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Beetle Identification: A Guide to Common Species (With Photos)

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beetle-identification

North American Beetle Identification Guide

If you have a garden or own a home, then this quick and easy beetle guide will help you identify a group of insects that you almost certainly come across on a daily basis. Most beetles are harmless, and many are actually quite helpful to both gardeners and homeowners. There are a few, however, that can cause damage to plants or structures, or are otherwise undesirable. I have always been struck by how beautiful these often-overlooked animals can be, especially close-up. Their habits and life histories are also frequently amazing.

Overall, beetles are a group of insects that are worth getting to know. Being able to identify the beetles around your garden and your home is a good first step.

Identification Chart for Guide to Common Beetles

NameIdentificationHabits

Stag beetle

Large, dark shiny brown, big pincers

Found on ground or in rotting wood; come to lights

Hercules beelte

Very large, spotted, "rhinoceros" horns

Southern, habits like stag beetles

Grapevine chafer

Large; light brown with 6 dark spots

Found on leaves; will come to lights

Ten-lined June beetle

Large; dark brown with thin light lines

Western; buzz when threatened

Japanese beetle

Shining copper and green, can fly

Major pest of roses and other garden plants

Ground beetle

Various; usually black and elongated

Very common; hide under rocks

Tiger beetles

Long legs, large pincers, usually patterned, fly

Occur in bright sun on sandy/open ground; fast

Carrion beetles

Large, flattened, marked with yellow or orange

Life cycle on dead animals

Weevils

Various; usually small, with a "snout"

Found on plants; can be a pest

Sawyer beetles

Often large, elongated, long antennae, fly

Found on tree trunks; come to lights

Emerald ash borer

Small, elongated, dark shiny green

Major pest of ash trees; report if you find one!

Whirligigs

Shiny black, oval, long legs

Whirl in groups on the surface of ponds

Carpet beetles

Very small, rounded, gray pattern

Pest of stored organic material

Striped cucumber beetle

Small, "fat," striped green and white

In groups on cucurbits

Eyed click beetle

Long, very flat, large eye markings

Uncommon; southern; found on wood

Soldier beetles

Orange, fly, resemble bees

Late summer on goldenrod

Blister beetles

Rounded, soft-bodied, blue-black or brightly colored

Protected by blister-causing juices

Fireflies

Small, soft-bodied, light-producing organ on tail

Signal to mates with flashes at night

Fiery searcher

Large, fast, iridescent blue-purple

Hunts caterpillars; comes to lights

Bombardier beetle

Small, soft-bodied, red-orange markings

Protected by scalding chemical spray

Ladybird beetles

Rounded, small, usually have contrasting spotted pattern

Often found feeding near aphid colonies

Male stag beetle

Male stag beetle

1. Stag Beetles, Family Lucanidae

Stag beetles are often very spectacular insects with huge mandibles, or "pincers," which give the insect its common name -- the mandibles on some look like the horns of a stag deer. Stag beetles are shiny brown or black, usually quite large, and have pronounced mandibles that are smaller in the females. As a matter of fact, their smaller, stouter pincers means the female can deliver a much more painful bite than the male.

Stag beetles are not venomous or harmful in any way. The larvae live in rotten stumps and logs and prey on the insects there. The adults often fly to lights on warm summer nights.

The Basics

  • Scientific Name: The most common North American species are in the genus Lucanus
  • Size: Up to two inches in length
  • Habitat: Larvae live in rotten wood; adults often fly to lights at night
  • Range: Throughout the USA and southern Canada
  • Notes: These beetles are harmless, although the females can deliver a pinch with their short, sharp mandibles.

Did You Know?

Stag beetles are often raised as pets, especially in Asia.

Stag Beetles: male on left, female on right

Stag Beetles: male on left, female on right

The eastern Hercules beetle is a kind of rhinoceros beetle found in the United States

The eastern Hercules beetle is a kind of rhinoceros beetle found in the United States

2. Hercules Beetles, Genus Dynastes

These very large beetles are in the genus Dynastes, which is found throughout the Americas. Tropical species are among the largest insects in the world. In the United States, Dynastes beetles are generally uncommon, although the beautiful, black-spotted eastern Hercules beetles, Dynastes tityus, is occasionally found in large colonies on trees. These insects are harmless despite their large size and the male's huge horns.

The Basics

  • Scientific Name: These beetles are in the genus Dynastes.
  • Size: Up to two inches in length
  • Habitat: Larvae live in rotten wood; adults sometimes congregate on old trees.
  • Range: Throughout the eastern USA
  • Notes: Despite their fearsome horns, these beetles are harmless.
Male and female eastern Hercules beetle, Dynastes tityus

Male and female eastern Hercules beetle, Dynastes tityus

If one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of his creation it would appear that God has a special fondness for stars and beetles.

— John B. S. Haldane

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Grapevine Beetle

Grapevine Beetle

3. Grapevine Beetle, Pelidnota punctata

This large, handsome beetle is often found at lights in early summer, hence one of its other common names, the spotted June beetle. The adults are harmless and feed on grapevines, generally causing very little damage, and are not considered a pest. There are two variations of this species, one in the North and one in the South (the northern version has darker legs).

This insect lives in Eastern North America, as far south as Florida; its range extends west to Nebraska and eastern Kansas. They are very active fliers and will quickly take to the air if disturbed, although they can be safely handled. They live in woods, hedges, and overgrown areas, where the larvae (grubs) feed on rotten wood under the soil; they pupate in shallow chambers and the adult beetle emerges in the summer.

The Basics

Scientific Name: Genus Pelidnota

Size: Up to one inch in length

Habitat: Larvae are grubs that live under soil and feed on roots; adults eat the leaves of grape and other plants

Range: Throughout the eastern USA

Notes: These beetles are related to the more common brown "June bug."

Ten-lined June beetle showing large, broad antennae

Ten-lined June beetle showing large, broad antennae

4. Ten-Lined June Beetle, Polyphylla Decemlineata

Like the grapevine beetle (above) to which it is related, this is a large, showy beetle that often shows up at lights around homes and urban areas. However this beetle is confined to the American Southwest, where it can be very common.

Ten-lined June beetles have an interesting way of defending themselves, which you may know about if you have ever tried to pick one up. If you grab them or bother them, these beetles will suddenly make a loud, vibrating buzz that zings your fingers and is quite startling.

The Basics

  • Scientific Name: Polyphylla decemlineata
  • Size: Large; about one inch in length
  • Habitat: Larvae are grubs that live under soil and feed on roots
  • Range: Throughout the Southeastern USA
  • Notes: These big, beautiful insects are completely harmless to humans
Japanese Beetle

Japanese Beetle

5. Japanese Beetle, Popillia japonica

The Japanese beetle is one of the most destructive pests in the United States, chewing its way through the leaves of upwards of 300 different species, especially rose, grapes, linden, and crepe myrtle. It's also one of the prettiest beetles in North America, with copper-colored wing covers (elytra) and an iridescent green thorax and head. This beetle flies very well, and resembles a bee as it hovers among the flowers and blossoms of your backyard primrose.

P. japonica is native to Japan, where its population is controlled by natural predators. In North America, however, P. japonica is an invasive species, with few to none of the natural predators that keep its numbers in check in Japan. The first written evidence of this beetle's invasion of North America is from 1916, when it showed up in a New Jersey greenhouse, hungry and ready to stage a take-over. At present, only nine states, all in the West, are free from this pest.

The Basics

  • Scientific Name: Popillia japonica
  • Size: About a half-inch in length
  • Habitat: Larvae are grubs that live under soil and feed on roots; adults eat the leaves of more than 300 plants
  • Range: Throughout the eastern USA
  • Notes: This invasive species has only been in the US for about 100 years

Life Cycle of the Japanese Beetle

Graphic showing the underground larval and pupation stages of the Japanese beetle, Popillia japonica

Graphic showing the underground larval and pupation stages of the Japanese beetle, Popillia japonica

Ground Beetle

Ground Beetle

6. Ground Beetles, Family Carabidae

Ground beetles in the family Carabidae make up a very large group of beetles, many of which are those similar-looking brown or black beetles you see scurrying across the sidewalk. These ground beetles live under stones and logs, or under your porch, and they are totally harmless to humans: in fact, they do humans a service by preying on some less-desirable insects like ants.

It's unusual to see these beetles inside your home, so if you have a bug, or bugs, that look like beetles around your house, you should have a closer look -- they could be roaches. Cockroaches are an entirely different group of insects from beetles, and if you do have cockroaches, you should take steps to get rid of them.

The Basics

  • Scientific Name: Subfamily Carabinae
  • Size: Most are less than an inch—a few are quite large
  • Habitat: These beetles live outside, under stones and logs, and prowl around looking for small insects to eat
  • Range: These beetles have a worldwide distribution
  • Notes: Although they may look like cockroaches, you will rarely find ground beetles inside your home.


Typical Tiger Beetle

Typical Tiger Beetle

7. Tiger Beetles, Subfamily Cicindelinae

Tiger beetles are very cool insects that most people hardly notice, even though they are quite common. These beetles often occur in sandy areas, but some show up on hot summer sidewalks. They have long legs, big eyes, and sharp pincers, and they are jumpy and nervous -- tiger beetles will fly if you get too close and land about 5 feet away, repeating the action if you move towards them.

I always loved trying to catch tiger beetles in the summer when I was a kid. Many are very beautifully colored in iridescent green and blue, and the challenge of grabbing one can keep a kid occupied for hours.

The Basics

  • Scientific Name: Family Carabidae; Subfamily Cicindelinae
  • Size: About a half-inch in length
  • Habitat: Hot, flat surfaces where they prey on other insects
  • Range: Throughout the USA, including deserts
  • Notes: There are many similar-looking species in this group, which makes identifying them a challenge for amateurs and professional alike
A beautiful tiger beetle up close

A beautiful tiger beetle up close

Carrion Beetle

Carrion Beetle

8. Carrion Beetles, Family Silphidae

If you come across a dead bird or mouse, there's a good chance that some of these beetles will be on the scene. They are large and brightly colored, which makes them hard to miss. Carrion beetles are also sometimes called "burying beetles," because some species dig a hole under the carcass until it falls in. Then the beetles lays eggs on the food source and covers it up. This group has many other fascinating habits, all of them on the gross side, but true scientists, citizen or otherwise, aren't fazed by a little carrion.

There are two common species in this group that look very different. Most Silphidae beetle are good flyers and sometimes come to lights.

The Basics

  • Scientific Name: Family Silphidae; various species around the world
  • Size: Medium-sized beetles, up to about an inch in length
  • Habitat: Found wherever there are dead animals
  • Range: Throughout the USA
  • Notes: The habits of this insect are amazing in their adaptations to feeding on and around carrion

Another Common Carrion Beetle: Necrophila americana

The name says it all -- these beetles love to find a dead mouse or bird and use it as a food source

The name says it all -- these beetles love to find a dead mouse or bird and use it as a food source

Filbert weevil showing characteristic "snout"

Filbert weevil showing characteristic "snout"

9. Weevils, Superfamily Curculionoidea

Weevils are generally small, harmless beetles with a pronounced nose or "snout." They are the most common kind of beetle in the world, and since there are more beetles than any other kind of animal on earth, that makes weevils the most successful animal out there. And you probably never even noticed them!

The place where most people encounter weevils is in the pantry, where a few species can become pests by invading stored beans and grains. Many people have also heard of the "boll weevil," which feeds on cotton and can ruin a cotton crop by damaging the fibers in the "boll."

Once you are tuned in to the world of small animals, you will certainly start noticing a weevil or two in your surroundings. Unless they're in your stored food, there's no reason to fear or harm these little creatures.

The Basics

  • Scientific Name: Superfamily Curculionoidea; many species around the world
  • Size: Small-to-medium-sized beetles, up to about an inch in length
  • Habitat: Found just about everywhere; they have adapted to nearly every corner of the world
  • Range: Worldwide; possibly also on the moons of Jupiter
  • Notes: The habits of this insect are amazing in their adaptations to the food and conditions of virtually any environment
The beautiful Green Weevil (genus Polydrusus) is very common in late summer.

The beautiful Green Weevil (genus Polydrusus) is very common in late summer.

Sawyer Beetle

Sawyer Beetle

10. Sawyer Beetles, Genus Monochamus

You will most likely encounter sawyer beetles on camping and fishing trips, in places where there are plenty of trees. The larvae of this beetles, which look a little like pale, tough caterpillars, bore into dead and dying trees; they especially like pine trees. The tunnels made by the larvae can ruin commercial timber, and the timber industry has found ways to preserve cut logs to keep damage from sawyer beetles to a minimum.

These big beetles are harmless to humans. They fly very well, and sometimes come to lights. The males are typically a hit smaller than the females, and usually have impressively long antennae, sometimes twice the length of the body.

The Basics

Scientific Name: Genus Monochamus; they belong to a very large group called "longhorn beetles," family Cerambycidae

Size: Medium to quite large; some females measure over an inch

Habitat: Found wherever there are plenty of trees

Range: Throughout the USA

Notes: In addition to damaging timber by boring holes in wood, these beetles have been known to transmit disease between trees.

Beetle grubs in rotten wood

Beetle grubs in rotten wood

The Emerald Ash Borer

beetle-identification

11. Emerald Ash Borer, Agrilus Planipennis

This small beetles has caused more havoc in American forests and parkways than any invasive species since the gypsy moth. Even though it is truly beautiful -- it belongs to a group of beetles also known as "jewel beetles" -- the emerald ash borer has shown how destructive and invasive species can be in a new environment with no predators in place to control it. If you live anywhere in the eastern part of the country, you are likely familiar with the death and removal of the beautiful ash trees that are a mainstay of urban greenery. For this you can thank the humans responsible for the careless importation of this little beetle.

As is so often the case with destructive species like carpet beetles and and clothes moths, it's the little, unseen larvae that do all the damage. They begin as eggs laid on bark, and then hatch and burrow into the tree. Over time, enough of them can do enough damage to a tree's vascular system to cause it to wilt and die.

In Asia, where it is endemic, the emerald ash borer occurs at low densities and is controlled by predators adapted to feed on the larvae and adults. In the US and Europe, it can undergo population explosions. If you find an insect that looks anything like the emerald ash borer, immediately call a local university, museum, or forestry office—it's a legitimate emergency!

The Basics

  • Scientific Name: Agrilus planipennis
  • Size: quite small, often less than half an inch
  • Habitat: Areas with the host, ash trees (genus Fraxinus)
  • Range: Originally Asia; now throughout the Western Hemisphere
  • Notes: This little beetle is one of the worst invasive species of our time.
Emerald ash borer with wings spread -- beautiful but bad news

Emerald ash borer with wings spread -- beautiful but bad news

Emerald Ash Borer Alert!

If you find an insect that looks anything like the emerald ash borer, immediately call a local university, museum, or forestry office -- it's a legitimate emergency!

Whirligig Beetles

Whirligig Beetles

12. Whirligig Beetles, family Gyrinidae

There are many beetles that spend most or all of their time in the water, including some large predatory beetles that feed on small fish, among other things. Most people seldom encounter these insects, but one kind of "water beetle" is familiar to almost everyone who has spent time outdoors: whirligigs. These small, dark-colored beetles spend most of their time floating in large colonies on the surface of pond and other still water. When you, or any other being, disturbs them, they respond by frantically zig-zagging through the water, zooming in tight circles and creating real chaos. Of course this helps confuse predators. They are also very hard to hold; if you are quick enough to grab one of these insects (unlikely), it will quickly slip through your fingers thanks to its flat, slick surface and powerful, oar-like legs.

These beetles are harmless and not a little hilarious. They are a sweet part of summer, and if you have never seen a herd of whirligig beetles swimming manically around in circles, get to a quiet pond and have a look along the banks. They're there.

The Basics

  • Scientific Name: Family Gyrinidae; several species that are all very similar
  • Size: Small to medium
  • Habitat: Found wherever there is still water
  • Range: Throughout the USA
  • Notes: Although they spend most of their time on the surface, whirligig beetles will dive if they feel especially threatened.

Whirligig Beetles in Action

Carpet beetles caught in a sticky trap in a museum display

Carpet beetles caught in a sticky trap in a museum display

13. Carpet and Dermestid Beetles, Family Dermestidae

If you have ever worked in a museum, then you most certainly know about these beetles. The bristly larvae feed on dead, dried-out animal material, and an infestation can destroy irreplaceable collections of everything from insect to bird specimens. In the home, they can chew holes in carpets and wool, much the same as clothes moths do. Note that it's the larvae, not the adults, that cause the damage -- this is true of both beetles and moths.

There is one way in which Dermestid beetles are actually useful in museums, however. Since they have a voracious appetite for dead material, scientists often place animal corpses in a tank with hundreds of Dermestids in order to get a perfectly cleaned skeleton for study and display. It's not a pleasant thought, but all of those beetle larvae gobble up the skin, hair, etc, and leave the bone as clean as a whistle.

The Basics

  • Scientific Name: Family Dermestidae; most are found in the wild, but a few species are well-known pests
  • Size: Very small; usually about 1/4 inch in length
  • Habitat: Found wherever there are stored organic materials
  • Range: Throughout the world
  • Notes: These beetles can cause trouble in the home, but they can be devastating in museums, where large collections are sometimes consumed by this pest.
The super-destructive larva of the carpet beetle

The super-destructive larva of the carpet beetle

Striped Cucumber Beetle

Striped Cucumber Beetle

14. Striped Cucumber Beetle, Acalymma vittatum

This small beetle can be a minor pest on your cucumbers and other cucurbits. These insects attack the plant from top to bottom: the adult beetles emerge en masse in the spring and begin feeding on leaves and flowers; the grubs live underground and eat the plant's roots. If there are enough of them, striped cucumber beetles can kill an otherwise healthy plant. Additionally, these beetles can transmit wilt diseases and other pathogens.

These insects look a lot like the western corn rootworm beetle, but their habits are very different.

The Basics

  • Scientific Name: Acalymma Vittatum
  • Size: Small beetles, about a half-inch in length
  • Habitat: Your garden, and anywhere else there are cucumber plants
  • Range: Throughout the world
  • Notes: Two closely related species, the spotted cucumber beetle, Diabrotica undecimpunctata, and the banded cucumber beetle, Diabrotica balteata, are more common in Florida.
Two striped cucumber beetles, doing what cucumber beetles do

Two striped cucumber beetles, doing what cucumber beetles do

Eyed click beetle, Alaus oculatus

Eyed click beetle, Alaus oculatus

15. Eyed Click Beetle, Alaus Oculatus

These amazing-looking beetles occur throughout the American South, where there are several different species. The big eye spots on the back of the insect's thorax are, of course, not really eyes at all -- they're just markings that are designed to alarm and deter potential predators. The insect's real eyes are sharp, but they are very small and hidden.

There are many kinds of click beetles, most of them small and brown and not nearly as noticeable as eyed click beetles. All of them, however, have the same unique ability: if they are flipped onto their back, click beetles can snap their thorax and abdomen together and with an audible click launch themselves up to a foot into the air. They don't always land on their feet, but if they don't they just wind up and try it again.

The Basics

  • Scientific Name: Alaus Oculatus
  • Size: From a half-inch to nearly two inches
  • Habitat: Virtually any wild or green area
  • Range: Throughout the world
  • Notes: There are many, many species of click beetles in the world, and they can all snap themselves into the air to escape danger.
Soldier Beetles

Soldier Beetles

16. Soldier Beetles, Family Cantharidae

Late in a midwestern summer, when goldenrod is at its peak, soldier beetles can be the most common insect among the swarm of bees, flies, and butterflies trying to get as much nutrition as possible as the cool evenings set in. There are several kinds of soldier beetles, but they are all elongated and brightly colored, with leathery wing covers (elytra) instead of the usual hard shells found on most beetles. One explanation of their common name is that one of the first described species was patterned a a way that reminded the scientist of the red coats of British soldiers.

These beetles fly very well and are often mistaken for wasps, which is the idea -- they are completely harmless, but the way they buzz around flowers, showing their bright colors, may fool potential predators into thinking they can sting.

The Basics

  • Scientific Name: Family Cantharidae
  • Size: Most are about an inch long
  • Habitat: Usually seen flying around flowers like goldenrod
  • Range: Throughout the Western Hemisphere
  • Notes: Soldier beetles resemble wasps, but they are harmless

Another Variety of Soldier Beetle

beetle-identification
The beautiful spotted blister beetle

The beautiful spotted blister beetle

17. Blister Beetles, Family Meloidae

Blister beetles are related to soldier beetles (above), and you can see the resemblance: they both have leathery, not shell-like, wing covers, and they both crawl over flowers during the day. Blister beetles are not always as brightly colored as soldier beetles, or the one pictured -- many are dark blue-black.

Blister beetles get their name from their body secretions, which can cause blisters on your skin. Gardeners often come in contact with them, and break out in itchy blisters later that night or the next day. It's likely that these toxic juices make the insect unpalatable to birds and other predators -- the bright colors of some species is a case of "aposomatic coloration," a bright color pattern that warns predators away.

The blistering quality of Cantharidae beetles is used in medicines for some skin conditions. It's also the basis for the legendary "Spanish Fly," a well-known aphrodisiac. Whether or not Spanish Fly actually works is beyond the scope of this article.

The Basics

  • Scientific Name: Family Meloidae
  • Size: Most are about an inch long
  • Habitat: Usually seen climbing on low plants and visiting flowers, often in groups
  • Range: Throughout the Western Hemisphere
  • Notes: The blistering quality of their bodily oils has long been used for medical and recreational purposes.

A Vintage Ad for Spanish Fly Aphrodisiac

If you look closely, you can see the little blister beetle on the box!

If you look closely, you can see the little blister beetle on the box!

Fireflies

A firefly out during the day

A firefly out during the day

18. Fireflies, Family Lampyridae

Virtually everyone is familiar with these charming insects, which are of course not flies at all, but a kind of beetle with over 2,000 different species around the world. In the US, there are a number of species with very different habits, including one in which the females mimic the flashing call of the females of another species, luring the males; when the poor suitor comes calling, he is promptly dismembered and eaten. Like I said, charming.

Fireflies typically come out at night and find each other for mating -- or eating -- by means of a cold chemical flashing signal. The light they produce has no infrared or ultraviolet frequencies, completely different from sunlight. They are found throughout the world, and are known as "glowworms" in Eurasia and elsewhere.