August 18, 2017

Common Red Soldier Beetle (Rhagonycha fulva)

Having finally managed to acquire the macro lens I’ve been wanting for over a year, I find I am too busy to use it. I shouldn’t grumble really because my time is being otherwise engaged by the recent arrival of number two son, Samuel James, alongside the already busy schedule dictated to some extent by number one son and budding naturalist, Joe. The rest of my time is taken up with a frankly unrealistic workload, but when one is self employed one has to take the chances when they present themselves.

Having got the Sigma 150mm Macro, generally regarded as a bug hunter’s lens, I find myself even more drawn to the invertebrate world. Having created a series of interesting habitats in the garden over the past few years, now is the time for them to pay me back.

Habitat number one has been easily created and is already pretty rewarding; I’ve left a pretty substantial swathe of grass un-mown directly next to my vegetable patch this year and over the past couple of weeks, it’s been heavily populated by these attractive insects. This species is one of a number of Soldier Beetles (Cantharidae) and most likely to be the one which gave the genus this title, their red colour being thought to resemble the red coats historically worn by the British Army into battle.

Common Red Soldier Beetles are extremely valuable to gardeners as the larvae predate slugs and snails, a character trait which is highly prized by us organic gardening types. The adults themselves are also predatory of other insects which visit the umbellifers they so often frequent.Indeed I’ve been familiar with them for many years and had rather actually assumed them to be a kind of flower beetle, because they also eat the pollen and drink nectar, so it was particularly satisfying to find out that they also really relish aphids!

 

Rove Beetle (Tasgius ater) not (T. melanarius)!

This one just wandered under our back door last night. I could do with a few more taking this kind of initiative, or else I may find myself in the middle of winter with no archive species to add to the blog.

Rove Beetles (Staphylinidae), are an ancient and vast family of beetles. There are over 46,000 species, the second largest group in the absurdly numerous order of Beetles (Coleoptera). Fossil rove beetles date back to the Triassic period, 200 million years ago.

Their most obvious distinguishing characteristic is the short wing cases which just cover the thorax, rather saucily leaving much of their abdomen exposed. When threatened, some, T. ater included, arch their tail up scorpion-like and it’s thought that they even squirt a noxious chemical to drive the point home.

This particular species T. ater is pretty large as Rove Beetles go, mine being around 15mm, but a tiddler in comparison with Ocypus olens, the Devil’s Coach Horse. My Mum caught one of these in a glass for me to see when I was very little, and this is still one of my earliest insect memories.

Thanks to a very helpful chap named Boris who saw the picture on flickr, I’ve changed this ID from T. melanarius to T. ater. Although very similar, the shininess of this beetle’s head is a distinguishing feature.

Scarlet lily beetle (Lilioceris lilii)

This startlingly beautiful beetle, though only around 8mm long, is the apparently the absolute scourge of lily growers. Over the past couple of years I’ve noticed that as Summer turns to Autumn, our small patch of Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum multiflorum) has looked pretty bare and it turns out that this is the culprit.

A native of Eurasia, and having a very limited range in this country before the 1930s, the beetle has rapidly spread Westwards since the 1980s and is formally considered a ‘garden pest’. It seems to me like another case of an invasive species exploiting an evolutionary niche, rather like the Harlequin Ladybird and Signal Crayfish though in this case it appears that the victims are garden plants. Indeed the RHS and National Biodiversity Network have joined forces to encourage people to record sightings of the ‘pest’ whilst the RHS gives details of the best methods of eradication.

Unlike the Harlequin and Signal Crayfish, so far at least, it doesn’t appear that any native British species is at particular risk, so what singles this species out? Is it the fact that the larvae cover themselves with their own excrement to deter predation or is it simply the lily eating?

Now here’s the thing: apparently the beetles are much more destructive to hybrid garden species of Lily, non-native franken-plant species themselves. So essentially, a species which is a native as nearby as the continent, is on gardeners hit lists, details of killing techniques even appearing in the Daily Mail, because it happens to eat something which looks pretty and has few natural predators.

Whilst researching the last Chrysomelid, the Green Dock Beetle a few posts back, I discovered that before the 20th Century, it wasn’t found in this country either, but there’s been no witch-hunt, presumably because it feeds on plants which many consider to be ‘weeds’.

Now I’m not totally unsympathetic, but I do wonder about the odd double standard at play. The moral of the story I suppose is that if you’re going to extend your geographical range, try not to exploit succulent, decorative, hitherto unexploited resources, else the ire of middle England be loosed upon your pretty carapace.

Oh and try not to let your young, wear their own poo.

One a Day

Hmm, now I’m prepared to admit that this may be a bit of a serious undertaking, but to celebrate the fact that this is the UNs International Year of Biodiversity, I’m going to attempt to add one species a day from my collection of natural history photographs, to the blog.

So without further ado I’ll get on with species one:

Meet Gastrophysa viridula

Bejewelled green beetle

Green Dock Beetle (Gastrophysa viridula)

The helpful folks over at the Beetle ID forum of Natural History Museum’s Nature Plus website, have decided that this is most likely to be a male Green Dock Beetle (Gastrophysa viridula).

As the name suggests, they feed on Dock and the closely related Sorrel and are not uncommon in a variety of habitats. Even though I’m a pretty avid insect spotter, it’s the first one I’ve seen. The fact that he was tiny, only about 4-5mm in length, may be a contributary factor, as he’s undeniably extremely eye catching with his iridescent metallic carapace.

Further Chrysomelid macros

A few more pictures of my Chrysomelid, offering some alternative angles to the extremely helpful people at the bug identification forum on the Natural History Museum’s terrific natureplus website:

Current thinking is that it might be Gastrophysa viridula – the Green Dock Leaf beetle, thanks to Clive Washington and bombuslucorum at natureplus.

Leaf beetle macro shots

Tiny metallic green beetle

Unidentified Chrysomelid (Leaf Beetle)

There are over 200 species of Chrysomelidae (leaf beetles) found in the UK, but I hope to be able to identify such a beautiful looking specimen.

I took a ‘few’ photos of this little fellow climbing along a twig. Due to his diminutive size and my lack of flash or tripod, I ended up taking a couple of hundred shots of which only four were properly focussed!

Cockchafer beetle pupa (Melolontha melolontha)

(Melolontha melolontha)

Cockchafer beetle pupa (Melolontha melolontha)

This little fellow has probably lived under our lawn as a grub for 3 years and has just turned into pupae at the end of its third summer. Within six weeks it’ll metamorphose into an adult, but still remain underground during the winter to emerge next May ready to bash its armoured head against our windows.

Read more about this quintessential spring beetle species at the Natural History Museum website.