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An Update on the “Improved Carrion Beetle Trap”

In Coleoptera on June 23, 2013 at 10:48 am

If you read my June 5 post, An Improved Carrion Beetle Trap, I’m sure you’ve been waiting anxiously, with bated breath (please pause, as I digress:)…

From the verb “bate”, alteration by aphesis of the verb “abate”, meaning ‘to reduce’ or ‘lessen’.(1)

Shakespeare is the first writer known to use it, in The Merchant of Venice, in which Shylock says to Antonio: “Shall I bend low and, in a bondman’s key, / With bated breath and whisp’ring humbleness, / Say this …”. Nearly three centuries later, Mark Twain employed it in Tom Sawyer: “Every eye fixed itself upon him; with parted lips and bated breath the audience hung upon his words, taking no note of time, rapt in the ghastly fascinations of the tale”.(2)

…to hear how the innovation worked out.

Let’s just say that some ideas look REAL good on paper.

The entire concept of the trap was to keep the trapper from having to come into contact with the rotten carrion bait.

I built five of the traps, consisting of small canning jars, with a mesh screen lid.  I broke one of them during construction, but placed the others out with my earlier-design traps.

Problem 1:  They don’t seem to attract many beetles.

Problem 2:  Flies seem to somehow penetrate the screen, laying eggs, and infesting the bait with HUGE numbers of maggots, which discourage the beetles.

Problem 3:  The bait containers are glass, with screened lids.  Unlike the previous traps, which are open at top and bottom, these traps collect rainwater, which leaves the bait in a MOST unappetizing condition.  The trapper (me) has been forced to drain the stinking carrion water from the traps, which usually results in the trapper (me) coming back to the house smelling like a disgusting WET corpse, rather than just a disgusting corpse, as with the earlier models.  Those versions, by the way, are catching a lot of bugs, although not the American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus) I’d hoped to find in Missouri.

I’ve still got the traps baited and catching a very few silphids; however, this was an idea whose time had not yet come.

For your information, here’s the collection data, through June 20, with 263 beetles identified:

Necrodes surinamensis (12)                             4.56%

Necrophila americana (127)                            8.29%

Nicrophorus americanus (0)                           0.00% (Endangered)

Nicrophorus marginatus (1)                             0.38%

Nicrophorus orbicollis (22)                               8.37%

Nicrophorus pustulatus (6)                               2.28%

Nicrophorus tomentosus (14)                           5.32%

Oiceptoma inaequale (45)                                 17.11%

Oiceptoma noveboracense (3)                           1.14%

Carabidae (16)                                                    6.08%

Cicindelidae (Cicindela sexguttata) (1)             0.38%

Scarabaeide (4)                                                   1.52%

Staphylinidae (12)                                              4.56%


1. Wiktionary (

2. World Wide Words (


American Burying Beetle

In Coleoptera on June 5, 2013 at 1:56 pm

            I spent some ten hours yesterday, 75% of it on the road, attending the American Burying Beetle Release project at Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie, in Saint Clair and Cedar counties, north of El Dorado Springs, Missouri.  Had a FINE old time.

            Briefly, the American burying beetle, Nicrophorus americanus, is a “silphid”, or carrion beetle, up to 1½ inches in length, and a truly beautiful bug.  It was formerly found in some thirty-five states; however, over the past fifty years, its range has declined dramatically, and now populations have been determined only in Rhode Island, and in the conjoined states of South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas—seven states in all.


            Since learning about these Very Cool Beetles last winter, I’ve set out traps in my Ozark “holler”, hoping to be the first in forty-some odd years to document natural populations in Missouri, but to no avail.  If you’re interested, see my posts, “I Carry On With Carrion” and “An Improved Carrion Beetle Trap”.


            The Center for American Burying Beetle Conservation is under the auspices of the WildCare Institute of the Saint Louis Zoo, with the personable Bob Merz as director.  Bob and his staff obtained “parental stock” from Arkansas, where the beetles have been documented in the Fort Chaffee area.  They then raised some THREE HUNDRED PAIR of these lovely bugs and brought them over to the Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie for the second year of trying to reestablish populations in southwestern Missouri.

            I arrived at the 4,040-acre prairie, which seems to be jointly administered by the Nature Conservancy and the Missouri Department of Conservation, shortly before the scheduled starting time of 2:00 PM.  Len Gilmore, of MDC, coordinated the workday, with about sixty volunteers present, about three times the number who participated in 2012.  Many of the volunteers were MDC employees, who’d volunteered along with Missouri Master Naturalists, and interested individuals.

Bob Merz (l.) and Len Gilmore (r.) give orientation instructions to volunteers.

Bob Merz (l.) and Len Gilmore (r.) give orientation instructions to volunteers.

            The volunteers were divided into three groups, with each group responsible for placing 100 pairs of beetles in pre-designated spots within the prairie.  I headed out with “Group C” to an area in the southern portion of the preserve, where we found two parallel rows, marked with string, and about twenty feet apart.  Each line was marked about every three feet with florescent marking tape.

Tim instructs.

Tim instructs.

Volunteers digging nest chambers.

Volunteers digging nest chambers.

            The group listened to an instructional talk by Tim, one of the WildCare staffers, who told everyone exactly what to do.  First, we unloaded all the supplies from the zoo van, then began digging square holes at each tape-marked position.  Each hole was about a foot or so on a side, and the grass-covered “plug” was carefully removed from each hole and set aside.  Once the holes had been dug to a depth of about nine inches in the fertile prairie soil, teams of workers with hand trowels followed behind, scooping out fist-sized “bait chambers” in the side of each hole.

Elderly volunteer digging nest hole.

Elderly volunteer digging nest hole.



Once all the holes had been dug, chambered, and carefully inspected by Tim, a large plastic garbage bag was produced, containing over a hundred dead (but not terribly stinky) quail.  After donning latex gloves, the volunteers quickly stuffed one quail into each of the hundred bait chambers. 

            After another inspection, three large boxes containing the beetles were unloaded from the van.  Each male/female pair had been especially selected, with attention paid to their parental lineages, and each individual beetle was in a separate plastic cubical container, about 6” on a side, with the “engaged couples’” boxes rubber-banded together.   

Releasing the honeymooners.

Releasing the honeymooners.

          One-pair-at-a-time, the workers removed a pair, took them to the nearest nest hole, and removed these beautiful creatures from their individual containers, pushed them into the bait cavity, then replaced the soil plug into the hole, using the remaining soil to completely seal off the chambers.

            Since the rows of nesting holes were perfectly straight, wire mesh was unrolled over the two parallel rows, and staked down, thus protecting the nesting sites from predators.

            Tim was constantly on hand, his red Saint Louis Zoo signifying that he was the brains of the operation, inspecting every facet of the operation, and happily answering questions about the habits and lives of these endangered creatures.

Covering the site with wire mesh.

Covering the site with wire mesh.

            I piped up.  “How do you tell the males from the females?”  One of the MDC guys, obviously NOT a beetle fancier, quickly answered.  “The males are in the boxes marked ‘♂’, and the females are marked ‘♀’.”  “No, fool, I mean if you take them OUT of the boxes, can you tell them apart?”  The MDC guy grinned and pointed to Tim, who explained the difference in the markings found on the “face” of the large beetles.  The males have a somewhat rectangular orange marking, while the females exhibit a more triangular shape.

This is a boy.

This is a boy.


This is a girl.

This is a girl.

          We got through very quickly, and returned to the headquarters building, where food was being provided for the volunteers.  Since we’d worked so quickly, we’d have to wait about an hour-and-a-half for the food to arrive, so I skipped the meal and pointed the Jeep back southeast toward the Ozarks and home.

            Hopefully, these 300 pair of beetles will breed and reproduce, creating permanent populations in southwestern Missouri, and helping to reintroduce them to their traditional ranges.  Interestingly, the American burying beetle is one of the few species to exhibit parental care of their young, hanging around and feeding their larvae regurgitated food, much like birds.

Group "C"

Group “C”

            Additional information on the Center for American Burying Beetle Conservation can be found at

            I’ve just finished constructing several more carrion beetle traps, still hoping to happen upon wild representatives of Nicrophorus americanus.  Should you care, here’s my collection data, so far, through May 31.  No American burying beetles yet.

Necrodes surinamensis


Necrophila americana


Nicrophorus americanus


Nicrophorus marginatus


Nicrophorus orbicollis  


Nicrophorus pustulatus


Nicrophorus tomentosus


Oiceptoma inaequale  


Oiceptoma novaboracense


Various Carabidae  




Various Scarabaeidae  


Various Staphylinidae  




Anderson, R. S. (1982). On the Decreasing Abundance of Nicrophorus americanus Olivier (Coleoptera: Silphidae) in Eastern North America. The Coleopterists Bulletin , 36 (2), 362-365.

Barnhart, M. C., & Brown, R. (2002). A survey for American burying beetles in Southwest Missouri. Springfield: Southwest Missouri State University.

Carlton, C. E., & Rothwein, F. (1998). The Endangered American Burying Beetle, Nicrophorus americanus Olivier, at the Edge of Its Range in Arkansas (Coletoptera: Silphidae). The Coleopterists Bulletin , 52 (2), 179-185.

Kozol, A. J., Scott, M. P., & Traniello, J. F. (1988). The American Burying Beetle, Nicrophorus americanus: Studies on the Natural History of a Declining Species. Psyche , 95, 167-176.

Simpson, K. B. (1991). American Burying Beetle, Nicrophorus americanus Olivier, (Coleoptera: Silphidae) Survey in Missouri. University of Missouri-Columbia, Wilbur R. Enns Entomology Museum. Columbia: University of Missouri.

An Improved Carrion Beetle Trap

In Coleoptera on June 5, 2013 at 12:29 pm

During the crazy weather of the Winter of 2012-13 here in the Ozarks, I began casting about for some entomological project to keep me occupied, hoping perhaps I could latch on to some small, focused area in which to concentrate my studies in the few years I have remaining.

Discovering beetles crawling all over a well-rotted, roadside deer carcass, I became fascinated with carrion beetles—nifty bugs who “undertake” to devour and recycle dead animals.  I did further reading on the use of insects to determine the time of death in humans, and you’d be surprised at the body of research that’s been done on this subject alone.

As I THOUGHT the weather was moderating in March, I read Bedick, Ratcliffe, & Higley’s 2004 paper which covered sampling methods for the endangered “American Burying Beetle” (Bedick, Ratcliffe, & Higley, 2004) , and modified their suggested trap design slightly.  I put together a half-dozen traps, constructed of PVC, and placed them around my twenty-acre “holler”.  You can see the original trap design on this blog in “I Carry On With Carrion”.

Well, the trap worked pretty well.  It basically consists of one piece of 4” PVC, 18” long, which is buried vertically in the ground, with about 3” exposed.  (The exposed part protects against water running along the ground into the trap.)  At the bottom of the pipe is placed a 6” piece of smaller diameter PVC, into which the bait (well-rotted carrion) is placed.  A mesh screen goes over the top of the smaller pipe, to keep the beetles from actually coming into contact with the bait, and to keep flies from laying eggs on the bait.  Fly larva (maggots), according to what I’ve read, will keep beetles from colonizing the bait.

As I said, the trap worked pretty well.  HOWEVER….

The beetles and flies were somewhat smarter than this amateur entomologist.  They managed to work their way around the screening, despite several innovations I came up with, none of which bear repeating.  This meant I was GETTING beetles, but they were down deep, rummaging around in the VERY-well rotted bait.  To get to them, I had to pull out the smaller pipe, then reach down with my HANDS, and pull out the stinking mess and poke through it to collect the beetles.

Washing my hands six times after each operation still left my hands smelling like corpses.  I needed a better solution.

Here, then, is my NEW design, yet to be tested in the field, which I hope will continue to drag in new silphids (carrion beetles), while keeping my hands clean, unsullied, and sweetsmelling.

Here’s how to build the Sims Model 2 Handsfree Carrion Beetle Trap.  For each trap, you’ll need:

  • 16” length of 3” (inside diameter) PVC pipe.  I went down to the lumberyard and bought an eight-foot section, which will provide SIX 16” lengths.  $12.16 + tax.
  • One half-pint canning jar.  You want the ones that are pretty much completely cylindrical in shape.  They might be called “wide-mouth” jars.  Maybe not.  I had a few lying around the house.  You also need the rings and lids.  Old lids will do.  They don’t have to be completely airtight.
  • One 4-5” square of window screening.  My lumberyard had a bunch of ends and pieces they GAVE me.
  • One piece of string, about 24” long.  I used some nifty florescent green string that I had lying around, just ‘cause it looks cool, and is easy to see.

Here’s the stuff:

Here's the stuff!

      Tie one end of the string to the jar ring.  Center the piece of window screening over the mouth of the jar, and screw on the ring.  That’ll form the screen into the shape shown in the picture.

      THAT’S IT!!!

On my way into town today, I found a freshly-killed squirrel in the road.  This trap has another great advantage in that it lets you handle the bait while it is still fresh, or still frozen, and BEFORE it gets disgustingly stinky.

A squirrel will provide bait for four traps.

A squirrel will provide bait for four traps.

I divided the carcass into four more-or-less equal portions, using a pretty dull hatchet.  Didn’t think it necessary to photograph this part of the process.  I found that ¼ squirrel just about fills a half-pint canning jar.  Filled each of four jars.

Then, I placed the formed window screening on the top of each jar, AND TOPPED IT WITH THE CANNING LID.  I’d already tied the string to the canning ring, and then screwed the ring LOOSELY over the screen/lid, and set the four jars aside, in my woodshed, so that the fresh bait can ripen for three or four days.  The lid keeps the decaying meat from attracting nuisances, and the lid is LOOSE, so that escaping decomposition gases can escape.


One-fourth of a squirrel, in jars, for ripening.

            After the bait has ripened to my satisfaction, I’ll bury the PVC, as explained above, then take the bait jar, REMOVE THE LID, but retain the screen, replace the ring, and drop the bait jar down into the PVC.     As you can see, the string hangs out the top, so that I can pull up the jar, hopefully with the screen covered with beetles, without having to handle the bait.

DSCF3483   DSCF3486

The jar fits pretty closely into the pipe.                      View from above.

I’ll keep you posted on how well this turns out.


Bedick, J. C., Ratcliffe, B. C., & Higley, L. G. (2004). A New Sampling Protocol for the Endangered American Burying Beetle, Nicrophorus americanus Olivier (Coleoptera: Silphidae). The Coleopterists Bulletin , 58 (1), 57-70.

Sims, G. G. (2013).  I Carry On With Carrion.