Recently, I had the opportunity to acquire several new species of live beetles for exhibition at the museum.

A close-up view of an Atlas rhinoceros beetle.
This male Atlas rhinoceros beetle (Chalcosoma caucasus) is 11 cm long. Males are usually about twice the size of females, and they have three large horns that are used to fight other males in competition for females. Males that develop in harsh conditions will have much smaller horns, while males in ideal conditions will grow large, fully formed horns. Image: Alex Macdonald © Canadian Museum of Nature

Over a two-year period, I had established contacts with insect breeders from around the globe. There are very few places you can acquire live Atlas rhinoceros beetles or rainbow stag beetles, just to name a few of the species.

Part of the process was fact checking with different zoos, insectariums and museums to see which species work well in captivity and can be acquired ethically. For the exhibition, we wanted not only awesome specimens for display, we wanted something sustainable. The beetles that we chose are all captive-bred from recognized breeders.

An Atlas rhinoceros beetle fills a man's palm.
This male is 11 cm long. A repurposed plastic water bottle makes a good, snug container when shipping Atlas rhinoceros beetles. Image: Stuart Baatnes © Canadian Museum of Nature

At the Canadian Museum of Nature, we have a special licence that allows us to have certain species of live insects for display purposes. Under this license, we can apply for import permits and acquire species from other countries.

Finding a method of transportation can be a challenge. You cannot just simply ask the breeder to drop a box in the mail. There has to be a clear trail of documentation from the exporter and the importer. And, most carriers will not carry live cargo unless they are set up for it. That leaves very few options for shipments. Time is of the essence in shipping live beetles.

A beetle clings to a man's fingertips.
One of the rainbow stag beetles (Phalacrognathus muelleri) that we recently took into our care. Not only is it very colourful, it has very sharp, piercing claws. Image: Stuart Baatnes © Canadian Museum of Nature

So our box is flying over the Pacific Ocean. Now what? Part of the process of selecting species of beetles for display is our ability to maintain the animals so that they can be healthy and possibly reproduce.

Each species has special requirements for its daily life. Of course, it’s important to figure out what each one eats and to make sure that we can get a supply of their food. Temperature, humidity and type of substrate also play a vital role in the beetles’ quality of life.

A beetle (Chalcosoma caucasus) on a piece of wood in its terrarium.
The Atlas rhinoceros beetles seem to like the locally collected apple branches that we put into their new habitats. Image: Stuart Baatnes © Canadian Museum of Nature

We had to learn how make the substrates for each species. Some beetles prefer lots of decaying hardwood to burrow through, while others prefers compost. Even the moisture content of the media plays a vital role in their health. And we had to be ready before our beetle order arrived.

Shipping can take several days. When an order has arrived, we are notified. For one shipment, I received a phone call from a concerned attendant asking if we could come right away. Upon arriving at the shipping-company office, a number of curious people were wondering what was in the box because it was gently rocking back and forth, and the sound of the beetles scratching at the hard plastic beetle-shipping units inside was very audible.

The peculiarly behaved small box attracted a lot of interest! Folks were glad that I was able to retrieve the box so quickly.

The open cardboard shipping box containing transparent tubes and boxes of individual beetles.
The beetles were able to rock the shipping box despite being confined in individual containers. Image: Stuart Baatnes © Canadian Museum of Nature

When a shipping box is brought back to our lab, we allow it to acclimatize to the room’s 25°C. By the time we opened the new box, the beetles were active and ready to be free. Each container was inspected for condition and beetle health, and inventoried.

The new houses/habitats were ready for each beetle, and the beetles placed inside. That sounds easy, but the reality is far from it. Every one of the beetles was not only very hungry, they were all very agitated. The sound of claws scratching away on the hard plastic containers was a constant reminder.

A beetle clings to a man's fingers.
This Hercules beetle (Dynastes hercules) had no trouble holding on tight by digging its claws into my skin. It was responding defensively, trying to deter any further handling. Image: Stuart Baatnes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Removal of the beetles from the shipping containers proved to be much more challenging than anticipated. Try removing an agitated Hercules beetle that can lift 85 times its own weight from its snug transport container.

Not only are they very strong, they have incredibly sharp claws that hook right into skin. After some gentle manipulation, I was able to place the beetles in their new houses and then feed them their first meal at the Canadian Museum of Nature.

A room with terraria and shelving.
The animal-care lab behind the scenes in the museum. Image: Stuart Baatnes © Canadian Museum of Nature

Come see these beetles and other invertebrates in June 2016 in our new Nature Live zone.