Wild Thing: Meet the Beetles
Kern’s flower scarab plays an important role as a flower pollinator.
By Eva Frederick
Kern's flower scarab lives up to its name as it snuggles within the glossy cups of cactus flowers in what appears to be a perpetual state of bliss.
These beetles are members of the scarab family, and their bodies, like those of many scarabs, are shaped like rounded rectangles with sturdy, textured wing casings. Kern’s flower scarabs range in color from completely black to yellow or orange with a Rorschach- worthy pattern of dark spots on their abdomens. It’s not uncommon to see 10 or more beetles in the cup of one flower, feeding on the pollen and nectar.
Before they are old enough to live an idyllic life wallowing in bright yellow pollen, young flower scarabs might live in a much less beautiful environment — in pack rat middens and the homes of other ground-dwelling rodents, research suggests.
Pack rats — big-eared, fluffy-tailed nocturnal rodents — make large nests of saved plant material, then urinate on their nests to solidify them. Pack rat urine is thick, viscous and plant-derived (pack rats don’t drink water) and solidifies to form a substance called amberat, which holds the nests together. Egg-laying beetles seem to take one look at the mess and think they’ve found a cozy home for their babies.
After metamorphosis from grubs to beetles, the scarabs make their way to their favorite flowers to snack on nectar and pollen, pollinating the flowers as they move from bloom to bloom.
While the best-known pollinators in day- to-day life are charismatic, fuzzy bees and colorful butterflies, beetles’ history with pollination goes back to ancient times before those poster children of pollination had even evolved. Beetles were some of the first insects to visit flowers, and in fact were important pollinators of the first angiosperms, or flowering plants. The magnolia, one of the earliest flowers on record, was (and still is) primarily pollinated by beetles.
Flowers that have evolved to be beetle- pollinated usually have greenish, white or off-white petals and are shaped like cups. The pollen is easily reached — no long beak or proboscis needed — and the ovary of the plant is well-protected from the beetles’ sharp mandibles.
Texas is home to numerous species of pollinating beetles, which belong to around 22 families altogether. They range from the well- known and beloved ladybugs to the notorious weevils and the striking longhorn beetles.
Kern’s flower scarabs, in the family Scarabidae, help occupy this important niche in the Texas landscape, and look bright and friendly as they snuggle in their blooms, prolonging the ancient relationship of beetle and flower.
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