How the Beetle Got His Handles

November 20, 2012 • 3:02 am

By Rudyard Kipling*

Hear, attend and listen, O my Best Beloved, for this story ­– a Most New and Most Wonderful Story – tells of the most magnificent power of Natural Selection.

Long ago, in the High and Far-off Times, the Beetle lived near the Nest of the Termites, in the shadow of the Camphor-Tree. This was not a happy arrangement, as the Termites, O Best Beloved, with their High Falutin’ ways and most strong Sense of Entitlement even though they are nothing more than clever cockroaches, are the most biteful and fractious of creatures, happy to snip and snap at any passing Beetle, or indeed any animal that crosses their path.

But although the Termites would snip and snap at the Beetle whenever they could, he would not move his home from near their nest under the Camphor-Tree, for from the nest floated the most glorious scents, the smell of food from far-away fields – pomegranates and gingerplants, roses and cannas, loquats and lillies. And the Beetle, with his ’satiable greed, would sit on a small hillock nearby and twitch his most twiggly-twirly-wirly antennae and imagine feasting on the rich store deep within the termite nest.

Every time the Beetle asked the Termites to share their wondrous storehouse, they would snip and snap at him and grab his twiggly-twirly-wirly antennae and pull and pull and pull and then spank him hard until he ran away. Decidedly, O Best Beloved, the Termites are the most selfish and unsociable and grumpy of animals.

One day, after being spanked particularly hard by a most particularly selfish and unsociable and grumpy group of termites, the Beetle noticed a most Strange Smell coming from his feet. He no longer smelt of Beetle, but instead carried the most delicious odours of the termite nest – the smells of pomegranates and gingerplants, roses and cannas, loquats and lillies, which had rubbed off onto him while he was being spanked and having his twiggly-twirly-wirly antennae and pulled and pulled and pulled.

And the next time the Beetle met the Termites, they just let him pass by and walk deep into their storehouses, for he smelt just like One of Them. And that, O Best Beloved, is how the Beetle got the smell of the Termite and was able to feast on the Termites’ storehouse.

But the Beetle was a lazy animal who soon began to get Ideas Above his Station, and while he was living and feast on the storehouses of the grumpy and bitey Termites, he decided that no only should the Termites provide him with pomegranates and gingerplants, roses and cannas, loquats and lillies, they should also carry him about. So he held his breath so hard that he thought he would Burst and pushed and pushed and pushed until two small handles appeared on his back, Most Golden like the morning sun (you can see this in the First Picture).

And the next time the Beetle met a Termite, he pushed the handles towards the Termite (you can see this in the Second Picture), which most obligingly picked up the Beetle and carried him over to the pomegranates and gingerplants, thinking it was a Baby Termite that was most ’mazingly suitably provided with handles, just right for its bitey and snappy mandibles (you can see this in the Third Picture).

And that, O Best Beloved, is how the Beetle got his Handles.

THIS, O Best Beloved, is a picture of the Beetle with his Most Golden handles, which he squeezed out of his back by holding his breath so hard that he thought he would Burst and pushing and pushing and pushing. I have numbered the pictures because that is what Scientists do, and on Picture Number 2 I have put a white arrow to show you where the handles are, in case you can’t quite make them out. You might think they don’t look much like handles, but if you were a Termite you would be Most Happy to find something that fitted so nicely to your bitey and snappy mandibles. You can see this in the Third Picture.
THIS, O Best Beloved, is a Tiny Picture of the Beetle rolling up and showing a Termite his Most Shiny golden handles, which he had squeezed out by holding his breath so hard he thought the would burst.
THIS is a picture of a biteful and fractious Termite picking up the Beetle by his Most Golden handles and taking him over to a pile of pomegranates and gingerplants, roses and cannas, loquats and lillies. I haven’t been able to show all the foodstore as there isn’t enough space, but you can imagine it all, just off to the left. And of course, O Best Beloved, I had to draw it all in the light, so that you could see what was happening, although all this would happen deep in the dark in the shadow of the roots of the great Camphor-Tree where there is no light, only smell and touch.

* As told to Matthew Cobb

Maruyama, M. 2012. A new genus and species of flightless, microphthalmic Corythoderini (Coleoptera: Scarabaeidae: Aphodiinae) from Cambodia, associated with Macrotermes termites. Zootaxa 3555:83-88.

h/t @james_gilbert and @TheAtavism and Rudyard Kipling

49 thoughts on “How the Beetle Got His Handles

  1. Absolutely fabulous!

    This kind of illustrated story would be one reason to cherish grandchildren. (The other being that you can hand them back at the end of the day.)

  2. how the beetles got their handles..

    This bag of tricks works so well that all kinds of unrelated beetles have gone to it.

    Mostly tropical, but across much of Europe and North America, we have species of the subfamily Clavigerinae of the family Pselaphidae [actually a segregate of the megadiverse rove beetles]. They are also brood parasites, mostly of the common ant Lasius flavus, and sport both tasty secretions and knob-like antennae that the ants use to tote them around. Here’s a link to a picture of Adranes, the common local representative of the group.

  3. This same brilliant strategy has been employed by human politicians for decades.

    They merely stuff one-hundred dollar bills into both ears, and are often carried immediately into comfy seats in the U.S. Congress.

  4. I agree with Ben–publish!! I read it out loud to my nearly 9 year old, and he loved it! That it’s true makes it even cooler.

  5. “I have numbered the pictures because that is what Scientists do,”

    I think this is what made me smile the most, apart from “twiggly-twirly-wirly antennae”, which is a technical term that we do not see enough of in this day and age.

  6. Sounds a bit Lamarckian to me, but there are some ant-associated mites in the genus Trachyuropoda with a similar-looking ‘handle’ on their dorsal shield. Actually, there is at least one species associated with termites and I wonder what that looks like.

  7. Actually, some beetles had mutations on their genes that made it easier for Termites to hold’em, and these beetles were carried by ’em Termites and had a significant advantage in feeding and reproducing, which made the mutation that made the beetles easier to be carried, be passed on to the next generations more frequently and become more common, so that over many generations the mutations that made the beetles easier to be carried acummulated and became predominant.

    Occasionally, however, some beetles have mutations that eliminate their handles, but those beetles are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to reproduction and feeding and their mutations are not passed on as frequently and become ever so rare.

  8. I’ve always loved The Elephant’s Child, but it was only when reading it to my children that I realised quite how much spanking there was in it. Some things have changed for the better, and not only for the beetles.
    None of the other Just-So Stories is nearly as good; Kipling was a weird dude, observant and blind, poetic and tone-deaf by turns.

  9. This is a fun story! It seems silly to me that one would have to write a book to “prove” evolution. Isn’t it time for this debate to be over? As a Christian, I happen to think that God creating the world is awesome. But if you told me that God came up w/ a plan whereby creation continues to create and evolve — and humans get to be a part of that creativity (hence this lovely story) — well, I’m even more impressed by this “God who cannot be proven!” Thanks for the story (and for channeling Mr. Kipling for us) and congrats on the Freshly Pressed!

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