So, you are not impressed with the photograph? Well, you try taking a picture of a tiny beetle about 5mm long that is charging around in circles on the surface of water! This is my best result yet but I am still trying.
There are eleven species of whirligig beetle in the United Kingdom and I am assuming this is by far the most frequent, the common whirligig (Gyrinus substriatus) but without catching one and examining it under a microscope I cannot be sure.
The curious habit of swimming rapidly in circles is presumably something to do with hunting for food. They feed on virtually anything that falls on to the surface of water and so either they swim around frantically hoping to find something or there is some clever science at work here, I have not been able to establish which as yet. What is interesting is that they have two pairs of eyes, one for seeing above the water surface and the other below. Jusy how does a tiny creature have the room for four eyes on its head? And how can they pack a brain clever enough to cope with processing all the information from its four eyes into that tiny body I will never know.
Nature never ceases to amaze.
Great Diving Beetle: breath of fresh air
Ponds and deep puddles are very good places for wildlife but you often cannot see it because it is all under water! However, most under water creatures (other than fish of course) need to breath and if you watch the surface of a likely pond for a while you never know what might surface.
This great diving beetle (Dytiscus marginalis) came up for a breath of fresh air right in front of me as I was looking into a pond on Wareham Common, not far from our house. We have had them in the garden pond before now and they have had to be removed very quickly as they prey on just about everything else living in it. They even attack frogs and newts!
They are certainly 'great' in that they are far bigger than any other water beetle and they cannot be mistaken for anything else. Possibly an inch long? They certainly dive, spending long periods under the surface of the water and they are beetles so I guess great diving beetle is an apt name for them.
They are not uncommon and if you find one you will often find several more, either in the same pond or close by.
Green Tiger Beetle: munching its lunch
Tiger by name; tiger by nature! If you are a small, ground living insect, especially a heathland wood ant, this is one sight you never want to see. The green tiger beetle (Cicindela campestris) may be less than half an inch long but it has the most enormous jaws and voracious appetite!
The green tiger beetle nests in holes that it makes in the ground and so loves soft sandy soil, the sort found on the Dorset heath. It is quite common and you will generally find it on bare paths leading through the heather. That said, you don't often see them as they are small, they move quickly and readily fly, not great distances but will take to air and fly a few yards as soon as they feel your footsteps approaching.
I had been trying to photograph one for five years until I eventually found this one by a trail of ants. After tracking it for just a minute or so it snapped up an ant and stopped to eat it and despite the attentions of my camera lens it didn't budge as it munched its lunch. You may just be able to see the rear end of the unfortunate ant sticking out of its mouth.
I think these are really beautiful beetles when you see them close up like this.
Pterostichus madidus: the strawberry beetle
This little beetle, Pterostichus madidus, is common in gardens but I suspect even if one saw it one would take little notice of it unless you have a particular interest as I do!
It is about one centimetre long (excluding the antennae) and is flightless. They are part of the family known as ground beetles and this species does live its life on the ground or on plants and it has a particular fondness for fruit, hence its colloquial name of the strawberry beetle. It is a shiny metallic black beetle but part of the legs are a brownish colour. The front legs have feathered notches at the end which are used to clean the antennae!
So, if you have a garden and have fruit plants keep an eye for this fascinating little creature during the summer months. In case you have not worked it out, there are two in this photograph, a mating couple!
Ground Beetle: Harpalus affinus
Ground beetles are generally found ... on the ground! Many are flightless, many are black in colour, and many are nocturnal and rarely seen by day. Many feed on small insects. This species, Harpalus affinus (it has no common name), is the exception to all of these rules!
Harpalus affinus is seen by day and is a wonderful metallic green when newly emerged from its larval stage but the metallic colouring wears off with age. It is vegetarian and feeds mainly on pollen from flower heads and so is quite often seen on flower heads rather than on the ground. It can fly which helps it get up to the flower heads and move between flower heads.
Whilst apparently not uncommon I cannot say I have seen it that often on my travels around Dorset.
Burying Beetle: Silpha atrata
Burying beetles are best known for their ability to use their keen sense of smell to find dead creatures and then to remove the earth from underneath the corpse so that it sinks in to the ground. They then cover it up and lay their eggs in the buried body. They are commonly known as sexton beetles and the job they do is not pretty but someone has to do it! They are rarely seen being primarily nocturnal and spending much time under ground.
There are always exceptions to the rule it seems, and this species of burying beetle does not bury anything! Silpha atrata is a specialist snail predator able to reach deep into shells to devour its prey. Seen by day in damp, shady places, exactly where you would expect to find snails, it climbs vegetation in search of feeding molluscs. If you find one in your garden then consider it a friend ...
Yet another glossy black beetle; yet quite distinctive being quite small with a rounded body and clubbed antennae.
Minotaur beetle: down under
Nature's dustmen! The scarab beetles form the order Scarabaeoidea and they specialise in dung. OK, they have what is an unpleasant job through human eyes but it is, none the less, an important one in the natural cycle of things. It is a dirty job but someone has to do it ...
This is a male minatour beetle (Typhaeus typhoeus), identified by its amazing three thoracic spines (ie spines coming from the thorax rather than the head like a stag beetle). The three spines are only found on the male; it may looks a bit ferocious but it is quite harmless, it's a vegetarian! These beetles are found mainly on sandy soils where they bury rabbit droppings on which both adults and larvae feed. They tend to be on the move in the evenings and we found this one, upside down and struggling to right itself near the farm fields at Arne where the sika deer feed. As these beetles also specialise in sheep dung it seems deer droppings are suitable too?
Not much to look at perhaps but interesting nonetheless. The male collects a dung pellet and transports it between the back of its head and its horns to the burrow where the female, without horns, takes it down under the surface. I guess those horns would be a major impediment in getting below ground?
Dor Beetle: recycling for all
Beauty or the beast? An ugly "creepy crawly" or an amazingly coloured beetle?
The dor beetle (Geotrupes stercorarius) is bit of a beast I suppose, it certainly does not have a pretty face. It is often found on cow dung and actually spends a lot of time under ground where it digs shafts below the dung and burying it. They then use it to lay their eggs in so that the larvae have an instant food supply. My book says that this species is also called the lousy watchman because it is commonly infested with mites! Not a very pleasant little creature then.
But see them plodding along a woodland or heathland path in bright sunshine and they are wonderfully metalic in colour varying between blue and green as the angle between them and the sun changes. Their legs, too, despite being 'hairy' share this wonderful colouring. As well as the brilliant coloroung they are also very useful creatures clearing up waste products and helping in the recycling of materials by turning cow dung back to fertile soil which will support further plant life in future and provide more food for the hungy cow which is food and drink for us.
So, spare a thought for the dor beetle; may be it is not so ugly after all?
Stag Beetle: false alarm
The stag beetle (Lucanus cervus) has to be the scariest of all the insect species commonly found in the United Kingdom! Those large pincers look as though they could do some serious damage to you but, in fact, there is no need for alarm, they are quite harmless to human-kind. Sadly, though, this formidable appearance makes them very unattractive insects and they are prone to being stamped on by people who think they are harmful, especially where young children are about. Those fearsome 'horn's, it seems, are largely ornamental, there to impress female beetles. They are extensions of the mandibles but are so large that the beetle does not have strong enough jaw muscles to use them in anger.
The stag beetle is largely nocturnal and so are not actually encountered that often. They are scarab beetles and are generally vegetarian feeding on rotting vegetable matter. The larvae live in rotting tree stumps and fallen branches and, again, are rarely seen unless you go looking for them.
The sandy areas of Poole and Bournemouth are a strong hold of this spectacular species and if you live in that area and find one in your garden or local park please do not be frightened of it and allow it to go about its business.
[Photograph: George Small]
Scarab or dung beetle: Aphodius fimetarius
Scarab or dung beetles perform a vital role in the world; their job is to clear up droppings of various herbivorous animals, especially farm animals, and several members of this family of beetle can sometimes be found feeding on cow-pats if you take the time to crumble one up (something I have never done)!
This particular species, Aphodius fimetarius, does not bury the dung but feeds directly on it above ground but they are rarely seen as they are mainly nocturnal, indeed they can be frequently found in moth light traps. The fact they are not black is an indicator that they do not spend a lot of time under ground like some of their cousins.
Quite a small beetle and hard to find but very common.
Dung Beetle: Aphodius rufipes
Imagine a world where animal dung stayed forever just as it was when it hit the ground! Nature wastes nothing, however, and fungi get to work on this material breaking it down and so too do species of beetles, the so called dung beetles or scarabs; Aphodius rufipes is one such creature. Mainly nocturnal and spending much time under ground this beetle is rarely seen although is apparently quite common. It is attracted to light and sometimes turns up in my moth trap.
This beetle is just under an inch long and its wing cases (elytra) are anything from dark red to black but the legs are usually red and that makes this species distinctive when compared to other similar beetles.
This little chap goes about its work unnoticed but we should be eternally grateful for it and its cousins for doing a vital task.
Common Cockchafer: the May bug
The common cockchafer (Melolontha melolontha) is also known as the May bug for good reason. As soon as we get to the middle of May each year my moth trap fills up with these little beasts. They are probably far more common than you realise as they are seldom seen. Occasionally one might fly in to a window with bit of thud or, if you have a window open, they might actually end up indoors as, like moths, they are certainly attracted to light.
They are not the most beautiful of creatures and although I like insects in general I find them quite unpleasant and I find it difficult to find anything to like about them; I am not sure why! I collect all those that end up in the moth trap (often 20 or so), put them in a box and take them a long way from the garden and deposit them. Their larvae are big, white 'slug' like creatures that do an enormous amount of damage to the roots of plants, especially trees, so we reckon the fewer we have in our garden the better! In the mid twentieth century they were severely affected by pesticides but in recent times their population levels seem to be increasing again.
Summer Chafer: a fly by night species
The summer chafer (Amphimallon solstitiale) is similar in appearance in many ways to its cousin, the cock-chafer. It is, however, much smaller being about half the size of the cock chafer. The cock-chafer is known as the May bug as it flies mainly in May but the summer chafer flies in June and July so it is not hard to work out why it is called the summer chafer! Although nocturnal they are attracted to light and you may find one indoors if you have the light on and a window open. If you do have one in you home they are harmless and do not bite!
This is mainly a species of dry, deciduous woodlands where it forms large swarms around the tops of trees after dusk. The larvae feed on plant roots and can be considered a bit of a pest in some places. Controls on the population mean they are less common than they once were.
Brown Chafer: the grass roots beetle
Most of the chafer family of beetles are nocturnal and not often seen but occasionally you can be lucky and find one at rest during the day. I was fortunate to find this brown chafer (Serica brunnea) passing some time on a leaf in broad daylight in a deciduous woodland. It is a small beetle, oval in shape with very ribbed wing cases (elytra) which are brown in colour; hence the common name, the brown chafer. It is quite smooth lacking the hairs that some chafers have and it has a black head which helps distinguish it from the similar summer chafer.
The brown chafer flies as an adult from June until August but, as with many insects, much of its life is spent as a larvae. The chafers spend their formative years in the ground feeding on the roots of plants and, as a family, can be real agricultural pests and as such, are far less common than they once were as chemical warfare is waged against them. The brown chafer larvae, however, feed on the roots of grasses.
In common with other chafer species the brown chafer can be attracted by light so you might encounter one around your window or any outside lantern.
Phyllopertha horticola: the garden chafer
The garden chafer (Phyllopertha horticola) is one of the smallest of the chafer beetles being just over 1 cm long. Despite this it is easily seen due to the bright iridescent colouring which shines in the summer sun revealing a metallic green thorax and bronze elytra (wing cases). The adults can be seen on sunny days in May and June feeding on the leaves of various plants. They also visit flowers.
Although quite an attractive beetle it is something of a pest on fruit crops and the larvae feed on the roots of grasses (including cereal crops). As a result it is a persecuted little beast and is now seen less frequently that it once was due to the increased use of pesticides. It is a local species but distributed across southern Britain and they they can sometimes be seen in swarms although this is far less common now that it was in the past.
Rose Chafer: the goldsmith beetle
Confirmation summer has arrived comes when we start getting the rose chafer (Cetonia aurata) in the garden, usually on the white flowers of our rowan tree and on our snowball tree. In the sunshine this is wonderful metallic coloured insect, about 3/4 of an inch long. It can appear both bronze and golden as well as green, partly through natural variations in its own colouring (often due to age) and partly through changes in the natural light. This shining colouration also gives rise to its other common name, the goldsmith beetle.
They are not an active insect! They love the sunshine and also love to bury themselves into a soft flower blossom and gorge themselves on nectar and will spend most of the day there. When they do take to the air it is a rather laboured flight.
The larvae of the rose chafer are not as destructive as those of its cousin, the cock chafer. They live in ants nests and as we have a number of those in the garden I guess that helps to account for why we see adults from May through until August each year.
Out in the countryside in Dorset you can sometimes find them on wild carrot and also on hogweed but they certainly seem to favour coastal areas rather than more inland locations.
Click beetle: Athous haemorrhoidalis
There are several species of click beetle and this one, Athous haemorrhoidalis, is far far the most common. It is a species that one normally finds in hedgerows and grassy areas where the adults feed on flower pollen. The larvae, however, feed on grass roots and this passion for grass roots has brought them into direct conflict with farmers as they can be a pest on cereal crops.
The reason they are called click beetles is that the adults have a unique ability, if disturbed, to launch themselves in to the air at high speed and with a loud click. They can also do this to right themselves if they find themselves on their backs. Am effective method of self defence as it not only moves them away from immediate danger but can startle their predator and that also gives them valuable time to make their escape.
The overall narrow shape and the black and brown colouring makes them easy to identify.
Soldier Beetle: Cantharis livida
One of the soldier beetles it may be but Cantharis livida does not have a bright military uniform nor does it come in armies! It is, of course, related to the much more common 'bloodsucker' beetle that can be found in hordes during the summer months on umbel flowers and thistles, but is much less common although widespread across much of the country. It is a little bigger than the 'bloodsucker and less colourful.
Cantharis livida is an insect that favours shrubby grassland and open countryside where it hunts small insects on flower heads and leaves. Its larvae are predators too, feeding on the ground on snails and earthworms. The adult beetle can be seen from April through until August but they are at their peak in June and July.
Soldier Beetle: Cantharis nigricans
My first memories of soldiers dates back to pictures of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. I remember seeing the 'reds' and the 'blues' on their horses accompanying the state coach to Westminster Abbey. With soldier beetles we have the 'reds', the so called 'bloodsucker' beetles, and the blues represented by this little chap, Cantharis nigricans. Actually Cantharis nigricans is more grey than blue but for me they are still the 'blues'!
There is some debate, it seems, as to why they are called soldier beetles but their bright colours recalling the tunics of soldiers is certainly one reason put forward and understandably so. However, the common red soldier beetle is so numerous in summer it is as though there are armies of them and hence the name of soldier beetle for that particular species and that has then been applied to the family as a whole. Cantharis nigricans is far less common that the red soldier beetle and one does not see armies of the 'blues'.
Cantharis nigricans has a preference for damp vegetation where it wanders across leaves looking for small insects such as aphids to devour for their lunch. It is widespread in summer but not commonly seen.
Soldier Beetle: Cantharis rustica
There are over seventy members of the Cantharis genus of beetles but not all occur in Britain. Indeed very few are regularly seen and this one, Cantharis rustica, is one of the more common ones. It has a very common cousin that is a rusty colour whereas 'rustica' is not rusty at all, it has almost black wing cases (elytra). In any event, rustica means 'of the country' or rustic but it could be confusing if you link it with rust!
Cantharis rustica is at its most abundant in July and August and is often found of the flower heads of the carrot and daisy flower families where it gives the impression it is feeding on pollen but in reality it feeds on tiny insects that are pollen feeders.
Soldier Beetle: the bloodsucker
This soldier beetle (Rhagonycha fulva) must be the most common beetle in the British isles, it certainly is in Dorset. They are around as adults from May through to August and they adore umbellifer flowers, especially hogweed and wild parsnip, and they also like thistles and knapweeds. In mid-summer there must be millions on flower heads across the county.
This little chap is the sometime called the bloodsucker beetle which is grossly unfair! It gets this name because of its blood-red colouring but it is totally harmless. The only things it is interested in are small pollen feeding insects on which they prey and other 'bloodsucker' beetles!
This is just one of the species commonly called soldier beetles. The origin of this colloquial name is obscure but it is probably either because their colouring resembles military uniforms (remember the famous Redcoats) or because they come in huge armies every summer. As not all soldier beetles are very common and are not found in armies I suspect it is their colour that gives them the name.
Striped Ladybird: coffee and cream
Not all ladybirds are red with black spots. This one, the striped ladybird (Myzia oblongoguttata), is coffee coloured with cream stripes and spots! Otherwise it has much in common with its cousins in terms of size and shape. As with some other ladybirds the exact pattern of the markings can vary within the species. The books actually describe the dominant colour as chestnut brown but coffee and cream works for me.
The striped ladybird is quite common although not seen very often as it specialises in feeding on a particular species of large brown aphid of the Cinara family that are associated with Scots pine. As a result you will only find this ladybird on Scots pine woodland and Dorset is considered to be one of its strongholds. I was fortunate to find one on a gate in a Scots pine woodland.
Whilst I understand the logic that species can find a niche in which they can survive but I cannot help thinking such a dependency on one particular food source is a very high risk strategy. What if the Cinara aphid 'crop' failed one year?
Fourteen-spot Ladybird: the smiling dog
Some creatures you cannot miss when out for a walk but others are so small that you could certainly be forgiven for never seeing them. Even if you do see them you then need the advantage of a close up camera lens can enable you to see exactly what it is. This is certainly the case with little chap!
The fourteen-spot ladybird (Propylea 14-punctata) is only about 3mm long and they spend their lives on the leaves of shrubs and large leaved plants. Spotting one is usually pure chance, a tiny blob of yellow on a green leaf. Quite often then will be hidden from view anyway as well as being tiny. They are, however, quite common even if not commonly seen.
To add to the difficulties they can vary from almost entirely yellow to almost completely black, finding one that is mostly black is even more difficult as at least the yellow ones do show up against their background. The black spots are variable too, often merging together so they do not always appear to have fourteen spots. In the text-book format, however, they have a pattern that resembles a smiling dog!
Although much smaller and mainly yellow it is a relative of our more familiar 7-spot ladybird.
Seven-spot Ladybird: call the fire brigade
Once spring has sprung you will start to encounter the familiar ladybird. The insects found in early spring will have hibernated over winter in a garden shed or somewhere safe and venture out on warmer spring days feeding up and preparing to breed. There are actually forty-five species in this family of beetles but this bright red and black 7-spot ladybird (Coccinella septempunctata) is the most familiar.
Ladybirds, in general, are to be encouraged in the garden as they, and their larvae, consume vast numbers of greenfly and other 'pests'. The new ladybird on the block, however, the Harlequin, is less welcome and threatens the future of our own native species.
The bright colours are a warning to birds that they have an exceedingly unpleasant taste. They also exude drops of pungent, staining blood when handled which smells for quite a while afterwards. This accounts for the hint of cochineal in the scientific name; cochineal is a red dye and food colouring although it is derived from different insects than ladybirds!
"Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home, your house is on fire and your children are gone ..."
Lagria hirta: a darkling beetle
This small beetle is one of the family Tenebrionidae which are known as darkling beetles, so named as nearly all of the species in the family are dark brown or black. Lagria hirta has a black head, body and legs but the wing cases (the elytra) are a lovely copper brown, the exact colour tends to vary with the light as it has an almost metallic finish. It is also a rather hairy insect and 'hirta' comes loosely from the Latin for hairy.
This is a common species in mid-summer and can be frequently found on flower heads, especially bramble flowers, in dry habitats. Eggs are laid in the soil and the hatching larvae then feed in the decaying leaf matter underneath the flower or shrub, pupating in autumn and overwintering in that state until emerging as an adult in May or June.
Sadly, I cannot find much else about this attractive little beetle.
Two-spot Ladybird: spot the difference
If you see a red ladybird do not assume it is the familiar seven-spot that one commonly sees, there are ten or so red ladybird species although several are quite scarce unless you are in the right place at the right time! You need to count the spots to get an idea which species you are looking at and a red ladybird with a black spot on each wing case (elytra) will be the two-spot ladybird (Adalia bipunctata) ... one plus one equals two! The seven spot has three and a half on each wing case making it appear like seven.
The two-spot is very common here in the south from March right on through until November and can be seen on vegetation of all sorts, especially shrubs, and occurs frequently in gardens. It is, however, quite variable in colour and can be almost totally black although this is a variation seen more often in the north of Britain as it helps them absorb more heat.
So, if you see a red ladybird take time to see if you can spot the difference.
Harlequin Ladybird: the foreign invader
The harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis) is one of our best known examples of an 'invasive species'! It is causing concern as it spreads through Britain and, as it does so, interbreeds with our native ladybirds and will, it is thought, eventually mean our pure bred species will be no more. This is a very emotive topic and our attitude to new species colonising our islands has been described as akin to racism.
The harlequin ladybird is a native of south east Asia and was brought to Europe BY HUMAN BEINGS to control aphids. From mainland Europe, by one means or another, it has reached our shores and with the potential of a changing climate (man made of course) it is likely to spread far and wide. Having got here courtesy of man-kind as a perceived benefit to man-kind it is now seen as a potential enemy.
New species colonising new areas of the world is nothing new, it has been going on for millennia. In this country most of the species, even the ones considered indigenous, actually arrived here from elsewhere after the ice age. There is no doubt that as human beings travel the globe there will be many, many more examples of new colonies becoming established; there are scorpions in Southampton docks and the false black widow is now established in homes all along the south coast.
What I found most interesting in researching this piece is that the harlequin and the seven-spot ladybird live happily side by side in Japan so may be the threat is not as great as is being suggested.
The harlequin is bigger than other ladybird species and is very variable in appearance.
Swollen-thighed Beetle: welcome aboard
I am sure this beetle must derive some benefit from having fat thighs but it is not immediately obvious to me what that might be. It is a feature of the males only so it may be some advantage when mating? There are various common names for this insect, including the swollen-thighed beetle, the knobbly-kneed beetle, the false-oil beetle and the thick-legged flower beetle but my insect field guide gives only its scientific name, Oedemera nobilis.
It is common insect from May through until August on all sorts of pollen laden flowers but it is particularly noticeable on emerging bramble flowers. Despite its long antennae it is not a long horned beetle, it is more closely related to wood boring beetles but it does not bore holes.
This is a very common species in the Mediterranean region and has gradually spread north and since 1995 it has been expanding its range in Britain and growing in numbers. It is not a pest and so is a welcome addition to our fauna.
Oil Beetle: a slick performer
I am not sure what I marvel at most, the bewildering complexity of nature or the dedicated research scientists who unravel it for the rest of us to understand! Seeing this oil beetle (Meloe proscarabaeus) climbing up our garage wall sent me running for the camera. I had seen oil beetles before but normally on the Purbeck coastal cliffs; I did not expect one in our garden. I decided to look more deeply into its life style and what I discovered was, frankly, amazing!
It seems that in spring the female oil beetle lays an enormous amount of eggs in soil, several thousand per batch and several batches per individual. The eggs soon hatch in to wriggling larvae with strong jaws and claws. They climb up on to the heads of dandelions and await the arrival of their host insects. When an insect comes along to feed on the dandelion the larva attaches itself but only a very few actually attach to the right host, a species of solitary bee! Those that make the wrong choice perish while the lucky ones cling on and are transported back to the bee's nest. Once there, it eats ONE egg! After that it turns its attention to eating the bee's food reserves, nectar and pollen. After several moults the larva turns in to a grub, pupates and emerges as an adult in spring ready to mate and start the complex cycle again. Now is that amazing or not?
Why an oil beetle? If attacked by a predator it emits an smelly, oily fluid that puts attacker off eating it!
Cardinal Beetle: catholic in taste
Little soldier beetles are everywhere in the countryside in July and August and, if you like beetles as I do, it is a good time to take a closer look as amongst the three common reddish coloured soldiers you may find something like this cardinal beetle (Pyrochroa serraticornis). Looking at it it is not difficult to see why it was named the cardinal beetle; the scarlet colour of its wing cases matches a cardinal's robes and the thorax it also resembles the shape of a cardinal's hat. It is doubly aptly named.
This particular species, Pyrochroa serraticornis, has a scarlet head as well, there is a similar species with a black head called Pyrochroa coccinea (see below).
You can find cardinal beetles on flower heads, especially umbelliferae and thistles, but it is not a pollen hunter itself, it preys on small insects that are pollen hunters. Its larvae are also insect eaters but they live in rotting tree stumps and trunks.
A smartly dressed little insect and worthy of attention in my view.
Two-banded Longhorn Beetle: how boring
The two-banded longhorn beetle (Rhagium bifasciatum) is considered to be one of the most common longhorn beetles in Europe but the United Kingdom is bordering on the more northerly part of its range and so, whilst not rare, it is not so frequent as a couple of other 'longhorns', the spotted longhorn and the wasp beetle. It is easily identified by the two yellow bars on the wing cases (the elytra) although the exact shape of the bars can vary between individuals.
In common with other longhorn beetles the eggs are laid in rotting wood and the larvae bore their way through it digesting it as they go and contribute to the breaking down and recycling of the timber; most beetles are part of the natural recycling process in one way or another. This species has a preference for conifers and so, despite the many conifer plantations in Dorset, this is not an ideal place for them as most trees are harvested long before they die, fall and start to rot down.
The adults feed on plant pollen, often, but not exclusively, on the pollen from conifers near to where they lived as a larva.
Rhagium mordax: the black-spotted pliers support beetle
Longhorn beetles are not that common so it is always a bit of a thrill to find one, especially one you have not seen before. This one, that goes under the catchy name of Rhagium mordax, was on rowan blossom at the Arne RSPB reserve.
It was amazing that this beetle, once aware of my intruding camera lens (and I admit it was very close), just dropped off of the flower to the ground and there, against the moss, it was so well camouflaged it took me a little while to find it again. This seemed to be a pretty effective safety device. I felt a bit guilty at first thinking it had a long climb back up to the blossom but of course it can fly so I am sure it was not long before it was tucking in to its lunch again.
This species lays its eggs on stumps and fallen trees and that is precisely why you will see a lot of dead wood as you walk around the Shipstall area of the reserve. Conservation measures do work!
Wikipedia suggests the common English name for this species is the black-spotted pliers support beetle! I think Rhagium mordax is easier to remember!
Four-banded Longhorn Beetle: band stands
Insects lead two lives, one as a larva and another as an adult. The habitat in which they thrive is always (well, I think this is true) very different and it certainly is in longhorn beetles. They live their larval stage in dead wood eating their way through dead timbers and helping to break them down in to humus and so the beetles are rarely seen in this stage unless you go specifically looking for them. As adults they become pollen feeders and can be found on a variety of flowers, quite often umbellifers, and so are far more visible.
The attractive four-banded longhorn (Leptura quadrifasciata) is quoted as being relatively common but the adult beetle lives for only a short time and so they are seen far less often than their numerical status would suggest they should. It is one of a small number of similar species but it is most likely to be confused with the spotted longhorn. The arrangement of the golden patches on the wing cases (elytra) tell it apart from the similar species. The four-banded longhorn has an affinity to birch trees and will often be found on flowers near birch trees.
Spotted Longhorn Beetle: hogging the pollen
As you wander the lanes and footpaths of Dorset in summer (from June to September) keep an eye on the flower heads of the white umbellifer species of flowers, especially hogweed. Amongst the many insects you will find is the striking spotted longhorn beetle (Rutpela maculata). Maculata tends to infer spotted and this beetle has black spots on a copper coloured background. This gives it a 'wasp-like' dangerous appearance to would be predators but it is quite harmless. The long black antennae give it its 'longhorn' name but of course there are not horns!
It is quite big (about half an inch long) and so it is easily spotted and once it gets its head into a good helping of hogweed pollen it seems to become oblivious to surrounding activity and so is quite easy to get a close look at. When it is not gorging itself on hogweed pollen it is layings its eggs in rotting tree stumps which is where the larvae live.
It is one of my favourite beetles and I look forward every summer to seeing it.
Tobacco-coloured Longhorn Beetle
The tobacco-coloured longhorn beetle (Alosterna tabacicolor) is a small beetle with huge antennae that are twice the length of the body so it is fully deserving the title of a longhorn (the antennae are not horns of course). The beetle itself has a black thorax and head but the wing cases (the elytra) are, you guessed, tobacco coloured hence the other part of its common name.
This beetle is found in woodlands where the larvae feed on damp, rotten wood, especially soft woods like conifers and so can be found in the Corsican pine plantations in Dorset. The adult beetles visit flowers for food and the best place to find them is on the heads of flowers that occur along the rides and pathways in woodlands. They are wide spread and not uncommon in southern England from April through until late August.
Fairy-ring Longhorn Beetle: a chance encounter
Have you ever seen a ring of toadstools on grass in the autumn? Commonly known as fairy rings they are formed by the fruiting body of the champignon fungus. The main part of the fungus is at work in the ground dissolving vegetable matter but what has that to do with this beetle?
I love to look closely at bramble flowers in summer, you never know quite what you might find and this chance encounter with a small beetle I did not recognise was to reveal one of the most remarkable associations between species that I have come across. This beetle is known as the fairy-ring longhorn (Pseudovadonia livida) because although the adult beetle lives most of its life nectaring on flowers, its larvae a thrive in soil infested by the fairy-ring champignon fungus! I know some insects are dependent on other insects but an insect dependant on a fungus must surely be unique to this species?
Widespread in southern England but not that common it can be found from May until September. Given fairy rings are not that common I guess a beetle dependant on it is not going to be common either.
Wasp Beetle: false alarm
The flowers of the carrot family are super places to look for insects, especially beetles and flies (including hoverflies). Walk along any hedgerow where hogweed dominates and you will find an assortment of little creatures, some quite striking.
The wasp beetle (Clytus arietis) is a devotee of a wide range of hedgerow plants but when it gets on a white background, as it is on hogweed, it really stands out with those wasp like yellow and black bands; which is how it gets its name of course. Standing out so would normally make them a prime target for predators but those wasp-like markings are enough to warn off any bird looking for a quick snack fearing a sting in the tail. In reality it is a false alarm, this beetle is a wasp mimic and is totally harmless without a sting.
Active as adults from May through to July, they are certainly worth taking the trouble to look for.
Lily Beetle: the unwelcome guest
We British love our gardens, we have brought plants from all corners of the globe to adorn them. Our garden is a home for any plant we select and allow to live there. Sadly, not so with insects; we are far more selective and will readily resort to chemical controls to keep insects out. If you disagree with that statement then count the pesticide controls on the shelves of your local garden centre.
We brought lilies in to Britain from all over the world to grow in our gardens and, naturally, in bringing in the plants we brought in insects that use them as a food source; with lilies that is the lily beetle (Lilioceris lilii). The lily beetle is not an indigenous species, it was introduced by human beings and now, along with other 'invasive' species, they are deemed a pest when they are only doing what they have done since their first appearance in the scheme of evolution - eat lilies! It is what they do; if you grow non-native lilies in your garden expect non-native lily beetles! If you do not want lily beetles do not grow lilies ...!
Leaf Beetle: Cryptocephsalus aureolus
This beetle may have a big, big name, Cryptocephsalus aureolus but it is a tiny insect, just 5mm or so long. As a result, although common it is frequently overlooked as it lives its life on flowers, usually the yellow flowers of the hawkweed family (like dandelions). They are a wonderful metallic green colour and it takes a close-up lens to really bring the best out of this little chap.
This is one of a large range of species collectively known as leaf beetles because they are vegetarian and feed on plants, many beetles are carnivores feeding on other insects or scarabs feeding on carrion. Not all leaf beetles are metallic green but there are some similar species to this one which are far less common. In fact, I cannot be absolutely sure this is Cryptocephsalus aureolus and not one of its close relatives; I am working on the law of probability that because Cryptocephsalus aureolus is the most common that this is the most likely one.
Bloody nosed beetle: taking it on the chin
The bloody nosed beetle (Timarcha tenebricosa) is out and about on the cliffs of the Dorset coast from quite early in the spring right through until late in the autumn. They can often be seen plodding slowly across footpaths on their way from one side to the other.
The bloody nosed beetle cannot fly and has a rather slow walk so it is prone to attack from avian predators but it has a novel way of dealing with such events. If attacked, or indeed alarmed in any way, it extrudes a drop of red blood from its mouth and this is usually enough to frighten the bird off. In any event, the taste and smell of the fluid is probably good enough back up if the sight of it fails to deter the attacker.
It is quite common where it occurs, which is usually on cliffs near the sea; the top spot is Durlston Country Park.
Dead-nettle Leaf Beetle: a shining example
It always seems to me that creatures that are dependent on a particular plant for their survival are taking something of a risk; if anything happens to their host species then they are doomed! I suppose the dead-nettle leaf beetle (Chrysolina fastuosa) does not have to worry too much as its preferred vegetables are dead-nettles and hemp-nettles which are both widespread and very hardy.
Chrysolina fastuosa is relatively small (between 5mm to 7mm) but stands out in a crowd due to its brilliant metallic green sheen which can also feature blue, red and gold depending on the light and the age of the specimen. Preferring waterside locations they are clearly visible on suitable vegetation where they feed on the leaves. May be this is where they derive their colouration from?
They can be seen from as early as March right through until October and are relatively common.
Green Dock Beetle; the metal reflector
The green dock beetle (Gastophysa viridula) is one of several beetles that have a shiny, metallic sheen. Although primarily green they can also show gold, bronze and brass colours depending on their age and the brightness of the daylight in which you see them. The legs in this species are also metallic green which may help in identification from similar species.
Small beetles, the males are around about 5mm in length and females slightly bigger, they have distinctively separate head, thorax and abdomen body parts. They are part of the grouping known as leaf beetles and for good reason; as their common name implies they are generally found on dock leaves and their larvae can only develop if feeding on docks. They can strip leaves bare in a fairly short time and one often sees dock leaves with just veins and no 'flesh'. Rhubarb is a member of the dock family and this species can be a pest if they get established. If you go to pick one off of a leaf it will instantly drop to the ground.
This is quite a hardy insect and can actually be seen all year round but their breeding season is from March to October.
Fleabane Tortoise Beetle: a strict diet
A small selection of the leaf beetles (chrysomeidae) are known as 'tortoise' beetles because they appear to have a complete casing with no real visible head giving the impression of a tortoise with its head withdrawn into its shell. Leaf beetles are small and can resemble ladybirds and this is probably true of this one, the fleabane tortoise beetle (Cassida murraea).
The fleabane tortoise beetle spends its entire life eating the leaves of the common late summer flowering plant, fleabane. Just imagine, the same for breakfast, lunch, dinner, tea and supper every day of its life and possibly living on the same leaf day after day!
It has a reddish orange colour to its casing with dark spots, hence its likeness to a ladybird but close up it becomes obvious the abdomen is a different shape and the thorax is noticeably separated from the abdomen whereas the ladybird is, on the face of it, one complete unit.
Not uncommon but easily overlooked, watch out for this little beetle on the leaves of fleabane when you are out and about.
Green Nettle Weevil: through the looking glass
Nettles are one of the best places to look for insects, all sorts of things can turn up on them. Nettles may sting us but insects seem immune from the effects. If you look closely at the leaves of the nettles you will sometimes see small whitish flecks which, close up, prove to be shiny green nettle weevils (Phyllobius pomacues) like this one. Not much more than 1/8" long and until they move you might think they are not even insects at all. This particular species is often abundant on nettles and hence its common name.
The green colour comes from tiny scales that easily rub off leaving a black 'shell' underneath. As a result they can be very variable in appearance depending on their age. They are around from April to August and are best viewed with a magnifying glass or hand lens.