Tuesday, 6 August 2013

I have a question or two

Well there I was the other night sitting at my desk playing with some pictures I took the other day, when all of a sudden, a ladybird flew in through the open window and landed on my desk. Yay! My 5th ladybird of the year, excellent I thought. So, quickly reaching for a specimen tube, I then popped the little fellow in ready to be identified. Unfortunately, it keyed out to be a Harlequin Ladybird (Harmonia axyridis), the alien invader. The bug that has played a big part, if not the only part, in the decline of our native ladybirds. Then came the dilemma, I strongly believe that I have no right whatsoever to decide to what lives and dies. I do not have the right to take a life whether it be a bug, or a much larger animal. Unless of course, the animal is suffering, then yes, stop the poor things misery. I know that's what I would want should I be in that position. However, this poor little thing has done nothing wrong, it's not he's fault it's in foreign lands doing the best it can to survive, we brought it here.
So, I'm left with the dilemma whether to release the non-native to carry on its breeding and eating or, do I euthanise to help our poor natives? It was as I mused over the issue, that I suddenly saw that the ladybird in question wasn't a male, but a female. How did I realise this, simple, it started laying eggs.
The egg laying female. Sorry for the blurry pic, using iPhone in dim light.
More little Harlequins that will eat not only aphids, the reason they were brought here in the first place, but other ladybird larvae, including our own natives. They will then go on to reproduce and when you consider that one female can lay around 1000 eggs, then it's not hard to see why these have spread so quickly since their first recorded sighting back in 2004. They now populate the majority of England, parts of Wales and are now being recorded in some northern parts of Scotland. My decision had been made for me and raiding the wifey's make-up bag for nail varnish remover and a little bit of cotton wool, I set up my first ever killing jar. What a horrible name, and something I thought I would never do, but I wasn't going to release this egg laying female back into the wild. To do so would've been a crime against our own native populations. Placing the nail varnish laced cotton wool at the bottom of a specimen jar, a piece of dry kitchen roll above that and then the poor ladybird on top of that, I placed the lid back on and waited the 15 minutes required to put it too sleep. I then thought that this poor little fellow should not die in vain, and I should pin it to show others what a Harlequin looks like (even though it comes in 100 different varieties). 
So whilst waiting I decided to look for some tutorial videos on pinning a beetle. There were some interesting and informative videos as usual, but then I came across this young student chap who had apparently been given the task of collecting eight different types of beetle and pinning them as part of his coursework. He was videoing his finished work with all the beetles neatly pinned and lined up, when suddenly, one of the pinned beetles opened one of his elytra (wing covers) and stretched its wing (the other elytra being pinned, it couldn't do both wings), obviously not dead!
Watching this was trauma enough for me and the thought occurred, what if this happened to me??? Thankfully, the Ladybird book that I reviewed the other week gave advice on preparing samples and stated that placing the specimen in the freezer for 30 minutes would ensure it was dead. So once I was happy that the harlequin was knocked out, I placed it in the freezer for 1 hour, I wanted to make sure!
Needless to say, the specimen was pinned and labelled and placed in my little box of dead things. This box contains various pinned species, mainly bumblebees, that I have found recently deceased around my garden. By collecting these samples, I hope they may be of use to others like my niece or even if I get called back to a school again. It's always good to be able to look at something close up without worrying about getting stung.
The finished (in more ways than one) specimen.
So, ladybird pinned, dilemma over, so I thought. The next night saw me putting the moth trap out and within minutes of the light going on, not one, but three ladybirds landed on the sheet next to the trap. I collected all three to ID and guess what, yes, they too were Harlequins. So you can now imagine what I'm going through if I thought one was a problem, I now have the problem magnified by three.
I didn't get into being a naturalist because I wanted to kill stuff. I'm no tory politician who claims to be helping conserve something by shooting it. I love nature, I love everything it has to offer, the intricate food webs and interrelationships. I enjoy the spectacle of nature on a daily basis and yet I am landed with the extremely difficult decision of whether I should release or destroy. I'm dammed if I do, I'm dammed if I don't, I'm in a lose-lose situation and I hate it. Needless to say, I done the terrible deed and they now sit in my box all labelled and pinned showing their differences in variation. But I think this whole situation leads to a bigger moral maze.

All lined up to show differences.

Let us talk

The above has left me asking many questions about conservation. When I got into being a naturalist and was able to spend more time on it than just a passing interest, I intended to do it without killing anything. Long gone are the days where people went out into the countryside to see how many specimens they could collect, kill, pin and display. They would have trays full of butterflies of all the same species, lined up, row after row. No particular reason for it, as far as I can see, other than to see how many they could collect of that particular species. Looking back at it all, it's quite appalling. Nowadays, we're more educated, we have technology and all those specimens collected to look at, we don't need to collect as much. I don't really want to end up with a display box of hundreds of Harlequins, in neat little rows that I've felt morally bound to kill. So a couple of questions sprung to mind and the first question that comes up is:

Have Harlequins earned the right to be here through evolving?
Harlequins come from Asia, they were transported to America, then Europe for their ravenous appetite in eating aphids and thus controlling pests. Through this ravenous appetite, they have made themselves attractive to another species (us) who in return have aided their distribution throughout the world. A bit like a symbiotic mite would help keep a bee colony clean from fungus. So with this in mind, would it be fair to say that the harlequin is in fact not a non-native species, but in fact here by the process of evolution?

What sort of impact would killing every Harlequin have?
If naturalists were to kill every harlequin ladybird they came across, would it have any affect on the population or, would it be a pointless waste of time? Also would it help our natives by destroying harlequins when we come across them in the field?

Please free to add to the debate, I want to try and nail this morality thing on the head and I can only do that with your help.

Muncher update

Well, the last 3 of the last 4 munchers made it to the cocoon stage, unfortunately, the last one crawled into a corner and died. I know, very sad. But, on a positive note, of the 56 caterpillars I was left with (some going to friends) all but one made it through to cocoon stage, which I think is a success. They are all now hanging up on the side of wifey's log cabin studio awaiting the onset of winter.

The other munchers that are the Poplar hawk moths are also doing very well and devouring weeping willow on a daily basis. Yet, they are growing at different rates strangely.
Different sizes yet all the same age.

There's more!

Yes, there's more. I had potted some moths from the moth trap last weekend and one of those moths I had potted was a Pale Prominent (Pterostoma palpina). I knew what it was when I potted it, I just wanted to make sure. When it came to identification time, I pulled the pot out and to my surprise it had laid 32 eggs! Checking what food plant it requires, I found that it ate willow. So it looks like the local willow tree will be getting more visits from me in the future.
Just some of the very little eggs.

Under the microscope 

Unfortunately, I found another dead bumblebee on my patio today. Obviously I was going to pin it as I now have a 'relaxing box' from those good people at Watkins and Doncaster. This box allows me to pin specimens regardless of age, as most insects go very stiff when they die and trying to move any limbs causes them to break off, the relaxing box stops that by making the insect supple and moveable. Anyway, I digress, before pinning it, I wanted to have a good look at it under the microscope to see if I could find the reason for its death. I am always amazed when I look through the microscope at the detail on insects and the bee was no exception.
Face on looking at the wonderful compound eyes, antennae and proboscis
What amazed me was that this particular bee died with its tongue poking out from the end of its proboscis.
The tip of the tongue poking out of the proboscis
I also came across this little bit of globuous matter coming out from under the stinger.
Strange globuous matter and one very pointy stinger!
As yet, I have not found out what this stuff is. The stinger is still in place, so I don't think it's venom, but it might just be a type of moisture that the bee exuded in its final death throws. But this is merely supposition, if I find out at a later date, I will of course let you know.

A better view of the hairy tongue sticking out of the proboscis.

From the garden

Lots been going on in the garden this week. Surprise visitors were 7 Long-tailed tits to the bird feeder which is usually occupied by Blue tits all day long. But this little flock were just lovely to see and were quite happy with my presence too.
New visitors to the garden.
Butterflies a plenty to the buddleia as usual including this Peacock who was just a little shy of showing me his excellent upperwing patterning. Instead I had to be content with the rather bland, but effective camouflage underwing pattern.
A shy Peacock butterfly.
And whilst the Peacock fed, it was watch by a very vigilant Comma from the pear tree next to the buddleia.
Always on guard to see off rival males or welcome beautiful females, the Comma.
Butterflies weren't the only visitors to the buddleia, there were lots of bumblebees too.
A beautiful Red-tail bumblebee.
And down in the flower beds the activity was busy.
A lovely Marmalade Hoverfly gets some breakfast. 
The reason for being called the Marmalade Hoverfly is due to the extra band on the abdomen.
And from the same flower, this unknown hoverfly also found its food.
An unknown hoverfly.
That's enough for you this week, I hope you liked and please give me your thoughts on the Harlequin issue and also, if you like this blog, please share it out amongst your friends and family.
Just before I go, Ipswich saw some weird and wonderful weather last week and I just want to share with you this last picture I took as I stepped out of the door. As one friend of mine put it, it looked a bit like war of the worlds.
The chances of anything coming from Mars...
Till next time folks, take care.


  1. You sure the first pic of the bee under the microscope isn't Darth Vader?...
    Another interesting read Mr H

    1. Thanks, yes, they do look a bit menacing under the microscope face on.

  2. It's interesting that we can be prompted to consider such huge questions by the wildlife in our own gardens and homes. I don't think that there are any absolute answers, certainly no answers that you could expect a group of more than one person to agree upon.
    The starting point has to be one's own philosophy of conservation. If one works for a conservation organisation, one is probably of necessity committed to a particular philosophy (although that philosophy may change over time through internal debate or perhaps be determined by the source of funding). If one is independent, the questions are more difficult. Do we seek to preserve a species or a pristine environment? Do we try to keep alien species out of an ecosystem? What do we do about alien species that have already arrived? Think of the species that have already been spread across the world by several thousand years of human agriculture and trade. We couldn't even begin to unpick it all. What about all the earthworms, flatworms, fungi etc. that are transported across borders with horticultural supplies? Can we understand their impact? Can we do anything about them? If we consider them to be pests, do we stimulate the development and production of new pesticides? Is it sensible to distinguish between species that we have introduced and those that find their own way? Probably not (compare the harlequin ladybird with the tree bumblebee). If we decide to kill harlequin ladybirds, are we also comfortable with the eradication of the ruddy duck, for instance? Are there any parallels between killing either of those species and the culling of badgers? One could go on and on.
    I suppose the problem is that ecosystems are dynamic and species evolution seems to favour species that can enter an ecosystem and establish a new niche.
    I completely sympathise with your dilemma, but I only have more questions, not answers!

  3. I totally agree, we could never unpick all the damage we have done through the movement of organisms around the world. However, I'm just trying to understand what the thoughts of other naturalists, specialists and those with just a general interest in the subject feel.

  4. When Harlequin first arrived in the UK, a friend (and regular recorder of ladybirds) found it when it first arrived in his village. He killed all that he found. Next year they were back in greatly increased numbers. He killed all he could find. Next year they were back in hundreds and thousands ... he gave up the struggle. So from a purely practical perspective I doubt that whether you released it or not it would make any noticeable difference to the populations of Harlequin or native ladybirds. There is some evidence that parasitic insects are beginning to use Harlequins as their host, and presumably some sort of balance will be achieved in the long run (although whether that balance is 'natural' is another question ...)

    There is a lot of evidence to show that entomologists retaining specimens of insects makes no difference to the population levels of said insects, with a few exceptions for some very rare and/or slow-breeding species. After all, entomologists are far less efficient at killing insects than Blue Tits or parasitic wasps. But if you have a moral or ethical reason for avoiding killing insects that is to be respected of course.

    Personally I do retain specimens of insects when they can't be safely identified alive. Where I do this, I feel it is my duty to then ensure that the subsequent identification is made, and the record is passed on to the relevant recording schemes and conservation organisations. Killing specimens is certainly the think I enjoy least about entomology, but the alternative is not to be able to study them, and thus not to be able to work out where they live and how to conserve them. On the plus side I do as much as I can to provide insect habitats in my garden and by influencing others.

    Thanks for the interesting blog. I think your "unknown hoverfly" is an unknown bee, the antennae are too long to be a fly.

    1. Thanks for that Martin, your example just goes to show then, that by removing all discovered invaders from what was once a harlequin free area, it really will make no difference whatsoever. I totally understand and also agree with the reasons you collect specimens, after all, if we didn't have those specimens to examine we wouldn't know or understand as much about the creatures and the environment around us.

      Glad you like the blog and thanks for pointing out the hoverfly as a bee. Will have to try and catch that now to ID it.

  5. Regarding the Ethics/Legality of releasing a non native species.
    A couple of years ago I had a brown rat moved into the gap under my garden shed - I didn't want to kill it so I bought a humane trap - baited it with chocolate and caught the culprit in no time whatsoever. I drove to the river 3 miles away and released it.
    I mentioned this in my local pub - a Farmer and and a Butcher were both adamant that I had done something ilegal - releasing vermin. It caused quite a heated discussion.
    I decided to find out if I was in the right or not - I contacted the Pest Control Officer at our local council. He said that there was nothing at all to stop me releasing a rat that I had captured - however he went on to say that I caught a Grey Squirrel alive - I would have to either kill it or keep it in captivity because releasing a non-native species constitutes breaking the law.
    By the way I get Harlequins in my moth trap - they are all released.

  6. Thanks Graham, I knew about the Grey Squirrel issue and maybe that was also one of the reasons behind the ethics of releasing or killing.


  7. Thanks for an interesting debate. There are no easy answers! For example, mink and signal crayfish were introduced and have a detrimental impact on native species, so should they be culled? Or do we accept that, like grey squirrels, they will find their niche and co-exist with native species, albeit a reduced population (I know not everyone will agree with me about grey squirrels!). Many species we now regard as natives were in fact introduced, like rabbits. And what about deer, with no natural predators they cause significant damage to habitat, which is why they are culled. But what about rewilding as a solution - introducing predators such as lynx and wolves - or do we say that these animals had their chance and didn't make it? There is a lot of controversy about the reintroduction of beavers for example. More questions than answers I'm afraid!

  8. Thanks Tracey. Quite agree that there are no easy answers and yes, there are so many introduced species on our little island that it would be impossible to sort it all out. I too am for re-wilding, but feel that there would be many against it when it would come to releasing lynx and wolves into the wild, especially farmers.