Beer is endangering the giant jewel beetle by ruining males’ ability to mate successfully. It’s not what you think — the beetles are not drinking the beer and then failing to perform. No, the problem is far more serious, and at the same time far more absurd.
During mating season, males of this species fly over arid regions of western Australia searching for females. The aspect of females that they find attractive is the female’s shiny, brown, dimpled elytra (modified, hardened front wings of beetles). Unfortunately, what they find even more attractive are discarded beer bottles, known in that country as “stubbies.”
Male beetles find stubbies irresistible, perhaps because they look like the biggest, most beautiful female beetles ever. The shiny, brown glass with the dimples that are designed to prevent humans from losing their grip are drawing in male jewel beetles in a way that no female beetle can match. Males swoop down towards stubbies ready for action.
Male beetles are so smitten with these beer bottles that while attempting to mate with them, they will ignore actual female beetles that are right there and willing to mate with them. Though these males are poor at mate selection, nobody can fairly say that they have commitment issues. Rather, they are so committed to the lovely bottles that they will continue in their attempts to mate with them indefinitely, without ever producing any offspring. (The bottles are infertile, you see.)
During their unsuccessful attempts at reproduction, they endure being eaten by ants as well as the blazing sun’s heat, either of which can eventually kill them. That’s right, the male beetles keep trying to mate with their beloved beer bottles until death do them part.
Biologists Darryl Gwynne and David Rentz published their observations about giant jewel beetles (and the beer bottles that are messing with them) over 30 years ago. However, it wasn’t until 2011 that they were officially honored for this work, receiving the Ig Nobel Prize in Biology. Ig Nobels are awarded to people whose research “first makes people laugh, and then makes them think.”
Other 2011 Ig Nobel Prizes included an award for developing a wasabi smoke alarm after trying hundreds of possible odors and determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi to awaken people in case of fire (Chemistry — to a team in Japan) and an award for demonstrating that the problem of luxury cars parked illegally can be solved by running them over with an armored tank (Peace — to Arturas Zuokas, mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania).
Beer and giant jewel beetles are forever linked in the minds of many people, including the owners of the Lagunitas Brewing Company. They named one of their products “Bug Town Stout” to honor this odd example of humans threatening the survival of another species. Every bottle says, “Catch the bug!” right underneath a drawing of a giant jewel beetle, but I hope they don’t really mean it. Presumably, they don’t actually want you to toss yet another troublesome bottle into the Australian landscape!
Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, Certified Professional Dog Trainer, author and an adjunct faculty member in NAU’s Department of Biological Sciences.