Nature Watch with Trevor Beer: This sexton does more than toll a bell
A sexton beetle in the garden, perched on our ice plants which are just colouring up to attract butterflies and other insects. The sexton is a cheerfully coloured black and orange beetle and quite common. In fact several of the burying or carrion beetles are known as sexton beetles for their singular habit of burying the carcasses of small vertebrates such as mice and voles and rolling their skinned flesh up into a ball to provide their larvae with food. Necrophorus humator is the commonest species but this black and orange creature is N. vespilloides, humator being black, with orange-tipped antennae.
They are good flyers and are said to be able to smell a carcass up to two miles away. The carcass is usually buried where it lies but if it is on hard ground they will drag it to softer ground and may even bite off portions to bury somewhere else. After a carcass is buried the female lays her eggs near it, protecting them from predators until they hatch. She then feeds the larvae with food she has partially digested and as they develop they begin to eat the carcass. The adults usually work in pairs, excavating soil from beneath the dead animal to bury it.
They are hard working insects and I once watched four busy at a buzzard carcass at the Arlington (National Trust) estate in North Devon some years ago. Time pressures meant we had to leave before seeing how the large bird was finally disposed of but Jack Woodrow, head man there at the time, phoned to say apart from a few feathers all was neat and tidy. I expect a rat or two helped clean up, as is often the case. Arlington Court is well worth a visit, the house set in beautiful countryside. Ansome!
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