Beetles
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But no pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles. (…) I will give a proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as well as the third one. (Charles Darwin)
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Collector's mania

"Never in history have a group of people engaged in a broader range of creditable activities for which they were not in any sense actually employed." (Bill Bryson)

From the 18th to well into the 19th century most members of the Anglican country clergy live a pleasant carefree life. They are well paid and have little or nothing to do. Many do not even bother to write their own weekly sermons, but simply read one out of a standard sermon collection. Money and time to spare: Apparently, that is all it takes to raise the slumbering hunter-gatherer in all of us. Stamps, lighters, sauce boats, dildos, champagne capsules, coffee grinders, beer mats, ballpoints, teddy bears, obituary cards, cut-throat razors, miniature liquor bottles, fireman’s helmets, marbles, cuff links, key rings: you name it and there's always someone who collects it. In Darwin's time, however, trinkets and curiosities worth collecting are hard to come by, even for the relatively well-to-do vicars and rectors. Mass production of junk and so-called collectibles is in its infancy. Jumble sales are rare and far apart, especially in the country. To satisfy their collector's heart, many British parsons go hunting in nature and start the most diverse mineral, floral and faunal collections. Collecting beetles is all the rage. The British Isles have over four thousand species of beetles and most of them are easy to prepare and preserve. Ardent collectors are willing to pay handsome money for exceptionally beautiful and/or rare specimens. Exotic species from every corner of the British Empire are in high demand. Trade in exotic beetles, butterflies and other creatures is so profitable that many adventurers manage to make a living out of it. The best-known professional collector is probably
Alfred Russel Wallace. In 1858, recovering from an illness on the Indonesian island of Ternate, he writes the essay On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type and guilelessly sends it to Darwin, who is devastated. The essay appears to be nothing less than a summary of his as yet unpublished and undisclosed theory on the evolution of species by natural selection.


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Curious nose

"It seems therefore that a taste for collecting beetles is some indication of future success in life!" (Charles Darwin)

Darwin narrowly escapes joining the army of Anglican country clergy that fill their days with activities that have little or nothing to do with religion or pastoral care. From childhood on he is a keen collector. While supposedly studying medicine at the university of Edinburgh, he wields the scalpel far less than his shotgun. His father, a successful physician himself, finally sends him to Cambridge to become a clergyman in the Church of England. Charles squanders his time on hunting, horse riding, collecting beetles and diligent lounging around. The perfect preparation, in short, for the joys of clerical life on the eve of the Victorian era. Nevertheless, his acuteness and unbridled interest in botany, entomology and geology stand out. When John Stevens Henslow, one of his mentors and a clergyman himself, learns that captain Robert FitzRoy is looking for a well-to-do and well-educated young man to keep him company on board HMS Beagle, he recommends Darwin. They are introduced on 11 September 1831. FitzRoy, a captain at barely 26, has his doubts. He is convinced that facial features betray a man's character and doesn't like the shape of Darwin's nose. "But I think he was afterwards well-satisfied that my nose had spoken falsely", Darwin later writes in his autobiography. Anyway, if Darwin had not been such an ardent beetle collector and stuck his curious nose more in books on the classics and theology, it seems highly improbable that his name would have become inextricably bound up with one of the most brilliant insights ever. Perhaps in old age Darwin would have become a confirmed Wallaceist and, today, we would have called the modern synthesis neo-Wallaceism.
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An inordinate fondness

When theologians asked John Burdon Sanderson Haldane, a British geneticist, evolutionary biologist and Marxist, what the study of creation reveals about the nature of its Creator, he allegedly answered: "An inordinate fondness for stars and beetles." The story seems too good to be true, but friends of Haldane, who died in 1964, insist it was one of his favourite one-liners. The fact is that most animals are insects and that most insects are beetles. Nobody knows even approximately how many species of beetles there are, but their number undoubtedly by far exceeds the some 350,000 species known to science today. Estimates vary from half a million to over eight million species. Between 1 January 2000 and 31 December 2009 – the first decade of the third millennium, at least for those that celebrated the turn of the century on New Year's Day 2000 – according to the International Institute for Species Exploration, no less than 176,311 new species of animals, plants, fungi and bacteria have been scientifically described. Over half of them (88,598 or 50.3%) belong to the class of insects and almost a fifth (32,276 or 18.3%) to the order of beetles. Shake just about any tree in a tropical rainforest and odds are you end up with at least one unknown beetle. Even the beetle collections in our natural history museums hold thousands of anonymous species that have never been studied, many of which by now may very well be extinct.


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Curiouser and curiouser!

"My own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose." (J. B. S. Haldane)

"It is a myth that scientists break out champagne when a new species is discovered. Our museums are glutted with new species. We don't have time to describe more than a small fraction of those pouring in each year." (Edward O. Wilson)

Slaves and servants often draw some pride from the accomplishments, power, standing, wealth or success of their more or less benevolent masters. But the more I read and learn about quantum physics, string theories or parallel worlds, the more I am convinced that the brain I am sometimes so proud of is not capable of plumbing the depths of the universe (or multiverse?). If I could swap my brain with that of Stephen Hawking or another physics genius, I'd do it straight away. Perhaps not forever and a day, because my poor brain does have its own merits and one can happen upon far worse bosses. But to get inside the head of an exceptionally gifted astrophysicist for one day or even just one hour and look at the world through his or her eyes: That's an opportunity I'd grab with both hands. Nevertheless, I suspect Haldane is right and that the universe is indeed queerer than even Hawking's superior brain can imagine. My entire life, I've felt like some kind of Alice in Wonderland and my adventures in the garden at 37 Heuvelstraat are enlivened with the weirdest creatures and their even weirder behaviour. Curiouser and curiouser! According to American biologist Edward O. Wilson, we have a better idea of the number of stars in our Milky Way and even of the number of elementary particles in the entire universe, than we do of the biodiversity on our home planet. That may very well be the case. By the end of September 2012, as I write this introduction, an unmanned vehicle has been probing Mars for two months, searching for traces of life. It took the Mars Science Laboratory, better known as Curiosity, over eight months to reach the red planet, where it should remain active for many years. The total cost of the mission is estimated at some 2.6 billion USD. That's a lot of money, but peanuts compared to the 711 billion dollars in military expenditures of the United States in 2011 or the more than 1.7 trillion dollars the world invests that year in cannon fodder and arms. Neither does it come close to the around 50 billion dollars in foreign aid that is yearly pumped into Africa where, apparently, most of it swiftly disappears into a bottomless pit. To me, therefore, the relatively limited cost of Curiosity seems anything but a good argument against this type of space mission. All the same, Curiosity does remind me of tourists that visit every museum in a foreign city but have never seen the inside of a single one in their home town. Wouldn't it be better to invest a lot more in the inventory and conservation of Earth's biodiversity and somewhat less in our quest for extraterrestrial life? If Curiosity finds traces on Mars of life that vanished millions of years ago, the champagne corks will be popping. The media will roll out the heavy artillery and bombard us with hype until we are all convinced that the discovery truly is big news. After all, if life arose and evolved on at least two planets in our own solar system, it more than likely did and does so on billions of other planets revolving around billions of other stars in billions of other galaxies. Great, but it doesn't exactly blow me away. It is, as far as I'm concerned, only to be expected.


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Believing is seeing

"Mars, therefore, is not only uninhabited by intelligent beings such as Mr. Lowell postulates, but is absolutely UNINHABITABLE." (Alfred Russel Wallace)

Six years prior to his death in 1913, Wallace publishes
Is Mars Habitable?, one of his last and less-known works. The book demolishes a then popular theory developed by American astronomer Percival Lowell. He is convinced that Mars is inhabited by beings with an advanced technology. Scrutinizing the Martian surface through his telescope, Lowell observes a network of gigantic, dead straight canals and oases. In his opinion, they are the work of a superior but struggling civilization that taps water from the polar caps to counter the desertification of the planet. The illustration to the right shows one of his startling maps of the irrigation system. In the photograph beneath it, however, made in 2003 by the Hubble space telescope, not a single canal is visible. Are Lowell's maps forged? Not really, because many contemporary astronomers also observe linear structures on Mars, albeit in far less detail. Wallace does not doubt their existence either. But since according to him and most scientists of the time the Martian climate probably rules out life and certainly that of complex organisms, there has to be a natural explanation for them. Today we know that they are an optical illusion and that Lowell's maps are a classic example of how a theory or conviction can influence and steer our observations. Believing is seeing. But why does Wallace of all people feel called upon to refute Lowell's theory? After all, he is anything but an authority in this field. But he is not a dyed-in-the-wool Darwinist either. To the annoyance of Darwin, he assigns a special status to humans. Homo sapiens is not like any other species. Wallace is convinced that humans are more than the product of an entirely natural evolutionary process. Spellbound by Spiritualism, a creed that is all the rage in the Victorian era, he becomes convinced that our extraordinary mental powers must have a supernatural origin. All stuff and nonsense, according to Darwin, but the séances Wallace attends strengthen him in his belief. He ends up considering the human mind as the ultimate goal of the universe. Of course, this teleological anthropocentrism is incongruous with the existence of a superior civilization on Mars or any other planet but Earth. Lowell believes in little green men and sees ghosts. Wallace sees ghosts and does not believe in little green men.


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A shot in the dark

"A man possesses vanity to the degree that he lacks understanding." (Friedrich Nietzsche)

One of the very first science fiction stories where humans come face to face with extraterrestrials is
Micromégas, a philosophical tale by Voltaire, first published in 1752. Micromégas is a colossal inhabitant of a gigantic planet in the Sirius system and has over a thousand different senses. Accompanied by a friend from Saturn, a dwarf in his eyes, he lands on a very small planet. At first it looks uninhabited, but then they discover a minuscule vessel full of surprisingly intelligent microbes that call themselves humans. When one of those microbes, a theologian at the Sorbonne, proclaims in a peeping voice that the Summa of Thomas Aquinas proves that the entire universe was created solely for the purpose of Man, both space travellers roar with laughter. Wouldn't you? Even though they are somewhat taken aback and repelled by the arrogance and vanity of some earthlings, they are still impressed by their knowledge and mental powers. As a farewell gift, Micromégas swiftly writes a book that explains how the universe works. When the humans finally open it, however, all the pages appear to be blank. Their five senses are simply not sufficient to read the book. Two centuries before Haldane, Voltaire already seems to suspect that the universe is weirder than we can imagine. For all that, I can't help speculating about the content of Micromégas's book. What would the giant from the Sirius system have written? E = mc2? DNA makes RNA makes protein? Perhaps, but my bet is on something along the lines of The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. To Darwin, humans are a measure of nothing, a shot in the dark, fired by a blind and aimless evolutionary process propelled by natural and sexual selection. Wallace simply can't reconcile himself to this and reacts exactly like the theologian in Voltaire's story and like today's creationists or adherents of intelligent design. They deny the light of the sun and bask in their delusion that a supernatural something or someone has an inordinate fondness for humans. Is our vanity, as Nietzsche claims, inversely proportional to our understanding? Many modest people are not very bright, while some self-conceited coxcombs are exceptionally intelligent. But still…
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In the soup

"Er was zoveel om je heen
En dat is allemaal verdwenen
En geen macht op deze aarde brengt het weer
Er zijn daar geen meikevers meer
Er zijn daar geen meikevers meer"
*
(Martine Bijl)

Together with Naomi, my nearly thirteen-year-old granddaughter, I listen on YouTube to There are no more cockchafers here, a song from 1980 by the Dutch singer Martine Bijl. It is a translation from German of a 1974 song by Reinhard Mey. When the final notes fade away, Naomi asks: "Granddad? What is a cockchafer?" It breaks my heart. I launch Aperture and show her my photographs of cockchafers and their larvae. Creepy crawlies, according to her, especially those alien-looking larvae. Unlike Darwin and Wallace, I am barely interested in beetles in my boyhood – which perhaps explains why I never amounted to much – but I do hold fond memories of the yearly cockchafer hunt. In the 1960s they are abundant. My brothers and I do not shake them out of hedges and shrubs, but use a different, very effective technique. Cockchafer larvae spend three to four years in the soil, at least in Western Europe. The larvae pupate in early autumn and the beetles emerge five to six weeks later. They stay put, however, and only work their way to the surface in spring. At dusk, under the mighty beeches that line the Wingenesteenweg in Beernem, my home village, we search for small piles of loose earth. Using a worn potato peeler, we dig the beetles up and put them in a jar with a perforated screw-on lid. If my memory serves me well, depending on the degree to which their elytra are dusted with white powder, we distinguish friars, millers and bakers. In parts of Germany and France, up until the first half of the 1960s, cockchafer soup is a seasonal dish, a delicacy that is even served in some Parisian gourmet restaurants. According to most recipes, it takes up to thirty cockchafers to prepare a single serving. It is said to taste like lobster bisque. I wouldn't know. After a day or two, we always set our chafers free.


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Periodical pest?

At the start of the 1970s, the Wingenesteenweg is broadened and asphalted. There's no longer room for beeches, cockchafers and children playing. Cars rule and tolerate no competition. For twenty-five years, I very rarely get to see a cockchafer. They are still there, but I don't go looking for them. Meanwhile, the media spread alarming reports about the strong decline in the number of cockchafers. Many claim they are an endangered species. The excessive use of tillers and chemical pesticides in agriculture, landscape management and private gardens is said to decimate the species. Historical research, however, also indicates a long-term cycle. Apparently, cockchafer populations peak every 40 to 50 years. The following decline is sharp and possibly caused by a virus that infects the larvae. Whatever the case, in the garden at 37 Heuvelstraat the number of cockchafers seems to be growing year by year. While digging the garden, I also encounter more larvae. They feed on the roots of grasses, herbs, shrubs, trees and other plants. For the time being, they cause little or no visible damage. But who knows what the future holds? Eventually, to save the lawn, the flowerbeds or the vegetables in the kitchen garden, I may have to go cockchafer hunting again. In that case, chances are cockchafer soup will become a new culinary specialty of mine. If you can't beat them, eat them!


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The Origin of Evolution

Both Darwin and Wallace are fond of beetles. As a young man, Darwin embarks on a five-year voyage around the world. The HMS Beagle expedition confronts him with the abundant species diversity of the tropics and with animals that are endemic to remote islands. Wallace reads Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle and is wild about it. Later, as a professional collector, he himself spends twelve years exploring South America and the islands of the Malay Archipelago. The biodiversity of the tropics, the geographical distribution of species and the endemic populations of islands persuade both gentlemen that species are not specially created and immutable. After all, why would God have created tens of thousands of beetles that are sometimes barely distinguishable from one another or that are only to be found on some uninhabited island? It just doesn't make sense. Other naturalists, of course, ponder the same questions and many scientists of the time are convinced that species evolve. Even Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus, is already an evolutionist. What sets his famous grandson and Wallace apart is their answer to the question why and how species change. Not by inheritance of adaptive characteristics or modifications purposefully acquired by their ancestors, as Lamarck believed, but by natural selection of fortuitous mutations that increase the chances of survival and reproduction in the given circumstances. How these mutations arise and why they are hereditary is unknown to Darwin and Wallace. The mystery is only solved in the first half of the 20th century, when Darwinism and genetics merge to form the new, modern synthesis or neo-Darwinism. But their theory works. It explains the biodiversity of the planet, the geographical distribution of species and the traces of extinct plants and animals in successive strata of sedimentary rock. In the oldest layers, palaeontologists never find fossil remains of humans or other mammals. They don't even have any beetles.

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Collateral damage

"Here and there were clumps of fruit trees, patches of low wood, and abundance of plantations and rice grounds, all of which are, in tropical regions, a very desert for the entomologist." (Alfred Russel Wallace)

The fact that, sooner or later, all species are doomed to become extinct is a relatively recent insight. Many people find it hard to swallow, especially when they realize that
Homo sapiens too is a fluke of an amoral and purposeless evolutionary process. I'm not losing any sleep over it. Falling over and picking myself up again, I try to make the best of my own ephemeral existence. But as nothing gives me more pleasure than the biodiversity of my home planet – at my age, though I'd sourly miss it, sex doesn't even make it to the top ten – I am all in favour of intensive conservation efforts. Even though I can defend this position with a plethora of rational arguments, I am well aware that it is deeply emotional. In the light of eternity, it doesn't really matter. Nothing does. For my sake, your sake and that of future generations, however, I feel every single species that becomes extinct today is one too many. Wallace admires the way the Dutch manage their colonies in the Malay Archipelago and feels the severe criticism of Multatuli, pen name of Dutch author Eduard Douwes Dekker, is unwarranted. His opinion of the novel Max Havelaar, at the time a best seller in England too, speaks volumes: "Greatly to my surprise, I found it a very tedious and long-winded story, full of rambling digressions." Most Dutch and Flemish people that were once forced to read the book in school would probably agree. But although Wallace commends policies in the Dutch East Indies, he is not blind to the havoc wreaked by Dutch civilising zeal. He shuns plantations and paddy fields because they hold little life. They are "a very desert for the entomologist". Even though he unscrupulously shoots orang-utans out of oil palms, from time to time Wallace already exhibits an awakening environmental awareness. Today, a man like him wouldn't dream of shooting primates or birds of paradise. Perhaps he would even be a zealous advocate of a complete ban on trading exotic butterflies, beetles, birds and other species. The deforestation of the rainforests would make him sick to his stomach. He would certainly not consider population growth a measure of the soundness of government, but advocate voluntary or forced birth control. Currently, according to a 1993 estimate by E.O. Wilson, every year some 30,000 species become extinct. That is more than three per hour. This number is contested – too high or too low! – but one thing is clear: Today, Earth is going through its sixth massive extinction wave since the origin of life on the planet, some 3.8 billion years ago. This time, however, the culprit is not a meteor but an exploded, bipedal ape with a smartphone and a high opinion of himself, addicted to fats, sugar and status. Can we still turn the tide? Perhaps, but not without a fight. We are in the soup and the worst is yet to come.

* There was so much all around you / And now it all has disappeared / And no power on this Earth can bring it back / There are no more cockchafers here / There are no more cockchafers here
Beetle or bug?

"I obtained altogether in Borneo about two thousand distinct kinds, of which all but about a hundred were collected at this place, and on scarcely more than a square mile of ground." (Alfred Russel Wallace)

In the tropics, without too much effort, Wallace often collects more species of beetles in a single day than I have observed and photographed in the garden in over five years. The rainforests of South America and Indonesia are simply teeming with them. In Belgium and the Netherlands the order comprises less species than that of
Diptera: some 4,000 beetles versus 5,000 flies and midges. Most people have a pretty good idea of what beetles are and so rarely confuse them with other animals. True to their name, however, bugs can and will often cause problems, especially those belonging to the suborder Heteroptera*. Many of these true or typical bugs resemble beetles so well that few people can readily tell them apart. If I had a euro for every picture on the Internet of a so-called beetle that is really a bug, I'd be a millionaire. Yet bugs only resemble beetles like some fish resemble dolphins or newts resemble lizards. A little knowledge is usually all it takes to tell them apart and a trained eye is never fooled. Even though the Low Countries have over 650 different species of Heteroptera, most people can't name a single one, except perhaps for the infamous bed bug. Until well into
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The cinnamon bug (bottom) looks somewhat like the red-headed cardinal beetle (top) but belongs to the order Hemiptera, just like cicadas and aphids.

the 20th century, this vexing bloodsucker infests numerous European bedrooms. Thought to be locally extinct, in latest years it is apparently making a comeback, particularly in hotel rooms near airports and railway stations. Good night, sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite!

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The larvae of the hazel-leaf roller weevil (top) resemble maggots and caterpillars. Those of this emerging harlequin ladybird (middle) are dynamic predators, just like their parents. Bugs don't have larvae but nymphs. Different stages of firebug nymphs (bottom) can often be found basking in the sun together.

Beetles beget larvae

The fact that beetles are far less closely related to typical bugs than might be supposed at first sight is apparent from the way they reproduce. Beetles go through a complete metamorphosis. They are holometabolous. Their eggs produce larvae that, after a series of moults and exactly like the caterpillars of butterflies, pupate. Bugs are hemimetabolous. Their eggs produce tiny bugs or nymphs that increasingly resemble adults after each moult. Bugs have no larval or pupal stage but undergo a series of incomplete metamorphoses. Unfortunately, in the field this fundamental difference rarely helps to distinguish beetles from bugs. Exceptions to this rule are species of bugs that can sometimes be observed in mixed groups of several nymphal stages or instars and imagos, such as the firebug. In my garden, I often find tens or even hundreds of nymphs and adults of this species sunbathing together on a wall or a tree. To some extent, the nymphs of a bug can be compared to the hatchlings of a chicken. They can't fly, but already behave more or less like an adult and eat the same food. The larvae of beetles are less uniform. Some look like maggots or caterpillars and are barely motile. They often live in an environment that is completely different from that of the imagos, such as the inside of a trunk or deep down in the ground, and feed on other substances. Other larvae, such as those of the
green dock beetle, share their host plant with adult individuals. Some beetle larvae are just about as motile and active as their parents. Even though they can't fly, they already hunt the same prey. Well-known examples are the larvae of several species of ladybirds that mainly feed on aphids. But there's one thing all beetle larvae have in common: they are exceedingly gluttonous. Consequently, species that specialize in a commercial crop are anything but popular. Today, we try to control them with chemical or natural pesticides. In less enlightened times, however, desperate farmers appeal to the courts and the Almighty. In 1478, on two successive occasions, the bishop of Lausanne (Switzerland) summons the larvae of cockchafers to court. They never show up, of course, and are eventually cursed and banished by default.
Some years later, the lords of Uri call upon Pope Alexander VI to deliver their canton from cockchafers. The last cockchafer exorcism in the predominantly Catholic part of Switzerland takes place in 1829. These Swiss are crazy? Perhaps, but the consecrated palms that in my youth allegedly protect fields against all kinds of calamities and that are still to be found in many parts of Flanders, soften my heart. Apparently, superstitions are just as ineradicable as cockchafers and other pests. Can't be helped, I'm afraid.


Beetles have jaws

Typical bugs are usually less bulbous and more angular than most beetles. They resemble a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air more than they do my 2006 Toyota Yaris. General shape, however, can be deceiving. Some bugs look more like a Volkswagen Beetle than most beetles do. Their antennae typically have fewer segments, while the fore wings are rarely entirely stiffened. Beetles, with their (in many cases) metallic shining chitin elytra, generally look more robust. When closed, their wing cases fit neatly next to each other and form a straight seam down the middle of the back. Those of bugs, by contrast, overlap. The most obvious and nearly always clearly visible distinguishing mark, however, is that beetles have jaws. They bite and chew. Bugs are equipped with a tube-like snout or rostrum, sometimes also called a proboscis. They stab and suck. They use their rostrum as a hypodermic needle to inject digestive juices and as a straw to suck liquefied food out of prey, hosts, cadavers, seeds, stalks and other plant parts. The rostrum is situated right under the head, usually pointing backwards. In general, it is barely motile, though some species can unfold it like a pocketknife. A good example is Arma custos, a predatory shield bug that mainly hunts weevils but doesn't scorn other small beetles or bugs. The species has no common English name; in Dutch it is called the snuitkeverwants or weevil bug. In any case, when you see an insect with a rostrum used for stabbing and sucking, it is never ever a beetle. The only species that can still cause confusion are beetles with a pointed, extremely elongated snout that more or less resembles a bug's rostrum. The nut weevil is one of them. Nevertheless, the location of the antennae and the fact that the snout is always pointing forwards, leave no doubt that this creature truly is a beetle. The end of the snout is equipped with tiny, razor-sharp jaws. Females use them to gnaw holes in young, green hazelnuts. As a rule, a single egg is deposited in each hole. Some ten days later, the larva emerges and immediately starts feeding on the nut. When its provision runs out, the larva bores its way out
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Beetles, like the dark sailor (top), have jaws. Bugs, like the dock bug (middle), have a rostrum. The nut weevil (bottom) is a beetle. Its elongated snout has razor-sharp jaws.

of the nutshell, meanwhile turned brown and hard. By then, usually, the nut's already dropped. Before pupating, the larva spends the winter and up to three years in the soil. Some years, over half the hazelnuts I gather have a hole in them and their shells are almost as empty as Otto von Guericke's Magdeburg hemispheres. Since each female lays only forty eggs or less and the garden has twenty-four large hazel shrubs, the nut weevil must be one of the most common beetles. Nonetheless, I rarely get to see this weird, somewhat bizarre creature. Like most beetles, it lives a hidden life.

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Like all beetles I've observed mating, the tawny longhorn beetle (top) does it doggy style. Bugs, like the hairy shield bug (middle), prefer an entirely different position. Water striders(bottom) are an exception to the rule. These bugs do it beetle style.

Beetles do it doggy style

With the exception of the water striders on the surface of the pond, not a single bug in the garden does it doggy style, the favourite position of beetles. Since the position that bugs prefer is anatomically impossible for even the most loose-limbed contortionists, it is not in the Kama Sutra. Many insect guides and websites on bugs call it a 'tandem'. In my opinion, it is best to reserve this term for the way
dragon- and damselflies mate. On a tandem, after all, both cyclists always look and pedal in the same direction. The position that bugs demonstrate brings to mind another means of transport: A twin-section articulated tram or accordion streetcar with flexible joints and a round, pivoting mid-section that can run in both directions. Once joined tightly together in this fashion, some species, such as firebugs, keep the position up for hours or even days on end. Rivals don't stand a chance. On the Internet, I sometimes happen upon a picture of alleged beetles forming an accordion tram. On closer inspection, however, they nearly always turn out to be beetle-like bugs. When they really are beetles, many more photographs can be found of the same species going at it in proper doggy. One of the advantages of this position, at least to an observer, is that the sex of mating beetles is immediately evident. Females are always on bottom and in most cases visibly larger than males. Sexing mating bugs is far less evident. More often than not, both parts of the accordion tram appear to be almost mirror images. In any case, whenever you see two insects that look like beetles form an accordion tram, it's a pretty safe bet to assume that they are bugs.


Beetles are fidgets

Unlike most bugs, most beetles can't sit still for a second. Conspicuously sharp photographs of beetles are usually of dead or seriously hypothermic specimens. Beetles are to bugs what Americans are to Africans or incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescent ones: they consume a lot more energy. In order to function
optimally, beetles need to take in lots of calories. The consequences are predictable: While the dock bugs and their nymphs cause hardly any damage in the kitchen garden, the much smaller dock beetles and their larvae wolf down the maiden sorrel. Because bugs digest their food largely externally, their digestive system requires less energy and they also produce far less waste than beetles. Less goes in and less comes out. Beetles simply can't afford to relax and idle about. They are always looking for food, frantically running or flying hither and thither, typically preferring a quickie to a protracted petting session. Even while feeding, these ADHD rascals are a macro photographer's worst nightmare. Nervously, their antennae are swaying all over the place. They bite, gnaw, chew and hip-hop like demented hyperkinetic b-boys on boiling hot asphalt, scampering away at the smallest disturbance. Photographing them is usually simply a matter of quickly focussing, framing, shooting and hoping for a decent result. But first, of course, you need to find them…

* The common Dutch word for Heteroptera is wantsen. It is unequivocal. In English, regrettably, this suborder of Hemiptera does not have a generally accepted unambiguous common name. The animals are sometimes referred to as true or typical bugs.
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Lathe biosas!

"Live in obscurity!" (Epicurus)

The couple of thousand of beetle species that Wallace collects in the Malay Archipelago represent only a fraction of the species that inhabit the islands. He catches them with a butterfly net or simply by hand, always by day. He never uses beetle traps or climbs a tree. As a result, his impressive collection consists mainly of relatively large, conspicuous and day-active beetles that live on the ground or more or less at eye level. The same is true of the fifty or so beetles I've managed to photograph in the garden to date (November 2002). They are mainly species that feed on flowers and plants or hunt prey that live on them. A good example are the different species of ladybirds, accounting for almost a quarter of the current species gallery.
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The 7-spot ladybird (top) is one of the most common beetles in the garden. From time to time, I also get to see the locally rare 14-spot ladybird (middle). Both species hunt aphids. The 22-spot ladybird (bottom) is one of the ladybirds that feed on mildew.

Epicurus versus Our Lord

The Greek philosopher
Epicurus advises his disciples to shun publicity. He advocates a secluded, hidden life, preferably in the company of male and female kindred spirits. Lathe biosas! Epicurus delivers this device some 300 years before the start of the Christian era with the (wrongly dated) birth of a man that totally disregards it. Jesus of Nazareth puts himself in the spotlight. At 33, according to tradition, he triumphantly enters Jerusalem, causes quite a stir and is eventually publicly condemned and executed. He is, literally and figuratively, nailed to the cross. His life story, whether or not based on facts, is at the foundation of an essentially repugnant cult of suffering, self-punishment and martyrdom. Epicurus aims to free humanity of its infantile terror of gods and demons. In his illustrious Garden in Athens, the highest good is a detached, contemplative life without fear of death and with minimal physical or mental suffering. Christianity, by contrast, strikes terror into its penitent faithful with a stark raving mad, cantankerous S&M Master that demands total submission. He strikes more than he heals. No pain no gain. Suffering chastens. The Garden of Epicurus is to the Church of Christ what a pleasure ground is to a dungeon.


Shy versus shameless

There's no doubt that many more species of beetles inhabit the garden than the fifty or so that I've photographed and documented to date. But while the often brightly coloured ladybirds immediately catch the eye, most other beetles take the advice of Epicurus to heart. They live in obscurity, often only becoming active after sunset, seeking refuge in flight at the slightest alarm. While doing garden work – digging, pruning, mowing, mulching, sowing, planting, weeding, raking, harvesting or making compost – I sometimes get to see them, though rarely for much longer than a few seconds. To photograph and identify these shy beetles, I'll have to catch them. By hand or with a net, like
Wallace, but also using all kinds of homemade beetle traps. Photographing and identifying more conspicuous beetles, plants, fungi and other animals, however, already takes up so much of my time and effort that it may be years before I get round to that. Something to look forward to. Though I wasn't exactly fond of beetles for most of my life, they nevertheless fascinate me now. A late calling? I guess so. In any case too late to be "some indication of future success in life".
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Stacks Image 878

Sources and links to more information

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  • Alfred Russel Wallace, Is Mars Habitable? – A Critical Examination of Professor Lowell's Book "Mars and Its Canals," With an Alternative Explanation, The Alfred Russel Wallace Page, 2012.
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Geraardsbergen, 11 November 2012.
Latest revision: 27 August 2014.