my project (and unwittingly I agreed to everything that comes with it…). I followed a set protocol developed for dung beetle trapping in order for future comparison with already sampled sites by other scientists. The protocol consists of 10 dung, and 2 carrion-baited pitfall traps and 2 flight interception traps. The Malaysian dung beetle fauna is well known, well represented in the museum's collection, and there are specialists that are able to identify them. Fulfilling these three criteria suggests a promising and achievable project. With my project chosen and kit assembled I was ready to go!



A quick teaser for invertebrate fauna of Borneo; a predatory land flatworm or a ‘hammerhead worm’.

© Tim Cockerill


Our expedition started in the Danum Valley, perhaps one of the busiest research stations in the world. Located in the middle of a conservation area in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, the Danum Valley field station is very well equipped and has housed hundreds of scientists from around the world. The timing of our arrival was somewhat comical, coinciding with a visit from Prince William and The Duchess of Cambridge on a leg of their Southeast Asian tour. As the couple emerged, perfectly dressed, from their helicopter, our team covered in mud and sweat looked a bit less royal in comparison.


Some readers might not know that traps for catching dung beetles must first be baited by … well … dung. This involves preparing wrapped packages of dung and hanging them above the trap to lure beetles in. I thought to myself that I should be perhaps a bit more selective about where I would go and prepare my perfumed 'dung packages' so I don't put off potential future patrons of the station. As for the perfume, I was quite well-equipped and so the highly dreaded preparation of tens of dung packages wasn't so bad after all! I have to admit I opted out from Max's tip to use a plastic bag with a hole in its corner and squeeze dung out like I would do with icing for a cake! I used a fork instead.



Me and THE package.

© Tim Cockerill


I am not going to go into much detail about what trapping techniques we used while in the field as these are already nicely described in the Tanzania blog , perhaps with the exceptions of water pan traps and fogging. Although not so much used by Coleopterists, water pan traps are very popular when trapping for wasps and bugs. These are simply plastic bowls of various colours (most commonly yellow or blue) filled with water and a few drops of detergent. Its smell in combination with yellow colour attracts insects that are eventually drawn inside the traps.



Although the contents of this pan trap might not look like much, what looks like dust to our eyes, might in fact be hundreds of tiny Hymenoptera trapped inside.

© Tim Cockerill



I could not resist showing you this sophisticated upgrade to a pitfall trap: chopsticks and a plate instead of a usual leaf to stop the trap filling with rainwater! (to find out what exactly a pitfall trap is, read …)

© Tim Cockerill


Fogging is perhaps the most efficient sampling method for insects - it collects vast amounts of all kinds of insects in a short period of time. A selective insecticide (which doesn't affect birds or mammals and evaporates quickly) is sprayed into a tree, under which collecting trays are placed to catch all falling insects.



A fogger being hoisted up the tree.

© Neil Greenwood




Collecting trays ready to collect falling insects.

© Tim Cockerill


This must be done in perfectly windless and rainless conditions, to avoid the insecticide being spread out into surrounding trees and insects sticking to the leaves once they are dead. As the name ‘RAIN’ forest hints, these conditions do not happen very often. All fogging kit assembled together is quite bulky so we were happy when a group of Oxford University students volunteered to help with carrying all the heavy kit for us. After a few attempts of waking up at 5 in the morning (as this is unfortunately the 'windlessest' hour of the day) and trekking to the field site only to discover that leaves are once again wet, we eventually managed to fog at least once!


At the start, the lucky chosen individual (in this case a professional fogger, Timothy), tries to start the fogger by moving the engine rod quickly in and out, looking comical and failing repeatedly. Eventually the fogger trembles vigorously and a sound similar to a lawn mower spreads through the forest. After this amusing start, thick fog starts spreading up the tree and the whole situation suddenly looks nothing but impressive. One has to wonder what insects live up 40m tall trees. It was amazing to realise that even my help and research could help to be a step closer to discovering diversity of one of the earth's least known faunas - that of tree canopies. 


Some of the joys of field work:



Coleopterist Peter Hammond and lichenologist Pat Wolseley forgot their waterproofs, bin bags did well enough.

© Neil Greenwood



#Hymenopterist Andy Polaszek after a sword fight (or leech fight?!).

© Neil Greenwood




Some serious work after a successful fogging day. In case you don't recognise us, from left:

Neil Greenwood, Andrew Polaszek, Lucia Chmurova and Tim Cockerill.

© Neil Greenwood




Our last stop was Maliau Basin. The forest here looked a bit different to that in the Danum Valley; here there were many more old growth trees present with open spaces between them in comparison to vine and rattan-entwined trees in the first field station. It felt a bit less disturbed, and even the bearded pigs looked attractively slimmer here. My pitfall traps were getting so full after one day of collecting that beetles started literally spilling over and escaping from them. A picture below shows the contents of a single pit-fall trap!




The contents of a single dung pitfall trap.

© Tim Cockerill



After a few days in the Maliau Basin, and collecting kilos of dung beetles, our trip came to an end. Although very sad when leaving Borneo, I was happy about my successful trapping. At the moment, my collected material is still in Malaysia but will hopefully be sent to London soon so I can have a look at the wonderful diversity of beetles that scientific trapping reveals'.


A tenebrionid couple.

© Tim Cockerill



Some moths (notably members of the Arctiidae family) pupate in a woven basket of the caterpillar’s body hairs rather than silk.

© Tim Cockerill




© Lucia Chmurova



A cockroach shedding its skin.

© Lucia Chmurova


News from the field, this year Zambia. Here we hear from Scientific Associate Hitoshi Takano on his latest collecting adventures...


'November 1855. The Zambezi River. What must Dr David Livingstone have felt when he happened upon Victoria Falls?



“…scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight” is what Dr Livingstone is said to have commented as he looked out over the falls. It truly is a beautiful sight.


He had heard many years before about a “Great Waterfall” on the Zambezi River but it was not until 16 November, 1855 that he paddled across to one of the giant landmasses in the middle of the river overlooking the falls. He named this great discovery in honour of the Queen of England.


Last week I flew into the quaint town of Livingstone, the capital of Zambia’s Southern Province, some 10km from Victoria Falls and the Zimbabwe border. The landscape is dry woodland for as far as the eye can see, except for a big winding river and what looks like a huge cloud hovering above the falls; there is no hint of the 100m drop in the Zambezi.



The Livingstone Museum in the town of Livingstone, has on display many items of Livingstone memorabilia including his coat and weapons, as well as some of his original letters.


The local name for the falls is Mosi-oa-Tunya which translates rather poetically as ‘The Smoke That Thunders’. It is the perfect description. It is now approaching the end of the rainy season and the amount of water flowing over the falls is enormous. A short walk over the aptly named Knife-Edge Bridge brings you face-to-face with the wall of water. And a wall of noise. It is an exhilarating experience; the spray from the waterfall is so great that most of the time nothing is visible, a huge rainstorm swirling around you. Rain coming at you from every direction. And then the wind blows in a different direction bringing sunlight and a clear view of the face of the falls. It was a most beautiful and breathless sight; one feels very small and insignificant in the presence of the immense power of nature.



Face-to-face with Victoria Falls. I was completely drenched by this point and my camera nearly died from all the water everywhere!


Today, the 19 March, is David Livingstone’s 200th birthday (1813-1873). His exploits from his upbringings in Scotland, his exploration of Central Africa and the search for the source of the Nile are well documented. But perhaps the natural history discoveries made on these expeditions are not quite as well known. Today is as good a day as any to showcase some of the beetle specimens from the Natural History Museum collections associated with Livingstone and his Zambezi Expedition (1858-1864).



The first specimen is of a Cetoniine fruit chafer Marmylida impressa (Goldfuss, 1805), caught in Tete by Dr. Livingstone himself. Tete was an important mission town in Mozambique on the Zambezi River.


The second specimen was collected by the botanist and physician on the Zambezi Expedition, Sir John Kirk (1832-1922). One of the main aims of the Zambezi Expedition, aside from identifying the natural resources and availability of raw materials in the Zambezi area, was to find cotton, an important commodity in post-Industrial Revolution Britain.


Kirk collected a beautiful Goliathus species “among the hills of Kebrabassa, which is situated about forty miles beyond the Portuguese town of Tete [a town in modern-day Mozambique]”. This large beetle was described as Goliathus kirkianus by George Robert Gray (1808-1872) in 1864, the then Assistant Keeper of Zoology at the British Museum of Natural History. This species was later synonymised with Goliathus albosignatus (Boheman, 1857).



Goliathus kirkianus (Type specimen label just visible underneath the specimen).



Both of these species are widespread throughout Southern Africa and I have collected them on my previous trips to Tanzania. To think the specimens I collected sit in the same drawer of the Museum collections as those collected by Dr Livingstone is really quite mindboggling!


Unsurprisingly, many species of plant and animal have been named after Dr Livingstone over the years. One of the most spectacular is a species of Manticora ground beetle from the vicinity of Lake Ngami, north of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana. Francois Laporte, The Count of Castelnau, often known as Laporte de Castelnau (1812-1880) described Manticora livingstoni in 1863 in honour of the great explorer; (despite Livingstone having reached Lake Ngami in 1849, the specimens used by Castelnau for the description were not collected by Livingstone but by local collectors sent out by Castelnau).



The formidable Manticora livingstoni.


From the Great Waterfall at Livingstone, I will now be heading north-west to the forests of the Angola-Zambia-Congo borders, very near to the source of the River which brought Dr Livingstone so much joy as well as despair.




A statue of Dr David Livingstone at the entrance to Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, Zambia


Happy Birthday Dr Livingstone!'


The Etymology of Entomology!

Posted by Blaps Mar 8, 2013

As our beetle blog heads towards 50,000 views, it is fast becoming one of the most important interfaces between the Coleoptera Section and the world at large, but it is not the only public outreach that we do here on the section. As well as very regular Nature Live Events and Night Safaris at the Museum, we make occasional forays into radio and television, and one such example was on the 30th January when presenter Dr. George McGavin and BBC producer Andrea Rangecroft came to the Collections to record an interview on the 'Etymology of Entomology'


max and george radio4blog.jpg

Max Barclay and George McGavin having a friendly chat about taxonomy, probably!


Even since the biblical instruction to Adam in the Garden of Eden to give 'a name to every creature' (leading to the oft-repeated quip that taxonomy, rather than anything else, is the 'oldest profession'), or perhaps more seriously since Linnaeus's Systema Naturae in 1758 which marks the start of formal Zoological Nomenclature, people have trying to name and classify the breathtaking biodiversity they see around them. There is considerable debate as to what is actually the largest group of organisms, with nematodes, some microbes, Hymenoptera (bees, ants and especially wasps) and Diptera (flies) all competing with beetles for the hypothetical species-richness crown, but of one thing we are certain: None of these groups has been so exhaustively and comprehensively named as the Coleoptera. Over 400,000 described species of beetles (about 20% of known biodiversity) shows an average rate, still undiminished, of 1000-2000 scientific names proposed each year since 1758 for beetles alone. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that a BBC team interested in the 'Etymology or Entomology' should have wanted to pay a visit to the beetle section..


Dr. George McGavin, the presenter of the show is an entomologist and zoologist and was once a student based at the Natural History Museum, so he is no stranger to the whiff of naphthalene and the ranks of cabinets and drawers that house one of the biggest slices of Earth's biodiversity to exist in one place anywhere in the world. His background of course meant that he knew many of us, and also pretty much what he wanted to see. In the radio show, he interviews a number of entomologists, (including me), and nomenclators in the UK and the US, such as the staff of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (the august body based at the Natural History Museum, that regulates the naming of animals). To hear a sneak preview click on Radio 4!



The ranks of cabinets of the Coleoptera section holding over half of the World's known species


To provide a bit of background, Linnaeus's system, that is still used today, requires that each species has a unique scientific name, based (loosely) on Latin or Greek, and consisting of two parts, the genus name and the species name. These names are 'universal', i.e. used by scientists throughout the world and allow us to know exactly what species we are talking about; I have had many conversations with entomologists with whom I have no common language, that consist of pointing at specimens and saying scientific names, and it seems to work. Most of these names are serious, often descriptive, referring to colour (e.g. ruber, niger, albus, viridis), shape (spinosus, elongatus, angulatus), habitat (marinus, sylvaticus, montanus, campestris), size (maximus, minimus, pusillus, giganteus, nanus). Others refer to places of origin (germanicus, africanus, yorkensis, londonensis) or to people who the describer wanted to honour or commemorate. In the last case, the name is formed by adding a latin genitive '-i' or '-ii' for a man, '-ae' for a woman, or '-orum' for more than one person, to the end of the name in question (e.g. Eulipoa wallacei, Wallace's Megapode; Ischnura fountaineae, Margaret Fountaine's damselfly; Apion hookerorum, a weevil named after the Hooker brothers). Often the person honoured will be the collector, but sometimes it will be a figure from outside the world of science, a writer or entertainer or whatever, and in some cases a politician.


One of the beetles that George asked to see is one of the most controversial to be named after a famous person, a blind cave beetle forever cursed by its describer Oscar Scheibel with the name Anophthalmus hitleri. Scheibel presumably collected and named that species in 1936, because it was published in 1937, and it shows that one should never name anything after politicians, or at least wait until they are good and dead, since you never know what they are going to do.



Scheibel's unfortunately named beetle!


Other politically named beetles include Quentin Wheeler and Kelly Miller's slime mould beetles Agathidium bushi, Agathidium rumsfeldi and Agathidium cheneyi, named after US republican leaders. It is a popular misconception that in such cases the beetles are named as an insult, because beetles are considered somehow unpleasant (especially when they live in or feed on slime-moulds), but this is nonsense- we love our beetles too much! No professional coleopterist considers beetles to be unpleasant, and the names above are certainly honorific (in fact at least one of the scientists also named species after his wife). 


On the subject of naming of insects after partners or prospective ones, George Willis Kirkaldy (1873-1910)  deserves a mention. British born and based in Hawaii working for the sugar plantations, he studied the true bugs (Heteroptera) and discovered that the Greek suffix -chisme sounds, when spoken aloud, sufficiently like 'kiss me' that he prefixed a lot of genus names with words that sounded like the names of young ladies (or at least, the kinds of names that young ladies had in the early 20th century) - Dolichisme, Elachisme, Florichisme, Peggichisme, and Polychisme. Apparently Kirkaldy was criticised for frivolity at the Zoological Society of London, and one can imagine that a young man using the scientific nomenclature to crow about his romantic conquests might have raised a few eyebrows among the bewhiskered Edwardian patrons of that learned institution. A close contemporary of Kirkaldy, Horace Donisthorpe (1870-1951), whose collection is also at the NHM, apparently employed a similar strategy: many of his species and subspecies are named after young women of the day, some examples being primroseae, irenae, florenceae. The striking thing about these names is that none of them have stood the test of time- all have been shown by subsequent workers not to be distinct. One is drawn to the conclusion that Donisthorpe looked at something that the young ladies in question had collected, told them it was new, and went as far as formally naming it after them, but that his motives in doing so were perhaps not entirely scientific...


We also discussed the Russian entomologist Nikolay Nikolaevich Plavilstshikov (1892-1962), who (perhaps unsurprisingly) was drawn to complicated names and gave the world the longest scientific name, Brachyta interrogationis interrogationis var. nigrohumeralisscutellohumeroconjuncta Plavilstshikov, 1936 - a rather attractive, 1cm-long yellow and black longhorn beetle that lives in peonies in northern Eurasia. Plavilstshikov is also remembered for bringing a gun into work and shooting at his line-manager, and getting away with it, but that is another story...


With 400,000 beetles one can only imagine how many stories, told and untold, surround the choosing of their names. We have attempted on 'Etymology of Entomology' to tell just a few of the best of those stories, and our colleagues from other institutes and other countries have told others. We do hope you'll tune in at 10.30 on Saturday 9th March, and we'll provide live links as we get them


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Max shows George some of the species talked about in the radio show


To find out a little more about the programme please read on...and tune in on Saturday 9th March at 10.30am


On Saturday 9th March at 10.30am on BBC Radio 4, popular culture meets science as zoologist Dr George McGavin delves into the strange, and often bizarre, names given to insects.


There are an estimated 8-10 million living insect species with new specimens being discovered almost daily. Entomologists are turning to ever more imaginative names, referencing everything from literary figures, celebrities and politicians to playground puns.


There are flies named Pieza kake (piece of cake) and Scaptia beyonceae after the singer; beetles with political connections - Anophthalmus hitleri, Agathidium bushi, Agathidium cheneyi and Agathidium rumsfeldi; even entomologists who name discoveries after romantic conquests. Unsurprisingly, names can prove controversial but, once set, are difficult to change.


"Taxonomy is the foundation stone of science…without a stable system of classification, science would be nothing but a jumble of uncorrelated observations."


George takes us into the complex and intriguing world of the taxonomist. From the 18th century father of modern taxonomy Carl Linnaeus, to the present day, he explains why naming the things that surround us is the foundation of all science.


George pieces together his story at Linnaeus’ original collection at The Linnaean Society, and at the capital’s Natural History Museum and London Zoo. He also reveals some insects named after him at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.


Biodiversity Beetles in Focus

Posted by Blaps Feb 21, 2013

Here Tom Thomson, who is our lead researcher on the Coleoptera section's UKBAP project website, tells us a bit about the project and some of the interesting challenges of documenting Museum specimens! The UK Biodiversity Action Plan was first published in 1994, as part of the UK Government’s response to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). It set out to describe the biological resources (including beetles!) of the UK in order to help conserve and aid recovery of species under threat or endangered. 


'Good day Friends, Romans and fellow Coleopterists!
An update for you on interesting and sometimes perplexing things encountered while working on many many lovely beetles from our collections as part of the Museum’s Biodiversity Action Plan species inventory of specimens and publication project (soon to be available on a scratchpad).


This project came about to address the balance in resources available to researchers working with these species all of which by definition are rare or endangered.  Many resources and organisations such as the  The National Federation of Biological Recorders (NFBR), and the NBN Gateway and other media often are unable to take account of the historical distribution of invertebrates of conservation importance through archive data.  Considering that within the NHM collections we have thousands of specimens going back to the early 19th century and beyond, (complete with specimen labels giving the distribution of species dating to a period before widespread habitat loss and pollution) this data is of incurable worth and highly significant. 


Knowing the present and historical distribution of a species is essential for any conservation work. In fact, many species are given conservation status specifically because they have declined, in many cases provable by the data available to ascertain if their present distribution is less than their historical distribution.  These former (wider) distributions can throw light on reasons for decline, and historic records may show modern day recorders valuable pointers for possible additional sparse populations of rare taxa, and estimate what their geographical limits might have been under more favourable conditions.


Of course the majority of information on the historical distribution of species is locked up in major museum collections and given the access possible via new online media is a great opportunity to bring ready transcribed label data, comprehensively checked and in a reliable form into open circulation from material that otherwise would often be difficult to interpret without expert curatorial assistance.
This often extremely cryptic data including collectors handwritten notes, habitat data and often multiple observations from generations of collectors and researchers on particularly old material is of international use and value and this projects’ main aim is to make this freely available to the whole conservation community for all UKBAP species of Coleoptera, to allow them to paint a more realistic picture of species’ distribution and status in the UK.


So onto the images that are an essential research to accompany this data, Well as many of you will probably know (and may well have some

experienced first-hand), getting high quality images of any small specimen is always a challenge, but something as complex and 3D as a preserved beetle (getting all the legs right up to the tarsi in focus particularly) can be more so than many things. Thankfully as technology is advancing fast in this area over recent years the better our computers and electronics in general become. For photographing most organisms we have moved on from manual cameras and spending long hours squinting down a view- finder fine focusing on tiny details; those days of developing negatives only to find that one diagnostic feature is blurred when you were sure it looked lovely and sharp when you took the image are now gone!



So the advent of a digital camera as a readily available tool both as compact pocket types with good inbuilt macro facilities right through to full digital SLR's with dedicated macro lens and the ability to connect directly to a computer is such a gift to us entomologists I am sure you will agree! The ability to operate things shack-free on remote right from the computer screen has really changed things for the better as well as being able to see the results in seconds not hours or days even more so!


In recent times, the biggest change of all is the advent of sophisticated software to combine images of differing focal lengths and merge them into a single smooth crisp image.  For some subjects this makes the previously impossible relatively easy.  Views of small organisms and their wider background are improved by being both crisp in focus, way outside the normal depth of field of even the best lens and far better quality than single images dodged and burnt on a film negative projector. The power to combine 20, 50 or even 100 images into one polished finished frame is priceless.  For imaging work possible with the more traditional methods, it can have its downsides when left on its automatic settings; combining frames as shot as demonstrated by this image below of the ground beetle Carabus intricatus.



These types of error are relativity easy to fix however, and this is the finished image:



Thankfully this is a rather drastic example! For the most part it’s a wonderful quick and smooth process with results like this:



Carabus intricatus dorsal view


This image took only 20 minutes with microscope and camera and less than this in the software.
The other end of the spectrum though is this fine specimen of Ampedus rufipennis in frontal view which is composite of 156 images and took around two hours to take with a similar amount to smooth and blend in the software.'




Let your love Glow…

Posted by Blaps Feb 13, 2013

Happy St. Valentine’s Day beetlers!


When we talk about love it’s a subjective thing, and often attraction is in the eye of the beholder. What attracts us to one thing more than another we cannot fully explain; but, what we can explain are some very specific and perhaps even artful methods of attraction employed in the beetle world. This St. Valentine’s we honour that most successful paramour of love, the Glow worm!


Glow worms are beautiful creatures, at least when they light up! However, upon inspecting our collection, I find it is quite hard to see them as being very attractive at all.



A rather uninspiring drawer of Phengodidae glowworms from our collection
Image courtesy of Helena Maratheftis 2013


Instead of investing their energies into metamorphosing into  the multifarious morphologies possible within the Coleoptera such as beautiful metallic colouration, impressive horns and armature,  clever methods of mimicry and disguise, they are in fact for the most part, small, soft bodied and brownish – in effect, not sexy; but perhaps a hidden nature is yet to be revealed! Yes, come cover of darkness, a mysterious transformation occurs, and what this drab exterior belies is revealed in all its brilliant neon glory!  Yes, glow worms glow!



Lampyris noctiluca courtesy of Devon Wildlife Trust



What is a glow worm?


Well you may have gathered by now that glow worms are not actually worms – they are beetles! Currently there are two families that could be considered glow-worms in popular understanding, the Phengodidae (which includes the famous ‘railroad worm’) and the Lampyridae (which includes the common European glowworm Lampyris noctiluca). The Rhagophthalmidae warrant a mention as formerly they were included as a subfamily within the Phengodidae – but the jury is out on their taxonomic placement. Let’s just say they are related, as shown by the bioluminescent organs found in the larvae which are known as star-worms). They will probably end up as a subfamily within the Lampyridae.


The term worm probably derives from the female of the species which in many of the glow worms, despite undergoing a full metamorphosis, remains in what we call a larviform state. She will resemble the larvae with the exception of possessing compound eyes, often a hardened plate covering the head and differ somewhat in the number and position of ‘lanterns’ – the paler segments that transmit bioluminescence.



Lampyris noctiluca from top to bottom: adult male, larviform female and larva
Image courtesy of Helena Maratheftis 2013


And the reason for this rather lazy metamorphosis? Well would you bother to get out of bed if you could make your bottom glow like a glow worm?! Probably not! There is no advantage, particularly in terms of energy investment for the female to produce wings, or even to have the ability or desire to feed as an adult. All she wants and needs is to mate; or if we want to be a bit more romantic about it, and in the sage words and lyrics of Girls Aloud (c. 2004) she is a ‘love-machine’.



Calyptocephalus fasciatus; Lampyridae type held in the Museum's collection - complete wtih magnificent antennae!
Image courtesy of Helena Maratheftis 2013

The mating game


Perhaps we are not always aware of how complex our mating rituals can be. In the ‘glowworms’ the bioluminescent function is a ‘come-hither’ signal to wanton males. Given that the females often-times will only have a maximum of two weeks, if that (please bear in mind everything written here is a generalisation for the purposes of description – these behaviours will differ between families, genera and species) in which to attract a male, mate, lay eggs and then die, all of this without even stopping for a bite to eat* timing and the ‘attractiveness’ of the signal is paramount!


The ‘signal’ – the bioluminescent pulsing or flashing is a kind of Morse-code-love unique to different species. Throughout most of England in the summer for example, the female Lampyris noctiluca can be spotted at dusk climbing low herbage in order to elevate herself and gain as clear a pathway to her prospective male as possible, then it’s all systems go and she starts signalling. This signalling will go on until she has successfully mated; sometimes she is not successful on the first night; we all know that feeling!


Fatal Attraction


*In some of the Lampyridae, in particular the genus Photuris, the adults do feed; and with a somewhat macabre intent. Females of the genus are little minxes often referred to as the ‘femme fatale’ firefly! They are able to mimic the signalling of other species, which lures unsuspecting males to their deaths! The Photuris females need a defensive chemical that is found in the male (it would make less evolutionary sense to eat one’s own species!) in order to repel potential predators. This chemical is only secreted when the beetle is attacked. By consuming this chemical (known as Lucibufagin) the female boosts her predatory defences and lives to mate with her own kind!



A very attractive male of the Pseudophengodes genus
Image courtesy of Helena Maratheftis 2013



Love glow


The ‘glow’ differs between species and can serve a different function. The glow in the larvae is almost certainly evolved to deter would-be predators (though the larvae are voracious predators themselves, enjoying the odd millipede or slug!). In the adults, both males and females can signal, but in some species it can only be the female that lights up. There are also different frequencies of signal that are species specific and some species will aggregate en-masse and signal in unison! Some species’ adults do not signal for mating purposes, rather as a warning to predators and instead use pheromones to attract their mate.


Bioluminescence is a chemical reaction producing a ‘cold light’ with no infra-red or ultra-violet frequencies, and is the most energy-efficient form of light that we know and it involves a good deal of attraction!   Luciferin is the substrate and Luciferase is the enzyme, in the presence of magnesium, oxygen and Adenosine-5 Triphosphate (ATP) (present in all living organisms) the chemical reaction takes place within the lanterns which are technically known as ‘photocytes’. ATP and Oxygen are really attracted to Luciferin but because Luciferin is quite small (only three rings of atoms) it becomes quite ‘energetic’ in the presence of these big guys, and ‘ejects’ its atoms, thereby releasing a whole lot of energy in the form of light. Whilst this is going on, Luciferase (a massive 10,000 atoms) is giving all the chemicals a lovely big hug (in effect the catalyst for the process). Once this is finished the Luciferase lets go of the spent molecules and looks around for some more, and so the process continues over and over again at lightning speed producing that wonderful romantic neon glow!.


Tenuous beetle trivia

Winston Churchill was once reported to state ‘We are all worms. But I believe that I am a glow-worm

When I think of glowworms here is the song that I like to sing along to in my head, or even out loud (simply replace the word ‘flow’ with ‘glow’)



These Bellamy Brothers were definitely singing about glowworms when they wrote these lyrics:


There's a reason for the sunshine in the sky

There's a reason why I'm feelin' so high

Must be the season

When that lovelight shines all around us…


So let your love flow (glow) folks and a Happy St Valentine’s Day from Team Coleoptera! XXX



There’s no greater fun than dressing up as your favourite beetle right?


larviform female glowworm1.jpg

Railroad worm Phrixothrix sp - larviform female! Note Railroad 'worms' also produce a red light on their heads!



We would like to thank Helena for her excellent images and her work volunteering for the Coleoptera section. Here is what she does in the real world!

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Member since: Sep 15, 2009

I'm Beulah Garner, one of the curators of Coleoptera in the Entomology department. The Museum's collection of beetles is housed in 22,000 drawers, holding approximately 9,000,000 specimens. This little collection keeps us quite busy!

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