Wild world of insects

Articles in ‘Wild world of insects’

The Hercules Beetle – fact and fiction

February 15th, 2011

Like a stag with antlers, the male Hercules Beetle (Dynastes hercules – found in rainforests of South and Central America) is equipped with spectacular horns that it uses to assert its right to mate.  In a duel, the stronger beetle will grasp his rival with the long, down-curving, pincer-like horns and dash him to the ground.  The victor is known to seize the female beetle (without horns) and carry her to a quieter spot away from the combat zone.

Thanks to these gleaming appendages the Hercules is one of the largest beetles in the world (specimens of up to 17 cm long have been recorded). It also has phenomenal strength. According to calculations they can carry 850 times their body weight, the equivalent of 65 tons for a human.  Those who try to keep them in captivity often have problems as the Hercules Beetle, if it feels like going out, can simply bend the bars of a cage or push open a lid weighed down with a rock.

Such power has created legends.  Charles Leonard Hogue reported in Latin American insects and entomology that in Guadeloupe people believed the Hercules Beetle to be a kind of insect chain-saw, clasping a branch in its horns and then whirring round till it was cut.  The origin of the belief is probably that tree sap is part of their diet.  Though they can fly, they are more likely to be found trundling along the rain forest floor, looking for rotting fruit to assuage their sweet tooth.

Hercules Beetles in Japan

They are popular as pets in Japan, no doubt after featuring in modern Japanese culture:

A Hercules Beetle named Spike appears in Mushiking: Battle of the Beetles,  an arcade game and collectible card game developed by Sega

A Hercules Beetle also features in the card game associated with Japanese manga Yu-Gi-Oh! created by Kazuki Takahashi

Among the spin-off toys is a model kit

The sting of the Bullet Ant (Paraponera clavata) – the most painful insect venom

February 11th, 2011

In Costa Rica they call them Hormigas bala – Bullet ants – because of the intense pain of their sting, classified as the most painful in the world (see Schmidt Sting Pain Index).  These large ants, who build colonies at the foot of trees and forage in forest canopies, are not aggressive, but use the sting mainly as a defence.  The venom they inject is not intended to paralyse prey, like the neurotoxins used by snakes for example, but are intended to deter potential predators.

Bullet ants are also found in Brazil, where they are used in initiation rites among indigenous people.  Ants are collected and woven into gloves, stings on the inside.  The ritual involves wearing the gloves for 10 minutes and enduring the subsequent agony.  Steve Backshall, an adventurer-naturalist whose job is to put himself into perilous and extremely uncomfortable situations while being filmed, underwent the initiation rite. “If there’d been a machete to hand, I’d have chopped off my arms to escape the pain,” he wrote later.  You can see his experience here.

There must be a business opportunity in this for the Satere-Mawe people featured in the video, with tourists paying good money to prove themselves, rather like those who flock to Pamplona to run with the bulls.