I’ve spent a lot of time looking at bark this autumn. Back in October we had MSc students at Reading going out looking for woodlice in Whiteknights Campus, and amongst their other finds was a very fine beetle called Uleiota planata, found under the bark of a large section of felled oak. The same log held a few other beetles species and I’ve since found a few more bark-dwelling coleopteran beauties on campus. I hope to write up a post on these in the near future once I’ve finished setting, labelling and photographing the specimens. My pictures won’t be nearly so fine as the ones German entomologist Udo Schmidt takes, of course, but I can dream!
Under bark is a fine place for over-wintering invertebrates to shelter, so it’s worth a look at any time of year. This week, on the woodlouse trail again, I was surprised to uncover something sizeable and furry which I quickly realised was a hibernating Bombus hypnorum queen. Whizzing around the sleepy bee were some beautifully sleek and remarkably speedy rove beetles which go by the name of Sepedophilus immaculatus.
On the living bark of standing trees is not a bad place to look either. I’ve recently discovered the ‘Invisible Spider’, Drapetisca socialis. It most commonly inhabits tree trunks, apparently matching the colour of its abdomen with the bark so as to be extra-specially hard to see when motionless. Under a microscope they’re phenomenally beautiful, with intricate patterns all over and fantastic bristly palps.
Finally, the time when bark really seems to come to life is after dark, since many invertebrates are of course nocturnal. My walks off campus after work are now always after sunset so I’m semi-nocturnal too, and I’m enjoying the twilight atmosphere of the Wilderness woods. On Friday evening I picked up quite a number of species reflecting my torch light on the trunks of oak trees: three of the ‘famous five’ common woodlice (rough, shiny and striped), the tenebrionid beetle Nalassus laevioctostriatus and the white-legged snake millipede. As I walked on a November moth stumbled into my head torch and circled before settling briefly on my hand, eyes glinting.
As if there wasn’t enough going on outside I’m hoping to use part of the winter to get through the rather alarming specimen backlog that’s been piling up in one of the university labs. Something tells me I’m going to need more than a single winter to organise this lot! At least once they’re all sorted it will be a useful reference resource, both for my own learning and for any students who want to take advantage of the specimens – those that are identified and labelled, anyway.