Nature Diary by Chris Kinsey

I’m not at all drawn to bling in the human world but just like a jackdaw or magpie, I find iridescence irresistible in the natural world; from the mother-of-pearl linings of oyster shells left by the tide to my enduring passion for spying on kingfishers. This autumn I’ve tuned in to beetles.

First it was the familiar violet ground beetle scurrying for darkness when I re-made the dogs’ beds. This one was immaculate. Quite likely it was freshly emerged from its pupa. Always delighted by their purple sheen, I got into trouble when I was nine for chasing an older girl round the school playground with my ‘pet’ beetle in a matchbox. I was unable to persuade her of beetle charms and her brother threatened to ‘get’ me after school. I released the beetle when no one was looking in case it got harmed in any skirmish and hid in an elder bush till the beetlephobes had gone.

Ground beetles are so adapted to life on under stones and hunting other small insects in leaf litter that their wing cases are fused. Being flightless, they were easy prey for a wannabe entomologist. At the same age I persuaded my mum to buy me a second-hand insect guide book. As soon as I turned the page to scarlet and black sexton beetles setting about a dead shrew, I wanted one.

46 years later I’m walking the hounds on Clun Castle tump, noting the last pale harebell and late clumps of yarrow, when a minute red blur comes microlighting towards me out of the late October murk. I gasp at the impossibly delicate, transparent underwings then recognise the scarlet and black banded elytra held open like a parachute. The large beetle lands at my feet. It’s not quite as vivid as that early twentieth century illustration – a bit more orangey. In the next instant Woody’s back paw clipped it. I fumbled to see if it was injured but it burrowed away so quickly it couldn’t have been.

If the soil is soft they can bury a mouse within an hour but it usually takes eight hours of undermining to prepare the crypt and carcass as a larder for egg laying. Burying beetles detect dead animals from a long distance with large, club-like antennae. They work quickly to hide and disguise carcasses from competitors like ants and bluebottles by coating them with antifungal and antibacterial secretions to delay decay. If the corpse is small, the parent beetles may cull some of their young to prevent them being underfed.

This autumn I was also graced with my first dor or dung beetle too – a magnificent emerald-black lacquered creature like a miniature, high-gloss Samurai, arrested me mid-step. I was so glad I didn’t crush the metallic, shining, chitin armour. It looked more engineered than natural and defies physics –it’s not very aerodynamic and it can shift up to fifty times its own weight in dung. Once it has located dung it rolls it rapidly away from the pile to prevent theft. Antlers, six strong legs and serrated sides equip it for digging, moving and defending dung. Both adults and larvae eat their own weight of dung every day. By doing so they improve nutrient recycling in soil and cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Someone once asked the biologist J.B.S. Haldane what his studies had taught him about God: “The Creator, if he exists, must have an inordinate fondness for beetles since there are more species of beetle than any other group of living creatures.”

Chris Kinsey was Oriel Davies’ first Writer-in-Residence 2011 -13. She is the author of 3 poetry collections:  Kung Fu Lullabies and Cure for a Crooked Smile published by Ragged Raven Press and Swarf by Smokestack Books.

Chris was BBC Wildlife Poet of the year in 2008.

She writes a regular Nature Diary for Cambria and won Natur Cymru’s last prose competition, ‘Inspired by Nature’ and has also written short dramas.

Dung and Bling, written in November 2011, is reproduced with permission of Frances Jones – Davies, editor of Cambria magazine:

Cambria is Wales’s National Magazine covering Welsh Culture, Lifestyle, Politics and interviews and articles on leading figures in Wales.