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Insects welcome for the Pestival

Zygaena filipendulae
A six-spot Burnet moth (Zygaena filipendulae) at the London Wetland Centre

By Helen Wallis
London Wildlife Trust

Insects' bizarre beauty has long inspired those of an artistic persuasion, yet "creepy crawlies" can often evoke fear and revulsion. So what is there to like about insects?

Pestival, a festival celebrating insects in the creative arts, returns to London's Southbank this September.

Insects are essential to life as we know it and make up eighty percent of species on Earth.

Human survival depends on the army of insects that pollinate our food crops - bees alone pollinate a third of everything we eat.

Meanwhile, flies and beetles are nature's cleaners and undertakers, responsible for breaking down organic waste into nutritious compost.

Capital Creepy-Crawlies

London's insect population provides food for creatures including birds, bats, amphibians, reptiles and hedgehogs.

Adult house sparrows enjoy snacking on breadcrumbs but their young need an insect diet to thrive. Swifts are aerodynamic birds which fly with their mouths wide open, catching vast numbers of flying insects as they glide above the Capital's skyline. The common pipistrelle bat munches it way through over 3000 insects a night.

From the turquoise, bug-eyed beauty of the emperor dragonfly to the zebra striped wings of the Jersey tiger moth, Londoners have a kaleidoscope of common, but spectacular insects on their doorstep.

Stag Beetle
London is a stronghold for the threatened stag beetle

Home to rarities

London is also home to several rare species. Stag beetles are Britain's largest beetle, reaching up to 8cm in length. Clad in shiny violet-brown armour, the males are armed with impressive antlers, which are used to fight off rivals.

Despite their fearsome appearance, stag beetles are totally harmless, feeding off rotten wood. They are a globally threatened species but London is a stronghold for them, with South London's gardens being a particularly important habitat.

The streaked bombardier beetle is found in just one place in the whole of the UK - a brownfield site near City Airport. Bombardier beetles are harmless to humans but shoot predators with a boiling, noxious spray, accompanied by a popping noise and puffs of smoke!

London's proximity to the European mainland, warm microclimate and its role as an international port make it a haven for exotic species.

The Camberwell beauty is a huge, velvety brown butterfly, edged in cream and blue. This rare migrant was first formally identified in Coldharbour Lane in 1748, hence its name.

Londoners have a kaleidoscope of common, but spectacular insects on their doorstep
Helen Wallis
London Wildlife Trust

History makers

Several insects have had a major influence on London's history. Most famously the Great Plague of 1665 which killed 100,000 Londoners, was spread by fleas that infested the city's rat population.

More positively, London street names such as Petticoat Lane and Silk Street recall the success of the 16th Century silk industry.

Silk is produced by the silk moth caterpillar, which spins its cocoon from a single silk fibre that can be up to 500 meters long.

Silk weaving was brought to Britain by Huguenot refugees who settled in Shoreditch and by the 18th century, England led Europe in silk manufacturing.

Cochineal is another insect derived product with a special place in London's history. This red dye comes from a South American scale insect and was traditionally used to dye the tunics of the Buckingham Palace Guards.

If you want to find out more about London's fascinating insects and what you can do to conserve them, visit London Wildlife Trust's Urban Insect Garden at this year's Pestival.

Pestival runs from 4th - 6th September at London's Southbank Centre.

A symposium featuring leading thinkers discussing how insects have shaped literature and art, science, architecture and design is being held on Thursday, 3 September from 7.30pm at the Zoological Society of London in Regent's Park.

'London is great for wildlife'
12 Aug 09 |  Nature & Outdoors
The plight of London's humble bees
03 Jul 09 |  Nature & Outdoors
Audio slideshow: A walk in the woods
24 Aug 09 |  Nature & Outdoors


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