Do Carrion Beetles Fly? Uncovering the Secrets of These Unique Insects

Carrion beetles, belonging to the family Silphidae, are fascinating creatures that play a vital role in nature by helping decompose dead animals.

A common question that often arises about these beetles is whether they are capable of flying. The answer is yes, and we will explain the how and why in this article.

Do Carrion Beetles Fly? Uncovering the Secrets of These Unique Insects

Do Carrion Beetles Fly?

Yes, carrion beetles can fly, albeit they might not be as agile in the air as some other insects.

The American Carrion Beetle (Necrophila americana), for example, has been observed in flight, with some even resembling bumblebees while doing so.

This ability to fly allows carrion beetles to cover larger distances in search of decaying matter to feed on or to lay their eggs.

These insects possess strong legs, tipped with spines and adapted for digging, which enables them to bury small carcasses efficiently for their larvae to feed on.

Carrion beetles, like the American Burying Beetle, also help maintain balance in ecosystems by reducing the spread of diseases associated with decaying organisms, and indirectly controlling the population of carrion-feeding maggots.

Carrion Beetles and Their Habitats

Family Silphidae

Carrion beetles belong to the family Silphidae. They are known for their distinctive habits of feeding on dead animals, or carrion. Here are some key features of these beetles:

  • Flattened shape
  • Black, with markings of red, orange, or yellow
  • Shell-like forewings, wider at the end and narrower at the front
  • Antennae with clubbed tips

Carrion beetles play a crucial role in the ecosystem, as they help decompose dead organisms and recycle nutrients.

They can often be found in or near compost bins, where they feed on decaying plants and animals1.

Pustulated Carrion Beetle

Genus Nicrophorus

The genus Nicrophorus, commonly known as burying beetles, is a part of the Silphidae family.

The most well-known species in this genus is the American Burying Beetle (Nicrophorus americanus)2. Here are some characteristics of the American Burying Beetle:

  • Largest carrion beetle in North America
  • Approximately 1.0 to 1.8 inches in length3
  • Active during the daytime
  • Attracted to the scent of carrion

The American Burying Beetle is unique for its behavior of burying carcasses underground to use as a food source for their larvae.

This action helps in the decomposition process and contributes to a healthier ecosystem.

Comparison Table: Family Silphidae vs. Genus Nicrophorus

FeatureSilphidaeNicrophorus
HabitatCompost bins, decaying plants and animalsNear carcasses, burying them underground
Size/LengthVariable sizes1.0 to 1.8 inches
Markings/ColorRed, orange, or yellow markingsTypically black or brown with red markings
Feeding BehaviorsScavenging on dead organismsBurying dead organisms for larvae food source

Types of Carrion Beetles

American Carrion Beetle

The American Carrion Beetle (Necrophila americana) is a member of the Silphidae family, primarily feeding on decaying plants and animals in both its adult and larval stages 1.

Adults have a yellow pronotum with a black spot in the middle, measuring approximately ½ to ¾ inches in length 2.

When flying, they resemble bumblebees. The larvae are black, teardrop-shaped grubs, resembling sowbugs.

Mating Carrion Beetles and Phoretic Mites

Red-Breasted Carrion Beetle

Another carrion beetle is the Red-Breasted Carrion Beetle (Oiceoptoma thoracicum) which also belongs to the Silphidae family.

These beetles have a bright red thorax and a black elytra, typically measuring around 10-15 mm in length.

They can be found in various habitats, including woodland areas and gardens, feeding on carrion as well as other insects.

Comparison table between American Carrion Beetle and Red-Breasted Carrion Beetle:

FeatureAmerican Carrion BeetleRed-Breasted Carrion Beetle
Scientific NameNecrophila americanaOiceoptoma thoracicum
FamilySilphidaeSilphidae
Size½ to ¾ inches10-15 mm
ColorYellow pronotum, black spotRed thorax, black elytra
Primary Feeding SourcesDecaying plants and animalsCarrion and insects

Anatomy and Characteristics

Elytra and Pronotum

Carrion beetles have distinctive elytra – the hard, shell-like forewings. These are usually wider towards the end of the body and narrower towards the front 1.

In many species, their elytra are too short to cover all abdomen segments. The pronotum is the plate-like structure on the thorax, and in the American Carrion Beetle, it is yellow with a large black spot in the middle 2.

Antennae

Carrion beetles, like other beetles, possess antennae that help them sense their surroundings. Their antennae are typically not as long or elaborate as those of other beetle families 1.

Conclusion

In conclusion, carrion beetles, with their distinctive characteristics and behaviors, play a pivotal role in maintaining ecological balance by aiding in the decomposition of dead organisms and controlling the population of other carrion-feeding creatures.

The ability to fly is a significant aspect of carrion beetles, particularly species like the American Carrion Beetle, which has been observed resembling bumblebees in flight.

This capability enables them to traverse larger distances in search of decaying matter, thereby enhancing their role in nutrient recycling within ecosystems.

Footnotes

  1. https://extension.umaine.edu/home-and-garden-ipm/fact-sheets/common-name-listing/american-carrion-beetle/  2 3 4 5 6
  2. https://www.fws.gov/species/american-burying-beetle-nicrophorus-americanus  2 3 4
  3. https://education.mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/carrion-beetles-burying-beetles  2 3

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about carrion beetles. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Red Lined Carrion Beetle

Subject: flying beetle?
Location: Newfoundland Canada,
August 21, 2015 8:21 am
Can anyone identify this flying beetle? They hit the patio in a swarm over the weekend. Not sure if they were loosing their wings after a while or not. You can see wings and orange markings clearly in some of the pictures.
Newfoundland Canada,
Signature: Danny

Red LIned Carrion Beetle
Red LIned Carrion Beetle

Dear Danny,
Though the antennae are quite different, your beetle resembles a Burying Beetle in the genus Nicrophorus enough for us to begin searching with that as a lead.  We found images of the Red Lined Carrion Beetle,
Necrodes surinamensis, on BugGuide and we are satisfied that is your beetle. 

The BugGuide description is:  “Distinctive, large eyes, dark body with prominent raised elytral ridges, variable red-orange, sometimes yellow, markings on elytra, though these sometimes absent. Sometimes has red tinge to body. Males have distinctive leg morphology: expanded hind femora with a large tooth on each, and expanded foretarsi. 

Also, abdomen of male appears to jut out from under abdomen much more than female.”  BugGuide also notes:  “Adults consume fly larvae (maggots), and perhaps some carrion” and “Rather nocturnal and is found at lights, unlike related genera. Adults locate carrion and mate on or near carcass. They feed on fly larvae there.

Eggs are laid on soil near carcass. Larvae feed on fly larvae and carrion, pupate in soil. Adults overwinter in under litter(?) or in other protected areas. See Ratcliffe (1) for details. This species is supposed to be attracted especially, to dead birds.” 

The shininess of your images indicates they were most likely shot with an on camera flash, leading us to suspect this was a nocturnal swarm.  We suspect this was a recent mass emergence nearby that was attracted to your lights. 

In light of the fact that Red Lined Carrion Beetles feed on fly maggots, we would urge you to consider this recent swarm a brief annoyance of a beneficial species.

Red Lined Carrion Beetle
Red Lined Carrion Beetle

Letter 2 – Mating Carrion Beetles from Japan

Found these two while in Japan
Just wanted to know what kind of bugs these are. The first pair were “getting it on” in the middle of a path that ran through a city park in Tokyo. The caterpillar kind of freaked me out but it’s beautiful. Feel free to use the picture on your site if you wish. THANKS!

These are mating Carrion Beetles in the family Silphidae. As their name implies, they feed on dead flesh in the larval stages and adults feed on fly maggots to ensure more of the rotting flesh will remain as a larval food, helping to eliminate food competition for the progeny.

Letter 3 – Margined Carrion Beetles swarm stinky mushroom!!!

for your collection
I took this photo in Vermont, they’re some kind of carrion beetles and they were swarming the raunchiest smelling mushroom I have ever encountered… I did look up the mushroom and I think it is ‘Phallus impudicus’ which is a very apt description if you ask me.

Not sure the exact name of the beetles but anything that likes to eat that nasty mushroom gets kudos from me. Your site is fabulous, and your calendar is super fabulous!
Zoe

Hi Zoe,
Thanks for the compliments. Your beetles look like Margined Carrion Beetles, Oiceoptoma noveboracensis.

Letter 4 – Pustulated Carrion Beetle skewered

Identification
July 14, 2009
The other day i was sitting in my basement when an insect (6 legs) landed on me. mostly black with red dots, large wings and when i brushed it off of me it then emitted a horrendous smell that was so bad i had to change
n/a
southeast missouri

Pustulated Carrion Beetle:  skewered
Pustulated Carrion Beetle: skewered

Dear n/a,
This is a Pustulated Carrion Beetle, Nicrophorus pustulatus.  It is one of the Burying Beetles
BugGuide reports:  “Reported to be a brood parasite of other Nicrophorus (1). Also reported to parasitize the eggs of Black Rat Snakes–see Ecoscience 7 (4) : 395-397 (2000).

The beetle larvae destroy the snake eggs, thus, the beetle would qualify as a parasitoid, a relationship usually seen only among invertebrates.”  It appears that this Pustulated Carrion Beetle has been skewered, and we don’t believe it is to enter an insect collection, which would probably qualify it as unnecessary carnage. 

In the scheme of things, the beetle stinking you up so you had to change your shirt is not as troublesome as you ending its life as payback.

Letter 5 – Red Lined Carrion Beetles emerge in great numbers in home in Canada

Should I worry?
Location:  8 hours north west of Thunder Bay
August 12, 2010 7:34 am
Hello,
A couple days ago late at night there was a pretty big bug flying around the living room. Since we live in very northern Ontario, in a small mining town surrounded by trees and water – there are quite a few moths and stuff. The creature landed on my arm and totally freaked me out! The next night (yesterday) the was one buzzing above the bed….

Tonight, we woke up in the middle of the night to a low battery chirping smoke detector only to find 30 or more of these things!!!! Flying, crawling around and if they are on their backs they wiggle and seem to be stuck! Now, it has been humid and rainy alot and all of the houses here are built on bedrock.

A third of our main floor is finished and the other 2 thirds has open rock. Our living space is upstairs but you come in through the main floor and go upstairs. The whole lot of them were on the main floor. As I sent my husband to snap some pics for you this morning – he found 20 more in a bin!

It looks lik e they go into things (vase in one pic and metal bin as well) and cannot get out. We burn wood and have had lots of wood in the house. None now because it’s summer. Is this some kind of infestation, should we have a fire (even thought its soo hot) to dry out everything down there??

I bought a dehumidifier yesterday – but we are so far north it will be here in 3 weeks. Do we need an exterminator??
Help please!! We dealt with flying ants last year and that was terrible – now these things are 3 to 4 times as big. I don’t even want to go outside ’cause I have to walk through there…
Thank you so much in advance for any help and advice you can offer!
Amy

Red Lined Carrion Beetle

Hi Amy,
Thanks for the thorough narrative account.  You do not need an exterminator.  We believe these are Red Lined Carrion Beetles,
Necrodes surinamensis, but the telltale red line is not really visible in your photos, either because it is absent from the beetles, or because the glass through which the photos were taken has obscured it. 

According to BugGuide:  “Adults consume fly larvae (maggots), and perhaps some carrion” and “Rather nocturnal and is found at lights, unlike related genera. Adults locate carrion and mate on or near carcass. They feed on fly larvae there. Eggs are laid on soil near carcass. Larvae feed on fly larvae and carrion, pupate in soil.

Adults overwinter in under litter(?) or in other protected areas. See Ratcliffe (1) for details. This species is supposed to be attracted especially, to dead birds. (Insects of Northeastern Iowa)  Has chemical defenses, and smells foul, like all carrion beetles and their larvae.” 

We suspect there was a carcass or carcasses either in or near your home and that is the reason you experienced this phenomenon.  It will pass, and unless the corpses of birds continues to accumulate, you can probably count on this being a one time occurrence.

Thank you soo much, I took a quick look after your email and it does have spots!  We have bears and coyotes, foxes and deer, moose and alot of other smaller creatures. 

I have no doubt that there are carcasses around… Yuck – and these things really creep me out (good thing we picked to live in the woods – geez) =) I guess I’ll let the hubby get them out of the house and keep my fingers crossed that they find another home!

Thank you soooo very much and I hope you have a wonderful summer!!
Amy

Letter 6 – Pustulated Carrion Beetle

A black beetle with red dots at rear
Location:  44⁰ 18’30”N 68⁰54’12’W = Islesboro
August 30, 2010 1:07 am
The cat was harassing this beetle? in my bedroom at +/- 2AM. That’s all. Before I free it, I’d like to know it’s name, rank, and serial number.
Sukey Love

Pustulated Carrion Beetle

Hi Sukey,
This is a Carrion Beetle known as the Pustulated Carrion Beetle,
Nicrophorus pustulatus.  Carrion Beetles in the genus Nicrophorus are also known as Sexton Beetles.  Adults, often working in pairs, will bury small dead vertebrates like rodents or birds and lay eggs, guarding the brood until the young mature. 

BugGuide provides this fascinating information:  “Reported to be a brood parasite of other Nicrophorus (1). Also reported to parasitize the eggs of Black Rat Snakes, Elaphe obsoleta (Blouin-Demers and Weatherhead, 2000; Trumbo, 2009). The beetle larvae destroy the snake eggs, thus, the beetle would qualify as a parasitoid of the snake, a relationship usually seen only among invertebrates.

In the wild, Nicrophorus pustulatus is not known to exhibit the usual carcass-burying behavior of other members of its genus, though it will display some of this behavior in captivity. There is suspicion, too, that it may parasitize eggs of other reptiles, and, perhaps, birds (Trumbo, 2009).

Letter 7 – Pustulated Carrion Beetle

Subject: Burying Beetle?
Location: Just south of Louisville, KY
August 22, 2014 10:40 pm
I found this guy (3/4 inch?) in my house. In trying to find out what it was I decided it must be a Nicrophorus pustulatus and ran into your website in researching it. Sadly, he or she seems to have expired over-night and my daughter threw it out in the morning. (It did have a pungent smell!)

I live in Bullitt county KY on 10 acres and we have always had large(7-8 ft) rat snakes around. I haven’t seen any this year….might there be a cause and effect relationship between not seeing the usual snakes and seeing one of these beetles?

How efficient are they at finding clutches of eggs and do they also attack hibernating adult snakes? (Or sleeping humans?) Do snakes leave the area if they are around or have they been killed off by them?
Any info would be appreciated.
Signature: Dan

Pustulated Carrion Beetle
Pustulated Carrion Beetle

Dear Dan,
You are correct that this is
Nircrophorus pustulatus, the Pustulated Carrion Beetle, which we confirmed on BugGuide.  We would not have thought that Pustulated Carrion Beetles would have a negative impact on the rat snakes in your area, but according to BugGuide:  “Also reported to parasitize the eggs of Black Rat Snakes, Elaphe obsoleta (Blouin-Demers & Weatherhead 2000, Trumbo 2009).”

Pustulated Carrion Beetle
Pustulated Carrion Beetle

Letter 8 – Ridged Carrion Beetles and Margined Carrion Beetles on Dead Mole

Subject: Mole eating bug
Location: Massachusetts
April 18, 2016 3:02 pm
I found this dead mole on a trail and all of these unknown bugs were all over it. I would like to you what type of bugs these are.
Signature: Sarina B

Ridged Carrion Beetles and Margined Carrion Beetles eat Dead Mole
Ridged Carrion Beetles and Margined Carrion Beetles on Dead Mole

Dear Sarina,
At least two species of Carrion Beetles, the all black Ridged Carrion Beetle,
Oiceoptoma inequale, and the red and black Margined Carrion Beetle, Oiceoptoma noveboracense, are gathering around this dead mole. 

Of the Ridged Carrion Beetle, BugGuide states:  “Adults consume fly larvae at carrion.”   Of the Margined Carrion Beetle, BugGuide states:  “Adults sometimes consume fly larvae (maggots) on carrion.”

Letter 9 – Mating American Carrion Beetles and Phoretic Mites

Subject: Bug Love – American Carrion Beetle
Location: Southwest Indiana
May 26, 2016 8:17 pm
Hello! I wanted to share some photos I took last summer of a pair of American Carrion Beetles with their mites. They were collected around some cat vomit…which might have had some mouse remains in it. (oh so pleasant!) Somehow the photo was forgotten until now – probably because I had embarrassment over taking bug love photos, ha ha!


Thank you for the awesome site. It’s my go-to place when I find a new bug, and I’ve never had to ask for identification – I always find what I’m looking for! We practice organic gardening on our little homestead, and I often find new creatures – so I visit your site often!
Thanks again!
Signature: Heather

Mating Carrion Beetles and Phoretic Mites
Mating Carrion Beetles and Phoretic Mites

Dear Heather,
We are so thrilled to find out that you find our site so helpful.  We are also thrilled to post your images of a pair of mating American Carrion Beetles and their Phoretic Mites.

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

3 thoughts on “Do Carrion Beetles Fly? Uncovering the Secrets of These Unique Insects”

    • Our best guess since Carrion Beetles feed on small dead animals is that there might be something dead, like a rat, in the walls.

      Reply
  1. I saw a handful of these carrion beetles in Hertel WI on a dead mouse or chipmunk . there also was one or two of the burying beetles on the carcass with the orange and black body., and another type of bug. Sandy soil, high canopy forest with oaks, and birch. dry area next to a trailer with dry dirt under., and a lot of ants. Also I saw some fluorescent green beetles. there are a lot of cats around the area providing the little beetles with plenty of food. A lot of red daddy long legs, and bumblebees.

    Reply

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