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 😒 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 😂

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 😀

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......