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Beetle families: an overview

by Trevor James, edited by Mark G. Telfer. Latest edit: 6th March 2015.

In the most recent checklist of British and Irish beetles (Duff, 2012) the Order Coleoptera is divided into three Suborders: Myxophaga (one species only); Adephaga (comprising the predatory Ground Beetles and five water beetle families); and the Polyphaga (all the rest, divided into 16 Superfamilies). The list includes 4,072 species in 1,265 genera and 103 families (the equivalent figures for the 2008 edition were 4,034 species in 1,246 genera and 106 families). What follows is a very brief summary of the characteristics of the families.

Suborder: Myxophaga

Family: Sphaeriusidae
A small family of minute water margin beetles that feed on algae. A single British species: Sphaerius acaroides.

Suborder: Adephaga

Family: Gyrinidae
The ‘Whirligig Beetles’, named from their habit of swimming haphazardly on the surface film of water. They are specialised predators, and are especially characterised by having eyes divided across the centre so that the upper half can focus above the water, and the lower half below its surface.

Family: Haliplidae
Known as ‘Crawling Water Beetles’, this is a family of 19 species of omnivorous aquatic beetles that live in submerged vegetation.

Family: Noteridae
The ‘Burrowing Water Beetles’, mostly a tropical family, with only 2 British and Irish representatives.

Family: Hygrobiidae (name changed from Paelobiidae in Duff (2008))
There is a single species in Britain and Ireland – the aquatic ‘Screech Beetle’, named from its ability to emit a squeaking sound when handled, by rubbing the 7th abdominal segment against the ribbed underside of the elytra.

Family: Dytiscidae
The ‘Diving Beetles’ – an entirely aquatic predatory family of beetles found in all kinds of still and running water.

Family: Carabidae‘Ground Beetles’ – often fast-running, mostly predators of a wide range of other insects, although a few species feed on plant material, and some have highly specialised food sources, such as springtails or molluscs.

Suborder: Polyphaga

Superfamily: Hydrophiloidea
This contains 7 families of beetles, of which the Helophoridae, Georissidae, Hydrochidae, and Spercheidae are aquatic, often living around water margins. The Hydrophilidae is also partly an aquatic family, but has a substantial number of species that specialise in using dung as a food source. The Sphaeritidae (‘False Clown Beetles’) and Histeridae (‘Clown Beetles’ – from the way they tumble about) are also feeders on similar decaying matter.

Superfamily: Staphylinoidea
Mostly comprising the largely predatory ‘Rove Beetles’ (Staphylinidae), which characteristically have shortened wing-cases, exposing abdominal segments, this Superfamily also includes four other families:
Hydraenidae (‘Minute Moss Beetles’ – aquatic species),
Ptiliidae (‘Feather-winged Beetles’ – minute beetles of decaying plant matter),
Leiodidae (known as ‘Round Fungus Beetles’, but also feeding on carrion or decaying plant or animal remains), and
Silphidae (‘Carrion Beetles’ – specialising in using dead animal remains as a food source).
The Rove Beetles also include the Pselaphinae (sometimes known as ‘Ant-loving Beetles’), the Scaphidiinae (‘Shining Fungus Beetles’) and the Scydmaeninae (‘Ant-like Stone Beetles’) that were formerly regarded as separate families.

Superfamily: Scarabaeoidea
This Superfamily includes the familiar Stag Beetle and its allies (Lucanidae), along with the ‘Dor Beetles’ and their relations (Geotrupidae, now including Odonteus armiger, formerly placed in family Bolboceratidae) that are well-known as dung feeders. It also includes the fairly large family of ‘Scarab Beetles’ (Scarabaeidae), many of which also feed on dung, and a related small family, the Trogidae.

Superfamily: Scirtoidea
This Superfamily consists of three families: the Eucinetidae (‘Plate-thigh Beetles’ – from the large coxal plate at the base of each femur, characteristic of the genus), of which only one occurs in Britain; the Clambidae (‘Fringe-winged Beetles’), very small beetles that live in decaying plant remains; and the Scirtidae (‘Marsh Beetles’) that occur in damp waterside vegetation and have aquatic larvae.

Superfamily: Dascilloidea
In Britain and Ireland, the entire superfamily (‘Soft-bodied Plant Beetles’) is only represented by a single species, Dascillus cervinus (Dascillidae) that occurs in calcareous grassland.

Superfamily: Buprestoidea
The ‘Jewel Beetles’ and their allies (Buprestidae) form the only family in Britain and Ireland, characterised often by their brilliant reflective colouration and long, narrow form, mostly developing in the timber of trees, some as leaf-miners.

Superfamily: Byrrhoidea
The principal family Byrrhidae consists of the ‘Pill Beetles’ and their allies, often characterised by their rounded shape and by being able to retract their legs into grooves on their undersides. Other families in the superfamily are largely at least partly aquatic, comprising the Elmidae (‘Riffle Beetles’), occurring in fast-flowing streams on submerged stones; the Dryopidae (‘Long-toed Water-beetles’), with characteristic, short antennae, living in water margin vegetation; Limnichidae, with one minute species found in aquatic habitats; the Heteroceridae (‘Variegated Mud-loving Beetles’), living in water margins; the Psephenidae (‘Water Penny Beetles’ – from the shape of their aquatic larvae), with one British species; and the Ptilodactylidae, with one recently introduced species occurring in glass-houses.

Superfamily: Elateroidea
This is a rather heterogeneous superfamily, comprising especially the family Elateridae (‘Click Beetles’), with their characteristic ability to suddenly flex their thorax against their abdomens, as a means of jumping to safety. The superfamily also includes the closely-related Eucnemidae (‘False Click Beetles’); the Throscidae, also similar to Click Beetles; the Drilidae (‘False Firefly Beetles’), with one British species; the Lycidae (‘Net-winged Beetles’), whose elytra show clear vestiges of the net-veining found in the forewings of other insect orders; the Lampyridae (‘Glow-worm Beetles’); and finally the Cantharidae (‘Soldier Beetles’ and allies), with soft bodies and often brightly coloured, thin elytra, conspicuous on flowers in summer.

Superfamily: Derodontoidea
The single species Laricobius erichsonii (Derodontidae) is a recent arrival from central Europe, occurring on coniferous and broad-leaved trees, where it feeds on woolly aphids. It has been used as a biocontrol agent in North America.

Superfamily: Bostrichoidea
A superfamily which, in Britain, contains a number of species regarded as pests of foodstuffs and timber. It includes the Dermestidae (‘Larder Beetles’) and the Ptinidae (name changed from Anobiidae in Duff (2012)) (‘Wood-worm Beetles’ and allies), as well as the Bostrichidae (‘Horned Powder-post Beetles’).

Superfamily: Lymexyloidea
This superfamily contains only one British family, the Lymexylidae (‘Ship-timber Beetles’) with only two, rather scarce representatives in Britain and Ireland: Lymexylon navale and Hylecoetus dermestoides, which develop in decaying trees.

Superfamily: Cleroidea
Clerid beetles fall into five families, of which the most conspicuous are the Malachiidae, often iridescent green and red in colour, and the related Dasytidae (together forming what was formerly regarded as the family Melyridae – ‘Soft-winged Flower-beetles’). The superfamily also includes the Phloiophilidae (1 species), Trogossitidae (5 species) and Cleridae (14 species, often called ‘Chequered Beetles’ – from their conspicuous striped or patterned colouration, sometimes mimicking bees or ants). Species are either predators or feed on pollen etc., and develop in the soil or in dead wood of trees and stems of plants, sometimes causing damage to crops.

Superfamily: Cucujoidea
A large superfamily, including some of our most conspicuous beetles, as well as some of the least conspicuous. It currently includes 19 families in Britain and Ireland, ranging from fungus feeders (e.g. Cryptophagidae – ‘Silken Fungus Beetles’), through pollen beetles and their allies (Kateretidae, Nitidulidae), food product pests (Silvanidae), ‘Root-eating Beetles’ (Monotomidae), to the conspicuous Coccinellidae (‘Ladybirds’). Only three of the families have so far been covered by this website: Phalacridae, Erotylidae and Corylophidae.

Superfamily: Tenebrionoidea
This is another quite large and diverse superfamily of 17 families, covering a wide range of species. The Tenebrionidae themselves comprise the ‘Darkling Beetles’ (worldwide a large group, often in desert areas) including the once-familiar Blaps (‘Cellar Beetles’), as well as flower-visiting species and some food pests, such as Tribolium species (‘flour beetles’) and the genus Tenebrio itself (‘Meal-worm Beetles’). The Mycetophagidae (‘Hairy Fungus Beetles’), Ciidae (‘Minute Tree-fungus Beetles’) and Tetratomidae (‘Polypore Beetles’) are fungus specialists. Other families include the Mordellidae (‘Tumbling Flower-beetles’) and their look-alikes the Scraptiidae (‘False Flower-beetles’), the Colydiidae (‘Cylindrical Bark-beetles’), the often scarce but also conspicuous Meloidae (‘Oil Beetles’), the very conspicuous Pyrochroidae (‘Cardinal Beetles’), and the ant-mimicking Anthicidae (‘Ant-like Flower-beetles’). Some are charismatic species of ancient timber, such as the Melandryidae (‘False Darkling Beetles’) and the Aderidae.

Superfamily: Chrysomeloidea
This superfamily includes a large part of the principal plant-eating species in the two main families: Chrysomelidae (‘Seed and Leaf Beetles’) and the Cerambycidae (‘Longhorn Beetles’ – from their long antennae). The two other families: Orsodacnidae and Megalopodidae are small families related to the Chrysomelidae. Many species tend to be conspicuous as adults, often with metallic colours, and quite a few are crop pests. A few are semi-aquatic. The ‘Longhorn Beetles’ include some of our largest beetle species, and mostly specialise in developing in timber trees.

Superfamily: Curculionoidea
Comprising 11 families in Britain and Ireland, these together comprise the weevils, mostly recognised by possession of long ‘snouts’ for feeding on plants. Some are bark beetles, while most live on their varied host plants. A very few are aquatic, and some are subterranean. Some genera also have conspicuous metallic or other colouration.

Duff, A.G. (2008). Checklist of beetles of the British Isles. 2008 edition. Wells: A.G. Duff.
Duff, A.G. (2012). Checklist of beetles of the British Isles. 2012 edition. Iver: Pemberley Books.

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