What do you think is the largest group of insects in the world? Flies perhaps? Or wasps maybe? No! It’s actually beetles – they account for 40% of insects (and an amazing 25% of all living creatures!) and they are spread far and wide across this beautiful planet of ours.
Their family name is Coleoptera (from the Greek for sheathed wings) – so called due to their distinguishing feature of sporting a pair of wing cases, which help keep their flying equipment in tip top condition in a handy, protective shell; these cases have been cleverly evolved from a former pair of wings.
In English, we call them beetles, which comes from the old English for “little biter” – an apt name as many of these critters have strong mouth parts for chewing.
Speaking of which, some like plants and fungi for their dinner, some scavenge, whilst others prefer a bit of meat!
What’s to like about beetles? Plenty! They’re an important part of ecosystems – just think of cute little ladybirds (ladybugs) – yes they are beetles and not bugs! The so-called gardeners’ friend, help to hoover up those pesky aphids and other sneaky sap suckers and are beloved by children of all ages.
But hang on a minute, I hear you saying, some beetles are pesky. Yes it’s true – think of the Colorado Potato beetle – a formidable pest, capable of making their way through crop after crop of spuds in no time flat! (no chips for tea then!!)
Indeed, it has to be said that some beetles are not so friendly – one of the least favoured is the impressively named Devil’s Coach Horse (aka Devil’s Footman/Coachman/Steed) beetle. This large specimen has two scent glands on its abdomen and if it feels threatened, it has no hesitation in pointing its tail in the air and squirting out a most unpleasant odour! It also has a painful bite – so definitely best avoided.
What about those beetles who have a rather scary appearance? Well, looks can be deceiving – take the magnificent Rhinoceros beetle (probably the strongest beetle known) which can lift up to 800 times its own weight with those impressive jaws – but it’s not aggressive to humans and despite its strength, it won’t pinch you – honest! (Although not sure I’d want to put that theory to the test!!)
Beetles typically have relatively short lifespans, living up to a year and often have poor eyesight, relying heavily on scent to help them navigate the world. Whilst many can fly, they’re not generally aeronautical lovers, preferring to spend much of their time on terra firma.
These guys come in a range of shapes and sizes: the largest being the well named Titan beetle, which can grow up to 15cm (6in)! Whilst the tiniest beetle title goes to the Featherwings, who are a miniscule 0.3mm (0.01in).
Beetles have some nifty tricks up their wings – many like to shout out their presence: think of Cicadas, chirping away; or Deathwatch beetles, making a loud knocking from within their wooden homes; some even squeal, like the June beetle!
As well as making their voices heard, beetles also like to light up with world: consider, Fireflies glowing in the darkness on a summer evening; Click beetles flashing their abdominal lights and Gloworms signalling for a mate with their lamps.
Whilst some of us might prefer to admire beetles from afar, the ancient Egyptians did quite the opposite – they actually worshipped the Scarab beetle, believing it to be a symbol of the sun god, Khepri. Scarab beetles often appeared in ancient Egyptian jewellery and seals.
Whilst the ancient Egyptians might have loved beetles, it has to be said that the female of the species aren’t always so easily impressed. Typically, male beetles have to work hard to win the affections of their mate – some serenade their ladies; whilst others perform complex dance rituals to win her heart; yet others dazzle her with their brilliant lights and if all that fails, some will stand on their heads or try giving her hugs to gain her love! Ahh the old romantics!
It was once said that God is incredibly fond of beetles (as there are so many of them) – surely there’s no better accolade to have?