Support for LAist comes from
We Explain L.A.
Stay Connected
Podcasts Human/Nature
Human/Nature marquee
Episode 3
There are 400,000 species of beetles in the world, and you’ll find more than a few of them buzzing around Los Angeles this time of the year. Scientist Lila Higgins talks about their unique powers, mythologies, and which why some of them are known as the Thor of beetles. Human Nature is sponsored by BetterHelp and our listeners get 10% off their first month of online therapy at Support for this podcast is made possible by Gordon and Dona Crawford, who believe that quality journalism makes Los Angeles a better place to live. This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Lila Higgins 0:00

[at tattoo parlor] Hey Evan? [footstep sounds]

Evan - Tattoo Artist 0:02

Hey Lila.

Lila Higgins 0:03

Yay! Here for my tattoo.

Evan - Tattoo Artist 0:05

[Ex Manana music] Ladybug today, right?

Lila Higgins 0:06

Ladybug today and touchups on the Ten-lined June beetle.

Evan - Tattoo Artist 0:10

[tattoo needle sounds] Ready?

Lila Higgins 0:16


Marcos Trinidad 0:16

[Ex Manana theme music] Hey, what's up? From LAist Studios, this is Human/Nature. I'm Marcos Trinidad. Every week I'll invite you to get out into the nature of your neighborhood with the help of people who see the world a little differently. Like my buddy, Lila Higgins.

[ambient street sounds] Lila, what's up? Thanks for coming out.

Lila Higgins 0:43

Marcos. I am so excited to be here this morning! [laughter]

Marcos Trinidad 0:48

She's the senior manager of community science at the Natural History Museum of LA. But what you really got to know about Lila is- she loves beetles. You could say she's got Beetlemania. She photographs their little buggy faces, paints watercolors of them, and she's even got a pretty cool beetle tattoo on her forearm.

[ambient street sounds] Your new beetle tattoo.

Lila Higgins 1:10

Oh, my new beetle tattoo! Yeah. Do you recognize this beetle?

Marcos Trinidad 1:15

Is that a- fig beetle?

Lila Higgins 1:17

It's the Ten-lined June beetle, which is very closely related to the fig beetle.

Marcos Trinidad 1:21

[birds chirping] That that was my second guess.

When she stopped by recently, I asked her where her love of nature came from.

[in studio] All right, so where are you from? Tell me about yourself. Tell me where did you grow up? And um, what were your experiences like with nature.

Lila Higgins 1:38

I grew up in England, on a little farm. Both my grandparents were farmers. Um, so I lived down a country lane. I was surrounded by sheep fields, and I used to pretend to be a badger in a hollow tree. Uh, literally, my sister and I would go off by ourselves without any adult supervision. And there was a tree with three holes at the bottom and it was very sandy soil. And we'd go- we were small enough to go inside of the hollow tree and go all the way through out one of the other entrances. I'm sure loads of spiders must have been in there. [Marcos laughing] But I just, we we just were like so into it.

Marcos Trinidad 2:15

Yeah, and badgers don't care that there are spiders in there.

Lila Higgins 2:16

Badgers d- badgers like, are into the spiders. They like

Marcos Trinidad 2:21

Long hair don't care. [Lila laughing]

Lila Higgins 2:24

I lived in that house until I was 14. And then that's when I moved to the US, which was total nature shock. [Ex Manana music] Not just culture shock, but nature shock. I did not understand this new environment at all. It was so different to back home. Everything in England in like the spring summer is so green and so verdant.

Marcos Trinidad 2:50

How did you feel going from all of that nature to now, Southern California?

Lila Higgins 2:57

I remember being like, wow. It's just like- houses and more houses and more houses. And it just keeps going. Everything's more gray-brown tones for like, uh especially if there hasn't been any rain, and so I saw that as not alive. And I didn't understand that that space was alive.

Marcos Trinidad 3:20

It's interesting that that that is - or was your your your point of view or just that introduction, because that is common for people that actually live here. And we all know like it's, LA's a desert, but it really is not. And even when people use desert in that term, or in that way, they're using it to to define something that doesn't have life. But in reality, deserts also have life. It's just different.

Lila Higgins 3:53


Marcos Trinidad 3:54

So with this new way of exploring Southern California, getting out here, and being in nature, there are a couple of things that that you can't ignore, specifically in an urban environment. Beetles that are flying around in May and June. Can you talk to us about these beetles?

Lila Higgins 4:20

They're about the size of a tic tac, shiny. They come out in the evening on warm evenings like May and June, and they're attracted to lights and they'll come to your porch light. They'll often be hanging out on your screen door or on your like window screens. At my mom's house I remember we'd have the porch light on at night. And all of a sudden these little brown beetles would be showing up coming to the light and we didn't have a screen door on um the front, so we couldn't like, they never attached to that but they would attach to the screen windows and then sometimes you'd see them like crawling around right outside the front door. Like on your threshold, and then sometimes you're like, uhh don't step on them! [Marcos laughing] And so I'd be the person like moving them so like other family members wouldn't step on them.

Marcos Trinidad 5:08

And they look like honey smacks, little honey smacks. [laughing]

Lila Higgins 5:12

Uhh, and they probably sound like a honey smack, [Marcos laughing] step on it and they crunch like that.

Marcos Trinidad 5:16

[laughing] Definitely. Like they have armor on 'em so, not that I go out trying to kill these but - [Lila laughing] but they're really hard to kill!

Lila Higgins 5:26

Yeah, they're, I mean, they've got an exoskeleton, hardened exoskeleton, and they've got those elytra, the the wings, the protective wings, and those are hard. Um, and that's a way to for them to protect themselves. They're not very good fliers, like you said, they are very uh kind of bumbling. They're kind of

Marcos Trinidad 5:44

So is it because of all of that armor and extra protective material that makes them clumsy fliers?

Lila Higgins 5:53

Yeah, they're kind of heavy. Like all big insects. All big beetles are really not great fliers. But um, you know, the green fruit beetle that we see flying around here, that um kids sometimes will catch and put like a little like piece of string or dental floss on and fly them around. Those are another type of Scarab. They're, they're even bigger than the June beetles. Um and I was actually at a tailgate party for a Chargers tailgate party and one was flying around. And I like I don't have my insect net, but there's such slow fliers, and I had a beer in one hand and I caught one [Ex Manana music] out of the air in the other hand and like it was like a family reunion and they're like, whoa, you're such a cool member of our family. What?

Marcos Trinidad 6:42

After the break, little beetles that could bring you good luck. [Ex Manana music] [break]

So one thing I want to get into is beetle mythology. Can you tell me a little bit about some of the mythology that surrounds June beetles?

Lila Higgins 7:13

So June beetles are a type of Scarab and there's so much mythology around Scarab beetles. So you know, back to ancient Egypt. Obviously you've seen The Mummy, right?

Marcos Trinidad 7:23


Lila Higgins 7:23

Yeah. [sound bite from The Mummy: Man speaking, "Come and have a look at this!" Beetle sounds. Man screams.] And the Scarab beetles, they come through and eat everything. [sound bite from The Mummy: a couple men exclaiming Whoa! Hold it! and screaming garbled words]

The sun god Ra was associated with Scarab and dung beetles are a type of Scarab beetle. So just like the sun goes across the sky, the dung beetle rolls the ball across the ground, right? And so there's that and dung beetles are really awesome because, like, they can navigate using starlight. So birds can navigate using stars, right? And we humans can navigate using stars. But these dung beetles are the first insects to be discovered to navigate. They use the light of the Milky Way to like navigate across the landscape.

Marcos Trinidad 8:23

That's so amazing.

Lila Higgins 8:24

It's freaking awesome! And then the research that they did was they put little cardboard hats on the beetles. [Marcos laughing] So they couldn't see the sky and then they saw that they weren't as good at navigating when they couldn't see the sky and on overcast nights they're not as good at it, but they could still do it. Um...

Marcos Trinidad 8:39

But they need to see the -

Lila Higgins 8:41

Yeah, can we make little cardboard beetle hats?

Marcos Trinidad 8:43

I think we can.

Lila Higgins 8:44

I think we should. [Ex Manana music] So Stag beetles are another type of Scarab and they have um two pinchers or mandibles on the front that looked like stag horns. So that's why they got called Stag beetles. And in England, they were thought to be able to control the weather like thunder and lightning. And so folks back in the day were like really scared of these Stag beetles and they have like really big pinchers on the front of their mouth like these mandibles here that could like hold things or pinch a human being. And so they believed that these beetles could control the weather and they would cause lightning to come, in like Norse mythology. They were believed to be associated with Thor, that god Thor who was able to like control thunder as well. Some people thought that they could carry little embers in their mandibles and then burn down people's houses.

Marcos Trinidad 9:36


Lila Higgins 9:36

So yeah, so there was, there was like, they were like these beetles are scary to us.

Marcos Trinidad 9:41

Were there any beetles that were not associated with, with -

Lila Higgins 9:47

Death and destruction?

Marcos Trinidad 9:48

Death and destruction. Like, oh, [Lila laughing] maybe the Ladybug!

Lila Higgins 9:52

Yes! The Ladybug. So a lot of mythology around the Ladybug and the different names of the Ladybug? So in different languages a lot of them get translated to God's little cow or cow of God. I know, isn't that cute? And they are red. The Virgin Mary used to have a red cloak in all the like religious iconography before they started having blue cloaks because of how expensive lapis lazuli was to make blue paint. So they used to have red cloaks for Mary. And then because Ladybugs often have red elytra with the black spots, that was a reason that they got associated with the Virgin Mary and to bring good fortune and to bring good fortune to crops because they eat aphids, right? And in Norse mythology, the Ladybug is associated to Freya, which like pre-Christianity coming into that part of Europe, that was the goddess that they worshipped. And then kind of the Virgin Mary became supplanted afterwards. Um -

Marcos Trinidad 10:51

So the Ladybug ended up getting the great PR agent [laughing] and every one got stuck.

Lila Higgins 10:58

Yeah. And um, and still today, like if a ladybug lands on you in some parts of the world,

Marcos Trinidad 11:05

It's good luck.

Lila Higgins 11:05

It's good luck. Yeah, exactly. And there's like all this folklore, like, if it lands on your hand, it means you're gonna get married, uh or you're gonna get new gloves. Or, you know

Marcos Trinidad 11:16

I [laughing] immediately went to money, but

Lila Higgins 11:18

[laughing] Or you're gonna have, or you're gonna get some, like, you know, a windfall of money.

Marcos Trinidad 11:22

What are you noticing if anything, about beetle population? Is there any evidence of the populations decreasing or increasing because of any of the the impacts that humans have?

Lila Higgins 11:41

So there's over 400,000 species of beetles on the planet. So there's a lot out there, but overall insect populations are on the decline. Some species of beetles do really well. So we've got Ladybugs, right, the native species of Ladybugs around here, there's the spotless ladybugs, have you ever seen those ones that just like have no spots, and they're kind of like really bright blood red almost? But then the one you're going to probably see even more commonly is the multicolored Asian Ladybug, which was an introduction from Japan for agricultural purposes. And then the seven spotted Ladybug, which is from Europe, also introduced for agriculture. And so those ones are very highly populated out here. And you see them more than sometimes you see the native species. [Ex Manana music] We want the native species here. Um and we want the, you know, the seven spotted Ladybug to be cool with good populations in in Europe. But um sometimes some of the introduced species are not doing well in their home range,

Marcos Trinidad 12:43

And they're doing better in a different place.

Lila Higgins 12:44

And they're doing better in a different place. And so then, it's like, do we want to lose that species completely, or it's complicated.

Marcos Trinidad 12:51

After the break, Lila's beetle fever gets contagious. [break]

Lila Higgins 13:05

Right now, things are starting to heat up. And this is the time of year that I start to see those darkling beetles going across the trail. The little black beetles a little bit shiny, also known as stinkbugs,

Marcos Trinidad 13:18

The ones that stick, stick their booty in the air.

Lila Higgins 13:20

Exactly. And they're like, don't come near me, I'm gonna stick my abdomen into the air and I'm going to release a foul smelling odor, which has quinones in it, which is the same sort of, like stuff they use in um developing photography. And so it's like that kind of like, acrid smell. And if you get, have you ever got close to their rear end in the air and, like, smelt it or had it on your hands?

Marcos Trinidad 13:44

You know, I've never smelled it as as many as I, I've seen. I think I've always got the, the hint.

Lila Higgins 13:54

Yeah, I have a lot of friends who are like, Oh, I really didn't like insects that much. Until I started to know you and I still don't necessarily like them. But the fact that you like them, Lila, makes me appreciate them more. They are like, Oh, you're gonna you're gonna put the beetle on your face? Or you're gonna like put the beetle and kiss it on camera? Like what? Okay, you really love them. So I think that that that just helps other people appreciate and I think that you know, I, I love taking pictures of beetles faces up close, because I think that they're, insects are so alien looking right? And they're not furry. Um and they don't have big eyes like mammals. And so they're very, very different than our body design. They breathe differently. They have little holes down the side of their body that they breathe in and out of that they can sometimes hiss like the Ten-line June beetle, this tattoo, they make a hissing sound from like letting air out under their wings. And that all sounds very weird and kind of

Marcos Trinidad 14:58


Lila Higgins 14:59

Creepy or freaky to some people

Marcos Trinidad 15:02

Yeah. No. Straight up creepy.

Lila Higgins 15:01

And and so like I've been doing a series of painting, like insect portraits, so just their face. [Ex Manana music] And even though they're still so different than the way our face looks, it's, it's a thing that helps us humans to connect to them, I think. And so I love taking really close up pictures of their faces. I love painting their faces. I just love showing the different parts of the insect that maybe people haven't seen because they haven't stopped and looked.

Marcos Trinidad 15:36

After talking with Lila, I went out to Debs park with one of our producers, Carla. We wanted to see if we could find some beetles.

[nature sounds, birds chirping] You know, it's pretty early so I'm hearing a lot of birds and [Ex Manana music] it's pretty awesome. I try to do a walk at least three times a week in this park. I'm normally focused in the bushes, in the trees, and just absorbing all the sounds. [pause]

[Ex Manana music] But today I'm going to do something a little different. I'm going to look towards the ground. I know I've seen 'em multiple times before but I kind of just walk over 'em or walk past them and I learned so much from Lila that I want to pay closer attention. I think focusing on the ground looking for bugs helps with your your footing [laughing] making sure that that you don't trip. I should probably practice it a bit more. Wow, there's a lot of activity.

[whispering] Oh, there's a little baby,

Carla Javier 17:11

[whispering] Oh yeah.

Marcos Trinidad 17:11

[whispering] A baby bunny. Look how cute it is. See it?

Carla Javier 17:15

[whispering] Yeah he's so small. Do you think he sees us?

Marcos Trinidad 17:18

[whispering] He knows something's up.

Like you're hiking and then you know all of a sudden you just start to see different things especially when you slow down and and open yourself up to making those observations. [sounds of footsteps] Right here! Wow! Okay, so I just walked on to this little stink bug and it is... Okay. It just noticed that I'm here. He is so shiny. This is really cool. Of course I always have to get a pic. This little stink bug [laughing] is not that big. It's about the size of a quarter and it has this really shiny texture. It almost looks like its its its armor. [laughing] And right now um, it is not agitated it's just going about its its business doing its thing.

Carla Javier 18:28

[footstep sounds] Oh, there's another one.

Marcos Trinidad 18:31

Oh cool. See how quick you, you like go over it. I'm going to try to get a pic of its cute face. There is always a rush. When you set out to go find something. There's this like, am I going to find it? What else am I going to see? Because you're always going to see something, you're going to see something, but when you actually see what you're setting intention to see it's pretty fulfilling. Oh and there's one in in a hole over here. This is the the spot. Multiple beetles in in this area. That one actually looks agitated. His booty's up in the air. [Ex Manana music]

Carla Javier 19:28

Human/Nature is hosted by Marcos Trinidad and produced by Caroline Champlin, and me, Carla Javier. Kelly Prime is our Story Editor. Fiona Ng is our acting Supervising Producer. Mixing and engineering this week by Hasmik Poghosyan and Parker McDaniels. Ex Manana composed our music. Doris Anahi Munoz is the music supervisor. Human/Nature is a production of LAist Studios. The marketing team created our branding with art by Christine Tylor Hill. Special thanks to Taylor Coffman, Sabir Brara, Kristen Hayford, Kristin Muller, Andy Orozco, Michael Cosentino and Neha Shaida. Antonia Cereijido and Leo G are the Executive Producers for LAist Studios. Support for this podcast is made possible by Gordon and Dona Crawford, who believe that quality journalism makes Los Angeles a better place to live. This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. That's all for this episode of Human/Nature. See you next week.