On Saturday a flying insect settled in my garden in Orpington, Kent, similar in size to a very large wasp.  It's body had a hard yellow casing and there was a very large red spot on it's back. Can you help me identify it please?

Val,

Further to earlier requests to identify insects, you really need to provide more information or a very good photograph.

Are you saying that this insect was the size of a large wasp (a hornet _Vespa crabro_:http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/07/Vespa_crabro_by_Sven_Teschke.jpg/717px-Vespa_crabro_by_Sven_Teschke.jpg Vespa_crabro_ photo by by Sven Teschke)
but wasn't? All insects have a 'hard' exoskelton (casing) made of chitin but the fact that you mention this specifically makes me assume you've seen a beetle, however, what you describe certainly doesn't remind me of any beetle that I know about. The larger ground beetles and chafers just don't fit a description like this. Maybe someone else can help...

Just as a general reminder to all of you who may be seeing insects this summer that you can't identify; if you are in the British Isles, there are around 44,000 different species of arthropod, of which insects make up a huge proportion. For instance, there are around 6,000 species of Hymenoptera (bees, wasps and ants), 365 species of ground beetle, 250 species of leaf beetle, 570 weevil beetles, 32 species of mosquito, I could go on but shall refrain (for now!).

What I'm trying to say is that there are a huge variety of insects and spiders out there that often require microscopic work, coupled with a detailed key to identify, therefore, if you see something 'new', detailed descriptions are needed (length, number of wings, number of legs, antennae (simple or complex), where colours are on the body and in what form (stripes on head, spots on thorax or abdomen?, iridescent wing cases for beetles?)? and these are often just to get it to a family level!

Please, please, please, we want to try to help with these things but can't without good descriptions (a good photo can go at least some way to getting to a family level). In the end, you could always try to capture it in something suitable and humanely kill it by popping it in the freezer before sending it off to your local museum (Maidstone Museum has a decent natural history section) or the Natural History Museum for identification.

Well said Dave.

I would add that it can also be useful to know any plants or habitats in which you found the beastie, and if it showed any particularly characteristic behaviour. You also don't have to kill the specimen if you take it to the museum yourself, it can always be released back where it came from once it has been identified. The last thing we want is for hundreds of people to needlessly kill something like stag beetles for identification - they only emerge for a short time as adults at this time of year and because of this people tend to assume they are from overseas and harmful. In fact stag beetles spend most of their time in dead wood as larvae and only emerge to mate and lay eggs. The males look particularly fearsome, but they are harmless and they are becoming rare (for more info see here http://www.ypte.org.uk/docs/factsheets/ … tle.html).

http://lh4.ggpht.com/P.Viscardi/SG3YhpEMTsI/AAAAAAAAAEo/ajE0coI3VYE/PICT4803.JPG?imgmax=512

I generally recommend going to your nearest natural history museum with specimens for identification, unless you have a really good photo.

Here at the Horniman Museum (http://www.horniman.ac.uk) in South East London, where I work, we also carry out identifications for the public (without charge).

Agreed!

I was hoping that things like stag beetles would be sufficently identifiable (by us or the public at large) that people wouldn't kill them , however...

Just as a point of interest (although to whom is surely a matter of debate!), when I found the 'decapitated' (the head and pronotum) remains of a male stag a few years ago, as a matter of err, scientific  interest, I poked the mandibles with my pencil and got a reaction to stimulus, where the pincers closed on the pencil and then released, several times. Bearing in mind this was a very dead beetle, I thought this very interesting. Being the true ahem, scientist I am, I poked my little finger in to the mandibles, where again it reacted to the stimulus and promptly clamped so tightly that one of the mandibles pierced the flesh of my finger and I had to pry it off with a pencil! With difficulty, I might add. I independently replicated this by getting my colleague to put his finger in, where the same success was repeated. Yay! Anyhoo, the weak medial labial muscles of the live stag beetle (making it harmless whilst alive, as it can't get the leverage) seems not to apply to the corpse of the one I was poking err, investigating...

See, science is FUN!

And the females can give a painful nip too... still, they're not venomous or dangerous in any life-threatening way. Unfortunately the local population in South East London don't seem to know about stag beetles, as I've seen quite a few that have been stamped on in the street. Pity.

Dave Warburton wrote:

I independently replicated this by getting my colleague to put his finger in, where the same success was repeated.

With absolutely no mirth involved at all I am sure. This was, after all, a formal scientific experiment. Right?

Mais oui!

I had the pencil on standby at all times!

Obviously, I wrote the experiment up and submitted it to, admittedly, a less than reputable journal (Science), should be seeing print any day now...