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Life's a picnic in Tanzania...

Posted by Blaps Apr 25, 2012

Well, It looks like fieldwork season is upon us and everyone but everyone is out and about in the never ending quest for beetles (especially new to science beetles!) but then, just as it's always cocktail hour somewhere in the world, so too it is always fieldwork season somewhere in the world (I love these excuses; as I write I'm thinking, hmm, it's 9am GMT, where in the world right now could I be sipping a gin martini?!).


Anyway, back to the point of things, recently one of our long-standing volunteers decided to take himself off to Africa, along with his long-obliging / suffering and lovely wife (wives, lovers, partners, husbands of entomologists you will understand what I mean!). This little trip was part of a collaboration to basically collect more beetles from more places in Tanzania than our usual intrepid entomologist Hitoshi - for Hitoshi's fieldwork exploits read here.


David Oram has worked in the Entomology Department for about seven years first starting out in the Lepidoptera section (Lepidoptera being his first love) and lately in the Coleoptera section where presently he is working on a recurating the Meloidae (the oil beetles). In real life David is a dentist. Really.


Fieldwork may appear glamorous, romantic, exotic and... a picnic! Below is David and his wife Dawn enjoying a well deserved break from beetle collecting in the Selous Reserve.


breakfast in Selous.JPG


And now I hand you over to David's account of his fieldwork trip to Tanzania:


"Following on from some of the recent venturesome exploits of a certain member of the Coleoptera section at the NHM to Tanzania (namely HT) ; DAO and DO have just paid a visit to the Udzungwa Mountains in Tanzania during March 2012.
The Udzungwa Mountains cover an area of approximately 1990 Km² in the Iringa and Morogoro regions of south central Tanzania; part of the chain of a dozen large forest-swathed mountains, rising from the flat coastal scrub of eastern Tanzania, known collectively as the Eastern Arc Mountains. These stretch from the Taita Hills of southern Kenya to the Makambako gap southern Tanzania.


mountains Udzungwa.JPG
The mountains are about 7-8 hours drive southwest of the capital Dar Es Salaam and are bordered in the northeast by Mikumi National Park in the east by Selous Reserve beyond Kilombero Valley, in the north by the Great Ruaha river and Ruipa river in the southwest.

As our time was limited we travelled initially by small plane to Mikumi from the Selous Reserve, continuing the last shorter distance by road. This did not prove to be without incident as enroute a tree fell down over a vehicle just ahead of us nearly killing all the occupants. Somewhat shaken we arrived safely at the Hondo Hondo campsite in the afternoon.


tree falling on car.JPG
This time of year being the start of the rainy season, to have dry weather was a bonus so when we arrived we set to with the mercury vapour (M.V.) light but first found we had to make some alterations. The choke needed replacing as did the light, but most of the equipment was in place and plenty of kind help was around from Jock the manager of the camp and his staff. The light and sheet was set up on a beautiful site overlooking the forest and mountains which just rise up in front of you.

left to right Emmanual Jock Salim moth trap.JPG

Jock and staff fixing up the M.V. light


The early evening was warm and humid but dry with clear skies. On the forest edge we could watch the antics of some of the unique primate life of the Udzungwa red colobus and Black and white colobus and listen to the noises of the forest.


red colubus.JPG
This was a magic spot until we could hear the sound of thunder; there was no rain to start with until after dark and the M.V. light had been on for half an hour or so. Then it rained like a continuous thunderstorm for at least five hours. A lot of rice is grown in this area and I now realised why. The field with the light and sheet was like a paddy field in at least 1-2 feet of water. The insect nets were like planks of wood and anything that could not swim was in trouble. We continued hoping for a change in the weather but gave up in the early hours of the morning. We must have been quite a sight inspecting the sheet and light every thirty minutes or so, into which things were still trying to fly into, in a small column of umbrellas.

The light survived this onslaught of appalling weather really due to the sound electrical connections by Jock and his men. We moved the M.V. lamp to a more sheltered spot for the next four nights. Needless to say it did not rain again at night.

Beetles and Moths arrived in even numbers most nights and included;  the beautiful black and red flat faced longhorn Ceroplesis militaris; some large Prioninae Tithoes maculata; a ship timber beetle possibly Atractocerus brevicornis; plenty of chafers and dung beetles. The moths included many hawk moths; Hippotion celerio, Hippotion eson; the beautiful green hawk Euchloron megaera; Nephele comma; Nephele rovae and many species of Saturniidae.
flat faced longhorn ceroplesis militaris.JPG

Ceroplesis militaris, Cerambycidae

ship timber beetle Lymexilidae Atractocerus brevicornis.JPG

Atractocerus brevicornis, Lymexillidae - a rather unusual looking beetle; and what do you think it's mimicing?!

prionid mandibles.JPG

Tithoes maculatus, Cerambycidae - Will give you a nasty nip - just look at those mandibles!


Dung beetles
For dung beetles we did set up some traps interestingly on the path used by the Elephants every morning at about 4am on the edge of the forest and our campsite. I was a little concerned about this but Emmanuel who was with me suggested these would be good sites and how right he was even the elephants seem to have been careful not to tread on them. One day was spent setting the traps up and finding local farmers to help; collecting some dung left by elephants contained dung beetles already who often were better diggers than us and avoided our attempts at capture. A number of these dung beetles have yet to be identified.


dung trap david and Emmanual.JPG

David and Emmanuel setting an elephant dung trap


Sap loving beetles
Another day at Hondo Hondo or rather the nearby village of Mang’ula was to prove interesting. Emmanuel who had helped with the dung beetle traps had a farmer friend at Mang’ula where he harvested bamboo sap for a drink. Bamboo is grown often around the edges of rice fields and suger cane here. The bamboo is used to make baskets and for transporting agricultural produce. We walked to Mang’ula as it was only a couple of miles away and the roads around Hondo Hondo are dirt roads with many undulations and corrugations so progress in a vehicle is slow. Once with the farmer's family I realised getting to the bamboo was not as easy as we had to cross some flooded fields of rice but supplied with wellingtons I was all kitted up. The sap is harvested by cutting through a stem of the bamboo then attaching a collecting bottle at an angle to allow the sap to just flow into it in a similar way to rubber sap. The chafer beetles congregate around the cut ends of the bamboo with lots of like minded insects including ants, bees, wasps, and butterflies. The end of our visit to the bamboo was rewarded with a shared drink of sap with the locals; fine as long as it's not too alcoholic…"

chafers on bamboo sap.JPG

Neptunides polychrous, Cetonidae, Scarabaeoidea; on sap

meloid on hibiscusMyalabris amplectens.JPGMylabris amplectens, Meloidae; on Hibiscus


This latest beetle blog comes from two members of the Coleoptera section who are presently conducting fieldwork in China - Chris Lyal (researcher) and Conrad Gillett (PhD student). Chris and Conrad are collecting weevils (superfamily Curculionoidea) together with their Chinese colleague, Ren Li, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.


Chris (left) and Conrad (right) in standard issue tropical weevil collecting uniform with their preferred weapons


Tropical montane forest in Xishuangbanna prefecture, Yunnan


"Weevils are the single most diverse family-level group of organisms on the planet, with an estimated 62,000 described species, or about 15% of all beetles. They are plant feeders with a wide variety of life histories, ecologies and interesting distribution patterns, often linked to the distribution of their host plants, which can be very specific (often a single plant species) or more general. Weevils are therefore worthy of study not only because of their intrinsic interest in being highly diverse, but also because we can investigate their co-evolution with plants and the many and varied adaptations that they have developed for feeding on these and on different plant tissues such as leaves, bark, wood, roots and seeds. They are also important because a number of species are now widespread pests of plants cultivated by man, such as palms and bananas, or even the vectors responsible for transmitting fungal diseases such as Dutch elm disease. However, on the positive side, weevils have also been used as biological controls against invasive plants that have been spread by man outside of their natural ranges."


Weevils are generally recognised at first glance by possessing an extension of the head called the ‘rostrum’, at the end of which the biting mouthparts are located. The rostrum has the appearance of a ‘proboscis’ though it is nothing like that of a butterfly’s. At the moment there is a great deal of uncertainty as to how the various subgroups within the weevils are related to one another. Conrad is currently tackling this problem through analysing their genetic information, the DNA in a number of different genes, from a wide range of weevils belonging to as many of the weevil subfamilies and tribes (both these are taxonomic groups below the family level) as possible.


Leaf-rolling weevil (Attelabidae)


"There are around 300 currently accepted weevil tribes – think of these as lineages – and we need to sample as many of these as possible to get a clearer picture of how they are related. We need to collect specimens that are fresh because otherwise it is difficult or impossible to obtain DNA for analysis. The specimens are collected into pure ethanol, which preserves their DNA, until we can bring them back to the laboratory where the genetic work is done. We have come to southern China’s Yunnan province because it is a very interesting area, known as a ‘biogeographic crossroad’, which means that here two biogeographic regions, the eastern Palaearctic (northern Asia) and the Oriental (southeast Asia) meet, and elements from both their faunas can be found in one area. Each biogeographic region usually contains species that are only found there, but where two regions adjoin each other, it is possible to find species from both together or very close by – this is why biogeographic crossroads are so biodiverse; they also usually contain a wide variety of habitats, which can be separated by elevation or by localised microclimates.


Montane forest


Weevils occur in all terrestrial habitats where plants are found, so we need to look in as many of these as possible, such as in rainforests and montane forests. Before coming out here we had not been able to get specimens from a number of tribes that occur in these two biogeographic regions, so it is really important to try to find them for our investigation."


Chris and Conrad have spent the last week collecting at several sites in the Xishuangbanna prefecture in the south of Yunnan. This is an area of relatively low elevation (at least for Yunnan, which has mountains towering to heights of 6000m in the north!) and of tropical and subtropical climate. The tropic of Cancer crosses the area, which also borders Myanmar and Laos to the south. So how are they managing to find these weevils?


Weevil (Molytinae) and weevil hunter (Homidae)


"Because weevils live on plants, in order to collect them we look for them on as many different species of plants and parts of plants that we can. To do this we beat vegetation and foliage onto a sheet which allows us to see the weevils that are knocked off the plants and to collect them into tubes or into a ‘pooter’ (if anybody is interested we’ll explain that rather curious item of equipment in another blog – just think of it as a mouth-operated vacuum cleaner). We also use a ‘sweep-net’ to sweep across low vegetation for weevils and we look closely at fallen or cut tree trunks, logs and branches, as well as looking under bark. Of course it is not only weevils that we see, in fact we have come across representatives of many insect orders during the course of our collecting.


Large longhorn beetle (Batocera sp., Lamiinae) found stuck in its too-tight pupal chamber in a fallen tree – and ‘rescued’ (with the help of a swiss army knife), albeit in three pieces!


These have included many bugs, ants, wasps, and an incredible variety of praying mantids and spiders as well as the odd stick insect, and other beetles, especially leaf beetles (Chrysomelidae) and ladybirds (Coccinelidae) to name just a few. The diversity of butterflies has also been quite good, with the large and gaily coloured swallowtails being particularly delightful. Beating and sweeping will also pick up the odd vertebrate including lizards and frogs which are only to glad to be able to beat a hasty retreat once released!


A lizard we accidently caught out of a bush was kind enough to pose for us before making good its escape


A jade-coloured swallowtail (Papillionidae) in all its glory – perhaps a reader will know which species!


In addition to these active forms of collecting, we have also set up some traps, including combined malaise and flight-interception traps (to catch flying weevils) and banana-baited bottle traps placed in trees to hopefully catch some species that are attracted to the bait. We’ll be checking the traps in a couple of days, so hopefully we’ll report back on the results in our next blog entry."


Malaise trap in operation



One of many species of praying mantis we have seen in Yunnan


Climatic conditions can have a major impact on how easy it is to collect beetles and the time of year for the expedition was chosen carefully to coincide with the start of the rainy season to increase the chances of success (many insects emerge or are more abundant during this period). Travelling to a new area for our scientists is also challenging because one can never quite know exactly what it will be like and what trials and tribulations may lurk ahead! How has this been affecting collecting?


"China is an enormous country and when we arrived here we spent a day at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, in the northeast of the country, which was still very much in the grip of winter, with no sign of leaves on the trees yet. But when we first arrived in Kunming (the capital city of Yunnan) things could not have been more different, and the tropical luxuriant vegetation was in stark contrast to what we had left behind in Beijing a few hours earlier. It was also a lot warmer and more humid of course! However our first few days of collecting in the forested hills in the vicinity of the town of Pu’er showed us that in fact it was still quite dry and the rainy season had not yet begun there. Consequently finding weevils was quite difficult as their activity was low. It has also not been particularly easy to find completely wild and untouched natural areas because a lot of the Chinese countryside and landscape is intensively used, either for agriculture or for housing, and evidence of new large-scale development is evident almost everywhere we have been.


Three of the surviving elephants in the area


However, we decided to move further south and we are presently in the area around Menglunzhen which has received its first few rainstorms and consequently we are finding more and more weevils each day. There is an air of things being ‘on the cusp’ of exploding into full activity, which was evident last night when there was a greatly increased activity of insects attracted to the lights in the Xishuangbanna tropical botanical garden, which is where we are based at the moment!


Sunset over Xishuangbanna tropical botanical gardens


So far, although it is difficult to identify weevils in the field without the use of a microscope and all the relevant taxonomic literature, we think that we have found several very interesting specimens for the study. Some of the highlights have included a finding a good range of molytine weevils (this subfamily is one that Chris is especially interested in), and Conrad has particularly enjoyed trying to catch the quick-moving and flighty conoderine weevils found on dead wood – equally as challenging as hunting agile tiger beetles or jewel beetles!

pink molytineweb.JPG

A lurid pink molytine weevil (Molytinae)


A fast-moving and very nervous conoderine weevil (Conoderinae) on a dead branch– they are challenging to collect and difficult to photograph!


We are also hoping to find new species of weevil to describe together with our Chinese partners, and this co-operation between our institutes is something we are both keen to promote and to foster."


China has of course a rich cultural heritage and an ancient civilisation, so what have our colleagues experienced of this? And how are they getting by with the language?


"We have been very fortunate in that our Chinese colleague Ren Li, who has come out with us, is helping us out with all the day-to day things which would be very difficult without speaking Chinese (which neither of us do!). It has been very interesting just seeing how people go about their lives here, although I think even to our Chinese friend, things down here in the tropical south are quite different to back in Beijing! We have seen some interesting sites including an abandoned and overgrown but still grandiose complex of temples and festive sites where we collected and the beautiful botanic gardens mentioned earlier.


Chinese dragons guarding over an abandoned temple


We have also been lucky because we are experiencing some authentic Chinese cuisine as we are well off the tourist trail and Ren Li is ensuring that we taste the local specialities. Thus far we have had epicurean delights including (but not limited to) duck tongue, marine snails and the famous thousand year old eggs!


After a day’s collecting, an evening meal with our Chinese colleague Ren Li (left) in Menglunzhen


We have also been impressed by the popular local transport, an intriguing combination of pick-up truck and motorbike – who wouldn’t want one? We haven’t been so impressed with the laundry service at a hotel we stayed at, with some of our undies going AWOL!


Who wouldn’t want one of these?


Weevil keep you informed with our progress!


Conrad and Chris, 13 April 2012, Xishuangbanna prefecture


100 years ago, on the fateful day that RMS Titanic struck the iceberg, another less dramatic event occurred in a quiet corner of Southern England which made ripples in the calm waters of the entomological world; in a moorhen's nest in the river at Potter's Bar, chartered surveyor and amateur beetle expert E.C. Bedwell (1875-1945) collected two specimens of a beetle that had never been seen by anyone, either before or since.


The beetle itself is far from titanic - 1mm long, brownish black, it is not much to look at, but this is perhaps just as well considering that only one person has ever seen it alive, and that was 100 years ago.



Aglyptinus agathidioides with K.G. Blair's orignal determination label

Image Harry Taylor 2012


After confusing the scientific community and being passed from specialist to specialist for nearly 20 years, the the 'Potter's Bar Beetle' (a member of the fungus beetle family Leiodidae, of which there are approx 3,800 described species worldwide) was eventually given a scientific name in 1931 by Natural History Museum coleopterist Kenneth Gloyne Blair (1882-1951); he called it Aglyptinus agathidioides, the specific name marking its similarity to the widespread genus Agathidium. [see footnote] 


In the ensuing 100 years numerous coleopterists have dug through swan and moorhen's nests (neither easy nor pleasant, the nests are usually foul smelling mounds of vegetation, often in the river itself) in Hertfordshire in search of it, but no more beetles have ever been found. It has been speculated that the beetles were tourists, imported from another continent, but which one, and how? Their closest relatives apparently occur in North and Central America, but neither US entomologists, nor the extensive 'Biologia Centrali Americana' (1879-1915) picked up anything similar. It is also not clear how imported beetles could have been found in a moorhen's nest on a sleepy stretch of an English river.


The Biolgogia Centrali Americana


A moorhen nest

Image Ianaré Sévi 2008


Conservationist blogger Mark Avery discussed his unsuccessful attempts to rediscover it in 2010, and it was thanks to his enquiries that we got the Type Specimen out of the collection and noticed the inauspicious collection date!


One of the two specimens (the male Holotype) is now at the Natural History Museum in London and the other (the female Paratype) in E.C. Bedwell's collection at the Norwich Castle Museum; they are carefully looked after as the only examples of their kind. It is not often that a new species is discovered in England, and even rarer that it disappears as suddenly as it appeared!


One can imagine Bedwell getting home from his collecting trip, and saying to his family 'I found an interesting beetle yesterday, anything else much happened in the world?'


And while the world was reeling from the unexpected destruction of a glorious symbol of industrial might and imperial power, Bedwell was poring over his vials of beetles and thinking 'I wonder what that little brown one is...'




Footnote: The genus Agathidium has since achieved its own notoriety; in 2005 US scientists Quentin Wheeler (former Keeper of Entomology at the Natural History Museum) and Kelly Miller named some new species of that genus after politicians George Bush (Agathidium bushi), Donald Rumsfeld (Agathidium rumsfeldi) and Dick Cheney (Agathidium cheneyi). Small leiodid fungus beetles seem to have a tendency to get mixed up in world affairs....


Note: This story was investigated and written by Max Barclay, Coleoptera Collections Manager


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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