Wednesday, September 26, 2018


Speaking of Science
Talk nerdy to us

A Coccinellidae, more commonly known as a ladybug or ladybird beetle, rests on the petals of a rose in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

I have a confession: I'm kind of creeped out by exoskeletons. There's something about the idea of squishy insect guts contained within a crunchy chitinous framework that makes me squirm. I feel uncomfortable just thinking about it.

But I may just have to get over my exoskeleton-aversion, because I have a brand new-appreciation for the biggest group of chiton-clad animals on the planet: beetles.

Last week my colleague Ben Guarino gifted me University of Guelph entomologist Stephen Marshall's new 800-page textbook on Coleoptera and boy oh boy did I have a lot of fun looking through it. Practically every page made me jump up from my desk in search of someone who would appreciate the fun fact I just learned.

Sadly, not all of my coworkers were as thrilled by images of glowing beetle larvae as I was. That's why I'm saving the best facts for you, beloved Speaking of Science readers. Please enjoy.

  • Beetles belong to the order Coleoptera — the most diverse order on Earth. At about 400,000 species, it includes almost half of all insects and a quarter of all described animals.

  • Beetles are not bugs! "True bugs," members of order hemiptera, are distinguished by their sucking mouthparts, which they typically use to consume plant sap.

  • You will never be able to un-read the phrase "sucking mouthparts," for which I am a little bit sorry.

  • Female leaf rolling weevils lay their eggs in tiny packages constructed out of plants. Many terrestrial beetles, meanwhile, conceal their eggs in complex structures built out of feces. Your mom may have loved you, but did she ever cover you in her own poop to keep you safe from predators?

  • Many beetle species scare predators and woo mates via stridulation, a musical way of moving body parts against each other to produce a sound, not unlike a pick strumming across the strings of a guitar.

  • The African Goliath Beetle, one of the world's heaviest insects, weighs a whopping 50 grams, or twice as much as a house mouse.

  • Some desert-dwelling darkling beetles have bumps and ridges on their backs that are designed to cause water droplets to coalesce, then flow toward the insects' mouths -- a clever adaptation for life in a dry environment.

  • Getting eaten is not the end for bombadier beetles. When these insects find themselves in predators' guts, they expel a hot chemical spray that induces vomiting, allowing the beetles to escape out from the bellies of the creatures that just swallowed them.

  • The iridescent coloring of some scarab beetles, produced by microscopic parallel ridges like those on a DVD, are thought to act like camouflage, making the insects indistinguishable from glistening water droplets reflecting sunlight in a forest.

  • You know that fireflies bioluminesce. But have you heard of Pyrophorus nyctophanus, the "fire-bearing night-shiner?" The predatory larvae of this beetle species, found in the outer layers of termite mounds, use a blue-green glow to lure flying insects, which they then devour. Yum.

What amazing beetle facts have I missed? Please send your favorites to sarah.kaplan@washpost.com.


Sarah, the recent Coleoptera convert

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