Endangered Insects: The American Burying Beetle

Jenna Lundgren Bugs 2 Comments

Blog Post Author: Claire LaCanne, Natural Resource Management, South Dakota State University

You might not want to cuddle a cockroach, photograph an ant, or hug a dung beetle. You might think bugs are rather creepy. But, we have good reason to regard insects with love, affection, or at the very least, gratitude. There are plenty of insects that are endangered that do not receive adequate attention for conservation, and one such insect is the American Burying Beetle.
The American Burying Beetle, Nicrophorus americanus, (ABB), is the largest of the burying beetles in North America and has a fascinating story. Following a gory battle among amorous male beetles looking for love, a victorious male and his mate claim their prize: a small animal carcass. Together, the couple buries the carcass while stripping the animal of its feathers, legs, fur, and other nonessentials. They slime the remaining hunk of meat in oral and anal secretions that hinder decomposition. When the meatball is just a sphere of goo, they construct an underground chamber around the meatball in which they care for their young. Pretty neat.
Historically, the ABB thrived in 35 U.S. states. The beetle’s decline was first noted in the 1880s, was found in only Rhode Island and Oklahoma by 1923, and was listed as an endangered species in 1989. Recent conservation efforts have re-established populations in eight states, including South Dakota.
The ABB serves as an emblem of many vanishing invertebrates. Insects receive less attention than their charismatic counterparts who possess fur or feathers, even though insects are some of the most frequently threatened species.
Insect species matter, often in ways that we cannot predict. Whether or not one finds them charming, the tiny creatures crawling in the soil and on plants are essential to Earth and all its intricacies. Pollination, decomposition, pest control, nutrient cycling; these processes would not occur efficiently without insects.
Even ABBs provide services for ecosystems. Along with disposing of smelly carcasses, the beetles secrete substances that have antimicrobial properties. Their oral and anal secretions inhibit microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi, and researchers are investigating the application of these secretions to fight dental plaque and disease.
Let’s put the role of insects into perspective: if humans were no longer around, the world’s ecosystems would still function. Most other species would be relatively unaffected. But without insects, nearly every ecosystem would collapse from the bottom up. No food for most other animals, decreased pollination, slow decomposition. The world would cease to be what it is today.
Additionally, humans should feel obligated to care for species even if they seem to do nothing for us. In conservation biology, there’s a danger of using the terms natural resources and services. These terms suggest that all species are here for human benefit. The idea that other species have value solely based on their ability to either pull on our heartstrings or provide us with some resource or service is awfully human-centered. Every species is valuable, independent of human attitudes or judgments.
Maybe people are doing what the ABB does, taking a complex being—Earth—and reducing it down to a utilitarian sphere of resources. It’s not evil, it may even be pragmatic. Whether it’s ethical is a question humans have to face that beetles do not. We should aim to conserve insects not only because they do so much for us, but because we have a moral obligation to keep Earth’s ecosystems intact. Stewards of this planet should realize that there are simple steps to aid conservation efforts. Construct a wildlife garden, vote to support conservation policies, limit the use of unnecessary agrichemicals. These are feasible steps that anyone can take, regardless of motive. If we get to the meat of species conservation, then there is hope for many endangered species, including the American Burying Beetle.

Claire LaCanne



Beetle photo credit: Dan Howard

Comments 2

  1. Thank you for the work you do and knowledge and ideas that you share! I just read the feature story in the Washington Post Magazine. I wish you the best of luck in these new ventures! I’m also a UIUC alumni (BS 92, MS 95).

  2. Last summer I saw beetles all over milkweed that looked like these. Do you know if ABB use milkweed or is it another similar bug?
    I just discovered you all from a seminar J. Lundgren gave at PFI conference in Iowa. I am so impressed and encouraged by your vision and action to support agroecology.
    Thank you for what you do!

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