Top Five Insects I’ve Seen – #1 – The Ruby-tailed wasp (Chrysis sp. or family Chrysididae)

My first ever proper sighting of a ruby-tailed wasp (likely Chrysis sp., possibly Chrysis ignita) I had seen flashes of them before, but this was the first time I could observe and photograph one. Such brilliant, shimmering colours, amazing form, a cute little jewel of a wasp that really opens doors for people to consider wasps as more than just yellowjackets. (Credit: Me)

As if you didn’t know it’d be a wasp! But look at it.

It’s the wasp I show people to use as a crowbar to talk about wasp diversity. The first thing people who don’t know wasps say when you show them this little beauty, or any of their family, the chrysididae, is “Is that a wasp?!”

The ruby-tail is a teddy-bear, it’s a disarmer, it’s a bright, bold, colourful, shiny, beautiful door-opener to get people to reconsider their opinions on an absolutely massive, and misunderstood, diverse group of insects.

They’re a stark contrast to the sleek, sexy femme fatales, the vespines, the social wasps, which so many people associate with the word ‘wasp’, with their sportscar good looks and danger-colouration.

Ruby-tails are cute.

You will notice a pattern in my photos. Most of these wasps are eating the nectar on apiaceae plants – members of the parsley/carrot family. These wildflowers seem to attract a lot of wasps, as well as bees, flies, beetles and more! (Credit: Me)

The most common species in the UK is Chrysis ignita, however there are other species and they can be quite difficult to tell apart, particularly in a living specimen. Typically they are quite small, around 5-10mm in length, with a green-blue head and thorax and a ruby-red abdomen. They are drop-dead gorgeous!

But, like all these species, their appearance pales when considering their lives and behaviours. And this is why I have put this little wasp as number one on my list. Because these are amazing creatures.

They are a kleptoparasite – a species that steals resources from others – in this case because they are a nest parasite. They lay their eggs in the nests of other species (mostly solitary potter or mason wasps (eumenids) or mason bees (megachilids) but they are known to parasitise other wasps and bees) where their young larva will then consume the hosts eggs or larvae, and possibly any food resources the host has put in the nest.

For this reason they are known as ‘cuckoo wasps’ as this behaviour is similar to the most famous nest parasite, the cuckoo.

Another parasitoid of the nests of solitary wasps and bees Gasteruption jaculator has the lengthy ovipositor to sneakily infiltrate the nest of its host whilst minimising confrontation. (Credit: Me)

Many parasitoid wasps that lay their eggs in the nests of other wasps and bees behave very differently from Chrysids. They often have long ovipositors – their egg-laying apparatus – to sneakily penetrate into a nest to lay their eggs, avoiding conflict.

The ruby-tail is far bolder. They will watch a nest to see when it is clear, back themselves up into it and lay their egg. They go straight into the nest! Surely this leads to conflict?

Well sometimes, but they’ve adapted means to deal with that. Firstly their exoskeleton, that shimmering jewel body-armour is just that – armour. It is quite thick to prevent stinging attacks, it has concave sections (most visible on the abdomen) that could help prevent stings or else help it to ball-up when it is in danger and escape harm. There are some damn dandy smooth criminals!

And that’s before we even get to the cuticular hydrocarbons.

These chemical compounds are present on all insects and seem to primarily exist to prevent desiccation – drying out. However they play a very important role as chemical signatures. In social insects the cuticular hydrocarbons can identify nest-mates, their roles or status in the hierarchy, their age etc. Think of it like your mate who always wears the same fragrance no one else does. You’ll know it’s them by that signature scent.

A video of a Chrysidid wasp evaluating potential host nests. So much of it is watching, waiting, patience and reconnaissance. This wasp is a careful disruptor, a pacifist spy, in-and-out to get the job done with minimal fuss. It’s awesome! (Credit: George Pilkington via Youtube)

There is evidence that cuckoo wasps, possibly even our Chrysis here, can mimic the hydrocarbon signatures of their host species. If they are recognised visually then they’re in for a bad time. However if they meet in the dark, either at night or in the lightless hole of a nest, they can come face-to-face with the host and not be recognised as an intruder. It’s the James Bond of wasps, it’s a suave and gorgeous little spy.

It’s a demonstration of an evolutionary arms race – two competing lives, the host and the parasite, each trying to do their own thing whilst preventing the other from doing theirs.

Those big eyes on the side of the head give them a very cute appearance. (Credit: Me)

As a result the parasite species must adapt methods and behaviour to avoid detection and protect itself from defensive attacks. Meanwhile the host species must evolve methods and behaviour to detect potential invaders and prevent them from exploiting their labours and preventing them from raising offspring.

And to cap it all off this is technically an aculeate wasp – a ‘stinging’ wasp, at least by classification. But a ruby-tail is unlikely to ever sting you. Their stinging apparatus is used almost exclusively as an ovipositor to lay eggs. They have no venom.

This wasp is a beautiful, charismatic, pacifist spy and invader! It’s complex, it’s an enigma, a species that leaves a lot to figure out. From a human moral point of view shoving your babies into someone else’s nursery to have them consume the offspring of the host seems terrible. But nature has no regard for such morality.

How is our opinion coloured by the fact that it’s this beautiful pacifist parasitising the nests of species that are often larger, stronger and can sting? The hosts have evolved attack mechanisms, the ruby-tail has evolved defences!

I don’t know what it is but watching wasps eating gives me the same simple smile that I get when I see cats eating. Wasps are skittish and rapid. They seem to operate on wasp-time, everything is super-quick! But when they’re eating they’re so chill, you can get nice close-ups, they are relatively unbothered, so focussed are they on just getting a good nectar meal. (Credit: Me)

And what is more powerful in our consideration of them? The ‘halo effect’, the psychological heuristic of associating goodness with pretty things, or that reputation, heavy, negative and dripping misunderstanding, that comes from the word ‘wasp’?

The purpose of this series of articles is to get people to think more deeply about how they consider insects. To see that there is beauty in them and to go out and look for it. To think of what they consider beautiful or valuable. Whether they even consider insects beautiful or valuable at all!

The ruby-tailed wasp is such a magnificent poster-child for this for all the reasons I’ve written about. They are complex and in consideration of them you are forced to confront prejudices, biases and how you perceive the natural world – particularly from the point of view of moralising it from a human perspective – often a dangerous route to go down.

I want to get people to appreciate the nitty-gritty of life. But some are not comfortable when confronted with the reality of the beautiful ballet of brutality that life truly is. They deny it, or close themselves off from it and their opinions on the natural world can often fail to have balance, nuance or knowledge as a basis.

Their ideas about the natural world become very human-focussed, anthropocentric, rooted in concepts of human value, morals and judgements and informed by human factors, by social pressures, by media presentation, common narratives, word-of-mouth, folklore and public opinion.

Given the patch of red on the thorax this is possibly Chrysis viridula(?) although, again, identifying ruby-tails can be tough. Either way the beauty is evident! (Credit: Kentish Plumber CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0)

So how do we open that door?

How do we encourage people to delve deeper than superficial reputations, the zeitgeist, or one-off media presentations that may skew ideas away from nuance and complexity to present a simple, human-digestible narrative?

Having a charismatic hook definitely helps. Having species like the ruby-tailed wasp that are, of themselves, challenging to those very narratives is a great way to open doors. I do not want to use beauty to appeal, but beauty is appealing and if it can be used to pry open the mind and get people to think deeper on a subject, I will use it.

Maybe the ruby-tailed wasp has some lessons for us.

My first ever ruby-tail photo! I gasped, I smiled, and then I smiled more when it hung around eating on this flower and let me watch it! Connecting with nature in this way is so wholesome. I am so glad I got into insects and invertebrates because it has brought me so much joy, knowledge and new experiences. (Credit: Me)

Present well, evolve to protect ourselves from attack rather than to be the attackers, observe our targets, adapt to be accepted by those hosts, lay our knowledge and wait, and hope, that it may grow.

When and Where to See Them

Ruby-tailed wasps are active from around April-September and are pretty widespread across the UK. Keep an eye out for them around areas with bricks, walls, dunes etc. where their hosts may make their nests. I have had huge success around late June and through July seeing them eating on umbellifers (big umbrella-like flowers such as hogweed or carrot), so look out for those.

I hope you find one and can check out this adorable little insect that gives me so much joy and inspiration.

If you wish to get more involved or learn my about insects and invertebrates here are some links to The Royal Entomological Society and Insect Week resources.

Royal Entomological Society Website
Twitter
Facebook
Instagram

Insect Week Website
Twitter
Facebook
Instagram

Or you can read some of my other articles about insects and invertebrates below.

My Top Five UK Insects I’ve Seen: Introduction
An introduction to my top five insects, and a short look at why we need to see our insects differently.
Top Five Insects #5 – The Tawny Mining Bee (Andrena fulva)
Under-appreciated spring bee with a female who has incredible fox-red fur.
Top Five Insects #4 – The Rose Chafer (Cetonia aurata)
An otherworldly jewel of a beetle.
Top Five Insects #3 – The Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae)
Proof that moths can be as amazing as butterflies, with a lovely caterpillar!
Top Five Insects #2 – The Thick-Legged Flower Beetle (Oedemera nobilis)
A charming iridescent green flower beetle, some of whom have thick thighs!

Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals – #1 – Wasps
A look at wasps in all their diverse beauty and glory and why they are important to us. A long-read.

The Wasp Tragedy – How Can We Help?
A few tips on how you can encourage wasps and other insect and invertebrate biodiversity in your home or garden.

Insects: The Savage Eden Before Your Eyes
A more in-depth look at my journey as I developed a relationship with insects and their role in our ecosystems.

Grown-Ups Guides: Hedge-Hunting for Bugs!
A short guide on how a total novice can get started appreciating the tiny wildlife in the undergrowth (safely)! Aimed at adults.

Human Bias and Animal Myth in Conservation
Not insect-specific but hugely relevant. Adapted from a twitter thread looking at how humans form ideas and relationships with the natural world.

Top Five Insects I’ve Seen – #2 – The Thick-Legged Flower Beetle (Oedemera nobilis)

Such brilliant colours, I love those little bug-eyes, and dem T H I C C thighs are just special. This is the thick-legged flower beetle, Oedemera nobilis. (Credit: Me)

I’ma give ya some behind the scenes!

Curating lists like this can be difficult. Because if I’d just picked my favourites you would have had four wasps and a beetle, each article would have been 100 words and as many images long and even fewer people would have cared.

If I’d picked your favourites you would just be looking at the same bumblebees and butterflies that sap all the insect attention and nothing new would get a light shone upon it. I haven’t exactly broke new ground myself but I’ve at least tried to be varied.

So instead I look for a combination, what are my favourites that are unusual, and what’s the hook, the story I want to tell?

A female Oedemera nobilis enjoying the flowers with a couple of wasps and a fly – think that’s a hint of pollen beetle behind her. Notice the female’s legs are more slender than the males. (Credit: Me)

No such luck with these guys, they’re just here because I love ‘em! And this is not a matter of beauty, style, elegance. Nah, this is all charm!

That’s not to say the thick-legged flower beetle is not beautiful. That iridescent green-sheen, hints of bronze in the right light, that can border on blues and violets, the elegant form, the tapering elytra – those hard wing casings – It’s a pretty little animal.

But this beetle, Oedemera nobilis, is just charming to me. It’s hard to explain why.

It’s important to be considerate. To ‘know thyself’ and your reasons for thinking and feeling as you do. It’s important to have a message, an idea, and to wish to share it with the world using examples of those things for which you have regard.

But sometimes It’s important to just like what ya like and not look into it too much. Sometimes that probing can lead to us thinking we don’t like something when we do, especially under social duress. I like wasps, most people don’t. But I will not invalidate myself based on that majority pressure!

Inside a hedge-bindweed. I have often found these beetles in these flowers and it’s always joyful. (Credit: Me)

The thick-legged flower beetle is – as the name suggests – a flower beetle, feeding on pollen and nectar – so it’s an important pollinator. It seems to have a particular fondness for open flowers. I see them regularly on hedge bindweed, bramble flowers, dandelions, umbellifers – they visit a lot!

They are highly abundant in England and Wales having had a population expansion from around the mid-90s. They are rarer further north, and unlikely to be found in Scotland or Ireland.

They get their name, if you haven’t noticed it from the images, from those bulbous little didn’t-skip-leg-day thighs of theirs! This is another example of sexual dimorphism (different appearance between sexes) though, as only the males have those squatter’s legs! The females’ legs are quite delicate and slender in comparison.

So what am I going to write about if there’s no story!? Well that’s the story!

How can you not love this little guy!? He’s my buddy! (Credit: Andy Murray CC-BY-SA-2.0)

In all the interests I have promoted, astronomy, fossil hunting, looking at invertebrates etc. One of the first things I encourage is just to go do it! Research the best areas, tips, methods, equipment etc. but don’t research “What to look for” because then you are at the whims of someone else’s opinion.

I encourage people to go out and find the things they like for their own reasons. And yes, as this list demonstrates, many of those will be similar to everyone else’s. Human minds are not so different from one another! But you may also have a particular connection with something others hate (like wasps! Which are lovely!) or you may find beauty in something others find dull, you may find majesty in the humble, attraction in the ugly, regard for the disregarded and love for the hated – and I want to encourage that.

Curiosity ought to have no regard for reputation.

I will admit the thick-legged flower beetle is a beautiful little thing. But it’s hardly top of the list of most well-known and regarded insects in this country. It’s not even top of my list! But I vibe with them. I love these little guys and smile when I see them. They make me happy. I love it when they’re tucked up inside a hedge bindweed like it’s their little house. I love seeing them fly, their glistening green elytra open and chonky legs dangling.

On the mallow flower. Just so damn charming! (Credit: Me)

Sometimes we just like what we like. So get out there and find what you like of our six-legged friends. Maybe you’ll see a lovely flower beetle with thick thighs!

If you wish to get more involved or learn my about insects and invertebrates here are some links to The Royal Entomological Society and Insect Week resources.

Royal Entomological Society Website
Twitter
Facebook
Instagram

Insect Week Website
Twitter
Facebook
Instagram

Or you can read some of my other articles about insects and invertebrates below.

My Top Five UK Insects I’ve Seen: Introduction
An introduction to my top five insects, and a short look at why we need to see our insects differently.
Top Five Insects #5 – The Tawny Mining Bee (Andrena fulva)
Under-appreciated spring bee with a female who has incredible fox-red fur.
Top Five Insects #4 – The Rose Chafer (Cetonia aurata)
An otherworldly jewel of a beetle.
Top Five Insects #3 – The Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae)
Proof that moths can be as amazing as butterflies, with a lovely caterpillar!

Top Five Insects #1 – The Ruby-Tailed Wasps (Chrysis sp. or Family Chrysididae)
Stunning little jewels that can teach us much about the diversity of wasps and insects.

Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals – #1 – Wasps
A look at wasps in all their diverse beauty and glory and why they are important to us. A long-read.

The Wasp Tragedy – How Can We Help?
A few tips on how you can encourage wasps and other insect and invertebrate biodiversity in your home or garden.

Insects: The Savage Eden Before Your Eyes
A more in-depth look at my journey as I developed a relationship with insects and their role in our ecosystems.

Grown-Ups Guides: Hedge-Hunting for Bugs!
A short guide on how a total novice can get started appreciating the tiny wildlife in the undergrowth (safely)! Aimed at adults.

Human Bias and Animal Myth in Conservation
Not insect-specific but hugely relevant. Adapted from a twitter thread looking at how humans form ideas and relationships with the natural world.

Top 5 Insects I’ve Seen – #3 – The Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae)

My first sighting of the adult, moth form, of Tyria jacobaeae – The cinnabar moth. Named after the red pigment. It’s really something. Easily one of the UK’s most beautiful moths, but it’s more than just beautiful! (Credit: Me)

I hadn’t actually seen one of these until only a couple of months ago. Not their adult, flying form anyway. But when you see this beautiful vamp spread its wings it truly is something to behold. Seeing it Unfold its seemingly blood-stained black cape to reveal a bold red lining beneath. This moth is fashion goals!

And they’re no slouch in the form I know them best as, their caterpillars, either. The caterpillar of the cinnabar moth is a relatively large and wonderfully tiger-striped orange-and-black tubes that feed exclusively off of ragwort.

This, incidentally, is one of the reasons for their colour. I’m sure you’re aware that often brightly coloured creatures – the black-and-yellow of wasps, the various shades of reds, blues and yellows of poison dart frogs, those octopuses with iridescent blue rings – are ‘warning signs’. It’s something we’re often taught very young. The technical term for this is aposematism, the use of bold colours or striking patterns to act as a warning sign to potential predators that you’re not worth the risk. Effectively the naturally evolved form of the expression “come and ‘ave a go if you think you’re ‘ard enough!”

Cinnabar moth caterpillars on some kind of ragwort. This is in a reasonably built up area, and they can appear on ragworts if you leave them to grow in your garden. Another reason not to get the mower out! (Credit: Me)

In the case of the cinnabar moth they get their noxiousness from the ragwort they eat. Ragwort (also known quite humorously as ‘stinking willie’) is a common plant native to the UK. If you’ve ever seen tall bushes of yellow-orange flowers on a medium-to-tall thin stem, likely that’s ragwort. These plants contain a cocktail of chemicals called ‘alkaloids’ that can have some nasty effects if ingested by the wrong creatures – sometimes including people. For the caterpillars of cinnabar moths, however, they gift them the protection of toxicity to many predators. Even where they are not actually harmful they can have a bitter taste or basically be unpalatable to predators, discouraging predation.

The adult form retains this unpalatable trait, so the moths are also undesirable to predators! It’s very clever.

I’m just saying if someone wants to make me a coat in these colours I’d wear the hell out of it! More than beautiful these moths are stylish! (Credit: nutmeg66 CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0)

Now I wouldn’t be doing my job as a wasp advocate if I didn’t mention something here. You see cinnabar moths lay loads of bloody eggs – batches of around 40-50 are not uncommon, they may lay a few batches – You’re looking 300 eggs. That’s a lot of potential caterpillars.

And there is basically not a single insect that doesn’t have a wasp that hunts or parasitises it! This is especially true of lepidopterans – moths and butterflies. So if you ever happen upon a clutch of caterpillars I do strongly urge you to watch them for a while and keep an eye out for wasps nearby. I saw it recently with a nest of small tortoiseshell caterpillars. But the most amazing spot was in some ragwort in an alley behind a housing estate.

There I saw a whole bunch of cinnabar moth caterpillars and thought “Hmm, I’ll watch these!” and got to see this!

A parasitoid wasp sticking an egg into its caterpillar host! Amazing! As someone hugely into predator-prey interactions and wasps this was a blessing to see.

You may think it cruel. You may in your existing prejudice of wasps think this is mean, that it is horrible that this wasp is doing such a thing to this beautiful caterpillar that turns into a beautiful moth but – as mentioned – they lay hundreds of eggs! They can’t all live and if they do they have been known, when low on food, to cannibalise!

Cinnabar moth caterpillars can be in very large numbers. Little wonder, then, that parasitoids exploit them. But this does not harm them anywhere near as much as loss of habitat (the ragwort – cut as a weed and due to its toxicity to cattle and horses) has. (Credit: Me)

Predators help regulate prey numbers. Wasps aren’t just doing this for cinnabar moths, they’re doing it to the white butterflies that eat your cabbages, the flies that give you E. coli and the aphids making your flowers less vibrant. Wasps are our friends when it comes to maintaining healthy ecosystems, Let them do their thing without prejudice and they are of huge benefit to us and the wider natural world. They are ensuring that there’s some ragwort left for the next generation of cinnabar moths!

There, I got back on subject! I do love wasps, though.

These moths are quite large and conspicuous, are well distributed across the UK and are known to fly during the day – So they are a pretty easy spot despite them taking so long for me to find! Further north, in the north of England and Scotland, they seem to be restricted to the coast. And if you want to see the caterpillars just keep an eye out for ragwort around July-through-September.

I would recommend trying to spot one. Moths are often not as kindly regarded as their butterfly brethren. Considered plainer, less beautiful and being associated with night, darkness, sometimes even withcraft, devilry or death. But they can be beautiful, intricately patterned, with cute faces and funny little habits and behaviours.

Why would you not want to see this!? (Credit: Charles J. Sharp, Sharp PhotographyCC-BY-SA-4.0)

Get out there and enjoy some moths!

If you wish to get more involved or learn my about insects and invertebrates here are some links to The Royal Entomological Society and Insect Week resources.

Royal Entomological Society Website
Twitter
Facebook
Instagram

Insect Week Website
Twitter
Facebook
Instagram

Or you can read some of my other articles about insects and invertebrates below.

My Top Five UK Insects I’ve Seen: Introduction
An introduction to my top five insects, and a short look at why we need to see our insects differently.
Top Five Insects #5 – The Tawny Mining Bee (Andrena fulva)
Under-appreciated spring bee with a female who has incredible fox-red fur.
Top Five Insects #4 – The Rose Chafer (Cetonia aurata)
An otherworldly jewel of a beetle.

Top Five Insects #2 – The Thick-Legged Flower Beetle (Oedemera nobilis)
A charming iridescent green flower beetle, some of whom have thick thighs!
Top Five Insects #1 – The Ruby-Tailed Wasps (Chrysis sp. or Family Chrysididae)
Stunning little jewels that can teach us much about the diversity of wasps and insects.

Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals – #1 – Wasps
A look at wasps in all their diverse beauty and glory and why they are important to us. A long-read.

The Wasp Tragedy – How Can We Help?
A few tips on how you can encourage wasps and other insect and invertebrate biodiversity in your home or garden.

Insects: The Savage Eden Before Your Eyes
A more in-depth look at my journey as I developed a relationship with insects and their role in our ecosystems.

Grown-Ups Guides: Hedge-Hunting for Bugs!
A short guide on how a total novice can get started appreciating the tiny wildlife in the undergrowth (safely)! Aimed at adults.

Human Bias and Animal Myth in Conservation
Not insect-specific but hugely relevant. Adapted from a twitter thread looking at how humans form ideas and relationships with the natural world.

Top Five Insects I’ve Seen – #4 – The Rose Chafer (Cetonia aurata)

Surely one of the most stunning insect species we have in the UK – the rose chafer beetle (Cetonia aurata) (Credit: Me)

I was initially going to write a list of top five most striking UK insects but alas when I actually put grey matter to the task I realised the list would be mostly, if not exclusively, beetles.

Beetles, the order coleoptera, are a huge group. Of all the species described in the world somewhere around 40% of them are beetles and there are around 400,000-500,000 species of them! Little wonder, then, that they vary from tiny barely perceptible grey things to the most beautifully coloured little living gems and jewels on our planet.

The UK alone contains over 4,000 species of beetle.

This beetle display in the Horniman Museum, London is only a fraction of the wealth of diversity the beetle has evolved. (Credit: Me)

So what makes a beetle?

Well the simple rule of thumb is that beetles will have a particularly hardened exoskeleton. Where they are flyers they have hardened wing cases, called ‘elytra’, that will cover their wings when not flying but are usually not used for flight. There are other specifics to do with mouthparts, leg segments, and antennae segments but welcome to the world of insect identification and classification! It’s hard work as I know from scrabbling for IDs for the things I spot!

A rose chafer in Germany preparing for take-off! Notice the wings protruding from underneath the shimmering green wing casings (elytra) that are a trademark for identifying flying beetles. Some species fly with these elytra out, others, like the rose chafer, fold them back in during flight. (Credit: Bluecloud CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Of course this is biology. There are wingless beetles, water beetles, ground beetles. The evolutionary biologist J. B. S. Haldane once famously quipped when asked about the intentions of the mind of God that He has “an inordinate fondness for beetles.” And whatever your thoughts on God, creation and evolution the overwhelming successes of the adaptation of the beetle form are inarguable, and clearly favoured by nature!

So what’s so special about the rose chafer? Look at it. This is not some picture-book fairy-tale made up creature. It’s not some exotic species from the rainforests of the Congo in Africa or the Amazon in South America. This is not some pretty little artefact from ancient Egypt once worn as a brooch. This is a UK native beetle that is otherworldly beautiful.

We have many beautiful beetles in the UK, the Green tiger, the rainbow leaf beetle, the wasp beetle – and many more. I have seen a few of them and none of them gave me that same ‘wow!’ as seeing my first rose chafer.

I’ve recently written an article about human bias in conservation. I will confess my regard for this beetle is evidence of those biases in me. I am swayed by this insect’s beauty. In fact many of the species on this list are on this list because their appearance gives me immediate positive chills. These biases are innate and we must work to overcome them, and there are many dull species I enjoy because of what they are, what they do, and the unique beauties they possess.

One thing I’ve noticed with beetles is they’re very often doing it! To the extent that I have been described by friends as a beetle pornographer because of the amount of photos I have of beetles going at it. (Credit: Rollstein via Pixabay)

But a big, stunning insect is always going to be that immediately available draw. It’s always going to go straight from your eyes to your heart. Given my intention is to try to engage people who may not like insects I figured I’d start with beautiful beetles!

Rose chafers are a member of the scarabaeidae – scarab beetles. Perhaps the lingering Primary School teachings on ancient Egypt also colour my perception of this beetle, giving it a reverence since it looks so much like it belongs shrouded in ancient mystery and written in hieroglyphs.

Warning: Technical language!

The incredible colour, that metallic green oil-slick iridescence, is a form of ‘structural colour’. That is to say it is not like your hair colour or eye colour which is determined by pigments – colouring substances that work by selective absorption of different wavelengths of light. Rather the colour of the rose chafer is created mostly by the way the exoskeleton, the insect’s hard shell, is grown. It forms crystals of chitin (what insect shells are mostly made of – it’s a polysaccharide, a long-string of modified glucose molecules – a sort of sugar-cement!) and other proteins which ‘polarise’ the light – effectively changing the way the light travels and thus how it hits your eye.

This green, shimmering oil-slick appearance is not the result of pigments, like your hair colour. Rather tiny structures within the shell itself manipulate light (in this case exhibiting ‘left circular polarisation’) which interferes with the light waves and thus, how you see them. Structural colour is common in nature. By looking at the beetle through a right circular polarised lens it appears colourless! (Credit: orientalizing CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0)

Sorry, it’s all very technical! But basically light hit stuff, make light move funny, look pretty to eyes!

The rose chafer is more than just beautiful, though. Its larval stage (which is generically grubby in appearance, a yellow-white grub with a little orange head) is saprophagous – it is a detritivore – put simply they eat dead stuff! Rotten plant matter, mostly. This is important for the cycle of nutrients and for soil health. The adults tend to eat pollen and nectar and sometimes the flowers themselves and, given their name, have a fondness for roses. This does suggest they offer pollination services but they can also leave holes in your flowers from having a nibble!

One of the things I think people forget when thinking about insects is their life cycle. Some insects spend the bulk of their lives in a larval stage and yet we most associate that insect with their brief-lived adult form.

A rose chafer adult (left) and larva (right) (Credit: Daniel Zippert CC-BY-SA-4.0)

The metamorphoses, the transformations they can undergo are so drastic we often think of them almost as separate species. So it can be difficult to see a beautiful white butterfly flittering above your garden and associate it with those caterpillars that keep gobbling up your cabbages. They are the same animal, though!

Rose chafers are active generally from around May to late-September/October and we are actually approaching in the peak of their activity in June and July. They are mostly a southern species here in the UK, distributed quite widely there, with only sporadic sightings further north than the midlands. Naturally, given the name, keep an eye out for them on roses, particularly the dog rose.

I have had great success finding rose chafers on these umbellifer flowers, too. And, as you can see, they are a haven of all sorts of insect biodiversity! (Credit: Me)

So get out there and see if you can spot this fantastic species and behold the jewelled brilliance yourself.

If you wish to get more involved or learn my about insects and invertebrates here are some links to The Royal Entomological Society and Insect Week resources.

Royal Entomological Society Website
Twitter
Facebook
Instagram

Insect Week Website
Twitter
Facebook
Instagram

Or you can read some of my other articles about insects and invertebrates below.

My Top Five UK Insects I’ve Seen: Introduction
An introduction to my top five insects, and a short look at why we need to see our insects differently.
Top Five Insects #5 – The Tawny Mining Bee (Andrena fulva)
Under-appreciated spring bee with a female who has incredible fox-red fur.

Top Five Insects #3 – The Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae)
Proof that moths can be as amazing as butterflies, with a lovely caterpillar!
Top Five Insects #2 – The Thick-Legged Flower Beetle (Oedemera nobilis)
A charming iridescent green flower beetle, some of whom have thick thighs!
Top Five Insects #1 – The Ruby-Tailed Wasps (Chrysis sp. or Family Chrysididae)
Stunning little jewels that can teach us much about the diversity of wasps and insects.

Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals – #1 – Wasps
A look at wasps in all their diverse beauty and glory and why they are important to us. A long-read.

The Wasp Tragedy – How Can We Help?
A few tips on how you can encourage wasps and other insect and invertebrate biodiversity in your home or garden.

Insects: The Savage Eden Before Your Eyes
A more in-depth look at my journey as I developed a relationship with insects and their role in our ecosystems.

Grown-Ups Guides: Hedge-Hunting for Bugs!
A short guide on how a total novice can get started appreciating the tiny wildlife in the undergrowth (safely)! Aimed at adults.

Human Bias and Animal Myth in Conservation
Not insect-specific but hugely relevant. Adapted from a twitter thread looking at how humans form ideas and relationships with the natural world.

Top Five Insects I’ve Seen – #5 – The Tawny Mining Bee (Andrena fulva)

Not my best shot, but the one that shows the colour the best. Although still not great as my cheap phone camera didn’t do colour well! The thorax is covered in a deep red fluff that really stands out amidst the muted greens of spring. The abdomen has this incredible sunset-stripe effect of darker stripes fading into lighter ones. The female tawny mining bee is not only an incredible sight, but the species itself is a wonderful pollinator for flowers that bloom in spring. (Credit: Me)

The Andrena genus of bees is astounding! These are the bees you are most likely to see around May-early June before the honeybees really kick off their hives. If you’ve ever been out on a warm, sunny day in April and seen lots of bees in the air, the bulk of them will be Andrenids.

They are mostly ground-nesting (or mining bees) preferring loose, sandy soils. They are also mostly solitary so do not form social groups, although they may nest close to one another. They are pretty widely distributed across temperate regions; Europe, North America, Asia etc. The tawny mining bee is, to the best of my knowledge, native to Europe.

In appearance many Andrenids have the familiar fluffy black-and-yellow/orange colour scheme and can be pretty indistinguishable from one another. But some of them are very striking and our Andrena fulva is definitely one of them!

It was a tough call between this and the ashy mining bee (Andrena cineraria). I love the awesome monochrome of the ashy. They look like tiny little bee-wolves (not to be confused with the bee-hunting wasp, the beewolf!) and they are adorably fluffy.

The ashy mining bee (Andrena cineraria) almost made this list. Similar in behaviour to the tawny, and most other Andrena species, this is definitely one of my favourites but doesn’t quite have the impact of a female tawny (Credit: Me)

However there is something about the tawny that just hits me in the inspiration. Something about this little bee with its burning, fox-red fluff that makes me gasp whenever I see one.

I should not need to talk too much about the incredible pollination services offered by bees. As Professor Seirian Sumner recently wrote in her incredible book ‘Endless Forms: The Secret World of Wasps’ (definitely get your hands on a copy! Linky here) “bees are just wasps that have forgotten how to hunt.”

Bees evolved from wasps. Specifically they evolved not to require meat, other invertebrates, to feed their young (larvae), but instead evolved the means of using pollen as that protein source.

As a result bees and flowering plants have co-evolved together. Plants have evolved specific traits, colours, shapes etc. that attract bees, and bees have evolved things such as fluffy bodies or specific movements or behaviours that permit them to dislodge and carry pollen. It is a great example of mutualism – a type of symbiotic relationship where two species benefit from their interactions with one another.

When not seen on flowers, Andrena can often be found resting on leaves or surfaces. Here is a female tawny mining bee just having a chill. (Credit:gailhampshire CC-BY-2.0)

If you say ‘pollination’ to someone as a word-association exercise, most people will probably think ‘bees’. Rightfully so, as most evidence suggests they are one of, if not the most important provider of pollination services. However the sad fact of this immediate association is people then neglect the other important pollinators – hoverflies, wasps, butterflies, flies, beetles etc.

What’s more people tend to associate bee pollination with the honeybee. They talk of importing more honeybees to aid pollination. However increasing the number of honeybees to stop the decline in bee populations could actually be harmful to species like the Andrena which do have overlap with honeybee activity. Over-reliance on the semi-domesticated honeybee for pollination could harm, rather than help, as it could out-compete our native, wild bees.

It’s almost like the natural world is a complicated, chaotic web of interactions and we should be considered and careful in how we mess with it!

A male Andrena fulva – A lot less conspicuous than the female, but no less beautiful or valuable. (Credit: gailhampshire CC-BY-2.0)

As for what the tawny mining bee pollinates? Almost anything that could flower in spring! Buttercups, oak, berries like gooseberry or blackcurrant, hawthorn, beech, flowers like daffodils etc. I’m not sure you could possibly provide an exhaustive list because they can be pretty generalist.

The tawny mining bee exhibits what is known as sexual dimorphism – a difference in appearance between the sexes. It is only the female that has the striking red coat, whilst the male is an altogether more unassuming and quite generic Andrena-looking bee.

Sadly as of writing this (June 21st 2022) the tawny mining bee will likely be reaching the end of its activity for the year. They are most active between March and mid-June. But next spring do keep your eye out for this striking little species and admire just how stunningly, beautifully red the females are!

They are unbelievable, and a demonstration of the amazing beauty of our six-legged buddies, and the many different forms, shapes, sizes and colours they can show.

If you wish to get more involved or learn my about insects and invertebrates here are some links to The Royal Entomological Society and Insect Week resources.

Royal Entomological Society Website
Twitter
Facebook
Instagram

Insect Week Website
Twitter
Facebook
Instagram

Or you can read some of my other articles about insects and invertebrates below.

My Top Five UK Insects I’ve Seen: Introduction
An introduction to my top five insects, and a short look at why we need to see our insects differently.

Top Five Insects #4 – The Rose Chafer (Cetonia aurata)
An otherworldly jewel of a beetle.
Top Five Insects #3 – The Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae)
Proof that moths can be as amazing as butterflies, with a lovely caterpillar!
Top Five Insects #2 – The Thick-Legged Flower Beetle (Oedemera nobilis)
A charming iridescent green flower beetle, some of whom have thick thighs!
Top Five Insects #1 – The Ruby-Tailed Wasps (Chrysis sp. or Family Chrysididae)
Stunning little jewels that can teach us much about the diversity of wasps and insects.

Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals – #1 – Wasps
A look at wasps in all their diverse beauty and glory and why they are important to us. A long-read.

The Wasp Tragedy – How Can We Help?
A few tips on how you can encourage wasps and other insect and invertebrate biodiversity in your home or garden.

Insects: The Savage Eden Before Your Eyes
A more in-depth look at my journey as I developed a relationship with insects and their role in our ecosystems.

Grown-Ups Guides: Hedge-Hunting for Bugs!
A short guide on how a total novice can get started appreciating the tiny wildlife in the undergrowth (safely)! Aimed at adults.

Human Bias and Animal Myth in Conservation
Not insect-specific but hugely relevant. Adapted from a twitter thread looking at how humans form ideas and relationships with the natural worl

My Top 5 Favourite UK Insects I’ve Seen: Introduction

The always beloved bumblebee may not need much effort to boost its reputation, but other insects may be just as valuable and sadly underappreciated or even persecuted. (Credit: Me)

Happy Insect Week!

If you’ve been following for a while you’ll know my history with insects, but if not here’s the story.

I was, at one point, before an autistic burnout turned my dreams to ashes, an aspiring biologist. It is safe to say that biology, ecology and wildlife were my first true academic love. However I never caught the bug ‘bug’ until it came to writing my Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals articles, specifically the one on wasps – which came #1 on the list!

A very active social wasp! Like Vespula vulgaris, the common wasp, One of the most beautiful insect forms, a voracious predator of many things that will destroy your garden, likely a significant pollinator and yet these critters have a reputation for being mean, annoying and pointless. It’s a shame as they are far from it! (Credit: Me)

I definitely committed the crime of ‘assumed knowledge’ when it came to wasps. I thought everyone thought as I did. That social wasps (Vespula sp. – the yellowjackets you flail your arms wildly at, think are ‘mean’ when they’re not and most associate with being annoying and stinging) could be a bit of pain but they have their place in our ecosystems, and that these actually represent only a small sample of the much more diverse group known as ‘wasps’.

I was wrong!

To many people ‘wasps’ are just yellowjackets. In fact to some of those people so are lots of native bees that aren’t bumblebees or honey bees! So I wrote a piece to try to set the record straight, and my research for it developed a strong love for wasps. It also put me in contact with Professor Seirian Sumner, possibly one of the most enthusiastic wasp enthusiasts you could imagine, and co-founder of ‘Big Wasp Survey’.

At the time the Big Wasp Survey had a project called #WaspFlower. A citizen science project (where you get normal people to go out and do stuff for science because money is tight and the project is too huge!) aimed at photographing wasps on flowers. Partially a PR exercise to show more wasps and in more situations than just robbing the ham from your sandwich or falling into your can of coke. Mostly to determine what flowers wasps may be visiting and offering pollination services for.

My first ever parasitoid wasp seen in the wild. The lengthy curled appendage behind her is not a massive sting, but an ovipositor, used for depositing her eggs. Parasitoid wasps like this tend to hunt prey, or else lay their eggs on or in prey, helping regulate populations of other invertebrates. Particular caterpillars, aphids etc. that may also be garden or crop damaging. It is hard to explain how fast my heart was beating and how happy I was to see this wasp. (Credit: Me)

As a keen walker and wildlife spotter, I put on my worn-out shoes and went out. A LOT! And in searching for wasps on flowers I found a whole tiny world that even I, as a biology enthusiast, had been overlooking and ignoring.

I got to see spider nests bursting with tiny little arachnids, obnoxiously long earthworms, caterpillars of all shapes and sizes, beetles having it off, tiny little bronzed shield bugs, the delicate dance of hoverflies on the wing, maggots crawling over decaying animals, spiders mid-bite on unfortunate bees, ants marching as one, a dragonfly successfully hunting and so much more!

We are giants compared to this world. It is easy to see how we can overlook it. But these creatures are vital to our ecosystems – they help keep the whole thing ticking over! Providing pollination for our plants, dispersing their seeds, dealing with the rotten vegetation and flesh, recycling the nutrients, feeding our birds and rodents that go on to feed our predators like birds of prey. They are not merely connected to nature and its processes – Invertebrates and insects are a keystone in the whole thing.

Butterflies like this peacock (Aglais io) have a wonderful reputation with the public despite the fact their larval form, their caterpillars, can often be hugely deterimental to our gardens and crops. Does the beauty of their adult, flying form inform our opinions more than their actual role and interactions with our world? (Credit: Me)

Yet our relationship with them is one of misunderstandings. It’s all pesticides and creepy-crawlies. It’s all talk of pests and control. Especially when it comes to insects and our interaction with them serious research needs to be done on what is, or isn’t important in our ecosystems. Serious PR work needs to be done to communicate these findings, and the importance of insects and invertebrates, to the public.

We need to change our relationships with these species from one of antagonism, from us-versus-them, into one of understanding and greater co-existence.

To help this process of understanding I am going to write about five insects I have seen on my walks in the UK (mainly the southeast) and tell you about them and why they are some of my favourites.

If you wish to get more involved or learn my about insects and invertebrates here are some links to The Royal Entomological Society and Insect Week resources.

Royal Entomological Society Website
Twitter
Facebook
Instagram

Insect Week Website
Twitter
Facebook
Instagram

Or you can read some of my other articles about insects and invertebrates below.

Top Five Insects #5 – The Tawny Mining Bee (Andrena fulva)
Under-appreciated spring bee with a female who has incredible fox-red fur.
Top Five Insects #4 – The Rose Chafer (Cetonia aurata)
An otherworldly jewel of a beetle.
Top Five Insects #3 – The Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae)
Proof that moths can be as amazing as butterflies, with a lovely caterpillar!
Top Five Insects #2 – The Thick-Legged Flower Beetle (Oedemera nobilis)
A charming iridescent green flower beetle, some of whom have thick thighs!
Top Five Insects #1 – The Ruby-Tailed Wasps (Chrysis sp. or Family Chrysididae)
Stunning little jewels that can teach us much about the diversity of wasps and insects.

Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals – #1 – Wasps
A look at wasps in all their diverse beauty and glory and why they are important to us. A long-read.

The Wasp Tragedy – How Can We Help?
A few tips on how you can encourage wasps and other insect and invertebrate biodiversity in your home or garden.

Insects: The Savage Eden Before Your Eyes
A more in-depth look at my journey as I developed a relationship with insects and their role in our ecosystems.

Grown-Ups Guides: Hedge-Hunting for Bugs!
A short guide on how a total novice can get started appreciating the tiny wildlife in the undergrowth (safely)! Aimed at adults.

Human Bias and Animal Myth in Conservation
Not insect-specific but hugely relevant. Adapted from a twitter thread looking at how humans form ideas and relationships with the natural world.

The Barred Grass Snake (Natrix helvetica)

What a beautiful snake! Natrix helvetica, the barred grass snake. Once a sub-species of the European grass snake (Natrix natrix helvetica) genetic analysis led to its reclassification as a separate species in 2017. This one is photographed in France. (Credit: J-Luc by GFDL)

One of the interesting things about the natural world is our knowledge of it is ever changing. It shouldn’t be a surprise, nature itself is always changing. Growth and change are fundamentals of biology – they are the very nature of evolution.

Yet we, bless our little confused, inside-the-box brains, are always trying to fix things down. We like discrete, we like organised, we like labelled and defined.

This serves a purpose, of course. If someone in Bosnia is studying grass snakes we need to know and understand the differences between the population of grass snakes in Bosnia and those populations in the UK. How are they similar? How are they different? What does this mean for protecting or managing those species in those areas? What prey do they prefer? Is it different depending on their environment? How will those differences affect the species moving forward?

Making sure we are discussing the same thing is vital for science and that requires classification.

Not even my rubbish phone camera had me feeling blue about seeing this grass snake. What do you mean you can’t see it!? If you see the slight disturbance in the water just left of centre, that’s a grass snake swimming in the canal! I had seen a grass snake once before, but had never seen one swimming so I was so happy to see this! (Credit: Me)

But the goalposts are always moving.

Evolution by means of natural selection is a slow process, thankfully! We do not have to chase around the world’s habitats tracking a glut of speciating shape-shifters. Though there are species that can demonstrate evolution in action by their phenotypes (the observable expression of genes – things like size, colour, or even behaviour.)

The textbook example is the peppered moth (Biston betularia). A simple explanation is this; Peppered moths can exist in two shades, light or dark. Light moths used to be the dominant group because these moths would rest on trees with light coloured lichens on them and were thus disguised from predators. Dark moths would stand out and get eaten.

A pair of peppered moths exhibiting their two colour morphs – the light (above) and the dark (below). This species is commonly used as an example of evolution. (Credit: Siga CC-BY-SA-4.0)

However the industrial revolution produced a huge amount of environmental pollutants, such as sulphur dioxide. This killed the lichen that the light moths were using for camouflage. The result? After 1819 the numbers of dark peppered moths increased dramatically. They were now the well camouflaged population and the light coloured moths were getting gobbled up by the predators.

Naturally this example, this model, is not without its controversies and We Lack Discipline’s ‘First Rule of Everything’ applies – It’s always more complicated than that!

However it gives an excellent example for explaining the mechanisms of evolution, and cementing in the minds of people just how changeable our world is.

“What the fuck’s this got to do with snakes?” I hear you ask!

Well when I first entered the world of biology the UK’s grass snake was considered a sub-species, Natrix natrix helvetica, of the European grass snake, Natrix natrix.

A grass snake (Natrix natrix) eating a newt! Not sure the newt looks too happy but that snake is definitely pleased! (Credit: Böhringer Friedrich CC-BY-SA-2.5)

But as of 2017 there are now no native individuals of the species Natrix natrix in the UK.

Thankfully not because we drove them to extinction! But because, like with organisms in nature, human knowledge grows and changes – it evolves.

In this case it is the use of genetic data that led to the discovery that the UK population (and populations elsewhere, e.g. Italy and France) were sufficiently different across certain genetic markers to be considered their own species. We no longer have any native European grass snakes (Natrix natrix) in the UK because we discovered they are different enough to be their own species, the barred grass snake (Natrix helvetica).

There may still be Natrix natrix living in the UK but they are uncommon and believed to have been introduced from the continent.

So maybe you’re thinking ‘what the difference? A snake’s a snake’s a snake!’ But you’d be very wrong. Superficially they are very similar. They have a browny-green upper body, pale belly, distinctive yellow/white collar, a bit of patterning (which can be used to tell individuals apart). They are members of the family Colubridae, the largest snake family. They are oviparous – that means unlike every other reptile in the UK they actually lay eggs, often incubating them in decaying leaf litter or in compost heaps to keep them warm in our changeable, chilly climate.

This snake has also been reclassified. Once another sub-species, Natrix natrix astreptophora, the Iberian grass snake, is now considered a separate species, too. Say hello to Natrix astreptophora! Photographed in Spain. A cute little juvenile, no less! (Credit: Bernard DUPONT CC-BY-SA-2.0)

Behaviourally they are both shy, mostly harmless to humans as they will slither away rapidly if disturbed. They are semi-aquatic and love spending time around water to the extent they are also known as the ‘water snake’, swimming regularly and using the waterways to hunt their preferred amphibian prey. Though they are also known to eat fish, worms, small rodents and birds should the opportunity arise. Unlike our friend the adder our grass snakes are non-venomous so they rely on stealth and strike to take their prey unawares and will usually swallow it whole.

Their defensive behaviours are fantastic! For one thing their anal glands can be used to produce a pungent odour (insert jokes about your friends or family members being grass snakes here).

But they also fake death, a phenomenon known as ‘thanatosis’! It’s not an uncommon behaviour in nature, or in snakes, but it is something to behold. This theatrical thanatosis will see them coil up, mouth agape – sometimes gasping a few final ‘death rattle’ breaths – sticking out their tongue and hoping that whatever is putting them in danger buggers off and leaves them alone (because what’s the fun in eating an already dead snake when you don’t know what it died from) at which point – and to me this is the second best bit – they will make a stunningly miraculous recovery from their death to get the hell out of there as fast as possible!

A short clip of a grass snake faking death – a phenomenon known as thanatosis. (Credit: Nature Picture Library)

So what’s the first best bit of this behaviour? Autohaemorrhaging! A big word that means making itself bleed! In the case of the grass snake this is nature’s version of ‘blading’ in pro-wrestling. If you’re unsure if your display of death is grisly enough to deter the danger you can always just make yourself bleed from your nose and mouth to add a bit more drama and realism! I’d love to see it – though hopefully not with me as the danger the snake is bleeding for.

So yes, the two species are incredibly similar in both appearance and behaviour. But genetically they are not and this is important. Because that means both Natrix natrix and Natrix helvetica have scope to change in different ways. It could even be that the UK’s population, separated from their mainland counterparts, could evolve into a whole new species again over time. It could be that changes in the environment in Western Europe lead to helvetica making changes to its behaviour or diet that natrix doesn’t. Now we know and understand the differences we can keep an eye and see how that presents itself moving forward.

And why would we not want to study more? To know more about these beautiful and very peaceful creatures? I’m a predator nut, I love predators and decadently bask in the glory of the hunt, the chase, the stealth, the death. I’m grim like that. But the grass snake I love for its seeming pacifism. Yes, the hunt and they kill. But their defensive behaviours are far more charming and fascinating than their offensive ones.

Something about the peace and placidity of a grass snake swimming – it’s zen-like, relaxing. It’s cute. How can you see this juvenile Natrix helvetica and feel fear? These are such gentle, beautiful creatures – unless you’re prey! (Credit:
Syrio CC-BY-SA-4.0)

My enthusiasm for the UK’s snakes has not been met in kind. Many people I have spoken to about it have conveyed how they didn’t know snakes like that existed on these shores, how unnerving it is to think a 1.5m long grass snake could be laying eggs in their compost heap, or how – unlike me, given my smile when I spotted my snakes – they’d never like to see one.

Human relationships with snakes go back a long way. There are ideas, hypotheses (disputed, of course) that a fear of snakes can trace its way back to pre-human ancestral species that were on the menu for snakes. We must fear snakes to survive. The ‘Snake-Detection Hypothesis’ (disputed, of course) suggests that our heavy reliance on sight as a sense, the human visual acuity, may have evolved so that we could spot the dangerous snakes.

But if that were true would our behaviour not have changed as we came to dominate the natural world and made snakes less of a danger? Should we not be a little better at seeing them for how amazing they are?

And human cultural associations with snakes are complicated. I mentioned in my adder article some more positive symbolism regarding snakes – their associations with wisdom, healing and rebirth. That’s not universal though, and certainly post-Christianity the snake evolved into a sly, cunning deceiver.

Adam and Eve and the Serpent – Satan, in the guise of a serpent, approaches Adam and Eve to tempt them to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge good and evil and defy God. To what extent has this biblical story influenced our relationship with snakes? From Gustav Doré’s etchings from Milton’s Paradise Lost. (Credit: Public Domain)

“So the LORD God said to the serpent: “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and every beast of the field! On your belly will you go, and dust you will eat, all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” Genesis 3:14-15

Now unfortunately for God snakes are clearly cleverer than he thought because some of them don’t slither on their bellies but swim the canals, rivers, streams and even seas, they whip themselves across sand-dunes or even glide through the air! They also don’t eat dirt, but a variety of species across various habitats.

But that enmity, that hostility between human and snake is very real. As mentioned in the adder article many instances of adder bites are a person stepping on, or nearly stepping on, the snake and the snake defending itself by biting back. We nearly crush their head, they strike our heel. Is the bible verse based upon past observations of this intimate human-wildlife conflict? What effect has highlighting it, in such a culturally influential text, had on our ideas about snakes?

And where does the shy grass snake fit into that? This gorgeous, harmless species that so gracefully undulates through streams, canals and ponds is not a heel-striker. This is not an enemy. Yet many people fear it.

If this isn’t a beautiful sight I don’t know what is. Grass snakes are semi-aquatic, having amphibians, frogs, toads, newts etc. as a preferred prey in many of their habitats. (Credit: Kentish Plumber CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0)

I wrote an article yesterday about the role of myth and bias in our relationships with animals and it seems apparent to me that aspects of those myths are transferable. After all to many ‘a snake’s a snake’s a snake’!

But in feeling that way, in forming that model of the world and the species within it you ignore the great diversity of lives and behaviours. Two snakes can appear alike and yet be hugely different. Two nearly identical populations can turn out, on closer inspection, to be completely different species.

By clinging to the mythologised view you shut yourself off from fully engaging with the rich depth of relationships and understanding you could have; the understanding of the deep complexities of nature and your role in it. That comfortable simplicity may have been required to survive in the past, but I feel now our survival is heavily dependent on us changing – evolving – those stories to have a greater understanding and respect for the world’s species.

Nature changes. Our methods and understanding of nature changes. In holding a fixed idea, a fixed story, in your head of what a creature is or represents, you do not change. You make youreself static.

But change is vital. It is vital for adapting to new conditions. With habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, exploitation of natural resources, pollution, the worrying rate of species extinctions, the climate crisis – Our future is heavily dependent on our changing. We are part of this natural world and its peril is our own.

This gorgeous little noodle is not a danger, but a treasure. (Credit: J-Luc by GFDL)

The grass snake is not your enemy. Nor does it want to be. The fact that it would fake its own death if you knocked on its door, and bleed through its mouth and nose to deter you further, would indicate it does not necessarily want to be your friend, either. What the grass snake wants to be is a grass snake.

That may change. Speciation happens and sometimes a N. natrix becomes a N. helvetica. But that’s between nature and the grass snake.

And I’m happy to learn those changes and change with them.

Read about some of the UK’s other fascinating reptiles:

The Common Lizard (Zootoca vivipara)
The Slow Worm (Anguis fragilis)
The Adder (Vipera berus)

Human Bias and Animal Myth in Conservation

When I was studying biology human-animal relationships (…no giggling at the back!) was something I really wished I’d had an opportunity to learn more about.

A recent paper, ‘Understanding nuanced preferences for carnivore conservation: to know them is not always to love them’ by Macdonald et al. reminded me of quite why I found our human relationship with the natural world so interesting.

Humans are weird, in nature. Our notions of the world around us are not necessarily instinctive. They can be shaped and informed. We can learn them. This is hardly a ground-breaking statement, it is basic psychology.

More than that, though, we are (as far as we are aware) the only species capable of conscious thought. Consciousness is a tricky topic, difficult to define, but roughly speaking we are able to think about thinking about things. This process is adaptive. It can take in new information and change instructions based upon it. It can see a bigger picture. For example it can see the value of protecting a grubby little dung beetle if that beetle is a keystone species in a unique habitat. Humans have that power.

And yet!

What this paper shows is a huge level of bias in our valuation of species as conservation targets. That is to say even though we are capable of seeing a bigger picture we are not making judgements based on bigger pictures and we are not distributing resources based on bigger pictures. We are making unconscious decisions.

White tigers scored very highly in the survey as a conservation priority despite them being of little conservation value. There are no known wild white tigers, and the approximately 200 in captivity are the result of significant, multi-generational inbreeding. (Credit: Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK, CC-BY-2.0)

Now this is not news to anyone involved in conservation! It’s not even news to a first year ecology undergrad! It’s taught very quickly. But it may be news to someone from a wider audience reading this and while there’s no guarantee it will change anyone’s thinking I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t try to just give information!

You see this study demonstrates that the relationships between humans and animals are subject to the same levels of bias, misunderstanding, preference and prejudice as our relationships with people, other groups, other nations etc. They are just as subject to myth and stereotype.

This was a thought that I had for a long time and that was cemented in my brain when I wrote my ‘Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals’ articles. We – the general public – do not see animals for that they are, nor the general role they inhabit. We invent a ‘story’ version.

Some of these stories may be very old! The relationship between humans and snakes, or humans and lions, for example, are likely as old as the human species itself. It may even be a tale that pre-dates us! Some of them have some history; our disregard for rats, for example. Others, like our dislike of pigeons may actually be very modern.

The brown rat, Rattus norvegicus, has a reputation as a filthy disease spreading invader. However zoonotic transmission of diseases from rats to humans is surprisingly rare outside of people who regularly handle them. Find out more in my article about why we hate rats here. (Credit: AnemoneProjectors CC-BY-SA-2.0)

What these stories attempt to do is condense a complex relationship into something very simple, a ‘this thing good, this thing bad’ framework. Invasion seems a common theme in animals we appear to generally dislike. Spiders, rats, mice; these animals that can sneak through our defence and get into our homes all seem to end up with bad reputations, end up disliked, despite whatever positive roles they may also play.

But these things far removed from us may have different myths and reputations in different parts of the world. Some animals that are unfavourable on your doorstep may be very well regarded elsewhere. Where your experience of lions in your home is a Disney flick you probably think differently to those where lions in your home is a loss of livelihood, cattle, or human life – an actual danger.

And this is where this becomes hugely relevant to conservation! Because many of these big, pretty species highlighted as favourable conservation targets in the paper are not all that great when they’re on your doorstep. Many of those less favoured may not be so bad. What they all have is a very complex relationship with the people who live with, and around, them.

Each species has its own unique beauty, but each also brings its own troubles. Each species is valid for conservation but few, if any, species are saints!

Understanding this complexity, and communicating it, is going to be key to conservation moving forward. Human-wildlife conflict has become a major conservation issue, but it is also a highly emotive topic, especially when it comes to how those conflicts may be managed.

But it is only so because of these biases, these myths and reputations. There are people shielded from the realities of how nature and humans interact; many of them in communities that have few, if any, dangerous species on their doorstep.

Some of these people genuinely believe that animal life should be prioritised over human life. This is not sustainable.

Likewise there are an awful lot of people (and I’m sad to say I know some) who believe any animal encroaching on a human-dominant habitat is fair game for being killed. This is also, obviously, unsustainable.

There is a literal multi-billion pound industry devoted to killing wildlife that often perpetuates misinformation, disinformation and myth. While some degree of wildlife or ‘pest’ control may be necessary to ensure human safety, there is a huge part of the wildlife control industry built upon preying on people’s fears, worries and misunderstandings for profit. In some cases promoting ineffective, cruel or environmentally damaging practices and products with little regard for the disturbances it can cause. (Credit: Alan Stanton CC-BY-SA 2.0)

And science, knowledge and understanding are not informing the bulk of these ideas and opinions. Instead it’s heuristic, it’s bias, it’s simplified narratives, it’s myths, folklore and fairy tales, documentaries, movies and literature. It’s OUR CULTURE informing so much of animals’ reputations. Not their own lives or behaviours, but our stories about their lives and behaviours.

The relative values of conservation targets are not being assessed by the public based upon any innate qualities of the animals themselves or their roles in the ecosystem. That much is shown in the study by the ridiculous popularity of the white tiger as a conservation target! But that’s a whole different article.

No, the values of animals are being determined by our values – by how pretty we find them, or how our ideas, myths and stories represent them.

This is a BIG issue for conservation.

Let’s go back to that dung beetle I mentioned earlier. This small creature could be a keystone species, moving seed-containing dung around a habitat, promoting new growth of vegetation, providing food for the grazers who provide food for the predators. This could be an endangered keystone species that ensures the safety and security of an entire ecosystem.

But who’ll donate money to an endangered shit-munching beetle?

A Geotrupid beetle – known to engage in caprophagy – or eating dung. This unassuming little thing could very well be vitally important to particular species’ or habitats’ health and sustainability and yet a lack of research and understanding of that importance could lead to its neglect. Lack of research funding, inspired partly by the same biases that inform public opinion, could prevent capable and willing researchers from finding out. Scientists and science funding bodies are, themselves, not immune to these biases. Would you fund research or conservation of this? Would you prioritise it over, say, a cat, even if loss of this species meant loss of an entire ecosystem? The research suggests not. (Credit: jhenning via Pixabay)

So then we must ask what place do these statement species, these popular species, hold in conservation? Can conservation organisations use those species to draw funds to distribute elsewhere, to fund protection of beetles, invertebrates, less popular species? Or would the public perceive that as dishonest? If they didn’t want to fund protection of a beetle but a big cat, would they feel cheated?

What is it people want to protect? Is it the species itself? Is it the ideas of what the species represents to them? Or do they actually want to protect the mucky, bloody, savage, weird, wonderful, gorgeous, unique and endlessly complex habitats that let those species be what they are on their own terms?

This is why this is such an important topic to discuss and understand! Our ecosystems are chaotic, small changes in one species, in one nutrient, in one plant or invertebrate can dramatically upset a whole system.

Conservation scientists are trying to work things out but they are often meeting a wall of misunderstanding from people who don’t realise their understanding of the natural world comes from a storied version. Or else they are getting caught up in disputes between local-led conservation initiatives and movements thousands of miles away from people in no danger but who have a mythologised view of nature.

Conservation is a messy business. It’s people handing you chainsaws demanding you juggle them successfully to a specific pattern they saw on telly, and then blaming you when you slip and cut your own hand off, or tell them to piss off!

And it all starts with the simple necessity of our brains using the information they take in to form a view of the world around us. It is based on how we craft the information into an internal model and what that model represents to us.

But does it represent reality? Or is that model just a story?

I genuinely feel for today’s conservation scientists because tackling that seems an insurmountable task.

In the social media age information can be spread rapidly, but this information may not be true. We are able to generate new myths and perpetuate old ones faster and more powerfully than ever before! Misinformation and disinformation about the natural world are rife.

This twitter thread by marine biologist and part-time shark, Dr. David Shiffman, is well worth a read to understand the power of social media for spreading misinformation and how harmful it can be to conservation efforts.

Even our finest nature documentaries rely heavily on anthropomorphising (giving human traits to) animals they present in order to get an audience to relate. They must craft a story, in so doing building their own myths, or perpetuating existing ones.

These documentaries use framing devices; particular subjects, dramatic music, specific shots and lighting, to emphasise these stories. Often the story will be framed by human emotion, family, friendship, parental responsibility etc. that fails to connect with those animals behaviours on their own terms or accurately reflect the nature of the relationships.

Even when you are being ‘factually’ informed you are being sold a myth!

Consider the 1958 Disney documentary White Wilderness – Famous for ‘creating’ the myth of lemming suicide. However the narration actually disputes the suicide myth and instead dramatises lemming migration. They did, though, use faked shots – possibly even pushing non-migratory lemmings into a river! But also the myth of lemming suicide perpetuated anyway! How this happened and why this happened is what we need to think about.

Or consider how you think of the relationship of lions and hyenas. Do you believe, as so many nature documentaries present, that lions are noble hunters being endlessly pestered by the grim scavenging hyenas? Because hyenas are very successful hunters in their own right and lions often steal and scavenge kills from hyenas. But so many lion-centric documentaries, as well as Disney’s The Lion King, have made a villain from the beautiful hyena. And as the study shows, we have a huge preference for lions. That myth perpetuates and hyenas are considered unfavourably in terms of conservation.

Hyenas fared poorly as a target for conservation in the study. Given these are beautiful, social, intelligent predators, surely their reputation, their popular presentation, plays some part. But if people knew more about them, would that overcome the deeply instilled prejudice? (Credit: flowcomm CC-BY-2.0)

So is this okay? Do these documentaries and how they present nature do enough good? Or is this, actually, harmful? Are we failing to present species correctly? And what difference would correct information do anyway when it seems, as with the lemmings, people will frame the drama, create their own myth, anyway?

I wish I had answers, but I don’t. Few, if any, individuals do. This is one of the most pressing matters in the world today and to truly understand it requires significant academic crossover. This is psychology, ethology, ecology, conservation, anthropology, business, marketing, economics and politics all rolled into one.

And even knowing that it’s getting funding for all the cross-discipline research in those fields! It’s having the free researchers to do the research in the first place! It’s finding the organisational harmony! It’s forging the trans-national cooperation!

This is the human complexity behind “tiger pretty, give money, save tiger.” The natural complexity is so much greater!

The simplicity behind public decisions regarding their conservation priorities betrays a truth. The tiger does not stand alone. It is part of a much wider ecosystem, supported by numerous other species, themselves supported by numerous other species.

And the ugly deserves protection too.

This article is adapted from the twitter thread below.

The Adder (Or European viper) – Vipera berus

An adder in vegetation.
The adder (Vipera berus berus) I saw! I would say young, but not a baby. About 30-40cm in length. Excuse quality, as often mentioned I use a £60 mobile phone’s camera and had to keep my distance. I’d have loved a better shot but it’s not worth the risk to the adder or myself. But oh! My face when I saw it! I was smiling the whole rest of the journey and imagine my elation when I saw a grass snake later in the day! (Credit: Me)

Oh, be still my beating heart! What a day.

Adders are gorgeous snakes. Unbelievably pretty and exotic looking for what is the most northerly distributed member of the viper family. They are a short, stout snake, maximum length here in the UK is around 80cm (slow worms can be longer!) with a weight of up to around 120g. They can be easily distinguished by the zig-zag pattern, almost a series of connected diamond shapes, across their back. They also exhibit sexual dimorphism (differences in appearance between sexes) with males tending to be paler, more grey in colour with more distinctly dark markings, whilst females are a tan or golden brown and often have dark-brown markings.

two adders coiled in dry bracken.
Almost certainly a mating pair of adders. Showing well the difference in colour they can exhibit. The male is likely the one on top (ooh err!) with the paler, more silver-grey colouration and much blacker marking. The female on bottom (this is not supposed to be sexual, I swear!) is a more tan brown with paler, more dark-brown markings. (Credit: © Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)

There is also a melanistic form, the black adder, no not that one!

Like many of the UK’s reptiles adders are most active between spring and late summer, emerging from their overwintering in April or May and disappearing again by October. However research into their behaviours appears to show an increase in their activity caused by climate change, as milder winters in Northern Europe see them being spotted and active year round.

This is concerning as adders are shy, retiring things. Their preferred habitats are mixed and complex, most associated with coastal sandy soils, heaths or moors with plenty of cracks and crevices, grass, plant cover, hedges etc. in which to hide and find their prey. In winter there is significantly less cover putting them at increased risk of competition with other adders, predation, persecution by people, and us accidentally stumbling across them when out walking the dog.

A hedgerow. A small butterfly is on a leaf in the centre and just below you can barely make out the markings of an adder.
Typical adder habitat, basking in the sun off to the side of this dusty walking path. I had actually stopped to photograph the butterfly and didn’t even see the adder at first! See if you can spot it. Either way a good example of just how shy these guys are. (Credit: Me)

Their overwintering is an interesting thing to note, too. Many people will refer to it as a ‘hibernation’ using that as a catch-all term for any energy-conserving over-wintering behaviour. However hibernation occurs in endotherms – warm-blooded animals. Ectotherms – cold-blooded animals – go through a process known as ‘brumation’.

Brumation is very similar to hibernation, a slowing of metabolism, heart rate, respiration etc. to conserve energy and stay alive. However hibernation is a very passive process, a warm-blooded animal is generally in a state of sleep and will not stir. Brumation can be more variable such that on warmer days animals like our adder can venture out, often to get water but also to forage a bit of food should the opportunity arise.

Adders are also surprisingly unpicky in their diet, with much of it being dependent on their local habitats. Their preferred meals seem to be small rodents, other reptiles like lizards and slow worms, and frogs and newts. However there are reports of them eating birds, climbing into nests to eat eggs, enjoying a worm, an insect or a spider or two and much more besides. A true testament to their bad-assery is the fact that they have been observed preying on weasels! I plan to get around to covering the weasel family, the mustelids, one day but the main thread that runs through all of them is you don’t fuck with mustelids!   So adders seeming to have a pattern of eating them, even if not a regular part of their diet, is a testament to their prowess as a hunter.

An adder eating a weasel.
An adder eating a weasel! (Credit: Bringsøe (2019) Observation of Adder, Vipera berus preying on Least Weasel, Mustela nivalis, an overlooked feeding habit – Used without permission under fair use.)

As mentioned adders tend to emerge from their brumation around April, and one of the first things on their mind seems to be “My word, I’m horny!” and I sympathise. As a result adder breeding season is the same as their emergence season, in April/May. That’s when they add more adders. Their genus name ‘Vipera’ is a huge clue as to how they give birth. It comes from the Latin terms ‘vivus’ as in ‘living’ and ‘parere’ as in ‘to beget’, or give birth. We’ve seen this combination before in both the common lizard and the slow worm who are ‘viviparous’ species. This means that they incubate their eggs internally and give birth to live young. Adders give birth to little tiny live baby adders. Cute!

Now being from the UK it is difficult to talk about adders without talking about their reputation. We are blessed (or cursed from a biodiversity perspective) with very safe wildlife in the UK. The potentially dangerous species that once existed here were mostly driven to extinction hundreds or thousands of years ago. Being our only native venomous snake this makes the adder one of the few species on these isles capable of doing a person any significant harm. So should we be worried?

A close up of an adder's face with prominent red eyes.
This grumpy looking face reflects the fact I couldn’t find good images of baby adders! But my, what a beauty! (Credit: Mick E. Talbot CC-BY-SA-3.0)

I will say cautious, yes, but worried, no. Adders, as I have mentioned, are very shy and are far more likely to slink off to get the hell away from you than they are to chase you across a heath to give you a nip on the ankle. I have seen two adders in my life, one of which played dead and one of which was quite comfortable until it noticed me, coiled up, and buggered off!

Bites are common, though, with around 1,000 events per year, mainly due to the broad distribution of adders across quite human-dense habitats. The adders I have seen are on common walking or cycle paths, for example. However it is most likely to occur when the element of surprise is present in both parties! A person will not notice an adder and suddenly an adder will have a foot in its face and feel immediate danger, responding the only way it knows how to get you to move the hell away! Where surprise is not the factor provocation seems to be a common cause, with people getting far too close to the snakes, even attempting to handle them, causing the snake great distress and a nasty bite to the fool who thought it was a good idea to bother an adder.

Their venom is potentially lethal, but is actually not that potent so deaths caused by adder bites are exceedingly rare. I believe there are only a dozen or so deaths by adders in the last 100 years in the UK, the last one being a 5 year old in 1975. So their frightening reputation is somewhat undeserved.

That said it is not a situation to be underestimated, either. In the young, elderly or clinically vulnerable the situation is direr, and these groups are at significant risk of harm. Cases of anaphylaxis – the same kind of severe reaction you may have with a life-threatening allergy – have been known to occur due to adder venom. Even in healthy adults adder envenomation can be painful and debilitating and cause prolonged pain, limitation or disability. So if you are bitten, or suspect you have been bitten, by an adder you should seek immediate medical attention.

An adder biting a leather glove, showing its fangs.
This handler is sensibly wearing thick leather gloves. As you can clearly see an adder’s fangs are not particularly long. The best protection against adder bites is to make sure if you are out walking where adders may be, ensure you are wearing sensible clothing. A sturdy pair of ankle boots with thick socks can do a lot to mitigate the potential harm of a bite. (Credit: Piet Spaans, CC-BY-SA-2.5)

The best way to be adder safe – to keep you and adders safe – is to be aware of them. In my Grown-Ups Guides: Hedge Hunting article I made note of the fact that even in summer I may go out dressed in thick jeans, ankle boots, a thick long sleeve top etc. and prevention of injury, from the environment and from wildlife like adders, is the reason for this. They are small snakes, with relatively short fangs made for puncturing small animals not a leather boot with thick socks under it! Mind your step and be aware that adders are widespread across the UK and could be in any verge, crevice or hedgerow.

It is a huge privilege to see an adder, so if you do see one keep your distance. Do not bother the snake, disturb it, get too close to it and for the love of all that is serpentine do not try and touch the poor creature! Your idiocy, should you get bitten, could become a local news story that further demonises this shy snake, causing further fear, misunderstanding and persecution.

A coiled adder in a verge.
My first ever adder spot! But I don’t know if this counts. This adder was either dead, or was playing dead (I did detect some movement, particularly from a distance as I was approaching.) However since I am not stupid I didn’t bother to prod it to check! (Credit: Me)

I feel honoured after such a long search – we’re talking hundreds of miles of treading the trails! – to have finally had this experience with an adder. They are, in the UK, a symbol of true wildness. Despite their status as a protected species we sadly continue to see their numbers decline. The release of non-native game birds like pheasant, on top of continued habitat loss and human encroachment into their territories means adders are in a perilous position. It would be a terrible shame to lose such a charming, timid predator.

It should come as no surprise I love reptiles! But snakes hold a particular fascination for me. I am a multi-disciplinary sort and the mythology and folklore of animals is profoundly meaningful. A lot of my ‘Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals’ list looked at these myths, mostly bad!

Snakes have been a symbol that has permeated human culture since its inception. Whether as symbols of power, regeneration, wisdom or fear, they are deeply meaningful to us. They are significant to us. It would be a shame for that symbolism to pass solely into mythology, for future generations of people to never have the opportunity of seeing that symbol in the flesh and understanding it as a real, living organism.

A black and white etching of a serpent on a crucifix.
The ‘Serpent on a Cross’ or ‘Crucified Serpent’ is a powerful symbol in alchemy. It shares common themes with serpent imagery going back a long way but specifically likely stems from John 3:14 “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up” Relating to the crucifixion of Christ. (Credit: Public Domain)

On a personal note snakes are often seen as a symbol of transformation and rebirth. This is often attributed to their skin-shedding behaviour, the casting off of an old self to replace it with a new. This symbolism carries through to the Caduceus, a staff with two snakes coiled around it with powerful transformational qualities. It is most famous as the staff of the Roman messenger god Mercury (or Greek Hermes), although the symbol itself is likely much older, potentially Sumerian in origin, thus dating back to around 3,000-2,000 BCE!  

I am currently in a period of transformation myself, funnily enough with Mercury somewhat related! Finding two snakes on the day I did…I may be reading far too much into it but whether a genuine message from the gods or simply my own mind using the world around it to make sense of what is happening to me, it brought me great comfort and peace.

To me the sights and sounds of nature can be just as powerful, evocative, informative, and memory forming as scents, music or art. The natural world is constantly changing and communicating with us and even if those messages are mere interpretations of our own internal world with no external agency to them, that shouldn’t diminish their power. How we interpret the stimuli we receive from the world around us informs us of our behaviours and emotions whether we want it to or not. I find it’s much better to consider it as much, and as consciously, as possible to ensure you’re taking home the right message.

A marble statue of Hermes/Mercury clutching a bronze caduceus.
A statue of Mercury/Hermes clutching the Caduceus. This is a Roman copy of a Greek original from the Villa of Hadrian, Tivoli. (Credit: sailko by GFDL)

For example if you see a snake and feel fear it is possibly a good idea to ask what it is you fear? Is it the snake itself? Or what the snake represents? Do you fear the adder, the timid creature who would likely sooner slither away and avoid conflict? Do you fear the reputation of the adder, built over decades of humans closing themselves off from the realities of the natural world? Or do you fear the harm, of being poisoned, envenomated, with the snake merely being the messenger of that fear of harm?

When I saw the adder I did not feel fear. I felt joy. I was so happy to finally get a good look at one of these wonderful snakes. But that joy fed into wider consideration of where my life is and where it may be going. The snake slithered as a symbol into my synapses and helped me figure out my feelings about who I am and the journey I am undertaking. The path that I am on, whether it goes well or terribly is now my snake-era! Ushered in by one of the finest sights you can hope to see in UK wildlife – The beautiful adder.

Read about some of the UK’s other fascinating reptiles:

The Common Lizard (Zootoca vivipara)
The Slow Worm (Anguis fragilis)

Théoden of Rohan On Curiosity

Théoden played by Bernard Hill in the Lord of the Rings Movies (Credit: Warner Bros. via Tenorgif)

“We cared little for what lay beyond the borders of our land. Songs we have that tell of these things, but we are forgetting them, teaching them only to children, as a careless custom.”

These are the words of Théoden, King of Rohan, in JRR Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’.

This is not going to be an in-depth look at ‘Lord of the Rings’ – Sorry if that’s what you’d like. But it represents just one of those moments of Tolkien brilliance that, to my eyes, make him one of the finest writers there has ever been. It is a small discussion between Théoden and Gandalf the wizard, only a few paragraphs in a tome of hundreds of pages, but it is deeply meaningful.

It is a moment that encapsulates the very essence of why I wanted to make ‘We Lack Discipline’ a thing in the first place.

Spoilers for ‘Lord of the Rings’ ahead:

At this moment the Rohirrim (the people of Rohan) have just successfully defended the fort of Helm’s Deep from a huge army of Saruman the wizard – It was an army of orcs and men – the movies do a bad job of conveying just how many humans fought on the side of evil.

Some of the allies of the Rohirrim in this quest, brought at the behest of Gandalf, are the Ents and the Huorns. Ents are tree-shepherds, usually described as being tree-like themselves but with piercing eyes. Huorns are sort of like trees that move and have a will and, by the sounds of it, the ability to gobble up an awful lot of orc corpses.

Treebeard – A leader among Ents, holding the Hobbits Merry and Pippin. (Credit: TTThom by GFDL)

It is about these that Théoden is speaking in his quote above. He is awestruck by these figures of legend showing themselves before his eyes. Before this he talks of the lives of men, the farming, tending of beasts, making of tools, building of houses and how they thought this was ‘the way of the world’. He is musing on how misguided his understanding of the world, the nature of things, of life itself, has been. Then he says that quote above.

It really struck me, re-reading it. This is the wonderful thing about re-reading beloved books at different times in your life.

This time around it punched me in the face. When I last read the book WLD was barely a twinkle in my eye. It was a concept, for sure, it has been for decades. But nothing was solid, there was no mission, no direction, no idea of what I wanted it to be. I knew I wanted to write or talk about things I was interested in. I did not know that I specifically wanted the tone I have taken, and I specifically wanted ‘A Sweary Primary School for Grown-Ups!’

I recognised a couple of things in coming up with the idea of ‘We Lack Discipline’.

Number one is how immersed we are in an artifice far removed from what one could call the ‘real world’. We think, as Théoden admits to, that the ‘lives of men’ are ‘the way of the world’.

I’ve always felt this, possibly due to my autism. But it being a potential reflection of my autism does not make it less true. Our success as a species has been entirely cultivated by a mastery of the world around us, a dominance of it, and a re-building of the natural resources around us into a configuration more suitable to its habitation by us.

Our dwellings, our pastures, our agriculture, our cultures with their fads, fashions and whims – It all has a purpose of our own success.

Yet in so doing we deny certain realities. The ground beneath us is not fixed, the sky above not static, the climate not stable, our position of success nowhere near guaranteed. There is doubt all around us, and doubt is what I want to spread.

Nature, life, the world – It is bigger than us and we are but a small part of a massively interconnected system.

Our farms, our cities and our businesses may seem like “Life” but they are only our ways. The world, our universe, consists of many other organisms, systems and processes of which we are only a small part. (Credit: Public domain via Pxfuel, pixabay and picryl)

This is felt immensely when natural disaster strikes. Many end up wondering how it could have happened, because so vast and drastic a change is impossible for us to comprehend. But it is only impossible when we see the lives of humans as ‘the way of the world’ as Théoden remarks. There are bigger forces at play, and they are forces we have worked hard to erase from our minds, and have passed into legend.

We fail to see the Ents for the trees, if you will.

But the big part, the part that most resonates with my mission is teaching things only to children, ‘as a careless custom’.

I’ve been known to throw profanities around and, to be honest, I fuckin’ enjoy it! I’ve made much of the class warfare in intellectual pursuits and how disenfranchising that world can be to people more accustomed to different tones, accents or dialects.

That is bad enough, but most disturbing of all is the infantilisation of learning.

That’s why I don’t fucking want this to be for kids!

We Lack Discipline – Not suitable for children.
Though if you’re okay with older kids, teens, reading a bit of profanity then I think it’s actually a decent resource.
(Credit: Public Domain via FreeSVG)

There are enough resources out there for kids to indulge their curiosity. But the stuff aimed at adults? Eh.

All too often it is dry, too respectable for its own good, and assumes knowledge or understanding that is not there. It can be hard, as an adult, to be curious about something about which you know nothing. Snobbery, classism, racism, sexism, and just bog-standard gatekeeping, are all barriers for many people who may wish to indulge a curiosity.

I want to change that. I want greater access for curiosity, more diverse voices for information for the same reason Théoden recognises here. The Ents were not hidden per se, though they kept themselves to themselves. Rather they were forgotten, and became little more than a warning in nursery rhymes for children, a myth of the dangers of the forest. Those with eyes to see, and curiosity enough to look, could have found them. Humans, having found them, could have empathised, communicated, and in so doing found themselves powerful allies and trusted friends.

Knowledge being the realm of the few creates ignorance in the many. This is dangerous.

There is immense value to us as individuals, as communities, as societies and as a global collective, to learning and understanding the phenomena we are immersed in.

But the knowledge of the Ents passed to being little more than kiddy folklore, since the lives of men were too important to interrupt swanning about learning about forests and their guardians.

What is lost when the so-called ‘lives of men’ become all-encompassing at the expense of exploration or curiosity? When our jobs and lives and wars are more important than learning and understanding the world around us? This isn’t Middle-Earth either! Forget the world! We’ve got the James Webb Space Telescope! We have an entire universe to explore!

This is a mere test-image from the James Webb Space Telescope. The things we will see, the hidden depths of our universe we will be able to explore, have yet to be shown to their full potential. Human knowledge constantly pushes frontiers. People fear curiosity, worried about the implications of technological advance, social change etc. but these are only issues where certainty dominates. Curiosity with caution, curiosity with doubt, curiosity that is aware it knows nothing will only be of benefit. (Credit: Public domain via NASA/STScl)

And yet most people will never learn of it, or at least rarely take their learning beyond a basic level. Learning, after all, is what you do in school. School is for children. University is for the purpose of getting jobs and employability, not about curiosity. We must all make a living. There’s no time for curiosity and, besides, where can one go to indulge it?

I disagree with this. Human mastery of their environment is born out of curiosity, and the solutions to many of the world’s major problems will only be solved by curiosity, enquiry and exploration of new ideas. That curiosity gets neglected as adult lives become complicated nightmares of work-life balance, mortgages, economies, numbers and figures, stresses and strains. We have prescribed roles for the curious, and as with so much we must compete to prove ourselves the most curious, the most deserving of those roles. Those who don’t meet those criteria are fated to neglect their curiosity and much of the wonder of our world is relegated to songs, taught to children, as a careless custom.

It is up to the curious to lead the way. To welcome new voices, to promote new ways of communicating that appeal to a variety of audiences. To stoke the fires of interest in those in whom that fire is dulled by the grind of the ‘ways of men’.

Be grown up. Be curious. See the Ents.