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Milkweed Leaf Beetle Survival Mechanism

Many insects use splashy colors and color patterns to defend against being eaten.  (This practice is called “aposematism” from the Greek for “away” and “sign.”) If you spend time in a milkweed patch, you’ll notice that several of the insects you see have bright orange and black coloration.  Milkweed contains defensive chemicals known as cardiac glycosides and Monarchs as well as several other insects (many of which are black and orange) that feed on milkweed can tolerate them and store these chemicals as a defense. When avian predators consume a Monarch butterfly containing these chemicals, a bird suffers digestive upset.

Once a bird has gotten sick after eating a poisonous black and orange insect such as a Monarch, it tends to avoid any and all insects with similar coloration, regardless of their toxicity or lack of it.  Milkweed Leaf Beetle larvae and adults do not absorb the cardiac glycosides in milkweed like a Monarch, so they have no toxic compounds in them and will not poison a predator.  Insect-eating birds don’t know this, however, and the beetles successfully deter predation through their coloration.

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Whirligig Beetles Active

Congratulations to Stein Feick, the first person to correctly identify the Mystery Photo as a Whirligig Beetle!  You usually see this aquatic beetle swimming around and around in circles on the surface of a pond searching for prey. A unique feature of most beetles in this genus is their divided eyes.  Each eye is completely separated into two portions (see photo). One portion (dorsal) is above the water line and the other (ventral) is beneath the water on each side of their head, allowing them to see both in the air/on the surface of the water as well as under the water.  The dorsal eyes have a limited field of view, so these beetles rest one of their antennae on the surface of the water to help them detect any motion caused by prey.

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Weevil Watching

If you take a close look at the Black-eyed Susan blossoms that can be found in unmowed fields and roadsides this time of year, chances are good that you will find a tiny beetle called a weevil.  A weevil’s mouthparts are formed into a long snout, with one antenna on either side of it. The snout is used not only for feeding but also for making cavities in buds, fruits, seeds, stems, and roots of plants, where eggs are laid. When the weevil larvae emerge, they feed within the plant.

There are 60,000 species of weevils, all of which are herbivorous and most of which are less than ¼ ” long. Most of those found on Black-eyed Susans appear to be feasting on pollen. Many weevils are pests of plants such as cotton, alfalfa and wheat. You may have even found them inside your house devouring your cereal or flour.

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Predaceous Diving Beetles Seeking Prey

There is a family of water beetles, Dytiscidae, known as Predaceous Diving Beetles.  As their name implies, these beetles are predatory.  They don’t hesitate to attack prey larger than themselves, delivering a sharp bite with their jaws to small fish, tadpoles and frogs.  They then immediately inject enzymes that digest the prey so that the juices can be ingested.

Predaceous Diving Beetle larvae, called “water tigers,” are also predators, grabbing prey with their pincer-like jaws. The larvae are elongated, flattened and can be 2 inches long. They hunt by holding still, waiting with jaws wide open, and then strike suddenly, clutching the prey tightly with their jaws. As with the adults, the pincers are hollow, enabling them to begin sucking the juices of their prey while grasping it. They are often seen when they come to the surface of the water to draw air into spiracles located at the hind end of the body.

Adult Predaceous Diving Beetles are collected by young girls in East Africa. It is believed that inducing the beetles to bite their nipples will stimulate breast growth. Having recently had my toe bitten by a Predaceous Diving Beetle, I can testify that this is not a practice that most females (or males) would enjoy. (Photo: Predaceous Diving Beetle with remains of prey)

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Fire-colored Beetle Larvae

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Peek under the loose bark of rotting logs, both deciduous and coniferous, and you’re bound to find the larva of a beetle known as a Fire-colored Beetle (family Pyrochroidae).  Its common name is derived from the Greek word pyros (“fire”) + chroma (“’color”), a reference to the bright color, often red, of the adults of some species.   From one to several years are spent in the larval stage. Adults of the Pyrochroinae emerge from late spring to midsummer and are primarily nocturnal.

Many adult Fire-colored Beetles are attracted to cantharidin, a toxic compound produced by Blister Beetles.  Males locate a Blister Beetle, climb onto it and lick off the cantharidin that Blister Beetles exude and use the blistering agent to impress a female of their own species. When mating takes place, most of the cantharidin is transferred to the female in the form of a sperm packet.  The eggs the female subsequently lays are coated with cantharidin to protect them from being eaten before they hatch. (

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Black Blister Beetles Consuming Asters

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Blister beetles are so-called because they contain a chemical in their hemolymph, or blood, called cantharidin.  If rubbed or pressed the beetles release cantharidin as a defense mechanism, which causes blistering on human skin.  The Black Blister Beetle (Epicauta pennsylvanica) belongs to a genus of beetles that are highly toxic to horses — a few beetles fed in a single feeding of alfalfa can be lethal.

As larvae, most blister beetles are predators, often invading wild bee colonies and consuming bee larvae, as well as nectar and pollen.  Black Blister Beetle larvae and other blister beetles in the genus Epicauta prey on the eggs of grasshoppers.  Female Black Blister Beetles lay clusters of eggs in the soil in late summer. The small, active larvae that hatch from these eggs crawl over the soil surface entering cracks in search of grasshopper egg pods which are deposited in the ground. After finding an egg mass, the blister beetle larvae become immobile and spend the rest of their developmental time as legless grubs. The following summer they transform into the pupal stage and soon emerge in the adult stage. This is why blister beetle numbers increase dramatically following high grasshopper populations.

Once they mature into adulthood, Black Blister Beetles feed on plants (phytophagus) and are commonly found on flowers, especially those in the Aster/Composite family. They are said to be there for the nectar and pollen, but the Black Blister Beetle pictured denuded several aster blossoms of all petals during the time it was observed.

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The Emerald Euphoria Beetle: A Distinctive Scarab

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Beetles comprise almost 40% of described insects and 25% of all known animal life-forms. There are about 30,000 beetles known as scarabs or scarab beetles in the family Scarabaeidae. They make up about 10% of all known beetles. You may be very familiar with scarab beetles without even being aware that that is what they are – they are as close as the nearest Japanese Beetle or June Bug (beetle).

Scarabs are generally oval-shaped and stout. The smallest are about .08 inches and the largest (Hercules beetles) can reach 6.7 inches. Most scarabs are black or brown, but many, especially tropical species, have bright colors and intricate patterns. They have distinctive, clubbed antennae composed of plates called lamellae that can be compressed into a ball or fanned out like leaves to sense odors (see photo). Their diet is extremely varied and includes plant material, fungi, fruit, carrion, insects and even the slime left by snails.

One fruit- and flower-eating species is the Emerald Euphoria beetle, Euphoria fulgida (pictured). It is usually bright green or bluish. Emerald Euphoria beetles belong to the subfamily Cetoniiae, the flower or fruit chafers. One of its most distinctive characteristics is its ability to fly (using its second pair of wings) while its first pair (the hardened, colorful elytra) remain closed — most beetles open and extend their elytra during flight.

Unlike most scarabs, Emerald Euphorias are diurnal, making it possible to see this species visiting flowers in order to consume nectar, pollen and petals.  (Thanks to Richard Wyatt for photo op.)

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Blister Beetles Mating

5-9-18 blister beetles mating_U1A1519Blister beetles derive their name from the fact that they secrete a yellow blood-like substance called hemolymph which contains the blistering compound cantharidin. Severe burns and even poisoning can occur if the quantity encountered is large enough. (Baled hay containing the carcasses of blister beetles can be lethal to livestock that eat it.)

Defense isn’t cantharidin’s only function, however. Cantharidin is secreted by the male blister beetle and given to the female as a copulatory gift during mating. Afterwards, the female beetle covers her eggs with it as a defense against predators.

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Ladybugs Maturing & Seeking Shelter

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Ladybugs, along with roughly 88% of all insects, pass through four separate stages (egg, larva, pupa, adult) in their life cycle. This form of maturation is referred to as complete metamorphosis. Like many other insects that experience complete metamorphosis, the larval, pupal and adult stages do not closely resemble one another. While most of us would have no trouble recognizing an adult ladybug, the two middle stages are strikingly different from the adult spotted beetle we’re familiar with. After a ladybug egg hatches, the larva emerges, looking a bit like a tiny alligator. Anywhere from seven to twenty-one days later and after several molts, the larva attaches itself to a leaf and pupates. The pupa assumes yet another bizarre form, which some feel resembles a shrimp. Within a week or two the pupa matures and transforms into an adult ladybug. Most species of ladybugs hibernate (technically enter “diapause,” as it’s referred to with insects) as adults in large groups under leaf litter, logs and other protected spots.

Locust Borers Laying Eggs

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The Locust Borer (Megacyllene robiniae) is so-called because its host tree is Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia). Locust Borer larvae tunnel into a tree’s trunk and branches, weakening the tree and making it susceptible to wind breakage. In addition, these tunnels serve as a primary infection site for the wind-borne spores of the fungus Phellinus robiniae, which causes a damaging heart rot disease in Robinia species. If you see a Black Locust with many dead and broken limbs, and/or knotty swellings on the trunk, chances are great that it has been attacked by Locust Borers.

The conspicuous, brightly-colored adults appear when goldenrod is in bloom. Adults are commonly seen feeding on goldenrod pollen. Mating takes place now, in the fall, and eggs are laid  in cracks, wounds and under loose bark of a Black Locust tree. The eggs hatch in about a week, the larvae bore into the inner bark of the tree and each larva makes a small hibernation cell and overwinters there. In the spring the larvae begin to bore into the woody part of the tree, enlarging their tunnels as they grow. By mid-summer they pupate and adult beetles emerge in late summer. Previously confined to the native range of Black Locust in the Northeast, Locust Borers have spread with the trees throughout the U.S. and parts of Canada.


Golden Tortoise Beetle Larvae Feeding

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When it comes to ingenuity, the Golden Tortoise Beetle (Charidotella sexpunctata) larva has all others beat! Instead of discarding its feces, it collects them and uses them as a means of chemical protection. Golden Tortoise Beetle larvae have a “fecal fork” on their last abdominal segment which they hold over their body. They also possess a muscular, telescopic anus which they can manipulate in such a manner as to deposit their feces onto their fecal fork. Bits of shed exoskeleton combined with days of feces accumulate on this fork and create an effective fecal shield. Golden Tortoise Beetle feces contain alkaloids from the plants that they’ve eaten (Bindweed and other plants in the family Convolvulaceae) and consequently the shield wards off predators. (Photo:  Golden Tortoise Beetle larva with fecal shield; inset – adult Golden Tortoise Beetle)


Leaf Beetles

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There is a group of 1,500-plus beetles in North America known as “leaf beetles.” They all have an expanded and two-lobed/heart-shaped section of their leg just above the claws. These lobes bear specially modified hairs which help these plant-eating beetles walk on plant stems and smooth leaves. The majority of leaf beetles are specialists, feeding only on a single species of plant or groups of closely related plants. Many leaf beetles are considered pests, including the Colorado Potato Beetle, Spotted Cucumber Beetle, Striped Cucumber Beetle, Spotted Asparagus Beetle and Northern Corn Rootworm Beetle.

 One of the most striking leaf beetles, and one that is not a “pest” is the Dogbane Beetle (Chrysochus auratus), so called because its diet is restricted to the leaves of Dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium). Its distinctive iridescent green, copper, green and blue body is hard to miss. (Photo: Dogbane beetle on Dogbane)



Black Cherry Gum


When the inner walls of cambium cells in a Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) tree (and other members of the Rosaceae family) are damaged by insects, enzymes can break down pectin, producing jelly-like lumps of clear sap that appear from beneath the bark. This “gum” is often the result of aborted attacks by bark beetles, particularly the peach bark beetle, for the tree uses it to seal off infection. Both direct feeding by insects as well as the process of egg-laying can cause this phenomenon called gummosis. Other factors, including fungi, stress and physical injury to a tree, can produce this reaction.

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Case-bearing Leaf Beetles Eating & Growing

8-1-16 case-bearing leaf beetle 110It’s not every day that I discover a species I’ve never seen before, but when it comes to insects, it happens regularly.  Rarely, however, are they as interesting as the Case-bearing Leaf Beetle I observed on a blackberry leaf recently.  An oval, brown, stationary case about ¼” long was at a 45° angle to the leaf it appeared to be attached to it.  Upon closer inspection and with a bit of probing, a head and six legs appeared at the leaf end of the case, and the case began to move.

How its case was created is as, or more, interesting than the beetle itself.  The adult female Case-bearing Leaf Beetle lays an egg and wraps it with her fecal material as she turns the egg, until it is completely enclosed.  Once hardened, the feces create a protective case for both the egg and eventually the larva.  When the egg hatches, the larva opens one end of the case, extends its head and legs, flips the case over its back and crawls away.  As the larva eats and grows, it adds its own fecal material to the case in order to enlarge it.  Eventually the larva reseals the case, pupates and then emerges as an adult Case-bearing Leaf Beetle.  If it’s a female it then prepares to mate, lay eggs, and recycle its waste.

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Twelve-spotted Tiger Beetles Mating

twelve-spotted tiger beetles  137 As their name implies, all species of tiger beetles are ferocious predators.  They are equipped with huge eyes, large three-toothed mandibles that crisscross at their tips and the ability to move very fast . Twelve-spotted Tiger Beetles (Cicindela duodecimguttata) are usually found in open, sandy spots, where their larvae can dig and live in burrows.  Adult tiger beetles use their formidable mandibles to masticate their prey and then squeeze the bits and drink the resulting liquid.

In May and June, whenever they are not ambushing prey, Twelve-spotted Tiger Beetles are concentrating on reproducing, as the “menage a trois” photo illustrates.

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A Gardener’s Favorite Beetle

bronze carabid 161Ground beetles (family Carabidae) are fast moving beetles, many of which are predators with specialized diets.  One ground beetle (Cychrus caraboides) eats only snails (its head and thorax are very slender, allowing access to the inside of a snail’s shell).  Another, Harpalus rufipes, limits its diet to strawberry seeds.  Loricera pilicornis uses bristles on its antennae to trap springtails and mites.

The Bronze Carabid, Carabus nemoralis, (pictured) uses its large curved mandibles to crush and slice through prey – it will eat or try to eat just about any invertebrate, but specializes in capturing and eating slugs. Its hardened forewings, or elytra, have a coppery sheen to them, and parts of its thorax and the edges of its elytra are iridescent purple. This nocturnal, introduced, flightless, one-inch-long beetle resides throughout the Northeast and is already actively pursuing slugs.

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Dung Beetle Feeding on Bear Scat

10-16 dung beetle 127Wherever there is scat, or dung, there are dung beetles. This is a photograph of a dung beetle in heaven as it has located a black bear’s gigantic (apple-filled) scat, which will provide it with food for a long, long time. Some species of dung beetles (rollers) shape pieces into balls and roll them away and bury them to eat later or lay their eggs on. Some species (tunnelers) bury their dung by tunneling underneath the pile of scat. And a third group (dwellers) actually lives inside dung piles.

Most dung beetles prefer the scat of herbivores. There are always bits of food that do not get digested, and these bits are what a dung beetle feeds on. Dung beetle larvae eat the solids, while adult beetles drink the liquids contained in the scat. A given species of dung beetle typically prefers the dung of a certain species or group of animals, and does not touch the dung of any other species.

Dung beetles have a brain that is the size of a grain of rice, yet they are very sophisticated insects. They use celestial clues (the Milky Way) in order to roll balls of dung in a straight line. Dung beetles are known for “dancing,” which helps them orient themselves after their path has been disrupted. They use their dung balls to regulate their temperature, and cool off. (In very warm climates, around noon, when the sun is at its peak, dung beetles will routinely climb atop their dung balls to give their feet a break from the hot ground. Thermal imaging has shown that dung balls are measurably cooler than the surrounding environment, probably because of their moisture content.) And dung beetles keep track of the number of steps they take and the direction from which they came (instead of landmarks) in order to return to their nest with a ball of dung.

Even though they are remarkably clever, dung beetles can be duped! A flowering plant native to South Africa (Ceratocaryum argenteum) produces large, round nuts that are strikingly similar in appearance, smell, and chemical composition to antelope droppings, which the dung beetles accordingly roll away and bury, effectively sowing a new generation of C. argenteum.

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Blister Beetles’ Defense Mechanism

10-5 short-winged blister beetle 064Blister 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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Rose Chafers Busy Eating & Being Eaten

6-26-15  crab spider with rose chafer 020All of a sudden we are besieged by Rose Chafers, those tan beetles that feed on roses and peonies, as well as the foliage of many trees, shrubs and other plants. The reason for their sudden appearance has to do with their life cycle.

Adult Rose Chafers emerge from the ground in late May and early June. (Because the Rose Chafer prefers sandy soil to lay eggs, plants located on sandy sites are most likely to be attacked.) Adult beetles feed on plants for three or four weeks, generally until late June when they mate, lay eggs in the soil and then die shortly afterwards. Two to three weeks later, the eggs hatch into small, white grub‑like larvae which feed on the roots of grasses and weeds. The larvae spend the winter in the soil below the frost line before pupating and emerging as adults in the spring.

Rose Chafers contain a toxin that can be deadly to birds, but apparently not to crab spiders, at least the one that was photographed drinking the innards of a Rose Chafer it had caught. As testimony to their drive to reproduce, a Rose Chafer, minutes after this picture was taken, mounted and attempted to mate with the Rose Chafer that was being consumed by the crab spider.

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Coyotes Feeding on Deer Carcasses

12-22-14 deer carcass 394Ninety percent of a coyote’s diet is animal matter, including creatures as varied as meadow voles, mice, muskrats, raccoons, beetles and grasshoppers — basically, anything it can outrun. Coyotes have the reputation as major predators of deer. While research confirms that deer (and rabbits) comprise a good portion of a coyote’s diet in the Northeast, the majority of the deer that coyotes consume is scavenged as carrion (see photo). Because they cannot move as fast as adult deer, fawns are more vulnerable to coyote predation.

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Predaceous Diving Beetles Remaining Active

10-9-14   p. diving beetle 143While meadows and fields are experiencing a sharp decline in insect life at this time of year, one habitat where insects remain active in the fall and often through the winter is ponds. Among the year-round active pond invertebrates are Predaceous Diving Beetles, which can still be observed as they row through the water, intermittently surfacing to thrust their abdomen above the water line in order to procure a bubble of air from which they breathe. Their middle and hind legs are fringed with long hairs, making them efficient at rowing through the water in search of prey or detritus to eat.

Predaceous Diving Beetles lay their eggs on and in plants above the waterline in early spring. When the eggs hatch, the larvae drop into the water. Mature larvae crawl out of the water to pupate in damp chambers on the shoreline. They emerge as adults and re-enter the water, where they remain active through the winter, under the ice. (Water Scavenger Beetles look a lot like Predaceous Diving Beetles, but they stroke first with one leg, then another, not simultaneously like Predaceous Diving Beetles, and they come to the surface of water head first to secure air.)

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Tortoise Beetle Larvae Making Fecal Shields

8-1-14  tortoise beetle larva with fecal shield 049Instead of discarding feces, or frass, some insects save their waste matter for defensive purposes such as “fecal shields.” These are coverings over the back of the larvae that are made largely of feces and provide either physical or chemical barriers to predation. Adult Tortoise Beetles have a type of shield (hence, their name), but it is formed from expanded, hardened forewings, and is not a fecal shield. The larvae of these beetles have fecal shields which serve as chemical deterrents, preventing most predators from even touching them. The deterrent in the feces comes from the beetles’ food source — plants in the order Solanales. Tortoise Beetle larvae have what is known as a “fecal fork” on their last abdominal segment, which they hold over their body. The larvae maneuvers its muscular, telescopic anus, or “anal turret” in such a manner as to excrete its feces and bits of shed exoskeleton onto the fecal fork, forming an umbrella-like fecal shield.

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Carrion Beetles Feeding

7-30-14 carrion beetle feeding 129When an organism dies, such as the pictured American Toad, a series of decomposers appear and break it down. Some of the first insects to arrive at the scene are blowflies, and they lose no time in laying eggs which rapidly hatch into larvae, or maggots. A bit later, carrion beetles move in. Both of these insects live in dead carcasses, where they eat raw flesh and fungi. There is great competition, believe it or not, for rotting bodies, and carrion beetles such as the pictured American Carrion Beetle (Necrophila americana) have managed to find a way to eliminate some of it. They carry tiny mites on their backs which travel from carcass to carcass with the beetles, devouring the eggs of maggots as well as the smallest maggots themselves. In addition, carrion beetles secrete a strong offensive odor that irritates other insects and predators, a second effective way to reduce the number of insects competing for a corpse.

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Twelve-spotted Tiger Beetle Larva at Work

7-24-14 tiger beetle adult and larva 040Without doubt, I have one of the most erudite readerships in the land of blogs. Several people recognized this uncommon phenomenon. To clear up a few misconceptions, however, being a male, this dragonfly was not laying eggs. Neither was it fertilizing them – male dragonflies perform this act when coupled with a female. This Chalk-fronted Corporal had the misfortune to sun itself on a tiger beetle-inhabited patch of sand. One of the most aggressive groups of insect predators is the tiger beetle family. They are especially known for their speed – up to 5.6 mph, which is comparable to a human running 480 mph. If you watch an adult tiger beetle hunting, you’ll notice that it stops and starts frequently. This is because it runs so fast it goes blind — its brain has trouble processing the information it sees, and the beetle must stop to regain its sight.

The larvae of the Twelve-spotted Tiger Beetle live in tunnels that they dig in the sand (some of you noticed tiny holes near the dragonfly) that can be up to a foot deep. The larvae have hooks located on the back of their abdomen to anchor them to the side of the burrow. Tiger beetle larvae are also predators, and after digging a tunnel the Twelve-spotted Tiger Beetle will crawl up it until just the top of its head is visible. From this position the larva watches for prey wandering by. When it sees a potential meal, such as yesterday’s dragonfly, it flips backwards faster than you can blink an eye and grabs its prey, pulling it down as far as it can into its tunnel, where it safely feasts on its catch. The portion of the Chalk-fronted Corporal’s abdomen that was inside the tiger beetle tunnel was completely consumed except for the outer skeleton.

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