Ponking was and still is just a word used for going out and looking for something interesting fauna or floral related. Most often it isn’t concerned with taxa like birds or mammals, its an insect thing. It popped out one day I think by JL while sat, as usual, on a break from some form of nursery or forestry work. In time we’ve developed a language to go with it…
‘Let’s go for a ponk’
‘Ar, lets go for a shomble’ (an amble walk)
Then, inevitable as we get caught up checking deadwood…
‘Er, we need to shonk back!’ (get a move on).
On the 12th of March 2015, a conversation very much like the above resulted in me and JL walking through the local wood. The short version of this is that from Platydema violaceum larvae, a species of parasitic wasp new to science was reared through. In my eyes its endemic to the motherland, South Linkisheer, and that makes it all the more special. The longer version of this is a part scientific and part gibberish ramblings, probably more gibberish ramblings but it serves the purpose of context.
In British Wildlife (Duff, 2006), a note in the beetles section at the back mentioned an interesting beetle that had showed up in Norfolk. Sage (2006), who made the discovery in 2005, thoroughly reviewed the previous records of the beetle, P. violaceum. A summery is given here. I’ll point out that there was some text regarding the records – you’ll have to read the article for the full background to the accounts.
- 1871, taken by James Allen in the New Forest.
- 1860, Brendel (1975) mentions records around this time.
- 1901, New Forest recorded by Donisthorpe, (1901).
- 1957, taken at light in Surrey (Sankey, 1957).
Apart from the isolated record in 1957, its distribution was restricted to the New Forest. It is down on the current JNCC website as extinct, one of a number of species gone extinct in Britain in the last 100 years. A gap of nearly 50 years went by before Sage found two adult P. violaceum under the bark of a young fallen oak tree.
JL read that note in British Wildlife. A month later in November 2006 he was at work in our now late bosses’ woodland. He lifted some bark on a young dead oak that had been felled. Underneath a dumpy looking purple beetle attracted his attention. He had an inkling as to what it was but sent it for confirmation to the county recorder at the time, R. Key. It came back as a county first, P. violaceum. Sage had turned up the beetle 250km north west of the New Forest, JL then added a record 50km north west of that. Could it be a new population moving in from the continent and establishing?
JL then added further records in October 2007 with six adults and in 2008 with four adults in the same wood as the initial discovery. Two years went by and nothing, just a single sad looking dead adult under the bark of a fallen tree, crushed.
I and JL were on a break from the forestry work we were carrying out in the wood in early November 2010. I was a birder back then and not a great one either. I still relied a lot of the time on JL’s good ear to confirm or deny the calls, songs and tweets I heard – I’d say its a bit more evenly matched now. He had spoken about some beetle he found a few years before but if I’m honest, I didn’t really listen… meh, beetle – so what?
On that break we went for a ponk around the woodland and found the beetle he had been banging on about hiding under the bark of a young oak tree. At the time, JL was extremely excited because it had been nearly two years since he had found one alive. On the flip-side, I didn’t really give much of a hoot – it looked nice being purple, my favorite colour but I didn’t really understand the finding.
Over the next few years, JL added a few more records, April 2011, October 2011 and November 2012, it just seemed to keep popping up and more often than not, in winter. As I got more interested in beetles and insects in general over that period, I was in Nottingham and always missed out on ponking with JL when he was finding it.
In 2014 while… you guessed it… taking a break from forestry work, we piggled back the bark on a very young oak tree. With the tray held underneath beforehand, we were primed to catch any should they just drop – which 9.9 times out of 10, they did. We were right to do so and luck appeared to be on our side, onto the tray popped three adults. One female and two males. It caused a bit of a stir with M. Telfer who we invited up to show the beetle to along with R. Alder. They joined us in the wood in November 2014 with the disclaimer – you might have come a long way and we might not find it. Thankfully, Marks massive beating tray caught a single adult from high up under the bark of a young oak. After finally seeing it for myself again on two occasions, I asked JL if I could publish the records we had of the species in the Coleopterist, (Heeney, 2015). In the same journal, Wright (2015) caught a single adult P. violaceum in a vane trap in Oxfordshire. It was spreading!
Skip a few months to the 12th of March 2015 and the starting point of this post. We were walking the woods on a break and saw an ash trunk snapped off at about 6ft from the ground. The exposed side of the trunk laid down was covered in fungi. As we approached both of us were interested, ‘we could find something interesting on that’ I recall JL saying. On it, we found a single adult P. violaceum but more interestingly we found a number of larvae that were in with a shout of being our purple beetles younger form. I took two, JL thought he took one but when checking at home in the fungal material he had three. On the 20th of May JL contacted me and said to check the larvae. My two and one of JL’s appeared to have been parasitized. We noticed empty skins of the larvae, wrapped around a small cocoon. Of JL’s remaining two, one made adult hood while the last got as far as a cocoon but never hatched.
I suggested we contact the Natural History Museum and see if we could get the Hymenopterist there to get interested enough to have a look. Thankfully with the status of the beetle, they ware interested and we sent them over along with an adult Platy for the NHM’s collection. A little bit of time past and I received an email saying that the species of parasitic wasp was a species of Meteorus but couldn’t be placed. It was sent to an expert in Sweden who had sequenced other species of Meteorus for the same treatment.
While it was being, well whatever happens when things get sequenced, we showed A. Allen around the wood along with M. Skinner. MS peeled back a piece of elder bark back on the tree we were releasing an adult Platy on. Underneath were two larvae skins wrapped around two cocoons, they are now with me. I hope that as spring approaches, they will emerge and I’ll be able to get some photographs of this tiny wasp.
I was sat in the library at university a few days back, my email alert went off on my phone. I loaded up my emails on the computer and let out a little yelp before promptly messaging JL to give him the good news. We couldn’t believe it. In a wood that our boss had planted roughly 50 years ago, a RDB1 beetle shows up right under JL’s nose just a month after reading about it. Then in wood he has been walking since he was knee height to a Dorcus parallelipipedus, we finally find larvae of P. violcaeum and not only that – we reared on a new wasp! Whats it going to be called…?
It goes to show that you don’t have to go somewhere exotic or travel very far at all to find something ultimately, interesting. A fair few new to science species are found every year in the UK, particularly from presumably ignored groups of the past like fungus gnats and, parasitic wasps. Jennifer Owen discovered four new species of parasitic wasp in her garden in Leicestershire along with a massive selection of wildlife over a 30 year period. All you have to do is look. Which brings me on to pan species listing. I think without me and JL getting in with the other PSL folk, we would have probably ignored the wasp. This is one for the PSL ethos too.
I have one note on it though – it could have BEEN a beetle 😉
Brendel, M.J.D. (1975). Coleoptera, Tenebrionidae. Handbooks for the identification of British Insects Vol.5 Part 10.
Donisthorpe, H. St. J.K. (1901). New Forest Notes in 1901. Entomologists Record and Journal of Variation 13: 329-330.
Heeney, W.J.H. (2015) Platydema violcaeum (Fabricius) (Tenebrionidae) discovered in South Lincolnshire. The Coleopterist 24: 16-17
Sage, B. (2006). Platydema violcaeum (Fabricius) (Tenebrionidae) discovered in Norfolk. The Coleopterist 15: 50-51.
Sankey, J. (1957). Platydema violaceum (F.) (Col., Tenebrionidae) in Surrey. Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine 93. 278.