Friday, 7 November 2014


Today, I fear, we are into zoology and in an area that I know is not one of your favourites: beetles.
It really has been an incredible year weather-wise. All our tubs and borders had 'gone over' and Marcia had given most of the plants in them a haircut. Then, suddenly, they were all in flower again - and the sun was shining - so here are a few November photographs from the garden.
When I was a boy, I suppose I was about fourteen at the time, I convinced myself that I was going to become a beetle expert and so I asked people for books on beetles when they wanted to know what I had in mind for my birthday. This was the first time I had expressed an interest in insects of any sort and so I received An Insect Book for the Pocket by Edmund Sanders which I though was rather good as I already had A Bird Book for the Pocket by the same author. Indeed, I have them still – the latter a poor over-used and battered edition whilst the former could well be described as “used but in excellent condition”.

The reason is simple: the official list of British Birds (which is maintained by the British Trust for Ornithology) has something in the order of 600 species (the figure changes as the list is kept up to date) and Sanders limited his collection to the more common of these. This degree of complexity fell within my abilities (only just but . . .).

The companion on insects however was a very different kettle of fish (not, perhaps, the happiest of phrases to choose in this context). As Sanders says in the Preface, ‘The “Books for the Pocket” hitherto issued in this series aim at describing all species as are of reasonably common occurrence in Britain. This meant about 200 birds, 50 beasts, 70 butterflies and 850 flowers. The insects present a totally different problem and nothing of the sort can be attempted’. An understatement if ever there was one. I was soon to learn that there are over 22,000 insect species living here of which at least 2,000 are beetles.

Clearly I was intended a bird watcher and not a bug hunter. Even so, I was tempted to buy a copy of Beetles in Colour by Leif Lyneborg when it was published as a part of the Blandford Colour Species. Here we are at least in the world of the possible as it restricts itself to the most common 475 species: possible is not the same as simple and I remain almost entirely ignorant when it comes to beetles (despite the fact that if I happen across one when ‘going equipped’ I am unable to resist the temptation to take its photograph).
Standing in the corner of the porch is my old hiking stick which has a leather wrist strop as you can see. Flying all around and sitting in ones and twos all over the house were the Harlequins but this little collection caught my eye and this picture shows how different they can look.
All this is simply because we here, on the Dartington Trust estate, were engulfed in huge numbers of beetles last week as they turned from pupae to adults. This lot are not all that welcome: they are the notorious Harlequin Ladybird (because their colouring is very varied) or, more properly, Harmonia axridis. In the US they are also known as the Halloween Lady or the Multi-coloured Asian Lady Beetle. Their larva are the ones that do most of the damage to other insects since they are rapacious carnivores who will eat anything – including both the larva and adults of their own species – not that their parents are much better.

Since they spend about a week as a pupa, I was surprised to see one of the larva walking down the stick. He (or could it be a she?) is out of focus - sorry about that - but was hurrying away and I only managed to get the one shot.
This is one of those examples of man interfering in nature: they were imported into the US from Asia in order to control aphids (especially on soya). As it happened the first introductions failed to become established but then the population exploded: these ladybirds have now colonised most of the globe which, if we are honest, they would no doubt have achieved without any direct help from us. With so much international trade and so many people travelling from one country to another it was bound to happen one day. Still, they don’t do much for our native ladybirds and other insects: gardeners in particular are always looking for ways of controlling them and so are housewives as they have a habit of hibernating in soft furnishings and curtains in particular. Me? No, I just take pictures of them.

The dogs are Eddie and Teddie. Like many spaniels who have been brought up properly, they proved to be incredibly obedient, alert and totally at one with the boss. Having said that I suspect they are as mad as teeth. I say that because all spaniels are as mad as teeth although some (Springers for example) are madder than others (such as Clumbers).