Tortoise beetles: Pretty with a poopy past

Tortoise beetles: Pretty with a poopy past

My 6 year old is obsessed with poop jokes. It’s been a funny for a long time now, of course, but recently it really stepped up. Everything is poopy this, poopy that. Daddy is a stinkybutt, of course. It doesn’t bother me, go ahead and get it out of your system, girl, but it can sometimes get repetitive.

Enter the tortoise beetle. My little poop girl had no idea the gold mine she found when she pointed out a gorgeous little green beetle crawling in the grass, about the size of my pinky fingernail.

Photos by Holly Jessen

I was so excited, of course. I laid in the grass and took photo after photo of it for at least 15 minutes. My kid got bored of that pretty fast. She was running around on the lawn, entertaining herself. Next to the lawn is pasture, where the neighbor’s cows were observing me, observing some unknown thing on the food they eat. I wonder what they were thinking? Probably something like, crazy humans.

I know what I was thinking. I was struggling to get a clear shot with my cell phone camera, unsure if I was succeeding because the bright sun made it nearly impossible for me to see the screen so I could check my focus. Someday I’d like to get the right equipment to take photos of tiny insects but for now I do the best I can with what I have.

Once I’d pestered the patient beetle more than enough, I went in the shade to check out my photos and upload the best ones to inaturalist app, where I was able to identify it. That’s my first stop to record my find and usually my best bet at figuring out what it is. Sometimes I’m not certain and I need to spend some time cross referencing other websites.

That’s where I stumbled on a YouTube video about the larva tortoise beetle, which uses an extraordinarily long anus to build itself a poop shield over it’s back. I’m not sure which of us was more excited, me or my poop joke loving kiddo.

OK, so, yeah, poop is gross. Carrying a dried poop shield around on your back is disgusting. But so fascinating and hilarious!

As a Christian, I’m in awe of a God that created such interesting and varied creatures. God. In heaven. Gave this tiny larva an extra long and flexible butt so they could poop on their backs. Mull that one around a while.

According to an Absurd Creature of the Week article at wired.com (how does one get that gig?!), a tortoise beetle mama lays her eggs and then sticks around with the larva, protecting them and helping them find food for up to two months. (During which she doesn’t eat at all, herself.) The baby larvae make themselves shields out of poop and old exoskeletons, which they can lift off their backs when threatened, waving them around and even smacking at anything that comes close. Meanwhile mama charges in a circle around her babies to protect them and flies back if knocked away. What if instead of saying mama bear, I started saying, I’m going to go all tortoise beetle mama (to protect my child)? It fits but would probably confuse people.

The Wired article calls the poop structure a shield and a sword. But in Entomology Today (what, that’s a real magazine?) it’s referred to it as an umbrella. Not only does the article have a number of really cool photos of larva and adult tortoise beetles but it answers a question I had, is the poopy aroma what helps ward off dangers? According to an entomologist interviewed, the answer is probably. So rather than spearing or smacking an opponent with dried poop to hurt it, the larva is likely waving and hitting it in an effort to gross the predator out enough so it leaves. Dried poop, smelly and not so yummy.

The article also said a group of entomologists would be looking for the answer to that question and others with the help of a 2-year National Science Foundation grant. Since it was written in 2016, the results of that research project are probably already published somewhere but, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find it. Inquiring minds like mine want to know more about poop.

For me, the most fun part about finding a tortoise beetle was the contrast of the beautiful adult bug and the icky, sticky poop covered babies. The beetle I found was such a gorgeous glittery green with a little bit of yellow, my mom’s favorite color. I also noticed what looked like a clear shield on the outer edges of the beetle, which covers the head and legs. The beetles I saw online were green, orange or gold and many can apparently change colors.

I had so much fun observing and learning about tortoise beetles. I had absolutely no idea such a bug lives in my home state of Minnesota.

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