Header Image: A reconstruction of a delta-estuarine environment in northern Spain during the Cretaceous, habitat of the studied amber snakeflies, by William Potter Herrera.
Post by William Potter Herrera, Undergraduate Student at Portsmouth University
About 105 million years ago, in what is now Cantabria, Spain, rich cycad and conifer forests flourished across a landscape of estuaries and weaving deltas, bordering the then subtropical North Atlantic. While marine crocodiles prowled the waterways and theropod dinosaurs stalked the fern clearings, another ferocious, albeit smaller, predator ruled. Snakeflies, or raphidiopterans, are still around today but their diversity and range is a fraction of what it was during the Mesozoic, the period when the dinosaurs reigned.
Left: Map of the world 105 million years ago, with ancient Cantabria highlighted. Author: William Potter Herrera, based on work from “The Planetary Habitability Laboratory” at UPR Arecibo. Right: An extant snakefly from OUMNH’s pinned collections.
Snakeflies get their name from their long ‘necks’ and ovipositors — the latter being a long, thin tube that females use to deposit eggs into the safety of crevices. Snakeflies are voracious predators, using their compact jaws to devour anything smaller than them. Their unusual necks allow them to pursue prey into tight spaces. No Cretaceous bug would have been safe from these monsters that existed in the shadows of the dinosaurs.
Working in the shadow of the Museum’s very own dinosaur during a bursary project last summer, I got a very real experience of paleontological research. Insects might not be the first thing you think of when considering fossils, but the sheer diversity and beauty of preservation these organisms exhibit in the fossil record made them a delight to work on. Nowhere is this more true than in the remarkable amber of northern Spain. Under the supervision of Dr Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, I examined, described and mapped out four specimens of amber which contained insects, our focus being on snakeflies. Through careful comparison with previous work, we discovered a new species of Necroraphidia, meaning “snakefly of the dead”. This genus was previously known from a specimen preserving no more than its characteristic wings, but the new specimen is nearly completely preserved, frozen in amber as if time itself stopped.
Left: William Potter Herrera examines a snakefly preserved in amber. Right: Necroraphidia arcuata, a snakefly species from El Soplao amber (Cantabria, Spain). The arrow points to a fragment of burnt plant matter (extracted from Pérez-de la Fuente et al., 2012. Zookeys 204).
The story of how the snakeflies ended up in the amber is as fascinating as the creatures themselves. Amber begins its life as tree resin — a highly sticky, viscous fluid extruded by conifers in response to trauma. Insects and other small arthropods are frequently trapped in it, either being caught by it as it flows downwards, or simply flying into it. Because larger insects are more likely to free themselves there is a bias in the fossil record towards smaller organisms. In northern Spain, however, the amber is remarkably rich in insects and also tiny fragments of burnt plant matter, indications that the insects might have become entombed during, or in the aftermath of, raging wildfires that drove them into a disoriented frenzy.
It was studying these charred fragments that inspired my dissertation on fossil charcoal — and that was one of just many benefits I gained from this bursary. It cannot be overstated how brilliant the opportunity to dedicate six weeks to study in a Museum was; exploring behind the scenes and talking to world experts in every field. The confidence gained from being entrusted to conduct this research so independently at such an early stage of my career will serve me going forward. The work was not easy but the support I received was brilliant. Even now, months later, as we work together to finalise our manuscript, I am inspired by the dedication and belief that Ricardo and the whole staff at the OUMNH have shown in me.
As a part of her Master’s in Wildlife Filmmaking, Alicia Hayden recently visited OUMNH to produce the short film “A Song for Maria”. Featuring the music of Will Pearce, “A Song for Maria” takes its inspiration from the eighteenth-century naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian.
In 1699, aged 52, Maria Sibylla Merian made a trip to Suriname with her daughter to document the metamorphosis of insects, where she spent 2 years illustrating unique species and behaviours. Many of these illustrations are featured in Merian’s incredible publication Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (1705), or Insects of Suriname.
Over three hundred years later, Will and Alicia visited the OUMNH library to view our copies of Insects of Suriname. Here, the pair discuss film-making, songwriting and the impact of Maria’s legacy.
Alicia: Hi Will! You’re a physics student and amateur entomologist at Oxford University. Why were you so keen to visit OUMNH’s copies of Insects of Suriname and what did you think of Maria’s gorgeous illustrations?
Will: I first found out about Maria from a postcard, which was part of a series on influential female scientists. When I got to see OUMNH’s copies of Maria’s work, they did not disappoint. Maria reared all of the insects that she illustrated, allowing her to observe their life cycles in incredible detail.
What about you, Alicia? Can you tell me a little bit about why you decided to make a film inspired by Insects of Suriname for your Master’s film project?
Alicia: In addition to studying film-making, I also do a lot of art and poetry, and I was really keen to try and incorporate my love for wildlife-art and creativity into my Master’s film project. After chatting with you about your music, I thought it would be so exciting to merge our mutual love for art and insects into the film!
Like you, I first found out about Maria through a set of women in science postcards, and since then she’s been a big inspiration in my own work, so it was also really special to see her art in person!
I know that you have recently been working on a series of songs about beetles, Will. Why do you choose to sing about nature, and how did Insects of Suriname influence your latest song, “Watercolour Caterpillar”?
Will: During lockdown, the things which kept me going were music and the pond that I built with my dad. For the first time, I started paying attention to nature, and it quickly became as big a part of my life as music. After that it just made sense to combine the two interests! I am constantly looking for inspiration, and almost always find it in either the natural world or others’ art. The life and work of Maria Sibylla Merian seemed like the perfect topic to make a song about.
What were your first impressions when you saw Maria’s books, Alicia? You work in watercolour yourself — did any piece in particular catch your eye?
Alicia: I already knew about Maria’s work, and the intricacies of her drawings, before we saw them. But her illustrations are just phenomenal! She was an exceptional scientific illustrator. The drawing which stays with me the most is of the tarantula eating the hummingbird. The detail of the hairs and feathers is just exquisite, and I’m really pleased you can see some of this in the film.
When we were filming “A Song for Maria” together at the Museum, you decided that you not only wanted to write about the invertebrates Maria drew but also her life. How did this impact the final song?
Will: Well, originally the song was going to be about beetles (I’m a bit obsessed with them), but Maria documented a range of incredible species during her time in Suriname. So it seemed only right to diversify. The wafer-thin Surinamese Toad and handsome Hawk-moths were hard to deny! Her life was a real mixed bag, but her determination and her love for the natural world shine through.
Alicia: I had so much fun filming with you in the Museum’s Library, and I could see how much you loved looking at Maria’s work! I was wondering if you had a favourite illustration?
Will: There was one page in particular which I kept flipping back to — in fact you’ve already mentioned it! It shows leaf-cutter ants bridging between twigs using their own bodies, as well as a tarantula tackling a hummingbird! Many of Maria’s illustrations were called into question when the book was published, as they described behaviours not seen before by Europeans and they seemed all too fantastical to be real!
Hopefully, we were able to capture some of the magic of the illustrations in our film. What do you want people who watch the film to take away about Maria?
Alicia: Like you, I really want more people to know about Maria Sibylla Merian and the fantastic contributions she made to entomology. I hope that by watching “A Song for Maria”, people will realise the importance of Maria and her work, and she starts getting as much recognition as her male counterparts of the same era.
Blog post by Rodger Caseby – HOPE for the Future Learning Officer
By the end of 2022, the Museum’s HOPE project will have rehoused and documented over one million British insects, restored our historic Westwood Room to create a new multi-purpose public space, and designed and delivered a wide-reaching learning and community programme.
The Crunchy on the outside blog is an exciting part of this community programme, aimed at 10–14 year-olds. For and by young entomologists, we’re not actually asking anyone to sink their teeth into a crispy exoskeleton! Instead, we are keen for young people to get involved in the HOPE project and the fascinating six-legged world of insects.
People posts featured entomologists and others with an interest in insects. These might be about members of the HOPE team at the Museum, like Collections Manager Amo Spooner, or those working elsewhere, such as Professor Karim Vahed, who studies bush crickets at the University of Derby.
Make & Do posts focus on creativity. They range from this cartooning tutorial from Chris Jarvis to things you can make at home, like this pitfall trap to catch ground-dwelling insects.
Museum posts take a look behind the scenes and also showcase what’s happening here at the museum, such as this post Events 4U in ’22 for the New Year, or our summer school in August.
The blog also features a gallery of insect photography and art created by young people which is continually expanding.
The Crunchy blog is very much by young people as well as for them. We are keen to receive items about insects, or connected to them, and have already published several articles. If you are a young person who is interested in contributing, you can get in touch via the Contact Us page on the blog or by emailing email@example.com. We would also love submissions of insect pictures for inclusion in our gallery!
And if there is a young person in your life who is crazy about creepy crawlies, or interested in science and nature in general, why not get them to take a look at the Crunchy blog? It could be the start of a wonderful journey into natural history.
Sneak peak: Enjoy this excerpt from a Crunchy on the outside blog post by Ben about Raising Moths!
“One morning we found that a lot of the caterpillars were wandering around, banging their heads on the bottom of the tank. They were also turning a darker green which (after a bit of research) we found out meant they needed to bury and become a chrysalis. We put a deep layer of soil into the tank and within minutes they had disappeared. We tucked them up in the shed for winter and waited. After months of hibernation, they started emerging this spring with crumpled wings, looking very like dead leaves.”
Thanks to National Lottery players for their generous support of the HOPE project through the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
We have an ambitious project underway at the Museum, to preserve a unique and scientifically important collection of over one million British insects. It’s called HOPE for the Future, after the Hope Entomological Collections, and we are keen to shout about how these specimens can help us understand biodiversity, habitats and ecologies.
The learning team behind the project are today launching a new blog for young people interested in entomology. Intriguingly, it’s called Crunchy on the Outside, but please don’t confuse this with the similar, but fundamentally different, mid-’90s advertising campaign for the Dime bar.
Crunchy will be crammed full of interesting insect info, fun things to make and do, a peek behind the scenes at the Museum, and news from people, past and present, who work in the field of entomology. The odd bad joke may also worm its way in (What do butterflies sleep on? Cater-pillows).
The blog will also be a platform for young people to have their say, about the topics covered on Crunchy itself, as well as on the activity of the Museum. It will give them first dibs on access to related events too. You can check it out, follow, and share at crunchyontheoutside.com.
This article is taken from European research magazine Horizon as part of our partnership to share natural environment science stories with readers of More than a Dodo.
Armed with sensitive antennae and wide-angled compound eyes, bees have a sophisticated set of senses to help them search out pollen and nectar as they buzz from flower to flower.
But new research is revealing that bumblebees may employ another hidden sense that lets them detect when a flower was last visited by another insect.
Professor Daniel Robert, an expert in animal behaviour and senses at the University of Bristol, UK, has discovered that bumblebees have the ability to sense weak electrostatic fields that form as they fly close to a flower.
‘A bee has a capacity, even without landing, to know whether a flower has been visited in the past minutes or seconds, by measuring the electric field surrounding the flower,’ Prof. Robert explained.
The discovery is one of the first examples of electroreception in air. This sense has long been known in fish such as sharks and rays, which can detect the weak electrical fields produced by other fish in the water. Water-dwelling mammals such as platypus and dolphins have also been found to use electric fields to help them hunt for prey.
But rather than hunting for fish, bees appear to use their ability to sense electrical fields to help them find flowers that are likely to be rich in pollen and nectar.
Charge Bees develop an electrostatic charge because as they fly they lose electrons due to the air rubbing against their bodies, leading to a small positive electric charge. The effect is a bit like rubbing a party balloon against your hair or jumper, except the charge the bees accumulate is around 10,000 times weaker.
Flowers, by comparison, are connected to the ground, a rich source of electrons, and they tend to be negatively charged.
These electrostatic charges are thought to help bees collect pollen more easily. Negatively charged pollen sticks to the positively charged bee because opposite charges attract. Once the pollen sticks to the bee, it too becomes more positively charged during flight, making it more likely to stick to the negatively charged female part of a flower, known as a stigma.
But Prof. Robert and his colleagues wondered whether there could be more to this interaction. When they put an electrode in a flower, they detected a current flowing through the plant whenever a bumblebee approached in the air. Their study revealed that the oppositely charged flower and bee generate an electrostatic field between them that exerts a tiny attractive force.
To study whether the bees are aware of this electrostatic field, they then offered bumblebees discs with or without sugar rewards. Those with sugar also had 30 volts of electricity flowing through them to create an electrical field. They showed that the bees could sense electrical field and learn that it was associated with a reward. Without the charge, bees were no longer able to correctly identify the sugary disc.
Very few animals have the capacity to read the stars and use it to find, north, south, east or west.
Professor Eric Warrant, Lund University, Sweden
He has discovered that fine hairs on the bees’ bodies move in the presence of weak electrical fields. Each of these hairs has nerves at its base that are so sensitive they can detect tiny movements – as little as seven nanometres – caused by the electrical field.
Prof. Robert believes that when a bee visits a flower, it may cancel out some of the negative charge and so reduce the electrostatic field that forms when bees approach. This change in the strength of the electrostatic field could allow other bees flying past to work out whether a flower is worth visiting before they land, helping to save time and energy.
Other signals, such as changes in the colour and smell of flowers, happen in minutes or hours, while switches in electric potential occurs within seconds.
Prof. Robert and his team are now testing their theory that the electric field helps bees know which flowers to visit by counting visits by bumblebees to flowers in a meadow this summer and measuring electric fields around the flowers.
Their findings could help scientists better understand the relationship between plants and pollinating insects, which may prove crucial for improving the production of many vital fruit crops that rely upon bees for pollination.
Prof. Robert is also investigating whether bumblebees use their electrostatic charge to communicate to their nest sisters about the best places to fly for pollen.
But while bumblebees use their extraordinary sensory power to find food just a few kilometres from their nests, another insect is using another hidden sense to make far longer journeys.
In Australia, Bogong moths (Agrotis infusa) flitter steadily from various parts of the country and make their way towards the Snowy Mountains in the southeast. They fly for many days or even weeks to reach the high alpine valleys of the highest mountain range in the country, sometimes travelling over 1,000km. Once there, the insects hibernate in caves typically above 1,800m for the Australian summer, before making the return journey.
The only other insect known to migrate so far is the monarch butterfly in North America. But while the monarch butterfly relies in part on the sun’s position for navigation, the moths fly by night. Professor Eric Warrant, a zoologist at Lund University in Sweden, has been fascinated with how these insects, just a couple of centimetres in length, managed such a feat ever since he was a student in Canberra, Australia.
Moth mystery He suspected that the moths might use the Earth’s magnetic field to find their way, so his team tethered moths to a stalk that allowed them to fly and turn in any direction before surrounding them with magnetic coils to manipulate Earth’s magnetic field.
‘It is a little like how we would go hiking,’ said Prof. Warrant, who is trying to unravel how the moths sense the Earth’s magnetic fields in his project MagneticMoth. ‘We’d take a reading from a compass, then look for something to walk towards in that direction, a tree or mountain peak.’
His research has already shown that the moths check their internal compass every two or three minutes and continue to make for a visual cue ahead. But what are the insects able to see at night?
Further research revealed something remarkable. When Prof. Warrant downloaded an open source planetarium programme called Stellarium and projected the Australian night sky above the moths, he discovered they were using the stars.
‘Very few animals have the capacity to read the stars and use it to find, north, south, east or west,’ said Prof. Warrant. ‘We (humans) learnt how to do it. Some birds do it.’
But insect eyes of bogongs mean they don’t simply follow one guiding star. Rather they are sensitive to panoramic scenes.
‘In the southern hemisphere, the Milky Way is much more distinct than it is here in the northern hemisphere,’ said Prof. Warrant. ‘It really is a stripe of pale light in which there are interspersed very bright stars.’ He believes that the moths are at least in part guided to their cool alpine caves by the light of the Milky Way.
The discovery could also lead to the development of new types of navigation for our own species too. GPS, for example, relies upon a constellation of satellites that are vulnerable to disruption. Prof. Warrant believes studying an insect capable of flying 1,000km to a cave using a brain the size of a rice grain, could help us find alternatives too.
‘Animals seem to solve complex problems with little material and low amounts of energy,’ Prof Warrant said.
The research in this article was funded by the EU. If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on social media.
Top image: Fine hairs on bees’ bodies can sense tiny changes in electrostatic fields, enabling them to sense whether another bee has visited a flower before them. Image credit – Unsplash/George Hiles, licenced under Unsplash licence
When working on the dissertation for my MSc in Archaeological Science last year, I explored the medieval craftsmanship of sealing wax. I was interested in the way the medieval wax seals had flaked, as the beeswax dried out. Drawing on my previous education in conservation techniques, I began a close investigation of the prestigious material, beeswax.
Although some of the ingredients of sealing wax are very hazardous, there is nothing dangerous in beeswax… except the bees! Produced by honey bees, Apismellifera, honey and beeswax were important commodities in the Middle Ages. Beekeeping was a skilful profession, housing colonies in woven hives, known as skeps. Colonies were carefully selected to overwinter for the next season.
Beeswax was also important in the Middle Ages for lighting, and beeswax candles were preferred for their pleasant smell. After the Protestant Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries, the religious use of candles decreased, so demand for beeswax declined.
On my quest to understand the degradation of beeswax in sealing wax and write my disseration, I was very lucky to use some samples from the entomological collections from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. After some early mornings spent amongst the Westwood collection, I found the perfect specimens of natural honeycombs, from the 19th century. The old hand-written labels were also a lovely encounter when exploring the historical collections.
I compared the samples to modern beeswax and medieval seal samples, and learned that the degradation of beeswax is caused by multiple factors, triggered also by storage conditions. The composition of beeswax is very complex, and there are differences caused by the age of the bee in addition to geographical provenance.
The recent catastrophic decline of bee populations has drawn focus to save the bees, and in my PhD research (University of Copenhagen and University of Cambridge) I will explore the recovery of ancient DNA and proteins of bees from beeswax, to cast light on the health of bee populations over time.