Semper Fidelis - Semper Discentes

An “Overwhelm” of Beetles

In Coleoptera on April 2, 2013 at 2:06 pm

As many of you know, my primary entomological interest lies in the Class Odonata–the dragonflies and damselflies. I first became affected by this cool group of bugs a few years ago because they’re fun to look at, live in neat places that I like to visit, and are a relatively small group, thus giving me time to pick up a good deal of expertise in the few years I have left on this planet.

During the cooler months of the year, however, there aren’t any odes around to chase, catch, watch, or identify, so a friend suggested I take a look at BEETLES. In order to save embarrasing him, I won’t give you his name, but his initials are “Kent Fothergill”.

Do you have ANY idea just how many DIFFERENT beetles exist, just in North America???? The Peterson Field Guide figures on some 300,000 species, worldwide, and Arnett’s American Insects confidently states that the order Coleoptera (beetles) “has approximately as many species as the entire plant kingdom, including the algae and fungi”.

Arnett’s two-volume American Beetles, which will set you back about two hundred fifty bucks, lists ONE HUNDRED THIRTY-ONE families of beetles, which nifty common names like: antsucking beetles, deathwatch beetles, handsome fungus beetles, and minute marsh-loving beetles. I was curious as to what an assemblage of beetles might be called–you know, like a gaggle of geese, a murder of crows–and came up empty. I think I’ll just go out on a limb and call it an “overwhelm” of beetles.

Just attempting to key out beetles to the family level is a daunting task. They keys, which ramble on for page after page, start out something like this:

1. Notopleural sutures present OR, abdomen with only 3 ventrites; body form hemispherical, minute beetles (length <1.3 mm); OR, small (length <2.6 mm), soft-bodied beetles with wings rolled in a spiral “cigar” manner (i.e., not folded)…GO TO #2

1a. Notopleural sutures absent; abdomen with 4 or more ventrites, wings folded or not, not rolled: Polyphaga (Key D)

This type of thing then continues on for SIXTEEN-AND-A-HALF PAGES, just to get the $%^#@#$ things classified into one of the 131 FAMILIES, not to mention genus or species.

Piddling with beetles, however, puts me in good company–Darwin, Fothergill (http://biologistsoup.wordpress.com/), Ted MacRae (http://beetlesinthebush.wordpress.com), and a host of other interesting folks who have bent over backward to help me take halting baby steps.  For a fun read, I also recommend the guys at the University of Nebraska, who put out the “Scarabs” newsletter, http://museum.unl.edu/research/entomology/Scarabs-Newsletter.htm.

Probably the BEST resource for fledgling coleopterists, however, is the indescribably wonderful Bug Guide website (http://bugguide.net/). You simply take a clear picture (I have a LOT of trouble with that part) of ANY insect (Don’t be wasting their time with pictures of crickets and houseflies, though; try to send them INTERESTING stuff.), and you will probably have a detailed and accurate identification within minutes.

Last year, I grabbed a couple of water beetles from a stream in Ozark County, Missouri. Put them into an alcohol solution and pretty much forgot about them for a year. Figured, “how many families of aquatic beetles could there be?”. Turns out there are more than you want to fool with. After a couple of false starts, and the retaking of several of my craptastic photos, Bug Guide experts determined that they were members of the Dytiscidae, the “predaceous diving beetles”. A bit of back-and-forth e-mailing, and I now think I have specimens of a member of the Platambus species, as well as a 13 mm example of  Thermonectus nigrofasciatus ornaticollis. Take a look. Do you agree?

Platambus sp.
Platambus sp.
Thermonectus nigrofasciatus ornaticollis
Thermonectus nigrofasciatus ornaticollis

do enjoy my beetles, though.  Kent has taught me how to construct and bait dung beetle traps, with which to collect some very nice stuff, and to disgust my wife.  I’m currently reading books on locating and identifying certain types of beetles on decaying corpses.  Not having found any decaying HUMAN corpses, I’ve got a couple of well-rotted deer carcasses staked out, plus a rather fresh armadillo body.  I carry forceps, and rubber gloves, and vials of alcohol with me on my daily walks.  I get a LOT of funny looks from the occupants of passing cars as I dig around in the decaying torsos in the roadside ditches, and I’ve learned to breathe through my MOUTH.

Just getting my collection started, with SO much to learn, but I’m in fine company, meeting lots of good folks, and learning a little more each day.

A small part of my  beginning beetle collection
A small part of my beginning beetle collection
Some Scarabidae.
Some Scarabaeidae.

I’m overwhelmed.

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