Bob Henke Commentary: Admiring the six-spotted tiger beetle
Commentary

Bob Henke Commentary: Admiring the six-spotted tiger beetle

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For the past several years, we have been faced with all sorts of headlines about declines of various sorts of things from trees to birds to mullets. The latest is insects. A recent Associated Press story touted the “Insect Apocalypse.”

The crux is that some folks feel there is a worldwide decline in insect numbers. Some of the past panics have fizzled but, in spite of what appears to be a healthy population of ticks, mosquitos, black flies and carpenter bees, I think this one could have some legs. I also think I know the problem, at least for this area.

It is the ladies in my office.

This group has got to be the most prolific cadre of bug smashers ever to exist. Anything the slightest bit skittery is immediately stomped, smashed, crushed, swatted, bludgeoned or otherwise reduced to an unrecognizable blob of protoplasm. Interestingly, this reaction can be triggered by a host of other things. I have found that a few pieces of grass twisted together just right and left in sight will be swatted just as fiercely. The dry fly fishermen in the readership will appreciate the feeling of satisfaction this sort of a “rise” brings.

I am treated with anything from disdain to outright hostility when I simply capture the offending beastie and remove it to the outdoors. The general feeling seems to be that whatever it is I have released, from spider to wasp to friendly fly, is going to lurk just outside the threshold to attack them as they leave. Pointing out there is not much danger because they greatly outweigh the tiny bug, while technically accurate, seems not to be a useful or comforting observation. It has, in point of fact, proven to be downright dangerous.

This is why I was sure of the circumstance and outcome when the Terminator asked if there were any other bright green bugs beside the emerald ash borer. I asked if she had examined it at all before stomping it flat. She gave me “the look,” so I shut up and pulled up a picture of the six-spotted tiger beetle. She made a positive identification so I told her she had squished a beneficial and actually pretty insect. She allowed as how it was not her fault it looked like an ash borer. I had no good escape route so I decided not to continue the conversation.

The beetle that generated the conversation is quite lovely. Its common name is the six-spotted tiger beetle. The first one I ever saw was in a specimen jar handed around a seminar class. I admit not paying great attention to the speaker, but questioned him about why the beetle in the jar had eight spots. He spoke slowly as if to someone barely fluent in English, emphasizing it was a six — repeat — six-spotted tiger beetle.

I requested the girl next to me count the spots. She really did not want to but finally had to agree that, yes, there were eight. I asked if there was such a thing as an eight-spotted tiger beetle. The professor intervened and said there was not. My suggestion that we had discovered a new species was met with professorial distain and the information that occasionally a six-spotted tiger beetle might have more or less than six spots.

I asked if there were tiger beetles without spots — there were. So why not just call them “spotted tiger beetles?” The professor said I had used up my entire annual quota of questions and I was to ask no more for the remainder of the semester. I had already received an A for my fantastic presentation on the way grasshopper musculature triggered for those amazing leaps but for some reason got only a B in the course.

Regardless of their damage to my GPA, I have always liked the bright green tiger beetles. There are many members of their clan, more than 2,600 species found all over the world. One tiger beetle, native to Australia, holds the record for being the fastest insect in existence. It can run 5.6 mph, which does not sound all that fast until you put it in beetle terms. This little guy is going 125 body lengths per second. If your car was doing that the speedometer would read a little over 1700 mph.

While that is a little extreme, all tiger beetles are fast. They are carnivores, with large mandibles, that run down their prey. Our green beetles show up well so it is great fun to watch them hunt. Instead of a prolonged chase, they make a high speed run at the victim and then suddenly stop, reorient and make another burst until in these frenetic fits and starts, it finally overtakes the prey.

The reason for this pattern is that they actually travel faster than their eyes can process so at full speed they are effectively blind. If the speed is maintained overlong, they stand a good chance of crashing into an obstacle. They run, stop for their brain to reprogram, and then take off again. When running, their antenna are always stuck our straight in front to warm of collisions.

The six-spotted tiger beetle is, in most cases, a shiny, jewel-like emerald green. Some have a bit more of a yellow or blue tint and, yes, some have a slightly different number of spots. They have large eyes, slender legs and large, fearsome-appearing white mandibles used for grasping and dismembering prey animals.

Six-spotted tiger beetles are an animal of the forest floor. Females lay their eggs singly in patches of softer soil. When the eggs hatch, the larvae burrow down into the ground, sometimes quite extensively. Even the larvae are fast. When the baby tiger is hungry, it comes near the entrance to the burrow. When a hapless ant or caterpillar happens by, the larvae launches out of the burrow like a striking snake, grabs the prey, and drags it back into its burrow to be consumed at leisure.

Usually in the second year, metamorphosis takes place and the adult tiger beetle emerges to capture prey by pursuit instead of ambush. Adult tiger beetles, that do not encounter bug-smashing women, may live as much as five years. Interestingly, they often return to their larval burrow to hibernate through the cold season.

Next time you see one of these pretty little beetles, spend a few minutes watching it. Their hunting pattern is fascinating and they are a very beneficial insect. Termination is not necessary. ...

Bob Henke writes a weekly outdoors column for The Post-Star.

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