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A Rare Bee and an Audacious Beetle
Atop a Handsome Flower and Through a Frog's Butt
If you ever doubted the fortitude of insects, I now bring you a beetle that, when swallowed by a frog, proceeds to crawl out of its butt unscathed. I also bring you my images of a rare bee on its stately flower.
The beetle has me thinking about my years teaching writing to graduate students in natural resources at the University of Vermont. Among my admonitions to them was that our new landscape of public discourse, weaponized with a novel class of lies and diversions, demands that they write as if the fate of the earth hangs on their every precious word. “Otherwise your readers will be off to watch cat videos and other distractions of the glowing screens,” I used to tell them. “And it doesn’t hurt to lead with the zombie apocalypse or amphibian sex.”
Well, forget amphibian sex — we’ve now got a beetle that makes a fantastic journey from an amphibian’s gulp, into its gullet, through its gut and out its anus. And what better (admittedly cheap) way to escort you here to a bee on a flower (even though this is not just any bee, nor just any flower). So first, meet the beetle.
A Japanese water beetle going by the name Regimbartia attenuata, like other beetles, gets eaten whole by frogs. But rather than succumb to digestive juices, the beetle makes a beeline through the digestive tract for the frog’s rear end. So says Shinji Sugiura, a biologist at Kobe University in Japan, in his paper published in Current Biology. Let’s go to the videotape:
In his experiment, Shinji fed 42 live water beetles to five frog species. Their escape rates varied, but, overall, 90 percent of the beetles made it out (head first) alive within six hours of ingestion. To test whether the beetles made the journey under their own power or were merely passed through by the frogs, Shinji fed one of the five frog species 15 beetles whose legs were immobilized. None made it out alive.
And here’s the kicker: the beetles can’t exit a frog’s vent on their own, owing to, well, you know … sphincter muscle control. So it appears that the beetle “stimulates” (Shinji’s word) the frog to defecate. And he suggests this whole affair might not be unique to this particular beetle. (I’m also reminded, unfortunately, of the final scene in the movie Men in Black, which you can watch below.)
Let me be clear: I have seen and photographed some of the world’s most spectacular displays of nature: Greater Sage Grouse on a lek, Resplendent Quetzals at a nest, the psychedelic biodiversity at coral reefs and Regal Fritillaries dancing across the tallgrass prairie, to name but a fraction. My list of wild things I aspire to see before I leave this earth includes Kelp Gulls eating flesh off surfacing Southern Right Whales, various peacock spiders and bioluminescent zooplankton. That list now grows one longer: I must see a frog shit out a living beetle.
A Rare Bee Atop Parnassus
Mt. Parnassus, in central Greece, seemed to be kind of a second home to the gods. Apollo met Orpheus there and gave him his golden lyre. The Oracle of Delphi espoused wisdom below its slopes. And Parnassus was the mountain home of the Muses. More to the point, Mt. Parnassus is limestone.
I do not know exactly how the plant Fen Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia glauca) got its name, other than that it is has the stately poise of a god (well, at least one who behaved) and grows in fens — wet places that are enriched by calcium from limestone or other sources. By any name, it has always been among my most favorite late-season plants.
Those green stripes on the petals help make this flower so picturesque. Stripes like those are usually nectar guides, pointing pollinators toward sugary rewards at the base of the flower. But have a closer look at that flower: five petals and five stamens, each one positioned at the petal nodes (except for that one errant stamen in my photo — drat! — which is bent up with its brown anther covering the style on that green globular pistil). [Added 9 Sep: It turns out that’s NOT an errant stamen. See Steven Daniel’s comment below — even more amazing stuff!] But also note those 15 little yellow globules arrayed around the flower, each resembling a drop of nectar — nectar of the gods (albeit false nectar). (Click on the image for a closer look at all this.)
Enter the goddess Andrena. Well, okay, not really a goddess but a genus of bee (in the family Andrenidae). Over the years, I had probably seen various insects on Fen Grass-of-Parnassus flowers without knowing of one rare bee in particular, which has no common name but an apt scientific one: Andrena parnassiae. Less than one centimeter long, the bee is a specialist on Fen Grass-of-Parnassus. Yes, you might find the plant in places without its bee; you will almost certainly never find the bee without its flower.
Andrena bees are miners: a female burrows into the ground and digs out multiple chambers where in each she leaves a “loaf” of pollen and nectar, upon which she lays an egg. Once it hatches out, our Andrena bee larva feeds on its sweet cache to grow, pupate and emerge as an adult the following year — when Fen Grass-of-Parnassus is in bloom, which is now. As it turns out, few people have ever photographed the bee on its flower. So says Vermont entomologist Spencer Hardy, who rediscovered this rare bee in Vermont and is featured in the current episode of Vermont Public Radio’s Outdoor Radio.
As I write, birdwatchers here in Vermont are chasing a rare Common Ringed Plover, a bird of Eurasia that has no business being here beside Lake Champlain. I wouldn’t mind seeing the plover. Even so, on a prosaic flower I had thought I knew, I’ve discovered something far more precious and rare. Not only that, I’ll be busy this autumn closer to home watching what might pop out of a frog’s butt.
Optional (Non-Cat) Video Distraction
Let’s hope the beetle’s ingestion and escape remains a lot less dramatic than this scene from Men in Black. (Warning: it’s sci-fi violent, with shooting and lots of goopy aliens guts.)
- Sugiura, S. 2020. Active escape of prey from predator vent via the digestive tract. Current Biology 30, R841–R870, August 3, 2020.
- Parnassia glauca (Fen Grass-of-Parnassus) at the Native Plant Trust’s Go Botany website.
- There Are Two Ways Out of a Frog. This Beetle Chose the Back Door. The New York Times on 3 Aug 2020.