Semper Fidelis - Semper Discentes

Posts Tagged ‘American burying beetle’

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.


In Coleoptera on May 2, 2013 at 2:23 pm

I am not a hunter.  That being said, I’m not anti-hunter, either.  It’s just not something I enjoy doing, and seems like an AWFUL lot of work.  A couple of years ago, after moving to my isolated “holler” in the Missouri Ozarks, I DID kill a turkey; however, the dumb bird wandered down my driveway, and I walked out onto the front porch barefooted, and in my underwear, and shot him from there.

This is to let you know that I have some serious qualms about killing anything I do not intend to eat, which COULD put me at a disadvantage when it comes to procuring bait for my half-dozen carrion beetle traps (See “I Carry On With Carrion”, from earlier this year.)  As you may have guessed, carrion beetle traps should be baited with carrion–rotten meat.  I’ve realized that I can collect as much of this stuff as I want simply by picking up dead animals off the rural highway leading to town.

On any given day, as I travel the seven miles into the village, I’ll see at least a dozen or more squirrels darting erratically across the road.  I do NOT try to hit them, but soon learned that their movements are impossible to predict, so I no longer attempt to swerve around them, inviting exciting and explosive crashes down the Ozark mountainside, as my Jeep cartwheels down the slope bursting into flame and strewing bits and pieces of my 61-year-0ld carcass throughout Douglas County.

When I DO hit one of these creatures, or find a FRESH cadaver in the road (the vultures have not yet arrived), I simply stop the Jeep, make sure he’s REALLY dead, then throw him into the passenger-side floorboard, to take home and put into a baggie in the freezer.  Several times, I’ve been caught in the act by passing motorists, who surely feel that the Sims family has fallen on hard times, resorting to eating roadkill.  When I brought home a fresh, fat fox squirrel yesterday, I looked in the freezer and found that I had two mice, one cardinal, and two frozen gray squirrels.

Time to set out a few more traps, and rebait the ones already in place.  Brett Ratcliffe, of the University of Nebraska, who taught me how to build the traps, recommends leaving the fresh bait outdoors, or in the trunk of your car for three or more days, so as to attain the proper degree of ripe decay.  I usually, however, just bait the traps with fresh meat, and let it “ripen in place”.  I therefore shoved the two mice into one trap, the cardinal into another, then cut the fresh squirrel in half with a double-bladed axe, and put half into each of two traps.  One-half-squirrel is JUST the right size for a single trap.

I still had two more traps to bait, and only two completely frozen squirrels remaining.  How was I gonna cut a rock-hard squirrel into two semi-equal pieces?  My wife was not at home.  I CONSIDERED thawing the thing in the microwave, then remembered daughter Susan’s disastrous experience with a banana in the microwave.  Got out the sharpest of the kitchen knives, a great old big one, with a sorta serrated blade.  I think it’s called a “bread knife”.  Sawed like a madman, and managed to get a little groove cut all the way around the midsection, before I remembered the ELECTRIC knife.  Took a good five or ten minutes to vibrate my way all the way through and get the trap baited.  In the future, I’ve decided to cut the UNFROZEN squirrels in half with the axe, then freeze the individual pieces, in “individual servings”, so to speak. 

Got all six traps set out, with a variety of baits, and can’t wait until the bait gets REALLY odorous, in a couple more days.  There’s a certain endangered carrion beetle (Nicrophorus americana–the American burying beetle) out there that hasn’t been seen in Missouri for many years.  I’d love to be able to find a few of those.  Happily, as I scouted the woods for decent places to set the traps, I came upon several really nice morel mushrooms, which are rather late in appearing this year, due to the crazy weather over the past few months.

I really appreciate having a wife who doesn’t complain TOO much about road-killed animals in the freezer.  Don’t think I’m gonna tell her about the knives, though.