Into the World of the Darkling Beetle

Silkworm Moth (Bombyx mori)

Silkworm Moth (Bombyx mori)

As seen in some of my previous posts, one of my interests is in entomology. I find insects, (and arachnids, too), to be fascinating, intelligent, and resourceful creatures. (On a strictly non-professional level, I also think they’re as adorable as other animals). As I have said many times, I am the person running toward the insect or arachnid that other people are fleeing from. And every year, I excitedly await the Bug Fair. It’s an annual event at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, and this year it is next weekend, May 16th-17th.

Painted Lady Butterfly (Vanessa cardui)

Painted Lady Butterfly (Vanessa cardui)

In the past, I have kept and studied different types of insects. When I was in 4th grade, I had a praying mantis, and later on, a silkworm that later became a silkworm moth (Bombyx mori). I acquired both of these from my teacher who gave one praying mantis, and later, one silkworm, to each student in the class, as part of our study of insects, and in the case of the moths, metamorphosis. Also when I was a little older, I ordered a butterfly kit. Five caterpillars came in a little container. This container has all of the food and everything that the caterpillars need in order to survive, so no action is needed until they pupate. The kit included a thin easy-to-assemble box. Once all five caterpillars had climbed to the lid of the container and became chrysalides, they were carefully transferred to the box, where they would later hatch into Painted Lady butterflies(Vanessa cardui). Plus, I had a number of insects and arachnids that I collected from my backyard when I wasyounger, and a couple of ant farms.

My current passion however, has become Tenebrio molitor–Darkling Beetles.

Beetles in general have always been one of my favorite insects to research and study. I spent a few months last summer studying Green June Beetles (Cotinus mutabalis), and at the end of last year, I joined the Coleoptorists Society.

Green June Beetle (Cotinus mutabulis)

Green June Beetle (Cotinus mutabulis)

Darkling Beetles, are also called Mealworm Beetles, because their larval form is the mealworm. Mealworms can be bought in any pet store, where I acquired my first batch, as they are often used as live food for a variety of reptiles. I bought a 50-count container of mealworms and put them into a jar that I had prepared for them. I had done research on habitats for mealworms and for the beetles. So I had a layer of dry oatmeal, under a layer of dry bread crumbs mixed with flour, under yet another layer of oatmeal. For the first fifty mealworm babies, this was fine. But once the mealies pupated and the beetles began emerging, these beetles of course multiplied, which is what I wanted anyhow. However, the jar was now too small for the last of the mealies who had yet to pupate, plus the current pupae, and the adult beetles, that were laying eggs, hatching more mealworms. So I bought one of those Critter Keepers, those plastic containers with a ventilated lid that has a little trap door in the top. I transferred the beetles into this, with the same oatmeal/breadcrumbs-flour/oatmeal combination lining the bottom.

In back, left to right, the original jar, now housing pupae, the container for tiny mealies and injured beetles, and then mealworm habitat. In front, circular beetle habitat.

In back, left to right, the original jar, now housing pupae, the container for tiny mealies and injured beetles, and then the mealworm habitat. In front, circular beetle habitat.

Since then, I am now on my second/third generation of beetles, and my third/fourth generation of mealworms; it’s not that I don’t know which generation I am currently on, it’s that as they multiply, generations tend to overlap, so I concurrently have two different generations of both beetles and mealworms.

I have three to four ongoing habitats at any given time. The Critter Keeper that I bought for the beetles, now houses the mealworms; the beetles were relocated to a larger, circular keeper. The original jar is used for the pupae, and at this time, I have several baby mealworms, which are practically microscopic in a smaller version of the mealworms’ habitat. As they get larger, I will put them in with the other mealworms. I think there are some beetle eggs in with the tiny mealies as well. I also find some beetles that emerge deformed or somehow injured, and these also go into this habitat, as I’m not sure if putting them in with the healthy beetles would be good for them.

They do need to eat of course, and to be provided with moisture. This is accomplished by a slice of apple replaced every day or two. Carrots and potatoes are also suggested, but I haven’t tried those yet. My beetles and mealies seem to love apple, so that works for now.

Some of my mealies in their mealworm habitat with the dry oatmeal, and pieces of lettuce.

Some of my mealies in their mealworm habitat with the dry oatmeal, and pieces of lettuce.

I like to experiment with vegetables as well, to see if they have any preference. It turns out that they like the red, romaine, and iceburg versions of lettuce, but they like it more if I run the lettuce under water first, and give it to them while it’s still moist. And it just so happens that they like broccoli as well. With the first generation of beetles, I tried tomatoes and raspberries; they didn’t like those, and even seemed to be wary of it. My current beetles were given a tiny portion of cilantro, just to see how they reacted. In case you’ve never tried it, cilantro has a very strong and distinctive flavor to it. I like it, but I also know a few people who don’t. I figured it was too strong for the beetles, as they tend to like blander foods. The verdict: they did not like it! (As I kind of surmised beforehand). The few beetles that actually approached the cilantro, ran away from it after touching it with their antennae; I don’t think any of them actually ate any. I immediately removed the cilantro, and gave them their daily apple slices instead. They seemed grateful for that; maybe they wanted to get rid of the cilantro taste. The mealworms also eat the apple and lettuce; they will eat the oatmeal, too.

Four of my pupae in varying colors as they are in different stages of development.

Four of my pupae in varying colors as they are in different stages of development.

The mealworms begin at a practically microscopic size, hatching from microscopic eggs. They are a light brown color, though I have seen a couple of white ones, and they eventually grow bigger, ultimately reaching a little over an inch-and-a-half long, molting as they grow. Their last molt is into a pupa. The pupae are white at first, and gradually change to a brown color, getting darker as the beetle is getting ready to emerge. The adult beetles are white when they first emerge, and over the next day or two, go to a golden brown, then a light brown, to a dark reddish-brown, before becoming the solid black color. Hence the name Darkling Beetles.

Beetle behaviors that I have observed:

The first generation made several little solidified…I call them balls, but they weren’t necessarily always spherical. It appeared to be made out of the oatmeal and bread crumbs, but I’m not sure what they were, nor what purpose they served. Similarly, my current beetles have made a few “balls” solely out of oatmeal. Again, not sure why. They are solid and don’t fall apart, even when I pick them up. Any answer is welcome, so if there are any entomologists or other enthusiasts out there who have witnessed this same behavior, and/or know why the beetles do this, I would love to hear about it. Likewise, should I figure out this behavior, I will record it here.

Darkling Beetle (Tenebrio molitor)

Darkling Beetle (Tenebrio molitor)

The beetles tend to group together. And lately I have noticed this in the mealworms, too. The mealworms do this is one, sometimes two, corners of their habitat; the beetles can be found in two to three groups, always along the edges of the habitat. Again, I don’t know why they do this, nor do I have any way of telling if the same beetles are always the same ones that gather together.

I witnessed, only once, when one of the beetles fell over on his back, another beetle actually helped him and flipped him back over onto his feet. Though I have also noticed that they are always able to eventually flip themselves back over on their own. I will also flip them back over myself if I notice any of them on their backs before they get back to their feet themselves.

One of the older Darkling Beetles, (partially hidden), and a newer, light-colored Darkling Beetle.

One of the older Darkling Beetles, (partially hidden), and a newer, light-colored Darkling Beetle.

Something that just happened today: a beetle that had newly-emerged from a pupa, had the pupa skin stuck to a couple of his legs. This has happened before, and I can usually pull it off, but I have to be very gentle and very careful, as the beetles’ legs are very delicate, and I do not want to inadvertently pull the leg off instead. Today, I only got it off of one of the feet, but couldn’t get it off of the other one, and was afraid of trying too hard and hurting the beetle. I put him in the habitat with the other beetles, thinking that if he walked around on the oatmeal or went under it, the skin may eventually rub off. But I saw a couple of other beetles approach this one, and they were around the pupa skin that was caught on the beetle’s leg. I don’t know if they saw the problem and were trying to help the other beetle, or perhaps they were eating the pupa skin, I even observed it close up, but couldn’t tell exactly what was going on. Either way, they got the skin off.

They seemed to recognize me after awhile. I have heard that honeybees can memorize faces, and perhaps they are not the only insects who can. I do see the beetles and feed them on a daily basis. So they may at least know me as the person who feeds them, and occasionally picks them up and studies them.

I have been recording my observations, hypotheses, and research in a log book. I found one online that is black in color, hardback bound, and simply says “Beetles” on the front of it. Raising Darkling Beetles, and watching them from mealworms, to pupae, to adults, is very interesting, and helps me to learn even more about beetles, and entomology in general. I have even had the benefit of seeing a mealworm become a pupa, and a beetle emerge from a pupa; I was able to record video of these events as well.

A few of the beetles gathered around lettuce.

A few of the beetles gathered around lettuce.

And as long as the beetles keep reproducing and thriving, I will keep raising them, learning even more as I go along.

And I don’t plan on stopping with beetles, either. There are other insects and arachnids out there that I would like to go to next. There are Islander Roaches for one; these too, can be bought at a pet store, sold as food for reptiles like the mealworms are. And eventually, I plan on buying tarantula as well.

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Our friends, the honeybees

Eastern Lubber Grasshopper

Eastern Lubber Grasshopper, Romalea guttata

Insects and arachnids are a great interest of mine, and as far back as I can remember, they always have been. I’m the person who runs toward the spider that other people are running away from. On the other hand, show me even a picture of a clown, and I’ll scream and run away like a little girl.  But seriously, I would feel guilty if I killed a fly, and I don’t even own a flyswatter for that matter. When I found a spider in the car the other day, I didn’t freak out and try to kill it. I knew there was a nearby park however, so I drove there, picked up the spider, and put it outside. Of course I’m not that reckless, I knew this was a harmless jumping spider. If was obviously a poisonous spider, or if I was unsure, I still may not have killed it, but I would have found some other way to get it out of my car.

Praying Mantis

Praying Mantis, Sphodromantis viridis

When I was little, I had an ant farm, a moth that I raised from a silkworm, a praying mantis, a pet spider, and butterflies. The butterflies were actually delivered to you as caterpillars, and it came with a little butterfly habitat that you put together. The caterpillars, five of them, were in a small plastic container that already contained all the food and everything that they needed to survive.  Once all five of them had crawled to the lid of the container and each had transformed into a chrysalis, they and the lid were carefully transported to the butterfly habitat. Once the butterflies hatched, I kept and fed them for a couple of days and then set them free. The butterflies were Painted Lady butterflies, Vanessa cardui.

Painted Lady Butterfly

Painted Lady butterfly, Vanessa cardui

Anyhow, I’m an animal lover, and perhaps my admiration of the six- and eight-legged creatures is an extension of that love. But whatever the reason, I adore entomology and everything surrounding it. I know that some bugs are dangerous of course: mosquitoes, wasps, fire ants, some spiders, etc, and the one bug I really can’t stand are maggots, (I know they’re baby flies, but they really are disgusting). Otherwise though, and despite the dangers that some bugs can pose, they really are intelligent, and for the most part, good for the environment. I also think they’re cute and interesting, especially the social insects such as ants and bees; and it’s the latter that I want to address.

I won’t say that they are harmless, I know that it must hurt like hell to be stung by a bee, and I know for a fact that a bee sting can be deadly if you’re allergic to them. That being said however, most honeybees won’t sting unless they feel threatened or frightened; Africanized bees being the exception. And regular honeybees will die once they sting someone.   On that note, bumblebees are actually gentle giants. Wasps on the other hand do not need an excuse; if they want to sting you, they will sting you.

Black Carpenter Ant

Black Carpenter Ant, Camponotus pennsylvanicus

So I may have been interested in bees for years now, but recently, my interest in them has become more pronounced for a couple of reasons.

One being that somewhere around mid-November, I will become a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), and their state motto (in California) is “Bees are at the heart of our existence.”  And our next chapter meeting’s keynote speaker is going to be someone from the Backwards Beekeepers in Los Angeles. The DAR does a lot work for our troops, such as sending care packages, homemade quilts, and helping those who have recently come home, make the transition. But they also do work for the environment, and thus, for honeybees.

Honeybee

Honeybee, Apis Mellifera

The other reason for my more prominent interest in honeybees, is because last month, my grandmother had a beehive in her backyard. Unfortunately, I never had the chance to see it, but she was able to call someone who could come and humanely deal with the bees. I was working that day and could not be there, but my mom was there, and during my lunch break I was texting her, interested to hear what they learned about the bees in my grandmother’s backyard, and making sure that they called someone who would not kill the bees. The man who came out to deal with the bees, found A LOT of honey that the bees had made, and was able to drill holes in the beehive without affecting the bees. He said that the queen bee would eventually leave, and then the colony would follow her; which is exactly what happened. There are still bees that come to my grandmother’s backyard, but now they only come to pollinate, and then leave.  Many times when I’m over at her house, I’ll go outside and watch them. I just stand by and let them do their jobs, and they don’t mind my presence. I think they’re adorable, and they know that I don’t mean them any harm. They really are interesting to observe.

Honeybee tongue

Honeybee with tongue partially extended

William Shakespeare said in his play, Henry V:

“For so work the honey-bees,
Creatures that by a rule in nature teach
The act of order to a peopled kingdom.
They have a king and officers of sorts;
Where some, like magistrates, correct at home,
Others, like merchants, venture trade abroad,
Others, like soldiers, armèd in their stings,
Make boot upon the summer’s velvet buds;
Which pillage they with merry march bring home
To the tent-royal of their emperor.”

This quote depicts what goes on in a bee colony. It is not led by a king, but by a queen bee.  However bees, (and ants too), do have their own jobs within the colony. There are workers, scouts, nurses, and so on inside the colony, and they are all females. Once male bees hatch and mature, they leave the colony. Male ants are actually born with wings, and they too leave, once they are able.

Image

Honeybee carrying pollen back to hive in a pollen basket

If honeybees were not here to pollinate, the environment and our place in it would be in big trouble. And there is also Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, which has become a huge problem. CCD is characterized by the death and/or disappearance of hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of honeybees from one colony without any obvious cause. As I mentioned, honeybees are vital to the environment, and it’s important that they don’t disappear permanently.

Books, Bard, Bugs…and beyond

Most writers have a blog, as do many people who aren’t writers as well, but I am one, and have heard/been told that I should have a blog. I’ve waited this long, because I’m not sure how often I will update this, but I will attempt to do so regularly. First a little about me.

William Shakespeare Chandos portrait

Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare, painted during his lifetime, between 1600 and 1610.

Specifically, I am a science-fiction and fantasy writer, as well as a playwright. Speaking of which, I am also an actor and love theatre. I love Shakespeare too; he is my biggest influence as far as theatre and play writing are concerned. Yes, I’m one of those weird people who quotes Shakespeare in everyday conversation, and goes absolutely crazy, (in a good way), whenever I see anything by or about the Bard                              

Reading is another passion of mine; mainly in the same genres that I write.  My favorite authors include Orson Scott Card, George R.R. Martin, Jim Butcher, Connie Willis, and J.K. Rowling. These are in no particular order. I also enjoy reading Edgar Allan Poe.  I love plays too, whether they are by Shakespeare or not.

Red-Back Jumping Spider

Red-Back Jumping Spider

Entomology, the study of insects is a huge interest of mine. I love insects, and arachnids too. Honestly, I love anything with fur, feathers, or scales, but bugs are something that most other people run from, step on, or completely disregard. I, on the other hand, am fascinated by them. Their intelligence,their behavior…everything about them. I never kill any bugs either. If I have a fly, spider, or any other bug in the house, car, or anywhere else, I don’t reach for the flyswatter, (I don’t own one anyway, I wouldn’t use it), I either shoo it out an open window, or pick it up and put it outside.

And music, I love music. I’m not much into the hip-hop or heavy metal genres, but I listen to just about anything else. From Glen Miller to Flogging Molly, the whole gamut in between and beyond.

I enjoy movies, but far too many to name.  I loved the Harry Potter series however, the books and the movies.  But NOT the Twilight series.  I’m a Trekkie and love the Star Trek series and movies, superhero movies (Marvel and DC), most animated movies, but my favorite is The Lion King, film adaptations of Shakespeare’s play, etc, etc.

I love football too, and although I live in San Pedro, CA, my team is the Denver Broncos.Denver Broncos

Also, as I have been doing genealogy for the past couple of years now, I have an interest in both sides of my ancestry. And I plan to travel this year sometime, (spring or summer), to Missouri and Kansas, where the majority of my father’s ancestors come from.

I may from time to time talk about ancient Greece and prehistoric eras too,as I am researching both for my current sci-fi project, and I am finding myself greatly interested in each of them.

Until next time.