Beetle Wonders - Part I
The Beetle Boy
Although you never could have gotten me to admit it back then, my fascination with beetles (and other bugs) stems from the influence of a boy in my third grade class. Everyone, including me thought he was a little "different" even back then.
It might have been the fact that one of his eyes was pale blue and the other brown, that made him stand out in the crowd of icky little boys. However, it was his obsession with beetles and bugs that brought him a fair amount of both teasing and respect among his peers.
He was annoying and I was completely mesmerized by the bugs he would find and bring to school. He was like a walking encyclopedia when it came to sharing both his excitement and what he knew. His father was an entomologist, which probably explains where a lot of this came from.
Some Of Beetle Boy's Memorable and Fascinating Beetles
They are the big fellows of the genus belonging to the tropics, but also found under stones where it is neither too wet, not too dry, even in northern lands. The Bombardier beetle is as interesting as any beetle you would ever find. By some means, this little beetle has contrived a defense of astonishing efficacy.
When threatened it emits a highly acrid offensive fluid. That, of course, is not unique, for many insects do the same thing. The marvel here, however, is that the fluid issues with what, in the insect would must be a tremendous report. A dozen times in succession the little gun-squirt is fired, and at each pop-out comes a tiny jet of fluid. However, it does not remain a jet. It breaks up into a finely divided spray almost like a gas.
Just as the carburetor of a car sprays fluid gasoline into a vapor for the cylinder, so this beetle mechanism converts the little jet of acid into a spray of vapor unpleasant to the nose and capable of making the eyes water.
What comic perfection of defense it seems to us, this little marvel going about his tiny world amid the roots of vegetation and under a beetle's dome of stone -- a pebble half an inch in diameter -- angrily gassing his enemies.
The Violin Beetle
The Violin beetle (Carabidae) have the Carabus genus as their type, with over three hundred species in number. They are remarkable for the fact that all, save one known species are confined to the north temperate zone. The solitary exception is found as far aways as southern Chile, a problem in distribution which makes many an entomologist pucker his brow.
One of the Carabiae common to East India Isles, is only a museum curiosity with us. It is worth seeing, for by some queer change it has taken on the shape of a fiddle, and has the popular name of Violin beetle.
Many of the group are skilled burrowers, in woods, in the banks of streams, and even down to the margin of the sea. They reveal themselves but little. They lie lurking in their secret places seeking whom they may devour.
For that both sides must settle accounts with Mother Nature. We can only be grateful for this unchecked war. The carnivorous ground beetles do work that we ourselves cannot. So many injurious grubs harbor in the soil, out of sight, where we are unable to reach them. Who can grapple with the caterpillars which devour his rose-leaves by night and hide in the earth by day? We cannot do it.
However, the ground beetles must, or our roses will perish, and with them our patience. Heavy is the debt we owe these little winged people who tend the hidden depths of the soil as natural subways.
Little Divers With A Splendid Hem Of Gold
The Carabidae bought us to the water's edge. Let us pause by a pool and see their fresh-water cousins, the carnivorous Water beetles, at their daily occupation. There are several species of Dyticus, the Latin name given to these fine cruel creatures because it means "fond of diving."
We all know these beetles, though not their story. See one pop up from below to the surface, stick the nether extremity of its body out of the water to collect a bead of air, then turn and dive again, and we know at once it is dependent on the atmosphere for respiration, as we are. How, then, does it breathe in the water beneath which it stays so long at a time?
The air it collects is snared beneath the elytra, and is gradually absorbed in the body by the spiracles which run along both sides of the body and thorax. Its larvae are air-breathers also. There is no gill-breathing stage for them as there is for the tadpoles of amphibian.
They also rise to the surface to take in air. But, as all beetles undergo the complete transformation from egg to larva, from larva to pupa, from pupa to imago, we are brought face-to-face with that which seems impossible -- an air-breathing chrysalis which lies, during its trance and conversion from one form to another, in the water.
Devil's Coach-horse Beetle
Before I tell you about the Devil's Coach-horse beetle, let's consider one of the strangest things in the beetle world. The egg is laid in a hole bored by the tubular drill of the mother beetle in the stem of a reed or other water plant.
It hatches there and the larva enters the water. But when it is about to become a chrysalis instinct impels the larva for the first time to seek the land, make itself a little burrow, and there lie quietly to suffer its change, always in contact with air.
It leaves its burrow a perfect beetle, and flies to the pond or ditch, to resume the work of fierce destruction of life which it began, continued and ended for a while as a grub.
Back now to the land, to find ourselves, it may be, challenged by that ferocious-looking little gentleman in black, the Devil's Coach-horse. He is much better in performance than appearance, for roaming far and near, he is ever after grubs, slugs, snails, and other things which eat our garden plants.
Jaw Power -- The Rove Beetle
If beetles could talk, you'd soon find out that among them are courageous and fierce soldiers. One of them, if you threaten him with a finger or pencil, will open his jaws and curl up his body with the apparent ferocity of a green lizard. However, he really means it. He will seize the pencil with his sturdy jaws and hold with such grim wrath that you may swing him round and round without being able to shake him off.
Anyone who has seen the Rove Beetle bite a caterpillar in half at a single effort and march off with one-half of his kill in his formidable jaws, has seen a fierceness of jaw power.
They are easily recognizable by their long linear black bodies with remarkably short elytra and seven or eight visible horny abdominal segments. Though sometimes an inch in length, they are more commonly minute, inhabiting wet places under stones, fungi, and moss on the bark of a tree.
Rove beetles have a nasty odor. Possibly some of the genus distill a sweeter perfume, or are ant and termite taste less fastidious than our own? Whatever the case, certain Rove beetles are welcome guests in the cities of ants, where, they act like milk cows and give out a milky fluid to the ants and termites in exchange for board and lodging. A curious point of the arrangement is that the Rove beetles which house with termites do not lay eggs, but produce their young alive.
Living Streams Of Flame
Most people have seen glow worms or fireflies, but few really consider that they are both other names for beetles. Everything that crawled was once considered a worm to our ancestors, down to Shakespeare's day and beyond, even the snake with which Cleopatra killed herself was called a worm, and so the crawling founts of light, the Lampyris noctiluca of Europe, were called glow-worms.
It is probably the wingless condition of the female glow-worm which causes the blunder, but the male is a bold winged flier, and it is to call him to her side that the sombre little lady among the grass, supping on snails and slugs, lights her gorgeous lamps -- little gleams of greenish radiance bursting at her will from organs arranged along the edges of the last two segments of her body.
The male has, in a lesser degree, this gift of radiance, and he lights up too, some think, with a view to frightening off enemies, but the signal is probably more frequently used as a call to his mate than as a threat to a foe.
Glow Worm Caves
The Light Of A Firefly
It is in the American tropics that such natural schemes of illumination are most brilliant. There are the Fireflies, exotic members of the group to which our click beetles belong, have attained such a marvelous power of radiance that as they fly through the forest at night, the air seems to catch fire and to burn in streams of flame behind them.
The effect is purely a trick of the eye, of course, for the light is part and parcel of the beetle's anatomy and not an external things at all.
For long the light was supposed to be phosphorescent, but two Indian students took up the study, and by a series of fascinating experiments proved that the light of the firefly is akin to X-rays and ultra-violet light.
When placed in the dark they lighted their lamps with such effect that the light went through opaque objects -- leather, wood, black paper, flesh -- and recorded itself on photographic plates. Here is an unexpected marvel for you, the opening of a little door into an undreamed world of scientific magic.
How A Bottle Of Fireflies Helped A Famous Doctor
After the old stories of how natives in Cuba and elsewhere light their huts and cottages by night by means of a few fireflies caged in a prison of glass, and of how native beauties used to wear them like live diamonds in their hair, cease to astonish us.
However, it is worth adding that during the Spanish-American War in Cuba, Colonel Gorgas, later so famous in connection with the Panama Canal, carried out an operation by the light from a bottle of fireflies.
Science Of Fireflies
Did You Know?
- Frogs sometimes eat enough fireflies that they themselves glow.