Crawlies with Cri: Death-watch beetle

Death-watch beetle (Subfamily Anobiinae)
(Photo by Christy Solo for the Illinois Valley News)

You’re alone in bed, in the wee dark hours, and you hear a quick tapping sound emanating from the ceiling. Then silence. You are sure you are hearing things. After all, things that go “bump” in the night aren’t real – are they? Then, it comes again. In the words of Edgar Allan Poe, “a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton.”
You probably aren’t truly hearing the telltale heart, but the crawly who inspired the tale: The death-watch beetle (Subfamily Anobiinae).
Hearing a death-watch beetle in your home would be almost as scary as hearing a mysterious bump in the night. Seeing one outdoors by an old, dry dead tree or a woodpile is pretty cool though.
Death watch beetles are borer beetles. Their larvae dine on damp hardwoods.
What’s in a name? First, “death watch beetle” is one of three options; the name is also written as “death-watch” and “deathwatch”, all the same critters.
They earned their eerie moniker in quieter times in homes built out of oak. Their muffled tapping was thought to be a harbinger of death. It was often heard by those sitting in silence at the bedside of an ill relative and the tap, tap, tapping was believed to be the last seconds of the ailing person’s life clock ticking away.
While the tapping sound is an indicator of the presence of death watch beetles, it’s not what causes damage to hardwoods. Male death watch beetles tap their head and/or jaws against wood to attract a mate, like an ‘80s romcom protagonist throwing rocks at their beloved’s window.
Once adult death watch beetles meet, and the eggs laid by the female hatch, it’s the larvae who chomp on wood. Death watch beetle larvae can take up to 10 years to mature into adults, even at their petite size – just under one-eighth of an inch – they can do a lot of structural damage to hardwood in a decade.
In North America most death watch beetles who find their way indoors settle into furniture items versus support beams. In lieu of hearing the telltale tapping, you may notice very tiny holes in furniture and bits of sawdust.
In our oak tree-rich environment here in the Upper Rogue, death watch beetles have more than enough food outdoors and aren’t a common indoor problem.
Pictured is the species Trichodesma cristata which can be found only in Washington, Oregon and California. While their diet and habits are the same as other species of death watch beetles, their lumpy, bumpy, moldy, bird poopy appearance is unique.
Other species of death watch beetle found in Oregon and the rest of North America are equally small in stature but have a much sleeker look. They are solid brown or black and look similar to click beetles.
Hopefully you won’t find a death watch beetle in your home but take some time to look around dead oak trees and you might spot one of these unique little portents of death.