The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Category Archives: Coleoptera (Beetles)

Hey Geek, what’s this? Mystery critter from northern Ontario

This latest installment of “What’s This?” comes via email from my own aunt Elizabeth, who discovered a new-to-her insect while at her cottage, which is on a small bay north of Manitoulin Island in Ontario. She has been cottaging on the same body of water since she was a child, and knows the wildlife pretty well, but:

Never saw this before. Any ideas?

Photo by Elizabeth, used with permission.

I’ll bet that many of you recognize this charismatic beastie…

It’s the unmistakable American Burying Beetle, Necrophila americana (Silphidae). The only species of the genus in North America, it is incredibly widespread in the eastern and central areas of the continent. As the genus name implies, it is a lover of dead things: a carrion-feeder, that also feeds on maggots and other carrion beetles.

Although their diet may seem distasteful, they perform a critical service as part of nature’s clean-up crew. A few years ago, in my garden, I watched a pair of carrion beetles (a different species than this one) drag a mouse carcass into a patch of loose soil, then, over the course of an hour or so, they buried the entire thing until no trace remained. This seemed to be an amazing feat for two insects a fraction of the size of the rodent! The young of that pair of beetles would have fed on the carcass after they hatched: burying beetles are excellent providers in addition to being marvelous cleaner-uppers…

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Look, always look

During my camping trip, I spent hours and hours poking around in the mixed forest surrounding my campsite, scouring the area for insects I could photograph. I was mostly looking for moths (I figured, since I don’t know the group well at all, I should practice for National Moth Week, which is coming up soon – so go register – hint hint), but I was also keeping my eyes peeled for other interesting beasts.

The moth-hunting quickly taught me two things: 1) even very tiny things (i.e., micro-moths) are worth pausing for, and 2) don’t discount something at first glance because it seems “boring”. Walking through the woods would flush a fluttering of pale, inconspicuous and seemingly uniform beige wings, but a closer look, some photographs, and some time with my new field guide (which is just great, by the way) revealed remarkable diversity.

So, it was with these principles in mind that I paused to give a boring-looking dot of meandering brown on the trunk of a white birch a second glance.

I was so glad I did, because it turned out to be a species of jewel beetle (Buprestidae) I’d been wanting to see: the bronze birch borer (Agrilus anxius*).

Small, with subtle but beautiful colours, this little gem would walk, stop, walk, stop, walk, stop – all apparently quite purposefully. As I watched, I realized that every time it stopped, it would extend something long and beige into a crevice or under a scale of bark. I had a female, who was in the process of laying eggs!

The green arrow is pointing to the female’s ovipositor, which she is using to place an egg under a small scale of bark.

A cropped photo showing the ovipositor

In the minute or two that I watched she must have deposited at least a few dozen eggs. It was an incredible thing to observe, and her preoccupation with her important task probably helped her ignore my antics as I struggled and sprawled on the forest floor to find an accessible angle from which to take her picture.

Had I 1) not bothered to check out the boring brown speck on the tree, or 2) simply taken a few quick shots and not stuck around to watch, I would have missed out on seeing a new-to-me species AND missed out on witnessing some really interesting behaviour.

The moths, and this beetle, were excellent reminders that we must sometimes pause, and really LOOK, in order to capture some of nature’s most interesting moments.

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*It is almost certainly A. anxius, but there is a chance it could also be A. pensus, which is also associated with birch (hat tip to Ted for this info).

Photo Friday – Now you see it, now you don’t

This lovely buppie landed on the screen door at my back porch two weeks ago. It is golden, glittery, and gorgeous. SO. SHINY.

This is a metallic wood-boring beetle (or “jewel beetle”, family Buprestidae), belonging to the genus Dicerca – a group with many very similar species that require a microscope to get a proper ID. Ted thinks this one has the “gestalt” of D. tenebrosa (I warned him that I’d quote him on that :P). Buppies are lovely, charismatic creatures, and with a beetle in hand, like this one, it seems amazing to me that I don’t spot them more often.

But then, upon placing this bejeweled beauty on a tree, it becomes clear why I don’t see more:

The bronzey-goldey hue and elytral sculpturing suddenly render the beetle all but invisible.

It’s incredible that something so astonishingly “colourful” can still be so incredibly cryptic.

Milkweed leaf beetle (Labidomera clivicollis)

A mid-week bit of SHINY, to brighten up what has been a mostly rainy week…

Labidomera clivicollis, a leaf beetle (Chrysomelidae) that specializes on milkweed, Asclepias sp. (hence the red and black warning coloration). It’s the only member of this genus is North America, and it is gorgeous.

Photo Friday – Whitespotted Sawyer Beetle, Monochamus scutellatus

A few days ago, it seemed as though my yard was teeming with really cool, very photogenic beetles.

Naturally, I stuck them all in vials and made them hang around for a bit while I did some portrait sessions (yeah, I’m mean to bugs like that). I’ll be dishing out the photos over the next few weeks, but here’s the first to kick things off: a male longhorned beetle (Family Cerambycidae), Monochamus scutellatus – the whitespotted sawyer. This is a very widespread and common species that feeds on conifers, but it’s one of the larger longhorns in my region so I’m always a little tickled to find one.

Monochamus scutellatus (male)

Now, longhorned beetles are very good at one thing: chewing wood (i.e., trees). They lay their eggs in wood, the larvae bore into and feed on wood, then the adult bores OUT of the wood after it ecloses from its pupa.

As such, these beetles tend to have very impressive chompers. I was fairly cautiously holding this fellow at the thorax as he made repeated futile attempts to bite me.  Naturally, I was curious as to how much this might hurt should he actually make contact, so I deliberately let him bite my thumb.

Mmmm, foolish Geek digits. Om nom.

“Ha-ha to you, stupid beetle,” I thought. “Doesn’t hurt.” But, since I was drawing that conclusion with a sample size of n=1, I repeated the experiment. At about n=6 I realized that allowing the beetle to bite me anywhere other than the fairly callused tips of my digits was, in fact, very painful.

So I put him down.

Apparently satisfied that he had proved his point, he sat nicely for the next five minutes or so as I snapped a bunch of pictures, even allowing me to adjust one antennae mid-way through the photo shoot (the darn things are so long they kept getting cut off the edges of the image).

One other thing I noticed (you may have spotted them in the first shot) was that this beetle had some little red hitchhikers hanging on to the sides of his pronotum. I knew they were mites (and I’ve seen these on other specimens of M. scutellatus), but did not know that they were Uropodoid mites until a friend (a mite specialist working at the CNC) tagged them on Facebook (I can honestly say I’ve never seen mites subjected to FB tagging before – it was pretty awesome) – thanks Wayne!

Monochamus’ hitchhikers – Uropodoid mites

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