Hubbard Fellowship Blog – The Amazing Burying Beetle

This post was written by Dillon Blankenship, one of our current Hubbard Fellows.  All photos are by Dillon.

Back in September I had an interesting experience while sweeping out the shop. With a dustpan full of grass and dirt, I stepped out to the driveway and spotted a black and orange beetle scurrying across the rocks. As an insect fanatic working in the Plains, my first thought was “ABB! AMERICAN BURYING BEETLE! Nicrophorus americanus!” – the endangered carrion beetle I had been hoping to come across for the last half-decade or so. Elated, I carefully directed it into a jar for closer inspection and called Chris to see if we had ever recorded ABB at our sites on the Platte. He informed me we had not, so I took the jar and ran to my house to get an insect identification guide. On the other side of the phone, Chris opened his computer and we began teasing out the distinguishing characteristics of the American burying beetle from the other fifteen or so carrion beetle species in Nebraska.

The burying beetle Dillon found...  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

The burying beetle Dillon found… The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

We started with the orange bands on its back (did they go all the way across or did they stop at the midpoint of the wings?). Were the bands zigzagged or straight? How big was it? What did the antenna look like it? How about the pronotum – okay, we probably called it “the plate behind its head” – was it red or black? The final question was the best indicator. The pronotum – the top side of the first segment from the head (the prothorax) with the first pair of legs – of the beetle I had found was entirely black. The American burying beetle’s pronotum is reddish-orange.

The creature I found was not an American burying beetle, but it was still interesting. First of all, carrion beetles (also called burying beetles) are a family of beetles (silphidae) that are characterized by their feeding, mating, and rearing of young in the carcasses of dead animals. There are at least forty-six species in North America. They seem to have a keen sense of smell so they can track down a recently deceased critter – like a mouse or a bird – and claim it as their own. Males and females find each other at the site and the most dominant mating pair battles off other individuals as they bury their prize. Flies are perhaps the greatest competition for the corpse, as they will lay eggs that become maggots and cause some beetle species to abandon the resource. Some silphid species just eat the maggots too. Beetle eggs are laid and, after hatching, feed on the carrion up to pupation and into adulthood where they will disperse and continue the cycle of reproduction. Some carrion beetles exhibit a high level of parental care, staying with their young to protect and feed them – an uncommon trait in the insect world.

The underside of the beetle was covered in tiny mites.  It turns out they are not harming the beetle at all, but just hitching a ride to their food source.

The underside of the beetle was covered in tiny mites. It turns out they are not harming the beetle at all, but just hitching a ride to their food source.

As I examined the specimen I had discovered, I was horrified by the large number of little mites crawling around on it. The mites congregated on its underside and I imagined they were an uncomfortable burden. HOWEVER, I read that these types of mites are found on almost all burying beetles. They are phoretic, meaning they travel with and do not necessarily harm the beetle itself. Bumblebees are also commonly found with little mites hitching rides. The beetle mites are said to be in the genus Poecilochirus and are mutualistic (beneficial, not parasitic) with the burying beetles insofar as they “hop off” the beetle and onto the carrion to feast on the fly eggs and larvae that would otherwise compete with the beetles’ brood. Teamwork!

Perhaps the most relevant part of this for humans is that the burying beetles help keep our prairies clean! As part of the biotic decomposition network of fungi, bacteria, flies and other beetles, they return the nutrients of dead organisms back to the soil. Thank you, burying beetles.

Here's the beetle after it was released.  (No beetles were harmed in the making of this blog post.)

Here’s the beetle after it was released. (No beetles were harmed in the making of this blog post.)

Though I didn’t find an American burying beetle, I DID find a close relative. I am calling it a margined burying beetle (Nicrophorus marginatus) until somebody more taxonomically inclined corrects me. It was a great adventure trying to figure out who my beetle was and it seemed no worse for the journey when I returned it to the prairie.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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17 Responses to Hubbard Fellowship Blog – The Amazing Burying Beetle

  1. Love all the Nicrophorus! Great article.

  2. heather says:

    What a neat photo, with all the mites! Thanks for sharing and educating.

  3. C says:

    Love your description of your research process – terrific!

  4. Paul Nielsen says:

    I found a somewhat similar species working on a mouse on a morning run a few years ago here in east central Illinois ( 40.22 °N, 88.36 °W ). Will try to dig up its photo & information. It was along the roadside among the corn and soybean fields.

    • Dillon Blankenship says:

      Sounds interesting, Paul. I read that burying beetles are temperate specialists – too much competition in the tropics, I guess, though there are a few species there too. Good to hear that they might do all right in row crops. Fantastic creatures!

  5. Bob Stine says:

    Great article, great pix.

  6. Lara says:

    I found a burying beetle in October while leading a group of students on a hike in East Central Illinois as well. The ‘plate behind the head’ was yellow and it had mites hitching a ride as well. Having never seen this insect before, it was great fun looking it up in a field guide when the students and I returned to the classroom. Sharing the information learned, as well as a short youtube video of the insect working together to ‘bury’ their latest carcass, was hopefully a moment the students will remember from their field exploration!

    • Dillon Blankenship says:

      Lara, my first experience with silphid beetles was also on a hike leading students! Was your beetle, perchance, Necrophila americana? That is one I know with a yellowish pronotum.

      • Lara says:

        My discovered beetle has the same orange markings as yours in this post but the pronotum was dirty yellow with two black spots. I believe it was the Gold-necked carrion beetle, Nicrophorus tomentosus.

  7. Bob Merz says:

    Nice article. One accepted common name for N. marginatus is the “Margined Burying Beetle.” Thanks for taking the reader through the identification process. This is something that a lot of folks don’t take the time to do, but is so educational.

  8. Anne says:

    Amazing pictures Dillon! Insect behavior is fascinating. I also think it’s really helpful to identify the key field markings for people new to bug ID. Great post.

  9. What a beautiful little beetle! Thank you for not killing it, putting a pin through it’s body, and sticking it on a board. I much perfer to see the critters moving about.

  10. Molly says:

    Thanks. Great post on a well-done ongoing blog.
    Fyi, another fine resource on insects (& other arthropods, too) is Kate Redmond’s Bug-of-the-Week on-line column carried by the U of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Field Station. The science is solid and written in a wry & engaging way. Her carrion beetle column is at
    http://www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/carrion-beetles.cfm
    The columns (with a search box for past starring critters) appear at
    http://www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/

  11. Pat Halderman says:

    Fascinating! Thank you!

  12. Den says:

    I found this exact beetle on July 28, 2015. I got a blurry photo at a site in Southern Colorado.

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