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Even tiger beetles have a following

During our daily walk through life, all of us, at some point or another, run into "experts." Perhaps not expert in the academic sense, but folks who know enough about a particular subject to become the go-to contact when a certain fine point is in dispute. Often that person even becomes the subject themselves e.g. "there's Beth, she's the rose lady," or, "John, he's that woodcarver guy right?"

In academia it gets a little more precise. There are experts - and these are the real McCoys - in just about everything imaginable, even small unnoticed bugs. One fellow in particular is into the Cicindelidae family, "Yeah, I'm the tiger beetle guy," says Patrick Beauzay, a research specialist in NDSU's Extension Entomology Department.

Several years ago my daughter had a project for sixth grade science which involved catching and identifying a minimum number of insects. I drove her to various locales so she could do her thing with a bug net. At the Sheyenne National Grasslands southeast of Kindred, I noticed tiger beetles for the first time. I say 'noticed' because I'm sure I'd seen them before but, like a lot of life's background, paid no attention. We eventually caught some, which ended up in her collection.

Tiger beetles consist of about 2,600 species worldwide, 109 of which have been documented in North America north of Mexico according to Beauzay. North Dakota can boast of 22 species including a rather unique one found only in Walsh, Grand Forks and Pembina counties and nowhere else in North America.

For the layman, the fact that very few common names exist for these critters is a little frustrating. We are left to sort through Latin binomials. The 3-county bug referred to above, for instance, is labeled Cicindela circumpicta pembina, a phrase which doesn't roll very smoothly off the tongue.

Dig a little deeper into the world of tiger beetles and you find critters as fierce as any large predator stalking the earth, just a lot smaller thankfully. A close look at the mouth of adults can send a chill up the spine. Reminiscent of science fiction, the mouthparts, or mandibles, consist of large opposing pincers used to grab and disable prey. With a slight hint of fear this prompted me to ask Beauzay if tiger beetles bite. He said, "No, they are too small to get their mouth around you." That's a relief.

Even the larvae get into the act, as both adult and larvae of every species are predatory. The larva digs a narrow burrow up to three feet deep. Inside this chamber the grub-like insect lies in wait for some small bug to happen by. The ambush is quick as the prey is seized, dragged into the burrow and consumed.

Adults do the same thing only above ground. And they do it with very fast bursts of speed. The Animal Planet channel even goes so far as to call tiger beetles the fastest land animal on earth relative to size. It has purportedly been clocked running at five m.p.h. I don't know what that equates to for us as people but that is faster than a brisk walk. Oh, most adults can fly also.

These insects, with large bulging eyes, thin thorax and long antennae can be encountered in many places. "There are a few tiger beetle species in the Fargo-Moorhead area but they are rarely encountered," said Beauzay. "The best place nearby is the river bottoms and upland dune systems of the Sheyenne National Grasslands."

NDSU houses one of the finest tiger beetle collections in America for anyone interested. Called the Paul Slabaugh collection, it consists of over 10,000 specimens from all over the world, according to Beauzay.

Still, it took me until I was into my 40s until I noticed them. "Yeah, the general public does not have much awareness of tiger beetles," said Beauzay. "But they are quite popular to insect collectors and photographers, so there is at least a small segment of the public enjoying them." They and Beauzay are what I would call experts.