Sunday, 10 November 2013

What’s in a name?

How something is named colours our perception, even our experiences with it – they’re the same thing but the Killer Shrimp is perceived very differently to Dikerogammerus villosus!

In wildlife, common names have generally been given to those species which people care about enough to talk about.  Species or groups which are big and colourful, or useful, or dangerous, or just those which are common enough around people to be seen every day, get common names – more obscure species get left with just a scientific binomial.  Ladybirds get the common name treatment: in fact, they’ve got a lot of common names in the British Isles alone!  
Ladybird common names in the British Isles
The now-standard common name – ‘ladybird’ – is an odd one: they’re definitely not birds, and they’re not all female.  ‘Birds’ is the easy one to explain.  If you go back far enough, pre-Linnaeus, names didn’t have quite the zoological precision of today.  Anything that lived in water was a fish (have you ever wondered about crayfish & shellfish?), and everything that flew was a bird.  The little shiny red beetles did a lot of flying: hence, they were birds.

‘Lady’ is the more interesting bit, and a look at the names for ladybirds from around Europe shed a bit more light on the reason why.  In the pre-insecticide era, infestations of pests were hugely damaging, and so when aphids were spotted accumulating in the crops, farmers would pray for help (alongside taking more useful action like squashing as many as possible).  Shortly afterwards, as the aphid colonies hit their peak, hordes of ladybirds would descend on the crops, devouring the pests, seemingly in answer to the farmers’ prayers.
Ladybird names across Europe
By far the commonest species would be the 7-spot ladybird, Coccinella septempunctata.  Each beetle bore seven black spots, signifying the seven sorrows and seven joys of Mary, and each was bright orange-red, the colour that Mary was often depicted wearing (before the Vatican banned her being shown wearing red, and use of lapis lazuli blue as a high-status colour became standard).  Therefore, the tiny predators were thought to have been a gift sent from the Virgin Mary, and many of the local names reflected this - ‘The Virgin’s beast’, ‘Mary’s beetle’, ‘Marygold’, ‘Lady-clock’.  Others reflected the luck implicit in receiving a gift from the gods – ‘Lucky beetle’ and the ‘Good luck bug’
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A seven-spot ladybird, Coccinella septempunctata, featuring 7 spots and a red background

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Where are all the ladybirds?

'Where have all the ladybirds gone? I've hardly seen any this year.'  In this case the question is relayed, second-hand, via a friend and through Twitter, but it's becoming a worryingly frequent refrain this year. As a professional ladybird-fancier (my very-nearly-finished PhD is on ladybirds and in my spare time (what spare time?!) I'm part of the UK Ladybird Survey team) I probably hear it more than most, but a lot of people seem to be missing the gardener's little spotty friends this summer. Rather than just repeating it to everyone, I thought I'd blog the answer here.

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The British summer, 2012
There are many threats to ladybirds in Britain. The Harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis) is causing declines in native species (open-access paper here), while others are suffering from habitat destruction. However, the 2013 ladybird-lack is down to a natural phenomenon: the British weather.

In essence, it's because of what this picture shows: summer 2012 for most of the UK was a washout.  It started raining about Easter and basically never really stopped.  In general, rain is pretty bad news for insects;as cold-blooded animals wet, cold conditions stop them flying, which in turn prevents feeding, dispersing, breeding, and so on. Many insects, including several species of ladybird, are on the edge of their range in Britain, as far north as they can go before conditions get too cold, so damp, dark summers don't do them any favours!

Southerly bias in the distribution of the 24-spot ladybird, Subcoccinella vigintiquattuorpunctata, in Britain.  © Crown copyright and database rights 2011 Ordnance Survey. Mapping from the NBN Gateway
The timing of the rain was particularly bad in 2012.  Ladybirds usually only have one generation a year, breeding between May and August (though a few species are later), and they spend the winter as adults, tucking themselves in for the winter in October and not feeding until the following spring. Emerging from their overwintering lairs in March and April, they desperately need to feed, and they can usually stuff their faces on aphids, which emerge from overwintering and set up new colonies at roughly the same time. In 2012, however, April was a near-unrelenting monsoon of torrential rain - the ladybirds couldn't disperse looking for food, or mates, or egg-laying sites, and in any case the aphids were gone, washed from the leaves before colonies could be established.  Numbers of winged aphids - the dispersive stage - wouldn't reach normal levels in Rothamsted Research's aphid-monitoring traps until October.

That meant that the 2012 generation of ladybirds - the ones that would try to survive the winter and appear in spring 2013 - was very poor.  Numbers were lower than normal, especially of species that lived mainly in trees (it's much harder to climb back up a tree than a small flower once you've been washed off it), and many of the individuals were smaller than normal, a sign of a lack of nutrition as a larva.

Once they emerge as adults in late summer, ladybirds have one job - to eat as much as possible to have the best possible chance of surviving six months asleep.  Hamstrung by the lack of aphids to eat, it's likely that the majority went into the winter underweight, only to be faced by a winter that went on and on - personally I was still wearing two coats and a woolly hat for pollinator surveys into June!  That meant that a lot of the ladybirds that went into dormancy last autumn simply ran out of energy and never woke up again, further lowering numbers. I spent almost every day in the field (well, in several fields) this spring, and only saw a ladybird on 29 occasions between New Year and the end of May, far fewer than normal. I did see several hundred Orange ladybirds (Halyzia sedecimguttata) at the Kings Weston BioBlitz in Bristol, but this is a mildew-feeding species at home in wet weather, and they were still in their overwintering aggregation in early May!

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A 7-spot ladybird larva (Coccinella septempunctata), snapped at dinnertime.
The cold spring held back the aphids as well, but once they finally appeared, they really went for it, and, with very few predators about, big numbers began appearing.  The summer heatwave provided ideal conditions climatic conditions for sun-loving insects, and ladybirds began the recovery process.  I only found my first ladybird larvae of the year on the 9th of June, about six weeks later than normal, but over the last six weeks or so ladybirds have made a welcome return to my village, with larvae and new adults abundant on limes and sycamores in the local churchyard.  Hopefully they'll be able to keep feeding and - weather permitting - next year's generation will start from a much better position than did this year's!

If you see a ladybird, please do send us a picture record at the UK Ladybird Survey website or using the iRecord Ladybird app from CEH and Naturelocator (Android or Apple) - without records we have no idea what's going on anywhere else!

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The 2013 Garden Bioblitz, #GBB13

On the weekend of the 1-2 June 2013, hordes of people all over the UK went out into their gardens and scoured them for wildlife - birds in the trees, ants in the lawn, bees on flowers, the trees and flowers themselves were all spotted and logged. Two weeks after the event, 495 people have submitted 22,632 records of 2,424 taxa, 1,743 of which have been identified to species.  On average, each and every recorder submitted 46 sightings - an amazing effort from everyone! 

The reason for this burst of activity? The first national Garden Bioblitz!

With 29 million trees and 5 million bird boxes in 23 million gardens across Britain, there's a lot of private habitat tucked away nationwide. While hedges and fences parcel up the area in human terms, they're a trifling obstacle to most (although not all) wildlife - birds, butterflies and the like can happily soar or flutter up and down entire streets or more, taking advantage of the fragmented mosaic of different plantings. At the small end of the scale, springtails and snails may never reach the distant hedges, and scrubby corners of the lawn can host entire populations, undisturbed by the outside world.  Although the more obvious wildlife - the deer, otters, peregrine falcons – may be more often associated with wilder areas, they can all appear in gardens if you look at the right time, and smaller species – butterflies & bees, frogs and toads – are year-round residents.  Once you start looking – and especially if you have a pond, or leave an outside light on – you’ll be amazed by the diversity of life living alongside you.

As digital cameras get better and cheaper, more people are using them to take pictures of the weird and wonderful wildlife around them, and getting sucked into natural history.  Luckily, with the rise of the internet, more ID resources - keys, photo galleries, discussion threads - are more widely available now than ever before (self-serving plug: check out my previous blog post for a list of what's where!), and more experts are easily contactable to check what you've found.

The most important thing you can do with your sighting is to record it, and turn your sighting into a biological record.  These records build into data, which can be used in myriad different ways - scientifically, to indicate the general health of the countryside, to determine the effects of an invasive species on native populations, or just to prove that this particular field is a wildlife haven that shouldn't be built on.  None of it is possible unless you write down what you've seen and when!

Garden wildlife refuges, biological recording and the internet come together in the form of the Garden Bioblitz, the brainchild of Liz Shaw and brought to life by Liz, John van Breda, Jane Adams, Ryan Clark & myself. After a small trial event in 2012, 2013 was the first national event - even BBC TV's Springwatch got involved!

A huge range of wildlife was encapsulated in the 1,743 species identified to date. Plants were the biggest group (687 species), possibly reflecting the uncertain weather (and the comparative ease of working on something that doesn't fly off as soon as it sees you!), but insects were close behind on 605. Birds didn't quite reach three figures, ending on 92.

Taxon Group Species
Plants 687
Insects 605
Other inverts 185
Birds 92
Lichens 50
Fungi 49
Mosses and liverworts 35
Mammals 27
Amphibians and reptiles 8
Fish 4
Bacteria 1

Within the insects, moths came out best, on 159 species. Almost half the UK's butterflies were seen, while more exotic creatures like scorpionflies also put in an appearance.  It was striking how few bees, moths, and particularly ladybirds were seen, despite many people looking out for them specially - last year's washout summer and a long, cold winter, on top of the existing long-term declines, seem to have done nasty things to the populations of these most charismatic insects.

Insect group Species
Moths 159
Beetles 124
Flies 97
Bugs 77
Bees, wasps & ants 71
Butterflies 25
Springtails 18
Dragonflies and damselflies 9
Barkflies 5
Lacewings 5
Earwigs 3
Fleas 3
Grasshoppers and crickets 3
Mayflies 2
Bristletails 1
Scorpionflies 1
Silverfish 1
Stoneflies 1

David Fenwick's Penzance garden was particularly striking, a 10-metre by 10-metre square producing 189 species, including a springtail and flatworm currently unnamed by science, and another half-dozen flatworm species more at home in Australia than Cornwall - clearly an amazing site! 

After rushing around Cornwall to bioblitz three separate gardens, Sally Luker spotted just under 300 species, and several people made it over the 200-species barrier. Natural history is alive and well in modern Britain!

With a virtually non-stop 24-hours of searching and then identifying, I managed to find 301 species (and lose a lot of sleep!). Loads of species new to me for the year, even a couple of species I've never seen before, despite having spent a lot of time poking around the garden in the three years I've been in the same house - just shows how much there is to see once you start looking properly!  My personal favourite sighting of the weekend was a tiny ladybird, Scymnus interruptus - there's fewer than 20 sightings in the national database for this 2mm-long, black-and-red species, but it seems to be on the increase over the last couple of years.  

Elsewhere, there were garden Pine Martens (Martes martes) in Scotland, a Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) in Norwich, and six records of Ravens (Corvus corax).  Roe (Capreolus capreolus), Fallow (Dama dama) and Muntjac Deer (Muntiacus reevesi) all made appearances, along with the bright pink Rosy Woodlouse (Androniscus dentiger) and yellow Brimstone moth (Opisthograptis luteola).  

Maybugs (Melolontha melolontha) were spotted bumbling around lights; cat fleas (Ctenocephalides felis) were spotted on, then removed from, pet cats.  For the full list and more, check out the Garden BioBlitz info centre.

Same time next year? :)

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Brimstone moth

This post is the latest in a series covering the ID of a selection of species which are likely to be in and around everyone's gardens, parks, etc, created for the 2013 Garden Bioblitz (details at - everyone join in!)

The Brimstone moth, Opisthograptis luteola, appears to be on a one-moth mission to disprove the fallacy that moths are dull, brown, clothes-munching things:

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A bright yellow flattened triangle with brown and white markings, the Brimstone has a wingspan of about 35mm.  With multiple overlapping generations, adults are continuously on the wing from April to October in the south, gradually declining to a single mid-summer generation in Scotland.  It is widespread and abundant almost everywhere, and frequently comes to light, though it does occasionally fly during the day. No other British species is this size and colour - the only similar species likely to be encountered is the Swallowtailed moth, Ourapteryx sambucaria, but this is much larger, paler, and flies for a short period in July.

The Brimstone caterpillar is a twig mimic, and like most caterpillars of the Geometridae family they're loopers, or inchworms.  They have two colour forms, brown and green, and have a hump halfway along their body.  Dietary generalists, they can be found feeding on a wide range of trees and shrubs, including hawthorn, blackthorn and rowan.  Pupae (the 'chrysalis') are formed in a loosely-spun cocoon between leaves, and both can be found in any month of the year, including throughout the winter - the Brimstone is one of the few moth species to overwinter in two different stages, both caterpillar and pupa

For more info on British moths, check out the excellent UK Moths site:
Additionally, there's a network of county moth groups all over the country, usually with notes on what moths are flying at the time, local distribution maps, hints on any local variations to look out for, and much more - the best way to find a group nearby is to google '(your county) moths'.

And of course, don't forget to join in with the Garden Bioblitz on the 1st/2nd June 2013! for more details

Sunday, 17 March 2013

#GBB13 - The Green Shieldbug

This post is the latest in a series covering the ID of a selection of species which are likely to be in and around everyone's gardens, parks, etc, created for the 2013 Garden Bioblitz (details at - everyone join in!)

The Green Shieldbug, Palomena prasina has got one of those really functional names. It's a green, shield-shaped bug, around 13mm long:
Cornwall May 11 060It does have a few bits that aren't green though: reddish antennae and tarsi (feet) stand out from the background, and puncture marks and the exposed wing membranes at the back are darker.  This splits the Green Shieldbug from the only similar species in the UK, the introduced Southern Green Shieldbug (Nezara viridis) - that species is a uniform green as an adult, with light green wing membranes, few to none dark puncture marks, and 3-5 indistinct white marks on the front of the scutellum. Native to Africa but a regular find in Britain since 2003, it has a much smaller distribution (mainly in the south-east) than the widespread and common native species.

In autumn, the adult shieldbug changes from green to a bronzey, purpley colouration to be camouflaged through the winter, which is spent lurking in leaf litter and low vegetation. They're still purpleish when they begin reappearing in April-May, but quickly regain their green colouration in time for summer.  Come June, the first eggs appear: batches of 20-30 barrel-shaped, bright green eggs laid with geometric precision in a hexagonal pattern on leaves.  As sap-feeders on a range of deciduous trees and shrubs, especially hazel, the nymphs can begin feeding straight away.

Unlike the familiar 4-stage life cycle of butterflies, with a pupal stage where the larva changes to an adult, shieldbugs only have 3 stages: egg, nymph, and adult. The nymph sheds its skin several times, gradually looking more and more like the adult, before shedding its skin one last time to reveal the adult, recognisable from the full wings - nymphs aren't capable of flight.
Nymphs of the Green Shieldbug are green, red or orange when they first hatch, but soon darken to green, often with a darker head, thorax and wing buds, like a smaller, rounder version of the adult. They're easily distinguished from the Southern Green Shieldbug  at this stage, as the introduced species has black nymphs, speckled with patches of bright yellow and red. Although it does have a green form, this too is speckled with yellow, red and black

More information on the Green Shieldbug, including illustrations of the nymphal stages, can be found at the excellent British Bugs website: and there's also a Field Studies Council fold-out chart available to buy at

Any sightings should be sent to the Heteroptera recording scheme, or recorded online at

And of course, don't forget to join in with the Garden Bioblitz on the 1st/2nd June 2013! for more details

Monday, 25 February 2013

#GBB13 - The 7-spot ladybird

This post is the first in a series covering the ID of a selection of species which are likely to be in and around everyone's gardens, parks, etc, created for the 2013 Garden Bioblitz (details at - everyone join in!)

The 7-spot ladybird, Coccinella septempunctata, is the archetypal ladybird. Featured in toys, games and company logos, this is one of the very few insect species with a positive public image - in fact, it's nicknamed 'the gardener's friend' for its habit of devouring pest insects such as aphids.

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An adult 7-spot ladybird, sunbathing to warm up

The adults are amongst the easiest insects to identify - big (5-8mm long) and bright orange, they make no effort to hide (their bright colours are a warning to predators of their foul taste), and they only come in one colour form, unlike species such as the 2-spot or Harlequin ladybirds (the snowflakes of the insect world, with no two individuals alike).

99.9% of the 7-spots you'll ever see will look almost exactly like the one pictured above - the wing cases (elytra) a bright orange/red, with a pyramid of three roundish black spots on each, and a 7th stretched across both elytra at the front, just behind the black-and-white head and thorax. Occasionally specimens miss spots, or have tiny extra ones, but in general, the picture is what they'll look like.

As a double-check, the 7-spot is one of the largest ladybirds in Britain - most of our 47 species are less than 5mm long. The only species which can look similar, and is a similar size, is the Harlequin (Harmonia axyridis), which can sometimes have very few spots, but the orange colour form of the Harlequin always has a black 'M' on the thorax, which is never present in the 7-spot.
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Definitely not a 7-spot ladybird. The spotless form of the Harlequin ladybird - note the 'M' marking

Ladybirds, like most insects, have the 4-stage life cycle familiar from butterflies - egg, larva, pupa, adult. In butterflies and moths the stages can have different names - caterpillar for the larva and chrysalis for the pupa, for example - but with ladybirds, it's just egg, larva, pupa, adult.  Although not as easy as the adult, it's still entirely possible to successfully identify pupae and fully-grown larvae of the 7-spot.
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Pupa of a 7-spot ladybird

A lot of people will have seen a ladybird pupa without realising what the strange, blob-like creature on the leaf actually was, and it's true, they do look a bit odd - especially when they feel threatened and rear up and down like a globular hinge! Only found in the vicinity of aphids, 7-spot pupae are rounded, orange-and-black, and big enough to fit an adult ladybird inside them (again, much larger than most of the other ladybird species), and with the shed skin of the larva at the back end, where it's attached to the leaf. The shed skin is an important feature for distinguishing 7-spot pupae from Harlequins, which are brighter orange and have a very spiky shed larval skin.
Harmonia axyridis pupa RC(2)
Not a 7-spot. A Harlequin ladybird pupa, note the brighter orange and obvious spines on the shed larval skin

The combination of size and lack of spines is a good pointer for the larvae, too. Again, they're big, and covered in warts (not spines), and they have a couple of orange flashes on either side, each made up of two warts, one on top of the other. There are a few fairly similar species, but none of them have the combination of large size and the 4 orange patches.  They have a voracious appetite for aphids, and you won't find them far from an aphid colony (or underneath one).
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Two views of 7-spot ladybird larvae

Any ladybirds you see should be recorded at the UK Ladybird Survey website (, which is also well worth looking at for the other species, and for lots more information besides.  There are also plenty of ladybird photos on the web - my Flickr sets are below:

If you prefer paper, the Field Studies Council also publish ID charts for the ID of adult ( and larval ladybirds (

And of course, don't forget to join in with the Garden Bioblitz on the 1st/2nd June 2013! for more details

Aliens vs Invasives

Over the last couple of days,a couple of people on Twitter have flagged up a Comment Is Free article on alien species (  It's not a bad article (although as ever, don't bother reading the comments), but it manages to confuse & combine alien with invasive and effectively ends up arguing strongly for the status quo.

Alien species are not necessarily invasive. The two terms are often heard - often used - together, but in fact, the two are very different.  The official definition of an alien species (from the IUCN via the Convention on Biological Diversity, CBD: is 'a species, subspecies, or lower taxon occurring outside of its natural range (past or present) and dispersal potential (i.e. outside the range it occupies naturally or could not occupy without direct or indirect introduction or care by humans) and includes any part, gametes or propagule of such species that might survive and subsequently reproduce' - basically, it's a species which people have moved to a new area.  

A recent review of the non-nativeness of the British countryside (overall, about 0.5%: data at  found that more than 2,700 alien species are at large in Britain, from Neolithic introductions such as the Large Tabby moth (Aglossa pinguinalis) to very recent arrivals like the Demon shrimp (Dikerogammarus haemobaphes).  A study on plants in Britain (Williamson & Fitter, 1996) found that, of every 100 alien species introduced to a new area, only 10 will establish wild populations, and only 1 will go on to become invasive.  In this context, 'invasive' has a strict definition, again from the CBD: a species which 'is an agent of change, and threatens native biological diversity'.  

This is the crux of the matter. An alien species may be invasive - for instance Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera), Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica), and the Harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis), but so can native species. A decade ago now, I worked for the RSPB at their Aylesbeare Common reserve, a heathland site in East Devon. We spent a huge proportion of our time chopping down and otherwise killing plants which were invasive on the heathland - all of them natives, mainly Silver Birch (Betula pendula), Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum), and Bramble (Rubus fruticosus agg).  Aliens, like the pine trees scattered across the heathland, we generally left alone - they weren't spreading, so weren't invasive, so weren't a problem.

Some alien species can go beyond this, and become integral to an ecosystem. The rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus), mentioned in the CIF article as a long-established alien species, are crucial to the maintenance of chalk downland, and the 1950s/60s outbreak of myxomatosis in rabbit populations contributed significantly to the extinction of the Large Blue butterfly (Maculinea arion) and the near-extinction of at least three more butterfly species.

Of course, some aliens are disruptive, and there's no good way of predicting which species will establish, and which will displace or feed on natives, becoming problematic invasives. That's why border controls are strict: they're based on the precautionary principle.  We can't tell which species will cause havoc when they arrive, and it's virtually impossible to eradicate a species once it's established, so the best bet is to prevent arrival in the first place.

Some of the most notorious alien species are invasives.  The Harlequin ladybird has been linked to significant declines in native ladybirds (Roy et al., 2012), and the effects of Rhododendron & Japanese Knotweed are well known, but the vast majority of alien species fall between these two extremes.  These species lead lives of quiet obscurity with few, if any, effects on native ecosystems, like the Bryony ladybird (Henosepilachna argus) in Surrey or the Yellow-tailed Scorpions (Euscorpius flavicaudis) in Sheerness.  Consequently there's no control measures for them - they may be aliens, but they come in peace.

The flexible approach - taking each case on its merits - is presented as the big message at the end of the CIF article. But it's already common practice with alien species, in Britain and far beyond. The mere fact of a species' origin is, in practical terms, essentially immaterial: what's important is the effect it has on native ecosystems, adapted to the local area and each other.  


Roy, H.E., Adriaens, T., Isaac, N.J.B., Kenis, M., Onkelinx, T., San Martin, G., Brown, P.M.J., Hautier, L., Poland, R.L., Roy, D.B., Comont, R., Eschen, R., Frost, R., Zindel, R., Van Vlaenderen, J., Nedvěd, O., Ravn, H.P., Grégoire, J.-C., de Biseau, J.-C. & Maes, D. (2012b) Invasive alien predator causes rapid declines of native European ladybirds. Diversity and Distributions, 18, 717-725.
Williamson, M. & Fitter, A. (1996) The Varying Success of Invaders. Ecology, 77, 1661-1666.