Fort Chipewyan Bedazzled by Beetle’s Mysterious Appearance

A mysterious, beautiful, iridescent beetle has made a dazzling appearance in Fort Chipewyan this summer, and it has elders and land users scratching their heads as to where it came from.

Francis Paquette is bedazzled by a beetle with bling.

Frances Paquette is bedazzled by a beetle with bling.

“I’ve never seen this before” says Larry Pacquette (Métis), along with his wife Frances (Cree), who were admiring the beetles close up at the big dock in Fort Chipewyan. The beetles were seen all over the dock and the surrounding shrubbery, glinting in the midday sun. Some were crushed underfoot, and the others that were observed did not scurry with much speed. On Villebrun Ave at the recently deceased Elder Joe Vermillion’s home, guests who had gathered to pay their respects at his wake were finding the insects clinging to their clothes, and uniformly wondering at it’s appearance and origins. Cree band member Billy Whiteknife, a long time land user in the Peace Athabasca Delta, remarked that he had “never ever” seen these beetles in his whole life. Long time Parks Canada staffer David Campbell said he couldn’t recall ever seeing it in the area.

The Dogbane Leaf Beetle living dangerously on the government dock in Fort Chipewyan.

The Dogbane Leaf Beetle living dangerously on the government dock in Fort Chipewyan.

For a region of Canada that has been rocked by environmental changes and declines due to downstream damming and resource extraction, the presence of a new insect had people worried. Rumours on social media that the bug is an invasive species from Asia were circulating widely. One youth matter-of-factly said that the bug was an invasive species from California that was brought here on fruit, and that he had read it online from someone who ‘looked it up.’

A quick Google search for ‘green metallic beetle’ solves the mystery: It is the Dogbane Leaf Beetle!

They are a sight to behold. Upon close examination, you can clearly see your reflection on the copper polished elythra (otherwise known as a wing sheath like on a ladybug). As the beetle catches sunlight at different angles it displays a metallic rainbow of colours. The beetles don’t seem to bite humans as they slowly crawl over hands and on clothes. As well as the docks and backyards in town, the insects have also been spotted on the Moose Island dock on the Peace River, says Community Based Monitoring Program coordinator Bruce Maclean.

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I count at least 13 Dogbane Beetles in this picture. Can you find them all? Click for the full sized image!

A quick Google search for ‘green metallic beetle’ solves the mystery: It is the Dogbane Leaf Beetle! It feeds on milkweed, spreading dogbane and Indian hemp. Indian hemp and spreading dogbane are known for their poisonous effects on our four legged friends (and humans, for that matter). This little bug is found from Nova Scotia to the Rockies, across the United States and Canada. What’s mysterious about it is that the literature says that the bug is only found in southern Canada. So what’s with the glitzy appearance the Peace Athabasca Delta?

Beetles on the rocks. Credit Jason Straka.

Beetles breeding on the rocks. Credit Jason Straka.

 

Because Dogbane specialists are s’darn hard to come by, I contacted Jason Straka, a staffer with Parks Canada Wood Buffalo National Park and a resident of Fort Chipewyan, and asked him to ‘wonder aloud’ about the appearance of this six-legged jewel. “The Dogbane plant does not seem to be particularly widespread around here. The plant seems to like sandy, disturbed sites. I’ve seen it growing at Small Lake, the cut-line by Dore Lake, the Alison Bay water treatment facility, the end of the airport runway and sand/gravel pits close to there.” This would be consistent with its sightings near docks and roads by residents. Jason, who has been conducting vegetation transects in the park the past couple weeks along with other Parks Canada staff, noted he hasn’t seen the bugs in any natural areas of the park even if Dogbane was found there.

“I would still consider the possibility that it has been here, but has not appeared in any noticeable numbers in people’s memory before this year”

“I would still consider the possibility that it has been here, but has not appeared in any noticeable numbers in people’s memory before this year,” he guessed, but also did not preclude that it was a new migrant to the region. The literature says it is found in Southern Canada, which the PAD is not, but it also says it is found in small and sporadic populations, and only moves short distances. Is it possible that this bug has been hiding under everyone’s nose all this time? Has climate change pushed its northern border up into Fort Chip? Is this a short-term visit of our reflective friends, or are they here to share summer from now on? More questions than answers, I’m afraid (but not really because it doesn’t bite!).

Dogbane Beetles obviously up to no good in Fort Chipewyan.

Fashion conscious Dogbane Beetles just waiting to be photographed in Fort Chipewyan. Credit Jason Straka.

Here’s what we do know. The beetle seems to feed exclusively on Indian hemp. Adults tear small rips in the leaves and drink the sap that flows out. Their eggs are stuck on the underside of the leaf, and the larvae that emerge drop to the ground and feed underground on the roots of the plant. They also take on a bitter taste from the poisonous plant they consume, and therefore they are left alone from other predatory bugs like wasps, and birds. In tests, large numbers of the beetle on Indian hemp reduce the growth rate, but do not kill the plant. Could this be the most polite ‘invasive’ species ever?

If you’ve spotted the Dogbane Beetle around Fort Chip, in the delta or beyond, leave a comment or email your photo to tips@onerivernews.ca

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About Michael Tyas

Michael Tyas is the managing editor of One River News. He graduated the University of Manitoba with an honours degree in environmental studies, and is a professional videographer and video trainer. He produced the feature length documentary "One River, Many Relations" in Fort Chipewyan. He continues to work with indigenous communities to share their stories around resource extraction, industrial development, and impacts on traditional territories.
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