News / Science & Technology

American Burying Beetle Faces Extinction

A necessary part of our ecosystem, the once-common insect is now critically endangered, found in only a handful of US states

A pair of American burying beetles prepares to bury a bobwhite quail carcass.
A pair of American burying beetles prepares to bury a bobwhite quail carcass.



The American burying beetle is one of nature's most efficient scavengers, breaking down dead animals and recycling their nutrients back into the environment.

A hundred years ago, the insect was common across North America. Today, it's down to a handful of small populations, inhabiting less than ten percent of the species' historic range.

Now, a group of dedicated supporters is working to restore this critically endangered species.  

Natural recyclers

On a dark summer night, a couple finds a dead body in a field. They remove the bones, and bury it. Later, they will use the remains to feed their young.

A female American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus)
A female American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus)

That's business as usual for Nicrophorus americanus, the American burying beetle.

Bob Merz of the St. Louis Zoo in Missouri is one of the beetle's biggest fans. According to Merz, these thumb-sized, black-red-and-orange insects can fly almost five kilometers in a single night, in search of small dead animals or birds. When they find one, they fight over it. After the winning male and female claim the body, they move it to a safer place.

"And how they move it is they will lay on their backs underneath the carcass and use their legs to push it kind of over them," Merz says. "And so they create this little conveyor belt basically of 12 little beetle legs that kind of move the carcass to a site."

There, the beetles dig a hole, sometimes as much as a meter deep under the body, concealing it in the subterranean chamber. They remove the animal's bones, hair, feathers, or fur, and spray the carcass with preservative secretions, forming a kind of gooey meatball.

The larvae of the American burying beetle
The larvae of the American burying beetle

Important to the ecosystem

Then the beetles mate. The female lays her eggs on or near the carcass, and in just two or three days, they hatch.

"This is where it gets kind of cool," says Merz. "The beetles will stay with their young and raise them."

When it's feeding time, the adults make a noise by rubbing their flight wings against their hard upper shell. "That noise then calls their larvae, which are these tiny white little puffy wormlike looking things," Merz explains. The larvae sit up and beg for food, something like baby birds. "And the parents will then tear off pieces of meat, and regurgitate them back, into the mouths of their young. And they are cute," laughs Merz. "For a beetle grub, they are cute, they really are."

And important to the ecosystem. Once they've matured into adults, the beetles will repeat the cycle, breaking down more carcasses to feed a new generation of young.

Declining species

No one knows for sure what caused the beetles' decline. Theories include pesticides, light pollution, a decrease in appropriately-sized prey, and the most likely culprit: habitat loss and fragmentation.

Bob Merz and Dan Koch of the St. Louis Zoo prepare to check a pitfall trap for beetles.
Bob Merz and Dan Koch of the St. Louis Zoo prepare to check a pitfall trap for beetles.

Merz and his team from the St. Louis Zoo have been looking for the beetle in Missouri since 2004. Every year, they set out pitfall traps: two-liter plastic buckets buried in the soil, with pieces of slightly rotten chicken for bait.

Dan Koch works on beetle recovery efforts for the zoo. He says the field surveys can be a pretty smelly business. "The maggots still get in there and lay eggs, and you'll have chicken that really is just a goo of maggots, it's not even chicken anymore by the time you pull up the traps."

They haven't found the American burying beetle in Missouri. But they have successfully raised more than 5,000 thousand of them at the zoo.


Retired attorney Kay Thurman volunteers on the project, helping to feed the beetles. She says it's gratifying to be able to work hands-on with an endangered species.

"It isn't like I can go out and feed a cheetah, or save a cheetah," says Thurman. "But this is really an opportunity for a volunteer to get in here and work directly with individual animals that we're trying to propagate and preserve here at the zoo."

Some of those beetles have been released in the Midwestern state of Ohio, to try to re-establish a population there. Other captive-reared beetles have been reintroduced on the island of Nantucket, off the northeastern U.S. coast.

And now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering proposals to try to re-establish more populations in other areas - including in Missouri. Those reintroduction plans haven't been finalized yet.

In the meantime, Merz says he and his team will keep doing their part to bring the endangered beetle back.

You May Like

Germany Celebrates 25 Years of Unity

October 3 is a public holiday, marking the day in 1990 when East Germany and West Germany reunited More

Analysts: Russia's Syria Strikes Shake Regional Powers

If Moscow bolsters Assad, Saudi Arabia, other Gulf countries may feel obliged to step in More

Video Innovative Nano-Tech Water Filter Prevents Disease

It can absorb contaminants like copper, bacteria, viruses and pesticides, says Askwar Hilonga, who has been successfully trying out his product in Arusha More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europei
Luis Ramirez
October 02, 2015 4:45 PM
European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video First Self-Driving Truck Debuts on European Highways

The first automated semi-trailer truck started its maiden voyage Friday, Oct. 2, on a European highway. The Daimler truck called 'Actros' is the first potentially mass-produced truck whose driver will be required only to monitor the situation, similar to the role of an airline captain while the plane is in autopilot mode. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Migrant Influx Costs Europe, But Economy Could Benefit

The influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants is testing Europe’s ability to respond – especially in the poorer Balkan states. But some analysts argue that Europe will benefit by welcoming the huge numbers of young people – many of them well educated and willing to work. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

Video New Fabric Helps Fight Dust-Related Allergies

Many people around the world suffer from dust-related allergies, caused mainly by tiny mites that live in bed linen. Polish scientists report they have successfully tested a fabric that is impenetrable to the microscopic creatures. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video Burkina Faso's Economy Deeply Affected by Political Turmoil

Political turmoil in Burkina Faso over the past year has taken a toll on the economy. The transitional government is reporting nearly $70 million in losses in the ten days that followed a short-lived coup by members of the presidential guard earlier this month. The crisis shut businesses and workers went on strike. With elections on the horizon, Emilie Iob reports on what a return to political stability can do for the country's economic recovery.

Video Fleeing Violence, Some Syrians Find Refuge in Irbil

As Syrians continue to flee their country’s unrest to seek new lives in safer places, VOA Persian Service reporter Shepol Abbassi visited Irbil, where a number Syrians have taken refuge. During the religious holidy of Eid al-Adha, the city largely shut down, as temperatures soared. Amy Katz narrates his report.

Video Nigeria’s Wecyclers Work for Reusable Future in Lagos

The streets and lagoons of Africa's largest city - Lagos, Nigeria - are often clogged with trash, almost none of which gets recycled. One company is trying to change that. Chris Stein reports for VOA from Lagos.

Video Sketch Artist Helps Catch Criminals, Gives a Face to Deceased

Police often face the problem of trying to find a crime suspect based on general descriptions that could fit hundreds of people in the vicinity of the crime. In these cases, an artist can use information from witnesses to sketch a likeness that police can show the public via newspapers and television. But, as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, such sketches can also help bring back faces of the dead.

Video Thailand Set to Build China-like Internet Firewall

Thai authorities are planning to tighten control over the Internet, creating a single international access point so they can better monitor content. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok on what is being called Thailand’s own "Great Firewall."

Video Croatian Town’s War History Evokes Empathy for Migrants

As thousands of Afghanistan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants pass through Croatia, locals are reminded of their own experiences with war and refugees in the 1990s. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from the town of Vukovar, where wartime scars still are visible today.

Video Long Drought Affecting California’s Sequoias

California is suffering under a historic four-year drought and scientists say even the state's famed sequoia trees are feeling the pain. The National Park Service has started detailed research to see how it can help the oldest living things on earth survive. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs