Main content

Beetles represent 20 per cent of all living species. Brett Westwood explores how they have influenced arts and science around the world.

Beetles, in the group of insects known as Coleoptera or 'sheathed wing', make up roughly one quarter of all known living species on the planet, that's about 400,000 species. It's perhaps not surprising that beetles are at the heart of the many ways we take inspiration from nature.

"Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home,
Your house is all burned and your children are gone....."

This nursery rhyme is one of many across Europe that demonstrates our close relationship with ladybirds. Peter Marren, leading wildlife author, explains the story behind the rhyme and why the ladybird in folklore is seen as 'Our Lady's Bird'. The beetles collection at the Natural History Museum reveals the gold and silver beetles of the Cloud Forests of Costa Rica collected by Walter Rothschild in 1894. These beetles have evolved to evade predators with wing covers that reflect light and mimic drops of rain. Scarab beetles found in Ancient Egypt had a huge impact on both the ecology and culture of the region and we find out why they were revered as sacred.

In many cultures across the world, from Asia and India to the Americas, beetle wings have been gathered for centuries and crafted into textiles and jewellery. In the Amazon region, the Shaur tribe incorporated beetle wings into ceremonial dress to enhance their prowess as warriors.
With poetry by John Clare and a nursery rhyme written by A.A. Milne, we celebrate the beetle and the role it plays as both an exotic and mundane creature whose biology is so extraordinary that some scientists now wish to copy it. The new science of Biomimetics is evolving fast and beetles, with all their varied forms and irresistible structural colours, may yet prove as invaluable in our future as they have been in our past.

Available now

28 minutes

Last on

Mon 2 Nov 2015 21:00

Max Barclay

Max Barclay
Max Barclay is an entomologist and the Collection Manager for beetles at the Natural History Museum, London. He manages the 10 million specimen collection, which dates back to the voyages of Charles Darwin, Captain Cook and beyond and is visited by hundreds of external scientists per year. He has had work published in over 50 scientific papers and manages our team of beetle curators.


A life-long naturalist, he began his career as a volunteer at Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust. He believes in maintaining the relevance of natural history and in enthusing the next generation to understand and engage with the natural world.

Andrew Parker

Andrew Parker
Dr Andrew Parker is a Research Fellow at the Natural History Museum, London. His main research involves biomimetics - learning from nature to improve industrial products and businesses.

At the Museum he specialises in colour, particularly structural colour, and water management surfaces in nature. He is also interested in the origin and evolution of vision and visual systems, with special reference to the Cambrian period. Andrew’s taxonomic interest lies with Myodocopa ostracods ("seed-shrimps").

Andrew has a PhD from Macquarie University, Australia and is an Honorary Research Fellow at the Green Templeton College, University of Oxford.

Dr Michael Bartl

Dr Michael Bartl
Dr Michael Bartl is an associate professor of materials and physical chemistry, and an adjunct professor of physics at the University of Utah. He is the scientific co-founder of Navillum Nanotechnologies, and a Deputy Editor for Scripta Materialia.

He is beginning a new role as the executive director of the Center for Energy Efficient Electronics Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Bartl was the recipient of a “DuPont Young Professorship”, and was named a “Brilliant 10” researcher by Popular Science magazine in 2010 and a Scialog Fellow by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement in 2013.

Joanna Hardy

Joanna Hardy
Joanna Hardy is an independent fine jewellery consultant, conducting masterclasses and lectures worldwide. She is a published author with her books ‘Collect Contemporary Jewelry‘, and ‘Emerald’ both published by Thames and Hudson and is a regular contributor to The Daily Telegraph Luxury Magazine.

She curates Contemporary Jewellery selling exhibitions, is an accredited NADFAS lecturer, a Freeman of the City of London, a Liveryman of the Goldsmiths Hall, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and is a regular jewellery specialist on the BBC Antiques Roadshow.  

Dr Richard Hofstetter

Dr Richard Hofstetter
Dr Richard Hofstetter is an Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University. His research focuses on forest health issues related to insects, plant-insect interactions, predator-prey dynamics, biological control, bark beetle biology, bioacoustics, and mutualistic interactions.

In North American Forests, bark beetles chew through a hundred million acres of forests, eventually killing the trees. On hearing a sound recording of bark beetles inside a tree, Dr Hofstetter was inspired to see if playing the sound recording could stop beetles causing such devastation to the trees

Peter Marren

Peter Marren
Peter Marren is a writer, one-time journalist and all-round naturalist. His book The New Naturalists won the silver medal of the Society of the History of Natural History and he is the author of the New Naturalist conservation volume, simply titled Nature Conservation. His latest book, Rainbow Dust, about butterflies, is to be published next spring.

He also writes obituaries for the Independent, conservation news for Whitaker’s Almanack, formerly has a column in The Countryman and is regular contributor to British Wildlife, which includes his famous column of biting wit, Twitcher in the Swamp.

Professor Victoria Rivers

Professor Victoria Rivers
Professor Victoria Rivers is Professor Emerita in Design at the University of California, Davis.

She is engaged in textiles research ranging from the producing and exhibiting of dyed and embellished textile artworks to researching and publishing subjects on South and Southeast Asian textiles, to curating exhibitions.

She has been the recipient of an NEA Visual Artist’s Fellowship, a Council for the International Exchange of Scholars Indo-American Fellowship for research in India, and was a cultural ambassador through the US.Department of State, Artists in the Embassies program in conjunction with her work in an exhibition at the US Embassy in Accra, Ghana, where she lectured and taught workshops in November 2003.

Dr Tom Turpin

Dr Tom Turpin
Dr Tom Turpin is a Professor of Entomology at Purdue University, Indiana. He has taught a variety of courses from pest management to insects in prose and poetry and theatre.

He started the Bug Bowl at Purdue University and an insect knowledge quiz bowl for students called the Linnaean Games. He writes a regular popular column on insects for newspapers entitled “On 6 Legs”, available as a podcast and transcription, and is the author of two popular books and one textbook on insects.

Broadcasts

Quiz: Extinct or Not?

Quiz: Extinct or Not?

Which of these species have vanished?

Natural History Heroes

Natural History Heroes

Scientists celebrate the pioneers who inspired their work and lives.

Natural Histories Comedy

Natural Histories Comedy

Humorous perspectives on life from the plants and animals in the series.

10 things we got wrong about dinosaurs

10 things we got wrong about dinosaurs

Dinosaur myths, misconceptions and mysteries.