Burying beetles or sexton beetles (sexton being an old English word for gravedigger) are an unusual family of beetles consisting of several similar looking species. The scientific name ‘Nicrophorus’ is also thought to originate from the greek ‘necro’ meaning dead body. They are one of my favourite UK insects and being attracted to light, I frequently find them in my moth traps. This offers a great opportunity to observe and photograph them up close.
Whilst the macabre habits of the sexton beetle may not appeal to all, I think they are incredibly interesting. Not only are they the undertakers of the insect world, they are unusual in that they care for their young. After locating the deceased corpse of a small mammal or bird, a male and female pair will begin to excavate the earth beneath. Eventually forming a burial chamber which can be up to 60cm deep! Once submerged the body is stripped of fur or feathers, rolled up and a deposit of eggs laid directly above. By doing this, the parents have provided a safe sanctuary for their larvae to feed and grow before pupating the following year.
As you can see, sexton beetles have fantastic antennae which are thought to be incredibly sensitive and aid in the locating of carrion (which they can detect from up to a mile away!)
If you spot a sexton beetle, its very likely that it will be covered in small red mites which use the beetles as transport between food sources. The mites are not harmful but potentially irritating – you may observe the beetle trying to rub them off with its legs.
Most of the British burying beetles look very similar with distinctive orange and black bands. However WildlifeInsight published this handy guide for identification:
Nicrophorus vespilloides is the only one with all black antennae
Nicrophorus vespillo has yellowish hairs around the front of the thorax and bent hind leg tibia
Nicrophorus vestigator has yellowish hairs over much of its thorax and a straight hind leg tibia
Nicrophorus investigator has an almost unbroken orange upper band
Nicrophorus interruptus has a distinctly broken upper orange band
Another large beetle, Nicrophorus humator, is the only all black Sexton burying beetle species apart from its orange antennae tips.
Not only are sexton beetles distinctive and colourful – they exploit death in order to create new life. I love that nothing in nature is ever wasted and these beetles are a brilliant example!