The New Naturalist Series is proud to be publishing Beetles by Richard Jones on 25th January 2018.
Richard has been fascinated by wildlife since a childhood exploring the South Downs and Sussex Weald after plants and insects – especially beetles. He is a nationally acclaimed entomologist and a fellow of the Royal Entomological Society, fellow of the Linnean Society, and past president of the British Entomological and Natural History Society. He now writes about insects, nature and the environment for BBC Wildlife, Gardener’s World, Countryfile, the Guardian and Sunday Times and has regular media appearances on programmes such as Springwatch Unsprung, Natural Histories and Open Country.
Here, he gives us an exclusive insight into: Why Beetles?
I like beetles, I like them very much indeed, and although I’m fascinated by many insect groups, it is the beetles that have really captured my attention. They are the ones in which I find greatest aesthetic beauty, about which I know most, for which I have the largest reference collection, and on which I have most books. Despite eminent biologist J.#B#S. Haldane’s flippant remark about the Creator, my inordinate fondness for the Coleoptera is not simply to do with numbers of species, or even diversity of form or abundance in the countryside. There is a complex emotional formula for determining a favourite anything; in the modern world, it might be called an algorithm, but to my mind it’s more alchemical, magical, almost mystical. I doubt many people could explain how they came to have a favourite colour, favourite food or even favourite music. But I think I have some inkling of how I got where I am now in my choice of favourite insect order. It was very much a personal voyage of discovery, and like so many journeys it was the people I met on the way who determined my route and, ultimately, my final destination.
I don’t think there was ever any doubt that I would be interested in insects. My father, Alfred W. Jones (1929–2014), was an accomplished amateur naturalist. Self-taught (aren’t they all?), his main interest was botany, but he had a large collection of snail shells, fossils and, especially, insects. Rambling through the countryside, he always carried an insect net, and because of it many people who met him took him for a straight entomologist. It must have been a set-up, but there is a photograph of me, on holiday on Selsey Bill aged not yet two years old, walking towards the camera holding my dad’s net as if it were my own. Consequently, there was never a time before insects. They were always there. I was an inevitable entomologist.
I had an insect collection from as far back as I can remember. Early on, there would have been butterflies in there; I remember chasing clouded yellows (Colias croceus) along the cliff tops at Telscombe and Saltdean, but there were also moths, flies, bees and beetles. At that time, in the 1960s, it was not unusual for young people to get their early interest in entomology by first collecting butterflies, then progressing to other, more serious, groups. With my father’s experience and influence, I never needed to make that transition, or I’d already made it long before I started to take insects seriously. And I started seriously when I was about nine.
At some point in the early 1970s, I acquired my first proper insect cabinet. I bought it with the £10 my Grandma Stevens left to each of her grandchildren when she died. It was a pretty rough-and-ready home-made item, but it did have drop-in, framed glass-top lids on its 12 broad, deep drawers. It was significantly more pest-proof than the small desk-top cabinet I had been using until then; that one was probably meant for stationery, with its four unglazed drawers roughly corked to take pins. At this point I discarded all the chewed-up remains of butterflies, moths and other large insects, most of which had been destroyed by Anthrenus museum beetles. The accompanying insect catalogue, blue biro variously annotated in red or green, written in my best schoolboy hand, dates from this time.
For some reason I numbered a queen white-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) from 1968 as specimen number#1. But my list also clearly states that specimen 1A was earlier; it was a large shiny black weevil, Liparus coronatus, found in Friston Forest on 11#June 1967. That beetle, quite a scarce south-eastern species, still sits in one of my weevil store boxes today.
Despite being ‘first’ in that catalogue list, beetles were just one of the many insect groups I collected at the time. These were mainly pretty species, things like water-boatmen (Notonecta glauca), droneflies (Eristalis tenax), violet ground beetle (Carabus violaceus), privet hawkmoth (Sphinx ligustri) and great green bush-cricket (Tettigonia viridissima). I was obviously very keen on froghoppers (the black-and-red Cercopis vulnerata), lacewings (Osmylus fulvicephalus), sawflies (Tenthredinidae) and deer-flies (Chrysops). These were all, though, relatively large things that could be pinned directly quite easily; I had not yet started to look at the bountiful small fry at the bottom of the sweep net.
It was, however, to small beetles that I finally turned my attention, and this was a direct result of meeting two other entomologists – Peter Hodge and Roger Dumbrell. Dad met Peter first, while out walking in Abbot’s Wood, near Hailsham, on Sunday, 21#February 1971. Peter, as all good entomologists would, remembers the event in the context of one specific insect. He’d been peeling bark off of some dead hornbeams, which had been sprayed to kill them, to make way for a conifer plantation. He’d just seen Trypodendron domesticum, a distinctive but relatively local beetle despite its commonplace, domestic-sounding name, but it had dropped to the ground and he’d lost it. Then up rolls my dad, net in hand, and they strike up a conversation.
Peter was a telephone engineer, looking after a whole series of small rural telephone exchanges and remote lines through the Sussex countryside. His work took him across the rich, varied landscape between Uckfield and Mayfield, Buxted and East Hoathley; they could have been villages taken straight from a Rupert Bear annual. Peter was the family man, with a wife and two sons, who held down a full-time job, lived in a modern three-bedroom house in middle-class Ringmer, and drove a dark green Mark#I Ford Escort estate (he still does). Roger, on the other hand, was ‘a bit of a character’. The son of a Wilmington farmer, he had a sometime live-in lover who wore leather miniskirts and drove a white Triumph Spitfire; he lived in a tiny, slightly run-down cottage in Milton Street up the road from the farm, didn’t seem to have a job of any kind, wore suede Chelsea boots, and roared about on a large racing-style Kawasaki motorbike, or occasionally in a bright orange Bond Bug. It was Roger’s boots, rather than his leather biker jacket or his slicked-back hair, that, as a 13- or 14-year-old, I first noticed. One was braced with steel struts, like a riding spur, up the ankle, and had a heavy metal spring attached near the toe, and he walked with a pronounced limp; this was the result of a serious bike crash a few years earlier.
These two improbable friends became my coleopterological mentors. They would sometimes come over to our house of an evening, where they’d chat insects, plants and landscape with my father, as I sat curious and fascinated, and my mum brought in tea and biscuits. Sometimes, Dad and I would go over to Roger’s, where the talk would concentrate on books and beetles. Even with no visible means of income, Roger had an enviable library of antique books; it was here that I first saw copies of the Reverend Canon W.#W. Fowler’s wonderful six-volume British Coleoptera (1887–91, 1913), the large paper edition with the 200 hand-coloured engraved plates. Roger also had exquisite tomes by Edward Donovan, John Curtis, Georg Panzer, James Stephens, Carl Calwer and Edmund Reitter, seminal British and European entomologists whose books remain landmarks of beetle study (see Chapter#11).
But it was Roger’s beetle collection that had the greatest effect on my teenage mind. It was beautiful. Albeit rather chaotically organised, in various ill-matched store boxes rather than a fancy cabinet, each beetle, from the brashly large to the eye-strainingly tiny, was immaculately glued onto a small, neat rectangle of card, pinned low, and with accompanying caption-like name labels written in a sub-microscopic spidery hand. Row upon row, bank upon bank of them filled the store boxes to bursting. I was immediately struck by the painstakingly accurate way that every single insect had its legs and antennae set at the same angles, just like the specimens portrayed in Roger’s beetle books. The neatly arrayed rows were all precisely aligned, and the whole effect was of regimented exactitude; quite the opposite of his somewhat erratic lifestyle.
Roger had been collecting beetles for several years, and was already quite an expert – self-taught, of course – having progressed from collecting birds’ eggs, when this was a more or less acceptable country pursuit, in the 1960s. Peter had been mostly studying moths, but had started beetles at Roger’s instigation, and now it was my turn; I made a conscious decision to start beetling.
When my family moved to Newhaven from south London in 1965, we’d soon settled into a routine of family outings at the weekends, walking over the South Downs, or taking buses and trains to localities slightly further afield. These trips gradually morphed into just me and Dad, traipsing the byways of Sussex, trespassing in woodland estates, or meandering across the grazing meadows of the river floodplains and sheep fields of the rolling downs. I started to pick up more beetles, among the continuing flies, bugs, bees and wasps. And each time Peter and Roger popped in for a chat, they’d give me some identification pointers.
Mostly I was finding common things; ground beetles, longhorns and leaf beetles were firm favourites. Dad had picked up a vintage (c.1900) black-and-chrome binocular microscope, a Greenough model by W.#Watson and Sons, but I was still mainly using a hand lens to try to work through the few Victorian identification keys he owned.
Another entomologist who flitted in and out of our lives was Laurie Christie (1929–2001). Dad knew Laurie from London days, perhaps through the London Natural History Society, in which my father had been active before the move to Newhaven, or it might have been the Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society, or perhaps some other, more informal group. Laurie must have been an entomologist in the field sense, but I really only knew him as a dealer in insect books and equipment. It was from him I’d got my £10 starter kit cabinet, and some of my books. He visited us occasionally, and we’d head off somewhere for a stroll in the countryside, armed with insect nets. Laurie had an immense wealth of anecdote, about insects and insect-hunters, and an easy storyteller’s charm when relating them. He seemed to know everyone, or at least know something about everyone. Even I was scandalised by his account of the late A.#M. Massee reputedly turning over a dead tramp to look for carrion beetles before reporting the body to the police. I could never tell whether it was Laurie’s smirking, animated eyebrows or the later discovery that Massee was a notorious raconteur that suggested the tale had been rather embroidered in the telling over the years.
On one occasion Laurie came to Newhaven to go beetle hunting on the undercliff. At the time, as far as I was concerned, it was just a discoloured chalk backdrop to the beach we’d sometimes visit for paddling and sandcastling in the summer, but it must have been visited by entomologists at some point in the not-too-distant past, because Laurie was on a mission to look for a particularly rare beetle that had once been found there. Polistichus connexus is a small flat ground beetle, black and brown, but attractively striped, and erratically located near the coast under little-understood habitat requirements. We enthusiastically set about demolishing a square metre of the fallen sand and clay at the foot of the white chalk, and sure enough, there they were. Who’d have thought! This was a concept new to me – that you could actually go off hunting for a particular creature, in a particular place, and damn well find it.
In my mid-teenage years, I started to make regular weekend forays out with Peter and Roger. We’d either head off to a particularly promising locality, like the chalk downs behind my house, or the sand dunes at Camber, the rapidly disappearing Crumbles foreshore at Eastbourne, or perhaps the ancient Wealden broadleaved woodlands at Plashett, Vert or Abbot’s woods. Although we’d also be looking to see whatever there was about, very often there would be a target species in our minds. This might be some extreme rarity, once recorded in an obscure book or Victorian entomological journal and not seen for a century; or it might be something that someone else had found elsewhere in the country recently, so we’d thought we’d try our local example of that particular habitat, to see if we could turn it up too. Roger was always finding reference to weird and wonderful things in his old books, and convinced that relic colonies ought still to exist, we would set off on bizarre quests, chancing our luck, as it were.
The ‘other’ glow-worm, Phosphaenus hemipterus, was first found in Britain in the Lewes garden of Miss Catherine C. Hopley, at 6#Albion Street, in May 1868, and occurred nearby in 1883. Its sporadic appearance since – odd singletons found wandering across bare soil in a few far-flung southern England localities – made this an exotic rarity about which so little was known as to make it almost mythical. The Lewes finds had been made only 90 years before, we reasoned, so off we set in search of it. Private Lewes gardens are difficult to study, hidden as they are behind high flint-stone walls, but we scoured the grounds of St Anne’s Church, off up the High Street, trying not to look too much like grave robbers. We looked suspicious enough, though, grubbing among the untidy grass tussocks that tufted hard up against the gravestones. Needless to say, we did not find Phosphaenus; the once nutrient-poor chalk soil where wildflowers and wild beetles abound tends to become overly fertilised through the centuries by the interment of many hundreds or thousands of protein-rich human bodies, so the herbage was all rather rank and heavy.
On another ill-fated outing we tried to find any semblance of what would have been the original undercliff at Brighton, looking for rare ground beetles: Chlaenius schrankii (now C. nitidulus) was in the forefront of Roger’s mind, but Cymindis axillaris, Drypta dentataand Brachinus sclopeta were also names we bandied about. Unfortunately, all we found was the concrete walkway along the bottom of the chalk cliffs, and nothing that could be considered interesting carabid habitat. Back on the top of the cliffs, near Roedean, we did manage to find two colour forms of the rather scarce dung beetle Aphodius foetidus (A.#scybalarius as it was to us then), and also Rhodaphodius foetens in a large horse dropping. Ah, dunging, that was another shared delight.
On several occasions we trekked over to Arundel Park in West Sussex. The personal deer park of the Dukes of Norfolk, it was partially open to the public, partially very private. At that time there was limited public access via a discretionary footpath down the lodge house at Whiteways, and we would troop in here to start picking apart some of the mouldering old beech logs and stumps on the way down to the River Arun in the valley below. The place was a truly wonderful ancient parkland; it was here that I saw my first ever live stag beetle (Lucanus cervus), down at the Swanbourne Lake end of the park when on a family holiday aged about five, and my second, with Peter and Roger. The last proper gamekeeper’s gibbet I ever saw was in the middle of the park in the mid-1970s; strung out along a 50-metre stretch of barbed-wire fence were a dozen foxes and badgers, and scores of crows, magpies and other assorted carrion. Memory fades, but there could well have been moles by the dozen, stoats and weasels, too, and maybe even the odd bird of prey. These were very different times. Every corpse needed to be bashed over a beating tray to discover endless dermestids, histerids and staphylinids. Down in the old woods we also found the brilliant crimson and black form of the obviously named click beetle Ampedus cinnabarinus, and the strange rotten-bark-dwelling ‘dung’ beetle Saprosites mendax in its only known locality outside New Zealand. Roger, especially, had a never-ending list of rare species to find, mostly carabids, but on one particular day (18#June 1976) in Arundel, he was going on about a pretty, small, domed red-and-black fungus beetle called Tritoma (formerly Cyrtotriplax) bipustulata. I can’t quite remember what brought this particular species up, but Roger paused in his stride, looked down at a small fungoid stump protruding from the rough grass, gave it a kick and said something along the lines of: ‘Now that’s exactly the place to find Cyrtotriplax’. He squatted down and we watched him tease back the fungoid bark where it was infused with the erupting white blob of a slime-mould fruiting body. ‘There’s one!’ he suddenly exclaimed, much to Peter’s and my amused surprise. And sure enough, there they were, several of them huddled in the dark grey spore mass. I’m pretty certain Roger was equally surprised that day, but he hid it well in his slightly smug assuredness.
In the field, Roger always carried a large bowie knife in a sheath at his belt, and it was with this that he prised off the fungus. He’d also use it to rip open rotten logs, bash a gamekeeper’s gibbet or dissect cowpats. Size being all, my small penknife felt rather insignificant and flimsy, and although I could turn over and dismember a sheep dropping, I could not peel back the thick bark of a hoary old oak stump or deliver much of a blow to a dead corvid. I aspired to have a similar blade and eventually bought one from a camping shop in Brighton. It served me very well, as long as I remembered to wipe it clean carefully before I cut up the apple in my packed lunch. It was once confiscated from my hand luggage at Gatwick, but only so it could be bagged up and checked into the hold. Airport security measures were slightly different in 1992, although I got some odd looks when I retrieved it from the baggage carousel in Sri Lanka. It’s still around somewhere, but since most of my current entomological work is in urban brownfield sites, I’m loth to disport it too openly in public in case someone gets the wrong idea. I mainly use a strong, narrow garden trowel now instead; it’s slightly less threatening but still good for digging in dung and levering off bark. Mind you, when I was out with avid coleopterist John Owen and his wife Doreen a few years ago, they both pulled out large, matching bone-handled hunting knives to attack the base of an old poplar tree. And didn’t Howard Mendel (then at London’s Natural History Museum) once wield a large ice pick against ancient oak trees in Windsor Great Park? At the time it all seemed fairly anodyne; I’m guessing that the mild eccentricity engendered by entomologists had already started to settle into my psyche. Thinking back now, Peter, Roger and I probably cut slightly odd poacher-like figures as we scruffily marauded our way, digging and dunging, around the Sussex countryside. At least my father always wore a jacket and tie when he went trespassing.
Back in the study, though, or at least the book-strewn living room, we were every bit the gentlemen scholars – academic, studious and good-naturedly argumentative. The books that Peter and Roger used for identification, and from which they took ideas for beetle hunts, were mostly nineteenth- or early-twentieth-century tomes: Stephens’ Mandibulata (1828–32), Fowler’s British Coleoptera (1887–91, 1913), and Joy’s Practical Handbook (1932), together with the bottomless miscellany that comprised the yearly volumes of the Entomologist’s Annual (1855–74) and Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine (the EMM, from 1864 onwards). These were prizes well outside the orbit of a schoolboy’s finances, but I pored over them whenever Dad and I went to Roger’s. Whether it was from the archaic linguistic nuances of J.#R.#R. Tolkien and H.#P. Lovecraft (two of my then favourite authors), or a genuine shared interest with the long-dead entomologists, I found these old books enthralling and tantalising. I still do. This was more than nostalgia for a time I never knew; it was a real feeling of connectedness to those only slightly earlier generations of beetlers. Joy’s book, in particular, was still regarded as the mainstay of the coleopterist, covering, as it did, the entire British beetle fauna in concise and simple terms. Though nearly 90 years old, Fowler’s six volumes contained the most up-to-date full-length descriptions available for most species, and whenever Joy’s sometimes vague distinctions between species became too subtle to grasp, we knew we could resort to the older work for clarity and illumination.
Peter and Roger both had these books, and a fair few volumes of the EMM between them, and whenever the talk turned to rare species, one or other of them would know of some long-distant anecdote about its capture many decades, or indeed a century, before. So the talk would turn to improbable beasts like Bembidion sturmi (now octomaculatum), last recorded in the 1870s; Callistus lunatus, always ‘very local, but taken in some numbers where it occurs’, yet invisible since a last straggler on the north Kent Downs in the 1950s; Diachromus germanus, found by Fowler’s cronies running on the paths of nearby St Leonards and Hastings; and Copris lunaris, Britain’s own nearly sacred scarab, and once found at Shoreham, just along the South Downs behind Brighton. Where were these fine creatures now? Why could we not find them? It’s funny how things turn out; far-fetched and fabulous though they seemed at the time, some of these rarities would eventually cross our paths. In the meantime, though, almost everything was new to me, and I continued to meet new people too.
In the early 1970s, I found myself at the potential forefront of coleopterological research. As a 16-year-old schoolboy on a school trip to London’s Natural History Museum to study some basic ecological techniques for biology A#level, I admitted an interest in beetles to the project coordinator. I was promptly introduced to two coleopterists: her husband Bob Pope, then Keeper of Entomology, and his colleague Peter Hammond. They gave me a behind-the-scenes tour of the beetle collections and quizzed me about my own interests. Keen to impress, I rattled off some of what I thought were the most interesting things I had seen and found, often in company with Roger and Peter.
One of these was the bombardier beetle Brachinus crepitans, a common enough denizen of the undercliffs at Newhaven, and frequent enough to be ignored while we were digging out other carabids and ground-dwelling weevils. A short while later, I received a telephone call at my parents’ house; two of the Natural History Museum coleopterists wanted to visit Newhaven to look for the semi-parasitoid Brachinus and any possible host beetles. Peter Hammond and Martin Brendell arrived, and we spend several hours scouring the undercliffs at Newhaven in search of bombardier beetles and their possible hosts. We found the beetles, but in the end nothing came of the search for host species.
It did not end there though. A few months later I received another call from Peter Hammond. He had been asked to supply some bombardier beetles for a television documentary; could I send him some specimens? I caught the bus into Newhaven and walked down to the shore. I soon collected half a dozen beetles, which I packed into a Tupperware box with lots of tissue paper for them to climb on and a few leaves so they did not desiccate. I sent these up to London on the British Rail Red Star parcel system, to be collected by Hammond later that same day at London Victoria.
For several weeks I heard nothing, but then, when I had all but forgotten, out of the blue I received a letter of thanks and a cheque for £25, probably ten times my weekly paper-round money. This was my first professional entomological commission.
My growing interest in beetles reached a new level at the Amateur Entomologists’ Society annual exhibition in October 1975. As Dad and I breezed over to Laurie Christie’s stall, he waved us close and slyly drew out two large black books from under the counter – the unmistakable binding of Joy’s Practical Handbook of British Beetles. They could be mine, for a mere £30. This was then a princely sum for a 17-year-old, but I had been assiduously saving £1 a week from my paper round and there was no discussion. Dad handed over the crisp notes on the day, and I would make the necessary withdrawal from my Post Office savings account the next week to pay him back.
Although worth every penny, the books were in a bit of a state. The text volume was falling apart through use. It was a big book – 622 pages of heavy crown quarto paper – in a standard, rather flimsy cloth case, and its previous owner had worn it ragged. That owner was F.#D. (Freddie) Buck. I never knew him, but he was a past president of the British Entomological and Natural History Society, and former long-term editor of the society’s journal, roles I would later proudly follow. He was a contemporary of Norman Joy, and had written several papers on beetles, including a slim volume on some of the Heteromera in the Royal Entomological Society’s identification handbook series. He had died in March that year, and Laurie had acquired at least some of his library. Not only had Buck obviously used the book every day of its life; he had heavily annotated it. Every time a new beetle was found in Britain, Buck had inserted it into Joy’s keys in a small, neat, spidery hand. He had numbered every species in line with the trend at the time, according to Hudson-Beare’s 1930 checklist, and he had scribbled notes across all margins whenever a revision of family, genus or species group was published. Twenty years later, Peter and I would make full use of Mr Buck’s marginal notes to produce our own book of New British Beetles: Species Not in Joy’s Practical Handbook (1995).
In the meantime, I could not use the book at all until it was repaired. Luckily, another of Roger’s skills was in repairing and rebinding old books. He had taken to making his own marbled papers, and had made very passable jobs of several of his own books, now luxuriating in half-leather with raised bands, blind tooling and gilt lettering. He repaired my volume#1, for a small fee, and it is as sound today as it ever was. It still has a tiny yellow card, smaller than a piece of confetti, pasted inside the back cover, bearing in microscopic inked letters ‘Bound R.#Dumbrell Oct. 1975’.
Within a few years I had acquired a Fowler – the small paper edition, without the 200 hand-coloured plates, but having the main advantage of being significantly cheaper, and still the most complete book on British beetles ever written. Then came odd volumes of EMM, the occasional French or German book on some obscure group or other, all the Royal Entomological Society handbooks I could get my hands on, and a full, but ill-matched, set of the Entomologist’s Annual. I became more confident in my own identifications, and although I still kept in contact with Peter Hodge, Roger’s interest in insects was on the wane. When I last saw him, in 1982 or 1983 I think, he was trolling around the antique shops in Brighton, pursuing his latest infatuation, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century wine bottles. He eventually wrote a well-received book on them (Dumbrell, 1983), and it’s still quoted by auctioneers and dealers today. He sold all, or most, of his insect books – I have a few of them – and he handed over his specimens and catalogues to Peter, who still has many of them; others were passed to the Booth Museum in Brighton. Roger died in another motorcycle crash on 24#July 1998, aged just 51, but by then I had not been in touch for many years and only heard about it sometime later. It’s a real shame that he was not more widely known, for he was a truly passionate and knowledgeable coleopterist, and an expert field naturalist.
Just as Roger’s beetle interest started to dwindle, another entomologist popped up to join our motley crew. In 1977, Peter turned up at Roger’s house in Milton Street to discover that two entomologists had recently called round to introduce themselves – ‘a young chap and an old boy’ according to Roger. David Porter (1940–2003) was the more senior member of the pair, head of biology at Hailsham Comprehensive School. The young ’un was Ian Waters, one of David’s A-level students from his previous school in Stevenage, where he had run a very popular natural history club. Apparently, they’d been put onto Roger by Brighton bookseller Colin Page, who specialised in natural history books. David had slightly unruly, flyaway hair, mostly held in place under a floppy fisherman’s hat, along with a soft Dorset burr and the energy of an excited schoolboy. His house, set in a slightly naturalistic (wild!) garden, became another regular meeting place to pore over books and specimens, and plan beetling jaunts.
It wasn’t long before we were roving the Sussex countryside again, this time in David’s disreputable Morris Traveller. On one notable occasion, something had snapped in the driver’s door, and every time David took a sharp left corner the door flew open, causing more than some minor danger to passing motorcyclists. There were several moments of mild panic as he grappled with steering wheel and door handle to bring the vehicle back under control. On a more distant trip, to Wicken Fen in 1983, in search of one of the reed beetles Donacia crassipes (which we found) and the brilliant metallic longhorn, the musk beetle, Aromia moschata (which we didn’t), the temperamental petrol gauge suddenly registered empty and, wondering if we could make it to the next service station, David turned off the engine and freewheeled every time there was a downhill stretch on the M11. He seemed to have a procession of these slightly antiquated half-timbered cars, mostly in bits in the garden, which he gradually cannibalised for spares. At least one of them, half-buried in long tussocky grass, had multicoloured bracket fungi sprouting from the mouldering rear-door woodwork.
David had a powerful and infectious enthusiasm, and was as quick to jump at the clarion call of the hunt as anyone. Peering through a less than optically perfect hand lens, we convinced ourselves that one of his specimens was the very rare dung beetle Aphodius subterraneus, not seen for the last half-century – from just up the road? So off we set to examine the new horse droppings in the field. Technically, we may have been trespassing, although one of our old Ordnance Survey maps could be read as indicating a footpath across part of the field. Our dropping-turning behaviour soon drew attention, and we were approached by the slightly irate stable owners, whom David engaged in good-natured chat, perfectly repurposing the rabble-calming banter of the experienced secondary-school teacher. Although appreciating our polite and non-threatening demeanour, they were still obviously pleased when we concluded the area was subterraneus-free and departed. Actually, with another look down the eyepiece, it was a large and dark specimen of the common Aphodius haemorrhoidalis after all. Oh well. David’s gentle sense of humour is precisely summed up in the picture accompanying his obituary, as he posed, grinning, with net and beating tray, beside the road sign indicating three-quarters of a mile to the Norfolk village of Old Beetley. I can just imagine him driving past, seeing the sign and slamming on the brakes to park half in a ditch, so that the photo opportunity would not be missed.
I still regularly see Peter, now one of Britain’s foremost beetle experts, and he continues guiding me on some of those problem identifications, and being generally helpful and inspiring. And it’s remarkable how many of those pie-in-the-sky wish-list beetles have crawled out of the woodwork, or the grass, or wherever, right in front of us. When I found Bembidion octomaculatum in June 1992, I could still picture Roger in my mind’s eye, commenting on it as we looked at its congener Bembidion doris, after one or other of us found it in the Ouse floodplain meadows. Drypta dentata turned up, and although I never got to see it, I know Peter found it at Whitecliff Bay in the Isle of Wight. Brachinus sclopeta was recorded from nearby Beachy Head in 1928; a specimen so labelled turned up in the National Museums of Wales in 1985, but unlike the ‘common’ bombardier beetle, Brachinus crepitans, which was found regularly on the Newhaven foreshore, it never turned up again in Sussex. But I later found it on a brownfield site on the River Thames. I peeled back a square of roofing felt left out as a refuge by ecologists counting reptiles, and there it was, unmistakable, delicate, lithe, as pretty as the pictures in Stephens and Fowler, and still mythically rare. I later described this, for the benefit of birdwatchers, as my avocet moment, when they were about the prettiest and rarest birds in Britain. It has subsequently turned up in other localities nearby.
Neither of us ever found Copris lunaris under a juicy cowpat, but in 1995 Peter was given a genuine Sussex specimen. It came from a glass-topped case of various insects accumulated by a local naturalist H.#L. Gray and, on his death, given by his widow to Lancing College in West Sussex. The tantalising hand-written data label stated ‘Lancing Ring, 10.9.60’, and Peter’s first thought was that this might refer to 1860, about when this species was known from nearby Shoreham (as recorded by Fowler). Luckily, the beetle had been mounted on the back of card cut from some printed material; from the typography, and other beetle mounts in the collection, it could be dated, with absolute certainty, directly to 1960. This stands as the last reported British record of this magnificent creature. We had been kicking around these exact same chalk downs a decade and a half later, picking open cowpats and horse droppings with sheath knives, garden trowels and our bare hands, but never saw it. We tried our darnedest though. Aphodius subterraneus continues to elude us, but every year I sharpen my dunging trowel and set off enthusiastically into the grazing meadows. It’ll just be a matter of time, I’m sure. Callistus lunatusnever turned up either. But it’s such a pretty and obvious beast that I just know it will one day, probably on some unprepossessing derelict brownfield site. And every day I expect some neighbour or other to tweet me a ‘what’s this?’ picture, for it to be nothing other than that elusive glow-worm Phosphaenus hemipterus. Just you wait.