The creature is blessed with an almost exotic beauty, possessing legs and wings of a brilliant, iridescent green and bronze. The Victorians admired the colours so much that they picked off the beetle's wing cases and used them as sequins.
Only one plant, the tansy, can nourish the beetle, which has always made life a struggle. And now the little creature seems to have stopped using its wings, making its search for nutrition nearly impossible.
The population of the beetle in the United Kingdom is mostly confined to two crops of tansy - one in the Trent Vale, the other on the banks of the River Ouse, near York. As the creature nears extinction, botanists at the University of York yesterday began working with the Environment Agency to try to save it. They are gathering on the banks of the Ouse where the agency, which is temporarily moving tansy plants to do flood- defence work, says it has found a colony of about 130 beetles.
The beetles and their larvae will also be moved for their own protection, and when the plants and beetles are returned the botanists will monitor them.
"We are unsure why their numbers have declined," Elly Andison, an ecologist with the Environment Agency, said yesterday, picking beetles from plants with painstaking precision. "They used to be found from Devon to Cumbria. They can fly but they no longer seem to want to use their wings. They're tending to stay on one tansy plant instead and when that dies they do, too."
The tansy plant's own vulnerability to drought conditions has been tough on the beetle. "If the plant isn't growing, their entire habitat has gone," Ms Andison said.
And it should be said that the Victorians did not help the tansy beetle. Although its brilliant colours do not fade after death, it is possible that the sequin makers failed to wait that long before taking the wing cases.
Hopes of restoring the colonies rest in part on encouraging them to spread their wings once more. The York tansy plants will be spaced farther apart when replanted and the beetles' jumps between them monitored. The tansy beetle, it seems, is just waiting to learn what many of us have already been taught: that life is just a sequence of leaps into the unknown.Reuse content