We’re all familiar with phenology—that regular progression of plant and animal life through the seasons—to a certain extent. We might not stop to think about it in detail, but we recognize the crabapples blooming in spring, the fireflies lighting up the nighttime sky in June and July, and the southward flying geese and rutting deer in fall. When you think of the 25,000+ insects in the Great Lakes Region, there’s a rich diversity of seasonal patterns to pick up on. Some insect patterns, like cicadas, katydids, and tree crickets calling during the summer months, are hard to miss—although it can be challenging to decipher exactly who’s making that racket (Hint: here’s your translator). Others are much harder to pick up on unless you’ve been briefed on the subtle clues. For example, take the tiny foreign grain beetle (Ahasverus advena) which conspicuously pops up in unexpected places in August, September, and October.
To the naked eye, these tiny (1/16 inch long) brownish insects can be a bit tricky to see and it’s hard to tell if they’re beetles, ants, or something else. Even to budding entomology students pushing the boundaries of what they can interpret under the microscope, foreign grain beetles and relatives might be jokingly referred to as “little brown nothings” and passed over for easier-to-identify specimens.
Around the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab, foreign grain beetles are one of my favorite samples when they arrive in late summer and early fall as they give me the faintest sensation of what it must feel like to be Sherlock Holmes. Picture a client coming in with a Ziploc bag of tiny brown insects. After a cursory glance and before the specimens even make it under the microscope, I ask, “are you in a new home by any chance?” The standard reply is often along the lines of, “Well, yes—but how did you know?” A quick check under the microscope and the specimen’s identity is confirmed. It’s elementary, my dear Watson.
How is there such a reliable association with an unexpected source: newly constructed homes, where intuition wouldn’t have you expecting insects? The secret to this seasonal pattern lies in understanding the biology of the foreign grain beetle and its relatives. These insects love to feed on fungal spores—often in musty stored grains on farms. It turns out that during the construction of a new home, residual dampness in construction lumber, plaster, sawdust, and other materials can lead to the growth of a trivial amount of mold. Like vultures to carrion, these beetles fly in looking for a fungal smorgasbord. Eggs are laid and entire life cycles can be carried out in the wall void of a new home after the drywall, insulation, and siding are put up.
Fast-forward to late summer and just like clockwork the proud new homeowners suddenly have hundreds of tiny brown beetles crawling out through nooks and crannies, causing immediate dismay. While this can be alarming, these insects are harmless to people, pets, and the home, and are simply a temporary nuisance. As the construction materials lose that lingering moisture, conditions become unfavorable for the beetles and activity drops off over time. Pesticides often aren’t needed as the beetles already face an inevitable demise. Vacuuming or sweeping them up and running a dehumidifier are often the remedy in fall until the dryness of winter puts a final end to the beetle activity.