Carrion my Wayward Beetle

“A yellow-and-black burying beetle, crawling across the white fur of his belly, stopped, waved its short, curved antennae and then moved on again. Hazel grew tense with sudden misgiving. He knew that these beetles come to dead bodies, on which they feed and lay their eggs. They will dig away the earth from under the bodies of small creatures, such as shrew mice and fallen fledglings, and then lay their eggs on them before covering them with soil.”–Richard Adams, Watership Down

The first to arrive are the flies. Shortly after swarm the wasps. Soon, the leaf litter begins to tremble, lifting from the forest floor like the shuttered doors of a storm shelter. An armored battalion of black and yellow soldiers emerges from the litter, and onward they march to war. By the time they arrive to their new battleground, it has already undergone a makeover of the most macabre as maggots begin their maneuvering through the bloat. The carcass of some fish washed ashore, the leftovers of another, no matter the source or cause, the scene plays out much the same from snow melt to first snow fall.

The little soldiers, looking like patrolling tanks moving up and over leaves, are American Carrion Beetles—and death is their siren. As the fly larvae are just beginning to hatch, the American Carrion Beetles swiftly move in and begin their feast—not on the carrion as their name might suggest, but on the larvae. Off their backs, like the Greeks out of the Trojan Horse, climb a hoard of mites of the genus Poecilochirus who join in on the feast. In a reveal of their cards, the beetles begin to mate and lay eggs of their own now that the crowd of competition has been thinned.

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As long as the carcass last throughout the assault of decomposition, the adult beetles will tirelessly continue their efforts to thin the competition so that their own larvae stand a chance at survival. The larvae of the American Carrion Beetle are the ones to which their name is owed. They will feed on their carcass of a home (and the other larvae) until they’ve grown large enough to fall to the ground, dig down deep, and pupate, undergoing metamorphosis into their adult selves. The adults (with the mites returning aboard) move on to the next corpse.

This is circle of life—or at least an ugly, albeit necessary, curve of it. This is the life of the American Carrion Beetle.

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