The African Darkling Beetle

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"Knock-knock!"

"Who's there?" - usually no one if you are the victim of the childhood game 'toktokkie', where adventurous youths go from door to door knocking and then running away, or throwing stones on your roof in lieu of knocking.

This prank owes its name to a beetle of similar noisy qualities – the African Darkling beetle (Tenebrionid beetle), or toktokkie as it is fondly known. The name refers to the tapping sound made by the male beetle in his attempts to lure a mate with his Morse code communication skills.

In order to avoid confusion, each species of toktokkie has its own secret code or frequency of taps and this method of flirting is clearly working, as the species is currently so numerous and diverse that it defies clarity of classification.

Apart from their smooth-tapping ways, tenebrionid beetles are fast movers, reaching top speeds of 1m per second, especially in the Namib Desert, where you need to hot-foot it to avoid being incinerated by the blazing sands.

Not all tenebrionids can both tap and run this is limited to a number of flightless species. These types of beetle make their tapping sound by raising their abdomens and then beating them down on the ground in a number of beats. The male always initiates the conversation and will tap and then wait for a response. Once a female responds, they find their way to each other in order to mate, by moving in the direction of their mate's signals.

The female digs a shallow hole for her eggs, and the hundreds of long yellow larvae that emerge feed on the roots of surrounding plants. Also known as meal-worms, these larvae are used commercially for feeding reptiles, spiders and birds. They are also edible to humans, and are sometimes incorporated into tequila-flavoured sweets, in the same way that the Hypopta agavis larvae are used in the drink.

If the meal-worm escapes these fates, it will go through a complete metamorphosis on its way to becoming and adult toktokkie, emerging after 2 weeks to nine months of pupation in the familiar form of a squat beetle with spindly legs and no wings. When the beetle emerges from its pupa, it is white in colour, turning brown and then black in a short space of time.

The adult lives for a few months, surviving on grains, seedlings and decaying matter, tapping its love letters along the way. Shortly after reproducing, the beetle dies and the entire cycle starts again.

Ask your ranger if they can point out the tracks of any fast-moving toktokkie beetles in the area.

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Thursday, 14 December 2017