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29 October 2014
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Life In The Undergrowth
Giant Asiatic Bees (Apis dorsata) on their comb © Simon Williams

Life In The Undergrowth


What lovely creatures! The neglected superstars of the animal kingdom

Insects are some of the least understood creatures in the animal world.


Often perceived as nuisances, and gardeners' enemies, they are swatted, squashed, flushed away and, in most cases, neglected by the human race.


Yet these creatures are essential to our ecosystems which, without invertebrates, would collapse.


Not only that, invertebrates are incredible creatures and Life In The Undergrowth shows, for the first time, just how amazing they are.


By zooming in on the world's invertebrates, we can appreciate them properly and understand how they have remained the most successful group on Earth.


The best mums in the world?


Let's start with the perennial invertebrate baddie – spiders!


Spiders have earned themselves a pretty bad reputation, not helped by the likes of Little Miss Muffett, films entitled Arachnophobia and tabloid stories of spiders lurking in the banana sections of supermarkets.


But not all spiders are waiting for their chance to pounce and kill. Some are rather busy with the important task of looking after the kids.


Wolf spiders are cute little spiders that you will find running all over your garden at certain times of the year.


The males have a bizarre semaphore-style courtship routine whereby they try to woo the females. If they are successful, the female spiders take on the duties of motherhood very seriously.


The female wolf spider is a very gentle parent, encasing her eggs in silk and carrying the precious bundle with her wherever she goes.


If they happen to drop their eggs, they have such strong motherly instincts that they will pick up snail shells or anything of about the right size and carry those around instead.


When the babies hatch out, they climb on to their mother's back and she continues to carry them until they are ready to cope on their own.


Lacewings also look for a safe way of protecting their eggs and use silk again in a novel way.


The female lacewing lays up to 300 eggs, almost twice her bodyweight, and needs to protect them from other insects such as ants.


She does this by suspending her eggs in the air from silken threads attached to plant stems. Here, they are safely out of reach from ants crawling on the plants.


Female species of dragonflies and damselflies will allow males to mate with them only when they see that he has a suitable egg-laying territory. He must display that there is a safe place for her offspring.


One hard-working mother is the sand wasp, who spends all her time catering for her yet unhatched young, ensuring they have a tasty meal when they hatch by placing live paralysed caterpillars in their nest for them.


The dads aren't bad, either.


In one species of harvestman in Panama it is the males, rather than the females, that take care of the young, a very rare phenomenon. The 'modern man' of the invertebrate world, he can look after up to 100 eggs.


Skilled acrobats


Springtails can be found everywhere in the UK and are amazing acrobats, although you may not have noticed them as many are only the size of a full stop.


One species lives on the underside of peony leaves, and lots of others live in leaf litter and people's gutters.


Using high-speed digital cameras, the team has been able to film their courtship in extreme detail and show exactly how different species jump and right themselves when they land.


They can jump incredibly high, but landing is not quite so easy!


Hoverflies hover for a reason. Each male holds a little three-dimensional moving territory in a sunbeam and he holds a station in the middle of it.


Here he can watch for females, and when he sees something fly past, he flies at an exact angle to intercept it if it is flying at the speed of a female.


High-speed cameras have been used to demonstrate this feat – with David Attenborough using a pea shooter to mimic a female hoverfly flying past!


Cascade damselflies are very rare and are found only near a handful of Central American waterfalls, but they have mastered the art of flying through powerful cascades and males do this to show off their fitness to females.


Ideal home makers


Termites are renowned for their mounds, the tallest of all non-human buildings.


Yet, by studying termite mounds, scientists have discovered that they contain a complex air-conditioning system that draws in fresh cool air and expels hot, stale air so that the whole mound becomes ventilated.


This clever housing arrangement is also guarded by soldier termites that protect the mound from invading ants.


Webspinners are small insects that live their lives under silken canopies in Trinidad. They are a little-known group of insects that create sheets of silk.


The thin silken tissue they create using their fore legs forms a shield that protects them from predators such as ants and geckos and enables them to forage for food in relative safety.


The sheets of silk are also rainproof, which is very handy when there are tropical downpours.


Using a video probe system, the team was able to film right inside the tunnels of a webspinner colony, showing the webspinners at work.


Some plants feed - and house - ants, which in turn protect them from caterpillars and other things which might eat them.


Some of these relationships have become very complex.


In the upper reaches of the Amazonian rain forest are strange areas, sometimes the size of a football field, in which grows only one kind of small tree.


The locals call these 'Devil's Gardens'. They are the work of minute ants that clear whole areas of the Amazon forest to make a monoculture of just its own plant.


These plants provide the ants with homes in the form of small swellings inside their stems.


However, those plants that do not provide the ants with a home are weeded out; the ants chew deep into their stems, causing them to wilt.


They then insert their abdomens into the damaged stems and inject their very own weed-killer, formic acid.


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