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Deathwatch Beetle

Head-on closeup of a Big black-orange death-watch beetle.
SergeyTikhomirov/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Big black-orange death-watch closeup. Insect in wildlife.

Henry David Thoreau wrote about it in an essay.

It’s believed to have influenced Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart.

And in the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain penned, "Next the ghastly ticking of a deathwatch in the wall at the bed's head made Tom shudder – it meant that somebody's days were numbered.”

What’s the inspiration for this collection of prose from these literary greats?

A tiny species of wood boring beetle commonly called the deathwatch beetle.

At only a quarter inch long, what deathwatch beetles lack in size is more than compensated for by their deadly reputation.

Found in the eastern portion of the United States, deathwatch beetles typically inhabit the hardwood timbers of old buildings or the decaying wood of very old trees. The larvae bore into the wood, feeding for anywhere from one to ten years before pupating and emerging as an adult.

And while their wood-boring lifestyle can weaken the structural integrity of some infested buildings, if you believe the superstition, that’s the least of your worries.

To attract mates, adult beetles create an audible tapping sound by banging their heads against a surface. Historically, this ticking was best heard on quiet, sleepless nights …the same kind of long, quiet nights experienced during bedside vigils for the dying.

With this connection to human mortality, the beetle’s tapping echoed its way into legend – thought to be a sure sign that death was coming for someone living in the home.

So, the next time you’re lying awake at night and think you hear a soft tapping, relax in knowing it’s not the approach of the grim reaper, but more likely a lovestruck beetle looking for a mate.

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