Beetlemania

Semiotus marciae by Sam Wells

Semiotus marciae (photo © Sam Wells)

“Congratulations, Mom!” the email from my oldest son, Steve, said. “You finally have an organism named after you. Semiotus is a genus of very large, tropical click beetles [and] S. marciae is a species from Ecuador. Your beetle is large (about one inch) and very colorful, like all Semiotus. You’ll probably end up in quite a few collections.”

Steve is an amateur entomologist specializing in beetles. His friend, Dr. Sam Wells, is a professional entomologist who works at the Western Field Technology Station of Bayer Crop Science in Fresno, California. His specialty is click beetles. Since one of my favorite insects is the salt and pepper-colored eyed elater click beetle Alaus oculatus with its two large black false eyes on its pronotum (front part of the thorax between the head and the abdomen), I was pleased to learn that I would have my own orange and red click beetle—Marcia’s click beetle—as Steve called it.

Furthermore, he wrote that “the etymology is given in honor of Marcia Bonta, author and naturalist.” This followed the detailed description of the beetle in Kolepterologische Rundschau (translated as the Coleopterological Review), a German journal that includes an English translation.

Needless to say, I was thrilled by the honor and reminded of my early studies of the history of Pennsylvania’s natural history. They started shortly after we moved to our mountaintop home in west central Pennsylvania four decades ago, when I began learning the names of all the creatures and plants that lived here. One of the first birds I identified was the eastern phoebe—Sayornis phoebe—because four couples nested on ledges inside our garage, old outhouse, and guesthouse and plastered on the side of the springhouse.

The eastern phoebe is one of three phoebe species in North America which includes the western Say’s phoebe—Sayornis saya—doubly named for Thomas Say according to Ernest A. Choate’s The Dictionary of American Bird Names. In addition, someone named Bonaparte created the genus name Sayornis, not the Bonaparte but a nephew—Charles Lucien Jules Laurent Bonaparte—who came with his family to Philadelphia in 1822 where many naturalists resided. During his six years there he re-edited a massive book on American ornithology and thus became the so-called Father of Systematic Ornithology. Bonaparte’s gull honors him.

But who was Thomas Say? Say, it turned out, is called the Father of American Entomology. Of French Protestant stock, he was born in Philadelphia in 1787. His great uncle, William Bartram, who wrote Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the first American nature book, encouraged Say to collect butterflies and beetles. At that time, Philadelphia was a hotbed of naturalists who started the Academy of Natural Sciences, and when Thomas Say joined, he found to his consternation that the collection of natural curiosities only consisted of six common insects, a few shells, a dried fish and a stuffed monkey. He resolved to increase the collection.

Thomas Say by Charles Wilson Peale

Thomas Say by Charles Wilson Peale (1818)

A handsome, amiable man always ready to help others, he devoted much of his life to the study of natural history, specializing in insects and shells, although in 1819, as the zoologist in Major Stephen H. Long’s expedition to the Rocky Mountains, he reported on everything from the Indian languages to wolves, snakes, birds, and shells. But both before and after this expedition, he published papers on insects and land shells, beginning with “Descriptions of Seven Species of American Fresh Water and Land Shells” and “Descriptions of Several New Species of North American Insects.”

Unfortunately for natural history, Say left Philadelphia in 1825 to participate in the altruistic, socialist community at New Harmony, Indiana. There he met his wife Lucy. But rancor quickly drove the founders of the community apart, and peaceful, kindly Say had to carry on with very little help, dying there in 1834 at the age of 47.

However, he left a worthy legacy in his three-volume work American Entomology or Descriptions of the Insects of North America published in 1824, 1825, and 1828. He was credited with being the first efficient and extensive describer of North American insects, especially Coleoptera (beetles).

Since beetles were his specialty, I wondered how many were named for him. After several hours on the Internet studying BugGuide.net, I found 22 insect species that honor Say from two species of caddisflies to Say’s stinkbug. Of those, ten are beetles including Ampedus sayi, an orange and black click beetle that LeConte named.

Could that be the LeConte of LeConte’s sparrow and LeConte’s thrasher? Indeed, it was. John Lawrence LeConte, who was born in 1825, was, according to Arnold Mallis in his excellent American Entomologists, “our greatest coleopterist, not because he named almost five thousand species of beetles, but because he showed their systematic relationships and pointed the way to the scientific classifications of American insects.”

John Le Conte

John Le Conte (artist unknown, 1874)

Son of the naturalist Major John Eatton LeConte, who raised him when his mother died shortly after his birth, he learned about beetles at his father’s knee as a toddler while the major worked on his beetle collection. He was raised in New York City but moved with his family to Philadelphia when he was 27.

By then he had graduated from college, begun his travels to the West in search of insects and written several papers on ground, tiger, and long-horned beetles from the eastern United States. In 1859 he edited The Complete Writings of Thomas Say on the Entomology of North America and with his friend and pupil Dr. George H. Horn he wrote The Classification of the Coleoptera of North America in 1883, which was based on the 11,000 beetle species in LeConte’s and Horn’s collections. He was also the founder and president of the American Entomological Society.

Of the 36 insect species named for him that I found, almost all were beetles. One favorite exception of mine that lives on our mountain is the striking black and white LeConte’s haploa moth Haploa lecontei. Beetle species from Alaska to Texas, New Jersey to California bear his name—clown beetles, long-horned beetles, leaf beetles and, of course, a click beetle Elater lecontei.

LeConte did his fair share of naming too. The attractive hairy fungus beetle Mycetophagus melsheimeri is one of them. This brought me back to the very beginning of insect studies in North America because before Say and LeConte, there was Frederick Valentine Melsheimer, also called the Father of American Entomology. He was considered the first serious American entomologist because he made the first important insect collection and wrote the first important entomological work in the United States in 1806 entitled A Catalogue of Insects of Pennsylvania. Sixty pages long, it dealt only with 1,363 species of beetles of which about 400 are recognized today. His catalogue also included the habits, life histories and food plants of some of those insects as well as the oldest description of a beetle larva in North America.

Friedrich Valentine Melsheimer

Friedrich Valentine Melsheimer (artist unknown)

But Melsheimer was primarily a minister. Born in Germany in 1849, he was ordained a chaplain in a regiment of Hessian Dragoons. Shortly after he preached his first sermon, the Dragoons were sent to North America to fight for the British in the American Revolution. After landing in Quebec in 1776, they were sent south, captured at the Battle of Bennington, and imprisoned first in Massachusetts and then in New York. Finally, Melsheimer was sent in 1779 to Bethlehem, where he resigned his commission as chaplain, assumed several Lutheran congregations in Lancaster County and married a Bethlehem native. Over the decades he served in Manheim, New Holland, Lancaster, and Hanover.

In addition, he founded German-American schools and was a professor of German, Latin and Greek and one of the founders and the second president of Franklin College (now Franklin and Marshall College) in 1787. Of his eleven children, two sons followed his entomological interests. Johann Friedrich Melsheimer was an active insect collector, but he died and his brother, Dr. Franz Ernst Melsheimer, took over the collection and library. In 1842 he was elected the first president of the Entomological Society of Pennsylvania. From 1846 to 1848 he contributed seven papers on beetles to the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences and in 1853 he was elected president of the American Entomological Society. That same year the Smithsonian Institution published his Catalogue of the Described Coleoptera of the United States, which had been revised by Samuel Stehman Haldeman, still another early Pennsylvania entomologist who lived near Harrisburg, and LeConte. Altogether, his insect collection consisted of 14,000 specimens of 5,000 species.

I could not find nearly as many insects named for any of the Melsheimers. In fact, only five insects—one moth Cicinnus melsheimeri called Melsheimer’s sack-bearer moth–and four beetles. One, an antlike leaf beetle—Emelinus melsheimeri has a clear “M” on its back. And yes, one is a click beetle Zorochros melsheimeri. Perhaps that isn’t such a surprise because there are at least 9,300 known click beetle species worldwide and more to be named. And we all know the famous quote about beetles by British geneticist and evolutionary biologist J. B. S. Haldane that “God has an inordinate fondness for beetles” because there are more beetle species than any other form of insects and comprise one fifth of all living species on earth.

eyed elator click beetle

An eyed elator click beetle from Plummer's Hollow (photo by D. Bonta)

Click beetles in the family Elateridae are able to click and jump when they are on their backs by bending their heads and prothoraxes backward and then their body is suddenly straightened, producing an audible click and propelling the beetle into the air and turning it right side up again. Their larvae are wireworms, a few of which are injurious to the roots of crops. The eyed elater click beetles, which I am most acquainted with, are found in the northeast and southeast United States and Ontario. The Semiotus genus occurs principally in tropical America from Mexico to Chile.

Dr. Wells began studying click beetles while in pursuit of his doctorate and says that despite their abundance little is known about them and much more taxonomic work needs to be done. He received the specimen he named for me from a colleague, Sergio Riese, in Italy, and it resides in the Bonta/Sam Wells personal insect collection in Fresno, California.

“Now,” Wells says, “All I have to do is go collect Semiotus marciae for myself.”

Chasing Beetles

locust borerFor most of his life, our son Steve has had a serious case of beetle mania. By the time he was five he knew more about insects in general and beetles in particular than I did. Of course, that’s not saying much. I’ve always specialized in the colorful, charismatic insects such as butterflies, praying mantises, and walkingsticks, although when Steve showed me my first eyed click beetle (Alaus oculatus), with big, black, false eyes on its thorax, I was impressed. But not impressed enough to make my own study of beetles. I let that up to him.And over nearly four decades, he has forged ahead, aided and abetted by his friend Sam Wells who has a Ph.D. in entomology. (Steve’s Ph.D. is in linguistics.) But beetle collecting has remained his avocation, and he and Wells have amassed an enormous collection.

Wells’ specialty is click beetles, and when he discovered a new species on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, he named it for Steve. “Horistonotus bontai is named in honor of Steve Bonta,” Wells wrote in the Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington, “a colleague and student of the Coleoptera [beetles] who has supported my research on click beetles.”

During Steve’s linguistics studies in south India and Sri Lanka, he managed to find time to collect beetles. And last summer he and Wells went on an official collecting trip to Honduras. Steve returned enthusiastic about the specimens they had found there, but he was equally enthusiastic about surveying the beetle species on our property. As a boy in the 1970s, he had studied and collected beetles here, and he was particularly interested in re-finding the same species and discovering new ones. His not-so-hidden agenda was to get me involved in the project.

fungus beetle on varnish shelfThat’s why, on an overcast, humid day in late August, I met him halfway down our hollow road. Even though he’s now six foot, three inches tall, I could still see the little boy he once was as he held his bug net in one hand and a large, black beetle in the other. Slightly over an inch long, it was a hermit flower beetle Osmoderma eremicola, one of the largest beetle species on our property. A member of the Family Scarabaeidae, this beetle is one of approximately 1375 scarab species living in North America. Steve had found it crawling on the ground and told me that it eats leaves. Rotten logs harbor its large, white larva–a sausage-fat grub that we later found in a tulip tree log.

“The ‘ick’ factor is great in this species,” Steve said. An understatement as far as I was concerned. But when I looked it up on the web, I discovered aficionados of Osmoderma eremicola who gave precise directions on how to raise this “neat, bulky beetle” from larva to adult on a diet of rotten wood, old leaves, dog food, and compost.

“The sheer biological success of beetles outstrips every living thing,” Steve enthused as we walked along. “Maybe one reason is because of their body shape and makeup. Two of their four wings evolved to plates of armor on the outside.”Beetles belong to the Order Coleoptera, which is Greek for “sheath wings.” Although beetles have two sets of wings like other insects, their front wings are hardened plates that protect their flying wings and body from predators.

And beetles are common. One in four of the known species on Earth is a beetle–350,000 species and counting. They are also ancient. Before dinosaurs there were beetles, but once dinosaurs disappeared and flowering plants proliferated, so did beetle diversity. That’s because most beetles subsist on flowers and plant foliage, and the more diverse the plants, in the tropics, for instance, the more diverse the beetles.

We continued on our beetle foray, which meant, Steve informed me, inspecting rotten logs, “one of the best places to find beetles,” along with fungi and feces. Luckily, we didn’t find any of the latter.

Under the bark of a rotting log, Steve found rove beetles, members of the largest North American beetle Family Staphylinidae with nearly 3100 species.

longhorns mating on wild hydrangea“Their elytra [wings] are much shorter than their abdomens,” Steve said. “They don’t look like beetles.”

The rove beetles were so small I whipped out my hand lens to examine one more closely. Only then could I see those shorter wings and protruding abdomens. To be honest, I hadn’t even noticed the tiny beetles when he ripped off the bark, but Steve’s incredibly sharp, birder’s eyes had.

He also showed me a dark orange wire worm that is the larva of a click beetle, a millipede and its pile of frass, which consists of the remains of bark that it eats, and another beetle, even tinier than the rove beetle–the cerylonid beetle Cerylon castaneum. A member of the Family Cerylonidae, it does not have a common name. Only 18 species of these beetles live in North America, and because they are tiny and secretive, scientists don’t know much about them except that they are plentiful in forest litter and under bark.

Along with all the insects under the bark, we also found an insect gourmand, a golden-backed, mountain dusky salamander–Desmognathus ochrophaeus–whose favorite foods include beetles and beetle larvae, worms, fly larvae, sowbugs, snails, ants, mites, springtails, spiders, and caterpillars. Its favorite habitat during the summer is a moist deciduous or mixed hardwood-coniferous forest near a stream, such as we were in.

But eventually we left the hemlock/hardwood forest beside our stream and headed up Pit Mound Trail to Ten Springs Trail, where the trees are young and striped maple saplings dominate the understory. Steve immediately began a paean of praise for striped maple trees because both click and soldier beetles like to sun themselves on striped maple leaves, especially in early summer. Since it was then late summer, he didn’t find any examples, but I was happy to hear a good word in favor of a tree species often belittled by foresters, especially because I like its green and white striped bark, lovely, dangling flowers, and big, shiny leaves.

scarab beetle larvaIn the old garden of our long-deceased neighbor, Margaret, lay several wild black cherry logs.”Now black cherry logs usually have a nice selection of beetles,” Steve said. But he found only ants under one dry section, and beetles like moist conditions.

“Generally beetles avoid portions of logs that have ants because ants prey on beetles,” he explained.

As he walked on, I idly pulled the bark off farther along the log where it was still moist despite the recent drought and discovered what Steve had been searching for, the Pennsylvania darkling beetle Alobates pennsylvanica, the largest and one of the most common darkling beetles in the eastern United States. Ungainly and slow-moving, it lives under the loose bark of dead trees, logs, or stumps. A member of the Tenebrionidae Family, it is one of 1300 species found in North America. To my untrained eyes, it looked like just another big, black beetle and much like the first big, black beetle Steve had showed me.

The wild oregano I had given Margaret a quarter of a century ago had spread throughout her yard, and its small, orchid-colored flowers swarmed with nectaring butterflies. It had also attracted the first colorful beetle of the day, the Pennsylvania soldier beetle Chauliognathus pennsylvanicus of the Family Cantharidae. Dozens of these yellow and black beetles sporting elegant, long antennae, crawled over the wild oregano. This same species is common on goldenrod and is one of 455 North American species in its family.

Steve also pointed out tiny black leaf beetles in the Chrysomelidae family, the fourth largest beetle family in the world, of which there are 1474 species in North America. This species too likes goldenrod, as we discovered when we reached First Field, which was aglow with five species of goldenrod. In addition, the goldenrod contained tiny, oval-shaped, shining mold beetles (Stilbus apicalis) in the Family Phalacridae as well as one of my favorite beetles, the pink-legged, black and yellow locust borers (Megacyllene robiniae), a longhorned beetle of the Family Cerambycidae.

Longhorned beetles have some of the showiest members of the beetle Order. “You can judge the diversity of a forest by longhorned beetle diversity,” Steve said. “The Coleoptera glory in the eastern United States are the longhorned beetles,” and he hopes over the next couple of years to find as many species of them as possible on our property.

blister beetle backsideAs part of his campaign to get me involved in collecting longhorned beetles, he later gifted me with a Field Guide to the Northeastern Longhorned Beetles by Douglas Yanega and published by the Illinois Natural History Survey. Filled with colored plates, Steve described the book as “all you’ll ever need to identify longhorned beetles.” Well, maybe. But what about all the other likely beetle species on our property?

During our walk, we had seen representatives of eight of the 98 beetle families, listed in Beetles, a Peterson field guide by Richard E. White, and already my head was whirling. To further confuse me, he told me of a few interesting beetle discoveries he’s already made here.

In early summer, he had found the false longhorned beetle Cephaloon lepturides of the Family Cephaloidae, which has only 10 North American species. This species is also a flower and foliage denizen, although its larva lives in decaying forest logs, and it is known (among entomologists) for its stout, comb-like claws.

Back on May 28, 2006, a false click beetle Melasis pectinicornis had come to the light on our veranda. One of the 67 North American species in the Family Eucnemidae, it has brush-like “horns” on its antennae.

He also collected 15 species of tumbling flower beetles, 10 of which he found on the wild hydrangea growing on our road bank down in the hollow. Members of the Family Mordellidae, there are approximately 204 species in North America.

Best of all was the rare beetle Steve had found near a huge, old, rotten oak log at the edge of the Far Field, a reticulated beetle of the Family Cupedidae, the most primitive of all the beetle families. According to White in Beetles, “Fossil cupedids from upper Permian deposits (about 200 million years ago) are the oldest known remains of beetles that belong to a living family.” Today that family contains four North American species including Steve’s discovery here–Cupes capitatus. We also have the most common cupedid species in the eastern United States–Tenomerga concolor. Both larvae and adults feed in moist, rotting softwoods and hardwoods, especially oak, chestnut, and apple trees.

Cicindela ancocisconensis, the Appalachian tiger beetleAfter our walk, totally confused by the many species we had seen or discussed, I remembered what my husband Bruce had said about Steve when he was five years old and had appropriated my new Peterson Field Guide to the Insects of America North of Mexico by Donald J. Borror and Richard E. White.

“He already knows more than me about insects, and I’m not even going to try to keep up with him.”

Me neither.
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All photos by Dave Bonta. Mouse-over for i.d.s, or click on photos to see larger originals.