On the Beech

Photo By T. Kebert, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wiki Commons Images

…the beechen woods in summer, the far-up cloud of green, translucent leaves, with open spaces full of green, shifting sunlight and shadow. 

W.H. Hudson, Birds and Man, Ch.5., A Wood Wren at Wells.  

Fagus sylvatica L., Common Beech, European Beech

Family: Fagaceae

A northern temperate species, native of Europe and Britain, where it is often the dominant or climax species in woodlands on chalk and limestone hills, and on some acidic, well-drained sands. Although the native range is restricted in the UK (SE England, SE Wales) it has been so widely planted in woods, policies, parks and gardens, as hedges, shelter belts, sometimes pollarded in wood pasture, that it can be found throughout the British Isles. 

It is also one of the most important forestry trees in Europe, and is extensively planted there. The timber has some 250 diverse uses; used ‘in solid’ as a building material indoors in England since at least the 13th century, for stairs and flooring; in cabinet making, high-class joinery, turnery, solid and laminated furniture; for chair frames, often gilded or painted, or turned for Windsor chair parts, steam-bent for half-round chair backs or curved legs; plates, bowls, platters, cooking utensils, toys, bobbins, sports equipment, shoe heels, and tool handles. Beech has long been coppiced for charcoal and firewood – it has high energy potential. Twigs and foliage have been gathered for winter fodder, probably since the Early/Middle Bronze age. 

Useful and beautiful. 

New leaves on beech trees, Gribskov Forest in the northern part of Sealand, Denmark.  By Malene Thyssen, CC BY-SA 3.0, malene at mtfoto.dk 

Slender, conical, and graceful in youth, then, with age, achieving a hugely domed, much-branched crown, sometimes self-layering where arching branches touch the ground. The bark is smooth, silver-grey, and very thin; occasionally ridged or rippled. Beech bark is very susceptible to sun scald on open-grown specimens. 

The buds are distinctive, easily recognisable in winter; long, slender and sharp-pointed, clothed in scales that are rich red-brown at the base, paler at the tips clothed in fine tawny hair. They’re disposed at opposite intervals on slightly flexuous (zig-zag), purple-brown twigs marked with lenticels.

Beech Bud, © El Grafo, CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Leaves are ovate or obovate, with slightly wavy margins, acute at the tip, each of the parallel veins sports tiny teeth at the margin. Soft-fledged on first flush in late spring, clothed in silky white hairs, they are a brilliant, translucent emerald – the green leaf-light beneath an emergent beech is unsurpassed. 

Photo By Marianne Cornelissen-Kuyt, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wiki Commons Images 

At maturity, they assume a darker, shining green, paler beneath, retaining long, white-silk hairs in the leaf axils, and on larger veins. The change in hue, and in the tone of the wind sighing through the coarsened leaves in late summer, signals a turn in the seasons.

By early autumn, they have assumed soft yellows, then turning coppery gold, and warm rufous red-brown before falling. In common with young oaks and hornbeams, juvenile beech retain their desiccated leaves overwinter, a phenomenon known as marcescence. 

Photo By Luca Mengoni – Flickr: 108, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wiki Commons Images

In spring, it bears monoecious, catkin-like flowers, male and female in separate clusters on the same twig; males are pale, golden, long-stalked and pendent, the stouter stalked females upright, hairy, and in a bristly cupule. The seed, beech nut or mast, is triangular, woody and glossy brown, and seed productivity is variable; good mast years occur every 5-8 years.

Photo By Aiwok, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wiki Commons Images 

The nuts, which ripen in October, are a valuable food source for squirrels, wood pigeons, woodpeckers and jays, and their forgotten stashes play a major role in seed dispersal. They can take 2–6 years to germinate. The first seed leaves are relatively large, and perhaps this confers major advantage to beech seedlings, which show a remarkable capacity to establish and grow in the shade beneath a canopy of established trees. 

Photo By W. Bulach, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wiki Commons Images 

The Associates of Beech

The all-round utility of Common Beech isn’t restricted to humans, birds and small mammals, however. In common with most of our native trees, it can be a vital resource for invertebrates as a larval food source. The invertebrates and their larvae, in turn, are critical players in the cycle of decay and reassimilation, as well as being one of the most protein-rich food sources for songbirds and other insectivores. And there are over a dozen fungi specifically allied to beech, Meripilus giganteus, Giant Polypore, and Oudmansiella mucida, Porcelain Fungus, among them.  

The relationship of beech and humankind is ancient, but the bond with invertebrate species that use it as a larval host must be much, much older. As with any partnership between native species, their connection is the consequence of co-evolution over aeons. Virtually every herbaceous native of grassland, heathland, or meadow supports a suite of often host-specific dependants, but in almost every case, the numbers are much higher for woody natives. Common Beech hosts over two hundred spp. of invertebrate, across most Orders; 6 Acari, 73 Coleoptera; 7 Diptera; 80 Lepidoptera. Here are some of them: 

Coleoptera: Anobiidae: Grynobius planus (Fabricius, 1787). The only species in this genusa small wood-boring beetle, about 4 mm long, found in well-wooded areas and hedgerows, mainly in the south in Britain. Its host plants include birch, alder, willows, thorns and Common Beech. 

Photo By Siga – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wiki Commons images

Coleoptera: Anthribidae: Enedreutes sepicola (Fabricius 1792). Saproxylic, feeding on decaying wood, a specialist of Common Beech. 

Photo By Udo Schmidt from Deutschland, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Coleoptera: Attelibidae: Attelabus nitens (Scopoli). A leaf-rolling weevil. This beetle’s usual habitat is woodland & parkland. Its primary hosts are various species of oak, but it has also been recorded on Common Beech, & on birches.

Photo By NobbiP, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wiki Commons images

Coleoptera: Buprestidae: Agrilus viridis (Linnaeus, 1758.) A jewel beetle, sometimes known as Beech Splendour beetle, is a wood-boring beetle; larvae eat the wood of living trees — most often Goat Willow, Salix caprea, but also birches and Common Beech. It can become a pest species in horticulture and forestry.

Photo By Siga, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Coleoptera: Cerambycidae: Clytus arietis (L.). A wasp-mimicking longhorn beetle that lays its eggs in fallen branches and logs; the larvae feed on dead wood. The adults are pollen and nectar feeders.  

Photo By Pudding4brains, Public Domain, via Wiki Commons Images

Coleoptera: Cerambycidae: Anaglyptus mysticus (L.). Rufous-shouldered Longhorn beetle, denizen of woodland edge & hedgerow. Females lay eggs in bark crevices or in other species’ burrows, in damaged or dead wood. Larvae burrow under bark, often tunnelling into heartwood leaving galleries packed with fine wood dust. 

Photo By Siga, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae: Galerucinae: Crepidodera fulvicornis (F.) The adults feed on host foliage – mainly willows, but also birches, and Common Beech –and probably also on nectar and pollen. Eggs are laid in soil below host trees and larvae feed on the roots. 

Photo By Janet Graham, CC BY 2.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Coleoptera: Curculionidae: Entiminae: Phyllobius argentatus (L.) Silver-green Leaf Weevil. Found on broadleaf trees, particularly Birch, but also on Oak, Hawthorn, Common Beech, and willows. Adults are foliage and flower feeders, occasionally becoming a minor pest of fruit and hazel trees in orchards.

Photo By Aiwok, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Diptera: Cecidomyiidae: Mikiola fagi (Hartig) Beech Gall. These midge galls are monophagous on beech. More common in continental Europe, where it can be a pest species. When the larva is fully grown, the gall drops to the ground, and the larva closes the opening with silk. The larva hibernates in the gall, and pupates in spring. 

Photo By Kurt Stüber [1] – caliban.mpiz-koeln.mpg.de/mavica/index.html
Part of http://www.biolib.de, CC BY-SA 3.0

Lepidoptera: Arctiidae:  Atolmis rubricollis (Linnaeus, 1758) Red-necked Footman, a lichen feeder on the lichens that grow on the bark of Common Beech, oaks, birches, spruce and Larch. Atolmis, from atolmia, meaning lack of courage, may refer to the larval habit of hiding by day in the bark crevices of host trees; the specific epithet derives from from ruber, red – and collis -neck. 

Photo By Ilia Ustyantsev, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Lepidoptera: Arctiidae: Eilema sororcula (Hufnagel, 1766) Orange Footman. As with most of the adorable Footman moths, it feeds on lichen and algae, in this case on the bark of oaks and Common Beech. The genus name, meaning a veil, refers to the wrapping of the body with the wings; the meaning of sororcula, little sister, is less clear. Perhaps it’s an affectionate term?  

Photo By Patrick Clement, CC BY 2.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Lepidoptera: Drepanidae: Watsonalla cultraria, syn. Drepana cultraria (Fabricius, 1775) Barred Hook-tip. A denizen of beech woods, it overwinters as a pupa within a curled beech leaf, or sometimes within beech leaves spun together to create a shelter. The original generic name, from drepanon, Greek, for a reaping hook; the specific is from the Latin for a knife or ploughshare – a curved ploughshare. 

Photo By Patrick Clement, CC BY 2.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Lepidoptera: Geometridae: Ennominae: Cleorodes lichenaria (Hufnagel, 1767), Brussels Lace. Another feeder on lichens found on rocks and tree bark; the specific epithet refers to its association with the larval host.  

Photo By Patrick Clement, CC BY 2.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Lepidoptera: Geometridae: Ennominae: Ennomos erosaria (Denis & Schiffermuller, 1775) September Thorn. Found in parks, gardens, and woodland, using oaks, limes, birches and Common Beech as larval host. On the wing July–early October, eggs are laid on the host plant, and overwinter there. The larvae emerge in spring and pupate between leaves spun together with silk. The specific epithet means gnawed away, or eroded, and refers to the dentate outer edge of the wing, which looks as though areas have been bitten out.  

Photo By Ilia Ustyantsev, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Lepidoptera: Geometridae: Ennominae: Plagodis dolabraria (Linnaeus, 1767) Scorched Wing. Uses oaks, birches, sometimes Beech, or sallows as larval host. The Latin word for a pickaxe is dolabra, and, using a little imagination, the outline of this beautiful moth does indeed resemble a pickaxe head. 

Photo By Gail Hampshire, CC BY 2.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Lepidoptera: Geometridae: Geometrinae: Geometra papilionaria (Linnaeus, 1758) Large Emerald. Though most often reported using birches, Hazel and Alder, the Large Emerald has also been reported on Common Beech. From the Latin, papilio, the specific name means butterfly; I can see the resemblance, even if some Lepidopterists have argued that it’s a superficial one.  

Photo By Ben Sale, CC BY 2.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Lepidoptera: Geometridae: Larentiinae: Operophtera fagata (Scharfenberg) Northern Winter Moth. Despite the specific name, which suggest that Beech – Fagus – is a larval host, birches and alders are the first choices for a larval food source. It has been recorded on Common Beech, and on rosaceous fruit trees (plums, apples, cherries). It occurs in woodland, heath, scrub and in gardens and orchards. On the wing October-December. 

Photo By Ilia Ustyantsev, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Lepidoptera: Limacodidae: Heterogenea asella (Denis & Schiffermuller, 1775) Triangle. A tiny micromoth with a wingspan of 15–20mm, a Red Data Book species in the UK, where it is largely restricted to south-east England. Its preferred habitat is ancient beech and ancient oak woodland, with both of those species favoured as larval hosts. Hazel, birches, Small-leaved Lime, and Horse Chestnut have also been recorded. The specific name is interesting – it is a reference to the form of the larvae, which resembles a species of woodlouse, Oniscus asellus.    

Photo By Ilia Ustyantsev, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Lepidoptera: Limacodidae: Apoda limacodes (Hufnagel, 1766) Festoon.  Nationally Scarce, using oaks and beech as a larval host. Restricted to the southern half of England, with a preference for mature and/or ancient woodland, although it has also been recorded in old hedgerows with mature oaks. The larva overwinters in a cocoon in the leaf litter. Both generic and specific names of this species have made me smile: Apoda – poda means a foot, the prefix meaning it is almost footless – the larva is small, bright green, and grub-like. Just to rub it in, limacodes because the shape and gait of the poor almost footless larva resembles that of the slug, genus Limax. I’m glad it is beautiful when it grows up.   

Photo By Ben Sale, CC BY 2.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Lepidoptera: Noctuidae: Chloephorinae: Pseudoips prasinana (Linnaeus, 1758) Green Silver-lines. I may have mentioned before that this is my gateway species – my introduction to the beauty of moths. First sight took my breath away, and left me trembling for weeks afterward. It’s a woodland species, using oaks, birches, Beech, and occasionally Hazel, Sweet Chestnut or Aspen, as a larval host. Prasinus is the scientific Latin colour epithet, meaning leek green. 

 Photo By Siga, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wiki Commons Images

Sources and Inspiration

In 2014, the late Professor Simon Leather introduced me to T.R.E. Southwood’s classic paper, The number of insect species associated with various trees. Journal of Animal Ecology, 30, 1-8. (1961). I wish Simon could have known that I haven’t stopped thinking about it ever since. 

Permanently on my desk, the following resources:  

Allan, P. B. M., Larval Foodplants, A Vade-Mecum for the Field Lepidopterist. Watkins & Doncaster, Hawkhurst, Kent. 2nd Edition, 1979. 

Dade, H.A. Colour Terminology in Biology. The Commonwealth Mycological Institute, Kew, Surrey. 1949.

A. Maitland Emmet, The Scientific Names of British Lepidoptera. Harley Books, Colchester, Essex, England. 1991. 

Mitchell, Alan. A Field Guide to the Trees of Britain and Northern Europe.  Collins, London, 1974 

Stearn, William T. Botanical Latin: history, grammar, syntax, terminology and vocabulary. Newton Abbott, Devon: David & Charles. (3rd Edition, 1992).

Permanently on my desktop, Wikipedia and Wiki Commons Images. The latter is the most invaluable source for picture research, and the use of the images is made possible under license by the remarkable and generous photographers who contribute their work. I’m forever grateful to them. 

Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet has free access to the sum of all human knowledge.

— Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia

Author: Natural Latin

Author, editor, horticulturist, biologist ... curious about everything

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