Sunday, March 9, 2014

The beetle that dwells in churches

Churchyard beetle - Blabs gigas - ħanfusa tal-kantina
The churchyard beetle is one of the larger beetles of the Maltese islands. Some individual specimens can grow up to 37mm long. It prefers to live in dark humid areas and can sometimes be found in basements, cellars, cave entrances and obviously churches.

In Maltese this common species is known as ħanfusa tal-kantina.

The front wings of most beetles are hardened and cover the abdomen and a pair of delicate wings. To fly, most beetles lift their front wings and unfurl the hind wings. The churchyard beetle cannot fly because its front wings are fused together and cannot be lifted.

Inability to fly could leave this species susceptible to many predators but it compensates for its inability to escape from danger by being able to secrete a pungent liquid from glands that are found in the joints of its limbs. Any bird or mammal trying to eat one soon learns to leave this disgusting insect alone.

Unpalatable insects such as the ladybird often have bright warning colours to make them easily recognisable. The churchyard beetle is jet black, probably, because it lives in dark places where colours would not be of any use.

When threatened the churchyard beetle can also change its posture to appear larger. It pushes its head against the ground and extends its hindlegs so as to tilt its body so that its wings face its enemy.

Several closely related species that lives in the Namib Desert on misty nights takes up a similar position to collect water which forms on theirs body. The body then trickles down their back to their head and mouth. 

The churchyard beetle belongs to a family of beetles known as the darkling beetles. A name they got because of their dark colour. The darkling is a large family with more than 20,000 members. In Malta about fifty species can be found a number of which are endemic to the Maltese islands. 

This article was published in The Times of Malta on 5 February 2014.

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