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Subject: ‘Insects’

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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.

The Daddy-Long-Legs has one usless pair of wings

Posted in Insects, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 4 March 2014

This edited article about insects first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 577 published on 3 February 1973.

Nature in August,  picture, image, illustration

Daddy-Long-Legs (lower centre) by R B Davis

Settling in the long grass on a warm summer’s evening with its long, spindly legs stretched out, it looks like some fearsome prehistoric monster when seen in close up.

But horrible though the crane fly looks, it is really a very harmless and inoffensive creature. Often called Daddy-Long-Legs, the crane fly is a very poor flier and when it does take to flight its long legs wavering about in the breeze seem to be more of a hindrance to it than a help. Its legs are very delicate and fragile and can easily be broken off. It is when it moves about in long grass that its legs are seen to be an asset, for they help the insect to move about with untroubled ease where short-legged insects would have great difficulty.

Daddy-Long-Legs has only one pair of proper wings, though its ancestors in the remote past had two pairs. In the course of evolution, the second pair of wings have become greatly reduced so that now, they are little more than the club-shaped stalks called halteres which stick out on each side of its body. But small though these halteres are, they seem to be of great help when the insect is flying. Scientists have found that if these are removed, the crane fly has the greatest difficulty in flying, so it would seem that their halteres act as balancing organs during flight.

In June the female crane fly lays hundreds of small, black eggs in the soil. Here, again, the long legs of the insect prove to be of great help. When she is moving through the grass, the female uses her long legs to push her body into the soil to lay her eggs. Eventually, these eggs hatch out into one of the gardener’s worst enemies. The grubs are called Leather Jackets and are great pests because they feed on the roots of grasses, causing brown patches of dead grass on the gardener’s well-kept lawn.

Male grasshoppers like to sing in the sunshine

Posted in Insects, Nature, Wildlife on Monday, 3 March 2014

This edited article about insects first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 576 published on 27 January 1973.

grasshopper,  picture, image, illustration

Grasshopper by R B Davis

Throughout the long summer’s day the familiar sound of a grasshopper chirping merrily among the meadows can be heard across the British countryside.

No one really knows why the grasshopper chirps so cheerfully and continuously in the warm sunshine but, perhaps it is simply because it feels happy and wants to sing about it.

Only the males ‘sing.’ They do this by rubbing their hind legs to and fro against the upper parts of their wings. Both males and females use their hind legs to hop about in the grass. Grasshoppers have five eyes. One pair of large compound eyes, one pair of small simple eyes, and one eye in the centre of their foreheads. Their ‘ears’ or hearing organs are situated on each side of the abdomen.

There are many different kinds of grasshoppers found in Great Britain. The most common, which are found in open meadows, are the short-horned ones. The big locusts which swarm in such enormous numbers and do such damage to farmer’s crops belong to this group. Fortunately, for English farmers, they live only in hot, dry places and cannot survive in Great Britain.

Another group are the long-horned grasshoppers. These are found in trees and bushes, usually in the south of England, their long feelers swaying in the breeze, and their harsh, grating voices ringing in the air. In fact it is by the ‘song’ of a grasshopper that you can identify which group of grasshoppers it belongs to.

In autumn the female makes a hole in the ground in which to lay her eggs. These hatch out the following summer and the young ones are usually fully grown by August. They, like their parents, will ‘sing’ happily on a summer’s day as they hop about in the grass.

A Queen Wasp starts the building on her subterranean nest

Posted in Insects, Nature, Wildlife on Saturday, 1 March 2014

This edited article about wasps first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 575 published on 20 January 1973.

Wasps in their nest,  picture, image, illustration

A wasps' nest in the ground beneath a tree

When summer has gone and autumn is approaching male and queen wasps fly away from their nests to mate. Then, with the coming of the cold weather the males soon die leaving only the queens to survive the winter.

The queen wasp finds a dry hollow tree, grips the wood with her jaws, and hangs unconscious until late the following spring.

Then she emerges and seeks out a hollow among the roots of a tree in which to lay her eggs. She digs away at the earth to enlarge the chamber and makes visits to old fences and posts rasping off small shavings of wood which she mixes with saliva to make a kind of papier mache using this to construct her nest. When the first few cells are completed she lays her first eggs and then adds more cells in which to lay some more.

Meanwhile, the first larvae have turned into pupae and then into worker wasps, and have begun to help the queen carry out her many tasks. By the end of the summer the population of the nest may be as many as 10,000. But of these only the queens will survive the winter.

The female stag beetle is more dangerous than the larger male

Posted in Insects, Nature, Wildlife on Friday, 28 February 2014

This edited article about beetles first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 574 published on 13 January 1973.

Stag beetle,  picture, image, illustration

The female Stag Beetle by R B Davis

On a late summer evening in June when the sun is just about to set, a grotesque shape of an insect can be seen outlined against the red dusky sky, circling clumsily around an oak tree in the warm night air.

This is the male stag beetle with its formidable-looking horns that stick out from its head like a stag’s antlers.

As soon as the insect senses danger, it will stiffen and raise itself up in a threatening position, its antlers held out wide open ready to pounce on its attacker. But frightening though the stag beetle may look when it does this, it cannot really inflict much pain with its huge horns which are really overgrown jaws. Its enemy will only suffer a feeble nip from an attack by the male stag beetle, never a severe bite. In fact, sometimes two males may be found fighting each other but seldom seem to do each other any injury. The female of the species is far more deadly than the male. She has smaller jaws but these can cause quite serious wounds when she attacks an enemy. So the female stag beetle, though she is less lethal looking than the male, is a much more dangerous creature.

Stag beetles are found all over the world and are most common in tropical eastern countries.

They live mostly in thickly-wooded areas, especially where there are many oak trees. The grubs or larvae, which are white and fleshy, feed inside rotting tree trunks on decaying wood and usually take four years to grow into adult insects with tough, hard bodies. When at rest the large transparent wings are ingeniously folded and hidden under the stag beetle’s wing covers.