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Overview

Brief Summary

Xestobium rufovillosum, the death watch beetle, is a small (4-7 mm) wood-boring beetle in the family Anobiidae. The larvae of these beetles infest hardwood timber, but the wood must contain fungi or the beetle is not able to utilize it. Thus X. rufovillosum is found primarily in wood with moisture content greater than 14%. In forests, the death watch beetle is found in various hardwood species. When these beetles invade homes, they are found in wooden housing supports (especially oak) and heavy hardwood furniture (chestnut or oak). Death watch beetles are a common and important pest in Europe. They are also common in Eastern North America, although not nearly as important a pest species. The larvae of these beetles fill their galleries and tunnels with discrete pellets of “bun-shaped” frass, which is diagnostic of an infestation of this species. Their tunnels and exit holes are about 3mm in diameter. This pest may live for up to seven years, or complete their life-cycle in one year, if conditions are favorable. In order to attract mates, adult beetles produce a clicking/tapping noise by bumping their heads against wood, usually at night. This eerie sound was considered a superstitious death signal, and earned the beetle its common name: death watch beetle.

(Ebeling 2002; museumpests.net 2010; Wikipedia 2011)

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Biology

Adults may be found on flowers during the spring. In many species belonging to this family of beetles (Anobiidae), the gut contains microorganisms that help the beetles to break down the cellulose found in wood (2). The adult females lay eggs in crevices on the wood, and the larvae tunnel in after hatching (5). The presence of the larvae in wood can go unnoticed until the adults emerge, leaving distinctive holes at the surface. These exit holes measure around 3-4 mm in diameter (3).
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Description

The larvae of this common beetle are notorious pests of furniture and structural timbers in buildings (3). The adults have cylindrical bodies and small heads (2). The common name refers to the repeated ticking sound produced by the adults as they bang their heads against the wood, possibly to attract a mate. When heard at night, this eerie mating call was once thought to count down to the time of death (4).
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Distribution

National Distribution

United States

Origin: Native

Regularity: Regularly occurring

Currently: Present

Confidence: Confident

Type of Residency: Year-round

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Range

Common and widespread in southern England (1). Less common as a pest species in the north of England (1).
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Ecology

Habitat

Occurs as a pest of wood indoors or in dead wood of very old trees outside (1).
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Associations

Foodplant / internal feeder
larva of Xestobium rufovillosum feeds within wood of Quercus

Foodplant / internal feeder
larva of Xestobium rufovillosum feeds within wood of Salix

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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Statistics of barcoding coverage: Xestobium rufovillosum

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLDS) Stats
Public Records: 0
Specimens with Barcodes: 5
Species With Barcodes: 1
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Conservation

Conservation Status

National NatureServe Conservation Status

United States

Rounded National Status Rank: NNR - Unranked

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NatureServe Conservation Status

Rounded Global Status Rank: GNR - Not Yet Ranked

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Status

Not threatened (1).
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Threats

This pest species is not threatened.
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Management

Conservation

Conservation action is not required for this species.
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Wikipedia

Deathwatch beetle

The deathwatch beetle, Xestobium rufovillosum, is a woodboring beetle. The adult beetle is 7 millimetres (0.28 in) long, while the xylophagous larvae are up to 11 mm (0.43 in) long.

To attract mates, these woodborers create a tapping or ticking sound that can be heard in the rafters of old buildings on quiet summer nights. They are therefore associated with quiet, sleepless nights and are named for the vigil (watch) kept beside the dying or dead, and by extension the superstitious have seen the death watch as an omen of impending death.

The term "death watch" has been applied to a variety of other ticking insects including Anobium striatum, some of the so-called booklice of the family Psocidae, and the appropriately named Atropos divinatoria and Clothilla pulsatoria.

The larva is very soft, yet can bore its way through wood, which it is able to digest using a number of enzymes in its alimentary canal provided that the wood has experienced prior fungal decay.[1]


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In culture[edit]

Its nature as an ill-omen is alluded to in the fourth book of John Keats' "Endymion": "...within ye hear / No sound so loud as when on curtain'd bier / The death-watch tick is stifled."[2] ("Stifled" because the death it was portending has taken place.)

The deathwatch beetle is mentioned in the film Practical Magic, and its characteristic ticking sound serves as the harbinger of death.

The beetle is also mentioned in the History Channel series Life After People (season one, episode six) where it is shown "eating" the Mona Lisa.

Ray Bradbury mentioned them in his work Something Wicked This Way Comes wherein the antagonist carnival's speciality is claimed to be "to examine, oil, and repair Death-Watch Beetles."

German progressive rock band Hoelderlin has a 17 and a half minutes long track, titled "Deathwatchbeetle", on its eponymous album from 1975.

In Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart", deathwatches are mentioned among the list of things the old man was hearing and tried to explain practically but could not. He was terrified. He was also about to die.

They were mentioned in the BBC series Sherlock, where Sherlock is giving a toast at Watson's wedding and makes a comparison of John and Mary’s wedding to “the death-watch beetle that is the doom of our society and, in time, one feels certain, our entire species”

In Rogue Male based on a Geoffrey Household novel, Major Quive-Smith (John Standing) is staying at Drake's countryside boardinghouse while manhunting Sir Robert(Peter O'Toole). One night Sir Robert tries to steal food from Drake's dairy and falls through the rafters. Quive-Smith and Drake come out to investigate the commotion and Quive-Smith says the result of the cave-in was Deathwatch Beatle and that he had seen the results of the Beatle's work before while staying in East Riding.

References[edit]

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Names and Taxonomy

Taxonomy

Comments: The species epithet is spelled rufovillosus in Poole and Gentili (1996).

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