William

Rawlings

Author of Southern Stories

 

 

In Praise of Beetles

(This article originally appeared the in Holiday 2007 issue of Splash magazine.)

 

“If one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of creation, it would appear that God has an inordinate fondness for stars and beetles,” or so states a somewhat apocryphal quote attributed to the noted British biologist J. B. S. Haldane.  His exact words may be uncertain, but consider this fact:  As you stand on the beach, marveling at the sky on a clear cool winter night, for every visible star shining in the heavens above, there are more than a thousand species of beetles quietly inhabiting the world around you. 

     Beetles are insects, far and away the most successful and numerous animals on the planet.  Their ancestors appeared with the dinosaurs, some 230 million years ago.  But unlike their larger reptilian cousins, they have persisted, adapted and multiplied.  By their sheer numbers, they influence in some way the life cycle of almost every living thing that walks, flies, crawls and slithers across the face of the Earth.

     And those numbers are astounding.  Take mammals and birds, for example.  While the occasional new discovery does occur, most scientists agree that essentially all of the known species that exist on Earth have been described and named.  For mammals, this is about 4,000 in all.  For birds, about 9,000.   For beetles, however, the number of named species exceeds 350,000 with general acknowledgement that the true number is orders of magnitude higher.  Conservative estimates suggest that the total number of beetle species may be in the range of eight million, or more.   If a modern-day Noah were to begin loading his ark, limiting his passengers only to those animals that have been given names, every fifth one would be a beetle.  

     The special thing about beetles, and the characteristic that has likely contributed most to their success, is their armor.  Like other insects, they have an exoskeleton.  In contrast to mammals, this structural frame supports their bodies on the outside and is able to act as an additional layer of defense.  But uniquely among insect orders, they have elytra, hard protective plates that cover the flight wings and provide another layer of armor plate against outside threats.  Perhaps the best analogy is that beetles are the transformers of the insect world.  Most of the time they are quiet tanks foraging for food on a hostile battlefield.  When necessary though, they unfold their hidden wings and take to flight like ungainly helicopters.

     But they’re bugs, you say.  Creepy, crawly little things that scurry around in the night.  They bite and sting and carry disease.  True, in some cases, but like many of what we consider minor players in our world, humans live in a symbiotic relationship with insects.  Consider the lowly bee, for example.  They sting, yet they serve to pollinate many of the fruits and vegetables that make up an integral part of our diet, and provide honey as an added benefit.

     As to beetles, mankind’s love-hate relationship with them stretches far back into recorded history.  To the ancient Egyptians, the scarab beetle was associated with Khepri, one of the minor gods.  In art, the scarab was depicted as rolling the disc of the sun across the sky, and its image served as a hieroglyph in writing.  Scarab jewelry and amulets were common, one of the best known being a massive necklace buried with the mummy of King Tutankhamen in the 14th Century BC. 

     Biologists today marvel at beetles for the diversity.  They range in size from near-microscopic to greater than four inches in length.   Many display iridescent colors in all shades of the rainbow.  Many species have “horns,” and in some (the staghorn beetles) these may exceed the length of the beetle’s body. Beetles begin life as an egg, growing rapidly into larvae (which we commonly see in our gardens and lawns as “grubs”).  The larva is the main feeding phase of a beetle’s life, after which it goes though a cocoon-like stage as a pupa, to emerge as a fully adult beetle capable of breeding. 

      As humans, we consider some beetles our enemies.  About half of all described species are weevils, one of the most notorious being the boll weevil which devastated the cotton-based Southern economy in the 1920s.   The vast pine forests of Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas are always under attack from the pine bark beetle.  Dutch Elm disease which deforested so many of America’s shady streets in the early to mid-twentieth century was spread by the elm leaf beetle. 

     But to gardeners, the small but colorful ladybird (or “ladybug”) feeds on aphids, mealybugs and other harmful species.  The forests and fields are teeming with beetles whose main purpose in the ecosystem seems to be that of recycling nature’s detritus to the benefit of future generations of other plants and animals.  And who has not marveled on a summer’s evening at the light show preformed by fireflies (or lightning bugs), members of one of the three families of bioluminescent beetles?

     So the next time you’re sitting on your patio and a small dark iridescent bug makes an awkward landing in your drink, stop and consider it for a moment.  Its lineage is eons greater than that of humans, and its numbers vastly exceed the total of all mankind who have ever walked the face of Earth.  No one can say for certain, but there’s a good possibility that beetles will still be quietly toiling away long after our kind has ceased to exist.