Warning! This subject matter is not for the faint, or young at heart!
Taking a break from house cleaning the other day, I stepped out onto the front porch and walked past a large black beetle on the porch. I stopped dead in my tracks and did a double take. It was an American Carrion Beetle. I have only seen the elusive Necrophila americana in real life once before, so I nearly had to rub my eyes and look again. Once you have seen them though you never forget. No other bug looks like this one. Apparently, it must have flown on my porch by mistake. As soon as it saw me, it turned and flew away. (I certainly didn’t have anything dead on my porch!)
A large, flat, black beetle about the size of a large thumbnail, about a half-inch or slightly larger. The first quarter of the body, the shoulder area, is bright yellow with an oddly shaped black spot in the middle. Is this a death mask, or Darth Vader’s helmet? Could easily be either. Some people think that Carrion beetles look like bumble bees, but I do not see the resemblance in the least.
As the name suggests, Carrion beetles eat just that – carrion! At the first sniff of a dead animal, Carrion beetles take flight and fly in for a meal. Of course, there is some competition for corpses. Several species of flies also are shouldering in for a place at the dining table. The American Carrion beetle has a secret weapon to gain more than its fair share at the feast. It carries on its back tiny mites, which disembark when the beetle arrives to dine. These mites feed on the maggots (fly larvae), which are also eating the dead flesh. In return for the favor of the ride, scientists theorize that the mites eat bacteria off of the beetles, which may have been picked up from the dead animals. This mite-cleaning may help keep the beetles clean and healthy.
These beetles reproduce in the spring and have one brood per year. The female lays her eggs inside a dead carcass, so that the larvae have immediate food. It will take them about three months to mature.
The bright yellow and black colors help to warn away predators. Carrion beetles have another secret weapon. Just as a skunk is able to spray a stinky odor as defense, so the Carrion beetle can do the same. If this beetle feels threatened, it can turn and move the end of their abdomen around and spray in all directions. The strong, smelly odor is irritating to other bugs and small animals.
American Carrion Beetles are important decomposers. If we had no decomposers, our world would be smelly and dangerously full of bacteria and diseases. Decomposing insects play an important role in the cycle of life. Returning dead animals back into the earth where new life can spring forth.
-- Lynn Youngblood is the Executive Director of the Blue River Watershed Association in Kansas City, Missouri. Reach her at TheGreenSpace@sbcglobal.net