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.
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'