Burying Beetles – Remarkable parents!!

Sep. 27, 2023

Suranga Basnagala

September 2022 the entomology department received a voicemail from Christian Centa in Doylestown OH. He said seeing a mating pair of burying beetles in his backyard trying to bury a mouse carcass. He was aware of the rarity of the Burying beetles, recorded the scene without disturbing them, and sent me the videos.

The first picture shows one of the Burying beetles and the second picture shows the pair trying to bury a mouse carcass. One beetle is by the tail, upside down, trying to squeeze in. The youtube video shows the two beetles trying to drag the carcass. Photo & video credit – Christian Centa. 

 

Burying beetles can be easily identified by the shiny black and bright red to yellow spots on the elytra (Wing covers). Some can be entirely black. Here, in the images, a mating pair of Tomentose burying beetle (Nicrophorus tomentosus) trying to bury a mouse carcass. It is easy to ID this species due to the distinct yellow hairs on the pronotum.

Burying beetles belong to Superfamily Staphylinoidea and Family Silphidae (Carion Beetles), Genus Nicrophorus. There are more than 70 species worldwide (bugguide.net).  The American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus) is the largest Nearactic Silphid and is about 1.5 - 2 inches long.

These beetles are nature recyclers, they help recycle organic matter, and dead carcasses which greatly benefit the environment. They are also known as Sexton beetles; they got their name from the Sexton of the church whose duty is to look after the graveyard. As the name suggests these beetles undertake the burying work of small dead and decaying animals, like mice and small birds.

The American burying beetles (Nicrophorus americanus) are considered an endangered species. The reintroduction effort of N. americanus since 2019 has been a struggle.  In 2022, US Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS), Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC), and Cincinnati Zoo trying to reintroduce the American Burying Beetle in OH. Read their remarkable story of capturing and releasing these beetles in the wild, the link is at the end of this article.

American burying beetles are nocturnal and usually active from late spring to early fall. Once they locate a carcass the mating pair will usually prepare it by removing the hairs or feathers. Both will drag the carcass to an underground burrow or they will go under the carcass and remove the soil until the carcass is completely sinks into the ground. Female beetle then lay eggs close to the carcass and both help emerging larvae with regurgitated meat until they can eat on their own, which is a remarkable parenting found only in large Nicrophorus species. Both will protect the young larvae until they pupate. They emerge as adults in 1-2 months time and hibernate winter in the soil as adults. Their lifespan is around one year. During that time they must find a mate and a carcass to continue their generation.

They are usually active from late spring to early fall. Ohio residents can report the sightings of these beetles to The Ohio Ecological Services Field Office located at 4625 Morse Rd, Suite 104, Columbus, OH 43230. Phone-614-416-8993, email- ohio@fws.gov. If you email them don’t forget to take a few images, without disturbing them.

American burying beetles can be easily identified due to their large size and distinct reddish-orange color pronotum, and also reddish-orange spot on the frons and on the clypeus.

 

Reference:

Scott, Michelle Pellissier; Panaitof, S. Carmen, 2004. Social stimuli affect juvenile hormone during breeding in biparental burying beetles (Silphidae: Nicrophorus). Hormones and Behavior, Volume 45, Issue 3, Pages 159-167, ISSN 0018-506X, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.yhbeh.2003.09.012

American burying beetle - https://bugguide.net/node/view/12445

Tomentose burying beetle - https://bugguide.net/node/view/28744

Reintroduction efforts in OH - https://www.columbuszoo.org/blog/american-burying-beetle-reintroduction-efforts-ohio

USFWS site - https://www.fws.gov/species/american-burying-beetle-nicrophorus-americanus

 

The name and location of the Tomentose burying beetle were published with the approval of Mr. Centa.