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Denis Michez,  University of Mons, Belgium


Wednesday 2 April 11:00


Sir Neil Chalmers seminar room, Darwin Centre LG16 (below Attenborough studio)


Bees (Anthophila) are one of the major groups of angiosperm-pollinating insects and accordingly are widely studied in both basic and applied research, for which it is essential to have a clear understanding of their phylogeny, and evolutionary history. Direct evidence of bee evolutionary history has been hindered by a dearth of available fossils needed to determine the timing and tempo of their diversification, as well as episodes of extinction.

NaturalHistoryMuseum_PictureLibrary_015744_Comp-1 bee.jpgCopal from East Africa containing Apis mellifera


Here we assess the similarity of the forewing shape of bee fossils with extant and fossil taxa using geometric morphometrics analyses. Predictive discriminant analyses show that fossils share similar diagnostic forewing shapes with families like Apidae, Halictidae, Andrenidae and Melittidae. Their taxonomic assessments provide new information on the distribution and timing of particular bee groups like corbiculate groups, most notably the extension into North America of possible Eocene-Oligocene cooling-induced extinctions.


For additional details on attending this or other seminars see








Taxonomic background information is essential for bee conservation


Denis Michez

Laboratory of Zoology,  University of Mons,  Belgium


Friday 31 of January 11:00

Sir Neil Chalmers seminar room, Darwin Centre LG16 (below Attenborough studio)

Bees are a monophyletic group of largely pollenivorous species derived from among the predatory apoid wasps. Their extant diversity is estimated to be about 20.000 species worldwide, with 2000 species known from Europe. Many European bee species are in strong decline and several working groups are currently analyzing potential drivers of range contraction. Here I would like to address the importance of clear taxonomic background information to correctly characterize bee decline and to develop a conservation program at global scale.



For additional details on attending this or other seminars see


In previous posts I described how I have been lucky enough to travel to Borneo on fieldwork for the Museum. I explained how moths are collected using light traps, and we also got to meet some of the moths I found during this trip.


The four light traps at our camp were obviously very popular with many different species of moths, but when you put up a light trap in areas which are biologically rich - and this is particularly true in tropical regions - a whole range of other insects show up too.

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Enthralled by the many exotic species of moths attracted to one of our light traps.


Many species of beetles, attracted by the bright ultraviolet light of our traps, kept the coleopterists on the trip, Beulah, Max and Howard, busy collecting their favourite invertebrates.

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Collecting our favourite species at the light traps.


Some interesting and rare species were sampled in this way, including the magnificent Chalcosoma, a dynastine beetle.

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The striking dynastine beetle Chalcosoma moellenkampi (female on the left and male on the right) was one of the many interesting and rare insects visiting the light trap.


Other frequent visitors to the light traps were mantises and crickets which, true to their predatory habit, invariably found a tasty prey to feed upon. Hefty cicadas and large bees and wasps were also numerous; their blatant cries and unpredictable flight paths were a source of constant distraction for us, as we tried to concentrate on less vociferous and placid species. Many flies, stink-bugs, frog- and leaf-hoppers, parasitic wasps and flying ants and termites were also regular visitors at our light traps.


A great variety of other species of insects are commonly attracted by light traps.


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…and even a terrestrial crab!


At times, it seemed that the arthropod fauna of the entire neighbourhood was paying a visit to our light traps and every night we were pleasantly surprised to find a new species of moth or beetle appearing at the trap for the first time. The number of insects visiting the traps only decreased during a few nights at the end of the trip; this is because the moon was full and clearly visible from early evening to late night. However we were still up late, trying to collect the few interesting species which, untouched by the resplendent show in the sky, were still paying a visit to our comparatively dingy traps.

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There is no way a light trap can compete with such a large and incredibly luminous celestial body!


During the mornings, while my colleagues were checking the Flight Interception and Malaise traps we put up in the forest, or collecting beetles using other methods, I was busy pinning the moths collected the night before. 



Setting micro- and macromoths in the field.


This has definitely been an amazing field working experience and judging by the number of specimens we have brought back a very successful one too. We’ve collected in the region of 13,000 specimens, which, after having gone through the freezing process, will soon be ready to be sorted and identified, mounted and labelled, electronically recorded and finally incorporated in our ever growing collections.


Earlier in 2013 the EU has banned the use of neonicotinoids. These are a group of pesticides that are used to control insect pests on crops but concern has arisen on their effects on non-target insects, particularly bees and other pollinators that are of key economic and environmental importance.


A feature summary in Nature of research and policy developments relating to the impacts of neonicotinoid insecticides on bees and other pollinators gives a good overview.  The European Environment Agency issued the second report on the precautionary principle and impacts from various substances - Late Lessons from Early Warnings: Science, Precaution, Innovation.  This follows the earlier review of the history of the precautionary principle Late Lessons from Early Warnings: the Precautionary Principle 1896-2000, produced in 2001.


Public policy debate and research have been mounting for some time, with concerns both from beekeepers and from various interests in wild pollinators.  The UK NGO Friends of the Earth, for example, commissioned the report The Decline of England's Bees from the University of Reading.

In the UK the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee in April 2013 published the report of its inquiry on Pollinators and Pesticides, with a particular focus on neonicotinoids, which have been causing concern because of reported impacts on both honeybees and wild pollinators.  Selected recommendations to the UK government were:

  • national monitoring of wild insect pollinator species
  • risk assesssment results should be placed in the public domain and should be extended to sentinel pollinator species
  • review of the precautionary principle in approval of pesticides for use
  • a UK action plan for sustainable use of pesticides
  • a moratorium on use of imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam on bee-attractive corps by 1 January 2014, and immediate withdrawal of amateur garden use.
  • developing valuation of ecosystem services urgently to address pollinators

The Welsh government has published an Action Plan for Pollinators and draft implementation plan,  with actions focused on: policy, governance and sound evidence base;  provision of diverse and flower-rich habitats; healthy pollinator  populations; and better public awareness.  A pollinator task force is  planned.


The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has published a short review of policy and evidence on Bees and other pollinators.  This is a first step in developing a national pollinator strategy for England in 2014 - expert workshops are planned for September and October 2013.


So let me tell you about my last bit of work experience - if you've already been enjoying Beulah Garner's Beetle blog, you'll know that recently she and her fellow coleopterists went on a trip to Borneo. For the sake of completeness, I should point out that the Borneo team for the trip also had a lepidopterist on board. And that was me! Hence, in the company of three beetle zealots that go by the name of Beulah the blaps, Max the Macrodonta and Howard the Temerarious, I thought I’d be up for a challenging field work experience.


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Alessandro, Max, Howard, and Beulah socializing and relaxing in Kota Kinabalu, before the hard work begins.


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Despite being a moth curator, I can’t resist showing a picture portraying myself with a beautiful newly emerged Troides amphrysus, a papilionid butterfly.

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And here I am again, this time face to face with a handsome hawkmoth (Daphnis hypothous).


Once in the field the four of us did a great deal of sniffing, inspecting and probing, trying to ascertain each others’ intentions; and after our exigencies and flaws had been determined we recognized where each of us stood and accepted our echelons.


And so began our fieldwork experience which, apart from the rare squabbles caused by blunt episodes of trespassing in our private boundaries, turned out to be a rather successful one. After all we were there with a common aim that could have only been achieved with a team effort and we certainly had the enthusiasm to go with it.


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Our first supper at the camp. Little did we know that from that day onwards, rice was to be the fundamental ingredient of all our meals, breakfast included…not to mention the questionable rice wine.


The aim of this trip was to collect insects from an area near the western edge of the Crocker Range, in the Sabah region of Borneo, an area not well represented in our Museum collections; all in order to expand our knowledge of the world’s biodiversity.


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Our base was at ca. 1,200 metres above sea level and we had amazing views of the surrounding valleys and mountains.


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Further in the distance the impressive 4,095 metre high Mount Kinabalu seemed to keep a constant vigil on our camp.


Different sampling methods are used to collect different groups of insects, and during this trip we employed a good range of them. We set up 7 malaise traps and 7 flight interceptor traps (FIT) in selected sites of the forest around the camp, to collect flying insects such as beetles, flies and Hymenoptera (bees and wasps).



Putting up flight interceptor and malaise traps, and digging for victory (or was it for dung traps?).


We gathered leaf litter, dead wood and other organic material, such as figs, Asplenium ferns and bracket fungi, and sampled them separately in Winkler bags or by hand; we filled buckets with rotting fish, fermented fruits and dung (I won't tell you whose it was) to attract beetles and other unfussy insects. We regularly went for long walks in nearby areas to collect insects by sweeping with nets.



On one of our long walks collecting insects by netting. We were often also sampling for insects in different types of organic material.


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Some days the field work was so exhausting that even the experienced and indefatigable amongst us had to take a nap.


And as if that wasn’t enough, every day after having being mesmerized by yet another magnificent and unique sunset, we would turn on our light traps (4 of them to be precise) and spend hours checking each of them in turn, collecting whatever we thought was worth recording.



Every evening the sky and landscape around the camp would become the backdrop to breathtaking and exclusive sunsets.


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Can photographing sunsets every evening, have disturbing consequences on people’s size? 


Sorry if I haven’t talked much about lepidopterans in this post, but I thought it was important to give a little introduction before getting down to business. So if you enjoyed reading this make sure you don’t miss my next entry where I will actually feature some lepidopterans and talk about catching moths in Borneo.


But ... just to wet your appetite...


Large - and beautiful - Atlas moths were regular visitors at our moth traps. This is Archaeoattacus staudingeri, a relative of the more common Attacus atlas, found in Borneo and other areas of the Sundaland region.


Michael Kuhlmann and colleagues have put the beta version of the “Checklist of Western Palaearctic Bees” online ( using the NHM-developed Scratchpads as a platform.


Bees are the most important pollinators worldwide and the checklist provides access to taxonomic information and distribution data on country level to about 3350 bee species in 102 genera in the western Palaearctic region, with almost 2000 species recorded for Europe alone. The site contains regularly updated information from both published and unpublished sources including data from a whole range of private and public collections that are provided by European wild bee experts. The checklist reflects the current state of knowledge on the taxonomy and distribution of western Palaearctic bees, making it a prime source of information not only for taxonomists but also ecologists and agricultural scientists.


The checklist project started in 2008 and it quickly became clear that taxonomic expertise is globally lacking for several genera and that this gap is likely to grow quickly due to the progressive ageing of the community of bee taxonomists . The places most heavily affected by the loss of taxonomic knowledge are the “hotspots” of species diversity and endemism around the Mediterranean, in Turkey and the Middle East. Unfortunately, these are the areas that are most likely to be heavily affected by climate and landscape change. For this reason it seems possible that most of the predicted changes and losses of unique fauna will go unnoticed.


IMG_0579.jpgBombus (Pyrobombus) pratorum, the early bumblebee on Pentaglottis sempervirens


Recently, I have been quiet in the land of blogs but fear not - this was not due to the lack of things fly-related but rather the opposite. I have been working on a three-part BBC Radio 4 series on all things funky about insects and what we can learn from them - not just on a taxonomic or ecological scale but also thinking about their adaptions and functionality, and how we can utilise this.


Over the last month or so, I have possibly had the most fun an entomologist can have without a net and a few million dead flies. I was approached a while back by Laura Thomas, a BBC radio producer, about presenting a three-part series on insects that would involve me interviewing some of the most innovative individuals whose work focuses on many different aspects of insect ‘technology’ (I use that term loosely) ...


And so I have dangled from a ceiling, played with spiders, eaten bees, admired bot flies, and seen entomo-bots, to name just a few things. And it’s been amazing. I have probably said “that’s marvellous” more than any other phrase, and have wound up all those around me with astonishing facts - I am a pub quiz waiting to happen; my brain is full of wonder and awe. Anyone who does not love insects does not love life!


OK, so to my first story from the series … sniffer bees. I was possibly most excited about this out of all of my encounters (however, next week I will say the same about the story I'll cover then, and then the same the week after). These amazing creatures are actually your bog-standard honey bees - making honey and saving us as part of their daily routine!



An amazing honey bee, Apis mellifera


And I am not alone in thinking that they are amazing - sniffer bees have caught a lot of other people's imagination:






So, my producer and I headed out of London one cold day to visit Inscentinel, based in Harpenden, Herts. In one innocuous-looking building, up a flight of stairs and round the corner in a small lab, all the action happens. There are two fume hoods, both being used by people wafting chemicals to bees in pods. And to talk me through everything was Dr Maxim Rooth.  Now his biog tells us that he is not an entomologist - far from it:



‘Dr Maxim Rooth has a BSc in biological and medicinal chemistry and an MSc in biological chemistry. He went on to specialise in optical biosensors … and completed his PhD in chemistry at Exeter University. He has a thorough knowledge of biosensors, surface chemistry, colloid chemistry and bio-conjugation.’



So what is it about his background that makes him so useful? It is his knowledge of biosensors that is the key. Maxim's group use the bees' natural responses to certain stimuli and, by using optical biosensors, they have developed a machine that is capable of detecting chemicals to help us in locating - among other things - bombs and drugs! Way to go bees.


For years we have been using bees in warfare: hurling nests of angry bees about. We have chucked them across the water at opposing ships and launched them on specially developed trebuchets. But recently we have started to think about how to use them to assist us in ways other than warfare, such as detection of drugs, and even more cunningly in detecting illnesses within humans.


Previous studies have used bees and their famous waggle dance to determine the position of land mines ... have I said it yet, what marvellous little creatures. For example, the BBC have already covered a story of work conducted by Professor Nikola Kezic, about the use of this technology to find land mines in Croatia. Sandia, University of Montana is another making use of bees in this way. This research is happening all over the planet - and quite rightly so as land mines are still a huge problem (the Red Cross states that there are 45 to a 100 million land mines still active).


So how does this work? You make a concoction of a sugar solution containing the chemical (in this case TNT - or one of the smelly components of it; I am very technical!). You then feed this to the bee! Different studies use different methods to do this. This is an image from the Sandia group where they have made up pots of the solution. The bees in this instance feed on the sugary solution and then head off into the wilderness:



Feeding bees chemical-laced sugar solution


You can either spot the bees that have detected land mines with some binoculars(!) or you can develop highly sophisticated sensory devices to do the same ... I think you can probably guess which technique is the favoured one. Inscentinel have used this idea of chemical detection and taken it a step further ... bees have tongues, and long ones at that:


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Bees have a long tongue relative to their body size


What happens when you feed them a solution with the chemical of choice is that, when they then come across the chemical again, they stick their tongues out! “Marvellous”, I hear you cry (I almost did when they let me feed one to see this in action). And they respond this way because they associate the chemical with the sugar solution upon which they have been fed.


Now, in the past, we have used sniffer dogs and they are very effective, but dogs are expensive and take a long time to train ... and then retrain, because they eventually forget. Bees on the other hand take about 5 seconds to train (to be sure though, they repeat the training six times and then they give them a dummy test). In a Naked Scientist article on sniffer bees, research scientist Dr Nesbit says:


“Bees are at least as good as sniffer dogs but are cheaper and faster to train, and available in much larger numbers ... Bees can detect some odours that are present in parts per trillion - that’s equivalent to detecting a grain of salt in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.”


Just as Pavlov's dogs salivated at the sound of a bell due to their associating it with food, when the bees next smell the target chemical they automatically stick out their tongue as they believe that food will appear. And, unlike sniffer dogs, bees cannot help but do this time and time again as it is an innate response - dogs often get bored and forget they are being employed on top military assignments!



For the sniffer machine, each bee is placed in a little pod (they are put in a fridge first to make them dozy!). Then they place the suspect solution on their antenna, where chemoreceptors cause a Pavlovian response if it contains the target chemical.


pavlov.jpgOne of Pavlov’s actual dogs is now a museum specimen! Though, sadly, not one of ours.


And how does this relate to Maxim and his knowledge of biosensors? Well when the bees stick their tongues out, it passes through an infrared beam thus disrupting it. When all the bees are doing this (there are 36 in the machine) at once we can be pretty confident that the chemical is present.


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Bees lined up in their pods and ready for action!



The hand held sniffing machine!


Such a simple and inexpensive idea, showing us once more that nature is very clever! P.S. I want one of these machines...


Listen to Episode 1 of Who's the pest?


On a summer’s day in the Wildlife Garden and the Museum grounds, you might find several hundred different kinds of insects. If you count the individuals, including the honey bees and ants, then maybe thousands. Who knows, they might even outnumber the daily throng of human visitors to our galleries and exhibitions.


Indeed, there are more species of insect in the world than any other  group - experts have named over 1 million. (Some entomologists even  estimate 10 million species.) And not a day goes by for us humans, I’m  sure, without an encounter with at least one or many of them.


Discover insect life this weekend in the Wildlife Garden as you  explore the meadows by the ponds. There are displays, activities and  tours and also talks in the nearby Darwin Dentre to join.

Come along on Saturday and Sunday, 2 and 3 July, to Insect Weekend in the Wildlife Garden and Darwin Centre and meet some of this multitudinous and diverse group. Find out about the buzzers, flutterers and crawlers from bees to beetles and damelflies to butterflies and moths.


On both days, there will be lots of fun activities for all ages, and many displays to explore.

What will you see at Insect Weekend under the microscope? And tread carefully by the ponds, froglets are about. Select images to enlarge

Recent sightings in the garden includes lots of butterflies, from large white to comma, holly blue and speckled wood varieties.


Tiny froglets and toadlets are emerging from the ponds, so you'll need to tread carefully in the grasslands by the ponds. And don't forget the hundreds of tropical butterflies to see next door on the East lawn in our Sensational Butterflies exhibition.


Another highlight of the weekend event on Sunday will be botany expert Roy Vickery's tour of the garden about the 'forgotten uses of wild plants'. The 30-minute tours start around 1.45 and 3.15.


Spiders are distant relatives of insects but that doesn't seem to bother them when it comes to their dietary requirements. Not sure what would escape this spider web photographed recently in the Wildlife Garden!

Visitors will get an insight into the insect diets of other creatures like bats, spiders and frogs. Apparently, at last month's Bat Festival in the Wildlife Garden, a lttle pipestrelle  bat spent nearly an hour flying over and around the main pond, in  pursuit of midges and other small insects. It caused a bit of a stir! And the Wildlife Garden team will be doing a bat survey on Saturday.


Max Barclay's Beetlemania talk and his collection highlights on Saturday are sure to be popular and another talk on Sunday, Caught in a Trap, will reveal the secrets of collecting insects. Both free talks are in the Attenborough Studio at 12.30 and 14.30.


Find out about the Wildlife Garden online

What is an insect?

Insects (from the Latin insectum) are a class of living creatures within the arthropods that have a chitinous exoskeleton, a three-part body (head, thorax, and abdomen), three pairs of jointed legs, compound eyes, and two antennae.


Find out more about insects and spiders on our Nature Online pages


Every day we get enquiries about identifying strange looking insects on our online Identification forum


Join the OPAL Bugs Count survey - an amazing 204,205 bugs have already been counted so far.


Read the Bug Count launch news story and find out the 6 minibeasts to look out for


We've been harvesting some delicious honey from our Wildlife Garden bees. I was visiting the garden when Luke Dixon, the Museum’s beekeeper and Caroline, our Wildlife Garden manager, were shaking and brushing out our bee hive trays. We've added a video clip of the honey collecting on YouTube.


Beekeeper Luke Dixon shaking out bee hive trays in the Wildlife Garden


Watch the Wildlife Garden honey collecting video clip on YouTube.

Discover the delights of the Museum's Wildlife Garden.


The beginning of September is the honey collecting season, explains Luke in the video, as he enthuses about the deliciousness of urban honey and especially London honey. I can support him wholeheartedly on this as I was one of the lucky staff members and volunteers who managed to get our hands on a jar before they all disappeared. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough to sell to the public. Our bees have created a distinctive taste that is really flavoursome and floral. It truly reflects the amazing variety of flora in the garden.


By the way, the smoke you’ll see in the video is there to calm the bees so they don’t get too anxious and angry about losing the fruits of their hard work all summer.



On Saturday 25 September, the Wildlife Garden team was joined by staff and volunteers from the RSPB and OPAL for its last public event. You can see one of the day’s highlights pictured here. The hedge laid by hedgerow expert Rob Graham at Hedgerow Harvest was much admired by all.


Caroline was delighted it was such a success and a wonderful event to end this year's Wildlife Garden events season.


'As well as highlighting the importance of hedges for wildlife both in the countryside and in our gardens and parks,' said Caroline, 'it was about talking to our visitors about the many different hedgerow plants and associated insects, birds and other animals - some of which they could see in the garden - and introducing hedgerow plants used in folk medicine and edible plants. There were also some tasty samples of jams and wines made from wild fruit such as sloes, bramble and elderberries.'


The big buzz in What's new at the Museum

Posted by Rose Jun 30, 2010


Hot news from the Wildlife Garden is that our bee tree is now humming with a new swarm of bees which was introduced about a month ago.


Caroline, the garden's manager, told me she's been waiting to see how the bees got on before telling everyone. Actually, they are doing really well and will be a star attraction at the garden's Yellow Book Day this Sunday, 4 July.


So 'what's a bee tree exactly?' I hear Pooh bear mumbling in my ear. It's a bbeehive-wildlife-garden-1.jpgee hive that's been cut into an 8-foot high ash tree trunk, pictured left. There are now about 15,000 bees in the hive which also houses eggs, young bees and honey. You can find out more about our bee tree at the event on Sunday. A word of advice, when you visit it, open the bark doors very carefully. And make sure to close them when you've had a look, as bees like the dark.

Another highlight of Sunday's event is the chance to meet our resident beekeeper, Dr Luke Dixon. Luke is an expert in urban beekeeping and helps look after the garden's 2 private beehives, which are also new this year and doing well. He will be holding 2 sessions at 12.30 and 14.00 and visitors can don the protective beekeeping clothing to have a look inside the hives.


There may be some Wildlife Garden honey to sample too, yummy!



Other activities on Sunday include pond-dipping and a guide to the garden's native plants. There will be stalls with refreshments and wild flower plants for sale.


By the way, did you know that Melissa is Greek for honeybee?

Check out the Museum's Wildlife Garden


If you're interested in beekeeping, have a look at the Beekeepers Association website for some handy hints


Find out more about honeybees on our honeybees webpages


Thanks to Matt for the bee tree image and to Luke Dixon and Kristian Buus for the recent Wildlife Garden beehive images. Click on the images to enlarge them.


As well as a marauding mass of volunteers….


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I also take on work experience students who are in Year 10 (this means nothing to me). I thought that you would like to know what he thinks of it so far....




My name is Elliot Neillands and I am currently doing work experience in the Entomology Department with my supervisor Erica McAlister and one thing I’ve learnt so far from “working” here is that a lot of Entomologists have an un-healthy obsession with genitalia simply mention the word and they get all excited and worked up about how they are going to dye, dissect or scan a poor fly or beetles whatsits. And yet they insist it’s perfectly natural and healthy even to poke about an insect’s nether regions. Although they seem to be perfectly friendly I often wonder if they are actually bordering on the insane. But in all fairness they have been extremely nice despite some scarring conversations involving masking tape.


I have actually been doing some pretty interesting things here including sorting a bowl of tiny insect soup from French  Guiana into their groups. I have learnt the proper names for some of the groups including Diptera for flies, Hymenoptera for bees, wasps and ants and lepidoptera for moths and butterflies. I have also learnt how to tell these groups apart using their number of wings and the structure of their body. I had the pleasure of enlightening some students (yes, from uni) about how the bark beetle was attracted to ethanol of which all of the insects were drenched in with the smell leaking onto me (this lead to some vicious look from old ladies’ on the tube.) My next task of the day after writing this is to remove the wings from flies which I find Ironic since that is often in the nature of cruel little children to do, albeit they will be dead when I do it (I think.)


I will be here all next week.