Of ladybirds great and small

Everyone likes ladybirds, right? Certainly they’ve been a flagship group for citizen science, and often appear in art and lifestyle products a (wellies, umbrellas, jewellery…). My info is out of date, but I am pretty sure that someone from iSpot told me that Harmonia axyridis, the harlequin ladybird, is the single most frequently posted species on iSpot. I guess it’s the way ladybirds obvious, colourful, and don’t bite/sting/fly in your face with long gangly legs.

They’re a good group for people trying to learn insect ID, at least in the UK. There are apparently 46 species in the UK, which is a manageable sort of number, and 26 of them are obviously ladybirds and big and conspicuous enough to start recording even for a relative beginner. There are lovely identification resources available from the Field Studies Council and the UK Ladybird Survey – including ID of larvae, which adds a new element of excitement to the process, as ladybird larvae are pretty cool creatures too.

But…if we have 46 species, and 26 of them are “obvious”, what of the other 20? Well, that’s a whole new adventure, and if you ask me, an even more exciting one. Many of these species are considered rare, scarce or notable in some way…but whether they’re really that uncommon, or whether they’re just under-recorded and often missed in standard surveys is a good question.

Of the “micro-ladybirds”, one of the cutest is the horseshoe or inconspicuous ladybird, Clitostethus arcuatus. Up close, it’s definitely a ladybird…after a fashion. But it’s a far cry from a familiar seven-spot! For one thing, it’s about 2mm long. For another, it’s brown. For another, it’s hairy. But otherwise…definitely a ladybird.

Clitostethus arcuatusScreen capture from a BBC South-East report featuring the little chaps.

The adults and larvae are hungry little predators, though for Clitostethus the prey of choice is not aphids but whitefly (especially larvae). It was thought to be extremely rare, but then Simon Springate found it near Dover…and then we went looking on ancient woodland and other habitats all around Kent and kept finding it again and again. It might not be in every ancient woodland we check (inland ones in Kent seem a bit too cool), but certainly there seems to be a checklist of features that make finding a few Clitostethus quite likely. I’ve seen it in the wild on honeysuckle (eating honeysuckle whitefly), on wild cabbage (eating cabbage whitefly), and by some amazing fluke, in my father’s back garden on Welsh poppy, which is another host for honeysuckle whitefly. In Kent it seems to be mostly likely to turn up on a good, old, established thicket of honeysuckle in a nice warm, sheltered bit of ancient woodland, ideally in mild climatic regions (such as Kent coastal areas), and the best time to look is September. In winter, it can sometimes be found on ivy in sheltered nooks and crannies. The larvae are relatively immobile and white – but you can get away with not moving too fast when your prey are 0.5mm long immobile whitefly larvae!

Clitostethus seems to be at the northern edge of its range in the UK, with the most northerly records from Yorkshire and the Manchester area. Mostly, it’s been seen in the south-east…but I suspect there’s a good chance we’d find it in the south-west too if we went looking. So is it rare, or just under-recorded? Is it just that its habits make it hard to pick up by conventional sampling methodologies?

One of my other favourite micro-ladybirds is Scymnus interruptus. It’s a tiny bit bigger and a bit more generalist in its habits than fussy Clitostethus, and once you get close enough to see it, it’s quite unmistakeable – two triangular red marks, one on either elytra. They’ll nibble at whitefly, aphids, whatever’s going.

Scymnus interruptus on Stachys
Scymnus interruptus on Stachys

Scymnus interruptus adults pootling around on Stachys

The larvae are absolutely amazing. They look like a 2mm long version of one of those fluffy telescopic dusters on a stick you can buy. And by goodnesss, they can move! We’ve affectionately nicknamed them “Zoom larvae” because, relative to their size and given they’ve hardly even got legs, they can certainly zoom! Unfortunately, all the Scymnus larvae are pretty much the same, so you need adults to ID really.

Almost all the records for S. interruptus in the UK so far are from the south-east. Our area seems to be a bit of a stronghold…which may be why we’ve got a little colony in the garden. At this time of year, if I wander outside in the evening after work, I’ve got a good chance of finding two or three without putting a lot of effort in (the other day I managed a new record of six at once). They seem particularly fond of the Stachys, for some reason (it does host tiny aphids), although they’re also partial to our strawberry plants (probably reflecting the aphid infestation we developed in spring).

Scymnus interruptus on Stachys

Still pootling…

S. interruptus isn’t even the only Scymnus in our tiny 20m2 garden. We’ve also seen two other species from the genus, the redder (and more common) S. suturalis, and the blacker and larger S. femoralis, the female of which has a rather endearing red head.

Scymnus suturalisScymnus suturalis

Scymnus femoralisScymnus femoralis

A similar Coccinellid group, which we sadly haven’t seen in our garden yet, but have seen munching on scale insects at a local bus station, is the genus Nephus. They’re a bit bigger than Scymnus, and you have to double-check the shape and position of the red patches to avoid confusion (Nephus quadrimaculatus, for example, can superficially resemble S. interruptus, but has four red patches rather than two, they don’t reach all the way to the outer edges of the elytra, and are less triangular).

Are we doing something magical? Personally, I doubt it. Yes, we’ve got lots of wildflowers and generally a good diversity of plants relative to the total area available, the garden is quite sheltered, and we don’t use pesticides, but I suspect the secret is just sitting and looking, and paying attention to the small things. How much wonder exists in even the smallest outdoor space.

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Outreach, and reaching out further

It’s summer, and summer seems to be peak time for outreach events. This follows on from my previous post about communicating science to the willing and the unwilling, but I think outreach is more than just communicating science. I’d like to think it’s also about communicating passion, inviting people to feel part of science and nature and, hopefully, planting the seeds of interest in science, nature, biodiversity, whatever, in the minds of people outside the field – especially children.

I’ve participated in a few events so far this year. One was a Bioblitz type event, which are normally structured around the idea of trying to get as many biodiversity records for a site in a 24 hour period as possible, but this one also had a big public engagement element, with walks, talks, stands and family activities. In actuality, we were so busy manning the stall, giving talks and taking families for a guided walk around the site that we didn’t have much chance to hunt down anything too unusual, but that was fine. Taking a bunch of kids (and their parents) for a walk that really just looks at common species can be rewarding in its own right – species that have become so typical they’re almost mundane to me can be magical and captivating to someone who’s not encountered them before, whether it’s describing to a 10 year old in gruesome detail how a parasitoid wasp life cycle works (sorry, parents!) or giggling at the “bodybuilder” legs of Oedomera nobilis. We came away with a respectable number of species by the end of the day – nothing terribly unusual, but all interesting in their own way.

Another outreach event, taking somewhat of a different format, was the Fascination of Plants Day. This is an international scheme, with universities and research centres signing up and putting on activities for the general public to try and sell the appeal of plant science and plant research. It was the University of Greenwich’s first attempt at this day, so we went in not knowing whether we’d get 4 people or 400. In the end, we got about 130, and I think everyone had a really nice day – I got to have some great conversations with adults and children about cocoa, chocolate and cocoa pollination, which was great. There were games with plant-insect interactions, vegetable-derived baked goods, coffee and chocolate tasting, DNA extractions, trichomes, photosynthesis, aquaculture, raffles…

The question I do sometimes find myself pondering at the end of such events, however, is whether some of these activities are the same groups of people coming together over and over. You meet some wonderful people and lovely families at these events, but a lot of them seem to be the families who already have opportunities and the types of parents who encourage academic knowledge, such as homeschooling parents and parents who are in research and teaching themselves. This can make for some really stimulating conversations (I learn loads!), but I wonder how we can connect with the harder to reach families, the ones who wouldn’t normally think to come to a science- or nature-related event?

Certainly, research on engagement schemes such as citizen science programmes show that while they’re a good link between science and the public, an excellent way to generate data, and a good way to make the already-interested more interested, they tend not to turn the disinterested into the enthusiastic. On the other hand, having citizen science in a community can confer benefits such as engagement in local issues and development and increased policymaking influences of the community

Some organisations are having some success with connecting nature with harder-to-reach groups. One of the key aims of OPAL (Open Air Laboratories Network), the national citizen science scheme, is to reach more than just the “usual” people and engage with a diversity of people from a diversity of backgrounds. They’ve done this by linking up with other organisations like TCV, who have a lot of experience with working with “invisible” groups such as rural communities and inner city teenagers. As a result, many people did nature surveys through OPAL for the first time – I don’t know how many of those people went on to do more than one, but breaking down that first barrier must be important. They’re now expanding out from England and Wales to Scotland and Northern Ireland, so that’s great.

The National Parks have been exploring a strategy to encourage BME (black and minority ethnic) people to make use of and enjoy national parks. While around 10% of the UK population are considered BME, BME people make up only about 1% of National Park users. It seems one of their key findings is that building personal relationships is important – leaflets and cold-calling may not work well, but sending someone along in person to visit regularly and create trust can succeed. Sadly, heading out into the local community and getting to know people is one thing university academics often don’t have a lot of time to do (even though we’d love to do it more), but perhaps we need to think about ways we can do it.

On a less immediately scientific but equally valuable level, there is a growth in schemes that get people from marginalised backgrounds gardening, submerged with nature, interacting with plants and so on. When I was finishing my PhD in London, Grounded Ecotherapy was just getting off the ground and I thought it was ace – a bunch of people, some who are or have been homeless, some with substance issues, some with mental health issues, transforming bits of London cityscape into living, breathing, growing places. They’ve re-invigorated nature gardens, started rooftop gardens with a mixture of wildflowers and vegetable growing, enlivened forgotten spaces – all with an ethos of promoting biodiversity as well as urban food. The folks running it have a really great appreciation for nature. I guess it’s a lovely example of management for ecosystems services right from the provisioning (food), through pollination and biodiversity to the cultural – helping people “get back on their feet” in their words. It would be great, I think, to quantify both the natural and the social benefits of these sorts of schemes. What species benefit, and to what extent? (I expect that the effects on urban bee diversity are measurable.) How do people benefit, both within the schemes and by interacting with them?

So what should I/we do? It seems it’s easy to reach out to our academic colleagues’ children, and usually very rewarding. But we probably have to think outside the box more, link up with local charities or community groups if we want to extend our enthusiasm to less traditionally nature-friendly groups of people in the community.