The Age of the Beetles

Perhaps you thought you were living in the age of technology? Yes, humans with our tools and machines have had a tremendous impact on earth. Evidence of human impact goes back thousands of years, and the pace is rapidly accelerating. But a few thousand years is just a moment in the history of the earth. It might be easier to argue that we are living in the age of the beetle.

Insects outnumber us, they outweigh us and they are a driving force in the world.

Orthosoma brunneum

What to look for: A fairly large, 3- to 4-inch, brown, long-horned beetle.

Where to look: In and around wooded areas.

Places to visit: Search for the brown prionid and other critters at noon Sat., Sept. 18 and Sun., Sept.19 at the South River Greenway BioBlitz at Bacon Ridge Natural Area Crownsville: Karyn Molines: [email protected].

“The creator, if he exists, has an inordinate fondness for beetles.” That’s what the renowned and quotable British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane is reported to have said in response to a question about God. Harvard biology professor E.O. Wilson says there are 24,000 species of beetle in North America and 290,000 worldwide, more than any other living creature. They come in a multitude of sizes, shapes and colors.

This particular beetle is the brown prionid or Orthosoma brunneum. It’s fairly common and quite widespread.

I encountered it in southern Anne Arundel County as we were celebrating July 4. One of the guests happened to be an entomologist who knew how to have fun with a black light and a sheet. Whoo-hoo! The sheet was hung as if to dry, and the light was set up to illuminate it; the moths and beetles came to check it out, as if it were their party, too.

As an amateur naturalist, my attention is generally drawn to the birds, mammals, trees and flowers. I am not a bug person, but beetles are an exception. Their forms are interesting and the colors are often beautiful and fascinating. When I saw this one I decided to illustrate it.

Beetles play a variety of critical roles in the multitude of ecosystems in which they live, and they live everywhere except polar regions. Brown prionids, along with thousands of other beetle species, provide a necessary service. They are decomposers.

We are surrounded by living things: trees, flowers, grasses and animals, etc. They grow under our feet, over our heads, between the cracks in sidewalks; they walk, crawl and fly. People are part of this colorful, burgeoning mass. But everything living eventually dies. If it weren’t for decomposers, we would be buried in all of the dead stuff.

At the micro-level, fungus and tiny organisms break things down. Beetles, worms, vultures and other carrion eaters work on some of the bigger stuff  by eating it.

To live and grow, we living things take up nutrients. These nutrients are held in tree trunks, leaves and bodies. Some of the nutrients are released as waste matter. When things die or when waste matter is released, it needs to be broken down to return to the soil so that it can be taken up again, allowing the cycle of life to keep turning.

Not all beetles are decomposers. Lady bugs, for example, eat aphids and help keep crops healthy. Brown prionids live in decaying wood such as tree trunks, fence posts and telephone poles.

Thanks to Warren Stiner for finding and identifying the brown prionid as well as suggesting sources for information about beetles.