Battle of the sextons

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 7th September & the Gazette & Herald on 5th September 2018


When I was very young, and when the weather permitted, I spent most of my time outside playing with friends, or entertaining myself in the garden by digging in the mud to discover what little creatures I could find. I was a proper scruffy little tomboy and a family tale goes that I even quite enjoyed the taste of mud (I don’t myself remember eating it, but am assured by the rest of the family that I did!). I think it must account for my rather robust state of health over the years, as I am seldom ill, although I suppose I should add a disclaimer for today’s youngsters: Do not eat soil. It is a cat’s toilet.

In his column from 9th September 1978, Dad mentions finding an upturned margarine tub on the front doorstep and when he lifted it up, he found a large beetle beneath it. He had no idea who had left it there, although I think I am probably the most likely culprit as I would have still been just 11 years old, and my siblings were all teenagers who by then entertained themselves in far more sophisticated ways than me. I’d probably found it in the garden during one of my forages, left it on the doorstep, then no doubt got distracted by something else and forgot all about it.

The beetle was about 3cm long, flatish, mostly black with two thick bright orange wavy bars across its wing cases. Dad identified it quickly as the nicrophorous vespilliodes, or common sexton beetle.

He goes on to explain its rather gruesome, but highly effective, method of survival and reproduction, which is worth repeating here, as A. it is fascinating and B. it makes this beetle the ultimate ambassador for eco living! (But if you are of a delicate disposition, you might want to look away now….).

Traditionally, a sexton (of the human variety) was responsible for digging graves and this is where the beetle gets its name, for it is a pretty effective gravedigger itself (although today the role of the human sexton has evolved into that of maintenance of the church building and its surroundings, as well as the graveyard).

Like a pair of nocturnal scavengers, male and female sexton beetles work together to seek out dead or decaying small animals, attracted by the smell of rotting flesh. Their antennae are equipped with super-sensitive receptors that can detect the stench of death from metres or even kilometres away. Once they find a body, they might have to fight off their competitors and, as is only fair, the boys fight the boys, and the girls fight the girls. The most dominant pair wins the spoils.

To avoid the threat of any determined rivals coming back to steal their prize, the winners set about burying the corpse by burrowing underneath it, until the whole lot sinks and is ultimately consumed by the earth. Animal cadavers can be buried up to eight inches deep, and the industrious couple complete the process quickly and efficiently – a rat that has died in the evening would be entombed by morning.

To celebrate their successful endeavours, the couple then mate (well who wouldn’t?) and the female lays her eggs beneath the corpse, with her and her partner feeding on it to keep their strength up for parenting. Sexton beetles are unusual in the insect world in that both the male and female take part in raising the babies. Once the eggs turn into larvae, they also feed on the deceased creature, and the little family live together in their cadaverous eco-home (known as a ‘crypt’) until the youngsters are strong enough to fend for themselves. Only then, satisfied with a job well done, will Mum and Dad fly off to corpses new to start the process again.

It’s no wonder then, with such a system of beetle-style holistic living, that the sexton fares so well. They are plentiful, and look set to remain unthreatened by the advances of modern life. Hopefully, in forty years time, my successor will not be writing otherwise!

Having said that, despite some rain recently, the ground is still extremely hard underfoot. It makes me wonder if that has affected the ability of the beetle to burrow and bury? Perhaps someone with the right knowledge will kindly contact me and let me know (Sources:,

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