Why Ground Beetles are the best
The one question I am always asked by people who want to get serious about beetles is this: what’s the best group to begin with? And the answer I always give is ground beetles. There are good arguments against this, ranging from the trivial such as ‘but longhorns are so impressive’, to the serious like ‘but ground beetles are difficult because there are so many of them and they all look the same!’ Fair enough because longhorns are indeed impressive and with a little experience most of them can be picture matched. Same with lots of beetles such as Endomychus or Platystomus, and with experience and maybe a little help all sorts of things like soldier beetles become obvious. Going into the field and photographing or taking specimens for examination at home will eventually produce a good understanding of the most distinct or obvious species, and eventually some level of expertise will be gained, no doubt about that, so why should I always recommend ground beetles? Well, there are a few very good reasons and I cannot think of a single bad reason beyond the obvious (and I’ve heard this one) that one might find them uninteresting, boring even. If the latter is the case then it’s likely one needs to find a different hobby, because ground beetles are absolutely fantastic, and I’ve spent a lifetime looking at them so believe me, I know. In terms of diversity there are more weevils and rove beetles than there are ground beetles, so why not one of these groups? Or why not a group with less species; one that might be easier to learn? Fair enough, try Cardinal beetles, but after a trip to the Scottish Highlands things might get boring. Same for Stag beetles. Dung beetles might be a good candidate for the best group to begin with, but there are not that many species. Rove beetles can also be considered a likely candidate; they may be found anywhere and in any habitat, but be warned that they can be bastards to identify; the literature is limited (at least without a lot of effort, and they can lead to a kind of insanity that beginners would do well to avoid.) Good and bad arguments can be made for all the groups of beetles but there are so many good things about ground beetles that they really are out there on their own in this respect. And I shall explain why, mostly because I can then refer people to this essay, but also because while the following may be obvious, there may be points that I miss out when encouraging people to begin a serious study of beetles with Ground beetles.
My first point is seasonality. Carabids may be found throughout the year, but the important point here is that diversity during the colder months is hardly any lower than it is during the summer. With very little effort they may be found on any piece of parkland or wasteland, in domestic gardens or out on remote wild heathland or moors. Wherever you search, and at whatever time of year, a good diversity of carabids may be found. More especially so if you collect flood-refuse or use pitfall trapping or extraction techniques. Or if you like to go out at night and search trees and wetland margins. This year-round adult diversity is rarely found in other groups although, taken as a whole and not just the adephagan families, adult water beetles might also be found at any time of year, but pond dipping or collecting marginal samples is not always pleasant during the winter.
My second point is diversity. Work a local area of wooded parkland by day and night and a fairly good list of carabids may result. And the thing about this sort of sampling is that the more you work an area, the more species you will record, at least in the medium term. Then try a similar piece of wooded parkland a few miles remote from this and most of what you find will be the same, but not all of it; there will be other species. Then try open heathland, or acid moorland, and the diversity increases. The fact is that your local area will produce a long list of carabids once all the biotopes have been discovered and worked. Moreover, the environment is not static, it changes and as it does so more carabids will be discovered. And another great thing about carabids is that they are easy to find and so, armed with only a few tubes, they can be searched for whenever you are travelling and whenever the odd five minutes becomes available.
My third point is another kind of diversity. Carabids come in all shapes and sizes; they range from Tiger Beetles to Violet Ground Beetle types, from all black types to brilliant metallic ones, from tiny species to large stuff like Abax. Which means they are aesthetically appealing and interesting, it also means that new species will often be obvious in the field, at least with a little experience; you may not know what they are but you will know that they are different, and this aspect is both exciting and rewarding.
My fourth point is what you can learn from carabids. Many species will eventually be recognised by eye, even in the field. Many will need to be keyed, and here it is surprising how quickly you will become familiar with the literature. Some will need to be dissected, these include big ones and small ones and a few sibling species. Most will need to be examined and dissected under a stereo microscope. A reference collection will become invaluable. All these things will teach techniques invaluable to the study of beetles in general, and along the way you will learn a great deal about beetle morphology and how keys work (or don’t). In short, most things you need to know about studying insects will be gained from studying our carabids.
My fifth point relates to the last one. There is a wealth of very good literature, including keys, that cover our entire fauna. There is as much again on line, and so the potential for learning about our carabids is very great. And as well as the various facebook groups etc, we have a very, very, very good national recording scheme and so specimens can always be identified.
My last point is that carabids are just great! Longhorns are probably more popular, and for that matter maybe weevils or leaf-beetles, and certainly ladybirds, but they tend to be seasonal and most work tends to be done in the spring and summer. Which is very frustration for the enthusiastic beetler who must stay indoors idle and bored during the autumn and winter. People have their favourite groups, fair enough, and while carabids do not always have the immediate appeal of, say weevils or leaf-beetles, they soon become powerfully fascinating and addictive.
So there are few better ways to become familiar with the jargon and the techniques of the coleopterist than to make a serious case study of the carabids. Other families are also fantastic but not nearly so amenable to casual as well as very serious study as the ground beetles.