Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Insects by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Insects by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Colorado Potato-Beetle

Teacher's Story

dropcap image HE potato-beetle is not a very attractive insect, but it has many interesting peculiarities. No other common insect so clearly illustrates the advantage of warning colors. If we take a beetle in the hand, it at first promptly falls upon its back, folds its legs and antennæ down close to its body, and "plays possum" in a very canny manner. But if we squeeze it a little, immediately an orange-red liquid is ejected on the hand, and a very ill-smelling liquid it is. If we press lightly, only a little of the secretion is thrown off; but if we squeeze harder it flows copiously. Thus a bird trying to swallow one of these beetles, would surely get a large dose. The liquid is very distasteful to birds, and it is indeed a stupid bird that does not soon learn to let severely alone orange and yellow beetles, striped with black. The source of this offensive and defensive juice is at first a mystery, but if we observe closely we can see it issuing along the hind edge of the thorax and the front portion of the wing-covers; the glands in these situations secrete the protective juice as it is needed. The larvæ are also equipped with similar glands and, therefore, have the brazen habit of eating the leaves of our precious potatoes without attempting to hide. They seem to know that they are far safer when seen by birds than when concealed from them.


Eggs of Colorado potato-beetle.

Photo by Slingerland.

The life history of the potato-beetle is briefly as follows: Some of the adult beetles or pupæ winter beneath the surface of the soil, burrowing down a foot or more to escape freezing. As soon as the potato plants appear above ground the mother beetle comes out and lays her eggs upon the under sides of the leaves. These orange-yellow eggs are usually laid in clusters. In about a week there hatches from the eggs little yellow or orange humpbacked larvæ, which begin at once to feed upon the leaves. These larvæ grow as do other insects, by shedding their skins. They do this four times, and during the last stages, are very conspicuous insects on the green leaves; they are orange or yellow with black dots along the sides, and so humpbacked are they that they seem to be "gathered with a puckering string" along the lower side. It requires from sixteen days to three weeks for a larva to complete its growth. It then descends into the earth and forms a little cell in which it changes to a pupa. It remains in this condition for one or two weeks, according to the temperature, and then the full-fledged beetle appears. The entire life cycle from egg to adult beetle may be passed in about a month, although if the weather is cold, this period will be longer. The beetles are very prolific, a mother beetle having been known to produce five hundred eggs, and there are two generations each year. These beetles not only damage the potato crop by stopping the growth through destroying the leaves, but they also cause the potatoes to be of inferior quality.


Larvæ of Colorado potato-beetle.

Photo by Slingerland.

The adult beetle is an excellent object lesson in the study of beetle form. Attention should be called to the three regions of the body: A head which is bright orange; the compound eyes, which are black; and three simple eyes on the top of the head, which are difficult to see without a lens. The antennæ are short, their joints easily noted, and special attention should be paid to their use, for they are constantly moving to feel approaching objects. The two pairs of mouth palpi may be seen, and the beetle will eagerly eat raw potatoes, so that the pupils may see that it has biting mouth-parts. The thoracic shield is orange, ornamented with black. The three pairs of legs are short, which is a proof that these beetles do not migrate on foot. The claws and the pads beneath can be seen with the naked eye. Each wing-cover bears five yellow stripes, also five black ones, although the outside black stripe is rather narrow. These beetles are very successful flyers. During flight, the wing-covers are raised and held motionless while the gauzy wings beneath are unfolded and do the work. Children are always interested in seeing the way the beetles fold their wings beneath the wing-covers.


Pupa of potato-beetle, enlarged.

Photo by Slingerland.

One of the most remarkable things about the Colorado potato-beetle is its history. It is one of the few insect pests which is native to America. It formerly fed upon sandbur, a wild plant allied to the potato, which grows in the region of Colorado, Arizona and Mexico, and was a well behaved, harmless insect. With the advance of civilization westward, the potato came also, and proved to be an acceptable plant to this insect; and here we have an example of what an unlimited food supply will do for an insect species. The beetles multiplied so much faster than their parasites, that it seemed at one time as if they would conquer the earth by moving on from potato field to potato field. They started on their march to the Atlantic seaboard in 1859; in 1874, they reached the coast and judging by the numbers washed ashore, they sought to fly or swim across the Atlantic. By 1879, they had spread over an area consisting of more than one-third of the United States.

Reference—The Colorado Potato-Beetle, Chittenden, Bulletin of U. S. Department of Agriculture.

Lesson XCII

The Colorado Potato-Beetle

Leading thought—The Colorado potato-beetle is a very important insect, since it affects the price of potatoes each year. It is disagreeable as a food for birds, because of an acrid juice which it secretes. We should learn its life-history and thus be able to deal with it intelligently in preventing its ravages.

Method—The study of the potato-beetle naturally follows and belongs to gardening. The larvæ should be brought into the schoolroom and placed in a breeding cage on leaves of the potato vine. Other plants may be put into the cage to prove that these insects will only eat the potato. The children should observe how the larvæ eat and how many leaves a full grown larva will destroy in a day. Earth should be put in the bottom of the breeding cage so that the children may see the larvæ descend and burrow into it. The adult beetles should be studied carefully, and especially, the children should see the excretion of the acrid juice.


1. At what time do you see the potato-beetles? Why are they more numerous in the fall than in the spring? Where do those which we find in the spring come from? What will they do if they are allowed to live?

2. What is the shape of the potato-beetle? Describe the markings on its head. What color are its eyes? Describe its antennæ. How are they constantly used? Can you see the palpi of the mouth? Give the beetle a bit of potato and note how it eats.

3. What is the color of the shield of the thorax? Describe the legs. Do you think the beetle can run fast? Why not? How many segments has the foot? Describe the claws. Describe how it clings to the sides of a tumbler or bottle.


The Colorado potato-beetle.

Photo by Slingerland.

4. If the beetle cannot run rapidly, how does it travel? Describe the wing-covers. Why is this insect called the ten-lined potato beetle?

5. Describe the wings. How are they folded when at rest? How are the wing-covers carried when the beetle is flying?

6. Take a beetle in your hand. What does it do? Of what advantage is it to the insect to pretend that it is dead? If you squeeze the beetle what happens? How does the fluid which it ejects look and smell? Try and discover where this fluid comes from. Of what use is it to the beetle? Why will birds not eat the potato-beetle?

7. Where does the mother beetle lay her eggs? Are they laid singly or in clusters? What color are the eggs? How long after they are laid before they hatch?

8. Describe the young larva when it first hatches. What color is it at first? Does it change color later? Describe the colors and markings of a full grown larva.

9. How does this larva injure the potato vines? Does it remain in sight while it is feeding? Does it act as if it were afraid of birds? Why is it not eaten by birds?

10. Where does the larva go when it is full grown? How many times does it shed its skin during its growth? Does it make a little cell in the ground? How does the pupa look? Can you see in it the eyes, antennæ, legs and wings of the beetle?

11. Write an English theme giving the history of the Colorado potato-beetle, and the reasons for its migration from its native place.

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