Transcript: Matthew Traxler describes the ‘friendly’ bessbug beetle

Matthew Traxler: So, these beetles are, like Rita said, they’re called ‘Bessbug’ beetles. If you live in eastern North America or the South, especially the southeast part of the United States, you’ve probably seen them. They look — they’re about an inch and a half long, they’re shiny black, and if you pick them up, they’re friendly. Even though they look kind of big, they’re really pretty friendly beetles, and so they’re pretty popular. They’re used in — sometimes in classrooms and sometimes for, like, outreach for museums and stuff, to talk a lot about different aspects of insects. They’re also studied because they’re super strong, right, like for their size. And, they also have these really complex chirps that they make, and — so, there’s like 16 different kind of chirps or noises that they make to communicate among themselves and their larvae. So, they’re interesting to study for a lot of reasons. And — oh yeah, the fact that they eat wood makes them interesting from a bio, like kind of a bio-energy biofuels standpoint, because we want to turn stuff like lignin into fuel, right, and that’s basically what happens in these beetle guts.

But, basically what happens is that a pair of beetles, a male and a female, will establish a new gallery by burrowing into a decaying log, usually an oak log, and they’ll hollow out an area in there. They’ll start eating the wood and producing frass that accumulates in there, and then they’ll lay eggs in there. And then, larvae will hatch. And they, the parents actually have some pretty complex parental care activities that they take part in. So, they work pretty hard to make sure their larvae are happy. And then, when the larvae pupate, that means they’re undergoing metamorphosis, they stop moving and turn into a pupa, and the adults actually build a special little chamber around the pupa, and that’s called a pupal chamber, and that pupal chamber is also made of frass, right? Which we know now has a bunch of antibiotics and antimicrobials in it as well. So, that’s a great thing to put around your larva to keep it safe from pathogenic fungi. And then, the adults will hatch out from there and they’ll be like, a juvenile kind of adult, and then those brothers and sisters will turn around and also take care of the larvae that are also in that same log. So, it’s like an extended family group that will grow inside there. They all live together until it’s time for the new, newly hatched adults to go off and form their own galleries. And so, they can live in these logs for more than a year, altogether. And so, it’s not quite, they’re not quite social to the level of like, ants where there are specialized castes or something like that. But, they are what are called sub social, meaning that they have all these behaviors that are complicated and pretty cool.

Read the full story: “How antibiotic-filled poop helps ‘bessbug’ beetles stay healthy.”