by Paul Cormacain
A LARGE Sexton beetle turned up on the doorstep the other day. This creature is black at both ends, black in the middle, with two broad orange bands. So it is colourful as well as large, nearly 3 cms long.
These beetles also get the name of burying beetles, or grave-digging beetles, because of their lifestyle.
I have watched Sexton beetles in the past, and was fascinated by their skill and ingenuity. The one on the doorstep did not delay, and went on his way quickly, so I had to remember other beetles on other days.
I came across a dead mouse in the back garden one day, noticed that there were a few beetles about, so had to stay and watch.
Over a period of time I had a look to see what was happening. The beetles were digging up the soil under the mouse.
Considering the relative sizes of the animal and insects, this was a huge long term project.
But eventually the mouse went further and further into the soil. The aim of the beetles is then for the female to lay her eggs near the carcass. She protects them until they hatch, then proceeds to fed them on partly digested pieces of food.
As the larvae develop the female then introduces them to the buried animal. They thrive on half rotten mouse. Oh, I hope I have not put you off your dinner! Sexton beetles have a good sense of smell, and they are believed to be able to detect a dead carcass at a distance of 3 kms. Perhaps the beetle on the doorstep detected something in the distance, and that is why he took himself off.
The first individual of each sex to find a carcass stakes an immediate claim, and will fight off others of the same sex. If a male finds the body, he stakes a claim to it, and also claims the first female to come along. Then they both fight off others, breed, and lay eggs nearby. If it is a female who finds the carcass first she claims it, and also claims the first male to come along. An most unusual type of courtship, you might say.
If the carcass is on some convenient piece of ground, the pair of beetles start digging. In our garden, the food was very conveniently on a flower bed, and we were quite happy for the carcass to be buried there. Had the Sexton beetles come across a mouse on stone, they are capable of dragging it off to a more convenient spot. The beetles have also been known to cut off, for example, a leg, and bring the body piecemeal to a more convenient place. On looking at these beetles, you would not think that they would be capable of amputation.
Now to another insect, the peacock butterfly. Earlier in the year we unexpectedly came across about a thousand larvae of the peacock in a large nettle bed. I tried to count them, found it was well neigh impossible, so am putting in a record of five hundred plus.
I could swear to that number, but could not swear to one thousand, so it is the lesser number that is going in.
These insects were feasting on the nettles, if one is permitted to use such a word when referring to nettles. As they devoured one leaf, they moved on to another one, but there sure were plenty of nettle leaves to go around. Back we went to that nettle bed a number of times, hoping to see hundreds of flying peacock, and we never did see as much as one of them.
Then last we got a tip off about peacocks near Enniskillen. So we went to Largaigh, and there was a glorious buddleia in full flower. (Our own buddleia in Belfast has flowered, and peaked, and now has no flowers, so no butterflies.) The Largaigh buddleia looked lovely, and it was not only us who thought so. Humans and butterflies alike were aware of the beauty, and admired. At least ten small tortoiseshell and ten peacock were fluttering about the bush. A single red admiral was also present. What a feast for the eyes.
These peacock butterflies were about one hundred kms from where we had sighted the larvae, so we regretfully decided that we were not going to see any of our larvae in a transformed state.
Still, any peacocks are a delight to the eyes, and we shall continue to look out for them.
From other reports coming in, other folk are being very lucky and pleased to see peacocks. Also in Fermanagh, three were seen near Garrison, and dozens were reported from near Derrygonnelly. We were in both places last week, and failed to see any! Then there was a pair of peacocks seen at Glenariff, in County Antrim.
More than five peacocks were reported from the Lagan Meadows, and a single insect was seen in the Burren, and another one at Mona wilkin.
Many more reports are still coming in, more birds, butterflies, moths and no doubt Sexton beetles will also be reported.
Saturday 28th August - Butterfly Outing from Knockagh
Monument, east Antrim at 10.30 with Adrian Kernohan, who will tell you
more on 9335 5565
Bird Fayre at Tannaghmore Gardens, further information from Oxford Island on 3832 2205.
Saturday 11th Sunday, 12th September - European Heritage Open Days at Moneypenny's Lock and House, details from Oxford Island 3832 2205.
Sunday 26th September - Harvest Home, a celebration of the harvest at Tannaghmore Gardens, details from Museum Services 3834 1635
Saturday 16th October - RSPB Members' Day at the Greenmount Campus. Talk to the RSPB for more information.