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Tiger Tiger Burning Bright...

Posted by Blaps Dec 2, 2011

When I think of Tiger beetles, (subfamily Cicindelinae) I think of William Blake’s most wondrous poem The Tyger (as was spelled by him in 1794). He was writing of that famous mammalian predator the tiger (Panthera tigris). Here is the first stanza:


Tiger Tiger burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?



Could he have been writing also of those most accomplished and fearful predators the tiger beetles? I bet Blake scholars have never thought of that!
When viewed close up, their mandibles (jaws) are truly fearsome! These beetles are as close to perfect symmetry as any other creature found in nature.

This species of Pseudoxycheila lateguttata Chaudoir ssp. peruviana Cassola, 1997
(new to the Museum’s collection and found on a collecting trip to Peru in 1984 by Martin Cooper) is a prime example of the tiger beetles’ ability to devour its prey – just look at those mandibles!


Image courtesy of Tristan Bantock 2011


Tiger beetles run very fast (approx 5 mph!) and select a varied invertebrate prey. Most species are found during the day and are prevalent in hot dry countries such as South Africa. They are heliophilic which means they love the sun – being cold blooded creatures; it gives them the required velocity to out-run their prey, or indeed their predators. Their enlarged compound eyes are extremely powerful – if you have ever encountered one, you will know that they move very quickly at the slightest detection of movement! Their exceptionally long legs not only aid speed but also help to keep them cool as they are elevated from the heat of the earth. They are found in dry sandy habitats, usually in the vicinity of water and are generally cosmopolitan. In Britain there are just five species.



Some Megacephala from Tanzania (nocturnal predators)



I have been working on some collection expansion (we have a few new species to the collection) which could not be possible without the identification skills of the world’s expert in the Cicindelinae, Fabio Cassola from Italy. For more on Fabio and the cicindelinae in general follow this link:

Each year on our sojourns to Prague Insect Fair we meet up with Fabio and give him a few hundred specimens from all over the world to identify! This March we went out to Prague with 327 unidentified specimens from various collections that have either been donated to the Museum or result from the Museum’s own collecting trips. By the time we return to Prague in October, Fabio will have identified the lot!



Neocollyris apteroides from NE India (Assam) approx 25mm length (new to the Museum's collection)

Image courtesty of Tristan Bantock 2011



In March 2010 we sent to Fabio Cassola 327 specimens of 71 taxa– as a result the following are new to the Museum’s collection:


Neocollyris (Pachycollyris) apteroides (W. Horn, 1901) (7) 
NE INDIA, Assam: Bhalukpong, 27°02N-92°35E, 150 m, 28.V-3.VI.2006, P. Pacholá tko; L. Dembicky & P. Pacholátko, BMNH(E) 2006-48, 4m 3f (=male / female)


Pseudoxycheila lateguttata Chaudoir ssp. peruviana Cassola, 1997 (1)
PERU, Amazonas: Rodriguez de Mendoza, 1400 m, 29.XI.1984, M. Cooper,

Ronhuberia fernandezi (Cassola, 2000) (2)
COLOMBIA, Nariño: Barbacoas, 1000 m, 23.III.1974, M.C. Cooper, 2m


Elliptica kolbeana (W. Horn, 1915) (2)
TANZANIA: Tulawaka, Biharamula, 1250 m, XI.2002, Bucket pitfall, riverine forest, University of DSM; BMNH (E) 2010-91,1m
TANZANIA: Tulawaka, XI.2002, Bucket pitfall, riverine forest, University of DSM; BMNH (E) 2010-91,1m


Cylindera (Ifasina) discreta (Schaum) ssp. subfasciata (W. Horn, 1892) (10) 
INDONESIA, Borneo, Kalimantan Tengah: Busang/Rekut confl.,0°03S-113°59E; August 2001, MV light, Brendell/Mendel; Baritu Ulu 2001, BMNH(E) 2001-191, 4m 6f


Brasiella (Gaymara) balzani (W. Horn, 1899) (5)
ECUADOR, Morona-Santiago:  Macas (Rio Upano), 1000 m, 7.V.1981, M.C. Cooper, 3f
BOLIVIA, Cochabamba:  Villa Tunari, 800 m, 14.X.1981, M.C. Cooper, 2f

And this is just one story. We have a long history of this type of partnership with experts in many Coleoptera groups from all over Europe and indeed the world who work tirelessly and devotedly (some might say obsessionally (I know that’s not a word okay!) to contribute to the world’s knowledge of its amazing diversity.
Here is me, working tirelessly and devotedly (and always with a smile?!) on this beautiful group of beetles.

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Post Script from Max Barclay from 2009/10:

We have just received a list of tiger beetles returned from identification by the world expert Fabio Cassola, including many species that we had no recent material of, and an amazing 10 species new to the collection (not bad for a well known and well collected group!); almost all of these were relatively recently acquired from field work expeditions (the details of which can be read from the list of species new to the collection below) or recovered from old unprocessed material in the last few years; some dating back to 1974!
I would like to thank all of you who have contributed to this great piece of collections development, and particular congratulations to those people who scored a 'new to NHM' species, Martin Brendell, Richard Smith, Hitoshi Takano, Donald Quicke, Jon Martin, Daegan Inward, Colin Vardy and P Hanson.
(Max Barclay, Collections Manager).


Of the 271 specimens sent out on this loan in 2009/10, 10 were new to the Museum’s collection:


Neocollyris (Brachycollyris) purpureomaculata (W. Horn, 1922) (1)
W. MALAYSIA, Cameron Highlands: Tanarata, 8-26.IV.2002, Malaise trap, 10°55N-83°30E, BMNH (E) 2005-151, D L JQuicke, 1m  

Collyris robusta Dohrn, 1891 (1)
BRUNEI: Bandar Seri Begam, mangrove/forest interface, 20.VI.1983, P.J. De Vries,1m


Tetracha (Tetracha) s. spixii (Brullé, 1837) (1)
PERU, Amazon: Iquitos, Rio Napo-Rio Sucusari, 3°96'46S-73°15'49W, XII.1997, lowland forest,M.V.L.Barclay, BMNH(E) 2003-49, 1f


Odontocheila cinctula (Bates, 1881) (8)
COSTARICA: Guanacaste: Golfo Dulce, 10 km N Piedrasblancas, II-III.1989, P. Hanson; BMNH (E) 1997-188, P. Hanson, 1m 1f
COSTARICA: Puntar.: Golfo Dulce, 24 km W Piedrasblancas, 200m, III-V.1989, P. Hanson; BMNH (E) 1997-188, P. Hanson, 1m
COSTARICA: Guanacaste: Estac. Pitilla, 9 km S Santa Cecilia, 700m, VI.1989, I. Gauld; BMNH (E) 1997-188, P. Hanson, 5m [2 ]


Therates apiceflavus Sawada & Wiesner, 1999 (2)
W. THAILAND: Thung Yai Wildlife Sanctuary, 15°26 (an 28) N-98°48E, 300m; Tak Province, Umphang District, Song Bae Stream, 18-27.IV.1988; evergreen rain forest, M.J.D. Brendell, B.M. 1988-183, 1m 1f [1 ] 


Hipparidium pseudosoa (W. Horn, 1900) (3)
TANZANIA, Nija Panda, Mwanihana, Udzungwa Mountains NP, 07°47’27.7S-36°49’11.7E, 27-30.XI.2010, Smith R. & Takano H., general collection; BMNH (E), 2010-91, 1m 2f [1 ]


Cylindera (Plectographa) ritsemae (W. Horn, 1895) (1)
ARGENTINA, S. del Estero:  Thermes de Rio Hondo, 27-28.XI.1979, C. & M. Vardy, B.M. 1980-67, 1f 


Naviauxella davisoni (Gestro, 1889) (1)
W. THAILAND: Thung Yai Wildlife Sanctuary, 15°25N-98°48E, 300m; Kanchanaburi Province, Sangkhla Buri District, Mae Kasa Stream, IV-V.1988; decidous dipterocarp forest, M.J.D. Brendell, B.M. 1988-183, 1f  


Naviauxella ramai Naviaux, 1991 (1)
W. THAILAND: Thung Yai Wildlife Sanctuary, 15°25N-98°48E, 300m; Kanchanaburi Province, Sangkhla Buri District, Mae Kasa Stream, IV-V.1988; decidous dipterocarp forest, M.J.D. Brendell, B.M. 1988-183, 1m  


Brasiella (Brasiella) mendicula Rivalier, 1955 (3)
BELIZE: Chiquibul Forest Res., Las Cuevas Field Station, 16°44N-88°99W, 300-700m, 1.VII.1997, D. Inward, BMNH (E) 2005-78, 1m 1f [1 ]
BELIZE, Cayo, Chiquibul FR, my light sheet; Las Cuevas Research Stn., clearing, VI.2002, J.H. Martin coll.; BMNH (E) 2005-43 J.H.Martin, 1f

Tiger Tiger burning bright…




Hello beetlers, (and a special 'Ajoh' to our Czech counterparts!)


This week we ask, 'What's the point?' Not an existential question but rather, a special on the merits of 'pointing' beetle specimens.

We are lucky enough to have in our band of ardent coleopterists a young American lady who is expert at pointing beetles (the preferred American way of mounting dry beetle specimens, as oppsoed to card-mounting specimens), and has developed over trial and error a steamy method for one of the more challenging aspects of beetle mounting.

Here is Hillery Warner, our specimen preparator in action:


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So ever wondered what you might do with that vegetable steamer that you bought on a whim whilst on a health kick; and now it sits gathering dust on top of a kitchen cupboard. Here's your answer: STEAM BEETLES!


We have a specially adapted appliance for this very job with its own beetle setting (10 mins for beetles; 20 mins for an egg!)

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Beetles with their chitinous exoskeleton are extremely tough and so often times, especially with historic specimens that have not been treated to a professional mount, they require 'relaxing'. Relaxing the beetle means that its component parts (in particular antennae and legs) can be moved into a position that is both conducive for the safe prolonged care and storage of the specimen as well as making available and visible the most important identifying features of the specimen.


Currently we have a collection of beetles from Brazil, that has never been mounted. This material is over 60 years old and has been stored in the original packing it was transported in, which are these rather lovely triangular packages. They look charming, but in fact once opened we find very dry beetle specimens further entrapped in cotton wool! If we were to handle them at this dry brittle stage, we would only damage them, as bits that are trapped in the cotton wool would just break off.

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Specimens collected around 1961/1962 from Brazil, so far most have been from around Guanabara Bay.

Brazil adheres to the the Convention on Biological Diversity regulations regarding the collecting of biological property. For more information on this follwing this link:


And for more on the Museum's collection and how it adheres to regualtions set out by the Brazilian government follow this link:


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In order to mount them safely with minimum damage, we give them a good steam!

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Above are some specimens undergoing the steaming process, which usually takes about ten minutes per batch, but this does depend on the size of the beetle. Once the steaming begins the specimens give off a fragrant scent of Thymol (which is found in oil of Thyme...mmm!) and is used as an anti-fungal treatment. We take special care to keep the labels with the specimens at all times (a specimen is no good without its data!).



Once the specimens are flexible enough, the mounting begins. In Hillery's own words, this is why pointing is a good idea:


"… beetle filled mugs masquerading as tea, hot plates, vegetable steamers… oh the places I’ve been and the things I’ve done to relax beetles just to untangle them from cotton so I can then pin and dry them out again!!!

The point of mounting a specimen is to observe, study, and either identify or describe it.  The point of a point is to allow you to do as much of this work as possible with minimal actual contact with the specimen (to avoid damaging it / destroying unique physical characters).  You don’t want to waste lots of time boiling something off a card to find out that it’s something boring (common) if you don’t have to, but if you identify something on a point that turns out to be something exciting then you can card it for the added protection..."


Image Hillery Warner 2011.



Thanks Hillery!



Specimens are mounted on card points that are tipped with a tiny drop of organic glue. They are lined up on a plastazote block, heads all facing the same way and on their backs. The tip of the card has been slightly curved to accomodate the shape of the beetles' ventral surface. The card point is then positioned ideally between the middle and hind leg (see image above) t oallow for optimum visibility of all the beetles' features. Et Voila!


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Beetles 'relaxed' and ready for pointing                                                         

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Card point attaching to specimen

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Final pointed beetles complete with data label, awaiting further labelling



On average it takes about 3.5 minutes to make a point, point a specimen, and label it (minus label deciphering time which can be substantial!).  Pinning takes a lot longer - more like 10 minutes per specimen (not counting drying time… or boiling).  Currently Hillery's ballpark figure for the number of specimens already prepared are around 4,900 pointed specimens *OR* 1,730 pinned specimens in the last few months.  This work is really valuable in improving the quality of the Museum's collection in terms of specimen care and accessibilty to the specimens from worldwide experts.


And to end on a steamy note, some previous beetles that were given the steamy treatment became overnight stars in the Museum's recent Sexual Nature exhibition. These weevils were caught (in the act) in the 1970's and remained in an... um, private place, until Hillery came across them; and was able to conserve them in such away as to record for prosterity that BEETLES MEANS LOVE!



Thanks to Hillery Warner for providing information and some images. Katie Bermingham and Stephanie Unna have also worked on this beetle mounting project.


Naturist Bill with Layered up Lill

Posted by Blaps Oct 19, 2011

Dear Beetlers,


It's been a while but now things have quietened down there is some time to write and reflect on the past summer months that just flew by. Our two interns from Plymouth University, Lucia Chmurova and Lydia Smith , or 'Team LL' as they came to be affectionatley known, have left us, (oh boo hoo) to return to their studies; but there's no such thing as a free on the job taxonomic training internship, so I've asked them to write a few words on the past seven months spent learning this beetling game!


By means of introduction here is Lucia demonstrating the Coleoptera Section Health & Safety protocol:


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And here is Lydia with Coleoptera section's pet chicken (actually it's not our pet; that would be completely AGAINST Health & Safety).

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Here is what they have to say:

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“Seven Scarab beetles vomited up by a Somali woman”!!
This is an example of some of the strange and wonderful things we came across while working in the Coleoptera and Hemiptera section and one of many memories I will have for years to come!
Lucia and I have both been in the privileged position to do our University placement-year in origins for the past 7months.
We were so excited when we found out we could come not only to THE Natural History Museum in London, but to the Bug and Beetle department that I spent the first couple of months feeling so overwhelmed and excited that I felt sick! The excitement has not gone away, but luckily the sick feeling has and fortunately for me there were no unexpected Scarabs involved!
We started off with a stint of slave labour making piles of unit trays and then moved onto mounting Peruvian dung beetles, family sorting, order sorting and beetle identification for a Silwood park project, cabinet expansion project (we counted over 22,000 drawers in the coleopteran collection), recuration of drawers, beetle measuring for Nigel, de-moulding, dissection, making labels for drawers and specimens, testing new traps on Bookham Common and we concluded our placement with mounting and family sorting incredibly beautiful Tanzanian specimens collected by a resident expert! We were made to feel so welcome from our first day at the museum and I am so grateful for the most amazing experience ever.
My favourite entomological story was one Max told us and one I asked him to repeat it on numerous occasions! It was about the missing wing case of a beetle belonging to NHM, but lost when the specimen was loaned to the Paris museum. The collector then donated his collection to the Paris museum and because they had the missing wing case at the time of donation they now have ownership of the wing case while the rest of the specimen lives in London!
I just want to write about some of the highlights; First of all I have been inspired by the sheer depth of knowledge held by the people I have met from both origins and from all other areas of the museum. People’s willingness to answer our many questions and to show us around their collections has been incredible and such a wonderful opportunity. We had the chance to visit the forensic lab, the fish, reptiles and amphibian storerooms, the British reference collection, the imaging lab, the historical books, the Arachnid, Mantid and Mollusc collections and to do a week each of field work with the Soil Biodiversity Group in the New Forest.



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Herman’s herbarium books with a pressed frog and plant specimens – one of the oldest books in the museum.

It was really good going to Friday coffee mornings and meeting lots of people from the whole of entomology, I loved going to Nature Live talks and hearing about people’s work and their experiences from their field. Lucia and I also really liked our lunch breaks with Malcolm and his great plethora of hilarious stories.

BioBlitz: The Big Nature Count
We went to the BioBlitz in the museum gardens with Beulah and Roger and helped children sort through trays of compost looking for invertebrates with plastic spoons! I think they were far more impressed by the stag beetle Roger cleverly brought in with him though!
You can just make out the Stag beetle crawling up Roger’s Big Nature day T-shirt!

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I was taught to dissect Phalacrids by Mr Richard Thompson on the training microscope. This is a couple of afternoons I will certainly never forget. I watched and listened intently to a man who is to me exactly what the museum is all about, passion, knowledge, dedication and expertise. He introduced me to the idea of making your own tools like bending over the tip of a pin to use as a miniature hook for removing structures form the abdomen and how to keep a beetle the size of a coma motionless while doing so. I saw how important it was to do dissections of these smaller groups when I discovered that the 3 beetles I thought were all one species turned out to be 2 different species. We carefully compared the diagrams in the keys with the structures we had removed and it was quite clear we had 2 species. I will never forget how excited and inspired I was after this experience!

Tanzanian specimen preparation
We spent a lot of time working with Toshi on Tanzanian specimens collected in this year. We helped to sort them from alcohol into orders and also mounted a vast number of them on pins, cards and points. 
Here are some beetles that we mounted. You may recognise the Passalid beetles in the 3rd row down because one of them featured in Toshi’s video clip from the field in an earlier blog.


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Family sorting all our mounted Tanzanian specimens at the end.


*    *    *    *
I can only agree with Lydia and use the same word ‘privileged’ for being able to spend our placement in the Colepoptera Department of the museum. I actually remember my very first day in the museum very clearly and there are certain things that I will never forget. One -  the swiping of my pass to get ‘behind the scenes’ and into Origins and ever since I have absolutely loved this very action of being allowed to get somewhere where others were not! It always made me smile when I could use my pass to enter the realm of the museum’s collections.
Two - I remember I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw rows and rows of metallic cabinets that hold one of the most important beetle collections in the world. When I stood at one end of the collection looking down to the other end, it seemed to me as if the cabinets went on forever and never stopped. I could not (and still can’t!) get my head around the sheer number of beetles these cabinets hold (it is believed that there are 10 million beetles!!!).  I was just hoping and wishing that maybe one day we will be allowed to open any of the cabinets we wish and find out what they are hiding inside. This day came soon after we arrived at the museum and I think I have never felt more privileged than when I was given my own key to the cabinets of the beetle collection. “This means I can go there anytime and open any cabinet I like!” And I of course made use of this opportunity. Sometimes when I was bored or had to clear my head after working for hours, I just popped down to the collection, opened a few random cabinets and just browsed through the drawers. It made me feel kind of calmer. However, now I am not sure if it was looking at the beetles or the amounts of alcohol or mercury that you breathe in from historical collections that made me feel so calm!     
Three - when I first came up to the top floor of Origins I instantly loved it. The picture of the beetle poster on the wall and the view of the long straight corridor is perhaps the most vivid picture that stayed in my mind.

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Four, the horrid smell of alcohol-infused dung beetles! I will definitely never forget when Max put a big bag full of dung beetles in smelly, sticky, brown alcohol in front of us and said that now we will learn how to mount beetles. However, as we started to dry the beetles out and uncover beautiful metallic colours, we quickly stopped paying attention to the smell. That smell actually stayed on my fingers for a few days even after we finished mounting them!
Five, the day when I first saw mounted beetles on boards. When I saw those beetles surrounded by 10s of pins, I honestly thought that someone was just really bored (and creative) and pinned the pins around the beetles as a joke. Soon I realised that it was no joke and board pinning became one of my favourite activities I did in the museum.

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Six - the historical collections. My placement project included one part where I needed to compare the way beetles were mounted in the past to the conventional way it is done today. Just the very fact that some of the beetles in the historical collections are more than 250 years old is breathtaking. Working with them always made me think about the old naturalists and I wished I could teleport to those times and go collecting and exploring with them! I would have to dress as a boy though to be accepted on board as in those days the term woman-entomologist did not exist! My absolute favourites were dissected beetles mounted by Sharp. I remember how impressed Lydia and I were when Max recognised Sharp’s hand writing on a label in a drawer full of other beetles.

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Seven – everyone that works in the Department. I will certainly never forget people I worked with in the museum .With this last point Lydia and I would like to thank everyone for making our placement one of the greatest experiences we have ever had. We have learnt so much and met amazing and interesting people. Special thanks goes to Max Barclay for accepting us as the first placement students, for looking after us all the time and making us feel like we belong there, and for giving us priceless experiences and references. Thank you everyone, we hope we will see you all soon.
Lucia and Lydia.

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(No one except us will know that these figures were from L&L's leaving cards, which they have creatively interpeted!) B


So, come Friday 23 September, it’ll be time for us dusty old curators to kick off our sensible sandals and get fashion forward for this year’s free Science Uncovered event.


If you were expecting this:


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...think again, because for one night only we are sexy, sophisticated and scientific – like this:



No? If you don’t believe me, you better come along to find out


Science Uncovered 2010 was the first year that the Museum opened its doors to the public on such an unprecedented scale. We were expecting a few thousand; but after a few weeks of blogging, twittering and Face-booking over 6000 of you came to see the secrets of the Natural History Museum revealed – some for the first time.


And not only our prized treasures of science, but our scientific staff, who, just like our specimens, don’t get out much! My experience last year was incredible, from 5pm to 10pm my colleagues and I did not stop talking – to you! It was simply amazing, invigorating and yes, exhausting to have the opportunity to engage on such a wide scale, and also on such an intimate scale with hundreds of conversations about the Museum, our specimens, and most pertinently our research.


Last year I spent my time on the Identification and Advisory Service’s ‘Identification Roadshow’ where we invited you to bring along your natural history finds for on the spot identification. Here I am, looking a little bit overwhelmed, along with Stuart Hine, Richard Lane and Gill Stevens in the foreground, along Dino-way, where this year you will find the entomology station.


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But this year I move over to my first love, the beetles!


Here’s one I found in Southeast London this summer, you may recognise it? And it may make an appearance on the night!


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With over 400,000 species of beetles in the world, and the NHM’s collection holding representatives of at least half of that figure, it’s quite hard to choose what we might talk about or put on display on the night. But because beetles are so diverse and occupy so many niches in the natural and unnatural environment we won’t be short on conversation; naturally we will show you specimens that exhibit sexual dimorphism (differences between the sexes), the incredible size range of beetles – from the smallest to the largest:




Here is Conrad, a Scarab expert who will be there on the night, with one of the largest beetles in the world, the aptly named Titanus giganteus which may make an appearance…


We will also show you some of the most beautiful creatures in the world, for example this wonderful Plusiotis, a member of the shining leaf-chafer beetle sub-family. Chrysina aurigans (Rothschild & Jordan, 1894): collected by Martin Brendell in the cloud forests of Costa Rica.




Here is Max Barclay, who will be available on the night at our entomology fieldwork Science Station armed with field equipment and some examples of what we find when we head off to research remote areas throughout the world.


Other colleagues include Hillery Warner, who is expert in photographing our specimens; see some of her work on Flickr here.


And the formidable Peter Hammond, previously senior researcher in Coleoptera, and now a Scientific associate, here is Peter, armed with those two most important of entomologist accessories: a pint of beer and a specimen tube (for beetles, of course…!)


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We can’t wait…can you?


About Science Uncovered 2011:


Science Uncovered is a free event on Friday 23 September 2011 at the Natural History Museum.  All events and tours at Science Uncovered will be free but, due to time and space constraints, some will require you to book free tickets in advance.

To find out more visit Science Uncovered on the Museum’s website.


The Natural History Museum at Tring, Hertfordshire, will also be holding its own Science Uncovered event. Find out more about Science Uncovered in Tring.


Online community


To get involved before the night, visit our Science Uncovered online community where you can get previews of what’s happening and join in with discussions and debates.


Hi Beetlers,


The last few months my trusty volunteer Katie and I have been slowly but surely working on a huge re-curation project. And we chose our group well, a very large and tricky genus of the beautiful flower chafers (sub-family Cetoniinae) the Protaetia Burmeister, 1842. In the sub-family Cetoniinae there are approximately 4000 known species, within this sub-family is the tribe Cetoniini which includes 107 genera, of which the Protaetia is one. The Museum collection currently has 271 species, and counting. These beetles are so attractive and collectable they attract a good deal of research, though little is known about their natural ecology. If you would like to find out more about some of the research going on try here: and here is the checklist we have followed for the re-curation


Here is Katie with a drawer of Protaetia, and she now is going to tell us all about her experience with these beauties:

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"I have to say that as I’m not a Coleoptera expert I feel quite honoured to be asked to write in the beetle blog. The current project I am working on is the recuration of a genus of beetles called the Protaetia - I have been working on it one day a week for the last few months. Here is how I have been spending my Fridays. 
Recuration  of the Protaetia
I didn’t know what the Protaetia were before I started this task but I do now! They are a big genus of chafer beetles that seem to be found just about everywhere in the world. They are currently taking up 35 drawers in the Coleoptera collection and I’m sure that number is set to increase in the near future. They range in size from about 1-3cm long and come in a variety of colours; some very plain and some with very intricate markings.
After looking through all the drawers (what did I sign myself up for?) and making sure that there weren’t any loose body parts or specimens that needed some attention, my first task was to label all the unit trays containing the specimens with the basic taxonomic information (species, subgenus, genus, author etc). Although it sounds like an easy job this actually was the part that took the longest. The Protaetia have undergone a revision since the labels were last written (if they even had a label to begin with!) and most species are now placed into a subgenus (there are approximately 49 subgenera!) and some of the species were sitting under a synonym.

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Curation in progress!

Once I knew what was in each unit tray the next task was to arrange them in the correct sequence. First should come the Protaetia that are not in a subgenus and they are ordered according to their geographical location. Then come the various subgenera in alphabetical order; this task was quite an undertaking.The only sensible way to get them in the correct order was to lay all the drawers out over any available desk space – even so the drawers had to be stacked several deep. (Most of the credit for that has to go to Beulah; without her I would have been lost under a pile of drawers!) One important thing we also had to remember was to leave space for later expansion; there are many species in the Protaetia that the museum currently has no meterial for. 


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Drawers piled up and laid out!


The final ongoing stage is databasing all the species of Protaetia that are present in the collection. When I’m finished each will have basic information on taxonomy, location in the collection,  whether any type material is present and the geographical localities of the specimens. I’ve been keeping a count as I go along; I’ve done over a hundred species so far and I’m just over the half way point.
I’ve really enjoyed having the opportunity to work on such a fascinating and varied group of beetles. I wish I could show you pictures of all my favourite species but there are just too many to go into."



Here are a few:


Photograph of P. cuprea ignicollis

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Striking colour variability in the Protaetia

Protaetia cuprea is probably the quintessential Protaetia that comes to my mind. This picture shows the subspecies Cuprea ignicollis. The elytra and most of the body are a metallic green and the pronotum and scutellum are a beautiful coppery colour.
Photograph of P. bifenestrata

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P. bifenestrata is another of my favourites. I think it looks like a domino piece!


Hello beetlers,


Now that spring has passed and summer is truly upon us, the field season begins. This is when entomologists get very excited about the prospect of going out in to the countryside (well, just ‘out’ really) with their sweep nets and collecting gear in pursuit of insects! Here in the coleoptera section, we are no exception, and when Max suggested a fieldwork day to Bookham Common, we literally jumped at the chance!

Here we are, literally jumping!


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From left to right Alex Sadek, Max Barclay, Malcolm Kerley, Libby Livermore, Beulah Garner, Laurence Livermore. Image courtesy of Libby livermore.


So what does field work mean to us? Well, we don’t just go out and collect insects - we go out looking for insects. We may have an idea of what we might expect to find, especially at any given time of the year, habitat or host plant. And when we find them, we record them. This information can then be fed in to local as well as national databases which record distribution of species across the UK. This is vital information to inform those that are involved in habitat and species protection / conservation, as well as climatologists (insects are very good indicators of climate change) and politicians!
Here is the link to the National Biodiversity Network


Thereby much of what we find, we record and set free. However, should we be looking for a specific species, especially if it is not commonly found in the habitat in which we are collecting, we will retain the specimen for confirmation of identification and to provide what we call a voucher specimen. A ‘voucher’ provides tangible proof that the species exists and was found in a certain location. This voucher is then deposited in the Museum collection to act as a permanent record for the future.

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Here is the striking wasp mimic Clytus arietis (Cerambycidae), which we did set free! Image courtesy of David Oram.


So off we set to Bookham Common. Why Bookham Common, well it is a very important area for wildlife and has species records dating back over fifty years meaning it is one of the best and most comprehensively recorded sights in Britain. The various habitats include wet grassland, low lying meadows, scrub, ponds and (ancient) woodland. So here, not only can the past inform the future by for example, the analysis of species distribution trends or species ecology, such as time of insect emergence correlated with weather, but we can continue to build on this data by regular recording of what wildlife is present.
The commons are managed by the National Trust and principally recorded by members of the London Natural History Society; follow the link to find out more about the LNHS.


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Here is Roger Booth demonstrating his 'pootering' technique to some fascinated passers-by! For those of you that don't know, he is holding a 'beating tray'. This is placed underneath a selected tree, the tree is beaten with a big stick, and hopefully some interesting insects fall out!



The coleoptera section has got some shiny new collecting equipment that we couldn’t wait to try out - seriously!
These new traps are called Lindgren funnel traps and are a series of black funnels connected together with a collecting trap at the bottom and a bait trap in the centre.

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Lingren funnel trap in the tree canopy. Image courtesy of David Oram.  Here is Malcolm Kerley (right) demonstrating the addictive properties of the bait trap!


The idea is that insects are attracted to the pheromone bait and fly into the funnels – the funnels are so shaped that the insects cannot fly out, but rather end up in the bottom of the trap which contains a collecting fluid such as ethanol with a drop of washing-up liquid to break the surface tension. These traps are commonly used in the USA to collect forest pests such as bark beetles (Scolytidae). The traps are hoisted into the canopy of the tree and secured by a long rope.

Imagine the logistics of first selecting a suitable tree, and then working out just how to get the trap into the canopy of said tree. This part of the fieldwork took some time, and involved much throwing of rope:
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Throwing the rope!

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Standing around thinking about throwing the rope!



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Letting go of the end of the rope so that it landed completely over the other side of said tree and not actually in the tree…

And so it went on until eventually there was success!

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Question: how many entomologists does it take to throw a rope?

From left to right Malcolm Kerley, Alex Sadek, Max Barclay, Max Barclay (stuck in a tree?) Roger Booth, David Oram.



But the major event of the day was the finding of the Scarlett Malachite Beetle, Malachius aeneus (Malachiidae - Soft-winged flower beetles).

© Chris Gibson

This beetle, whose range has declined to such an extent that it is listed as 'rare' on the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan, is currently only known from eight sites throughout the UK.



For more information on this beautiful beetle, and especially if you would like to attempt to see it in the wild, go to Buglife, who are currently running a Scarlet Malachite Beetle Survey to help monitor this beetles’ populations.



OPAL (Open Air Laboratories), who have just launched their fantastic Bug Hunt Survey, will also help you to get outside and go collecting – more details here:

Our Plymouth University intern Lucia Chmurova was sweeping a verge in the early afternoon consisting of mixed vegetation of rough grasses, buttercups, cow parsley and dock, when this beetle was caught in her net. This was truly an amazing find as this beetle hasn’t been recorded in Surrey for more than 50 years (Denton, 2005) and is a first record for Bookham! So well done Lucia, perhaps we are all ‘scarlet’ with envy, rather than green, at this find!
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Here is Lucia investigating the undergrowth!


Lucia’s note will be published in the next edition of the Coleopterist.



For some excellent cinematic photos of the day follow Libby Livermore’s (our official capturer of entomologists in action) link here:


Hello beetlers,

Here is the final instalment of HT's intrepid adventures in Africa. We shall be sorry there are no more tall tales from the interior, but happy to have him back in the Coleoptera fold, and even happier with the beetles he will return with for us!

This is quite a long entry, but it's worth it to read to the end and celebrate the Royal Wedding once more (any excuse, and remember, it's always cocktail hour somewhere in the world!) with Hitoshi and his fieldwork companion Ian...I think you will find what they get up to in this video installment quite revealing...and no skipping to the end! BG


Uluguru Mountains

Expeditions in remote parts of the world have their ups and downs, and inevitably, things do not go to plan according to your itinerary. On departing Mahenge, our journey up to the Uluguru Mountains was hampered by the crossing of the Kilombero River, something that was very simple on the way down. There is no bridge here and the only means of crossing is a short ferry ride. This crossing is also the route linking the capital Dar es Salaam and Malawi – this is the main road, an economic highway of significant importance. We arrived at the crossing after a long day’s drive from the mountains and found that the ferry had been out of service for four days and a long queue has formed - four day’s worth of vehicles waiting to cross! This, unsurprisingly, made the national news. Not much forethought went into the ferries and unfortunately the spare ferry was also broken. Typical. We were stuck.

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Flooded Kilombero River



So to Plan B.

With nowhere else to go, we headed back south to a small piece of lowland forest called Nambiga, and camped by the side of the road. We don’t miss an opportunity for entomological collection and so up went the light trap right next to the vehicle! We attempted to cross the Kilombero in the morning but due to the incapacitated ferry, we took a small boat with all the kit across the swollen Kilombero and had another vehicle meet us on the other side.

This delay did at least allow us to watch the Royal Wedding on a tiny television screen in the only bar of a village in the middle of nowhere! It did however mean that we had to postpone the celebratory drinks planned for the forest until the following day. This did not matter too much – it gave us more time to secure the important gin.

If you are thinking that the last part of this trip has turned into one massive booze-up you would be extremely (well, partly) mistaken. There is still a lot of work to do.

Uluguru is an isolated set of mountains near the large town of Morogoro in the centre of the country. The close proximity of the forest to human habitation has meant that over the years, incredible amounts of deforestation has taken place and much of the forest has now disappeared. There are small pockets of intact forest left such as at Tegetero, the site of our research. Now, if you were wondering if I was going to make a comment on European architecture in Africa at this point, you will not be disappointed. The church and the mission at the village of Tegetero were built by the British in the 1940’s.


Church at Tegetero


The walk in was similar to the other mountains – farmland, scrub and then forest. Unfortunately, the local villagers have been using the forest as their local “supermarket” and according to the local forestry officer, all large ground dwelling mammals such as duiker, bushbuck and bush pig have been hunted out. Just a small population of Colobus monkeys is all that remains. Having said this we also encountered an extremely rare bird; the Uluguru Bush Shrike is only found in these mountains and it was actually rather common, their noisy calls being heard regularly.

The lack of large mammals also means a lack of dung. The dung baited pitfalls were pitiful and caught four beetles in the whole time we were here! We might as well have just stuck a few cups in the ground and hoped for the best.

General collection and beating have worked rather well, the latter producing some fine weevils. Some of the most beautiful beetles we have seen here have been the large black ground beetles with a green iridescence belonging to the genus Tefflus which I have not seen elsewhere. These voracious hunters are often found on the forest floor near water and exude a rather unpleasant smell when held.



Tefflus sp (Carabidae)

The MV bulb has worked better and on more than one occasion, we have had excellent nights with an incredible variety and number of moths. The hawkmoths are certainly some of my favourites and the species which have been turning up to the light have been spectacular. Pictured are Xanthopan morgani (with an incomprehensibly long proboscis), Euchloron megaera (left) and the Death’s Head Hawkmoth, Acherontia atropos (right).

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Xanthopan morgani


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Euchloron megaera (left) and the Death’s Head Hawkmoth, Acherontia atropos (right)


Yes, I know photos of moths on a beetle blog. My apologies. So to rectify the situation a beetle, Ceratocentrus spinicornis, that was also attracted to the light. As far as I can remember, the NHM collection does not have a single specimen of this species from East Africa.



Ceratocentrus spinicornis (Cerambycidae)


Apart from the aforementioned, it has been rather quiet on the beetle front. It just goes to show that seasons play an important role in the abundance of all insects here – when I was last here in November/December, the light traps would be covered in beetles, especially the Melolonthine scarabs. This time around, only a few individuals have been present.

Our nightly visitors to feast on the insect “buffet” that is the MV light here in the Ulugurus have included amongst others, bats, geckoes and this beautiful tree frog.


Tree frog of the genus Hyperolius


I now have a fellow wet season explorer with me on this expedition – Ian Baldwin, a contemporary of mine from university years and an aspiring wildlife cameraman, has been filming all entomological and expedition related activities for a short film later in the year. Watch this space!

The fieldwork will shortly be coming to an end. We will be heading back to Dar es Salaam, to the University to help stabilize their natural history collections and then home. London.



A huge thank you to Hitoshi for sharing his trials and tribulations with us, and welcome back!

Next time, we are much closer to home with fieldwork at Bookham Common, where there are no monkeys. BG


Tanzania Expedition Part 3: Magombera Forest and Mahenge Mountains



Having put up with the cold of the peak at Mwanihana in the Udzungwas, we found respite in the warmer, more humid conditions of Magombera Forest. Magombera is a small remaining fragment of a once larger forest that linked the Udzungwas and the Selous. The interior is still in good shape but the forest composition here is very strange – there is very little mid-storey and hence one gets excellent views into the canopy. This is one of the reasons for the excellent sightings of some rare and endemic monkeys. There are three species in this forest – Iringa Red Colobus, Black and White Colobus and Sykes Monkey. You have got to be pretty unlucky if you do not see all of these on a two hour walk. We even managed to see them in the pouring rain!


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The Magombera railway line


With the exception of some of the more common species of butterflies, there was nothing spectacular in terms of insects. The dung baited traps worked relatively well, but compared to the diversity of dung beetles in Udzungwa, it was a little disappointing. From Magombera, our aim was to head to the Kilombero swamps and up to Mahenge. This part of Tanzania is extremely remote and the roads are truly appalling. You do see some extraordinary vehicles stuck in the mud and inevitably a long queue behind and in front of it. We made it down to the ferry crossing across the Kilombero river and realised that it would be nigh on impossible to undertake any work here; the river water was high and there was a very immediate danger of crocodile and hippopotamus. So an executive decision was made to go straight up to the high forests of the Mahenge Mountains. We passed a night in a lay-by on the road that runs through the Mahenge Scarp Forest (no hotels in this part of the world!). The light trap here was rather fruitful.


From here, another long and arduous drive up further into the mountains along what can loosely be described as a road to the village of Sali. I am getting use to finding amazing villages at the end of these long mountain roads but Sali really is astonishing and especially the architecture. It feels like you are in rural Europe; the German missionaries built a number of buildings including the church in the early 1900s and everything has been looked after incredibly well. The church has proper roof tiles (which according to the pastor was sent over from Germany), a bell tower (the bells are rung every morning), and arches over all the windows. Inside, all the furniture has been built using the local hardwoods; there is even a pipe organ! It really is amazing to think that everything is original and despite the rain and the humidity, in incredibly good shape. This village is remote. People were amazed to see that we had made it up here. We were told that the last vehicle which successfully entered the village was in January! IMGA0358church at sali.JPG
























The Church at Sali


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The interior of the church at Sali


The forest at Sali, though small, is very good. There are good numbers of enormous mahogany trees still standing which is an excellent sign. The slopes here are (once again) very steep and this has stopped the logging of these trees. I have been told that one of these great trees would cost upward of 5,000,000 Tanzanian Shillings (£2000), which is quite a considerable sum. The walk in is beautiful with many waterfalls along the river. There is one big one I would like to name. I wonder if I am allowed to name it... The locals have however decided to name base camp after yours truly – I expect all future researchers to reference the camp by this name in their work!


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The mahogany tree


There were fewer mosquitoes up here but they have been replaced by ants. Lots of them. For the duration of our time at camp, we had army ants. Along our transects, ants. Everywhere. They are a serious irritation. All our camp kit was closed and zipped up; all important goods (chocolate) suspended high up off the ground! The snails and slugs were pretty bad too. There have been some big ones – the size of your hand! If you put something down on the floor for more than 10 minutes, there would be either a slug or snail or both stuck to it. Absolutely vile... Flicking slugs off my tent has now become a morning routine.


There have been very few crosses in the personal injuries column up until now but here at Mahenge, a big cross has been inked in – I managed to stab myself with the oxalic acid syringe. Twice. On the same night. The weather has also been behaving. A more reasonable cycle of relatively warm and dry daytimes followed by heavy downpours throughout the night. None of this raining 20 hours a day that I had in Udzungwa!



Apart from the wonderful views and excellent forests that the Eastern Arc Mountains of Tanzania have to offer, there is one more gem to be found here – the tiny pygmy chameleons. I have seen them at all the different mountains I have visited but the one found here is a particularly beautiful species. It is also one of the “larger” pygmy chameleons! 



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Pygmy chameleon of the genus Rhampholeon; star of the blog thus far! (BG)




On the beetle front, the dung baited traps have worked exceptionally well and there were many species which I have not seen in any of the other mountains. Carabids have been most numerous in these forests, found scuttling on the forest floor whilst walking around at night with a torch. Some interesting beetles have been appearing at the light sheet but again it has been quiet and the potential of the Mercury Vapour lamp has not been fully realised. I am hoping for better in the future. Unfortunately the bulb we had used up until now is no more - we awoke on the final morning to find it completely smashed. The cause? We have no idea.

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And to the 'dullest' photo of the blog thus far! Mysterious broken lightbulb; was it a bat, was it a giant moth; perhaps we shall never know...!(BG)


Up next – the Uluguru Mountains.



So all you avid followers of the Beetle Blog will no doubt be very excited to see the mystery beetle so diligently caught with a butterfly net by HT in Tanzania...



Yet again, there appears to be another Chinese laundry bag right of image!


So we think this beauty is definitely a longhorn beetle (obviously!), and my money is on Cerambycinae; Callichromatini, possibly close to Ionthodes or Compsomera and MB has this enigmatic comment to add:

'Most African Callichromatini, especially the  common Philematium, have red legs, so the black legs should help; the widening  of the hind tibiae is likely to be helpful, it is also very large. I expect it  smells like a medicine chest!'


We haven't really had a proper look in the collection  - perhaps we will wait until the beetle (literally) wings its' way to our collection...unless anyone has anything better to add...?


And finally, despite much hardship, and unrelenting torrential downpours we have another video installment from HT in the wilds of Tanzania...enjoy!



Happy Easter beetlers!



So whilst all you good people are out enjoying the glorious weather, I am inside dutifully blogging away for your continued enjoyment. Here is the latest installment from our intrepid HT, who it would appear remains alive, despite close encounters with Elephants and large flying beetles...And, also, it would appear retains that healthy enthusiasm for on...


"The Winter’s Tale it may be – it really does get cold in these mountains. When one thinks of Tanzania, images of large mammals in the warm African Sun come to mind. The mountains could not be more different. I am currently camped at just under 2000m on a stupendous slope for a tent to be erected! If it rains during the daylight hours, the evenings are very cold.

Udzungwa is an incredible area of biodiversity and endemism. And to the Tanzanian authority’s great credit, they have protected it very well. There are still vast tracts of primary forest standing with excellent populations of mountain elephants and other endangered species. The Udzungwas have also thrown up some quite extraordinary new species to science in the very recent past – the Kipunji (a new species of monkey), and an elephant shrew to name but two.


Beautiful view over the Udzungwa mountains from Mwanihana peak

I am studying the Mwanihana region of the Udzungwas, an area with many different habitats leading up to the heather-covered granite peak at just over 2100m. The views from up here are amazing; the mountains and its highest peak, Lohomero, in one direction and the plains of the Kilombero and Selous in the other. I’m getting used to ridiculous slopes to clamber up but the final push through the submontane forest to reach this peak is unbelievable. It is quite difficult to portray how steep it really is in a photo!

The noises in the forest at night can be frightening. Having seen the havoc created by elephants on many of the paths in the forest, I would not want to encounter them, or for them to encounter us in the middle of the night! A ranger, armed with a rifle, from the National Parks team is a necessity and will warn me as soon as any danger is imminent. There was one night when the elephants were pretty close to camp – they could be heard ripping plants and trees out of the ground...



...but it was not the elephants that I had the closest run in with. Whilst camping nearer the peak, a buffalo came rather close. We camped on the flattest bit in the area (I say flat, but it is all relative; nothing is flat up there), which happens to be by the path. This path is used not just by humans but animals too – they don’t want to work any harder by creating new paths if they can use ones which are already present. Luckily for us, the buffalo was not so sure about something, perhaps the light and fire in camp but probably the smell exuding from the synthetics such as our tent fabric (and from me as well) and left us in peace. But hearing the rustling whilst stuck in a tent is very disconcerting!



It has nearly been a month since arriving in Tanzania and it is reaching a point where I start craving certain foods – mainly cheese and sushi. Conversely, I have now reached a point where finding a cockroach cooked in with your rice for dinner does not bother me; if it was fried as opposed to boiled, I would probably eat it. Irritations still include mosquitoes, drying clothes by the fire on a nightly basis and putting wet clothes on in the morning because a) you did not manage to dry your clothes by the fire or b) because the tarpaulin over the clothes line where your dry clothes are hanging decides to leak heavily. You can never win (NB: it seems one only finds out about holes in tarpaulins when it rains, at which point it is too late...).

A friend of mine commented from the last blog that he had an image of me “sinking African beers waiting for the odd beetle to fall into a cup listening to the cricket commentary.” If only collecting beetles was that easy and could be done whilst listening to the cricket...I can but dream! The reality is a lot of hard work, trekking and in the Udzungwas, digging....




Dung baited pitfall traps (See what I mean about the poo!? BG)


Digging for what you may ask? Beetles of course.


The presence of elephants in these mountains means the existence of one of the largest dung beetles in the world. The beetles belonging to the genus Heliocopris are powerful, charismatic (if that can be used as a descriptive term for a dung beetle) bulldozers, that bury deep into the ground underneath the dung pat. It is a real challenge to find them and it involves careful digging up to 3ft underground! And they certainly don’t make it easy... they avoid the big roots in the ground so their tunnels go left and right and it is rather too easy to lose the trail. They leave a trail of the elephant dung all the way to the end of the tunnel where they create a chamber and fill it with dung. The photo shows just how big the ball of dung in the chamber is!



Many other species of dung beetle feast on the massive banquet that is elephant dung and those species that bury the dung can be found at different depths in the ground. Some of the smaller dung beetles cheat and follow the giant tunnels of the Heliocopris and are often found a long way underground; there is no possible way that they could have got there on their own accord! Digging for beetles is a time consuming approach and so trapping for these beetles using dung baited pitfall traps makes the job a lot easier. It can be very successful depending on where they are placed and the meteorological conditions that day.


A male Heliocopris hamadryas (sexual dimorphism makes these beetles relatively easy to tell males from females, BG)


I have not found many Cetoniids in the Udzungwas this time. To be honest, there have not been that many insects around and certainly far less than I was expecting. Even the light traps have been rather quiet. I think that it is just too wet for them too! However, from time to time, some pretty impressive sized long horn beetles (Cerambycidae) such as the Tithoes below and click beetles (Elaterididae) have turned up to the light sheet.



Catch of the trip so far: a Cerambycid flew past me and landed on the top of a 5m tree. Having seen it through a pair of binoculars, it had to be caught! Much activity ensued to secure a 3m extension (a tree sapling was all we had to hand) to the butterfly net. It ended up with me on the shoulders of one of the field assistants trying to keep this net straight. One swing of the net later and we had the beetle in the net. A lot of effort for one beetle – but what a beauty it is!



Hilarious! I hope you have filled out a risk assessment for this most unorthodox fieldwork method HT?! Also, note right foreground: an Englishman is never separated from his umbrella in the tropics! BG




Next on the itinerary is Magombera forest, a tiny fragment of good lowland forest with large populations of monkeys, the Kilombero Swamp (guessing that this will be a bad idea in the wet season – mosquitoes will be everywhere?!) and Mahenge Scarp, the last mountain in the Eastern Arc chain."



So folks, you will have to wait until next time to find out the identity of the Cerambycid which was so hard won (yes, I'm attempting to build suspense!) - truth is, I'm off to catch some beetles of my own before the sun goes down on this glorious day...BG


Tanzania fieldwork part II

Posted by Blaps Apr 15, 2011
Hello beetlers,
Well our intrepid explorer is alive and well, despite the dramatic shaky camera and ‘fade to black’ in the last video entry!
Finally we get some beetle information, proof that he is out collecting for us, and not just sunbathing (or drying off from the rains)!
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Wet kit drying on the ridge
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Porters preparing for the journey into the mountains. Those chinese laundry bags get everywhere!
Over to Hitoshi:
"This is a beetle blog after all so I guess I should talk about the beetle fauna! The groups I have been concentrating on mainly in Tanzania are the chafers (Cetoniidae) and the dung beetles (Scarabaeidae). This time round in the Ngurus Mountains, I have seen a couple of beautiful species which have not been observed in the previous seasons, namely Dicronorrhina derbyana and Megalorrhina harrisi. These Cetoniids are attracted to a broad leaved shrub which produces a sap which is irresistible to insects. Often from one small sap flow, one can observe butterflies and beetles fighting over the sweet liquid.
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Dicronorrhina derbyana is a real beauty!
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Megalorrhina harrisi basking!
Unfortunately, the dung pitfall traps did not work too well due to the rainwater washing out almost all of our pitfalls. However, of the ones which remained un-flooded they yielded some very interesting Onthophagus dung beetle species as well as other small Staphylinids (rove beetles) and Carabids (ground beetles).
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Here's something else that didnt work too well! Truck gets stuck in the mud...
Another interesting find was Ochyropus gigas, a giant Scaritine ground beetle which was found scuttling around the forest floor. This is a species which is common in West and Central Africa but are most unusual on this side of the Rift Valley.
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The formidable Ochyropus gigas, and yes, it can give you a nasty nip!
You learn something new every day: Passalids make squeaking noises – I did not know this!"
Thanks Hitoshi - happy collecting!
Ochyropus gigas belongs to the subfamily Scaritinae (Bonelli, 1810). These beetles are commonly known as burying ground beetles, and are predatory, as is immediately obvious from those huge mandibles! Other features include enlarged and broadened front tibia adapted for digging and ‘wasp waist’. They spend the day in burrows and come out at night to hunt their prey!
The Passalidae are a family of beetles within the super family Scarabaeoidea. They are commonly known as ‘bess bugs’ or ‘bess beetles’ particularly in America, (America has the best common names for beetles!). These amazing beetles not only squeak (to communicate with one another) but are brood carers, living in social groups in rotting wood. (This unfortunate creature can be seen in the video from the previous post, squeaking on demand!).Their famous squeak is produced by rubbing the upper abdomen against the wing cases. The larvae also squeak and do this by rubbing the second and third leg together.  They care for their young by feeding them and assisting in building the pupal case. Somewhat unpalatably, the larvae and adults feed on regurgitated faeces which are also broken down by microflora, a bit like cows ruminating!

Well 'tis the season - fieldwork season that is, and also the rainy season in Tanzania - which is NOT the season for fieldwork! But, if you are Hitoshi Takano, and determined to find that elusive species new to science, then needs must. This week, our fledgling entomologist has flown the NHM Coleoptera nest and managed (against the odds) to send us his 'notes from the field'. Here are the highs and lows thus far:


“For the rain it raineth every day”


It has been tough. It has seemed like everything has been against us – a long and drawn out April Fool’s joke that Feste in Twelfth Night would be proud of. The wet season in tropical Africa really is a most unforgiving place. Especially up in the mountains.

Our drive from Dar es Salaam to the village of Maskati in the Nguru Mountains should only take 7 hours or so in normal conditions; it took nearly 14 hours this time. The roads leading up to Maskati are winding and contain some pretty challenging uphill hairpins and turns with huge 100m drop offs. Dangerous enough in the dry season, let alone with the torrential rainfall. The deforestation on these slopes don’t help at all. The topsoil just erodes away and flows into the rivers; landslides are not uncommon in this region.



Half way up to Maskati the back wheel of our trusty vehicle slipped off a concrete bridge. The whole vehicle ground to a halt with its weight bearing down solely on the differential! It took us nearly 2 hours of lifting and pushing with the help of the locals to get the car out. We thought this was bad enough; 200m further up the road, up an especially tricky uphill turn, the vehicle nearly flipped onto its side; it slipped down hill and ended up with its front left tyre completely off the ground! There were many points along this road where we had to unload the kit from the vehicle, reload it only to get stuck 100m further down the road. There were times where we thought it would just be impossible to make it to the village due to the atrocious roads. But Maskati and the Ngurus are well worth the effort. With the sun setting behind the mountains, the village must be one of the most beautiful places in the world. I would guess this is the kind of place James Hilton imagined when he described Shangri-La in Lost Horizon. The air is cool and refreshing. Maskati has been known to the Europeans for over a century. The mission and the church in the village were built by the Germans in 1909 and are still the pride of the village.


The walk into the mountains is also very tough. Two serious up-hills interjected by fast rivers flowing over slippery granite. Having overcome this obstacle, one reaches an incredible ridge at about 2100m. Beyond this ridge is a 200m drop off into what feels like Jurassic Park; a prehistoric forest with wonderful streams and rivers which contain many endemic frogs and chameleons, tree ferns, mosses and lichens. Many of the neighbouring forests have been logged out but because it is so difficult to get here (and to get the timber out) this area has escaped the deforestation.

To rub salt into the wound, this long walk was undertaken during a torrential downpour! I made a massive hash of packing my kit and because none of my clothes were in dry bags, absolutely everything got wet! Thank goodness we had three hours sunlight on top of the ridge to dry my clothes. I was not very happy with my schoolboy error!



During my time in the Ngurus it really did rain a lot. If we had less than 10 hours rain in the day, we were lucky; on bad days, it rained for 12 hours and more. Cold and wet. Nothing dries - putting on wet clothes in the morning has got to be one of the more unpleasant experiences when in the field.

The wet season also means that two of my fears become a palpable reality. Firstly, lightning and thunder which in their own right are extraordinary spectacles, but camped perilously on an exposed ridge with quite a lot of metal from all our equipment is not in the least bit amusing! Secondly, slugs and snails – my inordinate fear. They are everywhere. On the forest floor, on my tent, even in my tent. When walking at night looking for insects, every leaf you look at and every log you turn over, there is always some filthy slimy creature waiting for me! Give me spiders and scorpions any day!

Having managed to get up to the mountains and to base camp in the forest, we found to our despair that the generator we bought with us did not survive the journey. Light trapping is such an important weapon in an entomologist’s armoury that without it, comprehensive collection becomes very difficult. We painstakingly had another generator sent up into the forest and although it seemed like it was working, this too failed to light our Mercury Vapour lamp! Unbelievable! Other things which decided to die at crucial points included our inverter/battery charger, the choke for one of the actinic tubes and a digital camera. At this point it seemed very clear that it was worth cutting our losses and returning to Dar es Salaam to sort out our electrical problems; we really need it working for the rest of the trip. It is a terrible shame but we will be returning to the mountains towards the end of the trip to light trap high in the cloud forest.


I will now be heading south to the Udzungwa Mountains where elephants and buffalos await – and no doubt, more rain!


Next time, we see some Tanzanian beetles encountered along the way...


Exploding the myth

Posted by Blaps Mar 29, 2011

As entomologists it is not only taxonomy that we are concerned with; we collect and study beetles in order to give a name to a species, so that conservationists, ecologists, even policy makers, can make decisions that hopefully will benefit the environment and the little creatures that live within and depend upon it.

However, we practice a different kind of insect conservation here in the Museum, a very specific specimen level conservation which ensures that the specimens we care for (and many of these are over 200 years old) remain readily available to science, to inform the very things mentioned above.


This week let’s look at verdigris. Not the kind of lovely blue-green patina found on Greek statues or the copper paint used to illuminate ancient manuscripts, rather the copper alloy of some entomological pins, which when exposed to the fats and lipids found in an insects’ body (as well as the gases found within an insect drawer), react to cause a ‘filamentous explosion’ of the alloy, and can ultimately destroy the body of an insect.


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Some Cerambycidae affected by verdigris - note the specimen in the centre whose wing is becoming disslocated from the body


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Here is what you don't want to happen - ever! Fifteen years of verdigris growth (specimens retained for demonstration purposes, courtesy of Malcolm Kerley)



So what is verdigris? The name verdigris originates from the Old French word verte-grez, an alteration of vert-de-Grèce (green of Greece), since it was used by Greek artists as a pigment for painting and other artistic crafting.


Here is the chemistry bit:

Verdigris is a green pigment which forms when copper, brass (copper and zinc) or bronze (copper and tin) is exposed to air, seawater or organic substances such as insect lipids over a period of time. Verdigris is primary a copper salt that is commonly found as carbonate, but it also can be found as a chloride (i.e. if sea water is present) and as an acetate (i.e. if acetic acid is present); and less commonly as a formate, hydroxide and sulphate. Secondary components of verdigris are various other metallic salts, organic and inorganic acids, gases and water. All the components are in an ever-changing and extremely sophisticated chemical equilibrium which depends on the environment.



Historically entomological pins were not made of the robust and non-corroding stainless steel we use today. They may have been made from various alloys, including copper, which at the time, would not have been recognised as potentially causing harm to the specimen. This is one of the major pitfalls of caring for an historical collection. With over 9,000,000 specimens, we could spend our lifetimes (and we do) conserving and curating!

We keep our collection in a temperature and humidity controlled environment, but verdigris can still occur, and decades ago, when we didn’t know as much about collections care, specimens may have been kept in an environment conducive to verdigris forming.

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Pins affected by verdigris (specimens removed - obviously!)


One of our curators, Malcolm Kerley, has indeed decades of experience of caring for historical collections. Here he is giving a demonstration on specimen repair to some MSc Students from Imperial College   

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With all our combined experience and knowledge we gave a demonstration at the last Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) conference at The Great North Museum in Newcastle to fellow curators and museum / academic professionals on how to repair specimens.


My colleague Alessandro Giusti, who is a Lepidoptera curator and I showed the various ways specimens can be extricated from their damaged pins and re-pinned onto a shining new stainless steel pin which should survive for another 200 years!


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Alessandro demonstrated the amazing specimen exploding machine (or more sensibly put, ‘the de-pinning machine’) which essentially involves passing an electrical current through the pin, which heats up, in turn melting some of the dried fats from within the specimen. This is actually a safe method of removing Lepidoptera from pins, as other methods could damage the body, and more importantly the scales. (It has been known for the specimen to ‘explode’ when the current gets a bit too racy, but of course, that has never happened to us!)


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Here we have the 'Heath-Robinson' of all de-pinning machines.. the NHM, cutting edge science at its most dynamic...


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A typical example of how verdigris affects Lepidoptera



I demonstrated the dry and wet methods of removing beetles from corroded pins. The wet method involves soaking the specimen in heated distilled water for a few minutes (approx. 60-70°C) until it is softened enough to be slipped from the pin.

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A beetle suspended by a plastazote float in distilled water.


Re-pinning involves allowing the specimen to dry thoroughly and then using a thicker pin than the one previously removed to be placed in the same hole. The labels are placed on the pin in the same order and a further label is added to the specimen to record the conservation measure, as well as recording this on our database.

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Here we both are demonstrating to our enthralled audience(!) Notice complimentary butterfly blouse as modelled by me!


We often retain our historical pins  as believe it or not they can tell us a lot about a specimen / collection, for example, certain collectors only used a certain type of pin (Sir Joseph Bank’s Collection used immaculate (and probably very expensive) pins with hand spun heads which today still retain their original condition!


For more information our protocol on Verdigris specimen repair will soon be made available on the NatSCA website.



Beetles; Czech!

Posted by Blaps Mar 13, 2011

Hello Beetlers,


It's been  a while, but things have been very busy in the Coleoptera section this month, and this is because we have all been occupied by getting ready for the big event that is the Prague Insect Fair! (Please see deliberate pun in title, courtesy of Max Barclay).

Yes, that's right, a whole weekend in March dedicated to insects; and if that's not enough, the good entomologists of Europe and beyond, do it all again in October!

This is a really important time for our department and it's been all hands on deck to prepare beetle specimens ready for transport to the Czech Republic.

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Here are a number of entomologists getting excited about insects...


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And here are some more entomologists - this time really excited...

Where to begin? Well, our over-arching aim in the Coleoptera section is to improve the quality of the collection, in terms of identifed specimens, specimens made available for research, and a far reaching geographical spread of species that supports not only the taxonomic research community but also the ecological and conservation community; essentially our specimens can help inform conservation practice throughout the world - and Prague provides the platform for this to occur.


So this month we have contacted all our colleagues throughout Europe to see if they will be attending the fair, and if there are any specimens from our collection they would like to see - this is our loans system, which facilitates world-wide research in to the specimens held in the NHM's collections. Our colleagues put in a request and we 'process' the loan - yes, it has kind of felt like a very long beetle production line this month. The specimens are exchanged in Prague, along with a few beers and some fascinating exchanges on all things Coleoptera no doubt!



The other job is to prepare all our specimens collected on fieldwork trips for transit, in order that they can be mounted, or identifed by some of the most proficient experts in Europe and the World.

It's not an easy job to carry thousands of insects abroad, so we recruit a number of 'carriers' to get our insect stash out of the country, along with a couple of responsible (?!) members of staff.



Here's some interesting statistics yielded from last October's Insect Fair (too soon for this year's results):

Loans for 34 people (56 boxes) were carried to Prague and we returned with 41 people's pre-existing loans in 62 boxes; this meant we met with and exchanged loans with 58 people from 14 countries!


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Here's Max signing off a loan for some expectant Coleopterists.


We returned with 92 boxes of newly mounted material (insects pinned or carded) which made up a whopping 18,428 specimens!

The total number of specimens identified for us by borrowers from our undetermined material was 2,170 and an additional 1,243 specimens were indentified from unprepared material by specialist mounters.
In total 3,413 NHM unidentified specimens were identified on this trip.
As good will it is the convention to exchange specimens between organisations as 'gifts' and so we received 16 specimens (mainly paratypes) and19 new Holotypes - how generous!.  We also received 226 new paratypes from previously unidentified NHM material.



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Here are a number of 'responsible' members of staff and highly respected scientists , with their 'carriers' from left to right:

Martin Brendell, Donald Quicke, Mike Morris, Howard Mendel, Fran Sconce and Max Barclay

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Entomology’s very own Spice Boys, rocking a ‘geek chic’ vibe, thanks to some cheeky accessories and some luxurious matching luggage (I wish I could take credit for such wit, but sadly I cannot. This is the work of the Entomology Department's inimitable PA Esther Murphy)

From left to right: David Oram, Max Barclay, Martin Brendell, Roger Booth, Mike Morris


The best is that the NHM benefitted by 208 new species names to the collection as a result of this trip!


Can't wait for October!


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Photo courtesy of Rafal Ruta
The Coleopterists have left the building!


Love Bug

Posted by Blaps Feb 14, 2011
Unless you have been hibernating under a rock (like many beetles at this time of year) you will know that today is the most romantic day of the year, St. Valentine’s Day, an opportunity to show that special someone how much you care, to lavish gifts, to make public displays of affection and to perhaps find true love…
In the beetle world, love is everywhere (well, not as we know it, but you know!)
For instance, one of my beetle loves is the soldier beetle, Cantharis rustica, who, rather than wearing its heart on its sleeve, wears it on its pronotum instead! Here is a ‘his and her pair’ from the Museum’s collection – can you make out the heart?
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©Katie Bermingham
These beetles are predatory on other smaller flower-loving insects and can be seen from spring wandering about on umbellifers such as cow parsley.
Also within the Cantharidae family (the soldier beetles – so called for their general black and red smart appearance resembling a soldier’s uniform (use your imagination!) is what is lovingly termed ‘the bonking bug’ or more scientifically Rhagonycha fulva. These beetles have worked hard at their reputation and can be seen in the UK from late June to late August bonking away, in fact they can’t get enough of it! They too can be found in large numbers on umbelliferous plants feeding on pollen and nectar but also predating on other insects.




The Cowpea weevil, Callosobruchus maculatus adds weight to the terms ‘love hurts’ or ‘a thirst for love’. The male of the species has a specially adapted penis which ‘spurs’ the female, damaging her internally. This adaptation is thought to act as an ‘anchor’ for the male and also puts the female off mating for a while which confers a competitive advantage to the mating male. However, the female endures, as she is thirsty – what a gal will do for love! These beetles feed on stored pulses which contain no more than 10% water. Without access to an additional water source, the females use the males’ ejaculate to quench their ‘desire’ as it were. The ejaculate makes up 10% of the males’ weight and so is a high energy investment but this is okay because once the deed is done, the females lose interest anyway (isn’t this usually the other way round!)
Callosobruchus maculatus penis

©Johanna Rönn



In the burying beetle, Nicrophorus defodiens all is not fair in love and war. When the male secures the romantic gift of a large decaying carcass for his love to feed on, the resulting offspring from this monogamous pairing will not be able to consume the whole of this plentiful resource. This gives the male an excuse to look for more than one female mate, meaning their coupling produces more surviving offspring than he would by remaining monogamous. This is not good news for the monogamous female, whose reproductive success decreases with the introduction of a rival female, but, she puts up a fight, using her feminine wiles, or behavioural tactics, she interferes with the males’ pheromone emissions and thereby decreases his success at attracting another female. This ensures that she keeps her man (beetle) all to herself!
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Nicrophorus defodiens in the Museum's collection looking rather pink!
Max Barclay, head of Coleoptera Collections has this to add about the weevils, which can be seen in all their carnal glory in the Museum's most excellent exhibition Sexual Nature
"Of course, size isn’t everything, so look no further than tiny weevils for some bizarre mating practices – especially perfecting the clingy boyfriend.
Once the male has a female, he doesn’t let go, he’ll stay on her back for up to a month and mate throughout. The more males she’s been with, the less chance of a single father and, of course, each male wants to pass on their genes, so this is his way of preventing her mating with others. This is known as 'mate guarding'. Mating weevils still go about their daily business while attached, including eating and even flying!"
Here are an ungainly pair of mating weevils of the genus Lixus, the same genus featured in the Sexual Nature Exhibition

©BeenTree, Poland



These are just a few examples of the complexities of mating in the coleoptera, that are too numerous to mention here.
Happy St. Valentine’s Day!
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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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