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Getting Started

A World of Beetles

Beetles can be collected anywhere at any time. They can turn up unexpectedly e.g. early in 2017 when leaving Watford library I grabbed a beetle flying across the doorway and tubed it. Obviously an Aphodius and probably ater I took it home for examination and it turned out to be granarius. Which demonstrates several important aspects of collecting i.e. always be on the lookout for beetles, never  assume the identity of something that might be interesting and, once you become obsessed with beetles, never leave home without a tube. Of course occasionally you will be caught out, in November a couple of years ago while out shopping we found a splendid specimen of Pogonocherus on a wall next to a restaurant in Watford High Street and, unbelievably, had no tubes and so had to resort to that most desperate of measures and bought a pack of Tic Tacs to use the container. I think that over the years I have significantly boosted the profits of the Tic Tac company while never actually sampling any of their products. So being prepared is the most important aspect of beetle collecting, especially when starting out when every carabid seen running on a pavement or ladybird sitting on a fence will be of interest. The same thing applies indoors, or in other people’s houses, or at work or anywhere; for me the most exciting thing about attending a barbeque is the chance to keep an eye out when it gets dark and the garden lights go on.

Never leave home without them.

But from the outset the beetle collector will want to get out and begin sampling. At first it seems a tall order but the experienced field worker will rather trivially be able to record over a hundred species during a day out, and double this if the habitat is rewarding; this will include a combination of species recorded in the field and those brought home for more critical examination. But this will lie in the future because the beginner will first need to become confident in naming stuff in the field and this can only be done with experience, even for the most obvious of species; a few Rhagnoycha fulva can be taken home and named and many more can be examined in the field so that eventually they become familiar and unmistakable, but there is much more going on here than at first seems obvious! Having an academic background in analytical chemistry I generally identify things not by what they are but by what they are not, and so it is with beetles in the field, seeing a cantharid on a flower and knowing it is not Rhagonycha fulva suddenly makes it interesting enough to tube and take home to identify. By this process the frequently seen species become familiar and the different ones become obvious and so after a few seasons of field work the lists begin to grow. The reference collection will also begin to grow at an alarming rate, steadily demanding new labels and containers so that eventually you will need to give up the temporary stuff and label thirty or forty cabinet drawers in order to avoid the constant pain of reorganizing everything. It is roughly at this point, even if only subconsciously, you will be deciding how the future of your collecting is going to proceed.

We believe much of the useful work that can be done by amateur beetlers will be done locally. It is all very well travelling great distances to obtain splendid specimens, and of course we are guilty of this ourselves, but in the vast majority of cases it achieves nothing beyond adding desirable stuff to our collections, it has no scientific value whatsoever and is probably detrimental to the species in question. If a very rare species is known from a certain site, and if this site is accessible, then it will attract collectors, and as more specimens are taken the same data will be added to more and more collections and lists until our needs are satisfied and our knowledge is reinforced ad nausea. By saying detrimental we are not suggesting that collecting will necessarily impact a population in a detrimental way, it is obvious from the nature of how populations fluctuate naturally that taking a few specimens will very probably have no harmful effects at all, but the environmental effects of continually visiting a site may well be devastating, especially so if in order to obtain specimens the site needs to be disturbed e.g. with saproxylic stuff. 

The results of many hours in the field.

Which now brings us to an important point i.e. what is the end result of our collecting? And the answer to this is, ultimately, nothing more than the data we generate. Our reference collections will go some way to prove whether our data are accurate and so long as the collections are maintained this is all very well and good. But what, ultimately, will happen to our collections? A most noble act is to leave them to a museum or institution but here lies the question of practicality. Maintaining and housing a collection is an expensive business which, at the national level, will be funded one way or another by the government, and there is a limit to how many specimens can be maintained. Another very noble gesture would be to leave the collection to a local society or individual so that the work could continue. This is probably more useful because our landscape is changing, often detrimentally due to human impact but in any case, even if our immediate environment is remote from human development, it will be affected by such things as pollution or changes to water tables or tourism or farming practices etc. and even if an area seems beyond these changes it would be foolish to imagine a stable and unchanging fauna faced, as we are, by climate change. At the local level therefore our collections and efforts may be valuable, if only for historical reasons; not so very long ago I would have been hard pushed to imagine a time when it would be difficult to go out and find a Ten-Spot Ladybird, but it certainly is now.

Beyond this scientific and historical use our collections have another, equally tangible value. At South Kensington in London we have one of the World’s most extensive collections of beetles and this is in constant use by scientists the world over, it generates new knowledge and, as it is added to from expeditions across the world, new species are constantly being discovered. But beyond this nerdy academic value how does this benefit the majority of people who have no interest in natural history in general let alone coleoptera in particular? Firstly we have seen a huge change in society over recent decades particularly with the rise in digital technology in general and social media in particular and these things have greatly impacted the way we behave, and more especially so with each new generation; nowadays young people seem to be addicted to things that are intrinsic to their lives, their interests seem to be more and more focused on their own lives and those of their acquaintances, and to this end the success of the wider media of gaming and television is nothing short of phenomenal; sports and game shows and series of daft fantasy stories are now the stuff that generates phenomenal financial fortunes but squanders huge amounts of human existence. It should be hoped that by generating a legacy that includes extensive beetle collections, when, or if, there does come a time when people wake up to what is happening extrinsic to their immediate existence, there will be a wealth of material upon which the study by future generations can begin, and by future generations I mean not only those people lucky enough to be born into families that promote an interest in the wider world, but also a change of heart by future governments so that a love of the natural world can be promoted in schools as well.

Secondly there is an absolute value in beetle collections; nobody would argue that national collections of fine art or concerts of classical music or exhibits of steam engines in museums or even that Nelson’s Column are pointless, they are national monuments to our achievements, and archives such as the British Library are a commentary on our historical development, in just the same way our national collections of natural history specimens are a monument to our efforts to understand the natural world and they represent many millions of hours of labour and research. The problem with such collections is that they are not on public display and so are not readily appreciated but I have no doubt that if properly displayed they would capture the imagination of the average person in just the same

The Natural History Museum in London

way as any other London landmark. It is a shame that the collections are not on display, or rather that an impressive collection has not been constructed and displayed, because the work of naturalists could then be more easily appreciated and lay people might then be spurred to take a closer look. After all, to the intelligent mind this stuff is highly addictive; all that is needed is the right stimuli. But make no mistake; our national collections are every bit as valuable and impressive as our more tangible national monuments. Ultimately there is simply the personal satisfaction of making a collection of beetles and enjoying all the work that this involves, of seeing the beauty of a growing collection, properly housed and labelled, of using amazing equipment like stereo microscopes to examine tiny but exquisite specimens, and of taking delight in the work of others through new publications or on line. And of course while studying beetles a whole world of new knowledge is discovered, of biology and chemistry and geography and loads of other stuff, and so why on earth is this stuff not part of the national curriculum? That there are large national collections the world over demonstrates a general need in people to understand our natural world; this need is part of the human psychological condition, and since the natural world was made sense of by Darwin and Linnaeus we have strived to refine this understanding and to come to terms with our place among our fellow inhabitants of this accumulation of debris orbiting the sun. To neglect studying the natural world is to ignore our human condition.

Basic Sampling Methods

The hopeful collector needs to begin somewhere and the nearer to home the better. A walk through any open space or park should generate a few specimens; stuff that can be seen on foliage or found under stones etc. and tubed for later examination. At this point I cannot stress enough that night collecting will add greatly to the number of species found; carabids and staphs normally inactive during the day will be active on the ground and on tree trunks, fungi will often be found to be teeming with specimens that are hidden during the day, and searching around logs, especially looking at the cut ends, will produce beetles of many families that are otherwise seldom seen. We use rechargeable LED lanterns or battery powered LED torches as they tend to produce a good light for a long time and in the height of the season, when it is usually desirable to get out every night for a few weeks, a ‘normal’ filament-bulb torch can be very expensive and frustrating to run. In any case it’s best to take out two torches or lanterns for each person, especially if they are rechargeable, because it is often the case that an hour’s collecting turns into two or three.

Local parks are the perfect place to start collecting.

This rather casual approach to collecting will continue to satisfy the beginner and produce new species for a long time but various general and specialized methods will soon be employed to great effect. The single most versatile and useful piece of equipment is the sweep net; this can be used in just about any situation and, with a little experience, can double as a beating tray. The net is simply swept through vegetation and the contents examined, or hold the net taught across the frame and it becomes a tray; hold this flat under shrubs or branches and tap them sharply to dislodge any beetles which will then fall onto the net. By sweeping or beating particular plants separately and tubing and labelling the results a good idea of host plants and which species we have collected can be gained when examining them later. Commercial sweep nets tend to be very large and so many people find these cumbersome but white sweep-net bags are usually available for smaller frames and these are often found to be more versatile, similarly beating trays can be large and unwieldy, although there are a few European suppliers that offer much more sensible designs, and the idea of taking a large beating tray and a large sweep net into the field, along with other equipment, is a daunting prospect.  A versatile variation on the beating tray is offered by several European suppliers; this is a crescent shaped tray on a flexible frame that can be pushed onto a tree trunk to catch specimens as the fall, or are brushed off by the collector.

Sweep nets are the most essential and useful collecting apparatus.

It does not take long to master the use of the sweep-net and the beating tray, indeed after a while some expertise is developed and they can be used to great effect in many situations e.g. by forcing the tray under awkward gorse or into nettle-beds, or by gently bending umbel-flowers into the net and then tapping-off the beetles. The resulting specimens will need to be examined and tubed, and the art of identifying different stuff among the mass common stuff will come naturally within a season or two. But there are a few weeks towards late spring and in early summer when the number of specimens can be overwhelming and here another piece of equipment will be very useful, in fact this piece of equipment will be among the most useful, in general terms, of all as it will be used in a great variety of situations -  the pooter. There are many variations on the design but basically a pooter is a container into which specimens are vacuumed, the simplest is worked by mouth while more complicated types use a small battery-powered motor to do the job; powered models tend to be expensive, noisy and not very powerful but, as explained below, there are times when they might be desirable.  Specimens are sucked up

into a container through an open tube and suction is applied through a tube which, in order to retain the specimens, is sealed-off with a small piece of mesh. After a few goes the technique of applying a ‘pulse’ of suction is developed and the specimens soon begin to fly into the container, usually a tube which can be removed and stoppered and so replaced quickly for the next sample. Using a pooter it is thus a simple procedure to separate the specimens without having to handle them, and when there are masses of Meligethes  and Brachypterus around this is a great advantage. But along with the sweep-net and tray the pooter can be used anywhere; under bark, on trunks at night or among water-net samples, it is a very versatile piece of equipment. Which brings us rather naturally to the most vital piece of field equipment, the tubes themselves. Pooters generally use a small tube for the collecting part, generally 3x1 inch or so and often of standard design with one end sealed-off although straight, open-ended tubes are often used with the suction tube and collector at opposite ends, these open-ended designs tend to require a level of ambidexterity that I find baffling under field conditions where they may need to be emptied several times and quickly, but many people find it easy to remove one or other end and transfer the contents into another container, and so I suppose it is a matter of personal choice but whatever design is chosen the use of glass tubes will sooner or later be regretted; there are two sounds which the budding coleopterist will find particularly annoying, firstly the ‘crunch’ as a glass tube is accidentally trodden on, or even more alarming as it is sat on, and secondly the ‘plink’ as the rim of a tube breaks off when the stopper is applied in a hurry. In all cases, of course, this will happen after a particularly interesting specimen has been tubed. There are wooden tube holders available that come in two halves with aligning holes that accommodate the tubes and short dowels that keep the things together, they generally hold a small number of tubes, occupy a large volume and add a great deal of weight to the collecting equipment, they can also rattle alarmingly when carried in the pocket, which, from the slender and long rectangular design, is how I think they are supposed to be used. I have tried to use these in the past and found them to be very annoying and unnecessary, on the other hand I know people who swear by them, rather than at them, and so as with much entomological equipment they are a matter of personal choice. We generally take a few hundred tubes into the field and cannot imagine how I would accommodate the necessary tube-holders.     

These very simple methods will produce a huge list of beetles, but it might be instructive to give a list of species we would expect the beginner to find within their first season, and again we emphasize that a few night forays should be undertaken.

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