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).

It may be beautiful, but this wasp has a deadly secret

Who could fail to find this little insect beautiful.  It is only tiny, easily missed.  Probably about 1cm in length.

ruby tailed wasp

It’s a ruby-tailed wasp (Chrysididae sp.).  I’d like to say what species it is, but apparently they are difficult to separate unless under a microscope or you really know your wasps.  It’s also known as a cuckoo wasp.  And, yes, you’ve guessed it, it lays its eggs in the nests of other species, it’s a kleptoparasite.  In this case it was on the hunt for the nests of mason bees and I can testify that this wall had a lot of nests to choose from.

The female looks for unguarded nests and lays her eggs inside.  Once they hatch the wasp larvae eat the larvae of the mason bee and emerge the following spring.

Alder Fly

Every year I learn more and more about the natural world surrounding me.  I find that for every creature that I learn to identify there are at least a dozen more waiting for me.

One of the advantages of working in my current location is that I can quickly get to the riverside and look for wildlife.  In the sunny days of early May (which, looking at the grey sky seem a long time ago) I went looking for the first butterflies of the year.  I saw a few, but they were disturbingly small in number.  However, I did come across this fly which I had never noticed before and which is apparently fairly common and widespread.

Meet the alder fly (sialis lutaria):


Not very exciting you might think, and you would probably be right – the Wildlife Trust site describes them as sluggish and apparently dead alder flies are used as fishing bait.  However, I have never noticed them before even though they were everywhere on the day I went for a walk.  And, look at the detail in the wings.  How can you fail to be impressed by that!  Apparently, they have no connection with Alder other than being found near the edge of water (where the female lays about 200 eggs) which is where Alder is commonly found.  Being sluggish they spend most of their time near the water where they hatched and where they live as carnivorous larvae for a couple of years before pupating into these adults.  In case you are interested they are about 2 cm in length and there are several varieties which require expert identification to differentiate them.













Flutterby Butterfly – look out for these beautiful insects this spring

One of the first butterflies that you will notice as the days get a bit warmer and lighter is the Brimstone.  As its name suggests this is a yellow butterfly, which it is thought was the original butter-coloured fly from which butterfly was derived – its name later being changed to reflect its sulphurous colour.

The Brimstone is one of the few UK butterflies that overwinter as an adult and therefore it is one of the early fliers in Spring.  In fact Brimstones were spotted on 2nd January in Hampshire and Surrey, and have already been spotted in Northamptonshire in February.

Whilst many butterflies live as adults for only a few weeks Brimstones are a much longer-lived insect and, despite laying eggs only once a year, can be seen from February through to November, depending on where you are in the country.  The best time to see the butterflies are reported to be April, May and August (the latter when the year’s eggs have gone through their full cycle and the adults have emerged).  However, I think they are much more noticeable in March when there are fewer insects about and the bright yellow of their wings becomes very noticeable as it catches the spring sunshine.  They are another of the indicator species that I use to decide that spring has finally sprung.

So, how do you recognise a Brimstone butterfly and where will you see one?  The males are a bright yellow colour whereas the females are much paler but both have an orange spot on their wings; their colour makes them unmistakeable in flight.  They are a medium sized butterfly, their wings are about 2 1/4 inches and they are very strong fliers, often roaming away from their food sources in search of a mate.

At rest you will notice that their wings are a beautiful leaf or shield shape.  This helps them camouflage themselves for roosting overnight under ivy leaves or for when hibernating over winter.  I was actually surprised by how well they blend in when I watched one move underneath the leaf of a dogwood in the garden to shelter from the rain.

Brimstone caterpillars eat mainly buckthorn and alder buckthorn plants, they are bright green and apparently resemble the caterpillars of the cabbage white butterflies.  I haven’t seen any yet, but I will let you know if I find some.

They are found almost anywhere there is a bit of sunshine.  Males can be seen patrolling along hedgerows and roadside looking for love, whereas the females tend to be a little less obvious and hide in the vegetation.  They are particularly fond of purple and nectar rich plants.  In the spring you will often see them on primroses, cowslips and bluebells, whereas in the summer knapweed, teasel (which their long proboscis allows them to feed on) and thistles are popular.  The Brimstones that I have seen in my garden tend to like the buddleia and verbena- as do most of the other insects.

So, in the coming month, keep an eye out for this remarkably pretty butterfly.  If you see it, you will know spring is on its way.

If you want to know more about butterflies or help conserve them then the Butterfly Conservation website is a good place to start.

A Walk in the Park

There was a bit of sunshine on Sunday afternoon, so we grabbed the opportunity to go for a walk around the Country Park.  To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to see much as the weather had been a bit dull, wet and cold, but I was pleasantly surprised.

At the start of the walk we were greeted by numerous flowers, filling two of our senses with bright colours and heady scents, then we heard before we saw more than one song thrush singing for all he was worth, a female blackcap off to her nest with take out in her beak as well as the always present chaffinches, male and female.

It was, however, the number and variety of insects that surprised me the most considering the weather of the last few days.  Although I only saw a couple of white butterflies, the umbellifers (mainly hogweed I think) were flowering away and teeming with life.  I saw bees, flies and hoverflies galore, including this really pretty hoverfly that I had never seen before.


There were also a number of insects flitting about in the sunshine that caught my attention.  Some of these finally settled on leaves and had the biggest antennae I had ever seen.  They looked moth-like, and on googling for info discovered that they were longhorn moths (Nemophora degeerella) – certainly well-named.  According to the UK Moths site, the males (which have the long antenna) ‘dance’ in the sunshine in May and June and are quite numerous.  These were a first for me however.  This picture below shows how long the antennae are – about three times the length of the body.

Longhorn Moth
Longhorn Moth

So, the moral of the story is, there is something of interest whatever the weather.


At this time of year you may notice lots of damselflies zipping about. As far as I can tell these emerge from the pond earlier than dragonflies, and, who can blame them as they make a tasty meal for their voracious cousins.

The damselfly lays it eggs in or close to water and these hatch after about a month. The nymphs then remain in the pond for one to two years before crawling up a convenient piece of vegetation and emerging from their larval case (exuvia). I think we have had at least 10 emerge from our pond in the last month. Here’s a picture I caught of a damselfy as it was emerging.

Damselfly emerging from larval case.The damselfly then has to sit there as it pumps fluid to its wings and dries out before it can fly off. The time taken for this depends on the weather and one I was watching took about 3 hours in early May, but about half that time a couple of weeks later.

Damselflies are much smaller than dragonflies, and sit with their wings held in to their long slim body (thorax) unlike dragonflies which are much larger and wider and who hold their wider wings out.

Large Red Damselfly
Large Red Damselfly

This is a large red damselfy (which I think is the species that emerged from the pond in early May). Unfortunately they only tend to live for a few weeks so enjoy them whilst you can. Can you think of a better reason to put a pond in your garden than to see these fantastic creatures close-up?

For a great introduction to dragonflies and damselflies see the Leicestershire and Rutland Dragonfly Group website.


It didn’t rain yesterday, so I took advantage and came home for my lunch.  When I got home I discovered that the butterflies had given up waiting for any sunshine to warm the air and were just pleased that there was no rain for a change – I guess they were getting pretty hungry as well.

This year has been pretty bad for the butterflies, with only the occasional sunny day.  We have had quite a few red admirals and whites when the sun has come out, but have seen no painted ladies this year and very few tortoiseshells.  

Brimstone ButterflyAnother new butterfly that I have noticed in the garden this year (in addition to the Holly Blue in the Spring) is a Brimstone (Gonepterix rhamni) one or maybe more of which have been coming to the garden intermittently for the last couple of weeks.  I normally associate these with Spring as they are one of the first butterflies that I see when the sun starts to come out in March and April (this year being a bit of an exception).  

They are easy to recognise; varying from yellowy green to a yellowy cream colour depending on whether they are male or female (males are darker coloured).  Their leaf shaped wings that they always fold back when feeding and resting have an orange spot, the veins improving their camouflage when resting beneath a leaf as nicely demonstrated in the picture that I managed to grab the other day.


This year, for the first time, we have lots of waterboatmen living in/on our pond.Yesterday the weather was sunny enough for me to be able to get an OK picture of them without having to get the tripod out.
I thought it would be a nice idea to learn more about these little creatures, but then I entered a world of confusion. There are apparently lesser waterboatmen which do not bite, but which do not swim upside down. This is obviously not true of my friends (not sure about the biting though), these therefore looked as though they may be ‘backswimmers’ – never heard of them, but they are apparently all over the US (unlike myself – that would be a stupid idea). I then trawled around the web a bit more and found a bit more info on the BBC website. This looks as though it is a Greater Waterboatman (or backswimmer); notonecta glauca , they live in ponds and canals, are quite predatory and eat tadpoles (they are out of luck in my pond) and the larvae of diving beetles (these seem to be in shorter supply this year, I may now know the reason why). They are also known to bite, their saliva is toxic and they are not related to the lesser waterboatman. I am not sure how I feel about these now, I am a little concerned about my diving beetles and tadpoles to be.

First Dragonfly of the Year

A wander around the garden today (making the most of the sunshine) produced a few surprises and some quick photo opportunities.

Common Darter The first of these was the emergence of a common darter (I think) from the pond. I disturbed one of them, but I think that this one needed a little more time to dry its wings so I grabbed a quick shot. This was the first I had seen this year.
The nymph stays in the pond for up to a couple of years, and then crawls out to emerge as the predatory adult. The common darter changes colour to more of a brick red as it suns itself.

Have all the Ladybird’s been eaten?

Is is just me or is there a distinct lack of ladybirds about at the moment? I have looked around the garden, there are definitely aphids in the hazel and on the golden hop, which is the place I usually find lots of ladybirds or their larvae, but this year there are none. As many of you may know ladybirds are members of the beetle family, and are a true friend of the gardener, the adults and larvae both eat copious amounts of aphids as well as other pests such as mealy bugs.

I saw some earlier in the year, I dutifully recorded my sighting on the Nature’s Calendar website. I even took a picture of one of the little beetles a couple of months ago, but numbers seem to have dwindled since then. I did a quick google search, but cannot find any mention of a problem, only articles about the potential threat of the harlequin ladybird, but I haven’t seen any of those either. Ladybird on Garlic Mustard Flower

For anyone interested in these helpful little beetles there is a website with lots more information which also runs a yearly survey of ladybird populations. There are apparently 46 different species believed to be resident in the UK, of which 26 are the focus of the survey. As I mentioned earlier, there is a great deal of concern about the presence of the harlequin ladybird in this country which is known to predate our own ladybirds. There is also a website which is running a survey to track the movement of this invader through the country.

I am becoming more and more concerned about the lack of insect life around here. We went for a walk to the Country Park yesterday, but, although there were quite a few bright blue damselflies, there were virtually no butterflies or bees, very few insects of any type were visible.

I know that there is concern that we no longer have a viable population of native bees, but is there a problem with all of our insects?