Why are beetles called beetles? Well, no one really knows, but it does sound a lot like an Old English word we don’t use any more that means ‘little biter’. Do beetles really bite? Yes, but most beetles have mouths too tiny to bite humans. Another name for beetles is Coleoptera (ko-lee-AHP-tare-uh), and this one seems to fit better. The scientific name for beetles, Coleoptera, comes from two Greek words: ‘koleos’ means shield and ‘ptera’ (say: tare-uh) means wings. Beetles are winged insects that have tough outer wings like a shield. All beetles have two sets of wings – their body is covered by a hard shell (called an elytra) that protects the thin wings underneath that are used for flying. The thin flying wings fold out from under the elytra when the beetle is ready to take off. The outside wings have color and texture, which is why ladybugs look red with black spots when they crawl, but look more transparent (see-through) when they are flying.
Do beetles have compound eyes like flies do? Most insects have compound eyes. That means that instead of seeing one view like we do with our eyes they have many different parts to their eyes, and each part sees a slightly different picture. Since insects can’t twist their head around as much as we can, their compound eyes allow them to see what is around them. Insects with compound eyes see multiple views all at once! Most beetles have compound eyes in the very front of their heads so they are able to see what is in front of them, and then they use their antennae to sense what is around them, or even behind. Some beetles, including ladybugs, have eye spots, which are just white dots on their head that fool their predators and help protect their compound eyes.
When we think of beetles we usually think of small insects, like ladybugs. There are many different kinds of beetles however, and some of them are huge! The longhorn beetle is the biggest insect and its body can reach up to 6.5 inches, with antennae that are even longer! Just like any beetle, the longhorn beetle has compound eyes, and uses its antennae to feel what is in front, around, and behind it. The goliath beetle found in Africa can weigh up to 3.4 oz (almost 1/4 pound), and is the heaviest insect ever found on earth.
There are many other fascinating beetle species. Most beetles are able to fly, but some have wings that they never use. Some beetles are able to swim (as well as crawl and fly), and make their home in the water. Because of how many different kinds (or species) there are, beetles are able to live in different places across the earth – from dry deserts to swampy wetlands. Next time you see a beetle, think about how amazing it is that this little creature is able to survive so well. Most beetles live for about 3 months, and in that time see rain and shine, hot and cold, and they still keep crawling along.
Beetles hatch from eggs, which their mother lays on leaves or plants. When the eggs hatch the baby beetle looks almost nothing like an adult. At this stage of life, a beetle is called a larva. Larvae (what you call larva when there is more than one) look sort of like worms, or short caterpillars, and they have many body segments and short legs. The purpose that every larva has is to eat and grow. When it has grown enough, it turns into a pupa (say it like: pyoo-puh). Pupae have a thin shell around their bodies, and don’t move or crawl. It’s almost like they are in a sleeping bag, but when they wake up, they come out of their shell, and instead of looking like a short worm, they are a fully formed beetle, with three body parts and six legs.
The four stages of egg, larva, pupa, and adult beetle, are called a life cycle. You may have heard about the life cycle of a butterfly, and how it changes from a caterpillar into a beautiful winged insect. The life cycle of beetles is very similar, only we don’t notice it as much, because beetles at every stage of life are usually low to the ground, or even live under leaves or burrowed in the ground.