The Accidental Conservationist: making friends with the dark

Carabid beetle

My year is bracketed by beetles. Glow worms (see previous blog) mark the end of spring and the arrival of summer. But when the leaves turn and the tawny owls begin calling and the nights start to draw in, that is the time of the rugged oil beetles. Have you met them? They are delightful creatures, ideal subjects for the non-expert nature-lover. They move slowly, are not unduly fazed by humans and best of all, like glow worms, they are absolutely distinctive. Once you’ve seen one, especially if you see them move, you’re unlikely to mix them up with other beetles. The only difficulty for the rugged oil beetle hunter is that they are mainly active at night.

Ladies in long skirts

I was introduced to them a few years ago by Kathy Meakin, late of GWT, who took a group of us up to Swifts Hill and invited us to look for ‘animated rabbit droppings’. This is a pretty good description, but focuses the attention unnecessarily on real rabbit droppings, of which there are plenty on the hill. A nicer description is ‘little old ladies in long skirts’. This perfectly describes not only the way they look, but also the way they move as they pootle around in the short grass. Rugged oil beetles taught me how significant movement can be in getting to recognise a species.

Rugged oil beetle - Swifts Hill

Rugged oil beetle - Swifts Hill

Young Oil Bottle

After listening to Kathy on the subject, I realised I had met the oil beetles before. From my mother, I inherited an elderly children’s nature book called ‘Insect Ways on Summer Days’.  Each chapter is a description of a different insect, in the voice of the insect itself, and there is a chapter called ‘Young Oil Bottle’.  It’s full of Victorian whimsy (even as a child I found this off-putting) but the description of the oil beetle’s incredible lifestyle is, I think, accurate. It describes how the beetle larva hangs out in a flower head until a solitary bee comes along, grips onto the bee, is carried off to the bee’s nest and there wreaks havoc (from the bee’s point of view) by feeding on bee eggs until it pupates and becomes an adult beetle. 

A reason to be out in the dark

Back From The Brink, a national project working on conserving a long list of species, has been monitoring rugged oil beetles, which are one of the rarest of the UK’s five Oil Beetle species. I’ve been lucky to get involved with their surveys. Unlike most insects, including the other main oil beetle species, the rugged oil beetles do their thing in autumn and winter, which is a time of year I like. Many people hate the arrival of the darker days, but for me they have one big advantage. I love being out in the dark. I remember night-time excursions on childhood holidays but working life in the town put paid to those for many years. Getting involved with rugged oil beetles reminded me what I’d been missing. The world changes at twilight; sounds and smells take the place of vision. Even your own back garden becomes mysterious. Summer nights are full of wildlife, but they make you wait for the real darkness until well after 10 pm and chasing it gets tiring. In autumn, the darkness comes to me.  Rugged oil beetle surveys can be conducted before suppertime. They provide a reason to get out of the house even in unlovely weather. These tough little beetles don’t mind wet, don’t mind wind, and I have seen them out and about in any temperatures short of frost. It is a rare oil beetle survey which doesn’t also feature other wildlife – tawny owls are in good voice at this season, as are foxes and deer; other beetles are also about, not to mention snails, slugs and a few moths.  And on warmer nights, even a bat or two.

Tawny owl -Margaret Holland

Tawny owl -Margaret Holland

Natural darkness therapy

Even if I didn’t find them appealing, I would still be grateful to the oil beetles, and to that part of the natural world which is still active during these dark days of Lockdown 2. When the house feels like a prison and the uncertain future and the lack of real human contact get me down, stepping out into the evening garden can re-balance me. The problem is the darkness in my head, not the darkness outside, and as always, nature is part of the solution. The thought of my neighbours, the rugged oil beetles, gently getting on with the business of making the next generation restores a sense of hope. Long may they continue to do so.

Possible mating pair of Rugged Oil Beetles - Amanda Lawrence

Possible mating pair of Rugged Oil Beetles - Amanda Lawrence