A Look At Some Beetles
by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA
Most naturalists know that story about the British biochemist and geneticist, J.B.S. Haldane, who when asked by a prominent theologian what his study of nature had taught him about the character of the Creator replied that, if He exists, he seems “to have an inordinate fondness for beetles.” At present, estimates range from 250,000 to 400,000 species. Unfortunately, many habitats which have rich beetle populations are being destroyed by greed and to accommodate an exploding human population. Tropical rain forests are fragile environments and the clearing of vast tracts for timber and agriculture has had a particularly devastating effect. When so cleared, such areas would require many decades to be even partially restored. What’s even worse is that that land is, in the end, of only limited use for either agriculture or grazing. As a consequence, those who are trying to farm the land must soon begin to use large quantities of fertilizer which they often cannot afford and so they move on to new areas where they clear more land and start over. The consequence is that habitats for thousands of species of organisms are being irrevocably destroyed in a process that is not reversible. And even worse yet, this rampant destruction extends to marshlands, swamps, coral reefs, alpine meadows, frozen tundra, coastal areas that have undersea oil deposits and even deserts. Deserts–who cares about deserts? Well, you might be surprised to learn just how many creatures have managed to adapt to desert life. And what we have done in order to develop such areas is to divert enormous amounts of energy and water. Just consider Las Vegas–a place that belongs on another planet run by aliens with an I.Q. just one point above broccoli!
Well, someone might say, who cares if a bunch of dirty, creepy bugs go extinct? I hope by the end of this essay, you will care for aesthetic reasons, if not others. It is true that not all insects are created beautiful; in fact, some are downright repulsive and can become a real nuisance when they invade households–cockroaches (which are not beetles, but relatively close cousins) and dermestids (carpet beetles), for example. However, these scavengers that are household pests play an important role in the wild. They play a crucial role in recycling the debris and litter which accumulates in a wide variety of habitats. Scientists sometimes use dermestid larvae to clean bones. This process is much safer than the use of chemicals which may damage and even weaken small, delicate bones. Now, think of the role of dermestids in nature; they process all those bits and pieces of tissue which the lions and hyenas and vultures leave behind. So, in an important sense, these beetles are sanitation workers. Another striking example is the sacred scarab beetles of the ancient Egyptians. These are also known as dung beetles. The dung of ruminants contains a lot of only partially processed vegetable material. Marie Antoinette is reputed to have said: “Let them eat cake.” Our contemporary politicians, inspired by the scarab, are more likely to say to poor vegetarians: “Let them eat dung.”
Scarabs are also remarkable recyclers. Some of them roll bits of dung into small balls which they then, with their back legs, roll back to their domiciles. Several times, when I have been out walking on the prairie, I have turned over cow “patties” and have discovered dung beetles busily working away, helping to improve the environment. Human beings are not very good at recycling. We produce millions of tons of garbage, not to mention nuclear and chemical waste. Even worse, much of that material is not biodegradable, at least not in any reasonable time frame–glass, plastics, many hydrocarbons, solvents, toxic metals, plutonium, etc. When the United States was planning to build the facility known as WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) in New Mexico to store radioactive waste in deep, vast salt caverns, the government is reputed to have hired some anthropologists and linguists as consultants. Another ripoff on the taxpayers. Well, maybe yes, maybe no. At least someone was doing a bit of creative (if rather wacky) long-range thinking. The consultants were retained to brainstorm about probable cultural and linguistic evolution of the human race so that signs could be devised to post around the area which humanoids could read after 50,000 years. The half-life of plutonium-239 is nearly 24,000 years and it would take nearly 10 times that long for it to decay virtually completely. Rather nasty stuff. In the meantime, stockpiles of nuclear waste continue to accumulate–a commodity that no sane person (that exempts politicians)–wants anywhere near the areas where they live and work. So, our benevolent government offered quite large amounts of money to some of those kindly old African dictators to accept some of our increasing excess of toxic waste. Naturally, these benevolent tyrants were only acting on behalf of the wretchedly poor in their countries and all of those reports about the money ending up in Swiss bank accounts are, no doubt, simply racist lies, lies, lies. Surely the U.S. government would never support anything so duplicitous.
Sorry–end of rant (for the moment) and back to beetles. I am concerned about beetles because 1) many of them are stunningly beautiful, 2) they have evolved some amazing morphological features, and 3) they have a great deal to teach us if we learn how to learn from them. Then again, if we destroy ourselves as a species, maybe many of the beetles will survive. Studies done with high levels of radiation in certain test areas have found that insects are extraordinarily adaptable even to gamma radiation, so perhaps they’ll win out in the end.
I have been intrigued by beetles for many years, but until very recently I was unable to find a source of such specimens which were unmounted and sold for a reasonable price. For a mounted Goliath beetle, one can spend several hundred dollars. My wife happened across a pair of them on the Internet which she managed to get for $25. These are not the largest specimens one can find, but they are certainly large enough, the male being 3" long and the female about 2". Then I found a marvelous giant (6") for $30 which you can see below.
At that price, they are, for any amateur worth his or her salt, an incredible bargain. My main attraction initially was to scarab beetles, rhinoceros beetles, and stag beetles. However, I found another Internet source which not only supplied those items, but got me interested in snout beetles and weevils, flower beetles, click beetles, and an array of other insects which are not beetles, but are just as high in my hierarchy of things bright and beautiful–walking stick insects, leaf insects, mantids, lantern flies, and “true” bugs (Hemiptera and Homoptera).
However, for this article let’s stick with beetles. The tropics and very moist temperate zones produce most of the more exotic beetles. One of the most striking of all the rhinoceros beetles is Eupatorus gracilicornis.
This large splendid specimen hardly seems real, in part because it is naturally so polished and smooth. The anterior, with its magnificent horns almost looks like it has been carved out of ebony and the posterior has the appearance of well-oiled oak.
Rhinoceros beetles come in a considerable variety of shapes, colors, and sizes, but thankfully none are as large as rhinoceroses. In fact, some of the most striking ones, in terms of morphology and coloration, are small to medium in size. One that I find especially impressive is Phaneus vindex. First I’ll show you a husband and wife team.
The male is the one with the distinctive horn. Notice the metallic sheen and the marvelous arrangement of plates. It makes me wish for a modern Albrecht Dürer who could captures these wonderful textures and variations of color. There is a fascinating tale surrounding Dürer’s famous etching of a rhinoceros. The animal was presented to the King of Portugal. It was an Indian rhinoceros and Dürer never saw it. A description and a sketch reached him in Nuremberg. On the sole basis of these materials Dürer executed his splendid etching which, though anatomically inaccurate in a number
of respects, manages, nonetheless, to somehow capture the Platonic essence of rhinocerosicity. Clearly Dürer drew from military armor for his depiction of the “armored beast”.
Here is a closeup of the male Phaneus.
A fascinating fact about many beetles is that the colors of various parts of their bodies change as the angle of illumination changes, suggesting that, at least some aspects of the coloration are a result of structure rather than pigment. The same phenomenon can be observed in certain bird feathers and blues and greens are often structural colors. What that means is that there is no pigment in those areas, but the structure of the feather is such that it refracts wavelengths of light which our eyes and brains interpret as blue or green.
Among the stag beetles, there are some disconcertingly large specimens. These typically have a pair of heavy duty mandibles or pincers which can deliver a painful pinch. Over half a century ago, when my parents decided that I needed to cope with a rugged environment in order to develop character, they shipped me off to a Boy Scout camp. The “wonderful” character-building enterprise included being forced to wade out onto a sandbar in the middle of a mercifully shallow river where we new arrivals were coerced into drinking a ladle full of vile pepper water laced with tabasco sauce and God knows what else. The entire experience would have been intolerable were it not for two mitigating factors, the first of which was that a school friend of mine had also been sent by his parents into this hellish nightmare and we shared a tent and the second factor was that the camp had a nature counselor. He was a good-natured college-aged man of earnest temperament and no sense of humor. He related to plants and animals better than he did to humans, but he was pleased to find in me a fellow enthusiast for the mysteries of nature. Virtually all of the other campers strictly avoided him as he had a fondness for wolf spiders which he would collect and allow to wander over his hands, arms, and head and even down his collar. Now, I’m not a great fan of spiders, especially sizeable ones, but this fellow seemed to know a fair bit of natural history and I was anxious to learn from him. I learned not only about wolf spiders, but about various local birds, about Jack-in-the-Pulpit, and bloodroot, but what I learned about stag beetles, I learned from my friend with whom I shared a tent.
Campers live in a sort of gulag with a 9:00 pm curfew, rousted out of bed at the ungodly hour of 5:30 am by a coronet player who had to be a reject from some Vladivostok military band, dressed in the half-light of pseudo-dawn, marched up the trail to the lodge where we subjected ourselves to a disgusting, tasteless gruel of powdered eggs, oatmeal, and leftovers that had been cooked in swamp water. This ghastly ritual took place between 6:00 am and 6:30 am. God help you if you were late and missed this culinary delight. One morning, my friend and I started up the trail and I was telling him that I was going out observing plants for the day to escape the endless barrage of scheduled activities–swimming, tree climbing, wood carving, archery, knot tying–and I asked if he would care to go along. When I received no reply, I looked around to discover that he was a hundred feet behind me down the trail, sitting on the ground and frantically wrestling with his right shoe. At first I thought that he had injured himself, but by the time I reached him, he had removed the shoe and dumped a shiny, black, 2 inch long stag beetle out onto the ground. This was my first acquaintance with a stag beetle and I have had a special interest in them ever since.
Recently, I had the good fortune to acquire a couple of impressive specimens–one is about 3 ½ inches long and the other one is 5 inches long! However, never satisfied, I am still looking for a Columbian beetle which can reach a length of 9 inches.
Here’s a look at the 3 ½ inch one.
And here’s a closeup.
It is called Dorcus titanus titanus and is from Sumatra. It has, as you can see, some subtle, but rather attractive, color variations.
And here is the 5 inch one which I call Black Bart for those of you who are fans of old Western movies. This rather intimidating fellow is Prosopocoilus umhangi and is from Tanzania. This is not a critter that I would want to find in one of my shoes.
As I mentioned earlier, my longstanding fascination with these extraordinary creatures got suppressed due to a lack of sources which provided specimens at reasonable prices. However, with the advent of the Internet, it has become much easier to track down sources and some of them even have reasonable prices for a fairly wide variety of intriguing insects. This suppressed fascination has resurfaced as a burning passion as a direct consequence of my wife’s desire to own a pair of Goliath beetles. When she got them, I promised that I would find an appropriate Riker mount in which she could display these lovely critters.
I did find a Riker mount and found a very good source for them and my wife’s interest in and appreciation of beetles (and other eccentric insects) has grown in concert with mine. We have a particular fondness for the marvelous metallic appearance of a variety of beetles and especially those that have a bronze-coppery sheen and for those that look as though they had developed a greenish patina. So we both share an enthusiastic admiration for
Cyclommatus metalifer aenormicans. The specimen I’m going to show you comes from Mt. Ibu, Halmahera Island, Maluka, Indonesia.
As you can see this creature looks like a miniature sculpture.
For those of you who are fans of beetles and other eccentric insects, I promise I will be scribbling some more little essays about these remarkable organisms.
All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.
Editor's note: Visit Richard Howey's new website at http://rhowey.googlepages.com/home where he plans to share aspects of his wide interests.
Published in the May 2015 edition of Micscape Magazine.
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