“we have rather chosen to fill our hives with honey and wax; thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and light.”
Imagine, it is the early nineteenth century, on a still summer night in a creaky timber-framed cottage in the English countryside; and you are awake, sitting up with a sick child and a single flickering tallow candle for light.
And quiet but persistent, from somewhere in the darkness, you hear a noise.
It’s not surprising it might seem like a sinister omen.
Especially not surprising when you learn about some of other omens of death just in Oxfordshire:
local omens include crocks rattling, a spider making a ticking noise, two black crows on a line, a knock on the door with no-one there, crickets rapidly leaving a house, a dog howling, the clock striking 12 during the second sermon or hymn (Adderbury), fire burning with a bright hole in the middle (Stoke Row), a coffin shape formed in ironed linen or a loaf of bread, and a candle guttering and the grease spiralling to form a winding sheet.
It was taboo to wash clothes on Good Friday or New Year’s Day, to wash blankets in May, or to seat 13 at a table. People dreaded a picture falling from a wall for no apparent reason, scissors falling point downwards, or a glass ringing (indicating the death of a sailor). Dressmakers avoided accidentally stitching a hair into their work. It was bad luck if the eyes of a corpse remained open, or the corpse stayed in the house over a Sunday, or the funeral had to be postponed. People encountering a funeral procession would walk a little way with it to avert bad luck.
Plants associated with death include flowers with drooping heads such as snowdrops, dead flowers found outside and picked up, red and white flowers in a vase (especially in hospitals where they were described as ‘blood and bandages’), flowers blooming out of season, fruit trees blossoming twice in one year, or out of season, lilac brought in, parsley transplanted or given away, and red hot pokers blooming twice.
Many death omens were associated with birds: birds coming into the house, tapping on the window, flying into a closed window or flying down a chimney, cocks crowing at midnight, crows or owls perching near the house, and a robin perching on a chair.
They must have lived their lives surrounded by a constant swirl of portents, good or bad. Presumably most people, most of the time, shrugged it all off; but you can imagine if you were stressed, or depressed, or worried about someone’s health, you would find yourself seeing threatening signs everywhere.
That’s what the adult beetle looks like. 7mm long, mottled brown, slightly hairy. They make the ticking sound to attract mates by banging their heads against the timber.
And it might be an omen; not of death, but of some expensive renovation work. Because they are woodborers and if the adults are banging their heads against your beams, it probably means that their larvae are munching away, hollowing them out.
This is an Australian species called the Mountain Katydid, Acripeza reticulata:
Male on the left, female on the right.
Obviously, they’re well camouflaged (the female is easily mistaken for a kangaroo turd, apparently); and they have funky-looking stripy legs. But that’s not why I picked them. No; it’s because when you get too close to them, they do this:
Bright colours in insects are often a warning that they taste bad, but presumably it also distracts and disconcerts predators.
It reminds me of those fabulous grasshoppers you find in the Mediterranean, which are almost completely invisible until you nearly step on them and they fly off with a flash of blue or red wings.
» ‘Acripeza reticulata female and male’ is © Mark Santos and used under a CC by-nc licence. The photo of a katydid with its wings up is from the marvellous Brisbane Insects and Spiders Home Page and is © Peter Chew.
‘Magnetic termites’ sounds like a very disappointing toy to find at the bottom of your Christmas stocking. But no, they are a real species, Amitermes meridionalis. I don’t have a picture of the insect itself, but I assume it’s just your standard termite: a pallid little wriggly thing. Or thousands and thousands of pallid little wriggly things.
These are the mounds made by magnetic termites, in the Litchfield National Park in Australia:
They’re called ‘magnetic’ because the mounds are wide and flat, and they all align themselves north-south. Giving a distinct graveyard look to a group of them together.
I love how different they look depending on the season and lighting.
They aren’t actually magnetic, because they aren’t aligned along the earth’s magnetic field; instead they’re aligned according to where the sun rises and sets. Google doesn’t provide a consensus answer for why they build their mounds this way; it is something to do with minimising exposure to the heat of the sun, and therefore controlling the temperature, but there are plenty of termites living in very hot conditions, and most build round mounds.
The fact that the magnetic termites live in an area which is sometimes flooded is probably important, but again it’s not entirely clear why that makes a difference. Whatever the reason, the result is spectacular.
The closest relative of the termites are cockroaches. Termites are cockroaches who have built elaborate societies by working together for a higher cause. Admittedly most of them are anaemic stunted slaves, working themselves to death to further the interests of a feudal autocracy… but it’s still a remarkable example of the power of cooperation.
Enjoying insects is mainly about noticing the little things, having an eye for detail; not just appreciating the sweep of the landscape, but also the square meter of land directly in front of your feet. Occasionally, though, insects can construct a landscape on a massive scale.
» ‘Magnetic termite mounds’ is © Peter Nijenhuis. ‘Magnetic Termite Mounds – Litchfield National Park – Northern Territory – Australia’ is © Flight9774; both are used under CC by-nc-nd licences. ‘DSC07400’ is © Blake Chen and used under a by-nc-sa licence. ‘Magnetic Termite Mounds’ is © factoids and used under a by-nc licence.
Probably the single most glamorous moth in the UK, this is an elephant hawkmoth:
What a stunner.
It’s like a furry stick of rock.
And as well as one of the most amazing moths in the UK, it’s also about the most amazing caterpillar:
It’s a monster! Every year I hope to find one of these in the rosebay willowherb in the garden, but no luck so far.
» ‘Elephant Hawkmoth, Deilephila elpenor’ is © Drinker Moth and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence. ‘Garden mothing 2011 #18, 25 May’ is © nutmeg66 and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence. ‘elephant hawkmoth 6’ is © kantc2 and used under a CC by-nc licence.
I found Udo Schmidt’s amazing beetles photographs on Flickr and was like a kid in a candy store. I was very tempted by this longhorn beetle which looks like it was upholstered for a 1970s bachelor pad, or this one which is clearly a piece of military hardware. Or this scarab, apparently on his way back from a rave.
Amazing. Let’s not stop there! Here’s a bonus leaf beetle, Eugenysa colossa, from Peru:
And one more for luck, also from Peru, Stolas discoides: