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April 2013

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Beetling about! Dick Warner reviews the beetles you might come across in your garden



For the garden naturalist beetles are a nightmare. The trouble is there are so many different species. In fact about a quarter of all known life forms on the planet are beetles. That's around 400,000 species. But experts say there are probably at least another 400,000 that haven't yet been discovered, described and named. So if you come across a beetle in the garden what chance have you got of identifying it?

There are a couple of things that help. First of all, most beetles live in the tropics and the number of species found in Ireland is relatively small. Secondly, the scientists have sub-divided the great order of beetles into a number of smaller families, and it's usually quite easy to guess what family any given beetle belongs to. Beetles in general have a pair of hard wing cases on their back that protect the true wings tucked underneath.

Three beetles typify the three different families that are common in Irish gardens. Starting with the easiest, the ladybirds - yes, ladybirds are beetles - there are 15 Irish species plus the harlequin ladybird, an invasive Asian species that has been recorded in this country. They're fairly easy to tell apart if you count the number of spots, note the general body colour - they're not all orange - and estimate the size. Also there's an excellent identification guide with colour photographs on the Biodiversity Ireland website.

The ground beetles are slightly more difficult. They are the typical beetle - the same general shape as the lady bird but normally larger, dark in colour and often shiny. There are 211 species recorded in this country. One of the commonest is Pterostichus madidus which has two common names - either the black clock or the common ground beetle. They are 15 to 20mm long with an oval, slightly flattened black body with characteristic grooves running down the wing cases from front to back.

There are two colour forms, one with black legs and another with reddish legs. They are largely nocturnal predators that crawl under something like a plant pot to sleep during the day and they occasionally come into houses. In general they're good for your garden because they eat a lot of slug and snail eggs, vine weevil eggs and small slugs but they also have a slight weakness for ripe fruit, particularly strawberries. The National Museums of Northern Ireland have an excellent website on Irish ground beetles.

Finally, the rove beetles. These are much more difficult. There are 671 species recorded for Ireland and some of them are very small and hard to identify. Rove beetles are more elongated than ground beetles and their characteristic is that they have relatively small wing cases with a long abdomen sticking out behind. One rove beetle that is very large and easy to recognise is the 'devil's coach horse'. It's black and can reach over 25mm in length, which I thinks makes it one of the longest Irish beetles, if not the heaviest. If you disturb one it's likely to put on a rather frightening defensive display, arching its abdomen up like a scorpion and gnashing its very large jaws. This is all a bluff, the creature is quite harmless.



 

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