Grown Up’s Guides: Hedge-hunting for Bugs

A hedge! In this case mostly bramble – painful but delicious! These are the plants that produce blackberries but they’re also the arch-nemesis of gardeners and walkers because they grow from nothing to long, spiky tendrils in the space of a week. Not sure what I was snapping here, so scan the picture and see if you can find any insects! (Credit: Me)

I wish I could be more kid-oriented or child-friendly. Honestly it’s a bigger market, a better market, a less challenging market for an all-rounder like me to get into and kids, especially enthusiastic kids, are great. I’d make big bucks and have a blast doing it, surely?

When they’re all behaving, paying attention and listening it’s wonderful but they do that for about six minutes before someone bites someone, one of them finds a used condom and asks what it is, someone has a spontaneous nosebleed in that way kids do and I find that hard to deal with.

Just a beetle on a leaf. No species ID on this specific one because I didn’t get a good look at the back. If you can and it’s possible, photograph your creepy-crawlies from lots of different angles as this allows you to see details that can help you identify them later on. Some shit looks so much like other shit the only way to tell ’em apart is one tiny spot somewhere. (Credit: Me)

What’s more I am autistic. It’s easiest for me to be who I am and whilst a group of enthusiastic children listening to me like I’m God is going to mean I don’t need to mask much (masking is when autistic people pretend to be normal to make everyone else feel better whilst draining themselves of all energy, shits to give and will to live…) I am sweary, irreverent and existential.

I’ve said it before, this ain’t a schtick – how I communicate on WLD is how I communicate. If you’ve ever read an article of mine and gone “Well this is an informative article about plants but why would he stick that inappropriate joke there? That should have been edited out.” Nah mate, because that’s just me.

So I’m not here to teach kids. People think a lot of this shit should be for kids and, do you know what, YOU’RE RIGHT! So what I want to do is teach the fucking adults shit to teach their kids! Why do you always have to put on a documentary by so-and-so, a Youtube video from such-and-such or just plonk ‘em in front of CBeebies. Why don’t YOU fucking do it?

Honestly I don’t consider myself an aesthete or photographer at all but I’ve been impressing myself with some of these snaps. This tiny beetle is definitely a flea beetle (family Chrysomelidae) and I give it a tentative ID of Podagrica sp. (Credit: Me)

I get it, you’re busy – Not too busy for a short walk along a hedgerow, surely?

Because I’ve been doing that multiple days a week recently and having a blast! Yesterday it took me two hours to walk a 15 minute walk because I was stopping and snapping and finding so many different species doing so many different things.

I’ve got spider babies.

“It’s got the body of a spider, but the mind of a baby.” These are common garden spiders, Araneus diadematus. The yellow-and-black ones you see at the centre of big webs in the Autumn. (Credit: Me)

I’ve got multispecies orgies.

Tucked under the leaf, like little black and red spots, are two of the suspected Podagrica doing it. Next to them, disguised on the green (one behind a leaf) two green shieldbugs (Palomena prasina) are doing it. Some flies were also nearby watching and, presumably, wanking. (Credit: Me)

I’ve got some kind of larva or caterpillar riding a snail.

Not sure on an exact ID on the snail, a quick google leads me to believe it is a member of the Hygromidae family, nor can I identify whatever that little larva is hitching a lift, try as I might. As I said, I’ve trained in this stuff but without the big key and a solid specimen to go off even I struggle sometimes with identifications. It’s all part of the fun! (Credit: Me)

I’ve got beautiful and poisonous flowers – I seem to be particularly attracted to those…

I’m not much of a plant or flower guy (although I may write an article on them soon) but I was like “Isn’t this nightshade!?” and sure enough, when I got home and looked it up, it was! Specifically bittersweet nightshade, Solanum dulcamara.

I even, and this is a miracle because they’re right uppity and usually flutter away before you can snap them, I even got a butterfly.

Almost certainly a red admiral butterfly, Vanessa atalanta, probably one of the most iconic and beautiful of the UK’s butterfly species. Taken from some distance because photographing butterflies is HARD! They love to flitter about and, especially when it is warm, do not stop much unless they’re eating! (Credit: Me)

If I know what any of this stuff is I can promise you I pretty much didn’t a few weeks ago. My interest in invertebrates was minimal before my article on wasps. My interest in anything other than wasps was minimal until I started looking for wasps.

It was then that I noticed, fucking hell there’s a lot going on!

Being giants in comparison I think we can take the invertebrate world for granted. But this shit keeps us moving, aerates the soil, pollinates the plants, and decomposes the bodies. Fuck the farmers and gardeners – this is what keeps our lives ticking. This world is dependent on the activity of these bugs, slugs and flies and we ignore them or dismiss them or – worse – persecute them!

This is a thick-legged flower beetle, Oedemera nobilis. So-called because the male has thick thighs! This is a female, though, and they are slightly less shapely but still a gorgeous, iridescent green colour. They are metallic and glitter in the sunshine, it’s beautiful. (Credit: Me)

So here’s what I do, my simple steps to having a lovely, comfortable nature spotting walk;

1. Do whatever you’d do to have a comfy walk – Sturdy shoes, plenty of water, if it’s hot and sunny take suncream, hats, sunglasses etc.

I believe this was one of the rarest bumblebees we have in the UK, the shrill carder bee (Bombus sylvarum) – It has a ginger-yellow coat, black mark on the thorax fluff, and a striped abdomen ending in a slightly orangey tip. It was those distinct abdominal stripes that made me take note that this was something special. It was also big and very bumbley! Humming along and barely stopping, hence why I couldn’t get a good body photo. (Credit: Me)

2. Throw the bottom half of that (at least) away – Forget shorts and t-shirt! Long sleeves and thick trousers are your friend because nettles and brambles are not and the last thing you want is kids bitching and screaming because you said “Mind the nettle!” and they were too busy arguing over who gets what Pokémon card to bother listening and didn’t mind the nettle. You can get nice, thin long sleeve tops these days, even like a sports top that will wick away moisture. It might not keep a bramble out but it will stop a bug bite or a nettle sting.

A European firebug, Pyrrhocoris apterus, buried deep into this flower. This is a strikingly noticable insect – the lighting and macro-setting on my phone do not do the vibrancy of the red colouration any justice but you WILL see that red if you spot these bugs. (Credit: Me)

3. Fuck the big shit! Don’t ‘look’ for it – You’ll see it anyway. When you’re specifically looking for the birds, the rodents, the rabbits, the reptiles etc. you are looking at a certain perspective. Think about your brain as being like a variable telescope for vision and if you’re focussed on looking for a specific thing, if you’re looking on one scale, other scales of stuff (bigger or smaller) go out of focus. You will see a lot of that stuff anyway, in fact perhaps more than if you were actively looking for it! I know it seems weird and contrary but when you’re stopped, close-to-still looking at a hedge for 20 minutes animals tend to be more comfy around you.

“Fuck the big shit, you’ll see it anyway!” and sure enough whilst I am ALWAYS on the lookout for our common lizards – see my article about them – I wasn’t specifically looking for them, or birds, or any big creature. Yet I managed to get this most amazing shot of this lizard as a result of NOT looking for them! Honestly, look for the small stuff and the big stuff will find you. (Credit: Me)

4. Take a wild path – Some of you might be in urban areas so this might be that overgrown canal-side path, or the alley that goes down the backs of two streets. I’m lucky that I live not far from a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) so I tend to head that way. You’re looking for hedgerows with multiple plants, wild flowers and wild grasses. Brownfield sites (if accessible) can actually be amazing for this and you’ll be surprised what bees, bugs and butterflies you can spy on the site of that demolished factory!

This red ant (likely Myrmica sp.) was having a chase with this black fly (1-2mm long black flies are basically the small brown birds of the insect world. Good luck EVER identifying them) that was so quick I didn’t even have time to switch my phone to video it! (Credit: Me)

5. Look and take photos – I’m assuming you don’t know what you’re looking at or for. Neither did or do I. This is why I keep plenty of space on my phone and take tons of photos. Mainly just check out the different species. I’m assuming you know the difference between flies, beetles and spiders? Well you’ve got a start, then! But watch them and look for shit. Do they have a preference for specific plants? Are they doing one thing at one time of day and a different thing at a different time? Do they just hang out or are they active? If they’re active what are they doing? Are they just resting on top of each other or are they doing it?

A red-headed cardinal beetle, Pyrochroa serraticornis, curiously wandering about on a leaf. A very beautiful creature with a striking colouration. A more muted red than the firebug, though. Keep in mind these photos are taken on a phone I paid £60 for brand new, including £10 credit! So I’m using the camera on a £50 Alcatel 1S to take ALL these photos! You don’t need expensive or fancy equipment and I’d wager most of you have better cameras on your phones than mine! So use them and, particularly for bug photos, learn how to use the macro settings for viewing small things. (Credit: Me)

6. Make another day of it going through your photos and trying to identify things – You won’t get it all. I’ve trained in biology – I’ve done undergraduate training in how to identify and tell apart species. I’ve trained at using biological species identification keys and I’m still batting at about 50. I’m only identifying about half. The thing is a lot of this stuff is easy to do. See a red beetle. Google “UK red beetle” don’t look at the search results, go to the images. I guarantee you’ll see it on the first page. Don’t see it – well what else about the beetle is noteworthy? Any patterns “UK red beetle, black pattern”…and so on. Usually within a few searches you’ve got it but if you are doing this with kids this is a great lesson in one of the most important intellectual martial arts of modern times – Google-fu! Being able to research quickly and effectively using a search engine is a skill I see lacking in SO many people young and old that it frankly stuns me. This will improve that.

A tiny red spider mite down at the beach. One of the problems with identifying some species is their similarity to others with sensationalist attachments. For example, I can’t identify spiders. One) I’m an arachnophobe and two) the media has flooded google with the idea that every spider in the UK is a false widow trying to kill you – which is wrong on two counts. This little beach mite is a case in point. Red spider mites (Tetranychus urticae) are (wrongfully) considered an overwhelming garden pest so every time I try to identify this red beach mite I just find details about the garden mites. (Credit: Me)

7. Share it! – One of the joys of being into invertebrates is sharing it with the world. Post your pics on facebook and talk about how little Steven and Daisy managed to identify these species on Google! Not only will it make you look like a great parent and your kids look like fucking geniuses but it’ll let people know this shit’s cool.

That hoverfly in the centre, so still as to be incredibly clear, is actually flapping its wing violently, as you can see by the blur. Many hoverflies exhibit what’s known as Batesian mimicry – where a harmless species has evolved to look like a species that can be harmful (in this case wasps and bees) in order to trick potential predators. Most things people flap about and get scared of thinking they’re wasps are actually hoverflies. (Credit: me)

And it is cool. Growing up in the working-class manner that I did when you’re a kid there’s nothing worse than being clever. You’re a fucking alien, and you get mocked, pushed out and the curiosity sometimes literally beaten out of you.

Sometimes you don’t have to leave your house to catch the show! This spider had a tussel with this green shieldbug that flew into its web. I got to watch them duke it out for about 15 minutes, this spider biting and wrapping up the bug. (Credit: Me)

But I’ve had drunken wankers spot me stargazing, ask what I’m up to and what I can see (although no one’s asked for a look themselves yet!) Likewise the most judgemental comment I have had whilst hedge-diving is a kid saying “What is that man doing!?” most people ask what I’m up to and – again – ask what I’ve seen! The curiosity is there, clearly. If people aren’t calling me a nerd and threatening to kick my head in, if their first response tends to be “Oh, what have you seen?” it implies curiosity – it also implies something holding them back.

Got a dog? Walk slower and gaze at hedgerows. Got kids? Take them for a walk and gaze at hedgerows. Got nobody and nothing but yourself? Don’t worry, most people won’t bother you. Go and look at hedgerows.

Look at the flowers, peer into hedges, gaze at the brambles – I’m going to litter this post with images – My images. They were all taken on the same day, on the same short-ish (for me) walk. This is the amazing diversity you can see in just a couple of hours of looking.

Bumblebees are always a favourite. Given the lack of a stripe at the top of the abdomen this is likely a cuckoo bee – bumblebees that lay their eggs in other bee’s nests. I would suspect the southern cuckoo bee (Bombus vestalis) the most common around here, but it could be the forest cuckoo (Bombus sylvestris). There are many bumblebee species in the UK so you could even have a day of trying to see as many different bumblebee species as possible! (Credit: Me)

Human lives have become very separate from the natural world but, thanks to us causing climate change, that natural world is encroaching through our barriers very quickly. The younger generation, being led by vocal activists like Greta Thunberg, seem to take more of an interest in the natural world and the advantage, in the future, will go to those in tune with it. I don’t want working-class kids to get left behind again. This is an easy way to help your children see more of the natural world, from a different perspective, too. This is an easy way to give them that boost of awareness but also, potentially, have them spot the differences, be the person who contacts the scientists as species distributions change due to climate change!

A goold old common, or garden, snail (Cornu aspersum) with the striking patterns on its helical shell. Why would anyone want to miss sights like these? (Credit: me)

It’s a whole free fucking zoo, and it’s at the bottom of your gardens, down your back alleys and on your brownfield sites. Go and check it out!

But do be safe!

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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