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Wednesday, December 30, 2020

2020 - A year of beetles

So, bar a trip out tomorrow to look at flood debris, that's me done for the year, beetling-wise. I still have about 10 tubes of beetles to look at from this year but I'm not going to get to them before the year's end.

What a year it's been! From every conceivable angle really. The world got more mad, and society fundamentally changed but throughout the whole debacle, beetles have been an amazing distraction and challenge.

I started the year having seen 445 species of beetle in the UK. It had taken me from Spring 2014 to see that many. It all began when I decided to attend a carabid course run by Brian Eversham at my local Wildlife Trust. Something to do with Brian's infectious enthusiasm and something about the beetles themselves had me hooked. Since then pretty much my entire natural history focus has been on beetles, although garden mothing continues.

Things began really slowly, mostly because as with all things new, one is learning the ropes and lacks the confidence and knowledge to jump in more fully. I remember clearly wondering how I'd ever be able to tell a Nebria from a Pterostichus without going through the whole process of keying it out! 

Looking at my records I can see that in 2017 I recorded 124 beetle species across the year. In 2018 that rose to 153 and in 2019 I managed to record 223 species. By the end of last year I was feeling more confident in my ability whilst also being able to make the occasional howler of an ID. It's all part of the learning process. I was also having a go at a variety of different techniques to add some further interest and different beetles.

I started the year by trying my hand at some winter beetling techniques. I sieved and tussocked like a man possessed and when the rains came I was ready to walk the local rivers picking up flood debris and seeing what was there. By the end of March I had added 55 new species to my list and a vacuum sampled Metopsia clypeata became the 500th species of beetle that I'd found and identified. It also pretty much coincided with the first lock down and so my plans for venturing further afield took a hit and I was restricted to the garden and my daily walk. 

Metopsia clypeata my 500th beetle

I also spent a fair amount of time improving my dissecting skills which opened up (literally) a whole load of beetles that I'd previously ignored. My garden became my primary focus and I looked under every stone and beat every bush and flower. My piles of rotting garden waste became a source of myriads of beetles. It was a revelation to see the species mix change over time both as new material decayed and also across the year.


Ontholestes murinus, the biggest of the many staphs to grace the piles.

All in all the garden has produced 254 species this year. I'm lucky to have a reasonably sized garden but it's surrounded by arable monoculture with no woodland for miles. I'm sure this is only the tip of the iceberg and the year's tally takes the garden list to 300 species. I suspect there's more to come.

A big feature of the garden beetling was the light trapping. Ostensibly for moths, by mid-summer it was all about the beetles. We had some nights where the temperature remained above 20 all night and these delivered beetles in number and diversity. I also had a couple of trips to a local fen to do more of the same and these trips also turned up some goodies. All in all I recorded 118 species to light this year, at the two Cambridgeshire sites (my garden and the Fen). There are another 10 or so species still to put a name too, so that total will only grow.

There were too many good beetles to list, but Harpalus griseus was the first UK record for several years and it was possibly my beetling highlight of the year to record several Polistichus connexus over several hot nights. 

Light beetles: Harpalus griseus, Palorus depessus, Opilo mollis and Polistichus connexus 

Once the first lockdown eased I made a few trips to other sites. Visits to Woodwalton Fen and Panshanger Park were particular highlights and added a good haul of new beetle species from habitats that I don't often visit.

My other project this year also started to produce beetles.


The numbers haven't been huge but there are now a few new water beetles on the garden list thanks to this pond and as it matures it will hopefully bring in others.

By July I had added a further 100 new species my list and I was finding new species at a rate of about one a day. With the end of summer that rate dropped significantly and an increasingly busy work load plus all the family stuff meant that my target of 700 might not be hit. Hitting the tubes in December eventually brought that figure with a new species of staph, easily my favourite group of beetles.

So all in all and despite the carnage of the wider world it's been a really productive year and I've continued to learn lots. I've also been helped by a large number of folk on Facebook and Twitter with IDs and tips for finding new stuff. I finish the year having seen 468 species of beetle across the 12 months plus quite a few that I've only got to genus or family in the case of the dreaded aleochs. I wouldn't be at all surprised if that number hits the 500 mark as I continue to put names to specimens or get the tentative IDs confirmed by other more experienced beetlers. That also means that as of today my list of beetles that I have seen live and IDd stands at 705. That means I have added 260 new species this year.

That's been a seismic shift in my beetling, also highlighted by the fact that I have made almost a 1000 individual records across the year. That's more than all my previous records combined. It's now also the case that when I look at a beetle I almost always now know which family it's in and for things like carabids and staphs I now can usually get to genus just by eyeballing it. But I'm still making mistakes. And that's fine.

So what will 2021 hold?

Well I'm still really enjoying it so the beetling will continue. I'd quite like to see if I can find a beetle list for Cambridgeshire or if not try and find a way to amass one, so that I can try and fill some gaps and see if I can work out how to produce some maps. It would also put my records in some sort of context.

I'm going to try and do some more water beetling and I have even bought myself a net, so riffle beetles here I come. Apart from that, I will just keep plugging away and hopefully there may be a chance or two to visit other parts of the UK if corona abates somewhat. Who knows?!

Anyway, if anyone reads this, may you have a Happy New Year and I hope that the coming 12 months bring you health and happiness. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Grace of God and raise your arms

The week before Christmas was incredibly wet here. Parts of the garden are still underwater. The local drainage channel overflowed and flooded fields for the first time in over a decade and slightly further afield the amount of water passing through the fen drains was incredible.


The shot above was taken on Christmas Eve, just north of Mepal next to the 100 foot drain which takes excess winter water into the Wash. It was as high as I've ever seen it and only the tops of the fences which hold the summer cattle could be seen.

It was a bit chilly and I didn't manage to persuade the kids to walk as far as I'd hoped but we did clear the cobwebs and I managed to pick up some flood debris that was being actively washed up on the remaining bits of dry land.

It's been in the shed in the extractors since then and I had a quick rummage through it this afternoon.

First up was the tortoise beetle Cassida vibex which I'd not caught up with this year so far. It looked a bit worse for wear and its colours had faded somewhat, but it was still hanging in there.


There was also a new species of staph from what is probably my favourite genus of these beetles. Platystethus They are small but are rather robust and look like they mean business. The full channel down the centre of the pronotum gives this one away.


I've only seen P. nodifrons before, coincidentally from about 2 miles further south on the same channel back in February (also from flood debris). This one was different and has less punctate elytra making it P. nitens.


I'll give the debris another couple of days to see what else comes through and then that will probably be my last beetling of the year, unless I can find some more Traveller's Joy....

Just need to write my 2020 beetling round up post. Time to hit the spreadsheets!


Appropriate inspiration comes from a band that still exists and tours but hasn't released an album in 30 years!!

Monday, December 28, 2020

Need some time to get over this


In general I really don't like social media and am pretty convinced that it probably does more harm than good for the majority of people. I have been tempted to ditch it all on multiple occasions but (apart from instagram) I've never managed to bring myself to fully disconnect.

The main reason is that I find it incredibly useful and helpful with the pursuit of natural history. In fact, I think there has never been a better time to be into natural history, and much of that is to do with connecting with like minded people via social media. I would never ever got as far with beetles in the past couple of years without a huge number of helpful people correcting my mistakes and offering repeated encouragement. 

It also offers repeated small challenges provided (indirectly) by others. The last week being a case in point.

On Twitter I follow a number of coleopterists and one of those is the Lincolnshire Beetle recorder, Charlie. The three or four times I've been out beetling over the last week has basically been to copy what Charlie has been up to. 

Firstly, I have walked several miles of Cambridgeshire river bank in vain looking for Panagaeus cruxmajor, at a number of what I thought looked like 'promising sites'.

And then yesterday I saw this post, where he'd been out and found new county sites for the clematis feeding beetle Xylocleptes bispinus. Now I occasionally see Traveler's Joy in hedgerows around Cambridge however, it's not common around my immediate area. So today I drove to east of Cambridge where the clay gives way to chalk and where this plant is a bit easier to find.


I found an isolated patch with some easy parking and started to look. Feeding signs and emergence holes were evident in every bit I looked at, but I couldn't find any beetles.


I gathered some thicker lengths of Clematis and stuck it in a bag and brought it home for closer inspection.

After an hour pulling all the bits apart I only had a single dead adult Xylocleptes bispinus for my troubles πŸ˜’ but I did have two other new species of beetle for me.

First up was the ladybird Rhyzobius chrysomeloides, an introduced species that was first found in the 1990s. This is slightly more elongated than the similar R. litura and also has a more rounded prosternal keel.


You can just make out the rounded keel

The other new one was not only a new species but also a whole new family! (and possibly a new species for VC29 as I can't find any records). It's Leptophloeus clematidis and is the predator of Xylocleptes bispinus, being found in the galleries this species makes in the stems of clematis. It's a rather smart looking thing.


So I now have 3 days left to try and find a live adult Xylocleptes bispinus in order to add it to my 2020 beetle list. Mission accepted!

The post title inspiration is a dedication πŸ˜‚

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

A couple of end of year extras

The new beetles keep on coming, or at least the identifications do. These two were collected from the garden at the start of the year from leaf litter

First up, one from the nightmarish genus Meligethes. This genus contains what must probably be the most numerous of UK beetles, M. aeneus. This obviously wasn't one of those due to the shape and colour but there are still another 37 of the blighters to choose from!


The key in the new Duff volume is a slight improvement on the others I've used but getting to subgenus is easier with comparative material, and I've only seen a small number of these species...

This one was a male and the aedeagus looked (and in fact is) incredibly distinctive. Along with the paler legs and a body with a 'leaden lustre' this one is Meligethes nigrescens


It's a feeder of white clover and apparently is incredibly widespread across most of the UK. Still, not one I'd encountered before. 

The second new species was this small 2.8mm histerid. Getting these to genus is often a struggle and I prefer eyeballing images to get me close. This one I needed some help with but once told it's rather obvious. Carcinops pumilio.

This is an introduced species that has probably been introduced globally through the poultry industry and is fairly ubiquitous on chicken farms. It also can be found in dung and rotting vegetation. The slightly elongated shape and paler appendages give this one away. It's the only one I've seen so far so not that common in the garden as I regularly sieve the various piles of decaying detritus for beetles...


Friday, December 11, 2020

The first 700

So which beetle was going to be my 700th UK species?

I pulled out a tube from the fridge that contained a couple of beetles from 2018 still needing a name. This one was obviously an Aleochara.


Luckily it was a male and so I dissected out the aedeagus.

But I'm still not sure. The specimen has a complete carina on the mesosternum and the straightness of the bottom of the aedeagus should help ID this but I'm not confident in putting a name to this just yet. I really need to compare this to known specimens. So back in the NFI box it goes...

So I ended up taking one of the unidentified staphs from the lunchtime trip earlier in the week. This was obviously a species of Quedius and with the large eyes and non-incised labrum was in the subgenus Quedius.


It easily keyed to either Q. curtipennis or fuliginosus. It required a male, which luckily I had. The shape of the median lobe identified this one as curtipennis. A really common species but not one that I had confirmed before. I seem to utter this phrase quite often.


So that's my 700th UK species. Crikey.  I only started the year at 445 species. Most of the 255 new species have been from the garden too which just goes to show how it easy it has been to add new species by trying a few different techniques. I also have a whole load of beetles without a confirmed name so the list for the year will rise as these get ID'd. 

I have now seen more beetles than any other taxa. I wonder if 1000 is possible by the end of 2021?
Got to be worth a try πŸ˜€




Thursday, December 10, 2020

A case of mistaken identity....again!

I've not left the house much of late due to reduced daylight, a busy work schedule and a general lethargy. So yesterday, I decided I needed a proverbial kick up the backside and I decided to get outside and spend my lunch break standing in a local flooded field next to a river having a rummage through a few tussocks of deschampsia for wintering beetles.

There was the usual assortment of Pterostichus, Amara and Bembidions with a smattering of staphs and other bits and bobs.

This 10.5mm carabid was the only one of its kind and I immediately jumped into the Harpalus key. I was then getting very confused as it keyed to Harpalus latus which I knew it wasn't. A closer look and I could see a light smattering of pubescence on the outer edges of the right hand elytra. That had to make it H. affinis, but the elytra were surely too matt for that.


Long story, short; I had made the fatal assumption that this was a Harpalus (partly cos it looked like one) and had forgotten to check the length of the hind tibial spur. As you can see from the image, the spur is shorter than the first hind tarsal segment making this an Anisodactylus

For some reason I had wrongly thought that this was a saltmarsh genus, so they weren't on my radar. I have now updated my knowledge! 

This one is the widespread Anisodactylus binotatus, and I'm surprised that I haven't bumped into it before.

Anyway, it's another new species for me and is number 699....

Thursday, December 3, 2020

One simply does not walk into mordellids

Mordellids are fiddly little bastards. They're not called tumbling flower beetles for nothing. Tumbling being the operative word. Even after death they continue to be problematic. 

First problem is how to card them? On their side or on their front? Their hind legs have a nasty habit or remaining firmly tucked under their chin and the curved-shape of the abdomen makes standard carding a zen-like action that needs the patience and skill of a saint.

I also find some of them awfully tough to get to species. This one from June was a good case in point.

Note hind legs conveniently lodged under head!


I used the new mordellid key in Duff BBI vol 3.  It's obviously in the genus Mordellistena and as it has two spurs on the end of the hind tibia it is also in the subgenus Mordellistena. 


The next couplet looks at the shape of the 4th antennomere. Is it as long and broad as number 5 and the following ones or is it narrower and shorter. This one is definitely in the former camp. This narrows it to 3 species M. variegata, neuwaldeggiana and humeralis. The obliquely set lateral ridges on hind tibia (see above photo) eliminates variegata.


So we're left with either neuwaldeggiana or humeralis. First difference should be in the shape of the eye, with neuwaldeggiana showing a clear emargination where the antenna inserts into the head. That would seem to be pretty clear in this individual.  


The shape of the end of the 4th fore-tarsal segment also suggests neuwaldeggiana


So this seemed all straightforward, however, other guides and keys made me doubt this a bit. Luckily a post on Facebook got this from Mark Telfer "all-pale body and uniformly pale antennae, also relatively long 3rd ant segment" make this neuwaldeggiana.

So that's good to get a firm ID. It's also the 697th species of beetle I've found and ID'd in the UK. I wonder what the 700th will be......


Friday, November 27, 2020

Spent the evening unpacking books from boxes

 I've had a bit of a second hand book spree over the last couple of weeks. 


Not having had to drive 90 minutes for work every day and the resulting savings in petrol is how I have justified it to myself. But if I'm honest I rarely need an excuse to buy a book. My one weakness, well...that, and the other one.

I manage to pick up all 4 books at very reasonable prices, which made the purchases even more palatable.

The copy of Die KΓ€fer Mitteleuropas 5: Staphylinidae II, has been a long time coming and I've really wanted this one (and number 4), for all the info and images of my fav beetle family. This volume covers Aleochs plus some other bits and pieces.

Pronotal pubescence patterns, or Pronotal Behaarungstypen.

Dick pics

What's not to love! My German is non-existent so there will be a quite a bit of google translating and head scratching but the images alone are worth it. 

The three volumes of water beetle books are part of the  Fauna Entomologica Scandinavia series. These are rather usefully in English and are full of info and the most wondrous drawings. 



There's so much in them that I have barely scratched the surface. The section on Hydroporus for example seems really useful and it's a genus that I often really struggle with. There's also a fair bit on the biology and life histories which I always like to read. They will make great additions to the UK water beetle keys and atlases. Especially useful as I have now acquired a net for water beetling and am hoping that 2021 will see me swinging it about in a few places to up my water beetle game. God knows I've been slow on the uptake!

Today's post title inspiration comes from one of the north-east's finest.
 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

I'm fully focused, man

I've been rattling through the 2020 beetle backlog over the last couple of weeks. It's been fairly productive and I'm certainly much better, and more importantly quicker, at putting a name to things and also dissecting and carding those individuals that need further inquiry and study.

I also did a bit of gardening yesterday and couldn't resist a quick bit of sieving of the grass cutting piles, especially as they were getting a bit of warmth from the weak Autumn sunshine. It was fairly quiet on the beetle front but there were lots of small flies in the samples, which I studiously ignored. There were a few staphs though, including this species which was entirely new to me.

Quedius humeralis. It's one of the Raphirus subgenus with big eyes and an emarginated labrum. It also has quite obvious paler edges to the elytra. The Lott and Anderson guide has this species' habitat down as 'uncertain'. Well, rotting autumnal vegetation is one habitat as I can now attest πŸ˜€

 

It can be separated from the very similar Q. nemoralis by the more elongated median lobe of the aedeagus.


Another new staph that I identified this week, but that had come from a garden suction sampling session back in April was the paederine Sunius propinquus. It was the first of this genus I'd found and is the most readily encountered of the 3 UK species. 


I also found this 2.7mm staph that initially threw me as being something new but I think it's just a very dark Anthobium atrocephalum. These do seem to be quite variable colour-wise. Not sure if there is an age or season dimension to this.



So the plan is to finish the remaining beetles over the next few weeks and hopefully then I can produce some sort of summary for the year. Despite the wider craziness it has been my most interesting and productive beetling year by a country mile. And interestingly, the lion's share of these have come from the garden with little effort, just a variety of techniques. Something to keep going for 2021 I think.

The post title comes from one Curtis James Jackson III . Can't quite believe that this is almost 18 years old.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Continuing a theme

I picked another tube of beetles from the fridge yesterday to work through as is my want when the sky darkens and the family don't need me. These particular ones were collected back in mid-June from cow dung in an old meadow in the next village to mine. So given my last post it was rather a coincidence that the first beetle I looked at was another species of Aleochara.

This was obviously a different species to the last one: darker, hairier and more 'chunky' in appearance. It started through the key rather well and with its mesosternum having a pretty much complete carina (sort of line/ridge down the middle) I was doing OK.

You then get to the more subjective part of the key ie are its legs stout or narrow. Also whether the hind tarsus including the claws is shorter than the tibia or not. No idea on the stoutness but I reckoned that the tarsi were just a bit shorter than the length of the tibia.

Next step is to look at how strongly punctured the elytra and abdomen are. Even looking at the crap photo above you can see that (especially where the light hits the end of the abdomen) the punctuation is strong. Having decided that you then have to decide whether the abdomen strongly narrows towards the end. I don't think so but the species that falls out here, intricata (with a narrowing abdomen), should also have reddish legs. My beetle's legs are very black indeed. 

That takes it to either being A. tristis or moesta. The key difference here is size with moesta being 3-5mm and tristis being 5-6mm. Staphs are notoriously difficult to measure consistently given the telescopic concertina nature of their abdomens, but this beetle is around 6mm. So should therefore be A. tristis.

I decided to dissect to make sure.



It looked like a pretty good match for tristis but I find these quite hard to judge. But as luck would have it as I was dissecting the capsule (bit above) from the sac, something akin to to a rolled up condom fell out and started to unravel. 

Turns out this large coiled flagellum is a diagnostic feature for this species and can be seen in the diagrams from the key.

Result! Was good for the confidence to have one of these go relatively smoothly but I'm sure there'll be something along soon to mess with my head.

Aleochara tristis is found mainly in the south-east of England on dung and carrion and is described by Welch as rare. But I imagine that as with a lot of these staphs the coverage is pretty poor and they are a bit more common than previously thought.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

We've come to f**k you over

I found this staph in my compost heap back in March and at the time was pleased to find that I could ID it to genus level in the field. This is one of the Aleochara. Of all the aleoch groups these are probably the easiest but as I was about to find out they still have the propensity to mess with your head and make you doubt your sanity.

There's a good key to these by Colin Welch that appeared in the Coleopterist many moons ago and is available to freely download here.

First couplet is easy, does the beetle have a two irregular rows of punctures (with hairs) on the pronotum either side of a smooth middle bit?

Bingo, this most obviously does putting this firmly in the subgenus Coprochara.


That helpfully narrows this to four species: bilineata, binotata, bipustulata and bi verna. πŸ˜‰

The next bit is all about the colouring of the elytra. The fact that this has discreet orangey patches excludes bilineata  and binotata and leave us with this being either verna or bipustulata

As this was a male I whipped out its bits to have a look. The drawings in Welch looked different enough to me.

5A and B is A. bipustulata and 6A and B is A. verna

Firstly looking at a lateral view, i tried to ascertain the shape of the aedeagus which I've drawn in red in the image. Comparing to the illustration I was convinced I was looking at A. verna. It was then pointed out that the neck of the aedeagus was too thing for verna and was more akin to bipustulata.


So what about the dorsal view? Again to me it looks more like the illustration of verna, with a wider base and more 'light bulb' appearance.


Time to look at some other sources, first up the Swedish guide by Palm. The shape of the my beetle's aedeagus is perhaps a better match for bipustulata but on these the thickness  of aedeagus neck seems to be reversed with verna having the thinner neck!


Dorsal images of verna are here and there also drawings and photos at coleo.net. I think it's clear to see some confusion and possible variation in the aedeagus of this genus and in fact there is some suggestion that females are easier and the spermatheca are a better way to tell these apart.

One thing that appears to be consistently different is the the extent of the red/orange patch on the elytra.

Bipustulata has larger patches that cover almost a quarter of the elytra, verna are more concentrated on the inner corners of each elytra below. This is illustrated below.

Aleochara bipustulata (left) and A. verna (right)

So my beetle has quite large patches which would suggest that it is a male A. bipustulata. This is also the more common of the two species. Not easy though and a valuable learning experience. 

The post title comes from early 90s industrial super group Murder Inc. Saw them live in 92 supporting the Sisters of Mercy, they were very loud!

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Sprawler

I ran the moth trap last night for the first time since late September as the temperature remained in double digits all night.

I was rewarded with nine species in the trap including this Sprawler, which was new for the garden list and given it's a moth of broad-leaved woodland, not one I had expected to necessarily see here. 

I usually find these round the security lights at the Lodge at this time of year but not 2020 as home working continues unabated...


 

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Welcome distraction

To distract myself from world events I decided to clear some of the recently fallen leaves from the surface of the pond yesterday. In amongst the purple loosestrife and field maple leaves was this colourful creature with piercing red eyes.

It's one of the Notonecta backswimmers of which there four species in the UK. Pale elytra with darkening towards the tips makes this N. viridis. This species is often in brackish water but has extended its range into freshwater pools. Must have just paid my small pond a fleeting visit...

Monday, November 2, 2020

For all the degradation in this land

 


The garden's offerings of field mushrooms have started to go over now and I spent half an hour yesterday on my hands and knees looking at some of the more manky ones!

There were a fair number of beetles in amongst the fast forming mush, mostly Proteinus brachypterus. One rather globular individual caught my eye and I was pleased on looking down the microscope to clap eyes on my first Onthophilus striatus.


This 2mm histerid is reasonably common in decaying matter across the south of England becoming more sporadic the further north you get. The above image doesn't do it justice but it's a remarkably intricately sculptured beetle.

There were also a few of this Omalium staph. 


These are not an easy group. But this one is the commonest of the genus. It has rather bulging sides to the head and the impressions in front of the ocelli are large and rounded. This means it should be O. rivulare, and luckily for my keying skills the aedeagus agrees with me!
 

It was good to compare to another Omalium that I had been looking at the day before. This one had come to light back in May and is O. caesum.


Its elytra are relatively shorter and the head somewhat longer. It's first and second antennal segments are darker too and this is one of the features that separates it from the closely related O. rugatum.
  

The aedeagus is a fair bit different from rivulare but the differences between caesum and rugatum appear to be slight.


The best images I can find are at the french site, galerie-insecte.org. You can see O. rugatum and O. caesum the lateral view (from the side) seems to be the best way to distinguish the two, but as I haven't knowingly seen rugatum yet I'll have to get back to you if that actually is the case.

The post title comes from a new discovery, for me at least, the rather wonderful Lebanon Hanover.