Back to Bombardier Beetles

On Friday 5th October 2007, having just attended Newham General Hospital to have a broken arm put in a sling, I joined a group of volunteers working nearby to rescue a colony of beetles.

Apart from the awkwardness of trying to unearth and capture a beetle about the size of a medium ladybird from a heap of brick-rubble using only one arm, the task was an enjoyable one – and a potentially important one considering the probable fate of these creatures.

The beetles were Streaked Bombardiers Brachinus sclopeta, and this was the only known colony in Britain. As you may have guessed, the site was due for redevelopment.

Brachinus sclopeta 7  Benoit MarthaStreaked bombardier beetle © Benoit MarthaMy mind has returned to this event because of two articles in the latest (2011/2012) issue of the Essex Field Club's annual journal – the Essex Naturalist. One article “The state of brownfields in the Thames Gateway” discusses the importance what are now termed “brownfield sites” - areas have typically become abandoned after industrial use and where nature has returned to colonise the various habitats and substrates left behind. We would have called these “debris” or “bomb-sites” after the second world war, and to us children they were very much our playgrounds. It is possible that memories of the weeds that we played amongst and caught butterflies and ladybirds gave me my first interest in wildlife.

It is only in recent years, perhaps, that the present day equivalent of these debris have become recognised as havens for a great variety of plants and animals that have otherwise become scarce in our built-up and disturbed surroundings.

So it was on such a site that in 2005 entomologist Richard Jones* discovered a population of a beetle that had been considered extinct in Britain since 1928, and the site was to be developed. The second article “The Beetle Bump: innovative urban habitat creation” describes the efforts put in under the auspices of the University of East London and Buglife to collect 61 Bombardier Beetles and to move them to a specially created habitat and nature reserve nearby. Moving species to a habitat created by man is fraught with difficulties and there are few examples of successful transfers of invertebrates, so this was a rescue attempt carried out as a last resort - and with perhaps little hope of success.

So – was it a success? The original mound of bricks and rubble where the Bombardier's lived has now grown into riverside apartments, and in 2010 the beetles were found to still be living in the mound developed in 2007. One female was also found in Mile End Park, which does suggest that there might be other colonies. In 2012 the mound was searched again, but none were found. However, on another mound a couple of hundred metres away a population was found - but this site was was due for imminent development. In May, Buglife organised another rescue and 15 beetles were transferred to yet another specially constructed site using over 60 tonnes of bricks, chalk and rubble, sown with wildflowers. This is on part of the UEL Docklands Campus site, and the site will be monitored by Buglife and UEL to check the progress of the Streaked Bombardier beetles.

Back to brownfield sites again, then. Between 2005 and 2008 Buglife and English Nature (now Natural England) collaborated on a project called 'All of a Buzz in the Thames Gateway'. This resulted in a clearer understanding of the importance of brownfield sites, 450 of which were assessed in Thames Gateway. Of these, 198 were recognised as being of High or Medium potential for invertebrate biodiversity. Despite this recognition, less than half of these remain intact, and even these may be at risk of development.

Does this have any bearing on our much more localised Wanstead wildlife? Well, I think it does. I can't think of any long-term sites in the area that might be called brownfield sites; any that might have been have been at the least tidied-up by now. One area that does come to mind though – and might be relevant when thinking on bits of land that are perhaps less appealing to our tidy minds and sense of aesthetics – is the fairground site on Wanstead Flats. There were a variety of reasons why many of us didn't want a “muster station” built there for the Olympics – but pretty low down on these was the disturbance to wildlife. Oh, yes – I appreciate the concerns that were raised about the skylark population, and this was an important factor – but the half-day out-of-season wildlife assessment as far as I know took little or no account of the invertebrates that may have lived there.

Biodiversity is a popular term now, but perhaps we should be thinking a little more about this on a local basis. We need a variety of habitats for all of our local plants and animals, and the visiting ones that we get. More and more the birders are beginning to look at some of the other creatures around us, but we still have a vastly long way to go to really build up our knowledge of what species we have here. Whilst that is being undertaken, let's also remember that they can only live here if they have the variety of habitats in which to do so. Maybe we should be creating some? Surely we should not be destroying any.

My thanks to the Essex Field Club and to the Authors of the articles for the information used here.

Paul Ferris, December 2012

 References and links

The state of brownfields in the Thames Gateway. Jamie Robins and Sarah Henshall.

The Beetle Bump: innovative urban habitat creation. Stuart Connop.

Essex Naturalist No. 29 (New Series) for the year 2011/2012.

Buglife – The Invertebrate Conservation Trust, Peterborough.

* Richard Jones ("Bugman Jones")