Microsculpture: The Insect Portraits of Levon Biss

Part 3

In our third exhibition spotlight on Microsculpture, celebrating the insect photography of Levon Biss, we take a closer look at just a tiny selection of some of the species we displayed at the Willis Museum. There are many surprising behaviours to learn about insects. Maybe you can get out into your green spaces and see if you can do some insect spotting and identification? We hope these fun facts inspire you to take a closer look on your next walk.

Dragonflies - Odonata

Dragonflies are voracious hunters. They spend most of their lives in water as nymphs, where they eat other insect larvae, tadpoles, snails and even small fish. The mature nymph crawls up a plant stem out of the water and splits its skin so the winged adult can slowly emerge. Sadly adult dragonflies only live days or a few weeks at most.

Golden-ringed Dragonfly - Cordulegaster boltonii

The Golden-ringed Dragonfly is an amazing yellow and black creature with striking green eyes.  The female with its pointed ovipositor, for laying eggs, is the longest UK dragonfly.  It’s sometimes known as the Devil’s Darning-needle and can be seen flying low over shallow water with a rapidly stabbing motion as she lays her eggs in the river bed beneath.

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Golden-ringed Dragonfly ©Sarah Gould

Fun Fact: Where can you find a dragonfly as big as a tennis racket?

Underground!  300 million years ago there were primitive dragonflies with 70cm wingspans.  Coal miners in Bolsover found two well-preserved fossil specimens in 1978.

Damselflies - Zygoptera

Damselflies tend to be smaller than dragonflies. They’re not such strong fliers but when perched they can hold their wings closed over their bodies.  The Demoiselles are the UK’s largest damselflies.

Banded Demoiselle - Calopteryx splendens

Male Banded Demoiselles are an iridescent blue with dark wing patches also shining blue in some lights, whereas females are green with clear, greenish wings, good for hiding on water-side plants.  Males are seen more often as they engage in competitive display flights to gain breeding rights over the best stretches of river.

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Male Banded Demoiselle © Sarah Gould

Fun Fact: How does a damselfly lay eggs in plants deep underwater without drowning?

She breathes through her wings! Some damselflies have a waxy surface on their wings that traps air when then they enter the water. The wings then function a bit like gills.  One Japanese Calopteryx species was found to be able to stay underwater for two hours without drowning.

Common Earwig - Forficula auricularia

Common Earwigs are mostly nocturnal, hiding in cool crevices during the day and eating dead organic matter at night. They rarely fly though they have ear-shaped wings hidden under their short wing cases.  Earwigs use their pincers to fold their wings away.

Male Common Earwig © Fuentelateja CC BY-SA 2.0

Fun Fact: Have you seen a wiglet yet?

Wiglets are baby earwigs! They are hard to find because female Common Earwigs are very good mothers and keep them hidden, feeding them and regularly cleaning the nest. This is unusual among insects as many will not even be alive when their eggs hatch.

Beetles – Coleoptera

Typical beetles have two wings modified to form hard wing cases and two wings for flying.  They have jaws, or mandibles, not a feeding tube like bugs. Their biggest difference from bugs is how they grow - young bugs look like small adult bugs, whereas young beetles are grubs of various kinds, very different from the adult insects.

Scarlet Lilly Beetle – Lilioceris lilii

Scarlet Lily Beetles are a garden pest that became established in the UK in 1939. They are masters of escape. If an adult Lily Beetle is disturbed it will fall off the plant onto its back with the striking red wing cases hidden from view and the less obvious black underside barely visible against the dark ground.

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Scarlet Lilly beetle larvae ©Francisco Welter-Schultes [CC0]

Fun Fact: Can you guess what this beetle wears on its back?

Answer – beetle poo!  The larvae wear a coat of their own excrement. This is effective both as a disguise and a deterrent making them less obvious and tasty to birds.

Oil Beetles and Cardinals

Cardinal Beetles - Pyrochroa

Cardinal Beetles lose their brilliant red in death. They are easy to recognise once you notice their amazing toothed antennae.  The UK has two species, a rarer one with a black head and a common one with a red head. They are predators hunting around flowers for insects to eat.

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Cardinal Beetle © SEGould

Oil Beetles - Meloe

On sunny spring days look out for black sausage-shaped beetles crawling slowly over the short grass. These large insects are oil-beetles, named because they can exude oily droplets when alarmed.

Fun Fact: Which beetles use bees as taxis?

Oil beetle larvae do.  An oil beetle larva is called a triungulin because it has 3 claws on each foot.  It climbs up a plant and lurks on a flower waiting for a passing bee.  When the right sort of bee lands on the flower, the triungulin climbs onto the bee’s abdomen and hitches a ride back to the nest. It then lives in the nest, eating the bee larva or the food the mother bee has provided for it or both.  That’s no way to pay for your ride!


The order Lepidoptera is traditionally divided into butterflies and moths. The division is slightly artificial as some families could be either. There are about 2500 moths resident in the UK but only 59 butterflies.

Elephant Hawk-moth – Deilephila elpenor

The Elephant Hawk-moth is nocturnal and therefore feeds on flowers that open or produce nectar at night. It has very sensitive eyes that allow it to see colour even at low-light and it was one of the first species in which nocturnal colour vision was documented in animals.

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Elephant Hawk-moth caterpillar © SEGould

Fun Fact: Why is it named after an elephant and a bird?

This moth is named after its caterpillar, which has a small head on an extendable snout that looks a little like an elephant’s trunk. When it is afraid it retracts this snout back making it look as if it has a huge head and causing its fake eyes to swell up.  By impersonating a much bigger animal it can succeed in scaring off a bird that might otherwise be tempted to eat it!

Blotched Emerald – Comibaena bajularia

The Blotched Emerald is a moth whose larvae eat oak leaves.  It has a spectacular way of camouflaging itself as a caterpillar. In the summer it covers itself with little pieces of oak leaf, spinning silk over the top of them and then attaching the other end of the silk to its spines.  It sleeps through the winter and on waking in the spring camouflages itself with brown oak bud scales. The moth also looks like a battered leaf with brown patches, so it perfectly matches the tree it lives on whatever the season.

Large Emerald caterpillar ©Ge van't Hoff CC BY-SA 4.0

Fun Fact: What’s a Looper?

It’s a popular name for the Emerald moth caterpillar. The family name Geometridae, literally means “earth-measurers”, because of the way the caterpillars move.  They have fewer legs than some caterpillars, and loop their way along, so they are often known as “loopers” or “inchworms”.

Silver-washed Fritillary - Argynnis paphia

This species was particularly popular because of the variety of its wing patterns, however its numbers declined dramatically around the early 20thcentury. There is a myth that this was because of over-collecting by the Victorians. Today, Hampshire is one of the few places in the UK that the rare dark form, valezina, can be found. In general the good forestry practice in Hampshire has made it is possible once again to see dozens of these magnificent creatures on the wing in open forest paths.

Female Silver-washed Fritillary ©Charles J Sharp / CC BY-SA

Fun Fact: Could war affect the population of this butterfly?

It was arguably the First World War that led to this butterfly’s decline.  The caterpillars eat violets, especially the Common Dog Violet that grows in sunlit spaces in woodland.  The First World War used so much timber that the government worried the country would not have enough wood to fight a similar war, so they replaced the oak woodlands with densely planted conifers that let no light into the forest floor. No light means no violets, no violets means no caterpillars, and so a once common woodland butterfly became scarce.

Blues – Lycaenidae

Lycaenidae – Blues, Coppers and Hairstreaks

This family of small butterflies contains some of our most brightly coloured ones, including all the blue butterflies that are such a valued part of our summers. Of the species with blue wings, two are common, the Common Blue and the Holly Blue.

Holly Blue - Celastrina argiolus

As a rough guide, a Blue you see flitting about above head-height is likely to be a Holly Blue. Check for a pale blue underwing colour to be sure. The female Holly Blue has a broad black border to the upperside of her wings which the male lacks.

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Male Holly Blue ©SEGould

Fun Fact: Who sings to ants?

Large Blue - Maculinea arion larvae live in ants nests and eat ant larvae! Why do the ants allow a guest to behave so monstrously? The larvae smells and sounds like a queen ant who also sings, so worker ants will go to any lengths to protect it.

Diptera – Flies

Flies only have two wings, and their order name reflects this, “di” – two, “ptera” wings, whereas bees have four. When trying to see if an insect is a 2-winged fly or a 4-winged bee it helps to look for the halteras, little golf-tee shaped stumps, where the hind wings would be if it had any. These tend to be distinctively coloured making them easy to see.  An interesting fact; flies can move their two wings independently of each other enabling them to fly sideways.

Hoverflies - Leucozona glaucia

This species lives mostly in damp woodland and has an unusual bluey-grey colour to its stripes. While the flies feast on pollen in the mid-summer, the larva typically eat aphids.

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Leucozona glaucia © SEGould

Fun Fact: Who lives in a puddle up a tree?

The Rot-hole Dronefly! Insects need to keep their young safe from other creatures that want to eat them before the young grow wings. Stagnant water puddles in trees are a good place to hide, but how do they breathe? Rat-tailed maggots have a solution with a long tube like a snorkel they can use through the water to reach air!

Parasitic wasps - Ichneumon

Parasitic wasps have an incredibly important role in keeping ecosystems in balance. Without them some insects would increase to plague proportions.

Like sawflies, large female parasitic wasps have long ovipositors, but instead of inserting eggs into plants, they lay eggs inside a living host insect. Some parasitic wasps attack sawfly larvae as well as caterpillars and beetle larvae to use as hosts. When a wasp larva hatches it lives inside the host insect keeping it alive as long as possible but eating it bit by bit. On emerging from its pupa, it splits open the now dead host insect. That’s one ways to keep your food fresh – eat it alive!

Parasitic wasp laying eggs in bee hotel ©Gail Hampshire © CC BY-2.0

Fun Fact: Which wasp visits a bee hotel?

The Ephialtes manifestator – a large parasitic wasp which is becoming better known due to its habit of visiting bee hotels in gardens. The pupae of some of the solitary bees that nest in bee hotels are its natural prey. In the picture she is using her ovipositor to inject in an egg.  Her offspring will emerge the following year instead of the bee.

Bumblebees – Bombus

Bumblebees and Honey Bees are social bees. A queen bumblebee builds a nest and raises the first few bee larvae herself collecting food for them. When these first little bumblebees are able to fly the queen stays in the nest and just lays eggs. Worker bees, all females, take over the feeding and nest-building duties.  Finally when there are enough worker bees the queen lays eggs that will turn into male bees and new queens.  The old queen dies, her job done, and the new queens go on to build their own nests somewhere else.

Buff-tailed Bumblebee ©Sarah Walkington CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Fun Fact: Why is it good for bees to have smelly feet?

A bee landing on a flower leaves a smelly footprint on the petals. The bee then drinks the nectar in the flower and flies away. Another bee coming to visit that flower can tell by the smell when a bee last visited it.  If the previous bee has only just left, the second bee won’t bother landing because there’s no nectar to drink.

Our last post on Microsculpture will be a special focus on Gilbert White (1720 – 1793) regarded the father of ecology in this the 300th anniversary birth year of this local born naturalist.

We’d like to say thank you to our incredible Natural Sciences volunteers for providing us with this fascinating content. If you’ve enjoyed this, the great news is we’ll be opening this exhibition in Gosport Gallery on Saturday 18 July 2020, so why not pop along and see Levon Biss’ amazing images and our collections there.

Timed admission tickets will be available from the Gosport Gallery  from Wednesday 1 July.

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