"Fairy" Beetles

Janice Rider

© Copyright 2022 by Janice Rider

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

My background is in zoology, conservation, and education. As a result, I have spent a lot of time working with and being with animals. I have worked at veterinary clinics and at the Calgary Zoo during spring and summer breaks while attending university. One summer, I studied the conservation and breeding of endangered species at the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust. I traveled to Kenya, Tanzania, and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) to view wildlife in Africa. While in Hawaii, I spent time underwater, in a cage, watching Galapagos sharks vie for chum. On the West Coast of British Columbia, I observed grizzlies and black bears in the Great Bear Rainforest. On hiking and backpacking trips, I have seen a Pacific rattlesnake, a bull snake, and many varieties of garter snakes in the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. There were times when I was thrilled by the sight of bats in the mountains or on the prairies. Whenever I see wildlife, I feel more alive and vibrant. Out of a multitude of animal encounters, however, one stands out. This was an encounter with some tiny animals - Nuttall’s blister beetles.

What?! Beetles! Yes, I shall describe an encounter with beetles. About twenty-five percent of all species ever described are beetles. There may be twelve million different beetle species on Earth, maybe many more millions than this number. It’s hard to say. Many have not yet been identified! The British scientist, John Burdon Sanderson Haldane, once said, “If one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of creation, it would appear that God has an inordinate fondness for stars and beetles.” Well, I have an inordinate fondness for beetles, too.

Near my home in Calgary, which is next door to the Rocky Mountains, there is a large municipal park called Nose Hill. It is eleven square kilometers in size and is a fascinating place to walk, hike, jog, and bike. Deer, porcupines, pocket gophers, coyotes, birds of all sorts, and an array of plants populate the hill. Of course, insects are there, too, including beetles. Often, I take our border collie mix, Ember, up onto the hill, and we have many adventures.

One day in late spring, as I was savoring the sight of purple-blue lupines spread out in profusion before and behind me against a background of fescue grass, I saw a large beetle take to the air. I came to an immediate halt to take in the fanfare of colors the beetle displayed as it flew. The elytra or wing covers of the beetle flashed a rich burgundy and its long tapered abdomen was electric green. The beetle came to rest on a lupine and then, to my astonishment, I noticed many beetles amongst the lupines. They were like jewels that had been dropped down into this prairie setting to seed it with color.. Kneeling close to one beetle, I saw a myriad of fluorescent hues - purples, turquoises, yellows, reds, and greens. The color palate shifted depending on the angle of the sun and the angle from which the insect was being viewed. Splendid! The beetle was feeding on the petals of a lupine. Flower petals seemed the perfect meal for such a striking insect. As I glanced around at other beetles, I noticed that many of them were paired up and joined at the ends of their abdomens. These insects were eating and breeding, intent on using their short lifespans productively! Whenever one of the beetles took to the air, it resembled a fairy. This illusion was created as a result of the elongated abdomen which hung down during flight, giving the abdomen the appearance of a beautiful gown that tapered at the ankles. The burgundy wing covers were held out to the sides while the beetles flew, adding to the illusion that I was seeing fairies flitting about me in the air.

I held one of my hands out in front of a beetle as it meandered over blossoms. It clambered onto one of my fingers, its delicate, hinged legs moving steadily. I noticed that it had lengthy antennae made up of tiny bead-like parts. It moved over my hand and then, deciding I had nothing to offer, took off, up and into the air. My spirits rose with its flight.

I felt privileged to see these “fairy” beetles and wondered what kind of beetles they really were - a type of metallic beetle or some sort of an iridescent beetle? I felt like I was crouched down in a magical kingdom. A wet nose on my cheek was a reminder that my dog, at least, still inhabited the real world and was becoming impatient with my dawdling.

When I arrived home, I decided to contact someone I’d met at a talk regarding citizen science initiatives for amphibians. She happened to have an entomology background. I was told that my “fairies” were Nuttall’s blister beetles. There are over two thousand different Nuttall’s beetle species. Their astounding colors are a warning to potential predators, like birds, that they are toxic. Their haemolymph, or insect blood, contains cantharidin and, when Nuttall’s blister beetles are threatened, this haemolymph is released through the joints of their legs. On human skin, this haemolymph creates blisters which can last for weeks! This bit of news made me glad that I wasn’t considered enough of a threat to “bleed” on. Adult beetles eat legumes like lupines as well as their flowers. They are a gregarious species, commonly feeding in groups. The larvae of the beetles have a fondness for grasshopper eggs which is why you find larger numbers of Nuttall”s beetles during and following great grasshopper seasons.

How had I not noticed these beetles before? Was it the fact that I hit the right time of year and the right place on this occasion? Was it the fact that I first saw these beetles during a year that was also good for grasshoppers? Well, my newfound knowledge meant that I now knew where and when to look for these beetles. Since my first introduction to them, I have had the opportunity to watch them on many occasions. Always, they bring me great delight. They are my “fairy” beetles - elegant, mesmerizing creatures that remind me of the ephemeral nature of life and its seductive beauty.

Janice Rider has always loved the natural world and resides in Calgary close to the Rocky Mountains. She has a BSc in Zoology with a minor in English Literature and a BEd degree with a science teaching specialty. Janice directs The Chameleon Drama Club for children and youth. Three of her plays for youth have been published through Eldridge Plays and Musicals. As well, a nonfiction piece of hers on snakes was accepted for publication in 2020 by Honeyguide Literary Magazine.

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