Burying and Carrion beetles, and Rove beetles

Silphidae larva, Typical shape of burying beetle grub

Silphidae family overview

These are the carrion or burying beetles. There are 30 species in Europe, and 21 in the U. K. The adults range in length from 1.5 - 40.0 mm long, although most measure over 10 mm long. Usually the adults have club antennae that is thicker at the tip than at the base - see below. The sensory hairs in the club end enable them to locate decomposing flesh at great distances. The adults are good fliers.

Not all of them live off carrion as some of them do eat plants and decaying vegetation. Those that do live off carrion have a good sense of smell. Beetle collectors used to take advantage of this by putting out a small carcass to attract the adults.

Nicrophous humator, sexton beetle, burying beetle, carrion beetle

Above left is the typical shape of the Silphidae larva, which resembles a woodlouse.

Nicrophorus (Necrophorus) humator, the sexton or black burying beetle.

The black burying beetle is above and on the right. The adult is 18 - 26 mm long. It is fairly common throughout central and northern Europe. The adult has strongly clubbed antennae with an orange tip, and the last few segments of its abdomen are exposed. The adults bury carrion and small dead animals as food for themselves and their larvae. Adults are most commonly seen between April and October.

Burying behaviour

The beetles usually arrive singly at carrion. The first male and female will fight off later arrivals. Then they bury the carcass by removing the soil beneath it. They frequently skin it and may even amputate limbs to make the burying easier. Next the female digs a small passage off from the carcass and lays her eggs. Then she returns to feed on the corpse. During this time the male may remain or he may leave. She feeds the grubs by regurgitating liquid food until they can feed off the carcass themselves.

The larvae can be up to 33 mm long, and are creamy yellow with dark brown parches on each segment. They pupate in individual cells hollowed out just off the carcass chamber.

I found this specimen dead on my patio and covered by these little mites.

Nicrophorus humator with mites

The mites are usually found on the underside of live beetles, and do no harm to the beetle. They prey on blowfly eggs and larvae and worms in dung and carrion, and use the beetles to transport them to food sources. So you could say they actually help the beetles keep the carcase all to themselves.

Nicrophorus investigator, adult

Nicrophorus investigator

On the left and right is Nicrophorus investigator another burying beetle in the Silphidae family. Its habits and life cycle are similar to Nicrophorus humator above. This is the most common burying beetle you are likely to come across in woods.

Note the distinctive orange bands on the elytra and on the underside of the thorax a row of long yellow hairs. This specimen I found dead near my rubbish bin. Like the one above it was covered in little mites.

Adult length is 18-22 mm. Adults can be seen from June - September.

Oiceoptoma (Oecoptoma) throracica, red-breasted carrion beetle

Oiceoptoma throracica, on the right is 11 - 16 mm long, and is the only carrion beetle in the U. K. with an orange/red pronotum. It can be found right across Eurasia.

It is usually found on carrion, but is also fond of the stinkhorn fungus. I found this one dying by the roadside. I think it may have been hit by a passing car. You can see part of its wing sticking out of the elytra. Adults are seen from May - September.

Nicrophorus investigator, adult

Oiceoptoma throracica

Silpha atrata

Silpha atrata

Left and right, also known as Phosphuga atrata is usually black, but there are brown varieties. Adult body length is 10 - 15 mm. It has a

Silpha atrata

long head which is useful when eating its favourite prey of snails. The adults have a poisonous bite, but are no danger to humans. It is common in many habitats. And is usually found in moss or under loose bark.

The larva also feeds on snails.

Staphylinidae family

There are over 2000 species in Europe, and almost 1000 species in Britain making this the largest beetle family in the U. K. They are commonly known as rove beetles. They range in size form less than 1 mm to 25 mm long.

The elytra (wing cases) are always short, and this gives the adults a superficial resemblance to earwigs. The elytra cover intricately folded wings, and in most species flight is common. It is amusing to watch one just after it has landed, it will wriggle around while its wings are being folded up under the elytra, and only once they are correctly packed away will the beetle move off.

Most of the adults have conspicuous cerci at their rear end. These act just like antennae, and are highly sensitive and useful for a soil-dwelling insect.

Staplinus olens (Ocypus olens), Devil's coach horse, cock-tail beetle

On the right is an adult Staplinus olens (Ocypus olens), commonly known as the Devil's coach horse or the cock-tail beetle. At up to 30 mm long it is the largest member of the Staphylindae family found in the U.K.

When alarmed it opens its large jaws and curls up its abdomen rather like a scorpion. Its jaws are strong enough to draw blood. It is a matte black colour. Adults are common from May to September.

Staphylinus olens, devil's coach horse, cock-tail beetle
Ontholestes tessellatus

Ontholestes tessellatus

Left and right is the adult Ontholestes tessellatus. The adult length ranges from 13 - 20 mm. It is usually found in carrion and dung, but this one was found on the top of a soggy compost heap.

It is truly beautiful, covered in golden hair which has brassy reflections as it moves. Its eyes are huge and its jaws are fearsome. It runs very fast and is not easy to catch.

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Below is the larva of Philonthus sp.

Philonthus sp. rove beetle larva, Staphylinid larva

Ontholestes tessellatus