Background Switcher (Hidden)

The Horned Passalus and Its Passengers

Sunday, September 11, 2011

                               I think of this as my Summer of Bugs. I've always liked bugs.

But this year, I have tools to learn more about them, and I am using those tools. My favorite is Eric Eaton's and Kenn Kaufman's Field Guide to Insects of North America. There, I learned that what I've always called a Betsy Bug is a Horned Passalus (oh wonderful name!) Odontotaenius disjunctus.  It's a pretty wonderful bug, I must say.  There are only two species of passalid in North America; it's a mostly tropical family, with over 500 species worldwide. Shiny (Patent Leather Beetle is another colloquial name), strong (just try holding one back!) and robust, it's very beautiful and strange to watch as it feels its way around with jointed antennae. Like roaches, the passalus is sensitive to air currents, and rather shy. It's usually found in rotted wood, which it eats. But unlike termites, for instance, it lacks beneficial bacteria in its gut to digest the wood. So it eats the wood, poops, and then eats the fungus that grows on its own poop. Now what is not to love about that?

But it gets better. The Horned Passalus is a social insect, and Eaton says that it is able to "talk" to its family (yes, it has a family; we'll get to that) by rubbing bits of itself together, something called stridulating. And curious entomologists have identified fourteen different sounds, or calls, that this insect can make.

See the cool little horn on its head?

I was bitten pretty good by a Betsy Bug while playing in a Virginia sandbox at the tender age of six or so. To be fair to it, I was squishing it in my hand. I didn't mean to; I thought it was a sand clump. They don't usually bite, though. They're too busy being cool. Get this:  They chew through rotted wood, making galleries where they haul around their eggs and larvae, a bit like giant ants. They live in colonies with their offspring. They pair up. And the pairs of beetles care for their larvae, feeding them chewed wood mixed with their own feces (there they go again!) They can live up to 16 months, and most of that is spent in caring for their young while the eggs hatch, larvae grow and metamorphose into pupae and then adult beetles.

I like the golden leg fringe bling. Not sure what its function may be; maybe it acts as a comb to keep wood debris off its limbs? Maybe it combs those sensitive antennae with its leg fringe? I would need to watch one for a few hours to see what it does.

My partner in discovery is my Canon G-11. (Who knows how many of these cameras I've sold? B & H Photo's link that was supposed to kick back $$ never worked for me, so heck with it. Go buy one. Tell 'em I sent you). 

This little camera shows me things I can hardly see with my own orbs. See anything interesting on the beetle's head? Yeah, me too. Mites. Little copper-colored round mites.

I noticed that this beetle (I have two individuals in these shots) was carrying mites, and it seemed to have little scooped-out areas on its head that cradled the mites just so, which got me thinking that the mites might be doing something nice for the beetle; maybe cleaning its jaws and keeping it all shiny-polished; maybe getting rid of excess food or feces; maybe singing tiny little mite songs to it as it chews away on the rotten wood. Hi ho, Hi ho, it's off to work you go! Tra la la la! Hey, if a beetle can have at least 14 different calls, mites should be able to sing.

Some of the mites found on bess bugs are found nowhere else.

So something's going on here; the mites get something from the association with the passalus that they can't get anywhere else. Who knows what the passalus gets from it? That's bugs for you. Looking closely can lead to looking more closely, and then a question mark forms over your head that is pretty much permanent, like a halo.

I would much rather have a question mark over my head than a halo. Much more fun.


The 10-year-old boy reading over my shoulder loved this post!

Loved your post as always. My daughter has a beetle, hopefully you can follow this link and see what she has done:

The 53 year old boy reading this post loved it too.

That looks like the beetle down here that we call a "Bess Beetle".

At last the mentioning of the Canon model mystery is solved.
I thought maybe you had a deal with Canon itself.

To paraphrase:
Big bugs have little bugs
Upon their backs to bite 'em
And little bugs still lesser bugs
And so ad infinitum

ooooooohhh shame, shame, the entomologists are going to get you as you are describing an insect not a bug... a bug belongs to the Hemipterans the only "true bugs"...

Heyduke, thanks for the correction, but I use "bug" knowingly and thoroughly tongue in cheek. I feel it best to establish myself as an entomological piker from the get-go, lest anyone confuse me with an entomologist. You'll find me describing butterflies as bugs, too. I'll explain myself in a future post about a very cool spider. Which I know is not a bug to anyone who knows anything about bugs, but to most people out there, is still a bug. Dig?

I love your posts. I am reminded of the Mary Oliver poem in which she says she wants to remember herself as a "bride married to amazement. " Do you know that poem? Here's a link

Well this just completely made my day. My day is completely made, by you and your bug. Thank you for your fine day-making. That horn looks like you would use it to pop its trunk or something.

The world of insects is just incredible beyond all imagination. I'm always reminded of the simple awe-struck words of Annie Dillard in "Pilgrim At Tinker Creek":
“Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly. Insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another... I never ask why of a vulture or shark, but I ask why of almost every insect I see."

Why a "Betsy bug" or a "Bess beetle"?
Love those local names for critters.

Bugs are, shall we say, a growing edge for me. I have no idea why, because I was just fine with them as a kid. I am to get back there. I had to remind myself to breathe several times in this post but found it fascinating. Looking forward to more bug education.

Whew. That Mary Oliver poem. Bee-yoo-tiful. That Dillard quote. Perhaps it was still rolling around in my subconscious from having read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek so many times.
LOG, it's funny the things we begin to fear as time goes by. Not as if we have a lot of control over it.
FC, I got no deal with nobody. I can say whatever I want! I can even say BUG, right Wheatley?

I was fascinated, enraptured as I read your passalus tale. I love your sense of wonder of nature and all it's critters. Visiting you is an adventure.

Giggling at the thought of singing mites. No wait since I stopped giggling I think I hear them. Tra la la...

Technically bugs are hemipterans (insects with sucking mouthparts that include things like cicadas, treehoppers, giant water bugs and a bunch of other things) and do not include beetles.

Yay, bugs! Yay, beetle bugs! This has turned out to be an insect-rich summer for me, as well. It is only within a community of like-minded folks such as yourself and your readers that I can say, without fear of someone being offended, that I watched in awe what looked like a blister beetle threesome a few weeks back. It was fascinating!!!

Wonderful post, as always, Julie! Next to birds, I think that insects (and spiders, too) are about the most fascinating group of animals. I have to recommend a few of my favorite books on the subject--all of them written by the same author, Howard Ensign Evans, who was one of the very best practitioners of the ppopular science writing genre. They are, The Pleasures of Entomology, Life on a Little Known Planet, and Wasp Farm. Have you read them?

It bugs me not the least, your bantering "bug" about so blithely.

Oh, the stories those buildings could tell... thank you for this post.

[Back to Top]