Insects on display

Seventy five per cent of all animal species are insects. They are probably the most important and diverse group of animals on Earth. The Oxford collections are among the top ten worldwide, and the displays in the Museum reflect this.

The entomology displays in the Museum
Insects are the most diverse group of animals on Earth and their diversity is reflected in the taxonomic displays that run along the upper gallery of the main court. These cases detail the thirty or so orders of insects, ranging from minute wingless fleas to some of the larger winged species - beetles, cockroaches, butterflies and bugs. While the taxonomic displays give us an understanding of the scope of the insect world, the live displays, also located on the upper gallery, lend an insight into the behaviour of these animals. Cockroaches, beetles, stick insects and some non-insect arthropods are kept in a series of glass tanks - giving visitors a unique opportunity to interact with these amazing creatures.

Live displays in the gallery
The Museum's upper gallery is home to four large vivariums containing live insects, spiders and scorpions. You never know what you might find in them, but the following gives a brief description of their most common inhabitants.

Madagascan hissing cockroaches

Burrowing cockroach
The burrowing cockroach (Blaberus discoidalis) is found throughout the northern part of South America. In the wild this species can be found in caves, in holes in trees and under bark. Before mating the males 'pump' their wings, moving them up and down to attract the attention of the female.

Giant spiny stick insect
The giant spiny stick insect (Eurycantha calcarata) originates from Papua New Guinea. They live in hollow tree stumps and logs, coming out at night to feed on the leaves of trees. The males of this species have large spines on their back legs, which they use to defend themselves against attack or during combat with other males. These spines are used by local fishermen as hooks to catch fish.

Madagascan hissing cockroach
The Madagascan hissing cockroach (Gromphadorhina sp.) is only found on the island of Madagascar. As the name implies this cockroach can hiss loud enough for you to hear! This happens during mating and when they are frightened. Cockroaches are omnivorous, meaning that they eat all manner of animal and vegetable material. At the Museum they are fed a diet of banana and protein/cereal mix.

Emperor scorpion
The emperor scorpion (Pandinus imperator) is found in West Africa. The Latin name means 'terrible forest emperor'. This scorpion lives in tropical rainforests, where it hides in burrows which can be up to 30 cm. long. All scorpions are predatory; they catch small insects and other invertebrates using their pincers to crush them to death. Emperors are harmless to humans, as they are only mildly venomous, but their claws can give you a very painful pinch! All scorpions glow either luminous green or blue under ultra violet light, this is because of luminescent minerals deposited in their exoskeleton. Although we know how this happens, nobody knows why.

The Museum hive
The Museum maintains a small hive of honey bees located on the south west stairwell of the building. Visitors can peek into the glass fronted case and get an insight into the life of these amazing insects.

A worker's life
Worker bees are sterile females. During the summer an adult worker bee lives for six weeks or so. When newly emerged the young bee spends her first two days eating pollen and honey. After this, she spends three weeks working inside the hive as a nurse feeding larvae with royal jelly, which she secretes from glands in her head. Bee larvae, which are going to become workers or drones (males), only get royal jelly for the first few days and then are fed on pollen and honey. Larvae that are going to become queens are fed on royal jelly throughout their development. When young, the nurse bee also has active abdominal wax glands in her abdomen which are used to build new cells and repair the comb. For the last weeks of her life the worker is a forager. She gathers nectar and pollen from flowers.

Bee engineers
The hexagonal shape of bee's cells is no accident. Evolution has determined the most economical shape and configuration for each cell. If cells had more than six sides, or were round, there would be spaces between them which would need more wax for the extra walls. Square or triangular cells could fit together neatly but a hexagon has the smallest circumference for its area and therefore uses least wax per unit. The hexagonal array also gives the comb great mechanical strength.

New colonies
When a queen ages, the colony gets too crowded, or when there is not enough food, the workers nurse selected larva on a diet of royal jelly to produce new queens. Just before the first new queen emerges, the old queen and about half the workers leave the colony as a swarm. The first queen to emerge stings any other unemerged queens to death and then leaves the hive for a mating flight. The queen may mate with several drones. The drones die after mating, but the queen will use their sperm to fertilise the eggs she lays during her life.

What is honey?
Honey is concentrated nectar. The worker bee sucks nectar up from flowers and stores it in a special part of the gut called the honey crop. Enzymes in the gut act on the nectar and when back in the nest she ‘pants’ to evaporate water from the nectar. She then regurgitates all of the nectar into storage cells. The nectar is then further thickened by evaporation.

Looking after live insects
Insects make ideal pets. The following lists a few points to get you started. Further information on keeping insects can be found in the 'Learning more' advice sheet below.

What to feed insect pets
Beetles, millipedes and cockroaches need soft fruit such as bananas or strawberries, and cat biscuits to give them protein. Stick insects eat bramble so you must ensure they have a fresh supply at all times.

Looking after live insects advice sheet

This article is also available as a fully illustrated PDF
Learning more ... Insects on display (PDF, 260kB)
To read this file you will need to download Adobe Reader

Learning more articles are free to all users for educational, non-profit purposes.


Schools & teachers The learning zone Families Adults Learning more - About the Museum - Entomology - Geology - Mineralogy - Petrology - Zoology - Show all articles - Plain text versions
Learning: home

Contact us Accessibility Copyright Site map

University of Oxford homepage