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Subterranean pitfall traps for beetles

My subterranean pitfall traps have turned up some very rarely seen beetles in recent years, including the first British specimens of Oxylaemus cylindricus since c.1900 as well as Oxylaemus variolosus, Medon dilutus, Medon castaneus, Trichonyx sulcicollis and Aeletes atomarius. A few people have asked me for more information about the traps. So this is a guide to building and using subterranean pitfall traps for beetles.

The subterranean pitfall traps are based on a section of rainwater downpipe and are a modified version of an original design by John Owen (1995). The trap is buried with its top flush with the ground surface and capped so that invertebrates can only enter through the mesh sides of the trap. The screw thread on the collecting bottle allows it to be set in place at the bottom of the pipe, retrieved and replaced without having to dig up the trap, using a screw-cap fixed to the end of a long rod (the servicing rod).

Downpipe section, collecting bottle, cap and servicing rod.

The crucial requirement to build a successful trap is to find screw-top poly-bottles of a diameter which is just less than the internal diameter of rainwater downpipe. By carefully wrapping insulating tape round and round below the shoulder of the bottle, its diameter can be built up layer by layer until it just fits into the downpipe with minimal gap. Then cut three holes into the shoulder of the bottle.

Collecting bottle

My traps are made from a single 50 cm length of downpipe. I cut three oval holes in the sides in order to trap beetles active in the soil between 5 and 35 cm depth. My collecting bottles are 13 cm tall, so there must be at least 13 cm of intact downpipe below the bottom edge of the hole to house the collecting bottle. I cut the holes out of the downpipe using a jigsaw and in the example shown, I have marked the areas to be cut using red insulating tape. The three remaining vertical spans of pipe wall that remain, each the width of a piece of insulating tape, are enough to keep the structure rigid.

The mesh is then wrapped round the pipe and held in place just by a couple of cable ties, pulled tight, at top and bottom. It is possible for the mesh to move up and down over the pipe but in practice, this is not a problem. I have used traps with broader gauge mesh than illustrated: they catch larger beetles such as Carabus species, Dorcus parallelepipedus, etc. but let more soil fall in meaning dirtier samples.

I tend to use neat vehicle antifreeze or propylene glycol as the trapping fluid. Owen (1995) used a mixture of sherry and vinegar. Unlike surface pitfall traps which need to be serviced every few weeks if they are not to become dried out or flooded, subterranean traps seem to be little affected by the weather and can be comfortably left for a couple of months in the summer between servicing visits.

If I made any more traps, I would definitely make them shorter, maybe 40 cm long. I have often found that digging a 50 cm deep hole at the roots of a tree is a long, sweaty and blistering job and on several occasions I have had to give up on about the 6th attempt after hitting yet another solid root, immovable rock or clay pan.

Apart from a few early trials in the garden (notable for finding Oxyomus sylvestris (Scarabaeidae) near the compost heap) I have only used subterranean pitfall traps to sample at the roots of dead or decaying veteran trees. As I’ve been targeting saproxylic beetles, my tactic has been to try and set the trap right up against decaying roots, preferably soft, sappy and with signs of fungal decay. As I’m digging the hole, I’ll separate the spoil into soil and woody material, so that when I backfill, I make sure that any bits of rotten root that I’ve dug through get placed up against the mesh. I backfill the hole quite loosely so that there will be plenty of room for invertebrates to move through the soil.

A subterranean pitfall trap set inside a hollow red-rotten oak stump, before back-filling the hole.

I then cap the top of the pipe, put a log or stone over the cap, bury it out of sight and take a few photos of the spot so I can find it again.

The samples are inevitably quite dirty, especially the first, but I’m often surprised at how little soil there is in the samples by the third or fourth visit. But at their worst, it can take a couple of hours per sample to separate the beetles from the dirt. The identification process can also be very time-consuming but in a good way – don’t run subterranean pitfall traps if you don’t want to have to identify loads of beetles that you’ve never seen before!

There is often a substantial bycatch of woodlice, millipedes, centipedes, spiders and flies, amongst other groups. I’ve yet to find anything amongst the woodlice, millipedes and centipedes that couldn’t easily be found without subterranean trapping. I’m more optimistic that these traps could turn up some rarely seen flies but although a few of my subterranean trap samples have been looked at by dipterists, there’s been nothing noteworthy so far.

Reference

Owen, J.A. (1995). A pitfall trap for repetitive sampling of hypogean arthropod faunas. Entomologist’s record and journal of variation, 107, 225 – 228.


19 Comments

  1. Clive Washington says:

    Sounds fantastic, I’m off to B&Q this weekend! What time of year are these most productive? Is it worth putting some in now or just waiting until spring?

  2. markgtelfer says:

    Nigel Cuming has asked for more detail about the mesh. It is 6mm gauge galvanised mesh which you can buy in sheets from Homebase and no doubt other garden centres/ DIY stores.

  3. markgtelfer says:

    Clive Turner has asked for help finding suitable collecting bottles. I’m pretty sure that mine are Fisherbrand Wide-Mouth Field Sample Bottles (8 oz., 250mL), available here but inconveniently the minimum order is for 250:
    http://www.fishersci.com/ecomm/servlet/itemdetail?catalogId=-1&productId=2856036&distype=0&fromSearch=0&storeId=10652&langId=-1

  4. markgtelfer says:

    Clive W, I’ve not used them in the winter. But trying something that other coleopterists haven’t bothered with is usually a good way of making a discovery! John Owen ran subterranean pitfall traps for up to 52 weeks but I can’t see any mention of seasonality in his excellent paper:
    Owen, J.A. (2000) Coleoptera occurring underground at the roots of old trees. Ent. Gaz., 51: 239 – 256.

  5. Clive Washington says:

    OK, I have installed one at the foot of an old pine stump in my garden. Initially I had a lot of trouble with the whole tube filling with soil, which is rather loose and sandy, and falls in through the mesh – which is why Mark probably backfilled with coarser material if possible. But then I hit on the idea of using a short piece of half-round guttering as a shield while I backfilled one side; then I eased it out and did likewise to fill the other side. Result – virtually no soil inside the trap!

  6. Simon Horsnall says:

    Could you clarify the dimensions please. Is there a 5cm length of intact pipe at the top with 30cm holes followed by 13cm for the bottle? If you were to reduce the length of the trap, would you reduce the size of the hole to 20cm?

  7. markgtelfer says:

    Hi Simon, in short … yes. My traps have 5 cm of intact pipe at the top, a 30 cm section with three holes cut in the sides, and a 15 cm intact section at the bottom (50 cm total depth). If I made any more traps, I would reduce the total depth to 40 cm by reducing the holes to 20 cm.

  8. Chris Cathrine says:

    What are you finding in the way of spiders? Also, do you get any pseudoscorpions?

    Tempted to give this a go!

  9. markgtelfer says:

    Ian Dawson has used some of my subterranean traps targeting spiders so you could ask him what success he’s had. If you would be interested in receiving spiders and pseudoscorpions from other peoples’ subterranean traps, I’d gladly send you mine.

  10. Clive Washington says:

    Starting to get things in the trap now. I had a nice Tachinus subterraneus this morning, as well as four Platyderus depressus – which I had not recorded in the garden last year. A dead newt, which I had allowed to remain as bait, had turned into a seething mass of diptera larvae. I’m using the trap dry because I can check it frequently. I have some more bottles and tube so I hope to get a few more traps down later this month.

  11. Clive Washington says:

    Continuing to get plenty of Platyderus depressus and today’s check revealed a single Rhizophagus perforatus. Also a dead Bombus lucorum queen, which I would rather not have killed. Has anyone else had problems with bumble bees getting into their traps? Mine isn’t securely capped and I might change that.

  12. markgtelfer says:

    Clive, I have often returned to a subterranean trap to find the lid has been dislodged in which case they do catch a lot of queen bumblebees. I am still searching for a good way of capping the traps that resists the attentions of dogs, badgers, or whatever it is that keeps interfering.

  13. Hello Mark,

    I am looking to start basic pitfall trapping in the garden and elsewhere. I have seen formalin mentioned as a trapping solution so I am pleased to know you use easily accessible anti-freeze. How do you process your specimens after collection in terms of cleaning, etc.

    Regards,
    Andrew.

  14. markgtelfer says:

    Hi Andrew,
    For specimens trapped in anti-freeze I don’t do anything special, just a rinse in water and then they’re ready to pin/card.
    If you’re running pitfalls in the garden, consider live trapping. It’s preferable to kill-trapping, as long as you can check the traps every few days and put some shelter in the bottom of the trap (e.g. a few leaves and stones).

  15. Hello Mark,

    Thanks, it is good to know it is as simple as that! Live trapping with shelter in the base sounds ideal if I am staying home to be able to keep an eye on proceedings.

    Thanks,
    Andrew.

  16. Michael Smith says:

    Hi Mark

    I’m just about to start using some of these in my MSc project, have you thought about using a corer of some kind to make digging holes for the traps easier?

  17. markgtelfer says:

    Hi Michael,
    I did look at post-hole digging tools in an agricultural supplies store but they were too pricey.

  18. Mickael Hedde says:

    Hi !
    thank you for your post.
    I wonder if you also collect worms with this method. Did you ?

  19. markgtelfer says:

    Mickael, It’s a few years now since I’ve used them and I really can’t remember! But if there were any worms, there weren’t many and I don’t think this would be a good technique for sampling worms. They do catch quite a lot of slugs in some places, unfortunately.

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