Semper Fidelis - Semper Discentes

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.

  1. I am sorry to have missed this. They sure are impressive beetles. When I found some specimens in the Delta Research Center Collection I was impressed with their size and colorful paint job. I hope they do well.

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