wherefore art thou romeo?

Above is the photo I meant to take yesterday. A pair of mating Swamp Milkweed Beetles (Labidomera clivicollis). However, things didn’t work out quite as planned, so I’ve resorted to posting a shot taken last summer. I’ll have plenty of opportunities to take similar photos over the next few weeks – but this one will have to suffice for now.

Yesterday, I noticed a pair of these beetles mating atop the chewed leaves of a Common Milkweed plant. As I carefully moved in for my shot, the male did just as expected — he kicked himself off of the female’s back, catapulted into space, and fell to the grass below. Once there, he played dead, as illustrated in the next photo — leaving the female beetle to fend for herself. I’ve seen this particular scene repeated many times, and not just with this species, but with almost all beetles that I’ve encountered. At the slightest hint of danger, the male flips off, leaving the female atop her plant like Juliet left waiting on her balcony.

It’s curious how this self-preservation thing works. Undoubtedly, the male beetle’s strategy is to live to die another day, rather than stick it out with the female and hope for the best. Male insects of other orders often behave quite differently. Think of the dragonfly, in which the highly territorial male frequently attempts to stay fastened to the female by clasping the back of her head with special appendages on the tip of his abdomen. No way is he willing to give up his female to another male, or abandon her at the sight of a lowly human. By remaining with the female, often throughout the egg-laying process, the male dragonfly attempts to ensure that he’s the only male who will have a chance to fertilize her eggs.

Lastly, consider the male honey bee. In what seems the ultimate act of sacrifice, a male drone will mate with a queen, only to lose part of his endophallus, resulting in his death within minutes. The broken-off section of his appendage remains within the queen, apparently prohibiting the possibility of another male successfully mating.

Compared to the dragonfly and the honey bee, Romeo Beetle’s performance looks rather lame indeed.

~ – ~

Note: For some additional notes on Honey Bees and other male insects and spiders that die in the line of reproductive duty, check out Sexual Suicide, Volume 7 (Number 1) Spring 1998, on the Wayne’s Word.

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11 Responses to “wherefore art thou romeo?”

  1. Jimmy Says:

    I have also seen this before…it can be funny to watch…just yesterday I seen it happen with a mating pair of ladybugs…

  2. Duncan Says:

    I’m glad I’m not a honeybee!

  3. Wayne Says:

    Those are very fine photos of milkweed beetles, Bev. The overturned male reminds me of a 1964 volkswagen bug.

    Our milkweed beetles are nearly photographic negatives of yours! And I haven’t seen any yet, this year.

    I’ve been keeping an eye out for red dragonflies and damsels, but have yet to see any!

  4. burning silo Says:

    Jimmy – Yes, I see this a lot too – mainly with the Swamp Milkweed Beetles, but also especially with Tririhabda Goldenrod beetles.

    Duncan – Yes, aren’t we *all* glad we’re not honeybees! (-:

    Wayne – Thanks. Yes, any time I photograph the undersides of beetles, I’m very much reminded of how a car looks when it’s up on a hoist. I’ve also noticed quite a bit of variation in the markings of Milkweed Beetles. I’m not sure if there are subspecies in these – I’ve never actually checked (too many things to check for).
    Regarding red dragonflies, which ones would you have down your way aside from the Sympetrums? We get the male Halloween Pennants, and those Crimson-ringed Whiteface dragons, and a couple of damsel species. I think there are more red species in the Southwest and the west coast.

  5. Wayne Says:

    There are several things that it just burns me we don’t have, Bev. We’re really deficit in copper butterflies, for instance.

    BTW – regarding that photographic negative comment: the beetles I was referring to are the same as yours – the version I was looking at was the pulpy larva (see http://bugguide.net/node/view/2970 )

    I’ve been photographing a daily series of a patch of orange eggs that I’m assuming belong to this beast. They’re really developing now!

  6. burning silo Says:

    Wayne – There are many things we don’t have up here due to the weather conditions. When I’ve traveled to other areas, I’m sometimes envious of some of the species I see – amphibians, reptiles, birds, insects – as so many are much more colorful than those we see up here. I suppose the trade-off is that we have so very few species with toxic bites, etc.. as so often the bright colours and bold markings have a very real purpose. When I travel, I have a hard time adjusting to the idea that you can’t just go sticking your hand under rocks and other possible retreats.

    I’ll bet you’re right about those eggs. It will be interesting to see what they hatch out into. I had actually thought of posting a photo of a Swamp Milkweed Beetle larva yesterday, but then decided that it didn’t really fit in with the piece. Here’s a shot of one for anyone reading these comments and wondering what the “pulpy larva” looks like.

  7. Wayne Says:

    Yes, that’s the baby! Except mine is really really orange. But it has the same thoracic plate and abdominal spotting.

  8. robin andrea Says:

    Beautiful photographs and a wonderful light-hearted commentary. The honeybee does have the worst of it, doesn’t he? It is interesting to consider all the adaptations just to get those genes into the next generation.

  9. burning silo Says:

    Wayne – It will be interesting to see if those larvae stay orange or turn white at a later stage. I’ll try to watch for that more closely this summer and see whether they change colour as they grow.

    RA – Yes, I think the poor honeybee does have the worst of it. Male Preying Mantids are another of the sad cases. And yes, I agree – it’s interesting to see how each creature attempts to ensure that its genes will be passed on. Fascinating stuff.

  10. pottery Says:

    Im totally in awe of these pictures I only wish i had the skills to do the same
    I love my pottery and only wish i could design “designs” for them. but alas the best i can do is a painted smiley face which usually look more like a pumpkin mask than a happy pottery vase..

    maybe someone could teach me



    my pottery store

  11. Burning Silo » Blog Archive » life on a fungus Says:

    […] The pair in the photo at the top are of particular interest to me. At first glance, I thought this was a mating pair of beetles, but when I looked at my camera’s LCD screen, I could see that the female appeared to be ovipositing, with the male perched atop her back facing in the opposite direction. This almost appears to be some form of guarding behaviour (last week I wrote a bit about the guarding behaviour of dragonflies and other insects). I checked a couple of older sets of photos that I’ve taken of pairs of Horned Fungus Beetles and don’t see anything similar. This may or may not be common behaviour, or perhaps the male was just confused, and/or hopeful, and hanging around waiting for the female to be done with her egg-laying business. If anyone happens to know, feel free to post a comment. […]