Rain Beetles: How to Identify a New Insect

Rain beetle: Although she looks dead, she really wasn’t. She kept flipping over on her back and wiggling and stretching her legs. Today was a first. I actually looked closely at a very ugly beetle. Yes, I am becoming an insect gal. I know this for sure because my daughter and her friend Shyloh brought me home a very large, very alive beetle creature. I had asked all my family to bring home any interesting insects they find and had even given them each a ziploc sandwich bag to bring them home in. Yesterday was the first time someone brought me an insect treasure. They said they couldn’t bear to put it into a baggie so they used a small plastic container from my daughter’s lunch box. She said there were hundreds of the beetles so she felt like she could bring one to us to study
This photo shows her shiny covering and the hair on her underside.

At first I was disgusted by this creature but after taking her out of the container and looking carefully, I once again found the beauty in the design of the Creator. Now all that was left to do was to discover what sort of beetle this insect was.
1. I pulled out my field guide but could not see any beetles that looked like this one.

2.So it was off to the internet and we started by looking up “beetle, california” on Google. I am finding that if I Google something and then look at the images it takes me far less time to identify a creature.

3.Once you find an image that looks like your insect, click on the link associated with that image. The majority of the time this is enough to get you pointed in the right direction.

Here’s what I learned about this little female insect: Rain beetle or P. puncticollis (more on classification at BugGuide.net) and can be found in California woodlands. The male is approximately 1″ and the female can be slightly larger at 1 3/4″. The males have wings but the females do not. They range in color from reddish-brown to black. The underside is covered in hairy bristles.

The interesting thing about this beetle is that it makes a sudden appearance after a soaking rain….hence the name Rain beetle. We had a really good rain all the night before so I think this is probably why we were able to see this amazing creature.The life cycle of the Rain beetle is very long. The larvae, who feed on roots of live trees and bushes of oaks and conifers, take up to as much as 10-12 years to mature but once they become adults the males wait for the first rains to bring them out for their mating flight and the females dig a tunnel to the surface to wait for the males to find them. Here is the fascinating part:The conditions that trigger the males and females to emerge are so stringent that this may only happen in a population for a single day in a given year. This made the finding of this insect all the more precious since it is a rare event.

This is the head of the beetle and if you look closely you can see her little “horns”. The males fly slowly over the area, low to the ground, looking for the females who although rarely leave their underground burrow, wait at the burrow’s entrance for the arrival of the males. She puts off a pheromone that attracts the males. After mating the female closes off the entrance to her burrow and lays her eggs. These mature the following spring.

I love this photo that shows her leg parts.

Wow, so much to learn. I have a new appreciation for the study of insects after learning that this was not just an ugly bug. It has a whole life story to learn and now I can share it with others.

Final thought from the Handbook of Nature Study, page 6:
“When it is properly taught, the child is unconscious of mental effort or that he is suffering the act of teaching.”

I did all this research and it hardly felt like any effort at all. I will be striving to make our nature study so that it is interesting and feels not like work but like refreshment.

Oak Galls: California Gall Wasps

“A green little world
With me at its heart!
A house grown by magic,
Of a green stem, a part.

My walls give me food
And protect me from foes,
I eat at my leisure,
In safety repose.

My house hath no window,
‘Tis dark as the night!
But I make me a door
And batten it tight.

And when my wings grow
I throw wide my door;
And to my green castle
I return nevermore.”

The above poem about galls is shared on page 338 of theHandbook of Nature Study.
We found this interesting object on our nature walk a few weeks ago. I knew it was called a gall but I wasn’t sure at all where it came from or what it was for. After doing some research intheHandbook of Nature Study, I now know a lot about these interesting little houses.

Here’s what it says on page 335:“There are many forms of these gall dwellings, and they may grow upon the root, branch, leaf, blossom, or fruit. The miraculous thing about them is that each kind of insect builds its magical house on a certain part of a certain species of tree or plant; and the house is always of a certain definite form on the outside and of a certain particular pattern within. Many widely differing species of insects are gall makers; and he who is skilled in gall lore knows, when he looks at the outside of the house, knows just what insect dwells within it.”

So now I know it is a home for an insect. I have grown up around these objects but have never taken the time to really get to know them. Here is some more on how they are formed.

From page 335-336“A little, four-winged, fly-like creature, a wasp, lays its eggs, early in the season, on the leaf of the scarlet oak. As soon as the larva hatches, it begins to eat into the substance of one of the leaf veins. As it eats, it discharges through its mouth into the tissues of the leaf a substance which is secreted from glands within its body. Immediately the building of the house commences; out around the little creature grow radiating vegetable fibers, showing by their position plainly that the grub is the center of all of this new growth; meanwhile, a smooth, thin covering completely encloses the globular house; larger and larger grows the house until we have what we are accustomed to call an oak apple, so large is it.”

Gall Study - Handbook of Nature Study

Where There is a Web: Fall Webworm

Yesterday we went looking for more insects in our backyard. We saw some more daddy longlegs…actually lots of daddy longlegs. We saw a tiny little spider on the marigolds but he would not hold still for a photo. I took this pretty photo of my marigold anyway. Look closely and you can see the pollen.

Then we found this wonderful web on the crepe myrtle bush. I looked high and low but did not see what made the web. After doing some research, I discovered this to be the web of a Fall Webworm or
Hyphantria cunea. In the larval stage, they create these great webs where they feed entirely inside the web. The adult is a moth that has white wings and has grayish-brown spotting on the forewings.


From page 295 of the Handbook of Nature Study:
“While the young pupils should not be drilled in insect anatomy as if they were embryo zoologists, yet it is necessary for the teacher who would teach intelligently to know something of the life stories, habits, and structure of the common insects.”

I am finding this to be essential to our study of insects. I need to know a little information about each thing we find and weave it into our study. It doesn’t take much time to open the Handbook of Nature Study, skim the table of contents, and turn to the page for more information. I am finding that just having read the introductory pages to the section on insects has provided more than enough information to get started.

From page 295:
“From the eggs, larvae (singular larva) issue. These larvae may be caterpillars, or the creatures commonly called worms, or perhaps maggots or grubs. The larval stage is devoted to feeding and to growth.”

Now I have a little vocabulary to use with the boys when we see caterpillars. I can point out that these are insects in their larval stage and their main objective in life is to eat. We can find this stage annoying when they are eating the leaves of our garden plants but we can understand a little more about it.

We observed a bee dancing in the pollen of a cosmos flower. He was digging into the pollen and practically rolling in it. Here is a slightly blurry photo of him…try to get a bee to sit still. You can see the pollen on his body.

My favorite photo of the day is this one. It is a close-up of my son’s dahlia flower. There had been a little insect on it that I was trying to capture but he was too quick.

Well, that is what we saw and observed yesterday. I am finding the more we look, the more we realize that we have to see.