When Fig Beetles Attack!

August 31, 2015

Photo by Brian Brown It’s a beautiful summer day in L.A. and I am strolling across a wide open lawn. The sky is bright blue and decorated with scattered clouds. The sun shines with that lazy-afternoon-golden-California glow and the grass tickles my toes. A bird sings sweetly and the whole scene is so idyllic it is cliché. Suddenly, a loud buzz and “WHACK!”, something the size of a large marble slams straight into the side of my face. Meet the fig beetle. Fig beetles (Cotinis mutabilis), also known as figeater beetles or green fruit beetles, are a Southwestern species of beetle that careen through the air with the grace of a charging rhinoceros. They are loud, they are big (often around an inch long), and they are everywhere right now. Visitors to the Museum often point straight to the fig beetle in our drawer of local insects from the BioSCAN Project and recount horrifying tales of being “attacked” by these giant beetles. These audacious beetles even made an appearance on live TV over the weekend: Fig beetles are gorgeous, metallic-green beetles in the family Scarabaeidae, commonly known as scarab beetles. This group includes many beautiful jeweled beetles, as well as the sacred beetles of ancient Egypt (AKA dung beetles: informative, but rather silly video on the dung beetle here). As visually striking as these large beetles are, it is the fact that they are literally striking folks around L.A. that has our attention. Why do they keep attacking us? And why are there so many of them? First off, the fig beetles are NOT actually attacking. Even when they fly directly into the side of your face when you are walking across an open lawn. They are just clumsy. Really clumsy. Part of this is surely pure mass, as fig beetles support a lot of weight as they fly around looking for food and mates. I also attribute part of their lack of proper navigation to the fact that they are apparently too lazy to lift their front wings (the hard, shell-like elytra), so they instead stick their hind wings out from underneath their “shell”. This is also what creates the loud buzz they make when in flight.

Photo by Kelsey Bailey And why are there so many of these beetles around right now? In late summer when local fruit trees are heavy with over-ripe fruit, the fig beetles have a plentiful food source and emerge to eat and find mates. Like their name suggests, they will certainly eat figs, but they also love many other types of fruit (below you see them eating grapes in the NHMLA Nature Gardens and the photo directly above shows them eating their namesake fruit in the NHMLA Edible Garden) and even nectar from flowers (photo at top of the blog post).

Photo by Emily Miner So, don’t begrudge the clumsy fig beetle. They are helping our city by consuming the rotting fruit in our city, and are completely harmless to us. Unlike the East Coast beetles they are commonly mistaken for (green june beetles, Cotinis nitida, and Japanese beetles, Popillia japonica), fig beetles are not generally destructive as larvae (East Coast lookalikes can damage lawns). In fact, “crawly backs”, the 2-inch long grubs that eventually turn into our shiny beetle friends, are often found in compost piles helping breakdown our garden compost! The term “crawly back” comes from the unique method of locomotion the grubs have where they flip onto their backs to scoot along (clumsy movement is clearly not restricted to adults!). The fig beetles are a friendly bunch, and a helpful addition to our urban ecosystem. You just have to get used to getting whacked in the face on occasion. 

 

(Posted by: Emily Hartop)

31 Comments

Hi, Emily. What is the function, if any, of that metallic green color? Does it make them taste bad to predators? Carol

Great question! The metallic color of some insects actually helps them to blend into environments with patchy sunlight. Think of the shifting beams of light under a tree, for instance, as it filters the sun. This may be the case for the fig beetle -- but it is also true that metallic blues and greens in insects are structural colors, not pigments. This means that the metallic hue is a result of the rigid structure of the insect (that helps protect it), and may not have developed as either camouflage or warning. Lisa Gonzalez wrote a great blog on our blue insects and their special structural color here: nhm.org/nature/blog/bioscan-blues

I'll gladly take them at Agoura Hills if you folks downtown don't want them! I've still not seen one of these guys over several years of living here!

If you want fig beatles or scarabs which I call them in your garden just put out ripe bananas as though you would feed butterflies and scarabs come like crazy.

We've had a fig tree for 7 years but this is the first time I've seen these beetles when I spotted 3 of them working on one ripe fig. They are indeed lovely and I'm glad to read that they are harmless to humans and good for the environment.

I've had so many occurrences with these beetles they are everywhere in southern California. They seem to swarm around you sometimes, despite swatting them away...they also will hover while flying and came into my car 3 times. They are huge one was the size of 2 quarters.... Oh and I've also been smacked in the face with one while walking into a building one day it just flew right into my face, it felt like a rock was thrown at my face that's how much impact they can leave because their bodies are so big.

Their not beetles. They are little robots manufactured by our government to spy on us and to make us sick and crazy.

Among the motorcycle set of my youth these were referred to as 'B-17 bugs'... 'cause that's what they felt like when you hit one at 60 mph.

This is more of a question than a comment, why do these beatles always seem to find me, do they have a scent of fear because I am terrified of them and they always seem to follow or find me when I show fear

Same here! These things have taken over the tree outside my patio. I am on the third floor and can hardly go out there because they fly into my face. I can't enjoy my morning java anymore! This mornings one flew straight into my face my hot cup of coffee flew everywhere as i screamed and woke up half the neighborhood.

Haha we're on the third floor too and my girlfriend doesn't go on the balcony at all because of them!!

I'm just curious if they sting like bees/wasp's, and or bite like spider's, If so, are they poisonous??

I regularly see them buzzing by my 8th-floor window. Last year, I was walking by MacArthur Park, one started circling me and landed on my shirt exactly where one might wear a lapel pin. It rode around on me for half an hour before I gently removed it (carefully unhooking its legs from fabric) and sent it on its merry way. I don't see how or why people find them scary.

I just got whacked.

I like to think of them as big bumbling lady bugs; slow, harmless, poor flyers, that like to (for whatever reason!) hang around us humans! They mean no ill will. Just enjoy their beauty!

One appeared to be chasing me around in my backyard today, and it did for a moment seem like a drone in disguise taking in data! I ran inside, and it hung on the screendoor a while, then finally went on its merry way. I have never seen one before today, but my neighbor said he has seen them in his yard over the fence. Thanks for all the background. It is good to know they are not dangerous! Also, I do not have fruit trees, so my yard shouldn't attract them on a regular basis. Beautiful, but a little scary!

the noise the noise! that is what freaks me out.

How do I get rid of these lovely ravenous critters? They are pretty but they eat my figs and grapes and then fly at me!!

I live and work in Orange County and am "attacked" by them on a daily basis right now. I normally try to go about my business and ignore them, but when they buzz my ear I almost go into a frenzied panic, I even hurt myself once running away from them. They're interesting little creatures I would prefer viewing from afar.

These are among Nature's little jewels, yet they are the most bungling of creatures. I watched one fly smack into the center of an 8th-floor window, and another flew into my forehead as I walked down the middle of the street: 6 inches either way, and it would've missed me. It's as if they evolved in a world without solid objects.

OMG...we've got hoards of them. Or colonies of them. Whatever you want to call it. I raise monarchs so I'm used to big "things" flying around but I'll never get used to these guys. We have several palm trees in our front yard and these berry like things burst open from the trees and hang. There are 9 of these iridescent dudes on them right now.

Went to the San Diego Zoo today and found out that they aren't just clumsy...thy are drunk! The reason they fly so crazily is they eat rotten fruit, most of which has begun the fermentation process. So they are actually flying drunk!

I hate them!!

Hi i have been fascinated with these bugs ever since I was a kid I never hurt them ... I found one with broken back lagges and also wings iam trying to heal it but I don't know much .. I have a plastic box with soil plants sticks and a banana with a cap of water .... what do u think can I save it ?

They ate all the nectarines on my tree before I got even one! Each piece of fruit had several beetles on it. Now the figs are getting ripe and same thing there. I understand there function, but these are out of control! The fruit gets almost ripe and they devour it!

I'm on here because I just got "attacked" by one of these in my pool! They may just be drunk or clumsy, but this one dive bombed as if he were on a deliberate mission...the weird thing is, he landed in the water and stayed in -I guess they're not good swimmers...

Earlier this :am I noticed a humongous-terrifying looking beetle on kitchen floor...Yikes! NO CHOICE But to get a shoe & render her absolutely harmless by SMASHING her!!!! Im certain female bcuz EGGS SQISHED OUT!! Grossed us Out! Flicked it out back w/flyswatter & 2 Flu in"Literally" Attacking! She rushed in closed back door & it hit door as it closed! So whomever dubbed them harmless needs to do lil more research!! They'll be SURPRISED !

Okay, fig beetles are pretty enough. Five yeas ago I was fascinated with them. Today, I'm on the warpath - protesters can suck it up. Two years ago they decimated my Concords as well as eight fig trees' harvests. Goggle had a simple solution that uses a two-liter pop bottle, an overripe fig and a cup of water. As of two weeks ago, I've captured many, many dozens...and I've saved both fig crops and grapes. Next year, there shouldn't be nearly as many. Btw, I live in West Los Angeles, near Clover Field Airport.

I used to see them attempt to get in the entrance of my Dad's beehive a lot. In fact I was taking apart a wild hive (my brother had been called to remove) to mount the comb in frames when between two rows of comb was a fig beetle embedded in the wax, minus legs, antennas ect, that had been chewed off.

That is absolutely True. They are hammered off their ass on fermenting fruit. I would have such a hangover after banging my head against the window on a daily basis. I do have a hummingbird feeder. So I believe they are attacking that. The big birds in San Diego have an easy lunch with them but I have noticed they can't process the GREEN shell. They are harmless. Just Drunk

My child got bitten (stung) by what he later identified as a black scarab. Known around here to grow as larvae under the grass, eating away at roots, they mostly stay away from people. They concentrate around lights, in the evening. Coincidentally it landed on my child's head, brushed off onto his hand where he took a nasty bite and left the skin area white, with a red dot in the centre. With ice, it has gradually become a pink area. I'm guessing the slight infection is due to the bug's saliva.

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