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Good beetle, bad beetle: all you need to know about beetles

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So many species, so many strange characteristics — did you know that there are more beetles than all other insects put together?

At the mention of the word ‘beetle’ the first one to come to mind, in all probability, would be the famous ladybird beetle, which looks rather attractive with its red or orange wings and black polka dots. But did you know that there are 3,50,000 species of beetles in the world? In fact, there are more beetles than all other insects put together. And insects, in turn, represent more than two-thirds of the entire animal kingdom!

What makes a beetle a beetle? The front pair of wings of all beetles, known as elytra, are tough and serve as an armour, protecting the delicate hind wings and the rest of the body. The thick elytra enable beetles to enter cracks and crevices. Also, beetles have sharp biting mouth parts — some of them can even chomp on wood!

Amongst beetles, you have some good guys, some bad guys and some that appear to be neither good nor bad but interesting all the same.

Good beetle, bad beetle: all you need to know about beetles

Ladybird beetles are among the good guys. If you happen to see them crawling over your plants, you have nothing to worry about. They are natural pesticides, feeding on other insects such as aphids and mealybugs which would otherwise destroy your plants.

Good beetle, bad beetle: all you need to know about beetles

Dung roller beetles, or scarabs, were at one time worshipped by the Egyptians as they eat smelly dung and recycle it back into nature. Imagine if there were no dung roller beetles. The countryside would be piled high with animal poop. This is exactly what happened several years ago in Australia after cattle were transported there. The dung beetles there could only eat and recycle kangaroo and wallaby poop, which is hard and less in quantity. They refused to tackle the huge pads of cattle poop. Hence, cattle dung dwelling roller beetles were brought in as well!

Longicorn beetles, with their very long antennae, are notorious for boring into wood when they are still in the larvae stage, causing much destruction to trees. I once came across some furniture, owned by the manager of a hotel in the Andaman Islands, riddled with holes by these beetles. And guess what? He valued it as his prized collection.

Good beetle, bad beetle: all you need to know about beetles

The rather large rhinoceros beetles, especially the male, looks striking with one or two long horns. But beware! They cause great devastation among palm trees by eating up the leaf bud at the apex. Once the apical growing bud is eaten the entire palm tree dies.

Good beetle, bad beetle: all you need to know about beetles

Appearing mysteriously in large numbers with the first rains are the blister beetles, in bright metallic colours. You see them crawling about among flowers. But watch out, do avoid touching them. When disturbed, they exude a droplet of oil that can cause a burning sensation on the skin.

Some beetles prefer to live in fresh water. Diving beetles are fairly large with perfectly streamlined bodies. Their hind legs point backwards and are fringed, serving as oars to paddle in the water. But if you happen to come across groups of small black beetles performing a jig-like dance on water, moving around in circles, then rest assured they are whirligig beetles. I wonder why they dance so.

We all get thrilled on seeing glow-worms and fireflies flashing their greenish lights in the night. They too are beetles, glow-worms being wingless females and fireflies being winged males. What is remarkable is that none of the cool light they produce in their bodies by a chemical reaction is wasted as heat — something we have yet to accomplish. Imagine what would happen if a firefly were to get as warm as a light bulb!

Good beetle, bad beetle: all you need to know about beetles

Tortoise beetles look exceptionally pretty, with their rounded tortoise-shaped elytra being of a glittery golden hue with a tint of red or green. Their larvae cleverly disguise themselves from predators. Guess how? With strands of their own faecal matter, making themselves appear as something most obnoxious!

Have you ever heard your mother complain of the stored rice in the kitchen being infested with weevils? Why, they too are beetles, with long snouts or rostrums, looking like miniature giraffes. They cause great havoc to stored grain. Now here is something very interesting. A group of weevils, called leaf-rollerweevils, use rolled up leaves as nursery for their eggs. The leaf is deftly rolled up into a neat cigar-shaped packet, without making use of glue or silk — pure origami!

So many species, with so many strange characteristics. Why do beetles outnumber by far all other insects? Are they the most successful of all? The answer is still blowing in the wind.

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2019 8:00:36 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/children/good-beetle-bad-beetle/article26778989.ece

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