Two Titans: the Giant Beetles of Appalachia

Camp Oty’Okwa is a vast and varied place, comprising roughly 737 acres. In a single day, visitors might find themselves resting in an open meadow, wandering through ancient recess caves, exploring the mossy banks of shimmering streams, or sitting silently in the shadows of hemlock and hardwood forests. Surrounded by such biodiversity, camp staff continue to make exciting discoveries on a daily basis.

As school bus drivers approach the small town of South Bloomingville, they may notice that each hill seems to rise higher than the last. Eventually, the sight of Camp Oty’Okwa comes into view, framed against an open sky and towering over the surrounding hollows. It is an unmistakable view, and one that reveals much about the pristine nature of our property.

The rugged terrain of the Hocking Hills region has kept this land largely protected from industrial agriculture and urbanization. The streams that flow from its slopes are free of harmful contaminants that might be found in bodies of water at lower elevations. Indeed, one might say that a visit here is a trip back in time to a land as it once was.

Of course, humans have lived here for many years, and have left traces that are still easily found. A significant yet often cryptic one might be uncovered while venturing off-trail in one of our hardwood forests.

Walking along on a warm summer afternoon, a hiker suddenly stops. Something feels different about this place.

There are no strange noises. In fact, it seems unusually quiet. It might be darker, and even wetter.

A realization hits.

They might be oaks, maples, beech, or ash. Whatever type of hardwood tree they are, they are monstrous. Some have easily been standing for centuries. Others have fallen, rotting away over many seasons.

The hiker may be awestruck, not realizing that some of our native trees could even grow to such proportions. Why aren’t such learned elders more abundant?

Perhaps, if he or she looks closely at this group of mammoth trees, a pattern will emerge.

Most likely, they stand in an unusually straight line, dwarfing the small saplings that grow in their shade.

Why a straight line?

The answer is tied to the story of the pioneers.

If one had arrived in North America prior to European settlement, they would have seen such trees stretching across the eastern portion of the continent. Towering forest “cathedrals” would have been a common sight, no less awe-inspiring than they appear today. It is often said that in the days of the first settlers, an agile and determined squirrel could have traveled all of the way from Maine to Florida without ever touching the ground.

As coastal harbors and the banks of large waterways gave way to urban communities, settlers continued pushing westward in search of living space. Appalachia presented several challenges, with its hilly terrain, unusual soils, and lack of large lakes or wetlands. Farming still occurred, albeit on a smaller scale.

So what connection does this history have to these rows of trees?

As forested land was cleared for farming and timber extraction, it became essential for pioneers to maintain clear property boundaries and protect their crops with windbreaks. Often, single rows of large trees would be left standing for this purpose. Today, such clusters of towering hardwoods are relics of that time.

Clearly, much of the forest that we see in Southeastern Ohio is relatively young, having been cleared at some time in recent history for industrial or agricultural purposes.

Some settlers eventually wished to re-forest sections of their land or plant new groves of trees, but opted for evergreen species like the introduced Norway spruce (Picea abies). Over time, these softwood varieties established themselves, dramatically altering everything from local soils to the diversity of wildlife. Bit by bit, forests of giant hardwood trees faded into the distant past.

Standing in our dark, foggy cluster of ancient hardwoods, the hiker begins to wonder what creatures might inhabit their tallest branches.

What about one that has fallen? The decaying giant is now hollowed out, filled with decades worth of rich compost soil, decaying mulch and leaves, tiny pieces of dead insects and discarded owl pellets.

It should come as no surprise that large trees are often inhabited by large creatures. The clearing of old-growth forests is believed to have been a major contributor to the supposed extinction of the massive ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), which hopeful ornithologists continue searching for on a regular basis.

Is all hope lost? Did the wildlife that once depended upon those monstrous trees vanish along with them?

Perhaps not.

Our hiker has returned home from Camp Oty’Okwa, enjoyed a good supper, and is now on the way to a large shopping plaza near the town of Logan.

It is a muggy, blue evening, and the weight of the air suggests an approaching thunderstorm. Cicadas and crickets sing noisily from the edges of the highway. Overhead, towering florescent lights shine onto the damp asphalt. They are circled by all manner of insects, from small fluttering moths to clouds of energetic gnats.

The shopper removes a cart from the rack and begins to approach the entrance of a large retail outlet.

Suddenly, a noise approaches from overhead. It resembles a small toy airplane, or a running chainsaw just large enough to be held by a teddy bear.

The startled shopper glances upward, jumping at the sight of a large, dark shape circling clumsily beneath a light. It is the size of a hummingbird, if not larger… but the features and movements suggest that it is, in fact, an insect.

Could it be?


Down comes the winged creature, dive-bombing the pavement with an audible “thud.” Tucking its long, crinkly flying wings beneath a glossy pair of elytra, it sits in a daze, apparently unharmed by the impact.

It is a magnificent sight to behold.

Does this creature belong here in the Hocking Hills? It looks like something that might have come from the Amazon Rainforest, or a distant part of Africa.

It is a beetle… long, wide, and glossy. The wings are yellow and flecked with small brown blotches, resembling the surface of a well-ripened banana. Six powerful, spiny legs grip the cement. From the top of the head, two long horns emerge, glinting in the soft evening light. Curving upward like scimitars, they look to have been borrowed from a miniature rhinoceros. Antennae twitch and legs grasp for traction as the alien visitor surveys its surroundings.

Little does the shopper know that this otherworldly insect began its life over one year earlier in a massive, hollow dead tree… one that has rested on the ground for decades at a place called Camp Oty’Okwa.

Our specimen is an eastern Hercules beetle (Dynastes tityus): one of the largest beetles native to North America.

It emerged from a long sleep last month, and is now searching for a mate. Like so many insects seen on summer evenings, it has been drawn to an artificial light source, where it circles in a state of confusion. The male, easily identified by his massive horns, is following a scent trail to a group of females gathered on a very old ash tree more than a mile away. This is his night. There will be only several more. After all, as an adult, Dynastes tityus lives for only one to three months. The vast majority of his lifespan was spent as a soft, white-bodied grub, buried deep in the heart of a decaying tree. The grub emerged from an egg that was deposited at the site nearly two years earlier. It’s a cycle that has been continuing in the Hocking Hills for centuries.

Dynastes tityus is an incredibly powerful insect, capable of lifting many times its own weight. The enormous flying wings carry it long distances through the night, often to brightly-lit parking lots like this one. The busy shoppers are unlikely to notice.

Many hard-shelled eggs are laid by the female, but few will actually hatch. Fewer will survive as grubs, and only a handful will successfully metamorphose to find mates of their own. The insect in the parking lot has overcome all odds.

The size, strength, and endurance of these beetles is a product of good nutrition. Larvae devour massive quantities of decaying hardwood, leaves, compost soil and small dead creatures. Feeding for months on end in their hollow log homes, they molt their outermost skin several times before growing to the size of small toads. This process may take anywhere from one to two years. Just in time for the cold months of autumn, the giant grub then constructs a strong pupal cell, held together by a mixture of frass and oral secretions. It emerges only weeks later as an adult beetle, resting underground until spring. This lengthy period of inactivity at cold temperatures is essential for the development of ovaries in the adult female.

Adult Hercules beetles have lost the tough, chewing mouthparts that they once possessed as grubs. They now sustain themselves by lapping up trickles of sap from damaged maple or birch trees. A set of soft, bristly appendages funnel the liquid meal through their mouths, giving these strong fliers just enough remaining energy to breed and lay their eggs.

Still in shock, our spectator now reaches for a phone to take a quick picture… but it is too late. In a sudden burst of energy, the giant insect once again rises from the ground with a noisy hum, vanishing into the night sky.

Far back on the other side of the building, perched high off the ground, another armored titan surveys the world of the modern human being.

This one looks quite different, but is almost as large. Jet black and deep red in color, it sports an unusually large head equipped with long mandibles that resemble the antlers of a breeding buck. The abdomen is elongated, holding together spindly legs that appear delicate and graceful.

This is an elephant stag beetle (Lucanus elaphus): an insect behemoth whose European cousins make many appearances in the pencil-drawn illustrations of Victorian-era children’s literature. It too is a gifted flier with a short adult life span. Like the Hercules beetle that bid farewell only minutes earlier, it is seldom seen these days… and like the Hercules beetle, it began its life inside of an old, dead tree at a place called Camp Oty’Okwa.

The tree in which the stag beetle grub developed was slightly different. It was firmer, heavier, and overgrown in masses of bright orange fungus. Stag beetles prefer fresher wood than many other species.

The adult female Lucanus elaphus is fierce when it comes to egg-laying. She actively seeks out and destroys the eggs and pupae of any potentially competitive species, clearing the way for her offspring.With strong, piercing mouthparts similar to the tools of a surgeon, she splits the exoskeletons of rivals and sucks out their liquid innards as a nutritious meal.

In some cases, grubs from previous generations may already be present. If this is the case, the larvae will engage in an intriguing behavior known as stridulation. They twitch back and forth, rubbing their middle and hind legs together. These are covered in a distinctive set of grooves, similar to the surface of a vinyl record. The sound produced by this scratching is species-specific, and is believed to alert the murderous female to the presence of her own kind. In this case, the lives of the grubs are spared.

Lucanus larvae are often cannibalistic, seeking out their own separate chambers within a single dead log. As with Dynastes tityus, development from egg to adulthood may take up to nearly two years.

Adult males are fierce fighters, known for tossing and turning opponents with their enormous mandibles. Limbs and other appendages are often lost in these scuffles.

The adult male feeds exclusively upon the sap of damaged trees, or pieces of rotten fruit like paw paw. This also forms the bulk of the female’s diet, supplemented by an occasional protein-rich snack of less fortunate beetles.

Giant stag beetles breed during early summer, completing their short yet tumultuous lives only several months later.

Approximately one out of every three animals on earth is believed to represent some species of beetle. This large group of insects is plentiful, wide-ranging, and unbelievably diverse, but Dynastes and Lucanus represent two of the most legendary species found in Ohio. With the gradual disappearance of old-growth forests and the routine mulching of fallen trees, they have also become some of the rarest.

The hiker who began a fun-filled day at Camp Oty’Okwa is now dozing off to sleep in a cozy bed. This person may not know the name or life story of an eastern Hercules beetle, and didn’t even see the elephant stag beetle hiding just around the corner. The connection of these enormous insects to the ancient trees that raised them may be unclear. The ways in which westward expansion influenced the biodiversity of the Hocking Hills may elude the hiker. All of that is perfectly OK.

At the end of the day, a visitor to Camp Oty’Okwa stood in a specific place and came to a realization that it held significance. He or she stood quietly, taking time to admire the majesty of an old forest. Later that day, he or she was left speechless by an encounter with a giant yellow beetle sporting a set of horns. A human mind connected with a forest wilderness.

Like the forces that continue to shape the future of Appalachia, and the entire world, the small details of a visit to Camp Oty’Okwa will not all be remembered. The scientific names, life spans, and diets of specific insects may fade into the recesses of the mind. Chances are good, however, that encounters with the living, breathing side of nature will continue to last as treasured memories through entire lifetimes. Stories of unforgettable encounters will be handed down through generations, and today’s young explorers will become tomorrow’s dedicated conservationists.

As the warm and bountiful months of summer approach, entire communities across the region, human and insect alike, prepare to find their calling, spread their wings, and take flight.