14 Nov

I’ll Huff and I’ll Puff and I’ll Burn Your Skin Off


When you think of insect defense mechanisms, images of fangs, stingers and stench might come to your mind. If you mess with a spider, you might get bit. When you decide to poke at a wasp nest, you are going to get stung. If you are curious about that little green sting bug, you might get a dose of foul smelling spray. The insect world is a dangerous place. If you are an insect, there are hundreds, if not millions of creatures that want to eat you. Many insects create defense mechanisms to protect themselves. If you come across an orange beetle with dark wing coverings, just leave it alone. This beetle comes equipped with the greatest and most unusual defense system on the planet. If you make this bug angry, it will burn your skin off.

Wait… What?
Perhaps a third repeat is in order; the bombardier beetle can burn you. If anything decides to try and eat the bombardier beetle, there is a nasty surprise in store. Within the beetles’ abdomen there are two chambers filled with two distinct chemicals. When agitated, the bombardier beetle can release those chemicals into a third section which acts as a mixing chamber. It adds a few enzymes to the concoction and an exothermic (a scientific word for really, really, burn-your-face-off hot.) reaction occurs. You might be wondering how hot. The fluid erupts out at a scalding 100 degrees Celsius, which is the temperature of boiling water. It is hot enough that a portion of the fluid immediately evaporates, and you will hear a popping sound come from the beetles’ backside. If burning your skin wasn’t bad enough, the fiery fluid also stinks. If you are unlucky enough to grab a bombardier beetle, all of this will happen in a few milliseconds.

The beetle is unharmed because the mixing chamber is thick walled and coated with specialized cells. The pressure from the reaction keeps the channels to the two chemical holding cells closed. If you want to get burned a second time, the bombardier beetle will oblige you. The beetle is capable of precision aiming with its abdomen. It can swivel its abdomen nearly 360 degrees. You cannot hide from the burning spray of the bombardier beetle.

Where are these beetles located?
If you are thinking South America, you are right. If Africa comes to mind, you are right again. Europe and Australia are the correct answer as well. If you are thinking North America… yep, you can find the bombardier beetle here as well. The only place you won’t have to worry about burning bottom spray is if you live in Antarctica. The beetle might live on every continent, yet it prefers a specific place.

Bombardier beetles live along undisturbed riparian zones (scientific word for rivers and flood plains). Next time you are fishing or playing by a wild river. Don’t. Touch. The. Orange. Beetle. That is, if you value your skin.

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