In the summer of 1924, a beetle was found somewhere along the seaside bluffs below Victoria's Dallas Road. More precisely, it was an Audouin's Night-stalking Tiger Beetle – a fast, active predator, big enough to draw blood from a human hand.
The following spring, a second beetle was found along a nearby path, making a matched pair.
From there, the trail ran cold. Was that the end of the line?
The fragile Garry Oak habitat around Victoria provided just the right hunting grounds for the voracious beetle and its larvae, but it has been badly eroded since the 1920s.
The species might have been forgotten, but entomologist Jennifer Heron picked up the cold case.
For Ms. Heron, an invertebrate conservation specialist with the provincial ministry of environment, solving these kinds of mysteries are the thrill of the job.
In British Columbia, there are a handful of entomology collections, the main one at the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria, but also at universities, at Agriculture Canada and the Pacific Forestry Centre. Typically, each collection will include drawers full of unidentified specimens. She dug through countless drawers, studied databases, old publications and field notes, and reached out to far-flung collectors.
"Sometimes, [the information] is in the weirdest and most random places," she said, "and you figure this out when you least expect it."
The process led her to several target areas where the large beetle might be found, including Victoria and the Vancouver suburb of White Rock.
After securing permits, she and her team set out pit traps, which they covered up just enough to keep small rodents out, leaving enough of a gap for an unsuspecting beetle to tumble in.
It is a low-tech, low-cost technique that requires patience – and a strong stomach.
"You use a beer cup cut flush in the ground. We fill it with antifreeze – non-toxic to pets – because it doesn't evaporate. The bug falls in and dies." That's the easy part. The contents of the pit traps are collected regularly and brought back to the lab, where the slow, icky process of cleaning and sorting the various bits of flotsam and jetsam that have landed in the mess takes place.
"It's quite nasty," said Andy Teucher, the Victoria-based biologist on the beetle team who oversaw the local pit traps. He spent the summer of 2009 checking a series of traps around town, all without success.
At the end of the summer, he was collecting the traps – it was the final day of what looked like a fruitless search. "I was just on top of the bluff, and I found one of the traps damaged. The contents spilled, so I quickly sorted through right there and I saw this big, black beetle."
He knew at once this was Audouin's Night-stalking Tiger Beetle. "I did a little dance on top of the bluff there."
Mr. Teucher is currently an environmental reporting analyst, but previously he worked on species at risk. Which made his next find even more special.
Last year, as he was riding his bike home from work along the Lochside Trail in Saanich, he almost ran over a beetle.
"When you spend enough time in the field, your eyes are always scanning. I saw this beetle run quickly across the path. I whipped my bike around and grabbed it before it disappeared."
He improvised a container and made his way home with his prize – a live specimen to study. And he did learn the hard way, their bite can draw blood.
"A lot of beetles are scavengers but tiger beetles actually run down bugs and they are pretty cool, active, fast predators," he said. "They and their kin are aptly named."
When the paperwork was complete and the find verified, Ms. Heron was able to secure a national "species at risk" designation for the beetle – the icing on the cake for the team's efforts. "It means other conservation organizations will include it in their protection plans," she said. "It's a way to say: 'hey, this species is really important.'"
For all the sleuthing, Ms. Heron said there is one other element that guides her searches. "You have that sixth sense, 'it felt like it might be there.' It's not scientific, so when you find one – when you are right – it's neat. You've figured something out."