Writes for Wildlife

celebration and protection of the natural world

Month: February 2019

Colorado Potato Beetle (Leptinotarsa decemlineata)

The Colorardo Potato Beetle is a fascinating insect, and although it is not native to the UK, I once found one, and that event, and all that followed inspired this post.

Colorado Potato Beetles are striking in appearance, around the size and shape of a ladybird but the wing cases have alternating black stripes with bands of orange or yellow, running along their length. There are usually 5 black stripes on each wing case and this gives rise to its other name: the ten-striped spearman.

Colorado beetle identifiaction: from top eggs, adult beetle & larvae. Taken from UNECE Guide to Seed Potato Diseases, Pests and Defects. (Can be found here).

This distinctive little beetle is native to Mexico, and the southern US including the state of Colorado. It is primarily seen as a pest by humans, as it feeds voraciously, breeds vigorously and is commonly resistant to pesticides. The food plants of choice are, as the name suggests, are potato crops. However these beetles also feed on tomato and aubergine plants and a native crop called the ‘buffalo bur’. A heavy beetle infestation can cause significant damage to the plant and may even defoliate an entire crop.

So why I am writing about a little stripy Mexican beetle? We do not have Potato beetles in the UK, we do however have a lot of potatoes. Potato crops are a large part of the farming industry in the UK. Over 6 Million tonnes were produced in 2017. (Reference)

 The beetles can breed up to three new generations during one potato growing season, and therefore one beetle can quickly become hundreds. The threat of potato beetles arriving in the UK is real, and thus they are a Notifiable species.

What does notifiable mean?

If you find a potato beetle in the UK you are legally required to notify the government. This is what happened to us. I found a potato beetle in a packet of spinach leaves. The amazing thing about this is that we even knew it was a potato beetle. I love wildlife and the natural world, but I won’t pretend that I can identify, on sight, every species of beetle from around the world. The kids have a board game called bug bingo*, and one of the ‘bugs’ on the board is a potato beetle, so even the kids recognised it immediately when we found it.

Colorado Beetle on my thumb.

The spinach leaves had come from Spain, so I did a little googling and it was only then that I discovered that they are a notifiable pest in the UK. Having worked as a vet in the UK shortly after the Foot and Mouth Disease Outbreak, and BSE, I was aware of notifiable diseases but I had never reported an insect before!

These beetles are hardy. I mean really tough. The one I had was still alive and crawling around despite having been refrigerated, and enclosed in a bag for days.

When I notified the government, at my local office in Perth, by email. I sent a photo and asked what to do next. The office sent down a member of staff to identify and collect the beetle and remove it. He told me that these beetles, despite originating in warm tropical and temperate climates, can actually withstand freezing. Specimens have been stored in the freezer and yet quite happily started walking around again after defrosting. This is what makes it such a threat to the UK potato crop. Beetles which ravage potato plants, can produce numerous offspring, may be resistant to pesticide and can also survive our colder winter weather could cause a serious problem. The best way to protect against them is to prevent them coming into the country.

Biosecurity is so important and the potato beetle is just one example. We import many food stuffs from the continent that may carry a beetle. It can occur with any of the usual crops on which potato beetles feed, but also on crops sown in a field which grew potatoes in a previous season.

The beetles mate before overwintering in the earth, this means that a female emerging from the soil in spring is likely to already be carrying viable eggs, and able to lay them when she locates a host plant. So it only takes one female carrying eggs to get in to the UK to establish a colony, hence the vigilance.  

If you find a Colorado beetle, in the UK, you must notify the government. I have attached the relevant contact details here, along with an identification guide, just in case.

*Our family enjoys ‘Bug Bingo‘ and would recommend it, particularly if you have budding entomologists in your house. Easy enough for younger ones to play and enjoyable enough for the whole family together.

Litter in Larbert & the Threat to Wildlife – Let’s Work Together

There is a brand new business in Larbert and Stenhousemuir – a Tim Hortons coffee shop. There are several upsides to this. It replaces the dilapidated and abandoned McCowan’s factory which was an eyesore in the middle of town. Tim Hortons provides new jobs and business for the local area, as well as somewhere for people to meet socially. And, of course, there is coffee. If you are a coffee lover you will grasp the enormity of that last benefit. I am a coffee fan and would hate to deprive anyone of their dose of happiness in a cup either, but there is something that concerns me.

The New Coffee Shop, busy with customers.

Larbert and Stenhousemuir have a litter problem. A big problem. I pick up litter every time I go out of my house, and my kids often follow suit. Sometimes one item, sometimes several, but there is always something rolling around on the pavement to put in the bin or recycle.

Did you know that a Falkirk Council employee comes every afternoon, to collect the litter dropped after Larbert High School lunch break? I didn’t until I spoke to him recently. This is every (school) day. Every day there is so much litter dropped in our town that it has become necessary for there to be a designated person for picking it up. Invariably, the wind whips some of it away, and it is impossible for him to collect it all. Falkirk Council have provided numerous bins between the school and the town centre, at least 4 within a 0.5km stretch, and more in the centre itself. Still, there is litter.

There is litter all along the main streets & blowing around the car parks. There is commonly litter in the Scottish Wildlife Trust site, the Carron Dams. The Dams borders the High School property, and I regularly see numerous plastic bottles floating in the bodies of water. The Carron Dams is unique wetland habitat and a Wildlife Reserve, so this is of particular concern. I wonder how many fewer plastic bottles would be floating in the ponds at Carron Dams if there was a deposit return scheme in the school or town centre. There is always rubbish along the Lade path, and despite massive efforts to clear up and signs posted to keep it clean, here is a picture I took last week……

Litter in the Lade, between Larbert and Stenhousemuir.
In just a few short weeks, many common frogs will be arriving to spawn here.

My concern with Tim Hortons opening, and especially because it has a drive through, is that the numbers of single-use cups, lids, stirrers and boxes, would increase dramatically and that inevitably, some would end up as litter.

It didn’t take long. During opening week in December I saw the first festive Tim Hortons cup blowing around, discarded in the gutter.

The benefits of replacing a dilapidated old factory site with a shiny, new thriving business are detracted from if we have to wade through drifts of litter to enjoy it. Litter is of course, not purely a cosmetic concern, (although I don’t know who actually enjoys living in, and looking at litter), and not the main reason I am writing here. The primary concern for me is one of sustainability, wildlife safety and plastic pollution.

Wildlife are harmed by litter, and so it follows the more litter around, the more damage inflicted on our native species. Eventually this can lead to a reduction in wildlife numbers or diversity. Wildlife is essential for our health and well-being, whether we are aware of it or not. The Falkirk area is also lucky enough to have several waterways, rivers and canals. Not only wonderful natural environments which we can enjoy but essential wildlife habitats too. Waterways flow to the sea carrying any rubbish they contain which arrived on the wind. There is increasing information available about the devastating problems that marine plastics cause for wildlife,  and something we should all make ourselves aware of.

Animals can become entangled or trapped in litter, causing painful injuries and sometimes death. Litter mistaken for food may be consumed, which can fill the digestive tracts of animals who then slowly die of starvation, unable to digest or pass the foreign objects. There is some information here, on the RSPCA site about the damage litter can cause and ways to dispose of waste to keep wildlife safe.

We have a surprising number of wildlife species in our local area, despite being mostly urban and somewhat industrial. To benefit from all that nature brings us, we need to be aware and take care of it. Together we can make a huge difference for the benefit of each other as well as our wildlife. Simple tasks, when carried out by many, can have a huge impact.

What can we do?

Next time you go out for a coffee, dispose of your cup responsibly. If possible, take your own cup or flask for the baristas to fill. Maybe pick up a bottle or can or crisp packet if you see one while you are out enjoying our local nature spots. Pehaps even carry a bag just for this purpose. Educate others about litter, the harm it can cause wildlife and how to use the council recycling schemes. We must also question the necessity for plastic single-use items every time they are offered to us, and make every effort to seek alternatives.

Let’s support our local businesses and enjoy our wonderful natural spaces. Let’s look after each other and the environment, one coffee cup at a time.