A critically endangered American Burying Beetle (Nicrophorus americanus), photo: Neil Foley

Stand outside on the warm nights of June, as spring folds into summer, and turn on a light.  Soon enough you will hear the engine-like thrum and eventual collision of a June Beetle (sub family Melolonthinae) clumsily seeking the source of illumination. Keep the light on and hang a sheet to attract the multitudes of insects, large and small, which are finally becoming more active after a long winter. The 102 species of Ground Beetles which call Nantucket home are important food sources for our resident animals and plants. These beetles thrive thanks to the important work that NCF and our conservation partners across the island have done to preserve open space and protect habitat in sandplain grasslands and coastal heathlands. Whether flying around at night or actively searching for food during the day, the story of beetle species on Nantucket includes some surprising finds and a long-running program to protect a critically endangered species.

A male Ox Beetle (Strategus aloeus), Nantucket’s own tiny rhinoceros bearing a horn on it’s head, photo: Jen Karberg

Did you know Nantucket has rhinoceros beetles? Members of the Scarab Beetle family, Ox Beetles (Strategus aloeus) can currently be found emerging from sandy soils around Sanford Farm and Ram Pasture. While the horned beetles themselves can be spotted crossing the paths and roadways in these popular trails, the nickel-sized tunnels from which they emerge are also noticeable long after the beetle has moved on.

The copper-spotted elytra (wing covering) of a Black Caterpillar Hunter (Calosoma sayi), photo: Neil Foley

Beetle diversity around bodies of water is particularly high. During a recent mid-day trip to Ram Pasture, I explored the trails along Clarks Cove and Hummock Pond and was surprised to find multiple large and actively searching Black Caterpillar Hunters (Calosoma sayi) with beautiful copper spots all over their hard wing coverings, elytra.

A trap baited with rotting chicken and filled with adult American Burying Beetles who can’t get enough of the scent!, photo: Neil Foley

Beetles in Order Coleoptera represent over 350,000 species worldwide, far more numerous than the number of any other organismal order and representing approximately 25% of all animal life. Even in this crowded taxonomic group, there are particular species which deserve attention and extensive conservation efforts.  The American Burying Beetle (Nicrophorus americanus) was once widespread and abundant over much of Eastern North America, but is now found in less than 10% of its historic range. A mix of human generated factors contributed to its decline, including widespread development, industrial agriculture, and extinction of bird species like the Passenger Pigeon, Heath Hen, and Carolina Parakeet. The ecosystem services of decomposition, nutrient recycling, and carcass removal provided by the Burying Beetle were almost lost for good because of our society, by the early 1990s it was about time we cleaned up our messes. In 1994, Lou Perrotti and his co-workers at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, RI and biologists at the US Fish and Wildlife Service began capturing burying beetles from the last remaining eastern population on Block Island and raising them in captivity. Once Lou and his team bred the beetles at the zoo for three generations, they began releasing them and provisioning beetles with food to create a sustainable population on Nantucket. Now in its 25th year, the American Burying Beetle (ABB) project on Nantucket is the longest running invertebrate conservation initiative in the world. On top of providing this critically endangered species with a new stronghold, the ABB project has been a global model for invertebrate captive breeding and reintroduction.

Checking ABB traps with the Maria Mitchell Association, photo: Neil Foley

We have been trapping ABBs for the past 2 weeks and successfully released 15 breeding pairs and 9 other individuals earlier this week on NCF’s Middle Moors. Lou, along with the Maria Mitchell Association and the Nantucket Conservation Foundation will continue to monitor the breeding success of burying beetles throughout the summer and keep this important and interesting project running.

Elizabeth Sorrows prepares to process a recently captured wild ABB, photo: Neil Foley

Not every important or charismatic species is covered in fur, feathers, or whiskers. In the case of Nantucket’s wealth of unique biodiversity, beetles play a critical role for making island summers the magical display of life that we have come to know and love. The next time a June Beetle buzzes through your house and intrudes on your otherwise insect-free living room, consider safely capturing it with a cup and releasing it outside. Each time I release a beetle into the warm summer air, I feel the true Nantucket night life take flight.

The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends on contributions from our members to support our science projects, conservation property acquisitions and land management efforts. If you are not already a member, please join us now!