American burying beetles (Nicrophorus americanus) are among nature’s most efficient and fascinating carcass recyclers. These largest carrion beetles in North America can be up to 1.77 inches (45 mm) long. Unfortunately, they are “critically threatened.”
American burying beetles have a unique appearance, with two bright orange patches on the covers of each of their shiny black wings. Their pronotum, a shield-like area just behind the head covering the thorax, also has an orange patch. In addition, an orange patch between their eyes is rounded on males but smaller and more triangular on females.
Carrion beetles such as American burying beetles play a vital role in returning valuable nutrients to the soil. Dead things would accumulate if tiny insects and microorganisms didn’t do that job. These carcass recyclers fly at night and use chemical receptors on their antennae to detect dead or decaying flesh.
It is unusual in the insect world for both the males and females to participate in raising the young, but American carrion beetles are involved parents. The male will find a carcass about the size of a small bird or chipmunk and attract a female. The two beetles bury the carcass, and the female will lay up to 30 eggs. When the larvae hatch, both parents feed the young from the decaying carcass while keeping them safe underground. After about a week, the larvae go into a pupal stage and eventually emerge as adults that live for about 12 months. When the temperature drops, they bury themselves for the winter and re-emerge in the spring.
We seldom think about the importance of carrion beetles as carcass recyclers, but they play an essential ecological role. Each living species is designed to serve a function in nature, and every loss destabilizes the fragile balance God gave us to enjoy and protect. We can know there is a God by the things He has made (Romans 1:20).
— Roland Earnst © 2022