Country diary: what’s under the stone? A hungry beetle for starters

Country diary: what’s under the stone? A hungry beetle for starters

Cutting through the copse with its empty pheasant pens and following the hedge, I find false oxlip flowers; they seem more vulnerable with every spring on the tidal edge of agriculture.

Washed up on a wind-dried field margin, there is a stone the size of a sleeping cat, scraped white by ploughs. Instincts kick in to lift it slowly – rapid movements clear in front of me like thoughts. A small illumination with a green-bronze metallic sheen runs into a tunnel between the grass roots and vanishes in a couple of seconds.

The Rev Charles A Hall, the Swedenborgian minister who wrote Common British Beetles as part of his Peeps into Nature series in 1914, says this fleeting apparition is a beetle called Harpalus aeneus. It belongs to the suborder Adephaga, derived from the Greek adephages – ravenous, when applied to beetles of a carnivorous and predatory habit.

Some species of the Adephaga are “exceedingly active and rapacious”. Its family is Carabidae, ground beetles, with about 360 British species – the same as the number of British birds. They are predators in both the larval and “perfect” stages, preying upon worms, larvae and insects. They may be found hiding under stones like this one. Of the genus Harpalus, there are about 30 British species. In form, the body is elongated, oval and somewhat convex. They are generally nocturnal in habit and make burrows under stones and elsewhere.

The Harpalus aeneus itself is about a third of an inch long, its colour variable: blue-black, metallic green, black, coppery or purple; antennae reddish, legs generally red.

The stone is lowered back in place but the place is not the same. Its secrets have been exposed. The slug may inflate again, the centipedes whip back, the other lives resume their world-beneath-a-stone. But the assembly and its drama will never be the same now the light’s been let in. Disturbance is not simply a pause, it’s a trauma. What about Harpalus aeneus, the ravenous iridescence in the dark? It is renamed in recent books Harpalus affinis, meaning connected. Who is its kin? What is the affinity, if not a love for all life?

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