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January 08, 2024

35 Minutes

Guests: Jennifer Hopwood

Tags: beetles, fireflies, habitat, staff guests,

We are all familiar with beetles. If we look around our homes or neighborhoods, we’ll find them, but how familiar are we? What makes a beetle a beetle? How many different species are there? What role do they play in our world?  

Guest Information

To help us explore the world of beetles is Jennifer Hopwood, who works for the Xerces Society as a senior pollinator conservation specialist – a job title that doesn’t really encompass all that she does. Yes, Jennifer provides advice and training for restoring and managing pollinator habitat in a variety of landscapes, but she also focuses on conserving other beneficial insects, including beetles. Jennifer has authored many articles and publications, and is a co-author of several books, including Farming with Native Beneficial Insects.

Transcript

Rachel: Welcome to bug banter with the Xerces Society where we explore the world of invertebrates and how to help these extraordinary animals. If you want to support our work go to xerces.org/give.

Matthew: Hi, I'm Matthew in Portland, Oregon.

Rachel: And I'm Rachel in Missoula, Montana.

Matthew: We are all familiar with beetles — I have to admit that it was sharing an office with a beetle enthusiast that first got me interested in insects as a conservation topic. Look around your home or neighborhood and you’ll find them, but how familiar are we? What makes a beetle a beetle? How many different species are there? What role do they play in our world? 

Matthew: To help us explore the world of beetles is Jennifer Hopwood, who work for the Xerces Society as a Senior Pollinator Conservation Specialist – a job title that doesn’t really encompass all that she does. Yes, Jennifer provides advice and training for restoring and managing pollinator habitat in a variety of landscapes, but she also focuses on conserving other beneficial insects, including beetles. Jennifer has authored many articles and publications, and is a co-author of several books, including Farming with Native Beneficial Insects.

Matthew: Welcome, Jennifer.

Jennifer: Yeah, thanks for having me.

Rachel: We're excited to have you here. So, to start, can you tell us in scientific terms, what is a beetle? What makes a beetle a beetle?

Jennifer: Sure, well, beetles are insects, and like other insects they have 3 body regions and 6 legs, a pair of an antenna and 2 pairs of wings. But beetles have for wings that are hardened and thickened. And with the delicate membranous wings underneath that they use for flying and they're folded up underneath those thickened and hardened forewings. And they are in the order Coleoptera and that name is derived from Greek and it translates to sheath wings.

Jennifer: So, therefore this provide this protection for their wings and I think I've read a really nice description that they're sort of equipped to go from being a tank to an airplane really well, but that protection really means that they've been successful in our world. Really successful.

Jennifer: And they can be very tiny. Anywhere from a fourth of a millimeter. All the way up to about 20 cm. So, if you were to compare that to size difference in mammals, it would be like a teeny tiny little shrew and a blue whale, just a huge range in sizes.

Rachel: Thank you for that description, Jennifer. I love it. They're almost like the original Transformers going from being a tank to an airplane, which is so cool.

Jennifer: That's a great way to visualize it, Rachel. Especially if they have these 4 different life stages.They go from egg to larvae to pupae and adults. And the larvae look very different than the adults, so they really do transform in dramatic ways.

Matthew: And you have given us a scientific explanation or description of what a beetle is. And from that we know that beetles are not true bugs as such and yet we have beetles that we call ladybugs which now we know are not bugs, but they are beetles.

Matthew: So, can you explain, you know, why a ladybug isn't a bug and is actually a beetle.

Jennifer: Yeah, sure. And well, you know, the bugs are this loose term that many people use to describe insects. But for entomologists it really refers to a specific group of insects the true bugs in the order hemiptera.

Jennifer: Hemiptera, the name origin comes from half-wing or something like that because their forewings are half hardened and then half membranous. So, all the groups and true bugs have piercing sucking mouth parts. And some are plant feeders, many, and some feed on prey and use their piercing sucking mouth parts to pierce into their prey.

Jennifer: True bugs have a very different way of growing rather than beetles which go through those 4 different life stages of a pupae and adult. True bugs have sort of more incomplete metamorphosis and they're young start out looking pretty close to what the adults look like. They resemble small adults in a lot of ways.

Jennifer: They don't have wings to start with. But as they grow and go through different modes they just increasingly look more and more like the adults and they also live in the same place that the adults live and often feed on the same foods.

Jennifer: Beetles, on the other hand, their larva looks super different than the adults and sometimes they eat very different things too. So, there's some pretty big differences in their lifestyles. And somewhere along the line, I think that lady beetles got nicknamed lady bugs maybe because bug is such a familiar term.

Jennifer: Beetles have convex bodies with those hard wing covers that are often red with black spots and they're really familiar and easy to recognize. And have been for a long, long time, and in fact there's this legend that lady beetles got their name dating back to medieval times when farmers would see them in their fields, and recognize that when they had these lady beetles in their field they had better yield to their crops.

Jennifer: Because lady beetles are really important predators, especially eating aphids and other soft body pests. So, they called these insects our lady beetles. And so that's how lady beetles, they've just been a part of human history and knowledge, I think, for a long, long time. We have a lot of fondness for them.

Rachel: That's so interesting because I think we think of lady beetles AKA lady bugs as these gentle cute little animals, but they're actually quite ferocious.

Jennifer: They totally are. They are really fierce. They're larvae look really tough.

Rachel: Before I ask you my next question, can you just give our audience a couple of examples of a true bug?

Jennifer: Things like an assassin bug, our hunters, those are predators. There's also ambush bugs that they kind of blend in on flowers and they wait and leap upon flower visitors. The other really more common plant feeders are aphids and white flies and stink bugs, damsel bugs, those are all true bugs.

Rachel: Interesting. I feel like a lot of people have probably heard of a lot of those and yet we call any insect a bug. And it gets confusing.

Jennifer: It’s sort of an intersecting term though too, isn't it?

Rachel: This is called bug banter.

Rachel: So there are lots of different species of beetles in North America and around the world. Can you give us a sense of the diversity?

Jennifer: There’re probably at least 400,000 species of beetles around the world. So, it's a tremendously huge diversity. Just to put that in perspective, that's like a quarter of all known animal species or beetles.

Jennifer: In the US, I think we have about 25,000 beetles that we know of. So those are just the numbers of species that we know, but there are most assuredly. Many more out there that haven't been identified or scientifically described or we just haven't even discovered yet.

Jennifer: So, it's a really diverse group. By far the most diverse insect group even though I feel like, if there are fly biologists listening they're thinking, we're catching up, we're catching up, but they still have a long way to go. Those are really diverse groups too, but they have a long way to go to, to surpass beetles.

Matthew: Yeah, I think probably one of the best-known quotes. Is it a true quote or not that comes from the biologist JBS Haldane who was asked about thinking about religion and God and creation is like well what do you think God was doing and he said well he had what they say as you said you had inordinate fondness for beetles. Just because there is such huge diversity of beetles out there.

Jennifer: The thing that stuck with me from reading a long time ago was that there was a story about Charles Darwin, the story that he told about him collecting beetles and he was such an avid collector and he was out in the field and he was seeing all these different new kinds of beetles. So, he had one in one hand and one in another and he saw another one that he had to have that he had never seen before.

Jennifer: They had no place to put these beetles in his hand. So, he put one in his mouth, which is not an unusual selection technique if you need to put it somewhere really briefly, if you're also sure it's not going to hurt you, but really unfortunately it was the type of beetle that spews out acid.

Matthew: It was a bombardier beetle, wasn't it?

Jennifer: Yeah, he put it in his mouth and then he I think he said, and as it happens, you know, I lost all the beetles I was trying to capture. But it's just, I love it so much because I think it. Just how much people love beetles and have been really interested entranced with beetles for so long because they do look so different and kind of wild in a lot of ways.

Matthew: Yeah, with so many species beetles must play an important role in our environment as well. I can't imagine, that is a quarter, 20% of animal species are beetles. I mean, that's just crazy. So, there must be ways in which they help shape our ecosystems or I mean what selfishly just kind of be beneficial to us.

Jennifer: Yeah, absolutely. And with such a diverse group, they do kind of do all sorts of different things. They do it all really. There are herbivorous beetles that feed on plants and they feed on all different plant parts. That can keep certain plants from becoming overabundant plant communities, which can be important. But also, those beetles that eat plants in turn become food sources for wildlife.

Jennifer: And can be really valuable sources of food for other arthropods, or mammals, or especially birds that feed their young insects. So, beetles are things like that, but then there are also the predators. We've talked about lady beetles and what good predators they are but they are also soldier beetles and fireflies, tiger beetles and ground beetles, robe beetles.

Jennifer: And a whole suite of beetles that live in fresh water that are predatory in fresh water. And predatory beetles hunt and consume other insects and arthropods on plants or in the soil.

Jennifer: And sometimes they also even eat larger organisms like snails and worms and slugs. So, they can be very valuable in a lot of different systems, especially as crop predators, and gardens, they can help control those pests in gardens and crops and probably to contribute several billion dollars’ worth of pest control every year, so that they're economically valuable as well as ecologically valuable. The beetles can also be decomposers, they break down dead plant tissue, or animal tissue, or fungi sometimes too.

Jennifer: They help break down other organisms, things like that. Bacteria and fungi that are already really, really critical for decomposition, they help those organisms by breaking down larger tissues into smaller tissues.

Jennifer: And so, they're really important, those decomposing beetles, for soil health in particular. And because soil health is so foundational to so much of life, that's a really valuable group to us and the ecosystems as well. And these decomposers include dung beetles, carrying beetles, or hide beetles, which are things like carpet beetles that eat hair and feathers. Skin, keratin rich sources that are hard to break down. Those hide beetles get in there and break it down.

Jennifer: Or beetles that breakdown rotting wood like long-horn beetles or bess beetles and then things that eat detritus like ground beetles and some species of road beetles. So, it's a really diverse group of decomposers.

Jennifer: And then another important role, is contributing to pollination and beetles can be pretty messy pollinators in some ways because they also chew on the flower parts. Some do and they don't always move around a lot between flowers. But, for some plants, beetles are just what they need and, flowers that are pollinated by beetles, usually are really large flowers with a very open structure and open anthers that beetles can kind of get in there and roll around and spread really easily.

Matthew: Beetles map in the earliest of the insect pollinators. From what I remember and I mean things like the magnolia. So, if you know the southern magnolia with that huge white flower or water lily’s those seem to be big, showy, beetle pollinated things.

Jennifer: And, who knows, that may have really helped their expansion, once they discovered flowering plants. It may have really helped them occupy new space and expand diversity. So yeah, they do play a number of really important roles.

Rachel: Wow, for someone who doesn't know a lot about beetles, which I'll admit I'm one of those people, I was so excited today to learn more. It's kind of mind blowing. We really just need beetles in our yards and they're just great for everything really. So, you just listed a lot of different types of beetles and I'm excited because we're actually going to just talk about different cool beetles and examples.

Rachel: So, I want to start, I'm curious of what is your maybe not favorite, but what beetle intrigues you the most that you've come across and why? And can you tell us a little bit about that beetle?

Jennifer: I have a good one. This is one that I only just found in my garden recently. Okay so it's a Rhipiceridae. And they are about an inch. Maybe a little bit larger, kind of dark brown beetles, but they have these really long, feathery antennae, and presumably that helps them either find mates, or track down their prey, which are cicadas. So, I live in Nebraska and we have these annual cicadas and then we also have periodic cicadas and then we also have periodic cicadas.

Jennifer: And these Rhipiceridae beetles are parasites of them. So, the adults are out around the same time that you would find the larvae, cicada larvae, which feed on the roots of trees. So, the adults dig down, lay their eggs and then their larvae feed on cicada nymphs. But yeah, the beetles parasitize these cicadas and it's just really unusual to see them. I've only seen one like every 10 years so it's really fun.

Matthew: I was going to ask; do they have the same periodic cycle. I mean, you mentioned annual cicadas and periodic. Do the larvae underground living on the cicada nymphs but that period of time and or do they…

Jennifer: I don't have the answer to that question. It's a really great question. They could totally be long living. I really don't know. I have to learn more.

Matthew: Some beetles do live for extraordinary long periods of time, like decades, some of the ones that bore through wood, that they will be inside. I'm from Britain with a lot of wood timber cottages and stuff and so people will have acreages and stuff and so people will have a cottage and there's so many anecdotes and there's so many anecdotes of these wood-boring beetles appearing out of beams that have been in cottages for decades. You know, and so you're like, wow, this this thing's been inside that house.

Matthew: Their development is just really slow when the wood is not growing any longer.

Jennifer: It probably takes a long time to digest wood. It is hard to break down. It takes a special kind of beetle.

Matthew: I know you've worked a lot with ground beetles predators. One of the beetles that I get in my garden, which I think is really cool is the, scaphinotus, the snail and slug beetle. Which has this wide abdomen, but a narrow head and thorax. So, it can get its front end into snail shells to chase the snail around to munch him out. But, that's just one particular example of a ground beetle. I mean there are several more that are equally vicious ones.

Jennifer: Thank you for thinking of ground beetles in particular. And Rachel asked which beetle group I liked a lot. I was thinking, well, that's one I come across a lot and I really like that group. I feel really fond of them anytime I'm digging in my garden. I find one and it always pretends to be dead right away to try to, you know, send off, leave me alone vibes.

Jennifer: But that's such an interesting group because, you gave a really good example of their predation. They're really good predators and there are some farmers that want to encourage ground beetles so much that they'll install habitat geared towards ground beetles within their fields or right around the borders of their fields, to create these banks that are planted with bunch grasses.

Jennifer: And the idea is, ground beetles will over-winter in the clumps of grass and then move into the fields early in the springtime to eat the pests of the crops. The ground beetles also eat weed seeds, and some of them are decomposers breaking down plant material.

Jennifer: So, they really do so many different things. But that's definitely a group that you can find just about anywhere you go. Just dig a little bit. And they're not very showy, they're black or brown, and they are not super flashy on a scale of beetles because so many other beetles are more colorful or beautiful, but, they are really, they're really important.

Matthew: Some of them can be violet colored, although I think it's one of the non-native ones that's the showy one around here.

Jennifer: You're right. We do have one called the fiery searcher in the part where I live and it's, the kind of greenish blue and they crawl up on plants and they are a little bit flashy.

Matthew: I've only seen photographs of that one, but it is a pretty cool. Because some beetles are remarkably bright and colorful. I think a tiger beetle has been metallic ones, but there's also boring beetles and you know, some of the ones you find on flowers. When you see them, you're like, really? The colors are remarkable.

Jennifer: Yes, like you said, the long horn beetle some of those beetles are really flashy, they're orange with certain patterns, bright yellow and they’re not shy, they're not hiding.

Jennifer: Oh, there's a giant black and white locust beetle. It's huge and it's just got giant, black and white, curly cues on it. And they're not afraid of birds, apparently.

Rachel: When you say giant, how big are we talking in terms of inches?

Jennifer: Oh, probably an inch and a half to 2 inches, so big. And then they have these giant long antennae that kind of peel back and are longer than their body. So yeah, it’s really big.

Rachel: Are there any particularly weird beetles that you know? I mean, some of the characteristics you've already mentioned would probably be considered weird to most people. But are there any that you're just like, man, those, beetles are weird. Very strange.

Jennifer: I think one group that I don't really know that much about, but I think is really strange, are the telephone pole beetles. And it's the last remaining species in a family that's gone extinct. And so, it's like the ancient group with one remaining species.

Jennifer: And the weird thing about this beetle is, Matthew you mentioned the beetles that come out of the beams, but they do live in decaying wood. Like old telephone poles. And eat that wood. The weirdest thing about them though is that they reproduce as larva and usually without mating so it's just a really unusual strategy.

Matthew: Is it just like egg loving, egg, lava, egg love and that's it.

Jennifer: I think they, they can go on to adulthood, but they don't reproduce as adults. What did they do with adults? You know, they just hang out. Their primary goals aren't even achieved if they've mated right. I don't know. So we don't know. So that one really strange group.

Matthew: Yeah, something else you had mentioned about the freshwater beetles. And I know there's like Whirligig beetles that you see spinning around on the surface of ponds and stuff, but there's also diving beetles and I'm like, how do they breathe? They'll have like little aqua lungs or like scuba gear they put on to go down.

Jennifer: Matthew, that's a great question. Actually, this is really neat. I mean, they kind of create their own scuba gear, right? They go to the surface and they grab a bubble and they hold it. Sometimes under their wings. And then they sort of use that bubble to breathe and when they need a new bubble, they go to the surface and get some more air.

Matthew: Yeah, beetles breathe through the spiricles and trachea in their abdomen, right? So, what we describe is they essentially kind of coat themselves in air which then they can absorb. They don't have to take big mouthfuls.

Jennifer: Yeah, they live with a bubble and I don't know how long it can last. That's a great question.  

Matthew: Hopefully the beetles know.

Jennifer: And you mentioned the Whirligig beetles. One thing I think is really neat about them is they have these eyes that sort of, they do double duty. They can see above the surface and below the surface at the same time. So, it's great for them for hunting and for protecting themselves against predators that want to eat them, because there's a lot of things that like to eat bugs and water. So, they're pretty fun to see.

Rachel: Wow, that's so interesting. So, I think a lot of the characteristics that we've talked about beetles make them very unique to other animals in the animal kingdom, which I think is cool, right? We need to celebrate that and it makes them really useful.

Rachel: And they fill a really important niche in our ecosystems. But I also think that the thing I love about bug banter podcast, and what we're trying to do is get people to connect to invertebrates in a new way because I think we see them as other, right?

Rachel: They're not like normal animals. They're these creepy crawly things that are in horror films and things we don't want in our house but they're really incredibly beautiful animals that we actually have some things in common with believed or not.

Rachel: Are there any insects that show parental care? Because that's something we can relate to as humans in showing that and to think that a beetle could do that is pretty interesting.

Jennifer: Yeah, that's a great question. Like you said it's not really very common in insect worlds for insects to meet their offspring, let alone take care of them.

Jennifer: There are a couple groups of beetles that do take care of them. One is the bess beetles and they're also known as the patent leather beetle which I love that name so much and if you could visualize the shiniest black beetle with these beautiful grooves on their forewings. That's the patent leather beetle. Just really shiny and beautiful.

Jennifer: And those beetles live in rotting wood and they do overlap with their young and so they kind of create these communities and these valleys in wood and they care for their young and they feed their young chewed wood and give them bacteria to help them break down that wood.

Jennifer: And they communicate with their young too, they have like 14 different calls or sounds that they make with their bodies like these stridulations, like a warning signal or a calming signal or things like that and that's something I think we probably all can relate to in some degree. That level of communication and also that sense of care and investment that they put into their kids.

Jennifer: Burying beetles also care for their young. They seek out carrion and of course, their own preferences for the type of carrion and the size of carrion in that they go for and then they dig this hole underneath the body to. To protect it and keep it from going to other animals that want to be caring because apparently carrion is a pretty hot commodity in the animal insect world.

Jennifer: So, there are lots of things that compete for it. So, they dig really fast and they do this in pairs, mated pairs, and the body sinks down and then they are covered up so that, you know, it's like it was never there. And then they've got this body that they can just feed their young over time and they start to break it down with enzymes and then they feed it to their young little by little so it becomes a big gluey disgusting tasty mess. It’s not just the one parent or other that's feeding the one parent or other that's feeding the young, it's both parents.

Jennifer: So that's another kind of unusual thing for insects to do. And that's a group that's really important for soil health, you know, because rotting carrion provides a ton of nutrients back into the soil.

Matthew: This has been such a fun conversation. So, thank you, Jenny. I know, obviously, bug banter, want people to get enthusiastic about insects. But we also want them to care for them. So, people can do things to help beetle. I mean, I'm assuming you can create habitat for them or whatever. Are there a couple of simple hints that you can give people?

Jennifer: Yeah, I think a lot of the things that you've already talked about on this program that support pollinators are really beneficial to beetles too because a lot of those flowering plants that we install and pollinator habitat, by pollen and nectar and that's really important for the life stages of some beetles.

Jennifer: But also, can support soil health, which supports a lot of these other groups of beetles. But things like minimizing tillage, reducing plastic mulch or really thick layers of bark mulch, that also is really important for a lot of different beetle groups that really rely on the soil.

Jennifer: Leaving the leaves is a critical component because that leaf litter is overwintering habitat for groups like lady beetles. This is a little bit more out there, but if you have a log in your yard it can be really fun or whatever space you're working in. That can be valuable habitat for different groups of beetles.

Jennifer: Artificial light can also be really disruptive to beetles, during the summer months. Thinking about our artificial light could be an important step for some folks. It can disrupt mating in the case of fireflies, for example, but it can also draw away a whole bunch of different beetles from habitat and draw them towards lights, which can be hazardous. So, thinking about whether you need to leave on your porch light all night long or if you can just make it motion sensitive, or have it on a timer, or use like a dimmer or red filtered light, those can reduce light pollution.

Jennifer: And some of the other things you've talked about, ways to get involved in your community to talk about insects and the ways that we can engage with them. Spread the word through getting involved in educational programs or community science projects like the Firefly Atlas that Xerces leads.

Jennifer: Those are ways to normalize insects, and start thinking about insects, and making insects a part of our life. That's really valuable. And signage in our yards, so your neighbors can come by and ask you why you're doing something the way you're doing it or if I get lucky every once in a while, asking me for seeds that they can take and put in their own yard.

Jennifer: So, those are things that can help beetles.

Matthew: Yeah, basically make your yard insect friendly.

Jennifer: Yeah, that's exactly right. Great way to summarize it

Rachel: Thank you, Jennifer. Well, we're going to end on my favorite question of what inspired you and I actually don't know the answer to this so I'm really excited. What inspired you to study insects?

Jennifer: So, I had this moment when I was in college, I was getting an ecology degree and I think it was in my last year, maybe in my last semester, but I was taking a course called the history and diversity of organisms and one of the professors that was teaching it was an entomologist. You know, they'd switch off between a plant biologist and an entomologist and the entomologist was Steve Ash. He was a beetle specialist, he specialized in rove beetles which is a particularly diverse group and I just remember this moment in class when he introduced diversity of insects.

Jennifer: And then of course he went on to talk about how diverse beetles were and how diverse rove beetles were in particular because that was his favorite group. And I just remember being completely awestruck by it. That was just the moment in which I thought, I’ve got to learn more. And that was it. I was definitely a kid that liked to dig around outside. But I never really thought, gosh, I could make a career of thinking about insects or caring about insects. So, it was really neat to see somebody who had done that in their life. So that's what I think paved the way to the work that we do today. For me anyway.

Matthew: That's great. I love hearing these stories from people because it is amazing. It's unexpected.

Rachel: Well, thank you so much, Jennifer. It was so wonderful having you here today. And we just appreciate you diving into the world of beetles and telling us about their cool characteristics and I've learned a lot. I hope you have had a good time with us and I hope our listeners have as well. So, thank you so much again and we hope to have you back soon.

Matthew: Bug Banter is brought to you by the Xerces Society, a donor supported non-profit that works to protect insects and other invertebrates – the life that sustains us.

Matthew: If you’re already a donor, thank you so much. If you want to support our work go to xerces.org/donate. For information about this podcast and show notes go to xerces.org/bugbanter.