The Fly Trap – Book Review

Fredrik Sjoberg is a Swedish Entomologist, a collector of hoverflies and inhabitant of an island.  I didn’t read the reviews of the book before I bought it; suffice to say it was a book written by a man obsessed with hoverflies and it had five star reviews.  What more did I need to know?

This, however, is not a book about hoverflies.  It is not a book about insects.  It is a book about obsessions, collecting, being an entomologist, living on an island, following your passion, and, to be honest, being what most people would consider eccentric.  The theme running through the book though, is actually the Fly Trap, or, rather, the inventor of the standard issue insect trap – Rene Malaise.

Rene Malaise was also a Swedish Entomologist.  Malaise also collected flies, thousands of them.  And art.  He spent years in the Kamchatka region of Russia, even when his fellow travellers returned home.  Later he visited Burma, and collected more flies.  In between he collected a lot of art.

In what is a wonderful book, the author interconnects his life with that of Malaise; what it’s like to live in remote areas, how the author was really not an explorer, despite many trips abroad, how it feels to find insects new to an area, why collecting can become an obsession and, finally, reveals what is probably his own obsession.  With Rene Malaise.  Despite this, I feel I know a lot more about Rene Malaise, but not much about the Fredrik Sjoberg.

I found the book difficult to get into at first – perhaps it needed more insects for me.   I didn’t know where it was headed or why.  Then I read the second half in an afternoon, and it was a wonderful read.  It didn’t matter that it meandered with no obvious purpose, or that hoverflies were not the main attraction (although some more insects would have been a bonus).  It is a charming book, and one that I was disappointed to finish (although the end was a little weird).  It is one of the few books that I decided straight away that I would read again.

Five stars if you like your natural history writing a little odd.


Metamorphosis – March Book Review


MetamorphosisAstonishing Insect Transformations – the subtitle definitely describes the content of this book by Rupert Soskin.

Insects – often overlooked, thought of as bugs or pests, possibly with the exception of butterflies (although the cabbage white butterfly springs to mind) but with around one million species known and named.  Untold numbers are still to be found.  Contrast that with birds – ten thousand; mammals – five thousand; even reptiles and amphibians only manage fifteen thousand between them.  It is no surprise then that there are many things that even the most fervent entomologist can still learn about this diverse class of creatures.

In Metamorphosis the author beautifully illustrates an area that I haven’t yet seen covered in another book – the transformation that insects must undergo to get from an egg (in the majority of cases) to the adults of the species that we are usually most familiar with.  This lack of familiarity is despite the fact that the adult stage is usually the shortest with many living days or weeks but spending years as a larva or nymph.

The book is essentially in two parts – those insects that go through several instars (stages); looking to some degree like miniature versions of the adults, and those that undergo a complete transformation from what is essentially a tube of innards to something completely different (the most obvious example being the change from a caterpillar to a butterfly).











I started off wondering  so much of the book was devoted to the first class of insects; the hemimetabolous insects (the young of which are called nymphs) when the changes they go through are nowhere near as marked as those of the holometabolous examples.  But, as the author explains, the only way that an insect can grow is to shed its skin – and, in some cases (such as some of the shield bugs) I don’t think many people would match juvenile with adult.

What makes this book a joy to read are of course the photographs.  Where many books show the adults in all their glory, Rupert Soskin shows the different stages in the life of the insect, from egg to larva / nymph, to chrysalis and adult. IMG_3989

The photographs are beautiful and I can only begin to wonder at the patience of the author as he waited to get the shots.  Within the different chapters there are of course notes about the insects and their lives – after all, the photos only tell half of the story.  In some cases he has even shown the scale of the insects – a very helpful device.

I was a little disappointed at first when I saw how many of the insects are from outside the UK and therefore something I am never likely to see (no matter how much the climate changes).  But, they were fascinating – I was completely won over by the stick insects and the Peruvian Horsehead Grasshoppers.


All the main orders are included from grasshoppers to mantids, dragonflies to beetles, butterflies, moths, flies bees, wasps to hemiptera.  I began to wonder how he decided what to include and also what didn’t make the final cut.


I thought that the sections on the butterflies and moths were interesting choices, showing the changes in size and coloration of the caterpillars and the resulting adult.  But, my favourite photo of all (other than the horsehead grasshoppers, mantids and stick insects) had to be the female wasp removing water from her nest after the rain – just fantastic, one of the best insect shots I have seen and behaviour I hadn’t heard about.  Just one of the many interesting aspects of insect life that Mr Soskin managed to capture and share.


I have only two real complaints about the book; I would love to have known more about how he took the photos – he has a small section about this but it was very short on actual details and I would have liked it to have been twice the size with more fantastic insects and beautiful photos (this is of course selfish as the book is 250 pages long).

This is a beautiful coffee table book that I could look at again and again, and a starter for anyone interested in insects showcasing some of the less well known stages of their lives.  Whilst it is only a starter, it does include some further reading suggestions that will be making an appearance on my birthday wish list.  Many thanks Mr Soskin for creating such a wonderful book (and to Northampton Library for stocking it so I didn’t have to wait until my birthday to read it).

Such an understated duck


In the last few months I have been spending some time watching the ducks at Daventry Country Park.  There don’t tend to be any unusual ducks there (at least not when I’m looking) but there are usually lots of them in the winter and several of the usual species.

One duck that I usually find there all year round is the gadwall.  At first glance it is just a brown duck – the drakes and ducks are both brown.  But, when you look more closely (unfortunately something my photo is not good enough to allow), there is an awful lot of detail  – grey stripes and speckles – which makes them look very dapper indeed.  The female looks very much like a mallard female, the picture above is a drake.  Both sexes have the white flash on the wing bar, but the drake has that black patch at the rear end along with a black bill (the female’s is black on top and orange at the bottom) and beautiful chestnut feathers on the wings above the white bar.

Although the gadwall is here all year round, the numbers are boosted in the south east and midlands with birds from eastern Europe.

I don’t remember seeing gadwall when I was growing up (even on visits to Martin Mere).   This might be because I just didn’t notice them or because back in the 1970s and 80s there weren’t many in the UK, especially not outside the south east.  Numbers have increased about 5 per cent a year for the last 25 years.  The release of captive birds, including a large number in Leicestershire, is a possible reason for their increased range and numbers.

So, next time you decide not to notice a grey-brown bird with a white wing patch – have a change of heart and a closer look – they really are a lovely dabbling duck.

New Year Plant Hunt

Flushed with the success of actually completing a nature survey last year (Bumble Bee Conservation’s Bee Walk) I decided to start the New Year off with more naturing and decided to look for flowering plants to submit to BSBI ‘s New Year Plant Hunt.  I’d had a bit of a look round Daventry last week and saw quite a few plants in flower including daisies and clover so I was hopeful it wouldn’t be a complete dud.

I should mention, that I am at least as bad at recognising plants as I am bees, but I took my camera with me to get some shots so I stood a slight chance of finding out what they were at some point.  Unfortunately, a lot of the shots were not very good, but I still managed an ID of all the plants.  Final count was 15!  Not bad for an hour of looking around housing estates in Daventry really.  (I also found a couple of mushrooms as well that I am hoping I have ID’d).

These are two of the shots I’m not ashamed of, first Blackthorn flowering over two months earlier than I would have expected and then a plant I have seen quite often but never recognised; green alakanet.  I had thought it was a member of the speedwell family, but it isn’t.  I am not surprised to discover it is a member of the Borage family – I thought those leaves looked familiar!

blackthorn green alkanet

The full list of flowers that I found is as follows:

  • Common Daisy
  • Common Dandelion
  • White Dead Nettle
  • Red Dead Nettle
  • Common Groundsel
  • Common Ragwort
  • Common Whitlow Grass
  • Common Field Speedwell
  • Green Alkanet
  • Creeping Buttercup
  • Common Mouse Ear
  • Common Bittercress
  • Shepherd’s Purse
  • Blackthorn
  • Smooth Sow Thistle.

The word common means that these should not be a surprise, but I have learned the names of 5 new flowers already and it is only the second of January!

Just like buses …

It seems that these days mother nature has quite a few surprises out there waiting for me.  But, then, it might be because I am going out looking for them more.  So far in my morning / lunchtime nature ramblings I’ve been privileged to watch a kingfisher fishing on the River Nene most mornings for a couple of weeks, spied a treecreeper and goldcrest in amongst a flock of long-tailed tits and seen a goosander diving up and down.  All within 10 minutes walk of Northampton Town Centre and all around 8am.  I’ve also had the misfortune to listen to a very screechy jay several times – no problem with the jay, but that sound, now I’ve heard it, is unmistakeable.

My latest surprise came on Tuesday lunchtime – a sunny but breezy December afternoon, when I decided to go for a walk away from town and chose to wander down to Barnes Meadow Nature Reserve.  I have to admit, I’ve not seen many water birds down at this end of the river, not that you can blame them, it’s a bit noisy and barren.  Today though there were quite a few swans and Canada Geese.  But, my big find of the day, were some Little Grebes, aka Dabchicks.  These are dumpy, fluffy, compact little brown birds – a bit smaller than a moorhen.  In the summer they are quite smart in their chestnut-red and black plumage, but in winter they are a little more subdued in their brown feathers.  But, if you see them within a river’s width away they are quite distinctive, both in size and shape and the way they dive into the water.  They dive more frequently than coots and moorhens and stay down for longer, looking for insects and small fish to eat.  They also seem to almost throw themselves in the water, they are so fast.

I was quite surprised to see a couple of them quite close to the bridge over the river.  I was even more surprised to see three more a little further on.  What was even more surprising was the noise they made – I resolved to get back there in the same week with some sound recording gear to see if I could cut out some of the construction and road noise.  It sounded much more tropical than you’d expect from a bird found on Britain’s muddy waters – I couldn’t decide if they were laughing or squabbling.  Further along the river I found another couple, one that had been successful in its fishing ventures with a relatively large fish soon dispatched down its beak, both looking much brighter and redder in the sun.  Then, I found a third group, and a fourth.

I know that these are quite a common bird, but it has been years since I saw one.  Then, a couple of months ago I spotted three at the country park and now more than ten on the River Nene.  The little devils are everywhere!

You can’t easily make them out – but there is a pair on the far side of the river in front of the scrubby tree in the centre.


And then there were none.

150 years ago the Passenger Pigeon was the most abundant bird on the planet, estimates vary between two and three billion.  Either way, it is a pretty incomprehensible number.  Two thousand million pigeons in one flock in the United States.  By 1900 there were none left in the wild, Martha, bred in captivity, died in captivity on 1st September 1914 in Cincinnati Zoo, the last passenger pigeon on earth.

How did this come about?  That was the quest that Mark Avery, former Conservation Director of the RSPB, and author of Message from Martha, set himself.  And, the story of Martha and her fellow pigeons was one that Mark described for the Humfrey lecture at Northants Natural History Society (NNHS).

Passenger pigeons were, apparently unremarkable birds, somewhere in size between a collared dove and a wood pigeon and, looking very pigeon like; the male having a fairly rosy pink breast, the female not even being that colourful.  They lived in the eastern United States and mainly inhabited deciduous forests where they fed on acorns, chestnuts and beech mast, with some berries and occasional pine nuts thrown in for variety.

The only remarkable thing about these pigeons was the size of their flock.  There are various contemporary accounts from such luminaries as John James Audubon (of Audubon’s Birds of America book fame), John Muir (a Scot who instigated the National Parks of America) and Alexander Wilson (another Scot after whom a plethora of birds have been named, Wilson’s petrel for one).  They all describe a flock that stretched from horizon to horizon, how they watched them for hours and still the flock streamed over, bird after bird flying past at around 40mph.  It is from their descriptions that the two to three billion estimates came from and they probably knew how to count birds (although the description from one witness of their dung being like snow seems a bit far-fetched, unless snow was very different in 19th century America).

These birds moved wherever the food was, and, with numbers on that scale, they needed a lot of food.  Even when they nested they did so in numbers in the hundreds of millions.

So, what did for the passenger pigeon.  Were they hunted and eaten to death by Americans.  That would be the first guess as shooters did arrive on trains whenever they heard where the passenger pigeons had landed.  Tens of thousands of them were sent back to the east to be eaten, some still alive to make them fresher when they got there.  But, as Mark said, is it really likely that we ate two billion birds to death?  Perhaps it was disease, or loss of habitat, after all, by 1870 half of America’s woodland had been cleared.  Or perhaps something else ate them.  Mark is of the latter opinion, that their numbers had reduced enough through hunting and habitat loss that natural (not man-made) predation was enough to finish them off entirely.  And, he’s probably right, although we’ll never know.

Why is this important?  It seems that we don’t learn from history.  Whilst there are no birds that are as numerous as the passenger pigeon was, in the last thirty years the same number of birds have been lost from the EU, it’s just that they are spread across hundreds of species.  This loss is due to the same reasons, habitat loss and hunting, but do we care enough to do anything about it and stop the full extinction?  Unfortunately, the prevailing opinion in the room was probably not.  Let’s hope Mark’s talk can inspire some more people to take action and prevent the sixth great extinction.

It’s lichen a whole new world

Did you know that lichens are included in many high end perfumes?  They harvest 25 tonnes of a particular lichen each year in Macedonia, transport it to Germany to distill the oils and then add it to the perfume.  Apparently it makes the scent stick to the skin for longer, a desirable property in an expensive bottle of smells.

What about dyes – the original Harris tweed was dyed using lichens.  But, they can also give more interesting hues  – especially if you wee on them to fix the colours in the fibres.

Or, throat pastilles?  Because lichens usually live for so long they have developed some unusual chemicals to combat attackers so researchers are investigating their antibacterial properties for potential medicinal uses.

They have a downside too.  They absorb nutrients and anything else in the atmosphere – including radioactive elements and heavy metals.  When they are used as a foodstuff this can have disastrous consequences.  The Sami reindeer herders have the highest incidence of throat cancer in the world – they eat the reindeer that eats the lichen that absorbed radioactive elements after the Chernobyl disaster.

Sadly we have killed off many of their lichens, as a result they have now found a use in pollution monitoring.  In the 1970s anxiety was rife (amongst lichenologist at any rate) that we would lose many lichen species as they couldn’t survive the acid rain  – indeed in some places old trees still don’t have any lichens on their lower trunk or branches.  Then there was a worry that the lichens that specialise in high nitrogen environments (so love the pollution of diesel cars) would take over and crowd out the other lichens.  Fortunately this has not come to pass and we have over 2,000 species of lichen in this country (compare this to the  1,800 species of flowering plant).

I learnt all this and much more in one hour listening to Ivan Pedley of the British Lichen Society talking about lichens in churchyards.

For those that may not know, a lichen is a symbiosis of an algae (or occasionally a cyanobacteria) and a fungus.  The algae does the photosynthesising and the fungus provides the nutrients from the atmosphere and protects the algae from dehydration.  They grow quite slowly and some are more susceptible to pollution than others.   It was proved that the Rollright stones (ancient monument in Oxfordshire) were vandalised by the Victorians – some of the stones had the wrong lichens and so were probably imported to make the circle look good, and others had been lifted from a horizontal position – the lichens were 400 years old (estimated from the size) on one side and just 150 years old on the other!

Apart from showcasing the variety and beauty of lichens – some small stone ornaments had tens of species of lichen on them – the main point of the talk was to illustrate how easy it is to lose some of these ecosystems (home to may little bugs).  Churchyards are particularly important in this country for lichens; the species present will vary from region to region because of the type of stone.  But all too often lichens are lost when gravestones are scrubbed or put in the shade or stood against a wall – lichens need sunlight for photosynthesis.  If they were birds or mammals, or possibly even insects, there would be an outcry if we went round just scrubbing them out, but we regularly do that to lichens – and some in Northamptonshire are quite rare, specialising on our ironstone.  So the take home message of the evening was – don’t clean your garden ornaments or gravestones, rebuild your dry stone walls, replace your fence posts or even clean your car (Ivan was proud of the five species on his four year old Ford).  You might have 20 or 30 species of lichen on there!

churchyard lichen

New for me

Time for a confession.  Before the start of this year I had never heard of a Brown Argus.  I didn’t know that it was a butterfly.  How bad is that.  Moreover, I saw them in the results for the Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey, and assumed that they were a specialist that I would never see.  I saw pictures on Facebook and then thought nothing much more about them.  In fact I wasn’t sure I would recognise one if I saw it.

Yesterday I took my camera out for a walk – for once the weather was warm and not very breezy.  I saw a lot of gatekeepers, a very lovely small copper – a butterfly that I had never seen in Daventry before.  I also saw some common blues flitting about the field edges.  Lots of photographs were taken as you can probably imagine.

Today I decided to upload them and sort out the fuzzy from the sharp as well as those that might not be the best, but could be useful for ID purposes.  After I had sorted and tagged them it occurred to me that I had assumed that the small brown butterflies were common blue females (which have wings that vary from blue through to brown) because they had frequently been disturbed by blue males.  But, for some reason I thought I would see what the difference was between a brown argus and a female common blue.

A brown argus has no blue on the upper side of its wings, whereas there may be some blue scales on the female common blue.  It also has more orangey spots along the edge and often a dark brown spot in the middle of its brown wings.  Not much help because my photos were all of the underside of the wings.  So, for the undersides the description was related to two spots with that form a figure of eight on the hindwing and the absence of a spot on the forewing for the Brown Argus.  This didn’t seem to be much help either – I was a bit non-plussed until I saw what they were talking about in pictures on the UK Butterflies website.  Suddenly I knew what to look for and guess what?  Yes, one of the butterflies I photographed was in fact my very first Brown Argus – colour me happy!

brown argus

I’m not sure if this is a viable population as my Northamptonshire butterfly book states that their range has contracted a lot in the county and that their traditional food plant is rock rose and, where this is not available, they have moved onto crane’s bill.  Unfortunately the only things I could see around the field edge were ragwort and a chamomile, along with lots of grass.  I will have to have a look around there to see if I can find the requisite flowers!


Danger, Danger…

There are many insects that make use of warning colours, particularly yellow and black, to ward off predators.  Some are just faking it, others are definitely not for the eating.

cinnabar moth caterpillarThe cinnabar moth caterpillar definitely falls into the latter category.  Unlike the adult moth which is black with smart red hindwings that really stand out in flight (they are named after the red pigment, cinnabar), the caterpillar is the standard stripy yellow and black.  These caterpillars are usually found wherever there is flowering ragwort – they feed on both the flowers and the leaves.  I’ve seen many plants completely stripped of any foliage – but whilst it might be a bit early in the season so far this year, I’m not seeing as many as I would expect – and I have wandered around several ragwort filled fields.

The ragwort of course is known for its toxicity to livestock (although the horses in the field I was looking in seemed perfectly fine) and it is this that the caterpillar takes advantage of.  It stores the poisons from the leaves in its body and even keeps its toxicity once it has pupated to an adult.  The moths are usually found in rabbit grazed fields (which this definitely was), but numbers are dropping – probably due to the removal of ragwort (declines of over 80% in the last 35 years have  been reported).  In New Zealand they took the opposite approach and introduced the cinnabar moth to control the ragwort.

I’m still trying to work out why they have such long hairs – if they were to stop them being eaten then I would expect them to be denser, besides, they’ve already gone to the trouble of being colourful, why have an extra defence?

It seems that the only danger to the caterpillars are farmers and each other – they are known to be cannibalistic.

Adults are on the wing in May and June, with caterpillars around in July and August – they spend the winter under the ground as a pupa.

Major hatching

We wandered over to the park for a late evening walk this weekend.  The further along the dam that we got the more insects there seemed to be.  We turned and looked towards the sunset – there were so many insects it almost looked like a snow drift.  They were rising up out of the grass – no wonder the swifts were so numerous.

Away from the water we didn’t expect to see so many, but as we looked across the fields it was as if they were smoking – the trees across from us looked hazy.  I’ve seen film of starling murmurations where the birds move in waves and group and separate in response to signals from each neighbour.  This looked like the insect equivalent – they moved in waves, obviously travelling along with the movement of air over the cereal crops.  The swifts were having a great time.  No swiftlets would be going hungry that night.

Up in the tress the greatest concentrations seemed to be round the oak trees.  Was this because they are broadleaved and so more sheltered, was it because they were pushed by the wind to congregate or was it because oak trees are home to more insects than other trees.  Or was I wrong, did it just look that way because of the light or because the oak trees were generally bigger than the willows?  I have no idea.

Not only were the swifts out in force in the park that evening, but jackdaws were heading back in number, obviously it is a favourite roost of theirs.  The same seems to be true of the local teenagers.