Can’t Live Without ‘Em: American Burying Beetle

A weekly homage to endangered species, large and small

American burying beetle

AMERICAN BURYING BEETLE

(original text written by Benjamin Ikenson)

Picking up scraps and making something useful from them is a pillar of American ingenuity and a great source of pride. This week, as we get ready to celebrate the Fourth of July, we also honor a patriotic critter that follows in that great tradition, the American Burying Beetle.

At about 1.5 inches long, the American Burying Beetle is the biggest beetle on the planet. It’s easily identified by its shiny black body and orange spotted wing covers.

An expert recycler, the burying beetle takes waste and animal carcasses, also known as carrion, underground to make food for its family. In a process that inspires thoughts of 1950s mutant-insect horror films, the burying beetle digs under the carcass, slowly burying it in dirt (hence the name burying beetle). After it buries the dead, the beetle pulls off the fur or feathers, and then manages to roll the carcass into a tight ball. Next, it coats the meat in a sticky secretion that preserves the meal for the family-to-be.

After mating, the female lays up to 30 eggs which soon hatch into larvae. Unlike many similar species, both the male and female American burying beetles take part in raising their young. Mom and dad both stick around to ward off other beetles and feed bits of the regurgitated corpse to the newly hatched larvae. After feasting, the larvae burrow into the soil until they metamorphose into adults and eventually repeat the repulsive but resourceful process. Hey, it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.

American burying beetles prepare meal

What good are they?

Managing biological waste is essential to maintaining healthy ecosystems and species that do this are very important. The burying beetle and other invertebrates break down organic matter from dead animals and recycle it into nutrients that feed the next wave of young or help replenish the soil. Without bugs like the burying beetle, carcasses would simply rot away and all that energy would be lost instead of fueling the next generation of creatures.

Sadly enough, the burying beetle has disappeared from more than 90 percent of its historic range since the turn of the century. The beetle once thrived in every state east of the Rockies. But today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service has confirmed populations in only six states: Nebraska, Arkansas, Rhode Island, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Kansas. Due to this sharp decline, the American burying beetle was added to the list of endangered species in 1989.

Through dedicated conservation efforts, burying beetles are starting to make a comeback in some places, but the species continues to face a number of serious threats. Because they are largely nocturnal, the beetle is easily disrupted by increasing light pollution from urban and suburban development. The loss of large predators reduces the amount of available food and changing land use has isolated preferred habitats. Other challenges like pesticide use put further pressure on the population, leaving the species with a rather bleak future.

Learn More:

Click here to learn more about ongoing conservation efforts at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island.

Read more about the American burying beetle in the USFWS’ endangered species bulletin.