Palo Verde Beetles – An Appreciation

One of my earliest memories involves a giant insect.  If you’re one of the few people who’ve read my blog from the very beginning (and you, my friends, are amazing!), you already know about my unfortunate run-in with this beetle:

Palo verde beetle

Palo verde beetle (Derobrachus hovorei)

For those of you who haven’t read the story, it goes like this: Imagine a 4-year-old girl in a cute little sundress sitting on her backyard swing, the one her father created from a smooth board and some rope slung over a strong tree branch.  It’s dusk.  She’s happily swinging, maybe humming a little, when suddenly a monster falls out of the tree and lands on her shoulder.  It’s a 3 inch long, black beetle, one with massive jaws, spikes adorning its strong thorax, and sharp claws at the tips of its long legs.  It lands inches from her exposed neck.  The girl jumps off her swing and starts running around the yard, screaming her head off like any self-respecting 4-year-old girl does when a 3 inch long insect appears on her shoulder.  Eventually, one of her parents rushes into the yard to see what is going on, brushes the beetle from her skin, and takes her into the house to safety.

I have a very, very vivid memory of this incident, even though it happened so long ago.  The beetle did frighten me horribly when it fell onto my shoulder that night, but it was mostly from the shock, the beetle having magically appeared on my shoulder as if out of thin air.  For some reason, apart from this one moment of weakness (and let’s face it – ANYONE who has a large, 3 inch long peevish beetle fall onto their shoulder unexpectedly is going to be shocked for at least a moment), these beetles have fascinated for me as long as I can remember.

Palo verde beetle (Derobrachus hovorei)

Palo verde beetle (Derobrachus hovorei)

Palo verde beetles are gigantic and very scary to a lot of people who encounter them.  It’s wholly understandable that people might be a little squeamish of a 3 inch long, well armored beetle.  It probably doesn’t help that they’re also nocturnal and emerge from the shadows when you least expect them.  They’re so big that you can hear them walking before you see them, an audible harbinger of doom warning you before the beast appears.

But I love them still.  I can’t explain why exactly, but I do know that if you have a chance to watch these beetles they become vastly less intimidating.  Palo verde beetles are so large that they are very poor fliers.  They bumble around in the air, swooping and swerving this way and that.  They always look a little drunk when they fly.  As a child, I used to love watching them try to fly through our chain link fence, only to knock their heads or wings into one of the metal parts and fall to the ground, dazed and momentarily disoriented.  Often, they would fall on their backs and their legs would flail around in the air ridiculously as they tried to right themselves.  To this day, I enjoy watching these beetles moving around.  They smack into walls and cars and the sidewalk.  They trip over their own feet at times when they walk.  Even though they’re big and scary to look at, I love them in part because they’re hilarious to watch.  There’s something so comic about these hulks tripping all over their gangly bodies like teenagers who haven’t quite adjusted to their most recent growth spurt.

Palo verde beetle (Derobrachus hovorei)

Palo verde beetle (Derobrachus hovorei)

Palo verde beetles are inexorably tied to “home” in my mind as well.  I have hundreds of memories of these beetles from my early childhood and they eventually became a sort of symbol of my desert home for me.  I was very sad when I learned that Colorado didn’t have these beetles when we moved there.  Imagine a 9-year-old girl longing for a giant beetle!  But Arizona was always home to me, no matter how long we lived in another state.  When we came back to Arizona to visit my grandparents for the first time, about 7 or 8 years after we moved, I was absolutely thrilled that the very first insect I saw was a palo verde beetle, wandering along under the door to my grandparents’ guesthouse.  I don’t recall ever having picked one up as a child, so I didn’t realize they could bite until I watched the angry beetle clamp his jaws onto my grandfather’s hand as he scooped the bug up for me.  My poor, ailing grandfather cried out in pain because the beetle bit him.  I gained a new respect for these beetles that day.  But, I was still very happy when I moved back to Arizona and saw my first palo verde beetle.  I mistook her for a pack rat at first because she was so enormous.  I could barely believe it was possible for a beetle to be that big, but there she was, running along the wall of the apartment complex as I watched, the biggest insect I’ve ever seen.

Palo verde beetle (Derobrachus hovorei)

Palo verde beetle (Derobrachus hovorei)

The palo verde beetles are also a symbol of summer to me.  The summers in southern Arizona are rather miserable.  Temperatures of 110 degrees F are not uncommon and there is a long dry period of unrelenting sun and heat for a few months before the monsoons set in during the late summer.  The beetles start to come out during that hot time, when people just want to melt into their couches and never move again.  For me, they brighten an otherwise unpleasant time immeasurably.  I squeal with childish delight every year when I see my first.  Against my better judgement, I rush over to grab the beetle – carefully, by the abdomen directly behind the thorax.  As the beetle illustrates his displeasure at my interruption of his evening by thrashing around in a mad attempt to bite me or skewer my fingers with the spikes on his thorax, I carry him into the house as proudly as a hunter bringing home a 12 point buck.  I wave the giant beetle in front of  whoever happens to be in the house at the time and ramble on and on about how fabulous they are.  Then I snap a few photos and release him back into the yard, so he can continue flying drunkenly about the city in search of mates so that I can do it all over again the following year.

Palo verde beetle (Derobrachus hovorei)

Palo verde beetle (Derobrachus hovorei)

I really don’t know what it is about these beetles that I love so much.  They’re big.  They’re rather  ill-tempered and can have a nasty mean streak if you interfere with their business.  One of them frightened me as young child.  By all rights, I should hate these beetles.  But I don’t.  I find their presence near my home a cause for great joy.  I celebrate their return every year.  It makes me so happy to know that they’re out there, that I might find one crawling sluggishly around my front door one night as I run out to chuck a bag of trash into the can.  A whole day might turn around simply because I see one of these beetles.  A few months from now, I’ll be carrying surly beetles into my house to photograph them, to document their continued existence, and then let them go on their way again.  And it will make me happy, just like it always does.

I had intended for this post to focus on the natural history and lives of the palo verde beetles, but it has clearly turned into something else.  Someday I’ll share more information about their biology.  Today I wanted to share my appreciation for these magnificent animals.  Hope some of you will appreciate them with me!

Palo verde beetle (Derobrachus hovorei)

Palo verde beetle (Derobrachus hovorei)


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21 thoughts on “Palo Verde Beetles – An Appreciation

  1. I totally love these beetles! I have to say, though, that I would have freaked out too in your situation. I had one kind of drunkenly fly and land on me once, kind of a really loud bzzzz-CHONK, and I did freak out for a second. But they’re so awesome! I love that you love them.

    My husband brought one home for me last year. I was so happy. His coworkers are quite sure I’m crazy.

    • Yeah, they’re huge and I’ve never met a palo verde beetle that wasn’t somewhat ill-tempered, so there’s definitely a reason to be just a little scared when they land on you unexpectedly. But watching them fly! Seriously one of the funniest things you can ever see. They just barrel their way through the air, crashing into things. Always makes me think of the “big kid” in the classrooms I visit, the one that’s so much bigger than everyone else he just hopes the other kids get out of his way when he approaches cause he ain’t stopping for them. I’m glad other people like the palo verde beetles too because I think they’re marvelous! And I love your photo! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Do the natural history for us, when you have a minute, now you have turned us into palo verde fans , Everything in Ireland is more Lilliputian. Thanks

  3. What an awesome beetle! I think I may have seen them during my college years down in Arizona – just didn’t know what I was seeing at the time. My appreciation for insects didn’t quite develope till later…

  4. Well, I’m glad somebody loves them because everything needs love I guess. I am feeling NO love for this beast. It is 2am. I have thrown about 8 out of my home tonight so far in the last hour. All the lights are on and I’m scared to death so there will be no sleep tonight. One landed on me in my kitchen a half an hour ago so I have a nice dose of adrenalin going to keep me up all night. Monsoon has started up for us here in Tucson over the past week. I had a feeling I would be up all night battling them when I saw one the size of a bat flying around the street during me early evening jog. How are they getting in? Oh my god, could they be living in my walls? I think I need to move :(

    • Sorry that you have so many palo verde beetles in your house! I’m actually not in Tucson at the moment (out of town for family emergency) so I have yet to see one this monsoon myself but I would consider your experience pretty lucky if it were me. They’re much more welcome visitors when you actually like them though!

      You can rest assured that your palo verde beetles are not living in your walls! The adults don’t feed and the larvae live underground eating palo verde roots. However, you might want to look around for openings to your house (holes in screens on windows, gaps in door frames, dog doors that don’t quite close, etc) where they can come in. They’re attracted to lights at night so if they have a means of getting into your house, they’re likely to crawl all the way inside if they are able to. Good luck!

  5. i have a yard full of native trees and plants here in mesa. the palo verde beatle only “attacks” the mexican palo verde in my yard…….

    • Does it actually do any damage to your Mexican palo verde? I have few personal experiences with raising the trees as I have only ornamental trees in my yard (not by choice – I rent), but the beetles are adapted to living with palo verdes and rarely kill or damage healthy trees.

      • howdy, i have had this mexican paloverde in my yard since the 1970’s. it was a gift from my father in law. i have lost many branches and the main tree, but the rootstock still produces shoots that get tree size?!!! the beetles leave very noticeable holes in the ground when they burrow underground, but as i say the rootstock does not get totally destroyed in the case of this singular tree. p.s. i notice on my firts response i must of been thinking of the beatles rock and roll group, as that is how i spelled the insect species!! how about jo jo left his home in tucson arizona for some california……..!!

  6. Any suggestions for dealing with the grubs which were probably caused by the Dragon Fly. I have already lost 6 succulents.

    • I can say for certain that it’s not dragonflies that are causing your succulent problems. Dragonflies are aquatic insects as immatures and require water to survive, plus they’re predators and eat only other insects as adults. They’re definitely not the cause of your plant problems. However, I am not an expert on plant issues as I am an aquatic entomologist. I would recommend calling your local Master Gardener service (part of your local cooperative extension service) for more information about your specific problems. Master Gardeners are trained to diagnose these sorts of problems whereas I have no training in this area at all. Good luck!

  7. Great post, very enjoyable read. :)

    The first big longhorn I saw was an Enaphalodes hispicornis in Payson this past summer. I tried picking it up, and much to my surprise, it squeaked at me! I didn’t know they could do that until that point. A moment later, I discovered a Prionus heroicus, which looks similar to the palo verde beetle, a muscular-looking black beast. This one also surprised me; instead of squeaking, it delivered a painful bite. I deserved it, I guess. :)

    • Glad you liked it! As it said in the post, I hadn’t intended it to become my ode to palo verde beetles, but it turned out pretty well – and gave me a chance to write a more scientific one later.

      I have never been bitten by any of the prionus beetles, palo verde beetle or otherwise, but I have learned from watching others that it can hurt rather badly. My latest bite was by a patent leather beetle earlier this year. I had been passing them around to kids all semester telling them that they were safe to hold. Well, they WERE safe to hold, until a bunch of ill behaved, obnoxious 5th graders whose teacher had absolutely lost control of her classroom decided to be mean to one of my beetles. I took the beetle away from them and was bitten as I was putting it back into its cage. I did not deserve to be bitten, but I understand why it bit me. And at least it didn’t bite the kids! They probably would have squashed it. Wow that was an awful classroom…

  8. I just encountered one of these yesterday in Phoenix. I was on my driveway changing the battery on my truck when I hear something hit the garage door. I turn around and I see this beetle on the ground upside down. I stepped back and in that instance it sort of hopped and toward my foot. That scared the crap out of me because it was a bug I had never seen, it was huge, and I thought it was gonna try to bite my foot. Next I see it open its back and see the wings come out and it flew away. It was definitely funny to see it fly away because it almost looked like it was drunk flying away, dipping in the air and almost like flying side to side.

    • Ha ha! Aren’t they the worst fliers? They crash into everything, then hop back up and fly off again in this totally ungainly way. Glad you got to see it! I think it’s hilarious to watch them. :)

      • Wow, I’m impressed that your chickens will go after them! Then again, I saw my chickens chase down things that I never expected them to go after – squirrels, mice, the dog – so they’re definitely a lot less wimpy that people give them credit for. :)

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