Saturday, July 2, 2011

Seeing red

Yesterday I popped to check up on a colony of firebugs (Pyrrhocoris apterus) that had taken up residence in some abandoned greenhouses in BeestonI wrote a short article about them for the Bedfordshire Natural History Society newsletter (Muntjac) in 2007, which I've uploaded here
Here are shots of the site from September 2007.
Firebugs are heteropteran or true bugs. Their name, Pyrrhocoris apterus literally means ‘fire bug wingless’. They are very common in Europe but at the northern tip of their distribution in the UK (they are listed in the Red Data Book as endangered). Most records in England (perhaps excepting Devon) appear to be accidental introductions, as is most likely the case here. I think this population in Bedfordshire is the most northerly in England. 

When we visited the site in September 2007 there were hundreds and hundreds of bugs congregated in and around the greenhouses. They were a spectacular sight. (In the pictures there are the clown-faced adults and very dapper nymphs).
The site in Beeston is now a nature reserve, but was, until about 10 years ago, a lettuce field. It is possible the bugs hitched a ride on wooden packing crates imported from southern Europe for packing lettuces. 

The old glasshouses provide an ideal habitat for these bugs, who are more used to warmer climes. They are protected from the worst of the winter and their favourite foodplant, common mallow (Malva sylvestris) was plentiful both in, and around the greenhouses. 
The bugs were easy to spot, clambering all over the mallow and feeding on the seeds.
In Europe they are found on mallows (including tree mallow (Lavatera arborea)) and lime trees (Tilia spp).  

In 2007, we only found the bugs in close proximity to the glasshouses. I wanted to see how they had fared and if they had ventured further afield.

On my visit on Friday, the greenhouses were bone dry inside and most plants were dead. There was barely any mallow in the immediate vicinity. I held out little hope the bugs would be around. But, then I found a few running around inside the glasshouses, who appeared to be feeding on thistle seeds.
I found the odd straggly mallow plant nearby, with a few firebugs in attendance. And there was a squashed firebug on the path (not squashed by me!) being eaten by a relative.
There was no evidence of the swarms we had seen in 2007, but that was later in the year. I searched further afield, on all the mallow I could find. I found firebugs a few hundred yards north at a field edge, in characteristic pose. 
Some were using the mallow seed for more intimate activities. Convenient for a snack afterwards I suppose. 
They are fabulous bugs to see, but despite their bright colouring, it's remarkably easy to walk past and not notice them. I'm sure many people do. Fingers crossed that Beeston's most famous bug continues to fare well.

The best source of info I've found on these bugs in the UK, is the book by Roger Hawkins, The Shieldbugs of Surrey, 2003, Surrey Wildlife Trust.
Also 'British Bugs: An online identification guide to UK hemiptera'


  1. Absolutely fascinating Mel! I have spent more time than I should reading this and your links, as well as your earlier posts that I missed.

    I had no idea there were any Firebugs in this country and have learnt a lot about them. Amazing how accidental imports manage to adapt so well.

  2. Agree with SS - I saw one in Normandy this year but didn't know you keep them in greenhouses in Bedfordshire.... they aren't on the NBN map.

  3. Thanks both. Of course, NBN is entirely dependent on data actually being put in, in the first place. Maybe if I put a photo on ISpot, it will get onto NBN? Good thought - thanks for the prompt.

  4. Done. Put on ISpot. The record should get onto NBN now.