The Insects Christmas

This month’s blog was kindly contributed by Chris Foster, Lecturer in Animal Ecology and Chair of the Biodiversity Working Group.

As we count down to Christmas, colleagues are busy once again with the brilliant Advent Botany series. With a little thought, anyone can think of plants that evoke the season, from spruce or fir Christmas trees to the cinnamon, ginger and cloves that spice our festive treats. Advent entomology is perhaps a harder sell, with few obvious associations, but I’d like to propose a few insect stars of the season – some more tenuous than others.

You certainly don’t expect to see clouds of insects on the wing at this time of year since many adult insects are short-lived, future generations persisting through the cold months as motionless eggs or pupae. For example, populations of the White-letter Hairstreak butterfly, occasionally reported on campus in the adult form in the summer, can be detected in winter by searching for eggs near the tips of elm twigs. They wait, still lives, for the right light and temperature cues to resume development in the spring. Other species keep developing right through winter as active larvae, especially in soil and leaf litter, which provides some insulation against fluctuations in temperature.

But there’s another group of species that are my first Christmas champions: those that wait out the winter in their final, glittering adult forms. The diverse ornamental conifer plantings on Whiteknights campus provide excellent winter habitat for these, from hirsute cypress dwelling ladybirds to the Juniper shieldbug, whose shining forewings are veneered like an old walnut dashboard. I wrote about the joys of searching in conifers in a short piece that was included in the Wildlife Trust’s Seasons series back in 2016, but it is only recently that we’ve contemplated a more systematic look at the use of ornamental trees on campus by overwintering insects. This year a Biological Sciences project student is collecting some data, and there is lots of potential for future student work either through formal research projects or simply getting involved with ad hoc recording of insects on campus.

Once the sun sets over our Christmassy conifers, my second festive insects come into their own. A small handful of moth species are active as adults in the heart of winter (as are surprisingly many small flies – midges and gnats), seeking out mates and laying eggs. One is the December Moth, a gorgeous fuzzy animal whose elegant brown cloak is edged with gold. The Winter Moth is, by comparison, unremarkable in appearance but notable for its unusual flightless females and important place in woodland food webs. Winter Moth eggs hatch in spring right around budburst, and the caterpillars provide vital nourishment for blue and great tit chicks. This link is threatened by climate change, which through phenological asynchrony risks separating peaks of caterpillar abundance and hatching dates of the chicks.

Finally, some insects that are difficult to find at Christmas still deserve a place in our festive fauna. The Holly Blue butterfly, for example, has two generations that feed on Holly and then Ivy – what could be more Christmassy? The Red-green Carpet is another we should be seeing on cards or decorations, with its attractively mossy green wings streaked with a red blush. Nowadays we see few insects represented in seasonal culture, but this charming animated film (see video below) from 1913 has beetles and crickets receiving gifts from Father Christmas before skating on a pond. With the looming threat of insect population collapses, maybe there’s no better time to revise Christmas as a time for celebrating the charm of our six-legged friends.

Many thanks to Chris! If you’re interested in contributing to the Whiteknights Biodiversity blog, please email v.l.boult(at)

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Whiteknights Park as an arboretum

Guest blog by Jonathan Gregory, National Centre for Atmospheric Science, Dept of Meteorology, University of Reading & Met Office Hadley Centre

I grew up in Welwyn Garden City, which has plenty of trees of many kinds. As far as I remember, I’ve always found them beautiful, as individuals and in landscapes. I learned to recognise ash, hawthorn and apple from the gardens of the houses I grew up in, my parents planted a tree (a silver birch) in ’73, and oaks (older than the town) were familiar from the streets of the neighbourhood. During these years most of the mature elms of Britain died, including a row of them not far from my junior school. I was sad about that, but too young to miss the sight of them in the countryside.

Some time in my twenties I was stimulated (by not knowing what a hornbeam is) to learn to recognise native and commonly planted tree species. It was an unexpected revelation, like learning an alphabet, which turns squiggles into meaning. Groups of trees turned from undifferentiated vegetation into collections of distinguishable familiar characters. A friend asked me why I wanted to know their names. One reason is curiosity about the surroundings. Another is that trees are sometimes used to evoke landscapes in descriptions, for instance a beechwood, or what Tolkien had in mind when he compared individual ents to chestnut and rowan trees. I want to recognise trees from a distance; it’s fun to try to name them as you pass by on a train.

A variety of trees in the landscape, on the north lakeside

Soon after I started working at the university in 2003 it occurred to me that Whiteknights campus could provide plenty of examples for anyone else who wanted to learn common trees, especially if some of them were identified (with labels or by photos), but I did not make time for this project until autumn of 2019. Since then I have spent many enjoyable hours taking photos and compiling a virtual arboretum, which aims to picture, identify and map a few individuals, in each season, of every species represented, along with details of leaves, bark, etc. The project grew as I discovered, with some excitement, what a huge diversity of trees we have. Rupert Taylor, Head of Grounds Maintenance, helpfully corrected misidentifications I had made because I had not imagined that there were many non-native species looking quite like native ones e.g. Fraxinus angustifolia and F. excelsior. (I expect that confusing this pair seems inconceivably careless to experienced botanists—and I also made a few more embarrassingly serious mistakes.)

I would welcome any comments and corrections, adding to useful suggestions I’ve already received (make the site mobile-friendly and in PDFs for download, include high-resolution images, link to web pages with species information). The X-rated virtual arboretum shows the trees I’ve not identified, in which I’d be grateful for help! I’d also be happy to know the location of any white poplar, downy birch, sessile oak, common whitebeam, crack willow and common juniper. I’ve appreciated encouragement from the Friends of the University of Reading, Alastair Culham and Jonathan Mitchley of the School of Biological Sciences, and my colleague Benoît Vannière.

Metasequoia glyptostroboides, the dawn redwood

Many thanks to Jonathan for providing this entry! If you’re interested in contributing to the Whiteknights Biodiversity blog, please email v.l.boult(at)

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Langley Mead: The University’s lesser-known wilderness

As staff and students at the University of Reading, we are lucky to work and study amongst the wilderness of Whiteknights campus. But, if you’ve ever thought of travelling just a little further afield for your biodiversity-fix, read on…

Just a 10-minute bus ride south of Whiteknights, you’ll find Langley Mead – just over 18 hectares of countryside sitting on the banks of the river Loddon. The area is owned and managed by the University of Reading as a Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspace (SANG). What does that mean? It starts with local development. In the Spencers Wood and Shinfield area, a large number of residential properties have been built in recent years. The growing residential population raised concerns that the nearby Thames Basin Heath Special Protection Area would see increased footfall and pressure on these habitats. Langley Mead and other SANGs have therefore been established to provide an alternative greenspace for people to enjoy.

Langley Mead boasts an exciting array of plant and animal species. Check out the signs around the site for more information.

On top of the biodiversity benefits Langley Mead offers as a SANG, it has also become part of an ecological restoration project. After years of intensive agricultural use, active management of the site since 2013 has been working to restore the lost wildlife-rich landscape that once existed here.

Prior to agricultural intensification during the 20th century, the Langley Mead site was a typical “ancient” landscape, comprising hedgerows, wildflower meadows, pasture, common land and coppiced woodlands. This low intensity management would have accommodated far more biodiversity than the agricultural landscapes common today.

Current management practices at Langley Mead are trying to restore this ancient matrix and the biodiversity it supported. Efforts have included the spreading of wildflower-rich green hay imported from nearby surviving species-rich meadows and sowing wildflower seed mixes, installation of bird boxes (including barn owl boxes), creation of habitat piles and even an otter holt. New woodland has been planted in place of a long-lost ancient coppiced woodland, hedgerows have been restored, and a small herd of cows are regularly employed to carry out conservation (low intensity) grazing on the site.

As a result of these efforts, Langley Mead now boasts an abundance of plant and animal species, including some that are rare in Berkshire or of wider conservation importance, and records are growing year on year. The wildflower meadows provide a particular highlight in spring and summer, but you can find important plant species all year-round if you look hard enough.

An example of broomrape found in October 2021. Broomrape is a parasitic plant and so it’s presence is a good indicator that conditions at Langley Mead are not only good for the broomrape, but for its host plant too.

You’re almost guaranteed to see a number of bird species – including the local red kites, buzzards and woodpeckers, and if you visit early enough, maybe even the local kingfisher – but don’t forget to look out for the smaller things too, like the Robin’s pincushion shown below! If you’re visiting Langley Mead at dusk during the summer, keep your eyes peeled for breeding barn owls searching for food over the meadows, and head to the Millworth Lane entrance to witness the bat super-highway!

A robin’s pincushion: a gall found on roses in late summer caused by the larvae of a small wasp. The larvae will feed and overwinter in the gall and emerge as adults in the spring.

So, if you fancy a change from the wilds of Whiteknights campus, Langley Mead is well worth a visit. Entrance to the site (and parking) is free and it’s only a short drive south of campus (or why not be extra environmentally-friendly and jump on the number 3 or 8 bus towards Shinfield or Spencers Wood from the SportsPark bus stop?). More information about the site can be found on the Langley Mead website:

Dogs are welcome at Langley Mead. This doggo is pictured alongside the bat superhighway!
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Thames Valley Fungal Group – species list from last foray

It’s taken a while but here is the list of fungi found on the Thames Valley Fungal Group foray on 7th October 2018.  The new reports have yet to be added to the main species lists. Continue reading

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Black footed polypore (Picipes badius)

The black footed polypore gains it’s name from the black stipe supporting the fruiting body. It’s a saprophytic species growing on dead hardwood. This quite large and colourful fungus has not previously been reported on campus so I was excited to see several fruiting bodies together on 13th September 2018. All had been disturbed and lifted out of the substrate – no idea whether this was by an interested person or by animals.

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The Palm Family: Plants with a Heart

The Arecaceae, better known as the palm family, is one of the world’s most iconic plant groups. Comprised of approximately 2600 species across 181 genera (Christenhusz and Byng, 2016), this is a large and diverse family, yet simultaneously one of the most recognisable. Part of the monocot clade in the order Arecales, palms are often seen as symbols of the tropics, however, some may be surprised to learn that there are several species that grow perfectly well in our cool, damp climate here in Britain. Continue reading

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Dryopteridaceae on campus and in the UK

Dryopteridaceae found in The Wilderness on UoR Campus. (Photo by Teri Lim)


Division Pteridophytes
Class Polypodipsida
Order Polypodiales
Family Dryopteridaceae

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Think outside the Box

Buxus sempervirens in the Harris Gardens, Reading University ©S.Medcalf2017

Buxaceae at Whiteknights

There’s a man buried vertically, head downwards on a hillside called Box Hill near Dorking in Surrey. You could say he was off his head when he died in 1800. No, maybe on his head…

the world is topsy turvy, and I’ll be the right way in the end” (Major Peter  Labellière)

His reasons have a certain resonance in our current topsy turvy, ‘post-truth’ era… Continue reading

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Orobanche hederae – Ivy Broomrape

My last blog was on the common broomrape, Orobanche minor, the only species I had seen on campus in the past few years.  Today I was excited to receive an email from Phöbe, one of the volunteer Friends of the Haris Garden and a very keen Cyclamen grower.  The email included this image of a broomrape growing under the wingnut trees in the Harris Garden.

Mystery Orobanche from the Harris Garden (c) Phöbe Friar 2016

Mystery Orobanche from the Harris Garden (c) Phöbe Friar 2016

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Orobanche minor on Whiteknights campus

Orobanche minor growing on Brachyglottis monroi

Orobanche minor growing on Brachyglottis monroi

Parasitic plants, particularly ones with large and colouful flowers, are always a cause of curiosity from the casual observer, and are generally uncommon enough to exite field botanists. For many years there were numerous flower spikes of Orobanche minor on the Brachyglottis ‘Sunshine’ plants in the Chemistry Department car park on Whiteknights campus.  However the Brachyglottis plants became moribund and were removed so I thought we had lost the Orobanche from the area.  Continue reading

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