Constituencies of death

Just as the lightness of sleep overtakes me, I hear the phrase, “Death has its own constituency.” I wake to read of the tar sands pipeline potentially delayed by a critically endangered species of carrion beetle, the American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus).

With its shiny, black and fiery body and orange-tipped antennae, the American burying beetle is a vibrant beauty of the bug world. The insect’s occupation, though, is a little less glamorous. After sniffing out a freshly dead animal from up to two miles away, the beetle joins a mate in burying the carcass, stripping it of fur or feathers, rolling it into a ball, and covering it in oral and anal fluids to preserve it as a shelter and food source for the pair’s litter of lucky larvae.

A newspaper article reporting on the possible delay prompts the predictable reactions from readers: “Step on them.” “A couple of cans of RAID and the problem is OVER.” “Drill baby drill!” One ignoramus even goes on a rant:

who cares about a beetle really, this is as bad as not growing produce in Calif. because of a little 2 inch fish that died in the aqua duck you think either one is more important then people lives and feeding their young children..NO NO NO the answer will always be NO, even God made insects and animals to eventually die out for what ever reason, so get a grip on it folks this is trash talk to step on you as a person and your rights….

No matter many times I hear this kind of ignorant callousness disguised as piety and concern for human beings, I still turn cold with rage, and before I know it I, too, am harboring violent fantasies…

How ironic that our penchant for unearthing the byproducts of ancient deaths, to the detriment of the planet, endangers a beetle whose role in the ecosystem is to help recycle the dead to the benefit of us all. As the CBD puts it:

The American burying beetle is one of nature’s most efficient recyclers, feeding and sheltering its own brood while simultaneously returning nutrients to the earth to nourish vegetation and keeping ant and fly populations in check.

It seems unusual for a habitat generalist to suffer such precipitous declines in population across its range, but, says the Encylclopedia of Life entry:

[E]vidence points increasingly to a cascade of changes in vertebrate communities resulting from habitat fragmentation and other human-caused disturbances. Loss of the largest mammal predators has resulted in increases of smaller mammal predator-scavengers that are more likely to compete with [the American burying beetle] for carcasses of still smaller mammals or birds.

In other words, our extirpation of top predators across North America, including wolves and cougars, may ultimately be to blame. The beetles themselves have no known predators, and appear to have a symbiotic relationship with a species of mite that helps keep them clean of microbes and fly eggs in return for access to carcasses. Even more remarkable is their habit of caring for their young:

American burying beetles provide care for their young from the time of birth until adolescence. This type of behavior is typically not observed among invertebrates outside of social bees, wasps, and termites.

Prior to birth, both parents regurgitate partially digested food in the nesting chamber, which accumulates as food for the larvae. They continue to do so until larvae are able to feed directly from the carcass. Parents also regularly maintain the carcass by removing fungi and covering the carrion ball with antibacterial secretions.

Let’s see—there’s a phrase for that sort of thing in American political discourse, isn’t there? Oh, yes: family values.

It’s sad how many people who describe themselves as conservative have, in service to corporate agendas, forsaken the most conservative principle of all: First, do no harm. “Because the American burying beetle has a highly vulnerable status in the wild, the two known natural populations (Block Island, Rhode Island and eastern Oklahoma) should be protected and maintained,” says the Encylopedia of Life. In recycling the dead, the American burying beetle helps preserve and extend the cycle of life. In advocating for its elimination, conservatives show themselves to be staunch supporters of what Pope John Paul II labeled the culture of death.

6 Replies to “Constituencies of death”

  1. thank you for this. i share in your rage, but haven’t found the eloquent means you’ve deployed to bring life back to this subject. now, if we could just get this post into the hands of those who ask us to just say ” NO NO NO ” . . .


    1. I’m glad this resonated with you, Sherry, but I have to say I don’t share your faith in the potential of eloquent words or persuasive arguments to change anyone’s mind. Appeals to worst instincts, on the other hand…

  2. I vaguely recall another post in which you described words coming to you out of the blue to useful effect. Malcolm Gladwell stuff!

    Neat to learn about this beetle. I visited Block Island twenty-one years ago. Beautiful place; may it never change.

    The words conservative and conservation sound downright similar. In his column today, George Will celebrates the centennial of Taft’s nomination for an unsuccessful run at a second term. He was glad that Taft lost because Taft blocked Roosevelt’s third-party try at a second complete term. I think the Tea Party movement and the neocons are throwing trust-busting, conservation-oriented Teddy under the bus. They no longer treat him like a fellow Republican.

    1. Yes, it’s a shame. The Pennsylvania legislature used to have a number of conservation-minded Republicans, and we even had them in state-wide office, such as the late Sen. Heinz and former governor Tom Ridge.

  3. “American burying beetles provide care for their young from the time of birth until adolescence”

    Would that those who advocate the rights of the unborn, yet decry the use of public money to nurture them afterwards, would take a cue. As for burying, don’t even get me started on the funeral industry.

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