While winter tasks kept most of us busy outside for the first quarter of the year, these cold months are also a good excuse to hunker down inside and look back at the previous season's species records, enter new records on our database and consolidate reports on our findings.
As mentioned in one of our early blogs biological recording is carried out - like most activities here - with the help of many volunteers (specialists as well as beginners), and naturally our own scientists, during the course of their working day. Sometimes we enlist the help of aspiring young scientists...
Volunteer Alex Domenge has spent days entering records on the Wildlife Garden database.
Recording is carried out by observation and surveys. From mosses on walls, rocks and bare ground and the animals that inhabit these miniature forests, to the tree tops where great and blue tits may be spotted feeding on aphids and other small insects in the upper branches, as well as high flying butterflies such as the purple hairstreak that feed off honeydew.
Purple hairstreak butterfly (Favonius quercus). It's hard to see because it spends most of its time in the upper leaf canopy feeding on honeydew.
© Jim Asher, Butterfly Conservation
Invertebrate surveys are carried out using a variety of methods including pitfall traps for ground invertebrates, malaise traps for flying insects, and light traps for nocturnal fliers.
Former Museum Lepidopterist, Martin Honey, has been trapping and recording moths since before the Wildlife Garden was created 20 years ago using a Robinson light trap. Martin has recorded an amazing number of moths since the garden was created - over 500 species! - and in the process he has taught many of us not only how to identify moths caught in the trap but also day-flying moths and leaf miners.
6-spot burnet moth (Zygaena filipendulae) - one of our most colourful day-flying moths - breed on our chalk downland in the Wildlife Garden
© Derek Adams
As Martin explains:
'A Robinson light trap is fitted with a 125w mercury vapour lamp. The bulb emits both ultraviolet and visible light, so not only moths but also people passing on a 'moth trapping night' would see an eerie glow coming from the centre of the garden. The light attracts moths and other night-flying insects - which enter the trap via a funnel. The insects are 'caught' within the trap and settle on egg boxes that are provided within the trap.
A light trap with net in the morning to prevent any escapees
© Sue Snell
On arrival in the morning, each egg box is gently removed and checked for insects which we either identify straight away or carefully place in a glass tube for closer examination. Once identified, the specimens are released back into the garden into dense vegetation away from predators, such as robins, which regard the whole operation with hungry interest.'
You can see a little bit about this technique in our short film from 2011 that features Martin:
The ever opportunistic robin
© Jonathan Jackson
Other nocturnally active insects are also attracted to the light and it is another way of recording insects apart from moths
And this is just how we found an interesting species of ladybird in July last year. This was memorable for more than one reason since I had a young friend and future volunteer assisting me for that day - possibly even a future scientist...
Anders with light trap
Anders takes up the story about the light trap set on 25 July 2014:
'To our delight we found lots of different species of insects; moths, beetles, shield bugs and a very interesting little ladybird. It was about 5mm long, quite round, black with no dots.We put all the insects into collecting tubes, identified and recorded each one on to a sheet of special paper...
However, we could not identify all of them, so we took them into the 'cocoon' to the entomologists' offices. The man we wanted to see was sadly not there, but another nice man from Italy stepped in to help us. He knew all of the insects except for the little black beetle. Determined to discover the identity of the ladybird we showed it to everyone in the department but no one knew what it was. Finally, it was suggested that we take the specimen to a man called Roger Booth in the beetle section of the Department of Life Sciences. He looked at it and said:
"Hmm, Rhyzobius forestieri", he said thoughtfully, "very interesting". He led us across the room to another man called Max Barclay who confirmed not only that it was Rhyzobius forestieri, but that it may have been the first ladybird of its kind to have been found in the UK'.
Anders with Rhyzobius forestieri
It was, in fact, the second Rhyzobius forestieri to be recorded in Britain. This was a very exciting find for the Wildlife Garden and also for Anders:
'I was surprised and pleased to hear this and felt a bit like a scientist myself. I'm very proud of my little ladybird and look forward to my next visit to the Museum to see her and all her little bug friends!'
Max went on to publish an article on the beetle in issue 23 of The Coleopterist journal:
Max's paper in the journal, The Coleopterist, issue 23(2), pages 81-83.
A picture of the Rhyzobius forestieri beetle found by Anders, only the second of its kind to have been recorded in Britain (photograph by Harry Taylor)
We'll bring you news of further findings - interspersed over the next few months - with other news about biodiversity in the Museum's living gallery of Wildlife and that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
And now, our Wildlife Garden has re-opened this year for visitors and, on Saturday 11 April, we will be celebrating Spring Wildlife at a free, day long event in the Wildlife Garden, Darwin Centre and Investigate.
Investigating pond life at last year's Spring Wildlife event
Come and join in betwen 12.00 to 17.00 and even get to hear the 'nice man from Italy' talk about butterflies in Nature Live: A date with a Butterfly at 12.30 and 14.30 in the Attenborough Studio.
We look forward to seeing you here!