Missouri Reintroduces Endangered Burying Beetle, the Most Metal Insect of All


The American Burying Beetle, not eating a corpse.
  • The American Burying Beetle, not eating a corpse.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Saint Louis Zoo plan to reintroduce the Burying Beetle to the Wah'kon-Tah Prairie in the near future, reestablishing the insect as a vital part of Missouri's ecosystem for the first time since the 1970s.

Obviously, beetles aren't as glamorous a creature as say the lion or a chimpanzee, or any of the other charismatic megafauna; but once you learn a little about the Burying Beetle's life cycle, you'll realize these little devils are as metal as Tony Iommi knife-fighting Lemmy on the precipice of an active volcano.

For starters, the Burying Beetle is so named because it eats carrion -- carrion it farms by first burying the carcass of a quail or other small mammal a foot deep, stripping fungus from the body with their pincers and expectorating an antibacterial secretion that slows decomposition by embalming the body. Scientists know very little about this fluid, by the way.

Incidentally, the Burying Beetle can sense a dead animal from almost two miles away thanks to its antennae, and once it finds the meat it has to fight for its right to eat it. Burying Beetles wage terrific battles over carcasses, with the males only fighting males and the females only fighting females; the victorious male and female are then a couple. That's some savage chivalry right there.

Once a body is buried deep and rotting slowly, Mr. and Mrs. Burying Beetle get down to sexy business, mating in the shadow of their decaying kill. Ah, romance. Mrs. Beetle lays her eggs in the soft soil surrounding the body, and then they await the miracle of life. When larvae hatch after a few days, the parents work in tandem to strip flesh from the corpse and regurgitate it for their starving young until there's nothing left but bones. Family planning is also practiced by the Beetles; the parents devour excess larvae to ensure the food supply lasts.

Obviously, the Burying Beetle is a thorough recycler, keeping their prairie habitat free from carrion. Burying the dead also prevents the spread of disease, which helps maintain the health of other creatures in the food chain.

Amazingly, the Saint Louis Zoo has a Burying Beetle breeding program, and has successfully produced almost 4,000 beetles since 2005 using five-gallon buckets and dead quails to get 'em in the mood -- much easier than pandas, at any rate. They may not be as cute or cuddly, but Burying Beetles are an indigenous Missouri species that went missing for reasons unknown. Reintroducing them is the culmination of years worth of hard work performed by dozens of scientists and naturalists.

And the next time you're out there in the tall grass and the sun's going down, maybe you'll think of a pair of beetles standing athwart the still-warm flesh of a dead bird, the broken limbs and mangled pincers of their brethren littering the ground where they will soon commence their big dig. Tonight, those lucky beetles get laid and feast on the spoils of victory, and life's great wheel makes one more turn in its endless gyre.

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.