Bug of the Week: Desert Headstanding Beetles

After years of living in the Sonoran desert, I finally got a photograph of a clown beetle, Eleodes species, standing on its head.

These shiny black beetles are common in the Southwest. They are called a number of different names, such as desert stink beetles, clown beetles, pinacate beetles, and headstanding beetles.

Why would a beetle stand on its head? Why is it called a stink beetle?

It stands on its head probably for two reasons. Eleodes beetles are the skunks of the insect world. They can spray nasty chemicals from their rear, the tip of their abdomen. By assuming the posture, like a head standing spotted skunk, they are warning predators that they are about to spray. If the predator continues to advance, they are in position to do the most amount of damage with their spray.

The business end of an Eleodes beetle

You might also notice the hard wing covers, or elytra. They are fused shut and the beetles are not able to fly.

What do they eat? The adults scavenge plant and animal debris. The larvae are a type of wireworm. They live mostly underground and feed on plant material. The adults also stay underground during the heat of the day.

In an effort to show you the spotted skunk doing its head stand for comparison, I found this video from the BBC.  It shows a spotted skunk against an urban backdrop, with dancers mimicking its motions. Note:  At one point the one of the actors is spraying graffiti and seems to spray the skunk. It is a statement about spraying chemicals, and the result of film editing, but it might be disturbing to small children. Also, this video has a pop-up ad.

It is pretty amazing how both the beetle and the spotted skunk have similar behaviors.

Have you ever seen a beetle or a spotted skunk standing on their heads? Or maybe I should say hand standing beetles?

15 Comments

  1. Angelina Xie

    What do they eat ? I caught a few on the hiking trip and we picked them up. they don’t spray anything.

  2. Roberta

    There could be a couple of reasons they didn’t spray. It could be you found a similar-looking species without the defensive spray. It could be the beetle had sprayed recently and used up its reserves. Or you might not have been threatening enough.

    In any case, many of these beetles are scavengers, eating dead plants or other dead stuff.

  3. Michele

    Hello – I have an interesting question and I am doing a video on what I’ve come across on these interesting armored beetles. There are several congregating with black ants at their tunnel mound entrance and I find it fascinating that they are doing this. I am understanding that they go into the holes and mate. Is this a fact? Why are these beetles hanging out with the black ants?

    Thanks
    Michele

  4. Roberta

    Beetles are well-known myrmecophiles, or insects that live with or around ants. Different species have different relationships with ants. One subfamily of beetles, the Paussinae, “talk” ants into letting them into their nests, where the beetles lay eggs. The beetle larvae that hatch from the eggs feed on ant eggs, larvae, and pupae without being detected as enemies. The ant nest beetles have really weird shapes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ant_nest_beetle Let me see what I can find out about the armored beetles.

  5. Roberta

    Another species found with ants is an anteater scarab. You can read about it here: http://bugeric.blogspot.com/2015/04/anteater-scarab-beetles.html

    Let me know if that doesn’t answer your question.

  6. Judy Herman

    One if these just flew by me and landed where I should have grabbed it to photograph but I didn’t. It crawled around the plants and ground next to me. I’ve lived in southern California all my life and recognize most of the common bugs here. Maybe I have the species name wrong?

  7. Roberta

    Many of these black beetles look alike and can be hard to identify. What I can say for sure is that if it was flying it was not a headstanding or stink beetle (also called pinacate beetles) because they do not fly https://www.desertusa.com/insects/stinkbug.html

  8. Karin Feickert

    Can these beetles climb slick walls such as, ceramic tiles or glass? They get in the house and I trying to keep out of my bedroom. I have found them on my bed, creepy. They can get to 2 inches. I live at the edge of the Tahoe National Forest.

  9. Roberta

    There are a bunch of beetles that look similar, so I’m not going to hazard a guess what kind or what they might be up to. If you have a really good photograph, you might want to submit it to one of the online forums such as BugGuide. They could at least figure out what kind it is.

  10. Karin M Feickert

    They stand on their heads, wobble around and spray a horrible substance; It stinks. They are black, shiny, longish legs and have a fused back. Thank you…

  11. Roberta

    I’m sorry if it sounded like I didn’t think you knew what they were. I was actually trying to help you find someone who knows more about those beetles than I do. The forums can be very helpful.

  12. Karin M Feickert

    Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to sound curt. Thank you for your response and help. I will patiently wait. Thank you, Karin

  13. Connie Creed

    I. Have about 17 living in a old potted plant container. I just put a rotting peach in with them and they are all over it, eating it. They cannot climb up the plastic walls. They fascinate me. Thank you for your info.

  14. Connie Creed

    I live just south of Tucson.

  15. Roberta

    That’s cool. Didn’t know they couldn’t climb plastic, but that’s true of other critters, too.

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