Blister Beetles’ Defense Mechanism
Blister beetles are aptly named, for when they are disturbed they emit a yellow, oily, defensive secretion (cantharidin) from their joints which usually causes blisters when it comes in contact with skin. This toxin deters many potential predators and is especially effective against ants. According to naturalist/forester/writer Ginny Barlow, as little as 100 milligrams is reported to be fatal to humans if ingested, and this amount can be extracted from just a few beetles. Humans used to crush and dry blister beetles and use the resulting concoction for gout and arthritis. It was also used as a popular aphrodisiac known as Spanish fly. Because of its toxicity, it is no longer widely used in medicine.
Cantharidin is, however, indirectly used by tree-nesting nuthatches. With a limited number of tree cavities, there is competition among animals using them to raise their young, especially between squirrels and nuthatches. Nuthatches have been seen with Short-winged Blister Beetles (Meloe angusticollis, see photo) in their beaks, “sweeping” them on the bark around tree cavity entrances. The nuthatches don’t eat the beetles, they strictly use them as tools. It is assumed that the birds do this in order to repel squirrels with the cantharidin that is smeared on the tree. (Thanks to Ginny Barlow for photo opportunity.)
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