OXFORDSHIRE residents are being encouraged to get outside and help hunt for a rare beetle.

The county is a national hotspot for the rugged oil beetle (Meloe rugosus) but surveyors do not know precisely how many there are.

A survey carried out last year found that the beetles, which live in under-threat sandy habitats, are in decline.

Unlike other species which emerge in spring, they emerge in autumn.

National convservation trust Buglife, which is leading the survey, said the beetles have often been missed by surveyors in the past.

But they also give an important indication of the population of bees in the area because the beetles’ young feed on pollen in bee hives.

Darren Mann, head of entomology at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, has researched oil beetles for six years.

He said: “Oxfordshire is one of the strongholds in the UK for oil beetles but unfortunately, and this is one of the reasons for the programme, they are difficult to find.

“I have been out at several sites for six or seven hours and not seen one, and then a week later someone reports seeing one at the same place.

“It is people out there looking for them that makes the difference to surveys.”

He said the beetles were also important in establishing bee populations.

He said: “They run around and sit on the top of flower stalks when they are young and jump on bees and hitch a ride to their nest and eat the pollen.

“If you have got a healthy population of oil beetles it shows you must have a healthy population of bees as well.”

Insect expert and TV presenter George McGavin, honorary research associate at Oxford University, said: “The thing about insects is that they are essential to the way eco systems work. They are the glue that holds the eco systems in place.

“Rugged oil beetles enjoy sandy, open, dry areas, which unfortunately is exactly the sort of habitats which are under threat.”

He added: “I absolutely welcome the survey.”

Buglife project officer Anne Halpin said: “Members of the public can make a big difference just by looking out for this beautiful beetle.”

Possible sites for the beetles include the former sand quarries Hitchcopse Pit and Dry Sandford Pit, near Abingdon.

If a member of the public finds one of the beetles, they should not interfere with it– take a photograph, if possible, and report where and when it was seen to Buglife through their website.