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The most diverse order of animals on the planet is by far the beetle order—with over 350,000 species and rising. Our all-wise Creator showed how He can take one basic design and create a spectacular array of forms to accomplish innumerable tasks on land, air, and water.

Insects are by far the most successful animal life form, if you judge by the total number of species. They are pushing the 1,000,000 mark, which is about three-fourths of the entire animal kingdom. Of insects, beetles are the most successful, comprising well over 350,000 named species.

The famous atheist biologist J. B. S. Haldane is credited with the quip, “God has an inordinate fondness for beetles.” While he was being facetious, God did design creation so that people would clearly see His nature everywhere (Romans 1:19–20). Beetles must have an important message, which the Creator made sure wouldn’t go unnoticed!1

Everywhere you look—on the ground, underground, in the sky, on water, or underwater, you’re likely to find beetles. They make their homes in plants, trees, dead animals, dung, and just about any other place you can imagine.

So what can we learn from beetles? Among other things, our Maker shows that He can create immense variety from one basic body design. Like living versions of the popular Transformers, the beetles’ basic body parts can be altered to serve radically different purposes.

More Than Just a Name

If you could make a high-tech machine with six legs and the armor of a tank, capable of climbing walls like a gecko or flying like a helicopter—with a size somewhere between a millimeter and 7 inches—it should be called a beetlebot. How are beetles different from other insects?

Beetles belong to the order Coleoptera, which means “sheath-wing.” Like all other insects, beetles have three major sections—a head, a thorax (midsection), and an abdomen. Three pairs of legs are attached below the thorax, and two pairs of wings above. The most obvious feature of beetles is their front pair of wings—the “sheath wings.” These aren’t used for flying. Rather, they are thick, tough wing covers called elytra. These armored shields conceal and protect the thin, transparent hind wings when they are not in use.

Stop to think about the advantages of this design. This mini-tank can drill into trees and other tough materials, plow underground, or squeeze into tight spaces. But when it needs to cover ground quickly, it can unfurl its hind wings and fly.

To make these two roles possible, the membranous hind wings have specially designed creases and hinges that enable the beetle to fold them up like a Navy jet fighter when it’s parked on an aircraft carrier.

The exquisite design of a foldable wing that can be neatly tucked beneath the elytra has given beetles access to a staggering array of habitats and lifestyles without the risk of damaging the delicate hind wings. Equipped with this unique design, they can carry out many essential ecological roles in our fallen world while displaying His glory.

“Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them” (Psalm 111:2).

Go Anywhere, Do Anything

All the makes and models of beetles boggle the mind. Below are some memorable examples showing how versatile and successful this all-purpose body design can be in a vast array of habitats on land, air, and water.

Note that this small sample reflects only a fraction of adult beetle lifestyles. Beetles go through complete metamorphosis like butterflies and moths. Eggs hatch into caterpillar-like larvae, called grubs (often cream-colored), before they transform into pupae and then into adults. While in the different stages, they often live in completely different habitats and use different resources according to God’s specific purposes.

Beetle Chart

Photo 1: © 2005 Udo Schmidt; photo 3: © iStockphoto | Thinkstockphotos.com; photos 2, 4–6 by Chris Neville; specimens courtesy of the Dr. Geoffrey Crawley collection

LAND: 1. Bark beetles (subfamily Scolytinae) plow “ living spaces” under tree bark—elaborate galleries for their young. 2. Dung beetles (family Scarabaeidae) sculpt dung into balls and roll them into holes for a later snack.

AIR: 3. Lightning bugs (family Lampyridae) create lights in their abdomen to go a-courtin’. 4. Tiger beetles (family Cicindelidae) can fly through the air as skillfully as house flies.

WATER: 5. Predaceous diving beetles (family Dytiscidae) stroke their oar-like legs as they hunt underwater. They carry bubbles under their elytra like a scuba tank. 6. Whirligig beetles (Family Gyrinidae) zip on the water surface, propelled by short, paddle-like legs. Their stumpy antennae detect movement to avoid boating accidents.

Masters of the Land

The ponderous dung beetles (members of Family Scarabaeidae) march around the countryside collecting dung. Once they find a good supply, they sculpt it into a manageable ball so they can roll it to a suitable place. Then a hole is dug in the ground for the ball to be rolled into. They cap the entrance with debris and the dung ball serves as a private food stash where one or two beetles munch away. Similar pear-shaped balls are constructed by the female, who lays one egg per dung ball. The ball serves as an ample supply of food for the larva after it hatches.

As dung beetles eat and reproduce, they’re setting a good example for us by putting refuse to good use.

Bark beetles (Family Curculionidae; subfamily Scolytinae) are one of the world’s great “habitat creators.” They will create a system of galleries (familiar to wood cutters) between the bark and wood of trees. Here they mate, lay eggs, and brood their young. Some types farm fungus in the galleries as food for adults and larvae.

Unfortunately, certain species attack and kill living trees outright. These species can cause great destruction to huge tracts of forests. Many bark beetles, however, invade dead, weakened, or dying trees, or restrict themselves to dead or dying parts of living trees. If it’s a dying tree, they are simply speeding up the inevitable (many species are not pests). As they carve their galleries, they and the fungus they bring in sever the tree’s plumbing and kill it.

After the tree is dead, many insects and other animals can occupy the tree to consume wood, fungi, or one another. This invasion helps speed the decomposition of the snag (a standing dead tree). It eventually falls and becomes a rotting log. All stages of tree decomposition provide many microhabitats for a myriad of forest creatures. Once the tree’s completely rotted, it ultimately enriches the forest soil.

Masters of the Air

Many species of beetles do not readily take to the skies, but thousands do. Among the most adroit aeronauts are the tiger beetles (Family Cicindelidae). They fly and maneuver as quickly and skillfully as a house fly. In our fallen world, these flying tigers can use their scimitar-like mandibles to skewer prey.

Lightning bugs (fireflies) are another marvel of design. These beacons of God’s glory (Family Lampyridae) are neither bugs nor flies but beetles. They have the “magical” ability to create a beautiful yellow or green light in their abdomen, which they use primarily to court a mate.

When not in flight during daytime, they usually rest on vegetation; but females must lay eggs on or beneath the soil’s surface. The elytra help protect her hindwings from dirt and damage.

Masters of the Water

Several beetles seem clumsy when flying. They can’t quickly correct their flight path and even bonk into fixed objects. But they excel at other skills. For instance, some beetles are beautifully streamlined for swimming underwater.

The predaceous diving beetle (Family Dytiscidae) is sleek and formidable like a fast-attack submarine. Its middle and hind legs are long, slender, and flattened like oars. The edges of its legs are fringed with hairs to assist in swimming.

While their swimming talents would have been useful before the Fall, these voracious beetles now put their tools to deadly use. They catch and consume mostly small invertebrates such as leeches, worms, or dragonfly larvae, but some larger species eat tadpoles, small fish, and salamanders.

These and other water beetles have to breathe gaseous oxygen while underwater. They are designed to do this by holding a bubble of air under their elytra like a scuba tank. Breathing holes (spiracles) on the upper surface of their abdomen can then draw oxygen from the air bubble. They can refresh their bubble by sticking the tip of their abdomen out of the water.

Another bizarre group of aquatic beetles is the whirligig beetles (Family Gyrinidae). They zip over the surface of the water like speed boats, constantly making tight turns at full speed (often in dense groups of several dozen). These aggregations weave in and out in dizzying, whirling patterns without bashing into each other.

These curious little beetles are amazingly designed for a predatory lifestyle on the water’s surface. Their short, paddle-like mid and hind legs provide propulsion, while their front legs are ready to grasp hapless, struggling insect prey. Their stumpy antennae rest on the surface of the water and sense ripple patterns as they bob up and down. This enables them to home in on struggling prey, as well as detect the movement of other whirligigs—thus avoiding boating accidents with friends and relatives. Because they cruise on the surface, God equipped them with four eyes; two above the waterline for vision in the air and two below for vision underwater.

This quick tour of beetles highlights only a few of my favorite beetle families, but it barely scratches the surface. Many other beetles live just as bizarre lives in other habitats, while countless others live fairly straightforward lives, eating and reproducing like other familiar insects.

Take-Home Message

Next time you see one of these flying tanks, stop to praise the Creator for His wisdom and tell someone else about Him!

In God’s infinite wisdom, He designed the basic beetle body with the capacity for amazing variety and versatility. The elytra, shared by all beetles, is not due to common ancestry (except for species within the same created kind) but common design. God created a multitude of beetle kinds that share this same basic pattern. However, He also formed them with many unique differences (both anatomical and behavioral) to carry out many important roles that sustain our fallen world, while still displaying His glory.

One Body Design, But Extreme Variety

Beetle Chart

Photos by Chris Neville; specimens courtesy of the Dr. Geoffrey Crawley collection

1. Chrysomelid beetle 2. Zopherus chilensis 3. Chrysina macropus 4. Chrysochroa toulgoeti 5. Cicindela chinensis 6. Mecynorrhina torquata ugandensis 7. Dynastes tityus 8. Chalcosoma atlas 9. Anthia sexguttata 10. Chrysina aurigans 11. Semiotus sanguinicollis 12. Chrysina strasseni 13. Oxynopterus

Dr. Gordon Wilson, Senior Fellow of Natural History at New Saint Andrews College, earned his PhD from George Mason University in Environmental Science and Public Policy. He holds a Master of Science degree in Entomology from the University of Idaho.

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Footnotes

  1. By the way, “creeping things” like insects are not on the list of creatures that Adam had to name (Genesis 2:19–20). Good thing! Back