By Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History
We are surrounded by mini-beasts. They are everywhere: in the soil, the trees, the grass, and even in rivers. With over a million different species worldwide, this is the most diverse group on animals of the planet. (Compare that to just over 5,400 species of mammals!) Beetles with their hard, shiny cases, to butterflies looking so delicate as they clumsily flutter in the air, the world of mini-beasts is truly spectacular.
To highlight, and celebrate this miniature world of creatures, the Royal Entomological Society have set up the bi-annual event, National Insect Week. During the week, events and activities run across the UK to highlight how amazing the world of insects really is.
The real challenge with appreciating mini-beasts is trying to spot them in the first place. They are all around us but because they are so small, and many are so well camouflaged, they are not easy to see. Unless you happen to be looking for them.
The Wild about Plymouth group met for their annual bug hunt at Ford Park Cemetery during National Insect Week. A cemetery may seem like a bizarre place to hold a bug hunt, but Ford Park Cemetery is a rich habitat for many animals: mini-beasts, small mammals, birds, and slow worms. The Trust, who manage the site, promote the rich wildlife through exhibitions, walks and events throughout the year. Scientists from Plymouth University and Buglife came along to supply equipment and help identify the creatures.
Full of excitement, the families that came along wanted to discover that was hiding in the long grass, or what they could shake from trees. To search for the unseen, you need a little patience. And a net. And an umbrella.
A sweep net is the obvious weapon of choice for the little ones. Sweeping the net through the long grass and back again several times picks up a surprising amount of mini-beasts. We found dozens of beetles (weevils, thick legged flower beetles and more!). 3 or 4 different types of leafhoppers sprung out of the net as we peered closer. Bright green orb web spiders peered out at us, and we were lucky enough to see a wolf spider carrying her bag of eggs. Just one sweep in one spot, and dozens of species.
A rather popular method was the ‘beating’ technique. Here, a tent pole gently taps a branch, while underneath an upside down umbrella catches anything that falls out. And a surprising amount of life falls to the umbrella below. More orb web spiders, leafhoppers, snails, and lots of flies. From what just looked like a boring tree branch was a hidden metropolis of life.
Dozens of mini-beast species were seen at this Bug Hunt. I sat for a moment in between identifying insects, and watched a flower. A tortoise shell butterfly, gently stopped for a moment using it’s long tongue to taste the sweet nectar. Three different bee species buzzed by. Some unidentified flies zipped in to the flower. One flower. So many species.
Mini-beasts are key to the diversity of our planet (and vital for an important healthy planet where we can live). Not only bees, but beetles, flies, butterflies, moths, hoverflies and more pollinate plants. They keep the soil healthy for plants to grow. They provide food for birds, bats, badgers, hedgehogs and so many more animals. Without mini-beasts, the world would be a desolate, empty place.
The greatest joy of the bug hunt was watching the families working together. Sisters showing their brothers things they had found. Children were showing their parents an unusual bug. Families even joined forces and helped each other, and shared each other’s excitement when a weird and wonderful new mini-beast was seen! Getting out, exploring in the grass and discovering new things brought so many smiles. Enjoying nature together and seeing the joy it can bring helps the next generation to appreciate it. And protect it for the future.
Visit Ford Park Cemetery’s website to find out more about their events. You can also see some of the museum’s specimens on display in an urban wildlife exhibition from Saturday 8th October to Sunday 20th November 2016.
The Buglife website has lots of information helping to protect bugs and run many events and activities across the UK.