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Subject: ‘Insects’

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The Eyed Hawk Moth has frightening wing markings

Posted in Insects, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about moths first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 596 published on 16 June 1973.

Eyed Hawk Moth,  picture, image, illustration
Eyed Hawk Moth

On a beautiful, spring day, you can often see gaily coloured butterflies lounging on flowers.

Often it is difficult to distinguish them from their close relative the moth, but one of the best ways is to observe them resting. Butterflies close their wings together so that they stick straight up from the back, and moths generally spread their wings out flat on the surface they’re resting on.

More than 2,000 different species of moth live in the British Isles. If your garden has an apple tree in it, the Eyed Hawk moth is probably a frequent visitor, for this is its favourite feeding place.

But you would not see it very often, for like most moths it usually flies only at night. It spends its days resting quietly on a tree trunk, and since its brown tints merge with the background, it is often overlooked.

But if the Eyed Hawk moth thinks that it’s being threatened, it will alternatively raise and lower its forewings to expose two glaring “eye” marks on the underwings. The sight of this is enough to scare off any insect-eating bird looking for a meal.

Delicate lacewings are hungry consumers of greenflies

Posted in Insects, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about insects first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 595 published on 9 June 1973.

Lacewing and othet flies, picture. image, illustration
Lacewing fly (bottom right corner)

The lacewing is a delicate insect, and for most people it is a familiar sight. Lacewings are irresistibly attracted to artificial light, and they often fly in at open windows at night.

The female lacewing has a most extraordinary way of laying eggs. She first exhudes a drop of sticky liquid on the underside of a leaf, and then she raises her abdomen to draw it out into a hair-like stalk. This hardens immediately, and then she lays an egg at the end of this.

The larvae which hatch from the eggs laid by a lacewing have two long scimitar-shaped jaws. Since they are voracious feeders on greenflies, they are the good friends of gardeners.

The brief and fragile life of the Mayfly

Posted in Insects, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about insects first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 594 published on 2 June 1973.

Girl and May flies,  picture, image, illustration
Girl being pulled through the water by accurately painted May flies

Enormous numbers of Mayflies can be seen swarming over the rivers and streams at this time of the year. The eggs are laid in the water and the young “nymphs” which hatch from them spend as long as four years under the water feeding on vegetable matter.

When fully grown, the nymph crawls out of the water on to a reed stem or stone. Then, its skin splits open and a winged insect, called a sub-imago, crawls out. After some time, it moults again and the perfect Mayfly emerges.

Its first instinct is to find a mate. Once this has been accomplished, after about a day or sometimes only a few hours, it falls into the water and drowns or is eaten by a fish. Meanwhile, its mate lays her eggs and the strange life cycle begins again.

The Cockchafer is a large beetle with an enormous appetite

Posted in Insects, Nature, Wildlife on Monday, 17 March 2014

This edited article about insects first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 592 published on 19 May 1973.

Cockchafer,  picture, image, illustration
Cockchafer

The Cockchafer or May Bug is a large, harmless beetle which buzzes noisily and sometimes bumbles indoors through open windows on warm May evenings.

Every few years the beetles appear in huge numbers and become a serious pest especially on the continent of Europe. They do much damage to trees, especially elms and oaks, the leaves of which they eat voraciously. There was such a large outbreak of cockchafers in Austria in 1912 that over 1,000 tons of these beetles were collected and destroyed.

The female lays her eggs in the ground and these hatch out into grubs or larvae that live for as long as three years, feeding on the roots of grasses and other plants. The Cockchafer grub is about two inches long, fat and has a shiny brown head armed with strong jaws like a pair of pincers. Although it has six legs it is helpless if placed on a flat surface because its large and fleshy U shaped body causes it to fall over on its side.

The adult Cockchafers, which live for only a few weeks, have very conspicuous “feelers” or antennae which are highly sensitive to sound and smells. These feelers are spread out like fans when in use.

The Orange Tip Butterfly heralds the arrival of Spring

Posted in British Countryside, Insects, Nature, Wildlife on Friday, 14 March 2014

This edited article about butterflies first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 590 published on 5 May 1973.

Nature in April,  picture, image, illustration
The Orange Tip butterfly with orange-tipped wings is male, but the female Orange Tip butterfly is quite plain as the illustration, top right, shows; picture by R B Davis

On a warm day in April the Orange Tip Butterfly will emerge from the chrysalis in which it has spent the winter months and flutter along country lanes and through gardens as a welcome sign that Spring has arrived.

It is an exceptionally widespread butterfly and can be seen almost everywhere in Britain except in the north of Scotland. It is only the male which has the bright orange patches on the forewings which gives the creature its name. The female, by contrast, is very plain with mottled grey and white patches on her hindwings. When she is at rest on a flower, this mottling is such an effective camouflage that she is almost invisible. The female Orange Tip lays her eggs on the Cuckoo Flower, or Lady’s Smock.

The complex and mysterious life of the Gall Wasp

Posted in Insects, Nature, Plants, Wildlife on Friday, 7 March 2014

This edited article about insects first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 583 published on 17 March 1973.

Oak Apples,  picture, image, illustration
Oak Apples and Gall Wasps

If you were to look closely at the twigs of an oak tree in September, you would probably find some peculiar, hard round balls, which look like marbles, growing there.

These ‘marble’ swellings are called galls and they are caused by the grubs of the gall wasp which live inside them.

The type of gall wasp which produces these galls reached Britain less than 150 years ago in galls imported for making ink, and it is about one eighth of an inch long.

For many years naturalists were puzzled by the strange life-cycle of this wasp. Every insect which emerged from the marble galls was female, so naturalists were led to believe that no males of this species actually existed.

Then, just a few years ago, they discovered that there are two distinct generations of these gall wasps born within the course of a single year, the first ‘brood’ consisting of only females, and the second, of both sexes.

In September the wasps, which are all females, emerge from little holes in the marble galls and fly away in search of Turkey Oak trees. There they lay unfertilised eggs on the buds of the tree, and these hatch out and begin to form small galls to protect themselves. The wasps which eventually emerge from these small galls are different from the ones which come out of the marble galls and are of both sexes.

The females from this second brood of wasps lay fertilised eggs on the buds of a common oak and the life cycle is completed. We are back at the beginning of the story, with the grubs inside their marble galls about to emerge as female adults.

But that is not really the end of this very complicated but interesting story. If some galls are kept in a closed glass jar the wasps can be examined when they emerge. But often, instead of the expected gall wasp, a small ichneumon fly emerges. This is an insect that deposits its eggs on the grubs of other insects.

The reason for this surprising occurrence is that after the gall wasp has laid its egg on the bud, a female ichneumon fly has come along, inserted its ovipositor into the gall and laid ITS egg on the grub of the gall wasp! When the ichneumon grub hatches it feeds on the gall wasp grub and kills it. So, instead of a gall wasp coming out of the gall, an ichneumon emerges!

There are other kinds of gall wasps, each insect having its own special kind of gall. In one species, females spend the winter in galls on the roots of oak trees and then climb up the tree and lay their eggs in the buds. Here the grubs cause round, rosy-coloured swellings which are often called ‘oak apples,’ from which, in July, both males and females appear. These ‘oak apples’ are not the same galls as the marble ones we have already mentioned, and are produced by a different kind of gall wasp.

The Empusa can imitate a flower to attract and deceive its prey

Posted in Insects, Nature, Plants, Wildlife on Friday, 7 March 2014

This edited article about insects first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 582 published on 10 March 1973.

Hide-away insects,  picture, image, illustration
Hide-away insects including the Flower mantis, cousin of the Empusa by A Oxenham

As it rests motionless, poised on the leaves of a plant, the Empusa looks as harmless, and almost as beautiful as the flower which it tries to imitate. Like its cousins, the Flower Mantis and the Praying Mantis, the Empusa is a deadly deceiver.

Known as the “Little Devil” in the Mediterranean countries where it lives, the Empusa can be distinguished from its cousins by what looks like a Bishop’s Mitre growing out of the top of its head. It has a light green body with touches of rose pink at the edges, with green and white stripes on the underside. With such brilliant colouring this wicked insect has little difficulty in deceiving its prey.

When it is hungry, the Empusa adopts its characteristic stance on the leaves of a bush or a plant to take on the shape of an anemone. This pose is not to protect itself from its enemies, as is the case with leaf-insects, but to mislead insects into believing that it is a flower so that it can entice them within reach of its vicious-looking legs. This means that instead of going in search of its prey, like most other creatures have to, the Empusa can lie in wait for its food to come along.

An unsuspecting insect passing by is instantly attracted by the colour and shape of the ‘flower,’ and as soon as it draws near, receives a sharp blow from the Empusa’s ‘mitre.’ Before it can recover from this shock, the Empusa lashes forward its fearsome forelegs, and the victim is trapped. Once caught in the Empusa’s deadly, unshakable hold, the insect is helpless, and is promptly devoured.

Despite its wicked way of catching prey, and its frightening appearance, the Empusa is not as greedy or as ferocious as its cousins, but it certainly deserves its nickname ‘Little Devil.’

The social and government structure of the Ant colony

Posted in Insects, Nature, Wildlife on Thursday, 6 March 2014

This edited article about ants first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 580 published on 24 February 1973.

Several feet under the ground exist some of the most complex cities in the world. Extensively planned, and built by their citizens, these cities are equipped with proper streets, food stores, sleeping quarters, nurseries, and homes for their armies and workers.

These cities belong to perhaps the most impressive creatures of the entire animal kingdom – the ants.

Inside their cities many of which are built above the ground in mounds, the ants maintain a highly organised society and a well-ordered government. Their social system is higher even than that of the bees and, in many ways, resembles that of mankind. There are three “classes” in an ant colony – The queen, the workers, and the males, the queen is a perfect female which can lay eggs, and that is exactly what she spends her whole life doing. Then, there are the workers of the nest, without which the city would crumble to pieces. They build the nest, search for food, and look after the eggs. The workers are female ants who cannot lay eggs. While they are busy all day going about their never-ending round of tasks, the males sit around doing absolutely nothing. They are the least useful of the citizens and only one of them will be required to fertilise the queen once. After this the queen is able to lay eggs for the rest of her lifetime, which usually lasts for fifteen years.

The most fragile dragonflies are also the most beautiful

Posted in Insects, Nature, Wildlife on Wednesday, 5 March 2014

This edited article about the dragonfly first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 579 published on 17 February 1973.

Dragonfly,  picture, image, illustration
Dragonfly by R B Davis

Fluttering gently among the long reeds at the side of a cool, clear stream, the dragonfly, with its bright blue body and purple wings, lit up by the rays of the sun, looks just like a beautifully coloured butterfly. And yet how different this lovely insect looks when seen in close-up. Its enormous compound eyes, which provide the insect with excellent sight, make it look quite ugly and grotesque.

Forty-three species of dragonfly live in the British Isles, the large Hawker dragonflies being the most common. Some of the small feeble fliers are called damsel flies because they look so fragile and delicate. It is to this group that the most beautiful of the British dragonflies belongs. The Agrion virgo is typical; it has, like all dragonflies, a long slender body and two pairs of transparent wings. But few dragonflies have the beautiful colouring of this one. The male has a bright metallic blue body and blue-purplish wings.

Dragon flies hunt and catch other flying insects on the wing. The young, or “nymphs” are just as voracious as their parents, but instead of hunting gnats and mosquitoes, they eat young fish, tadpoles, and any other aquatic creatures they can find in the water where they live.

For catching its prey the nymph has an extraordinary mechanism not found in any other insect. Its lower lip can be shot forward to catch a fly. This is called a mask because when not in use it is folded back under the chin. It holds on to the prey by means of a pair of hooks which hang at the tip of the mask.

The scorpion fly can be traced back to prehistoric times

Posted in Insects, Nature, Prehistory, Wildlife on Wednesday, 5 March 2014

This edited article about insects first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 578 published on 10 February 1973.

Scorpion Fly,  picture, image, illustration
Scorpion Fly

With huge eyes set into a peculiar-shaped head which is elongated into a long ‘beak’ with small toothed mandibles at the end, and long thread-like antennae sticking out, the Scorpion fly is quite a terrifying sight when seen in close-up.

This curious-looking creature is not a true fly since, like the snake-fly it has four wings instead of two. It belongs to a small order of insects called Mecoptera and its ancestors can be traced back farther than any other insect.

Fossilised insects, millions of years old which closely resemble the modern scorpion flies have been found embedded in pieces of amber, and since amber is fossilised resin from prehistoric forests, the ancestors of the scorpion fly can well and truly be called Little Prehistoric Monsters!

Today, the scorpion fly is a fairly common insect in the countryside during the summer months. It lives in the earth and the female lays her eggs in huge clusters and buries them in the soil. When the eggs hatch out the grubs or larvae look very much like caterpillars.

There are four species of scorpion fly in Great Britain and the most common is the Panorpa Communis which is shown in the illustrations. All scorpion flies are predators and scavengers, and feed on dead and living animal tissue. The larvae are also carnivorous creatures and they feed on small insects, both alive and dead.

The insect is called a scorpion fly because the tail of the male looks like the sting of the scorpion. It looks a most formidable and deadly weapon but is really quite harmless.