Tiger Beetle Safari

In looking back at my posts over the past few weeks, I realized that it has been far too long since I’ve actually talked about beetles.  Perhaps “Petals In The Bush” would be a better name for this blog!  I still have some botanical thoughts to get off my chest before the insect season starts in earnest, but until then, and in anticipation of the upcoming summer’s hunts, I offer this fun, light-hearted introduction to collecting and keeping tiger beetles by Peter Schriemer.  Pay particular attention to the method he uses to capture these elusive little creatures:

Tiger Beetles are my favorite type of beetle! Entomologist John Acorn got me hooked on these little guys. They live across the country in various habitats, so you may not need to travel far to go on a Tiger Beetle Safari of your own!

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Tiger Beetle Safari“, posted with vodpod

Capturing tiger beetle adults can a little (lot) more difficult than implied by this video. Adults have excellent eyesight, and many species are extremely wary. It takes practice, patience, and lots of second chances. The collecting method shown in the video is what I refer to as the “stalk and slap” method – the beetle is slowly stalked until within net reach, and the net bag is slapped over the beetle.  This method works well enough, but it has its limitations.  If there are any gaps between the ground and the net rim, the beetle will quickly dart through them and fly away.  This is easy to prevent on sandy and soft clay substrates, as the net rim can be sealed against the ground by kneeling quickly on each side of the rim to embed it slightly and using the hands to hold up the net bag and locate the beetle.  Still, there are a few things I don’t like about this method – the beetle may hide against the inside of the rim and be difficult to locate, and once found it may be difficult to grab the beetle through the net if it is against the ground (don’t even try lifting the rim and reaching under – the beetle will zip out and be gone).  This method can also be taxing on the legs, as each attempted capture involves kneeling and standing back up (getting harder and harder for these 50+ year old knees to do).

The major limitation of the slap method, however, is that it doesn’t really work on hard, uneven surfaces. Many species are found in glades and other habitats with exposed rock substrates. In these types of habitats, the net rim simply cannot be clamped tightly enough to eliminate the gaps (not to mention the added difficulties in kneeling on these surfaces).  Because of this, I have adopted a technique that I call the “tap and swipe” method.  Here again, the beetle is stalked until within net reach (made easier with a longer handle), but rather than slapping the net bag over the beetle, the rim of the net is tapped against the ground next to the beetle and then assertively swiped sideways to catch the beetle just as it starts flying.  A quick 180° flip of the net rim closes the opening to prevent the beetle from escaping, and it is easily seen in the hanging net bag, where it can be grabbed from outside the net bag with one hand to secure it before reaching into the net bag with the other hand.  With a little practice, one eventually learns to reach down into the open net bag and grab the beetle while preventing it from flying up and out.  All of this can be done while standing, so it’s easier on the knees.

The tap method does require more knowledge about the beetle’s escape behavior in order to anticipate how quickly and in which direction the beetle will fly – some species delay take off just slightly, thus requiring a slight “pause” between the tap and the swipe. However, once their behavior is learned I have found this method to be more consistently successful than the slap method – even on soft substrates.  For species that I haven’t encountered in the field before, I use the slap method at first (if I can) until I have a feel for their escape behavior. If I can’t, I use the tap method and hope for the best!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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24 Responses to Tiger Beetle Safari

  1. Kolby says:

    This is great, Ted. I can picture exactly what you’re technique looks like. It seems a bit like baseball, but the “home run” is a beetle in the net!

    I’ve gained a new found respect for the photographers who get close enough to photograph these guys.

    • Yep, “home run” swing is a perfect analogy.

      I have to credit my long time field companion, Chris Brown, for teaching me what it takes to photograph these guys in the field. Chris is an awesome photographer (a few of his tiger beetle photos have appeared on this site), and he has helped me combine patience and technique with my knowledge of their behavior. It’s been a real benefit to have somebody with his photographic skills in the field and by my side to watch and learn from.

  2. What bug lovers won’t do to get hold off their favorite insects.🙂 I use various methods depending on the insects.

    Like the one last night. I drowned him in my coffee cup! No, not really but an interesting story with pics for my next post.

  3. DougT says:

    That was fun. The thing that struck me was that his net ring was tiny. I wouldn’t want to try collecting with something that small. I also use the tap and sweep method. Once while collecting in dunes on the north shore of Lake Michigan, I encountered an extremely dense population of Cicindela hirticollis. I had a really hard time getting close enough to even stalk them well. I eventually had a lot of luck by looking for a large aggregation of beetles and charging them at a full run while flailing with the net. It sounds (and looked) ungainly, but I got a nice series that way.

    • Cicindela hirticollis is one of the wariest species I’ve encountered. I’d estimate my success rate using the tap/swipe method at only around 30-40% with that species (and maybe only 10-20% with the slap method).

      I, too, have tried charging aggregations and swinging wildly with the net like you describe, but I’ve not enjoyed success doing that (could be my ponderous weight :)). In a variation on this theme, however, I’ll relate to you my funniest tiger beetle collecting story, involving this very species some 20 years ago on the shore of Lake Superior at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. My friend and I had changed into our swimming trunks and then “charged” down the steep face of a tall dune and into the lake to cool off (which happened very quickly in those cold waters!). We noticed the beetles on the sandy shore but had no nets to catch them with. Eventually, we noticed that when they first landed after an escape flight, they needed a second or so to reorient themselves before they could take off again. We started charging into the aggregations and zeroing in on one as it flew, running hard to close the gap while it was in flight so that when it landed we were close enough to dive into the sand and slap our hand over it during that brief second while it was still reorienting itself. We did this for about a half hour or so and came up with a grand series of about a dozen each🙂 I’m sure the sight from the top of the dune – of two guys down on the shore running in crazy zigzag circles and then diving into the sand – must have been extraordinarily puzzling, maybe even a little frightening!

  4. We’re ashamed to say that we haven’t picked up a net for years — we’ve been concentrating more on mammals, birds, and plants, and have been neglecting our insects. Last year, however, we re-discovered insects through the joys of photography, and now you’ve stirred up a new thought — get ourselves a net and go out to see what we can catch. Thanks for the inspiration to remember the bugs!

    • You touch on an important point about nature blogging – since I started, I too have found new found enthusiasm, not only for my chosen subject, but also for other natural history subjects that I’ve neglected for too long. I’m always happy when someone tells me they’ve been inspired by what I write, but I’m even more grateful to the many whose blogs I follow that have spurred me to become a better natural historian myself.

  5. DougT says:

    The wariest species I have ever encountered is Cicindela macrocnema on a beach in Costa Rica. They were fiendish. I have only succeeded in capturing tigers without a net twice. Both times were in the Pacific Northwest, and both involved clamping a vial over the beetle. I got C. bellissima on a sand dune in Oregon and C. longilabris on a trail in Washington.

    • If you’ve ever encountered any of the flightless species (in the Midwest they are Cicindela unipunctata, C. cursitans, C. celeripes, and C. pruinina), you must collect them by hand. Cicindela unipunctata isn’t so bad, but the others crazy – they can run like the dickens and simply evaporate amongst the clumps of vegetation. I’m sure you’ll recall my story of collecting C. celeripes (aptly named the “swift tiger beetle”) in southwestern Iowa.

      • cicindela says:

        I’ve collected unipunctata twice – I saw an individual on the side of a trail and dove, hands first, after it right into a thorn bush – the beetle became mixed up in the leaf litter and there I was, stuck in a thorn bush, digging frantically in the leaves.

        As it turns out, I must have disturbed a mating pair – seconds after I managed to catch the first individual, I spotted a second beetle (of the opposite sex) and grabbed it as well. All in all, not terribly hard, you should just watch where you are going…

        • I’ve lept before I looked on several occasions, myself🙂

          That’s pretty much been my experience with unipunctata – when you see one, you tend to see more in the same general area. I’ve always seen them lumbering along woodland trails – never abundant, but over the years I’ve accumulated a nice little series of them.

          I wish those dang ant-mimics were as easy to catch as unipunctata!

  6. Kirk says:

    One of the nice aspects of living in Maine, (especially where I live) is that occasionally during the summer, it cools down enough to slow up tiger beetles. But then again, you are usually too busy itching and slapping the black flies to catch any but the slowest.

  7. DougT says:

    You remind me of one other species that I have caught by hand, the (?nearly) flightless C. debilis in Arizona. Flightless ≠ easy.

    • I haven’t encountered that species, but it seems to be very close to C. cursitans in behavior and morphology. You’re right, flightless does not equal easy, especially with those little ant-mimicking buggers!

  8. John S. says:

    Hi, Ted. Thanks for adding my blog to your links. This tiger beetle post and video are great, as are the comments. I can’t wait to try these capturing techniques!

  9. Beau says:

    How fun- I’m going to show the video to my son. He’s kind of getting “Ew, yuck!” these days, so I have to try to capture his interest again. He used to pick up all kinds of stuff without thinking about it!

    • My older daughter used to love bugs and went out with me a lot, while the younger one was afraid of anything that crawled. When the older one hit 10 she suddenly could care less, but the younger one came to the rescue with a sudden interest. She’s 9 now and shows much more interest than the older one ever did. Will it stick? Who knows – all you can do is expose them to as many things as possible.

  10. MObugs41 says:

    I had to laugh when you talked about you and your friend running in a frenzy trying to catch beetles and how you must have looked to any passersby. It reminded me of two summers ago when at 2AM I could not sleep. I decided it would be the perfect time to look for moths. So nightgown , flashlight and net in hand I headed outside to “hunt” for my quarry. As I came back around the house I spotted my husband boxers and all giving me the strangest look, and mouthing the words to me “What the H*** are you doing?” I explained and he just rolled his eyes and shook his head. I’m sure he was ready to have me committed, but it made perfect sense to me, can’t sleep? bug hunt!

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