Subterranean pitfalls

One of the big knowledge gaps I want to address in my project (see PhD project page for background) is the distribution and characteristics of carabid larvae in the farm environment.


These charismatic little fellows haven’t been studied much, mainly because they live in the soil and therefore are a bit difficult to catch. The adults are easy to capture in standard pitfall traps (pretty much a cup set in the ground that they fall into); and some larvae get caught in these (as some species do come to the surface to hunt); but to sample the full community I really need to get down into the soil.

My initial idea was to take soil cores. This would involve removing a cylinder of soil, and sifting through for larvae. Though a tried and tested technique for study of soil biota, it is quite time consuming and heavy work! Whilst investigating how to get the best results for larvae sampling with this technique, a colleague, Chris Shortall, asked if I had considered subterranean pitfalls.

I had never heard of them, but they seem to be ideal to my purposes. The premise is the same as for standard pitfalls, but set beneath the surface of the soil, at the base of a tube of mesh that soil active invertebrates will fall into. Chris pointed me towards Mark telfer’s excellent guide (link at end), and Ian Sims for further info and advice. Mark and Ian both concurred that subterranean pitfall should be really useful for my sampling needs; and kindly advised on design, and related past experience (Ian has some papers out/soon on this). Based on all of this I decided to trial some subterranean pitfalls.

pitfall diagram
Diagram of my subterranean pitfall trap

The main body is a 35cm section of drainpipe, with cut-out sections. Wire mesh is wrapped around and held with tie wraps. A bottle attached to drainpipe connector collects the samples, and can be hooked out up the pipe with a pole. Jon Storkey kindly jigsawed the drainpipe for the first trap, and Alice Milne and her husband Dan completed five more pipes to his template. I have the best supervisors ever. Then I finished them off with the sampling bottles. 

On the 22nd January we got the traps into a wheat field on the Rothamsted estate. The soil there is pretty hard going, heavy clay with huge stones. But we persevered, and tried different ways of burying them with the soil auger and spade. One of the drawbacks of this trap is the long settling in period, what with the soil needing to level and butt up to the mesh. I will have to wait perhaps another week to get some useable samples- the suspense is killing me!


 Mark’s Guide to Subterranean pitfalls:


An entomological first foray into oil pastels

You may have noticed from my last Tony post that I am somewhat of an artist. I am not good or prolific enough to make a living at it however, and nowadays only draw as gifts for other people. Strangely I work best this way, I have found that art under duress lacks something of a soul, at least for me. Anyway, I had occasion to express gratitude to an entomological friend, and what better way to do so than through the medium of beetles?

This was the perfect chance to try out my new oil pastels. I picked them up in a charity shop by chance, thinking they were normal pastels. I find pastels a tremendously quick and easy medium, however they would not be suited to express a shiny carapace. Usually I would turn to my art pencils, these will deliver a deep, precise shiny result; but only with a lot of layering. Oils or acrylics of course would be ideal, but mine are in Derbyshire, and neither is a quick medium.

Knowing the crayon shape, I set up a black starting shape to ensure detail clarity. Like pastels, fine lines are out. I used a fine pen, this also showed through nicely to give the impression of the texture and shine of the carapace.
Oil pastels feel really strange after normal pastels, they behave similarly and differently. You can layer and blend a bit, but with care: too heavy and it clumps. Luckily unlike pastels you can actually scrape off the colour with a sharp tool and re-blend. They also erase with a rubber nicely. This means you can get some great crisp lines to edge, but sadly not in isolation.

The colour intensity means forward planning is crucial. The black and white interplay was difficult, smudging each together takes practise to get right. I had to scrape and go over a few times. But the sheer deepness of that black really impressed me. However, I am not entirely happy with the whiteness of the shine I achieved on the elytra, I couldn’t scrape back to the background entirely on the tan colour. So something to remember for next time.

Overall I am delighted with the result, I think it really suits the subject, and will definitely use oil pastels for entomological art again!

On wild animal rescue and conservation values…


I was talking to my entomological friend and colleague, Dion, the other day. It came up that far from reflecting our love of invertebrates; our respective PhD projects exploited and sought to control them, for anthropocentric gains. He kindly countered that my affectionate care of Tony demonstrated my laudable inclinations! (Besides which, I was joking: we both know that conservation of invertebrates in farmland, and more widely, is tied to human wellbeing) I told him it remains to be seen if I can actually keep him alive; I don’t have a terribly good track record…

This got me to thinking about my various wildlife rescue attempts. And there are rather a lot. I think I was about nine when I first brought a juvenile bird home. In all honesty, I shouldn’t have taken her: as all wildlife charities advise, parent birds are usually nearby. I knew this, but at nine lacked the moral fortitude to resist having a wild pet.

“Dusty” was actually a success. A collared dove, she was actually easy to rear; and her descendants still grace the oak tree in my old garden every year. But that was followed by many failures. Long experience (of waking up early to feed them every 20 mins, only for them to die) has taught me that songbird chicks are not worth the effort. My next success was a high note in my life though.

“Rune” was a carrion crow, she came to me half starved, from a plundered nest. As a near fledgling she was easy to raise, I hand fed her cubes of cat meat until she could take care of herself. Rune got me through a very difficult time in my life. Caring for her took me out of my own navel gazing depression at the age of 16, and helped me out into the world. I would take her for walks, but far from perching on my shoulder looking all cool like in ‘The Crow’, she bobbed along sat atop my head, and shat all down my Korn hoodie…

It didn’t end particularly well for me though. Someone let Rune out of her run (after reporting me to the RSPCA who approved her care BTW) and I never knew what happened to her. It still brings tears to my eyes 15 years later. But I like to think she’s out there, somewhere. Since that I’ve taken in a few injured corvids: 2 car hit rooks, a cat savaged magpie; but all died from complications soon after.


A notable case was an injured Buzzard. I found him in a client’s garden (I was a gardener) eating gooseberries! It was an honour to observe such a stately bird at close quarters, as I held and inspected him. But upon taking him to Brinsley animal rescue (a damned worthy charity) though, I decided, and was advised it was best to put him down. He had been hit somehow, was blind in one eye, his leg was broken but healing, and being severely underweight it seemed this happened some time ago. Explaining his eating gooseberries in desperation. He could survive. But as a wild bird of prey, he’d never be happy. A crow’s intellect could help it adapt, but a buzzard who recalls hunting, yet can’t hunt, is not going to thrive.

I realised though, in the reverie following my chat with Dion; that all of these have not been worthless. Each time I have learned about the species, got to really understand them up close; and appreciate them as no cold experimental conditions could ever hope to. Our human passion for conservation should not be separate to science I feel. Just as conservation should not be separate to productive farming. Humans dominate the world, for better or worse; but we are still just a cog in an ecological system. Appreciation is the first step to integration.

I lack the resources to care for any large animals now, but I shall still carry on. Caring for wild invertebrates is just as interesting, especially if you can observe their different life stages. Fingers crossed I can see Tony grow into a beautiful beetle!

Brinsley animal rescue takes in many cases and cares for them much better then I ever did. If I’ve tugged your heartstrings, support them:


Never work with children, animals, or immature beetles…

Having had difficulty sourcing carabid species images, especially for larvae; I decided Tony presented a great opportunity as a model. Images could then be used for ID, reference, diagrams, extension, and promotion. The latter is very important. From the start it has surprised and delighted me how people have engaged with “Tony”, in the office and online! I have had lots of questions, so it has furthered understanding and appreciation of carabids and beetles more widely. Also I have got some new beetley contacts too.

So how does one go about photography of such a tiny and rapid creature? Well it’s a lot easier if you have access to the fantastic Visual Comms Unit at Rothamsted! Graham Shepard is a superb photographer; but he has had little experience of such a tricky entomological subject: his usual crop pests are much more willing to pose. However he rose to the challenge, we had a great time and got a few really good shots.

I brought along some moss and soil, and set up a small diorama of beetle habitat. In practice this was great for Tony, but not so much for Graham. Subterranean larvae naturally burrow away from the light as soon as they can, so I was fishing Tony back onto the moss, then Graham had a few seconds to snap shots before he found a way back down… Also Tony was quite upset at being forced to perform, flicking his body to escape, and actually biting in retaliation. Those tiny sickle shaped jaws are no joke. He literally hung off my finger at one point! (Don’t be afraid of larvae now though folks, he’s too small to draw blood and I couldn’t feel it)

Next we tried him on plain backgrounds, this was easier as Graham was able to track him for longer over the paper as Tony ran; before I flicked him back to the middle with a paintbrush. Still, it takes time to focus in properly; and Graham exhibited remarkable skill and patience in capturing a few fantastically sharp shots from this: you can see every hair, which is very important for larvae ID.

Tony the Pterostichus
Image credit: the wonderful Rothamsted VCU 🙂

Anthropomorphising aside, it really has been a great learning experience. Seeing how a larvae moves through its environment, evades capture, and the behaviours it uses in defence; feeds into my understanding of their autecology. I was particularly surprised at how well a predominantly subterranean instar could move on the surface. And I actually really didn’t anticipate how feisty they are!

Subterranean pitfall update

Stop press! The subterranean pitfalls capture carabid larvae!20180216_123324-1.jpg

The first one I checked just had a very limp worm in it, but the second had a very feisty larvae, that looks to be pterostichus. There were a couple of other much smaller larvae, which did not appear to be carabid, and a couple of small beetles. Since the traps have not been settling long, and in such a heavy clay soil, I am indeed encouraged by this tiny catch. Especially since there will not really be much moving in the wheat crop soil area at this time of year.

When we got back to the office, I just couldn’t kill the larvae to ID it. I have other things to practice on, besides, it is a tremendous opportunity to study the behaviour of the larvae, and I will eventually be able to identify it, when it reaches adulthood.

In the meantime, we have an office pet. Meet ‘Tony’ 😀20180216_125306

Musings upon research and sharing

As you may extrapolate from the very existence of this blog, I love to talk about my research; and one of my major goals is to disseminate the appreciation of carabids as widely as possible. This week I have been tremendously busy in that very spirit.

Last weekend I attended the Coleopterists day at Oxford. There were some fantastic talks, mostly around species recording. I had a fantastic day talking to likeminded people and making new connections. Notably I approached Jordan Chetcuti, following a great overview talk on his fascinating research, creating a multi-species model of carabid distributions. It was fabulous to chat to someone working on a parallel line to myself, bouncing ideas around!

In later email correspondence I sent some of my reading notes over (on a point we discussed), and Jordan wisely and kindly counselled caution in sharing my work like this; as less scrupulous individuals are wont to use work like ours without acknowledgement. Turns out he had been cautioned himself prior to his talk.

I had not really considered this myself, but in consultation with my supervisors, and post-doc guru Helen; I learned that it is indeed an important issue in professional research. People often intentionally or unintentionally build on the work of others without proper acknowledgement. When careers are built on getting novel research published, the stakes are high; and keeping your cards to your chest is common precautionary practice. Not that my aforementioned advisors are against sharing, quite the opposite; but experience has created wariness. Subsequent conversation has reiterated the point: at the initial stages of a research career, reputation is key; down to proper credit for ideas, contributions, ID work, even image use. All of this gets your name known and reflects hard work.

Luckily Jordan’s team at CEH is allied to my project in some aspects, and I am looking forward to collaborating with them on converging aspects of our work. However, I was uncertain following the train of thought to my next event: the Royal Entomological Society’s Postgraduate forum.  My supervisors assured me that such events are created with a remit of openness and sharing; and PhD students are tied up with their own projects in any case (it is the case though that conferences may start with admonition of ideas not leaving the room, or statements on the nature of sharing). Nevertheless, I was advised not to share real specifics of my initial findings or data methods.

In the end I had another fantastic day, was great to show my lovely poster! I was inspired by the career orientated talks of the key speakers; and the array of interesting work and infectious enthusiasm of the student talks. But the above thoughts did cast a little shadow on the day. I find the topic of my research overcomes my natural reticence, towards garrulousness. I enjoy wholeheartedly the tangents explored on talking to interested others. It’s just a shame that I must reign in my enthusiasm to safeguard my research.

Of course, sharing is the most critical aspect of research, otherwise it’s pointless. But it must be approached in the right way, at the right time. One might say that so long as the work gets done, and my aims are met, it doesn’t matter who does it. I’d be happy to see it completed: I truly believe in the work, separate to my own agenda. But I do also believe in myself. In order to continue to produce good research for the benefit of conservation and sustainable agricultural production, I need to be successful. As is the case in many instances, I suppose the trick lies in successful balance. I would be very interested to hear other people’s experiences and opinions on this though.

The fantastically martial adaptations of UK beetles

Talking to diverse persons about beetles, as I do, I am often surprised when people react with fear. I can understand running from bees or wasps (though it’s seldom necessary), the truth is British beetles really are harmless to humans. But that is not the case for other animals, and each other…


The Bombardier beetle (Brachinus crepitans)  is a spectacular example of militant adaptation (hence its name). It fires an explosive jet of volatile chemicals to deter predators, with an audible crackling noise. Researchers have even observed the effects of this allowing the beetles to escape after being eaten:

Check out the great video (though not our UK bombardier)

Even Charles Darwin wasn’t immune: he reported being disappointed when a bombardier beetle’s crepitation caused him to let it escape!


The Devils coach horse (Ocypus olens) has similar chemical defences, though less dramatic, it can spray foul liquid from glands near its anus towards attackers. With it’s characteristic scorpion threat pose, I imagine this is very intimidating to tiny attackers!


The bloody nosed beetle (Timarcha tenebricosa) is another agent of chemical warfare; exuding an irritant chemical from its mouth. It is visually surprising to us, but to a potential consumer much more offputting.

 Back to more physical feats: click beetles (Agriotes lineatus) can jump over a foot into the air using a mechanism on their underside. This has been measured at 2.5m/second, accelerating to 700 times the force of gravity! Meanwhile the Screech beetle (Hygrobia hermanni) stridulates by rubbing its abdomen against its wing cases, to produce an alarming screech when seized. But the most impressive physical armoury arguably belongs to the Stag beetle (Lucanus cervus). However this is used for intra-species battles, over mating; likewise the impressive horns of the Minotaur beetle (Typhaeus typhoeus).


In fact the female stag beetle is more likely to give a nasty nip on handling than the males’ with their ‘jaws’. That in mind, I suppose it is not so strange for people to fear beetles: but as with much of the natural world, we pose more of a threat to them. I hope that showing people their fantastic adaptations, military or otherwise; can overcome trepidation, towards understanding and amity.

On mental health in academia…

It occurred to me today that I am much more uncomfortable talking about my mental health, than my physical disabilities. Whilst this is somewhat good, in the respect of openness about disabilities; it made me consider why I feel this way. Particularly since I am such an advocate of destigmatising mental health problems.

I suppose it is an artefact of my profession. In academia, a world predicated upon cognition, the admission that you’re having problems may tarnish others’ perceptions of your abilities. There are those niggling thoughts: If I say I’m struggling, will people think I might not be able to cut it? Will I be seen as a risk when the project enters high pressure stages?

Luckily for me it’s never gotten to the stage where I’ve had to admit I need help. Though it has gotten to the stage where I perhaps should have.

I have history of mental health problems. I had a breakdown when I was 16, anxiety and depression, so bad that I became agoraphobic and couldn’t leave the house. Anxiety never leaves you, and I could say a lot more about my journey; but the long and skinny of it is: I can leave the house, my own house, 100 miles away from my family, drive on busy motorways, and give presentations to rooms of people.

Last year though, I was close to breaking point. My MRes was full time, 7 days a week, mentally demanding work. One of the qualities we were graded on, in the remit to learn to be researchers, was our ability to work on our own initiative. I worked alone in my ivory tower of a study, with a tortoise to keep me sane. My overworked supervisor had little time to meet, and being low taught content; I did not have much contact with peers.

It is only now in such a supportive environment that I can appreciate how unacceptable this was. The need to share your ideas, ask for even simple help, to complain and compare experiences is so vital. Professor Mark Reed (see below), in his work on productive researchers covers this so excellently; we need truly supportive work environments of colleagues working together, to produce good work over time. I did it, but it nearly burned me out.

“Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet” 

Solomon’s riddle: the beehive in a lion’s corpse. I like to think that my troubles have made me strong. I feel so lucky now, in my work environment that I can’t imagine having problems with my mental health (see post on Rothamsted). I hope that if I ever do, I am strong enough to remember that mental health issues are not a weakness.

Mark Reed’s twitter fast track impact, where you can find his fantastic TED talk: