British beetle guide: where to see and how to identify
From the striking rose chafer to the deceptive wasp beetle, beetles are a fascinating group of insects found widely throughout the UK. Here is our expert British beetle guide, including where to see and how to identify.
Whether a majestic stag beetle, shiny chafer or stunning green tiger, the lumbering beetle is one of our favourite garden insects.
Here is our guide to British beetle species, including where to see and how to identify them.
How many beetle species are there in the UK?
With over 4,000 species in the British Isles, many of which are very small, beetles are often portrayed as being a ‘difficult’ group, the preserve of experts. However, there are plenty of beetle species that are either large, brightly coloured or easy to identify in the field or from photos, such as ladybirds, stag beetles, and longhorn beetles. Around 40% of the UK's insects species are beetles.
Confirmations can always be sought at the 'I spot nature' identification site where your uploaded photos (of beetles, and indeed any organism) are regularly checked by experts and enthusiasts.
What do beetles eat?
British beetle species have a varied diet. Some species, such as the lesser stag beetle like to eat rotting wood, while the orange and black sexton beetle, favour decaying animals to lay their larvae.
Meanwhile, the dor beetle eats faeces from animals. Many other species prefer the pollen and nectar from plants.
How many legs does a beetle have?
Like all insects, beetles have six legs. Beetles have a head, thorax and abdomen, which its legs and wings are attached to.
British beetle species to spot
Green tiger beetle
With long legs and sharp jaws, this fearsome predator takes short flying leaps to attack prey or escape. It is very active on patches of sparsely vegetated or bare sandy or chalky soil.
Mostly nocturnal, it is also called May-bug for its appearance in spring. Old reports note clouds of cockchafers banging on to lit windows or street lamps. Larvae are fat, pale, C-shaped maggots in the soil, feeding on grass.
Learn about cockchafers in this guide on the BBC Wildlife Magazine website
This living jewel is metallic green all over. Unlike most beetles, it flies with its wing-cases closed and has a special notch at the side to accommodate its membraneous flight wings. It often sits on flowers.
The brightest lemon-yellow of any British beetle, this always has 22 round jet-black spots on its cheerful wing cases. A mildew feeder, it grazes on mould and fungal hyphae.
This small, shiny oval beetle is so named because it swims in tightly, sometimes frenzied circles on the surface of ponds and slow moving rivers and streams. Here it hunts small creatures that fall onto the water. It can also dive to catch prey.
Learn more about freshwater pond wildlife.
Violet ground beetle
A large (3cm long), fast-moving and aggressive beetle with a powerful bite that hunts worms, small slugs and other invertebrates. It roves at night in woods, meadows and gardens and has a distinctive purple sheen to its carapace. If alarmed, it gives over a rank smell.
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Our most familiar beetle and a nursery rhyme favourite with its bright red oval carapace with black spots. Still common though declining. Its dark-grey larva have a reptilian appearance and, like adults, prey voraciously on aphids.
Up to 4cm long, these are hugely impressive insects with distinctively bulbous abdomens and are found commonly on meadow flowers, particularly celandines, in spring. There are five species in the UK and they are named for their shiny, oily appearance.
A raft of handsome species found on summer flowers (particularly thistles and umbellifers) and are fantastic pollinators. All have long, thin bodies. The red soldier is orange-red all over but with a black tip to its abdomen. Other species have black-grey heads and abdomens separated by red thoraxes.
Britain’s largest rove beetle is a gothic monstrosity found under logs and stones. Its short wing-cases expose a flexible hind body – it will rear up and wave its large jaws menacingly, and it can nip.
Red-headed cardinal beetle
It is named for its papal colour scheme, which warns predators not to eat it as it contains poisons (harmless to pick up). Flat larvae, with two-pronged tail, feed under logs and bark.
Green tortoise beetle
Flattened and flanged, it clamps down on to its water-mint food-plant leaf if disturbed. The larvae keep hold of their dry excrement and moulted skins to make a predator-avoiding blob-parasol on their tail end.
This has deceptively wasp-like colours, plus striking red legs, jerky movements and hawking flight. Larvae feed in dead wood; adults are often seen in sunshine running on stacked logs, or buzzing over bramble flowers.
The UK’s largest beetle spends most of its life out of view. The larva feeds on dead wood below ground for five years before emerging as an adult. Only the male possesses the ‘antlers’, which are infact enlarged jaws. The stag beetle has declined due to a loss of dead wood habitat.
Why not join the great stag hunt and help protect this precious beetle?
Bloody nosed beetle
This handsome black beetle is flightless and can be seen walking along the ground or in low vegetation in April. It’s often found in coastal areas and on grasslands in the south of the UK. The beetle’s name comes from its defence strategy of exuding bright red fluid from its mouth when threatened.
This large beetle has a distinctive black domed body that shines blue or violet in the light. It feeds on dung and is found in grasslands and woodlands grazed by sheep or cattle. The endless munching of dor beetles saves from being knee deep in animal dung.
This distinctive beetle has a black and orange patterning on its wing cases. It performs an important service in burying and recycling carrion (usually small mammals and birds). Its antennae are packed full of receptors enabling it to smell a dead animal up to a mile away.
Learn more about carrion beetles in this guide on the BBC Wildlife Magazine website.
The most invasive ladybird, the harlequin arrived in Britain in 2004 and has spread rapidly. This beetle has the potential to jeopardise many of our native ladybird species through competing for food or eating their larvae. It is very variable in appearance.
Great diving beetle
Both larvae and adults are voracious predators of tadpoles, aquatic insect larvae and small fish. The larvae have a scorpion-like appearance and live underwater for two years before transforming into the adult beetle. The 3cm long adults come to the surface regular to replenish their air supply by sticking their abdomen’s out of the water.
Thick legged flower beetle
This spectacular shiny metallic green beetle is most often seen on flowers such as daisy, cow parsley and hawthorn blossom. Only the male has the thickened ‘thighs’ that give the beetle its name; it uses them to impress females. The larvae live in hollow plant stems.
The glow worm is not a worm but a beetle. Adult female glow worms are famed for their glow; they are wingless and double the size of the males. Glow worms like chalky or limestone grassland where there are plenty of snails and slugs for their larvae to feed on.
How to make a bug hotel
Whether you have a large space, or just a windowbox, you can make a bug hotel that not only provides sanctuary for a host of fascinating creatures but also allows you to get close to them.
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