Insect of the Year

Since the "Insect of the Year" board of trustees was established in 1999 – primarily by the then director of the German Entomological Institute, Prof. Dr. Holger Dathe – this commission selects each year an insect species that should enjoy greater fame because of its special importance for the ecosystem, its particular rarity, its aesthetic value or even its "ordinariness".

The Insect of the Year is intended to bring an exemplary species (and insects in general) closer to people. Well-known entomologists, representatives of research institutions and nature conservation organisations from Germany, Austria and Switzerland together make an important and difficult decision, the choice among about one million described insect species (even if "only" about 35,000 of them occur in Germany) and select the species that is to represent the inconspicuous and yet so important "creepy-crawlies" among humans for a whole year.

Insect of the year 2020: Black-blue oil beetle

The black-blue oil beetle (Meloe proscarabaeus) grows 10 to 35 millimetres long and has it in itself: it possesses a highly effective poison!
"With the black-blue oil beetle, we have chosen the fourth and a very special species of beetle as 'Insect of the Year'. This black-blue shiny hexapod has been part of our culture for 4,000 years. The stimulant cantharidine in the beetles' body was used to combat a wide range of diseases – as early as 1550 BC, the ancient Egyptian papyrus EBERS described what is probably the oldest oil beetle skin-plaster that was supposed to have induced birth contractions," said Prof. Dr Thomas Schmitt, Director of the Senckenberg German Entomological Institute in Müncheberg and Chairman of the Board of Trustees, explaining the selection.
Prepared in honey, oil beetles were among the most well-known "love potions" for increasing sexual potency. Often with fatal health consequences: Even a single beetle contains a lethal dose of cantharidine for an adult! This high toxicity was misused in ancient Greece for executions, and murders with the beetle poison are known until modern times.

A female of the black and blue oil beetle (Meloe proscarabaeus) © Heiko Bellmann/Frank Hecker
Mating of two black and blue oil beetles (Meloe proscarabaeus) © Heiko Bellmann/Frank Hecker

Today more than 30 species of the oil beetle family live in Central Europe – the most common is the black-blue oil beetle. Due to its toxicity, the oil beetle performs an important protective function for other beetles in the ecosystem. Its poison is transmitted in small doses to larvae, eggs and pupae of these species and thus saves them from predators", explains the President of the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation and this year's patroness Prof. Dr. Beate Jessel and continues: "I am delighted that this unique beetle has been awarded the title 'Insect of the Year 2020'!
Because the black-blue oil beetle is also an interesting and very special species from an ecological point of view: the larvae climb onto flowers and wait there for certain wild bees to be transported by them to their nests. There the larvae feed on the bee eggs and the pollen supply. After hibernating in the ground, the beetles hatch in March to May. The species lives in sandy and open areas with numerous bee nests. It is found in extensively agricultural locations such as heathland, dry grassland and orchards.

A clutch of the black-blue oil beetle can contain up to 9,500 eggs © Heiko Bellmann/Frank Hecker

Despite its enormous reproductive power – a single female can lay 3,000 to 9,500 eggs at each of five to six times at intervals of one to two weeks – the black-blue oil beetle is classified as endangered in the Red List in Germany. "The cause of the population decline is primarily the loss of habitat, but also road traffic. Since their development from egg to adult is very susceptible to disturbance, even small changes can lead to major losses," adds Prof. Dr Dr h. c. Bernhard Klausnitzer, entomologist and member of the Board of Trustees.