Sexton Beetle (Nicrophorus carolina)

I think this is where I have to admit I have a problem.

I was hanging around in the backyard, waiting for our dog do what she does best, and noticed that one of our local anole lizards had passed on. I knelt down to look, and saw that it was swarming with ants. “Oooh, you’ll be gone by morning,” I told the lizard. “But I wonder if your skull will?” (I have a desiccated frog skeleton that needs a friend.)

While I was pondering lizard skulls, a 3.5-cm beetle came humming up, whumming like a tiny helicopter, aiming for the lizard. NEW SPECIES!! By the time I’d run and grabbed my camera, the beetle had dug in, almost lifting the lizard off the ground in its attempts to get the good parts.

So this is a sexton beetle, aka burying beetle, Nicrophorus carolina. (“Nicrophorus” means “carrier of the dead”, and sextons used to dig graves.) They bury small carcasses, lay their eggs in them, and then help to raise the young by chewing up the dead thing for them. GUYS YOU CAN SEE THE LITTLE SYMBIOTIC PHORETIC MITES ON IT AND EVERYTHING

Sooooo, my first thought was “OMG, I should totally put out dead meat for the corpse beetles!!” I came back inside, squeeing, and asked the Cute Man if I could put out meat for the corpse beetles. He thought for a moment. “Well…they don’t get the good meat. But yes, you should totally put out meat for the corpse beetles!”

He’s definitely a keeper. And this may be where I go off the deep end, and start farming sexton beetles.

There are about 15 species of burying beetles in North America, all about 3.5 cm long, black, with patterns of red on the elytra (wing covers) and gold on the underside. (There’s a cool key for some of the species here.) Four families of mites live on these beetles — Parasitidae, Anoetidae, Uropodidae and Macrochelidae. The mites hitch a ride with the beetles to access food sources they couldn’t otherwise reach, and in return, they feed on fly eggs near the carrion the beetle eats, reducing competition for the food. (A lot of big, flying insects that eat carrion have mites like these.)

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