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Care Guide: Bessbugs

Living Care Information

Odontotaenius disjunctus
Commonly known as bess beetle, bessbug, patent leather beetle, Betsy beetle, passalid beetle

Quick Start Information

  • Have your habitat set up ahead of time.

  • The beetles will arrive in a plastic deli cup filled with moist paper towel and some feces/soil/rotting wood mix. The beetles should be placed in their habitat as soon as possible.

  • Adults are dark brown, about 1½ inches long, and with large mandibles.

  • Healthy beetles will move, though not quickly, when handled.

About the Organism

  • Bess beetles are found throughout the south central and eastern United States. They are important decomposers.
  • Larvae take about 1 year to reach adult form. Adults in the colony assist them in making their pupa case.
  • These beetles spend most of their lives in the dark.
  • Adults must consume their own feces to populate their guts with bacteria that will allow them to properly digest wood.
  • Domain: Eukarya
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Arthropoda
  • Class: Insecta
  • Order: Coleoptera
  • Family: Passalidae
  • Genus: Odontotaenius
  • Species: disjunctus

Preparation

Bess beetles are available year-round, but they are a collected specimen. Shortages may occur due to conditions at collection sites.

Housing

Place about 4–5 cm of moist potting soil or humus in a terrarium or other container of your choosing. The housing vessel should be constructed of plastic or glass, because the beetles will be able to chew through wood or cardboard. Up to 6 bess beetles can be housed in a 1-gallon terrarium. Our bessbug habitat kit provides all the supplies you need to start your own colony.

Add some leaf litter and the beetles to the habitat, including the rotten wood that came in the shipping package. Bess beetles prefer damp (not soggy) wood, and they like the dark. Remember that direct sunlight may overheat and kill the beetles, so place the terrarium in indirect light. Supplemental heating is not needed for a bess beetle terrarium.

Feeding

Bess beetles ingest rotting, decaying wood and moist sphagnum moss. Adults cannot extract nutrients from wood so will re-ingest their own feces as a source of microflora to break down wood fibers. Adult beetles also feed the feces mix to their young. For this reason, is it important that you do not remove or clean the habitat’s contents; just add more wood or sphagnum moss.

Maintaining and culturing

Maintain temperature at 20–22° C (68–72° F). Bess beetles need humidity, so the terrarium soil should be damp. Always have decaying organic material (wood, leaves, compost, etc.) in the terrarium. Mist to keep the environment humid. If mold becomes a problem, increase the ventilation or reduce misting. Other than monitoring humidity, bess beetles need little care. If they eat all the rotten wood shipped with them, collect additional rotten hardwood locally or purchase rotting wood. Bess beetles very rarely reproduce in captivity.

Disposal

We strongly recommend giving any unwanted organisms to another individual if you do not wish to keep them.

We do not advocate the release of organisms into the environment. Please contact your local (state) Department of Agriculture for any restrictions on release of organisms.

As a last resort, place unwanted organisms in a sealable container and freeze for 48 hours. Dispose of the organisms in the regular solid waste.

Biosafety

Wash your hands with soap and water before and after working with any living organism, changing habitat bedding, or handling habitat components.

Video

FAQs

Can bess beetles bite?

No, they are harmless. Although their jaws are strong, bess beetles are adapted for chewing rotten wood, not human skin. At best, they may give a mild pinch and can be safely handled. Notice the hooks on the beetles’ legs. These can cling so tightly to some fabrics, especially the yarn of sweaters, that you may injure the beetle when you remove it. For this reason, don’t allow beetles to crawl on clothing.

What is that squeaking sound?

Stridulation. Adults and larvae stridulate, meaning they produce sounds. Adults stridulate by rubbing a rough area under their wings against a similar area on the top of their abdomens. Larvae stridulate by rubbing the tip of the third leg against the joint of the second leg. Since the beetles are somewhat social, the sounds may be communications among colony members.

How long do bess beetles live?

Bess beetles can live as adults for up to 1½ years, which is unusually long for a beetle. They also undergo complete metamorphosis, so their entire life cycle (egg, larva, pupa, and adult) can extend beyond 2 years. The beetles you receive are of unknown age, but they will probably live for several weeks or months

Will my bess beetles reproduce?

It is unlikely. They must have a very stable environment, such as a large rotting log, for reproduction.

Since they eat wood, aren’t bess beetles destructive?

No. They feed on the fungi and bacteria in decaying or damaged wood. They do not attack undamaged wood.

My bess beetle has small orange bugs crawling on it. What can I do?

These are mites. They generally will not harm people or the beetles themselves. They are more of a cosmetic problem than anything else. Most mite species found on bessbugs are hitchhikers and use the beetles to carry them to new food sources.

If you want, use a wet cotton-tipped applicator to physically remove the mites from the beetles’ bodies. This is a time-consuming but effective task.

If you do not have time to physically remove the mites, you can place your bess beetles in a bag of cornmeal. Gently shake the bag. The cornmeal will knock the mites off the bess beetle. Remove the beetle, and discard the cornmeal in the trash.

Need help?

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