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:

Attempts to Avenge the Acts of Cirsium arvense – A Biocontrol Story

Some weeds are so noxious, their crimes so heinous, and their control so challenging that desperation leads us to introduce other non-native organisms to contain them. Alien vs. alien duking it out in a novel environment. It seems counterintuitive – if an introduced species has reached the status of invasive, is it worth the risk of bringing in yet another foreign species in attempt to defeat it? We all know what happened to the old lady who swallowed the spider to catch the fly, yet for decades now we have been doing just this. It’s something we call classical biological control – introducing pathogens, insects, or other organisms to help control the spread of problematic ones.

Such attempts mostly fail, but we keep trying. The attempts made on Cirsium arvense exemplify this. The trouble is that even when such efforts fail, they aren’t always benign, as we shall see.

Canada thistle, a misnomer for Cirsium arvense, is a European native that has been acting in the role of noxious weed for centuries, even in its native land. First introduced accidentally to eastern North America sometime in the 1600’s, it has made its way across the continent and has since become one of our worst weeds in both natural and agricultural settings, as well as in our yards and gardens. Its seeds get around, carried by wind and water, attached to animals or deposited in their dung, stowing away as contaminants in crop seed or passengers in the ballast water of ships. But casual dispersal by seed isn’t quite as troubling as what it does once it takes root.

Several related species of thistle are also pesky weeds, but unlike Cirsium arvense, they are mostly annuals or biennials, spreading only by seed. Cirsium arvense is a perennial plant with roots that spread deep and wide. New shoots form readily along the spreading roots, forming a veritable thicket of stems that can be dozens of feet wide and giving the plant a more appropriate common name, creeping thistle.

The stems of creeping thistle can grow more than four feet tall and are adorned with alternately arranged, prickly, lobed leaves. Groups of small, urn-shaped flowerheads are born at the tops of stems. Flowers are pink to purple, sweet smelling, and favored by pollinators. Individual plants either produce all male flowers or all female flowers, and since individual plants are actually large colonies, an adjacent colony of the opposite sex is necessary in order for the production of viable seeds. Like other plants in the aster family, the seeds come with a feathery pappus, suggesting wind dispersal. However, the pappus is often weakly attached, sloughing off without seeds in tow, leaving them to the fate of gravity.

flowers of creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense) via eol

It comes as no surprise that when plants readily spread by root, stolon, or rhizome, they are well suited to become some of our most bothersome weeds. Eliminating their seed heads does little to reduce their spread. Pulling them out of the ground is futile; you will never get all the roots. Tilling them under only aids in their dispersal since chopped up roots and stems now have the chance to produce new plants. Herbicide treatments can set them back, but they must be repeated on a long-term and exacting schedule in order to thoroughly kill the roots. Considering what we’re up against when it comes to plants like creeping thistle, it makes sense why we would introduce foreign fighters to do our bidding, especially if such fighters are enemies of the plant in their native land.

The list of insects that have been employed (or at least considered) in the fight against creeping thistle is extensive. It includes thistle tortoise beetle (Cassida rubiginosa), seedhead weevil (Rhinocyllus conicus), thistle crown weevil (Trichosirocalus horridus), thistle gall fly (Urophora cardui), thistle stem weevil (Ceutorhynchus litura), thistle bud weevil (Larinus planus), seedhead fly (Orellia ruficauda), thistle flea beetle (Altica carduorum), thistle leaf beetle (Lema cyanella), painted lady (Vanessa cardui), and sluggish weevil (Cleonus piger). Unfortunately, and perhaps not surprisingly, as Bugwood reports, “biocontrol currently provides little or no control of Canada thistle populations, although some agents weaken and kill individual plants.” Despite the fact that there are well over 100 known organisms that consume or attack Cirsium arvense, nothing manages to do long-term damage.

thistle tortoise beetle (Cassida rubiginosa) – a common biocontrol agent of invasive thistle species (via wikimedia commons)

The status of creeping thistle biocontrol efforts on two South Dakota wildlife refuges was reported on in a 2006 issue of Natural Areas Journal. Multiple introductions of at least half a dozen different insect species had occurred beginning in 1986. Nearly 20 years later, they were not found to have had a significant effect on creeping thistle populations. The authors concluded stating they “do not advocate further releases or distribution in the northern Great Plains of the agents” examined in their study. They also advised that “effectiveness be a primary consideration” of any new biocontrol agents and expressed concern that some introduced insects have the potential to attack native thistles.

North America is home to quite a few native thistles, several of which are rare or threatened. A USDA guide to managing creeping thistle in the Southwest highlights the importance of protecting native thistles – “especially rare or endangered species” – from biocontrol agents and gives two examples of endangered thistles in New Mexico that are at risk of such agents.

The federally threatened species, Pitcher’s thistle (Cirsium pitcheri), which is restricted to sand dune shorelines along the upper Great Lakes, has quite a bit working against it. An added blow came a few years ago when it was discovered that the flowerheads of Pitcher’s thistle were being damaged by the thistle bud weevil (Larinus planus), a biocontrol agent employed against creeping thistle in the area. A paper published in Biological Conservation in 2012 examining the extent of weevil damage on the rare thistle cautioned that, “although some biological control agents may benefit some rare plant taxa, the negative impacts of both native insects and introduced herbivores are well documented.”

Pitcher’s thistle (Cirsium pitcheri) via eol

Classical biological control, if and when it works, can be quite valuable, especially if it reduces the need for other management inputs like herbicides and cultivation. Unfortunately, it is rarely successful and can have unintended consequences. Goldson et al. report in a 2014 issue of Biological Conservation that the success rate is only around 10% and that even that 10% is at risk of failing at some point. In his book, Where Do Camels Belong?, ecologist Ken Thompson cites that “only about one in three species introduced as biological controls establish at all, and only half of those that do establish (i.e. about 16% of total attempts) control the intended enemy,” adding that “biological control is just another invasion, albeit one we are trying to encourage rather than prevent, and its frequent failure is another example of how poorly we understand the effects of adding new species to ecosystems.”

Still, while some warn against being too optimistic, others argue that it is an essential tool in the war against invasive species and, while acknowledging that a few introductions have gone awry, assert that “significant non-target impacts” are rare. Clearly, this is a rich topic ripe for healthy debate and one that I will continue to explore. If you have thoughts or resources you’d like to share, please do so in the comment section below.

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This post was inspired in part by episode six of The Shape of the World podcast. I highly recommend listening to the entire series.