Nicrophorus—They call me a lover of death
Let me tell you a little about my life—for me it is all about finding that perfect, newly deceased bird, mouse or other small mammal. Then the fun, and the work, begins. I first do a sort of a handstand on the carcass and emit scents from a gland at my rear end, which finds its way to the love of my life (no kidding, we sexton beetles are pretty monogamous). She will fly to me and we will mate (oh joy!). But now our real work begins because we first must lie on our backs underneath this dead creature and move it along with our legs in the air until we find some soft soil where we dig a hole underneath and let it fall in. You see there are many other creatures that would love to have access to our new “nursery.” After we bury the carcass several inches deep, we try to roll the carcass into a ball at the same time, removing its hair or feathers; we then spray it with an antibiotic from our anus, which kills bacteria and fungi. My girl then lays eggs in the soil nearby. Our cute little larvae hatch in a few days and crawl to the carcass where they cuddle up in a depression on the top. My girl and I feed our babies regurgitated carcass until our kids are old enough to burrow into the skin and eat for themselves. We are kind of like birds in that we squeak when we are feeding our babies, and our cute little grubs raise themselves up and open their mouths. Even after our grubs are feeding themselves, we can still squeak them in for some communal regurgitation (my wife has a hard time letting them go.) It’s hard, but after a few more days I take off and go looking for another carcass; mom stays behind a bit to be with the babies.
After around ten days, our young are fully grown grubs and will burrow into the surrounding soil to pupate. Up here in the north we tend to hibernate and emerge the following spring.
I am a very beautiful beetle, with red stripes on my back, but not many people know that when I fly I can turn my wing covers (elytra) over and show their yellow undersides. Guess what? I then resemble a bumblebee, which no bird with half a brain will eat. We sextons are not only hard working and beautiful and clever, but we are also sneaky. When I was just a little guy, before I found the big dead mouse, I used to hide in the leaves and sneak in a quick mate or two with some other guy’s girl. We all did it back then.
Oh, one more really cool thing about us is that we have hitchhikers, little mites who live under our elytra. They don’t bother me, in fact they help out with my work. When I land on a carcass they disembark and go killing any fly maggots they find. Then they climb back on me and we go on living together, helping each other out, you know.
Well, I hope you have changed your mind about we sexton beetles and all the other burying beetles like our distant cousins the dung beetles. Just think what your world would be like if it was piled high with dead carcasses and poop.
Photo by RosemarySmith
Bernd Heinrich, “Life Everlasting, The Animal Way of Death” 2012
Note: I have laid out dead mice that my cat has killed and watched the sexton beetles carry them away to bury. It is great fun for a summer afternoon, but be patient for it takes time!