Ground Beetles as Weed Seed Predators

As diurnal animals, we are generally unaware of the slew of animal activity that occurs during the night. Even if we were to venture out in the dark, we still wouldn’t be able to detect much. Our eyes don’t see well in the dark, and shining a bright light to see what’s going on results in chasing away those creatures that prefer darkness. We just have to trust that their out there, and in the case of ground beetles, if they’re present in our gardens we should consider ourselves lucky.

Ground beetles are in the family Carabidae and are one of the largest groups of beetles in the world with species numbering in the tens of thousands. They are largely nocturnal, so even though they are diverse and relatively abundant, we rarely get to see them. Look under a rock or log during the day, and you might see a few scurry away. Or, if you have outdoor container plants, there may be a few of them hiding out under your pots with the pillbugs. At night, they leave the comfort of their hiding places and go out on the hunt, chasing down grasshoppers, caterpillars, beetle grubs, and other arthropods, as well as slugs and snails. Much of their prey consists of common garden pests, making them an excellent form of biological control. And, as if that weren’t enough, some ground beetles also eat the seeds of common weeds.

Harpalus affinis via wikimedia commons

Depending on the species, a single ground beetle can consume around a dozen seeds per night. In general, they prefer the seeds of grasses, lambsquarters (Chenopodium album), pigweeds (Amaranthus spp.), and various plants in the mustard family (Brassicaceae). The seeds of these species are small with seed coats that are easily crushed by a beetle’s mandibles. Providing suitable habitat, avoiding insecticides, and minimizing soil disturbance (i.e. reducing or eliminating tillage) are ways that healthy ground beetle populations can be encouraged and maintained. Ground beetles prefer dense vegetation where they can hide during the daytime. Strips of bunchgrasses and herbaceous perennials planted on slightly raised bed (referred to as beetle banks) are ideal because they provide good cover and keep water from puddling up in the beetles’ hiding spots.

The freshness of weed seeds and the time of year they are available may be determining factors in whether or not ground beetles will help control weed populations. A study published in Weed Science (2014), looked at the seed preferences of Harpalus pensylvanicus, a common species of ground beetle that occurs across North America. When given the choice between year old seeds and freshly fallen seeds of giant foxtail (Setaria faberi), the beetles preferred the fresh ones. The study also found that when giant foxtail was shedding the majority of its seeds, the density of beetles was on the decline, meaning that, at least in this particular study, most of the seeds would go uneaten since fewer beetles were around when the majority of the seeds were made available. Creating habitat that extends the ground beetles’ stay is important if the goal is to maximize the number of weed seeds consumed.

Harpalus pensylvanica via wikimedia commons

Of course, the seeds of all weed species are not considered equal when it comes to ground beetle predation. Several studies have sought to determine which species ground beetles prefer, offering seeds of a variety of weeds in both laboratory and field settings and seeing what the beetles go for. Pinning this down is difficult though because there are numerous species of ground beetles, all varying in size and activity. Their abundances vary from year to year and throughout the year, as do their food sources. Since most of them are generalists, they will feed on what is available at the time. A study published in European Journal of Entomology (2003) found a correlation between seed size and body mass – small beetles were consuming small seeds and large beetles were consuming large seeds, relatively speaking.

Another study published in European Journal of Entomology (2014) compared the preferences of ground beetles in the laboratory to those in the field and found that, in both instances, the seeds of field pansy (Viola arvensis) and shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) were the preferred choice. The authors note that both species have lipid-rich seeds (or high “energy content”). Might that be a reason for their preference? Or maybe it’s simply a matter of availability and “the history of individual predators and [their] previous encounters with weed seed.” After all, V. arvensis was “the most abundant seed available on the soil surface” in this particular study.

Pterostichus melanarius via wikimedia commons

A study published in PLOS One (2017), looked at the role that scent might play in seed selection by ground beetles. Three species of beetles were offered the seeds of three different weed species in the mustard family. The seeds of Brassica napus were preferred over the other two by all three beetle species. The beetles were also offered both imbibed and non-imbibed seeds of all three plants. Imbibed simply means that the seeds have taken in water, which “can result in the release of volatile compounds such as ethanol and acetaldehyde.” The researchers wondered if the odors emitted from the imbibed seeds would “affect seed discovery and ultimately, seed consumption.” This seemed to be the case as all three beetle species exhibited a preference for the imbibed seeds.

Clearly, ground beetles are fascinating study subjects, and there is still so much to learn about them and their eating habits. If indeed their presence is limiting the spread of weeds and reducing weed populations, they should be happily invited into our farms and gardens and efforts should be made to provide them with quality habitat. For a bit more about ground beetles, check out this episode of Boise Biophilia.

Further Reading:

Year of Pollination: Pollinator Walk at Earthly Delights Farm

Last week I had the privilege of attending a pollinator walk with a local entomologist at Earthly Delights Farm, a small, urban farm in Boise, Idaho. The entomologist was Dr. Karen Strickler, an adjunct instructor at College of Western Idaho and the owner of Pollinator Paradise. A small group of us spent a couple of hours wandering through the farm looking for pollinators and discussing whatever pollinator or non-pollinator related topic that arose. Earthly Delights Farm, along with growing and selling produce using a subscription-based model, is a seed producing farm (and part of a larger seed growing operation called Snake River Seed Cooperative), so there were several crops flowering on the farm that would typically be removed at other farms before reaching that stage, such as lettuce and carrots. The farm also shares property with Draggin’ Wing High Desert Nursery, a nursery specializing in water efficient plants for the Intermountain West, which has a large demonstration area full of flowering plants. Thus, pollinators were present in abundance.

A series of isolation tents over various crops to help prevent cross pollination between varieties.

A series of isolation tents placed over various crops to help prevent cross pollination between varieties – an important component of seed saving.

While many groups of pollinators were discussed, including leafcutter bees, bumblebees, honeybees, sweat bees, hummingbirds, and beetles, much of our conversation and search was focused on syrphid flies. Flies are an often underappreciated and overlooked group of pollinators. While not all of the 120,000 species of flies in the world are pollinators, many of them are. The book Attracting Native Pollinators by the Xerces Society has this to say about flies: “With their reputation as generalist foragers, no nests to provision, and sometimes sparsely haired bodies, flies don’t get much credit as significant pollinators. Despite this reputation, they are often important pollinators in natural ecosystems for specific plants, and occasionally for human food plants.” They are especially important pollinators in the Arctic and in alpine regions, because unlike bees, they do not maintain nests, which means they use less energy and require less nectar, making them more fit for colder climates.

One food crop that flies are particularly efficient at pollinating is carrots. According the Xerces Society, carrot flowers are “not a favorite of managed honeybees.” Most flies do not have long tubular, sucking mouthparts, so they search for nectar in small, shallow flowers that appear in clusters, such as plants in the mint, carrot, and brassica families. Flower-visiting flies come in search of nectar and sometimes pollen for energy and reproduction. While acquiring these meals they can at times inadvertently collect pollen on their bodies and transfer it to adjacent flowers. They are generally not as efficient at moving pollen as other pollinators are, but they can get the job done.

Blister beetle on carrot flowers (a preferred food source of flies). Beetles can be important pollinators, even despite chewing on the flowers as they proceed.

Blister beetle on carrot flowers (a preferred food source of flies). Beetles can be effective pollinators as well, even despite chewing on the flowers as they proceed.

During the pollinator walk, we were specifically observing flies in the family Syrphidae, which are commonly known as flower flies, hoverflies, or syrphid flies. Many flies in this family mimic the coloring of bees and wasps, and thus are easily confused as such. Appearing as a bee or wasp is a form of protection from predators, who typically steer clear from these insects to avoid being stung. The larvae of syrphid flies often feed on insects, a trait that can be an added benefit for farmers and gardeners, particularly when their prey includes pest insects like aphids. Other families of flies that are important pollinators include Bombyliidae (bee flies), Acroceridae (small-headed flies), Muscidae (house flies), and Tachinidae (tachinid flies).

Common banded hoverfly (Syrphus ribesii) - one species of hundreds in the syrphid fly family, a common and diverse family of flower visiting flies (photo credit:

Common banded hoverfly (Syrphus ribesii) – one species of thousands in the syrphid fly family, a common and diverse family of flower-visiting flies (photo credit:

Because many species of flies visit flowers and because those flies commonly mimic the appearance of bees and wasps, it can be difficult to tell these insects apart. Observing the following features will help you determine what you are looking at.

  • Wings – flies have two; bees have four (look closely though because the forewings and hindwings of bees are attached with a series of hooks called hamuli making them appear as one)
  • Hairs – flies are generally less hairy than bees
  • Eyes – the eyes of flies are usually quite large and in the front of their heads; the eyes of bees are more towards the sides of their heads
  • Antennae – flies have shorter, stubbier antennae compared to bees; the antennae of flies also have bristles at the tips
  • Bees, unlike flies, have features on their legs and abdomens designed for collecting pollen; however, some flies have mimics of these features
Bumblebee on Echinacea sp.

Bumblebee visiting Echinacea sp.

Another interesting topic that Dr. Strickler addressed was the growing popularity of insect hotels – structures big and small that are fashioned out of a variety of natural materials and intended to house a variety of insects including pollinators. There is a concern that many insect hotels, while functioning nicely as a piece of garden artwork, often offer little in the way of habitat for beneficial insects and instead house pest insects such as earwigs. Also, insect hotels that are inhabited by bees and other pollinators may actually become breeding grounds for pests and diseases that harm these insects. It is advised that these houses be cleaned or replaced regularly to avoid the build up of such issues. Learn more about the proper construction and maintenance of insect hotels in this article from Pacific Horticulture.

A row of onions setting seed at Earthly Delights Farm. Onions are another crop that is commonly pollinated by flies.

A row of onions setting seed at Earthly Delights Farm. Onions are another crop that is commonly pollinated by flies.

Year of Pollination: Pollination Syndromes and Beyond

A discussion of pollination syndromes should begin with the caveat that they are a largely outdated way to categorize plant-pollinator interactions. Still, they are important to be aware of because they have informed so much of our understanding about pollination biology, and they continue to be an impetus for ongoing research. The concept of pollination syndromes exists in part because we are a pattern seeking species, endeavoring to place things in neat little boxes in order to make sense of them. This is relatively easy to do in a hypothetical or controlled environment where the parameters are selected and closely monitored and efforts are made to eliminate noise. However, the real world is considerably more dynamic than a controlled experiment and does not conform to black and white ways of thinking. Patterns are harder to unveil, and it takes great effort to ensure that observed patterns are genuine and not simply imposed by our pattern seeking brains.

That being said, what are pollination syndromes?  Pollination syndromes are sets of floral traits that are thought to attract specific types of pollinators. The floral traits are considered to have evolved in order to appeal to a particular group of pollinators – or in other words, selective pressures led to adaptations resulting in mutualistic relationships between plants and pollinators. Pollination syndromes are examples of convergent evolution because distantly related plant species have developed similar floral traits, presumably due to similar selection pressures. Pollination syndromes were first described by Italian botanist, Federico Delpino, in the last half of the 19th century. Over several decades his rudimentary ideas were fleshed out by other botanists, resulting in the method of categorization described (albeit briefly) below.

Honey bee on bee's friend (Phacelia tanacetifolia)

A honey bee getting friendly with bee’s friend (Phacelia tanacetifolia)

Pollination by bees (melittophily) – Flowers are blue, purple, yellow, or white and usually have nectar guides. Flowers are open and shallow with a landing platform. Some are non-symmetrical and tubular like pea flowers. Nectar is present, and flowers give off a mild (sometimes strong) sweet scent.

Pollination by butterflies (psychophily) – Flowers are pink, purple, red, blue, yellow, or white and often have nectar guides. They are typically large with a wide landing pad. Nectar is inside a long, narrow tube (or spur), and flowers have a sweet scent.

Pollination by hawkmoths and moths (sphingophily and phalaenophily) – Moth pollinated flowers open at night, have no nectar guides, and emit a strong, sweet scent. Flowers pollinated by hawkmoths are often white, cream, or dull violet and are large and tubular with lots of nectar. Those pollinated by other moths are smaller, not as nectar rich, and are white or pale shades of green, yellow, red, purple, or pink.

Pollination by flies (myophily or sapromyophily) – Flowers are shaped like a basin, saucer, or kettle and are brown, brown-red, purple, green, yellow, white, or blue.  Some have patterns of dots and stripes. If nectar is available, it is easily accessible. Their scent is usually putrid. A sapromyophile is an organism that is attracted to carcasses and dung. Flies that fall into this category visit flowers that are very foul smelling, offer no nectar reward, and essentially trick the fly into performing a pollination service.

Pollination by birds (ornithophily) –  Flowers are usually large, tubular, and red, orange, white, blue, or yellow. They are typically without nectar guides and are odorless since birds don’t respond to scent. Nectar is abundant and found at various depths within the flower.

Pollination by bats (chiropterophily) – Flowers are large, tubular or bell shaped, and white or cream colored with no nectar guides. They open at night, have abundant nectar and pollen, and have scents that vary from musty to fruity to foul.

Pollination by beetles (cantharophily) – Flowers are large and bowl shaped and green or white. There are no nectar guides and usually no nectar. The scent is strong and can be fruity, spicy, or putrid. Like flies, some beetles are sapromyophiles.

Locust borer meets rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa)

A locust borer meets rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa)

In addition to biotic pollination syndromes, there are two abiotic pollination syndromes:

Pollination by wind (anemophily) – Flowers are miniscule and brown or green. They produce abundant pollen but no nectar or odor. The pollen grains are very small, and the stigmas protrude from the flower in order to capture the windborne pollen.

Pollination by water (hydrophily) –  Most aquatic plants are insect-pollinated, but some have tiny flowers that release their pollen into the water, which is picked up by the stigmas of flowers in a similar manner to plants with windborne pollen.

This is, of course, a quick look at the major pollination syndromes. More complete descriptions can be found elsewhere, and they will differ slightly depending on the source. It’s probably obvious just by reading a brief overview that there is some overlap in the floral traits and that, for example, a flower being visited by a bee could also be visited by a butterfly or a bird. Such an observation explains, in part, why this method of categorizing plant-pollinator interactions has fallen out of favor. Studies have been demonstrating that this is not a reliable method of predicting which species of pollinators will pollinate certain flowers. A close observation of floral visitors also reveals insects that visit flowers to obtain nectar, pollen, and other items, but do not assist in pollination. These are called robbers. On the other hand, a plant species may receive some floral visitors that are considerably more effective and reliable pollinators than others. What is a plant to do?

Pollination syndromes imply specialization, however field observations reveal that specialization is quite rare, and that most flowering plants are generalists, employing all available pollinators in assisting them in their reproduction efforts. This is smart, considering that populations of pollinators fluctuate from year to year, so if a plant species is relying on a particular pollinator (or taxonomic group of pollinators) to aid in its reproduction, it may find itself out of luck. Considering that a flower may receive many types of visitors on even a semi-regular basis suggests that the selective pressures on floral traits may not solely include the most efficient pollinators, but could also include all other pollinating visitors and, yes, even robbers. This is an area where much more research is needed, and questions like this are a reason why pollination biology is a vibrant and robust field of research.

A bumble bee hugs Mojave sage (Salvia pachyphylla)

A bumble bee hugs the flower of a blue sage (Salvia pachyphylla)

Interactions between plants and pollinators is something that interests me greatly. Questions regarding specialization and generalization are an important part of these interactions. To help satiate my curiosity, I will be reading through a book put out a few years ago by the University of Chicago Press entitled, Plant-Pollinator Interactions: From Specialization to Generalization, edited by Nickolas M. Waser and Jeff Ollerton. You can expect future posts on this subject as I read through the book. To pique your interest, here is a short excerpt from Waser’s introductory chapter:

Much of pollination biology over the past few centuries logically focused on a single plant or pollinator species and its mutualistic partners, whereas a focus at the level of entire communities was uncommon. Recently we see a revival of community studies, encouraged largely by new tools borrowed from the theory of food webs that allow us to characterize and analyze the resulting patterns. For example, pollination networks show asymmetry – most specialist insects visit generalist plants, and most specialist plants are visited by generalist insects. This is a striking departure from the traditional implication of coevolved specialists!