Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Tuesday, July 31, 2007


According to popular lore, the great British biologist J. B. S. Haldane was asked what could be learned of God by studying nature, to which he quipped, "He seems to have an inordinate fondness for beetles." The truth matches the tale's essence, but falls short of its satisfying details, and I see no reason to wreck a good story.
Beetles certainly are a successful group, with roughly the same number of species as all other insects combined. Most of them are tiny and dull, but many of them are beautiful and spectacular. The African Goliath beetles (Goliathus spp.) are often said to be the largest beetles, though the South American Titanus giganteus greatly exceeds them in length, and probably in weight, as well. Even so, they are immense and wonderful creatures, and far more beautifully marked than any of their competitors in the hugeness competition. Surprisingly for such cumbersome things, the ones I've seen in nature have been arboreal, and seem to rarely come to the ground. During the brief tropical dusk, though, they fly about the canopy from one nectar-rich flowering tree to the next. It's hard to describe the flight of a beetle with a seven-inch wingspan, because it's really so improbable. It's like being buzzed by a winged box turtle. Of course they make a real racket--you can't miss one when it flies helicopter-like overhead, evoking strains of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries.

Across much of Latin America, the Hercules Beetle (Dynastes hercules) is the most common very large beetle. Smaller than a Goliath, the pair of antler-like horns on the thorax and head of the male roughly double his length to around seven inches. At La Selva biological station I once took a night hike with several young biologists. One of these was a rather obnoxious lad whose personal boat was all too often commandeered by his bellicose ego. On this evening, the presence of a beautiful and charming female biologist was incentive enough for such a mutiny, and we were all subjected to great bluster and boasting for most of the evening. Suddenly a large Hercules Beetle, attracted to our flashlights, came flying toward us from two o’clock. Passing us by, it continued into the jungle on our opposite flank. A moment later it was back, and on the third pass it landed directly on the groin of our swashbuckling biologist. When a beetle of this size lands, any sudden perceived attack will instantly provoke it to grasp its substrate with all the might of its six strong legs, each one tipped with a pair of needle-like tarsi, and that is precisely what this one did upon the first effort to brush it away. The dance our companion then executed was very much like the ones I imagine leprechauns must engage in: sort of a hornpipe, with much leaping through the forest from one foot to the next, hysterically swatting his own crotch. We maintained him in our flashlight beams until he disappeared into the jungle. A few moments later he emerged...alone, and a better man, if only for that evening.
This summer, residents of Utah's Wasatch Mountains have been treated to an unusually high number of our largest native beetle, the Giant Root Borer (Prionus californicus).
Reaching three inches in length, this rufous behemoth really is spectacular, and ordinarily rare enough (an average summer sees no more than one or two) to make catching one an event. So far, 2007 has yielded seven. Immediately upon their capture they effect a very loud and charming scraping sound, which is common to many big beetles, although the exact mechanics of it I’ve never been able to divine. A pair of powerful mandibles mandates some degree of care in their handling. As the name implies, the grubs fed on the root crowns of Gambel’s Oak (Quercus gambelii). In some parts of the American West these grubs were said to be an important food for certain Indian communities, although I can't imagine how they located them. I'm equally puzzled by the number I've seen this year. Does it reflect the decline of an important predator? A beneficial environmental change? Or a statistical anomaly? Perhaps further observations will yield some answers, but for now I'm all questions.
upper: STILL LIFE WITH BEETLES (2000) acrylic 20" x 26" The large beetle with maroon elytra in front of the book's spine is a Great Goliath Beetle (G. goliatus). Directly above the tip of its snout, a Giant Root Borer comes in for a landing. In the loser right corner is a Hercules Beetle.
lower: Photo of a road-killed Giant Root Borer taken by CPBvK July 26, 2007


Blogger Christopher Taylor said...

Seven, I think, is still within the realm of 'statistical blip'. When you're up to fifty, then you start wondering if something's going on.

It is exactly because of what you mentioned that it's usually best to not swat encroaching insects if you can avoid it, just wait for them to move on of their own accord. Exceptions can be made for anything that's going to draw blood.

10:53 PM  
Blogger Patrick B. said...

I have the book "An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles" which is a nice read with great photos. I loved the La Selva story. My dad just had a similar experience with a large beetle that landed on his chest while he was night fishing. He went to swat it and impaled his thumb on a metal clip he had around his neck.

6:53 AM  
Blogger Camera Trap Codger said...

Great story -- I'm still chuckling. Giant dung beetles in Asia also elicit amusing reactions. They tend to bumble about in the air and just graze you before falling into the rice or soup. A coleopterist friend in Austria tells me that "Victorian beetle collections" now sell for big bucks. Of course, those who can afford them usually are NOT entomologists.

An excellent piece.

8:32 AM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Christopher: True enough. I haven't seen enough beetles to actually know that their numbers are up, but it's enough to pay attention to. Incidentally, as of tonight, we're up to eight.
Patrick: Reading that La Selva story can only be a dim shadow of the satisfying experience that watching it was.
Codger: Thanks. I'm Asia-bound next month. I'll be sure to keep one hand over my nasi goreng.

9:12 PM  
Blogger chris y said...

Haldane was certainly a great biologist, but he was scarcely a Victorian - he was eight when Victoria died and lived till the mid 1960s.

5:25 AM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Now there's a statistical blip for you - Three out of four comments by Chrises. You're right about Haldane's lifespan. For some reason I had thought he lived a bit earlier. I've corrected the post. Thanks.

1:42 PM  
Blogger burning silo said...

Beautiful painting of the beetles -- the full size image must be quite something. I enjoyed the La Selva story too. It's quite amusing to see the reactions that some people have to large insects, but that event sounds particularly funny. As the saying goes, "Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy."
Trends in insects seem difficult to determine. Sometimes I wonder if there are more of something than usual, or if I'm just particularly lucky to find more. In my area, last year seemed to be a great one for Praying Mantids, Argiope spiders, and large Sphinx moths. This year, I've barely seen any and my spider garden (a plot set aside for Argiope), has only a couple of spiders instead of the usual 25 or 30 I would normally expect to find hanging about. I hope they soon make an appearance. I've no idea what could have caused a population crash, but such are the puzzles we are left to ponder over.
So, Asia! I hope you'll be doing a bit of writing about your journey!

1:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've seen tons of beetles this year and that was a surprise to me (this has been a rather cold summer around here).

Where in Asia are you going to? I just came back from India (the Nilgiris) and I was lucky. There was a family of black langurs that used to feed a few tens of meters away from my sleeping place.

7:24 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Silo: Thanks for your comments, Bev. I'm looking forward to seeing what next year brings, beetle-wise. I'm sure I'll post something about my Asia trip some time in Late October.
Filipe: It's always interesting to hear from you about what's happening in Portugal. I'll be in Malaysia and Indonesia, with a possible jaunt over to PNG.

9:27 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

When you say 7 Prionus Californicus beetles, do you mean that is the total amount anyone has caught that year? I'm just curious because I have two in my yard down in southern Utah (New Harmony). I caught one and wasn't sure what to do with it. Should I be worried about the grubs killing my trees?

10:40 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Hello, Parker. I meant that I had seen 7 Root Borers myself that summer. I wouldn't worry about my trees if I had seen two adult beetles in my yard.

6:42 AM  
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