Nature 2023 April

Raising a cheer for the Snarly-Warlys

Gentleman of leisure of the 18th and 19th centuries, possessed of a grand house, might display collections of curiosities: maybe the result of their travels on the ‘Grand Tour’. Other artefacts may have been acquired from nearer to home or purchased from specialist antiquarian merchants who supplied archaeological finds, as there was a belief in these pre-Darwinian times that the Great Flood had washed away anything that could have been part of a pre-ark, antediluvian era.

In later Victorian times the fashion for shooting, angling or hunting birds, fish and animals was a major pastime. For some younger gentlemen this obsession focussed on amassing collections of birds’ eggs or insects. In much the same way as subsequent generations might collect stamps, coins or cigarette cards, this fascination to get one over on their friends might even involve boys being paid to go out into the countryside to acquire the rarer species or swap duplicates in bespoke societies.

For Charles Darwin, the fascination was with beetles. In the years before he would make his voyage of discovery on the Beagle and write his On the Origin of Species, he recorded in a short note in his journal the question “Why is there such a range of beetles of every shape size and colour?” Punch recorded at the time that beetle-mania had swept the echelons of those undertaking academic studies, which was having a deleterious effect on scholars’ attendance at tutorials and their exam results. For a really excellent example of such a collection you cannot beat a trip down the road to the Natural History Museum at Tring to see Walter Rothschild’s magnificent collection of beetles, all classified and individually set out in drawers upon drawers of cabinets.

Beetles are the most diverse of all animal species. World-wide there are over 400,000 examples recorded to date. One entomologist reported that one tree in Panama contained 1,200 species of insect and, as there were estimated to be 50,000 different tree species alone in the tropics, many of which were still unknown, that the number of undiscovered and unnamed beetles might be as much as 4 million. Today, over 1,000 new species are discovered and classified each year. As someone has calculated, if every species of animal were laid side by side, every fourth one would be a beetle and every tenth one a weevil.

In Britain, there are currently just over 4,000 beetle species, most of which were collected and named in Victorian times, though with climate change affecting distribution there is an increasing number of examples from southern Europe making Britain their residence. Not to mention other invasive species arriving on food and timber products, despite the precautions increasingly taken at ports.

Beetles’ success over the past 100 million years relies on their adaptability to every habitat (including desert and arctic) and food source, the reliance on either camouflage or warning colours, their tough outer chitinous casing and general unpalatableness to survive predation. Most are herbivores, both as grubs and adults, though others are voracious predators and even a few are parasites.

Despite their abundance and diversity, recognition of different resident beetle species amongst the nature-loving British is far lower than it is for butterflies. At present there are 59 species of UK butterflies, including two regular annual visitors. I guess most people can name at least a quarter of these. Those who have been encouraged to take part in the annual Butterfly Conservation butterfly count might recognise a third to a half, whereas beetle recognition is going to be more like one tenth of one percent. Perhaps the top five might include ladybird, stag beetle (perhaps at least heard of as they are rarely seen these days), bumbling cockchafer, that collides with your outside lights or kitchen windows in May, a water-loving beetle like the whirligig or diving beetle and (if you are in the know that it is a beetle) a glow worm. Those connected to the food processing or building maintenance professions would no doubt add weevils, death-watch, bookworms and several others!

I found a quote from A A Gill, to my best knowledge not an amateur coleopterist, which sums up this theory perfectly “Beetles do just what it says on the box… Beetles embody all the talents of the middle classes. They are not aristocratic, vain esoterics, like butterflies and moths, or communists like ants and bees. They’re not filthy opportunistic carpetbaggers like flies. They are professional, with a skill. They’re built for a job and get down to it without boastfulness or hysterics. And there is nowhere that doesn’t, sooner or later, call in a beetle to set up shop and get things done.”

To add to your own personal count, I gave some thought to some of the more distinctive members of the beetle clan to be found in the garden or on a walk as spring and summer days approach. Green tiger beetles are emerald green with cream spots and scurry across patios and paths in search of insects. Sexton beetles have orange and black striped bodies and are carrion feeders. Both the cardinal beetle (red), seen on smelly flowers like cow parsley, and the rose chafer (bright green) seen on largerpetalled flowers, are out in May. In cow pastures, a rare sight around here these days is the round shiny black dor beetle that finds dung irresistible. The wasp beetle has, as the name implies, alternating black and yellow horizontal stripes.

Whereas we need to thank the Victorian collectors for the names of individual species, the colloquial names for the family of beetles is completely down to the country folk of times gone by. Generally speaking, any big buzzing insect was called a ‘clock’ and larger flying beetles ‘clockers’. For the largest of such insects was reserved the moniker ‘bum-clock’. Those islanders from the Faroes, being of Scandinavian descent, espoused the name ‘klukkas’. Meanwhile, those from the Orkneys preferred ‘gablo’ derived from ‘gobhal’, Celtic for fork – It was suggested this was originally applied to the unrelated insect the earwig. And finally, in Devon, a ‘snarlywarly’.

Happy Hunting!

Chris Brown BEM
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