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Beetle blog

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Fieldwork in Africa

Posted by Blaps Feb 3, 2011
This week one of our academic visitors Hitoshi Takano shares the trials and tribulations of fieldwork, in one of the most hostile and unforgiving places in the world, Africa. But aside from the hardships of fieldwork it is also a beautiful and rewarding place with nature at its rawest and wildest. And, there are thousands of beetles!
However, there appears to be a distinct lack of any evidence of beetle collecting, but here’s a black and white Colobus monkey. Magombera Forest, Tanzania, just to make up for it – and no, HT didn’t bring it back to the Museum for closer study.
colubus monkeywebcompress.JPG
In HT’s own words: “Did I really spend all that time just standing in the sun wielding a butterfly net or slumped next to a light trap with a bottle of whisky? I also have a total of zero beetle pictures - it seems I stick them into a tube of alcohol before I even get the chance to take a photo. Note to self for the future - more science and beetle photos!” Yes, more beetles please!
Taking part in fieldwork can often highlight the degradation of habitats, or even countries. When HT went on fieldwork to Sierra Leone this was immediately apparent. Sierra Leone is the world’s worst off nation, after nine years of civil war ending in 2000, it is not jus the economy and the peoples that are affected, it is also the natural environment. After a failed attempt to track the pygmy hippo (one of Africa’s many endangered species whose populations are under threat from deforestation and poaching), he tells this story:
“…with an outdated guide to the local mammal fauna, we headed for a locality in ‘impenetrable’ Sierra Leone. We soon understood that this habitat could no longer support a viable population of hippos. After years of civil war, mass deforestation, and farming, the landscape was barren; we couldn’t even pitch our hammocks. Forget hippos, there weren’t even trees, which meant the breaking of the cardinal Ray Mears rule of never sleeping on the ground in the tropics…. But on a positive note, unlike some virgin tropical Africa explorers we didn’t emerge from the jungle with our stomachs in a bag and an unknown virus rioting through our veins! Another of our research sites was more positive, the Outamba-Kilimi National Park had good populations of chimpanzees and elephants, and despite unseasonably long periods of torrential rainfall, there was an abundance of Lepidoptera and Coleoptera.”
So, to get back to beetles, here are some photos of fieldwork, this time in Tanzania.
light trapDSC03465webcompress.JPG
Setting up the light trap at dusk, Mwanihana peak, Udzungwa  Mountains
dung bait pitfall trapDSC03522webcompress.JPG
Dung baited pitfall trap (collecting Scarabs which are very good indicators of ecosystem fitness), Nguru  Mountains (and yes, entomologists do get a bit obsessed with poo, though we are most definitely not 'anally retentive'!)
elephant dungDSC03501webcompress.JPG
Here is HT (on the left) employing the sophisticated fieldwork method of grubbing about in elephant dung with some sticks, looking for beetles...
All good stories, and hard days' fieldwork, end on a sunset, and perhaps a bottle of whisky!
Nguru Mountains, Tanzania
Next time, let's talk about love...

Fieldwork - it's a smelly business

Posted by Blaps Jan 21, 2011
Hello beetlers,
A busy week here in Coleoptera (yes millions of dead beetles do keep us quite busy) what with visitors to the department, our band of regular and merry volunteers, and a few new additions.
Lydia and Lucia join us for a couple of months on placement from Plymouth University to help us clear out a very smelly cupboard, (well, a bit more than that, but that cupboard really is smelly – imagine the smell of ‘what the cat dragged’ in, or our pets’ determined efforts to sniff out something foul and rancid and then roll around in it, then, you have the smell of our fieldwork collections’ cupboard. But don’t let this put you off if you ever felt that a career in entomology was for you.  L and L are quite happy as this image proves.
land l for web DSC00129.JPG
Here they are working on field samples collected from Peru by Max Barclay and Howard Mendel (entomology inspired clothing is a fashion favourite!). When deciding on any fieldwork expedition the scientific merit is considered. Collecting biological samples can be contentious and so we make value judgments on a number of factors, such as benefit to the Museums’ collection, the impact of the sampling on the chosen habitat and its peoples, the likely value of the data to the scientific community and to the larger community, indeed the world. The samples being worked on here are from the region of Cuzco. We know that rainforest habitats are severely threatened, so simply put, if we can provide a baseline data set of the biological diversity of the area, then we are better placed to protect that habitat for the future survival of the species that live there. Beetles are excellent indicators of habitat health and environmental change due to their diversity of life-habits and the vital role they play in the food chain as recyclers, decomposers and a plentiful food supply for higher organisms.
Here is the process: (Collecting methods employed sample as many species as possible from various trophic (ecological position in the food chain) levels and behaviours such as day and / or night hunting beetles, winged or flightless beetles, some live in the bark of trees, others feed on poo…the list is very long and so our collecting methods still may not yield what is truly representative of one given habitat, but as the photos below show, we managed to collect enough to be going on with…
max light trapping for web34782_.jpgHere's a tropically bedraggled Max searching for beetles amongst the night flying moths. This method of light trapping is commonly used for attracting the Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) but beetles can fly at night too.
malaise for web peru.jpg Malaise trapping in the jungle. This method is used for flying insects and it acts as a flight interception trap. The insects hit a vertical sheet of netting and are guided upwards towards light by the angle of the pitched roof. Here a hole in the netting allows it to pass into the attached collecting bottle which is usually filled with a preservative such as alcohol.


bait trap for web.jpg This is a bait trap, where a suitable bait, depending on what species you wish to attract, is hung above some pitfall traps. Here, the sophisticated method of an old sports sock, filled with...poo? is employed. Arguably this gentleman's sock alone would surely have attracted an interesting sample.

samples compressed for webDSCN4447.JPG Here's what the samples look like once they are returned to the lab, complete with labels which contain locality and collecting information. The plastic container to the left is filled with some residual 'beetle juice'.
web edit lucia and lydia peru mountingDSC00127.JPG Here is Lydia and Lucia extracting the specimens from the samples: discarding the beetle juice, drying out the specimens, and either pinning or mounting them on card.
for web fieldwork beetle pointing DSC00130 (1).JPG And here is the finished article, awaiting labelling, identifying and incorporating into the main collection. I'm sure we'll get some new species out of this lot!
Next time, fieldwork in Tanzania...

New Years (beetles) Honours list

Posted by Blaps Jan 9, 2011

A belated Happy New Year!


With the passing of 2010, we look back over what has been an eventful and at times poignant year for the beetling community. It would be impossible to include everything that happened in and around the Coleoptera department in 2010 in a mere blog, so apologies if anything significant has been missed, but here are a few shining examples to set the standard for the coming year:


This year saw two majorly significant collections come to the Natural History Museum, the Vorisek collection of Weevils (Curculionidae) (which is now housed in the Coleoptera department) and AA Allen’s collection of British beetles (which is awaiting deposit to the Museum). These two collections constitute a lifetime’s work of these great Coleopterists and the Museum, indeed the scientific community is indebted to their dedicated work of the previous century.


AA Allen

Mr Anthony Adrian Allen (1913-2010) was a leading authority on the British beetle fauna and published hundreds of papers and scientific notes, in a career going back to the 1930s. He formed a bridge between the contemporary community and some of the great names of the past, such as his close contacts Phillip Harwood and Horace Donisthorpe. (Max Barclay, The Coleopterist)


This year we intend to digitally scan the whole collection which includes most representatives of all the c.4000 British species, which will then be made available on the internet as a scientific resource, and as a permanent record of A.A. Allen’s immense contribution to the understanding of the British Coleoptera.


A.A. Allen’s portfolio of publications included the descriptions of four valid new species of British beetle:

Aleochara phycophila Allen, 1937 (Staphylinidae)

Acrotona benicki (Allen, 1940) (Staphylinidae)

Scraptia testacea Allen, 1940 (Scraptiidae)

Longitarsus fowleri Allen, 1967 (Chrysomelidae)


A tribute to AA Allen can be found in The Coleopterist, the journal for British Coleoptera


Oldrich Vorišek


© Libby Livermore 2010


Oldrich Voríšek, an amateur Czech collector whose collecting efforts of over 40 years yielded a collection of 45,000 specimens and 4,500 species of weevil from Europe, came to the Museum in 2010. It still takes my breath away to think of it, let alone to even physically start working with the collection. Currently we have a few volunteers, namely Libby and Katie who are assisting in recurating the beetles, and incorporating them into the Museums’ collection. There are 750 Type specimens which through our curating efforts will eventually be made widely available to the scientific community, both physically and virtually!


For more information on the Vorišek collection follow this link.



New species


And now to the lighter side of the news, new species are discovered and described every year by the academic Coleoptera community, and in this age of decreasing biodiversity (of named species), it is ever more important to know what we have got. My vote for new species of the year goes to Hydroscapha redfordi (10 of the type series are deposited here in the Natural history Museum).

For a full description here is the paper citation:

Crystal A. Maier (a), Michael A. Ivie (a), James B. Johnson (b) and David R. Maddison (c). 2010. A New Northern-Most Record for the Family Hydroscaphidae (Coleoptera: Myxophaga), with Description of a New Nearctic Species. The Coleopterists Bulletin


The authors’ decision to name the species after the great actor, director and environmental campaigner Robert Redford, for his continued efforts to support the conservation of the Rocky Mountains, is prompted by the film Jeremiah Johnson, with Redford playing the leading role. Hydroscapha redfordi is found in hot springs where it inhabits rock faces covered by mats of filamentous algae. The Type locality of this species is Jerry Johnson Hot Springs.

Here is Robert Redford with an animal at least beginning with ‘B’, if not an actual beetle!


jerry johnson.jpg

Image Courtesy of IMDB


New species are often named in honour of significant people (known as patronyms), either in the scientific community, for example the Lucanid, (Scarabaeoidea) Erichius darwinii Paulsen 2010, another new species for 2010, or in the world of popular culture, such as Agra katewinsletae (Carabidae) Erwin, 2002. You might have guessed, after the actress Kate Winslet for her role in Titanic. In the original description Erwin cites his somewhat tenuous choice of name, Her character did not go down with the ship, but we will not be able to say the same for this elegant canopy species, if all the rain forest is converted to pastures. Well said!


agra for blog.jpg

Some specimens of the curious aboreal carabid, Agra.


And to end on a tragi-romantic note, here is Kate and know what happens next...

kate and leo.jpg


Next week, fieldwork from 2010...


Hi beetlers, apologies for the lapse in blogging, but unless you hadn’t noticed, it’s been snowing - a lot, and here in good old Blighty, we are not very good at dealing with snow.

Inevitably this poses the question, or at least, people are always asking me this question (usually at parties – yes, I know, what fun!) what happens to insects when it snows / freezes? Oh yea of little faith, I say, don’t you think that these super-organisms that have been around since the early Carboniferous period (c.350 million years ago) would have evolved to survive all manner of hostile environments and even extinction events without being able to cope with a bit of snow?
They look at me blank eyed, and naturally I am compelled to elaborate…(the moral of this tale is not to corner an entomologist at a party, you are far better off nabbing an accountant or lawyer…)

Anyway, many would think that insects, (let’s be beetle specific) die off in the winter, and this in some cases is true, but, something must survive, whether it be egg, larva or adult.
There are a number of strategies available to the beetle.

bolitophagus reticulatus web006.jpg

The unremarkable looking Bolitophagus reticulatus (Family: Tenebrionidae) is freeze tolerant and freeze avoiding.

Communal living
Though beetles are winged and many capable of strong flight, they are not prone to migrate (at least not deliberately). Some well know migratory beetles are the pollen beetles (Family Nitidulidae) and the ladybirds (Family Coccinellidae).  But they are migrating from their overwintering site to their spring and summer breeding and feeding grounds. The pollen beetles and ladybirds overwinter as adults, where they seek warmer environments and live like hippies in communes. Ladybirds are famous for it, moving in with us humans to take advantage of our central heating (though central heating can kill them off by raising their metabolic rate too high to live without food).


Many beetles overwinter, which means whether it be egg, larva or adult, they will have developed a survival strategy for the winter. There are a few ways they can achieve this, depending on the species, some will go into diapause, some will produce antifreeze, and some will remain active throughout the winter (this is true of the aquatic insects where they remain active in the larval stage in fast flowing rivers and streams that do not freeze).
Insects including beetles are ectothermic which means they get their heat from external sources. Most insects cannot survive temperatures below 4°c and so have developed life-strategies to survive the winter.


Diapause is a ‘pause’ in the usual cyclical activity of an insect. This usually coincides with seasonal weather conditions, where an insect is programmed to go into a temporary state of inactivity, to combat lack of available food, and temperatures too cold to ordinarily survive. Such factors as day length and temperature are triggers to ending diapause over the winter period.

dendroides canadensis web014.jpg

Dendroides canadensis (Family: Pyrochroidae) enjoys diapause.


Insects which inhabit higher altitudes employ a state of suspended animation, which means they can literally freeze, but as temperatures rise begin to thaw and go about their business.

Overwintering strategies are divided into freeze avoidance and freeze tolerance, and these can differ between the northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere. Freeze avoidance (by keeping the body fluids in a perpetual liquid state) is usually found in insects in the northern hemisphere where weather conditions are more predictable and colder. In the southern hemisphere freeze tolerance is more common due to the changeable weather conditions; though generally milder the insect requires the ability to produce antifreeze in reaction to sudden cold snaps. Freeze tolerance means the beetle can avoid the internal freezing of its bodily fluids by producing antifreeze – yes, that’s right antifreeze! Not quite the toxic looking blue liquid we put in our cars in winter, rather a naturally derived fluid made from Glycerol and Glucose (essentially sugars and alcohols). These allow the bodily fluids to drop to below freezing temperatures without causing damage to the body cells and tissues.


osmoderma eremicola various web 001.jpg

The Hermit Flower beetle, Osmoderma eremicola (Family: Scarabaeidae) larvae are freeze tolerant.


How does it work?
When temperatures reach freezing point, ice crystals form, but they need nuclei (such as dust or bacteria) to form around. The elimination of waste fluids from the body reduces the number of nuclei available for ice crystal formation, this, along with the production of antifreeze ensures that the insect will not freeze.  Antifreeze proteins lower the temperature of freezing in the insects body (this is called ‘supercooling’) and so the body fluids cool below freezing point in a liquid rather than a solid state. Supercooling will take body temperatures down as far as -42°c.

cucujus clavipes puniceus web008.jpg

Cucujus clavipes puniceus (Family: Cucujidae) is 'supercool'.






All specimens images from the Museum's collection (taken badly with an iphone!)




As I promised, we have over two hundred years of stories to share with you about beetles, collecting and general shenanigans here at the Natural History Museum. Here is one such tale:


In a news month that sees £53 million being paid for a Chinese vase found in a house clearance in Pinner, perhaps we have all looked a bit closer at what might be lurking at the bottom of a cupboard, in the attic or the cellar...


One such Coleopterist did just that, but perhaps was a little disappointed to find, not a priceless Ming vase, or a jewel to rival the Hope diamond, sadly no, rather a collection of beetles from an Imperial College 1960 expedition to Ghana!


This expedition in 1960 yielded a fantastic collection of beetles, which, donated by the coleopterist (who shall remain nameless)  was accessioned into the Museum's collection in 1967. 1967! Some years later, no doubt whilst searching for some suitable pieces to flog on Cash in the Attic, found some long forgotten collecting boxes under his bed...


This week the collection is reunited in its entirety and we are now in the process of very meticulously placing accession labels on each specimen from 1967!


Here's one of our excellent volunteers, Gabrielle, moving the beetles from their original collecting boxes to unit trays ready for incorporation into the main collection, and just one of the collecting boxes, in very good condition.

gabrielle.jpgThe moral is: you can't put a price on beetles!



okay ghana 005.jpg


Why collecting is important.

Posted by Blaps Nov 17, 2010

Hello beetlers!

This week, well it’s all about collecting. We have been working on a number of specimens that have resulted from collecting trips abroad.

Firstly Max and Howard’s collecting trip to Bolivia (and yes, it wasn’t just beetles they picked up!)

Here’s Max collecting something somewhere in South America:


max south america.jpg

To follow Max's Coleopterising (this is now officially a word!)

When the Museum undertakes a collecting trip, it considers many factors. As one of the world’s leading natural history institutions we act as a depository for the world’s species. This has been going on for at least two hundred years, beginning with the inception of the British  Museum of Natural History in 1881, though we hold collections that are much older. It makes sense that specimens that are collected from anywhere in the world is held by an institution that can make this knowledge available to all.

Now more than ever, collecting is important because it can give us a base-line of the biodiversity of the planet. So many species are under threat – how do we conserve them if we don’t know what we have, or indeed the habitats in which they live?


From areas in the world that have been well represented by collecting (especially the old British Empire) our collections already provide a base-line data from which to inform conservation efforts. From those countries in the world that are under threat from development /climate change / burgeoning populations, we can collect species (adhering to a scientifically robust protocol), not only as base line data but as a means of helping to defend fragile habitats from development.


Meet Megacephala (Tetracha) spixii ssp. opulenta. This species was newly described to science in 2007 by Naviaux, and is a nocturnal hunter.

It was collected by Barclay & Mendel in Bolivia in 2004 and is now deposited here in the Museum. One more species new to science (and counting) – isn’t that amazing?!




This beetle belongs to the subfamily Cicindelinae of the Ground beetles (Carabidae), otherwise known as the tiger beetles, characterised by their long legs and large, fierce mandibles (biting mouthparts). They are predatory beetles which move very fast and are excellent hunters, for example, Cicindela campestris which is found in the UK, is measured as having a running speed of at 0.62 metres per second!



Cicindela campestris. This image can be found on the National Insect Week website

Unlike most other ground beetles, these beetles easily take to the wing, but much prefer to run their prey to the ground. The larvae of the tiger beetles are even more predatory, lying in wait in an underground burrow, until a hapless insect should cross their path.

Aside from their predacious nature they are considered excellent ‘indicator species’ which means their presence in a habitat can be used as measure of habitat quality and in turn biodiversity. This is why we collect and record them.


Welcome to the Beetle Blog!

Posted by Blaps Nov 17, 2010

Hello beetle lovers - and if you are not converted yet then hopefully, as you follow this Blog you will become as enchanted and fascinated as I and my good colleagues here in the Coleoptera & Hemiptera section of the Entomology department!


You may or may not know that 'Coleoptera' is the scientific name for the beetles. This comes from the Greek, meaning 'sheathed wing' quite literally koleos = sheath and pteron =wing. It is because of this morphology that the beetles are such a successful group. Not only do they have a pair of protective hardened wings (known as elytra) to protect the wings and body underneath, they also have a pair of flight wings which means they can disperse easily and flee from predators.


Not all the beetles are capable of flight and their wing cases may be fused together, this is true of many of the ground beetles (the Carabidae) which is the group or family that I work on here in the department. There are many families of beetles, at least well over a hundred, this figure changes over time with taxonomic revision (taxonomy = the classification of biological organisms).


There are six curators of beetles here in the section who all care for the 9,000,000 specimens we hold in our collection - yes, that's 9 Million specimens of beetles! As well as the curators we have researchers from the UK and all over the world who visit the collection as well as a merry band of volunteers and students. I'll be asking my colleagues to contribute to the Blog as there is no shortage of stories or interesting projects to be shared with you.


Currently I am working on the revision and recuration of a subfamily of the Scarab beetles, the Phanaeini. These beetles are one of the groups of dung beetles (we all love the dung beetles right?!), and for creatures that make a living out of exploiting that most abundant of natural resources - poo - they are really rather attractive!



Phanaeini 004 web.jpg


These fantastic metallic green beetles Phanaeus (Notiophanaeus) achilles were curated by my ex colleagues CG & NDS, and are found in South America: Peru and Ecuador. They are interesting in that males and females work together in excavating a tunnel under the 'dung' taking some of the dung with them in order to lay eggs into. When the eggs hatch the larvae have a plentiful food resource. All dung beetles are important nutrient recyclers in the natural environment.









Also, this group gives us great examples of 'sexual dimorphism' (difference in form between males and females).  Below you can see the horned male on the left and the 'hornless' female on the right of the species Phanaeus (Notiophanaeus) achilles. This horn we would term as a sexual ornament, it may be used for attracting a female as well as fighting off competition from other males for the females' attentions!


dimorph Phanaeini 013 web.jpg


















If you are interested in beetles, one of the publications we used to recurate the group is this excellent text by Patrick Arnaud.


beetles of the world phanaeinae web.jpg      phan long shot drawer web.jpg

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Member since: Sep 15, 2009

I'm Beulah Garner, one of the curators of Coleoptera in the Entomology department. The Museum's collection of beetles is housed in 22,000 drawers, holding approximately 9,000,000 specimens. This little collection keeps us quite busy!

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