Hunting is a popular sport.
According to a recent survey, six percent of all Americans hunt. Have you? Ducks? Pheasants? Deer perhaps? But have you ever gone tiger hunting?
I should clarify; I’m not talking about Bengal, Siberian, or Sumatran. Nor am I talking about Tigger, Tony, or Ty Cobb. I’m talking about tigers that live right here in the Chippewa Valley. I’m talking about tiger beetles.
Tiger beetles are fascinating, and worth seeking. They are part of the world’s single largest order of animals — coleoptera — the hard-shelled insects better known as the beetles. There are more beetles on the planet than all other types of animals combined.
Tiger beetles, however, are not so numerous as to swarm. In fact, it’s easy to miss them. While there are more than 100 types of tiger beetles in the U.S., only about 14 live in Wisconsin.
And I’m on a mission to track them all down.
What makes tiger beetles worth hunting? Well, what makes anything worth hunting? Respect for the game.
The thrill of the chase. A brief encounter with wonder and singular beauty.
Tiger beetles themselves are fierce hunters, known for their aggressive predation of other insects and their running speed. Tiger beetles are the fastest insects on Earth. Scientists have timed them at speeds of almost 7 mph — that’s 171 body lengths per second (bl/s). Usain Bolt, by comparison, can only achieve six bl/s at top speed.
Both the adult and larvae hunt. The larva are large-headed, hump-backed terrors that dig cone-shaped pits, and then lie in ambush at the bottom, with only their large mandibles exposed, waiting for other insects to tumble in. The adults hunt by sprinting after prey on the ground. While running so fast, it’s probably difficult to focus on what they’re after, so they stop suddenly to re-orient, before finally nabbing a meal with their long, sharp, crossed mandibles.
A tiger beetle’s incredible wariness and amazing speed are reasons they are rather difficult to “hunt.” The first glimpse one gets of a three-quarter-inch tiger beetle is a dark speck lifting suddenly up off the ground in front of one’s feet, usually in a sandy or dirt-covered field. That’s your only warning; watch carefully where the insect appears to land and approach on tiptoes. It requires stealth to get close enough to actually see the insect well.
And tiger beetles are worth seeing. They come in iridescent green, or bronze, or purple. Their eyes are large and bulgy and very keen. The two hard shells that cover their folded wings are called elytra, and they’re often spotted or marked with squiggly designs. A tiger beetle’s legs are long and slim — made for dashing after prey.
Most tiger beetles are diurnal, but a few are nocturnal — including one of Wisconsin’s resident species.
To date, I’ve only managed to locate four of Wisconsin’s tiger beetles, but all four were right here in the Chippewa Valley. I located the Bronzed Tiger Beetle at Coon Fork County Park. At Brunet Island State Park I discovered the Common Claybank Tiger Beetle. I found a colony of Punctured Tiger Beetles — named for the tiny depressions in their black back — in the back lot at work. And the lovely emerald green Six-spotted hunts the sidewalks at my house. I’ve had to rescue them from the bird bath a few times. To see some of the others one might have to venture further to lakeshore or dune. Wherever there is exposed dirt or sand, there are usually tiger beetles.
To hunt tiger beetles one needs a few trusty resources. A bug net is handy, for close up views, but not necessary, as close-focusing binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens work just as well. A good field guide helps too. I’d recommend Tiger Beetles of the North Woods, by Mathew Brust, or A Field Guide to the Tiger Beetles of the United States or Canada by Pearson, Knisley, & Kazilek.
Getting to know any insect is a rare opportunity; especially if the animal is fast as a flash, brightly-colored, and has a unique life cycle. What you might catch is a glimpse of something amazing. What you might catch is knowledge.