Insect experts at the Natural History Museum were stumped when a tiny red and black bug, no bigger than a grain of rice, turned up in their own wildlife garden.Despite a year's efforts from specialists across Europe, the mystery insect has defied all attempts to identify it. Max Barclay, an entomologist at the museum, came across the bug last spring. “I was in the gardens with my son and there was one under the gate, I thought, ‘That looks interesting, I've never seen anything like that before'
The bug was the most common insect in the museum's wildlife garden last summer and has since been found across southwest London, leading Mr Barclay to believe that it will soon spread across the country. But although the museum holds the world's largest collection of insects, no exact match could be found.
The bug closely resembles a Central European species, Arocatus roeselii, but it is a darker red and lives on plane trees rather than alder. “It's a bit unsatisfactory that in the garden of the biggest museum in the world there was an insect that we couldn't identify,” Mr Barclay said.
Specimens have been found in Battersea Park, Chelsea Embankment and Gray's Inn in London, and Mr Barclay believes that the insect has now spread across the capital. The bug has since been matched to unidentified specimens found in Nice and Paris, but Mr Barclay does not think that it is native to Europe. “A native species would have predators and parasites that would keep its numbers under control. It could be from anywhere plane trees occur, which doesn't narrow it down very much.” Plane trees are found across the northern hemisphere from China to North America.
The bug lives off the seeds of the plane tree and is thought to be harmless to human beings and the trees. Scientists in the Netherlands will now examine the creature's DNA in an attempt to find out more about its make-up. Mr Barclay believes that this will rule out the possibility that it is a hybrid of a known species, and set researchers on the way to solving the mystery.
Naturalists would venture far and wide to collect specimens. I find it amusing that one turns up on their doorstep so to speak!