Deathwatch beetle

Deathwatch beetle
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Coleoptera
Family: Anobiidae
Genus: Xestobium
Species: X. rufovillosum
Binomial name
Xestobium rufovillosum
(De Geer, 1774)

The deathwatch beetle, Xestobium rufovillosum, is a woodboring beetle. The adult beetle is 7 millimetres (0.28 in) long, while the xylophagous larvae are up to 11 mm (0.43 in) long.

To attract mates, these woodborers create a tapping or ticking sound that can be heard in the rafters of old buildings on quiet summer nights. They are therefore associated with quiet, sleepless nights and are named for the vigil (watch) kept beside the dying or dead, and by extension the superstitious have seen the deathwatch beetle as an omen of impending death.

The term "death watch" has been applied to a variety of other ticking insects, including Anobium striatum, some of the so-called booklice of the family Psocidae, and the appropriately named Atropos divinatoria and Clothilla pulsatoria.

The larva is very soft, yet can bore its way through wood, which it is able to digest using a number of enzymes in its alimentary canal, provided that the wood has experienced prior fungal decay.[1]

sound produced by the death watch beetle

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In culture

Its nature as an ill omen is alluded to in the fourth book of John Keats' "Endymion": "...within ye hear / No sound so loud as when on curtain'd bier / The death-watch tick is stifled."[2] ("Stifled" because the death it was portending has taken place.)

The deathwatch beetle is mentioned in the film Practical Magic, and its characteristic ticking sound serves as the harbinger of death.

The beetle was referenced in the Mark Twain classic,[3] The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; "Next the ghastly ticking of a deathwatch in the wall at the bed’s head made Tom shudder -- it meant that somebody’s days were numbered.".

The beetle is also mentioned in the History Channel series Life After People (season one, episode six), wherein it is shown "eating" the Mona Lisa. The destructive effect of the beetle during National Trust restoration work at Ightham Mote in Kent was highlighted in a special episode of Time Team aired in May 2004.

Ray Bradbury mentioned them in his work Something Wicked This Way Comes, wherein the antagonist carnival's speciality is claimed to be "to examine, oil, and repair Death-Watch Beetles."

German progressive rock band Hoelderlin has a 17-and-a-half-minute-long track, titled "Deathwatchbeetle", on their eponymous album from 1975.

"Tick-tock go the deathwatch beetles" is the opening line of the 1982 song The Jet Set Junta by English new wave band The Monochrome Set.

In 1838 Henry David Thoreau published an essay mentioning the deathwatch beetle. It is possible that this essay influenced Edgar Allan Poe's 1843 short story "The Tell-Tale Heart" and that the sound the protagonist was hearing at the end of that story was that of a beetle tapping inside the wall, not the beating of the (dead) victim's heart.[4]

They were mentioned in the BBC series Sherlock, in which Sherlock is giving a toast at Watson's wedding and makes a comparison of John and Mary’s wedding to “the death-watch beetle that is the doom of our society and, in time, one feels certain, our entire species.”

In Rogue Male, based on a Geoffrey Household novel, Major Quive-Smith (John Standing) is staying at Drake's countryside boardinghouse while manhunting Sir Robert (Peter O'Toole). One night Sir Robert tries to steal food from Drake's dairy and falls through the rafters. Quive-Smith and Drake come out to investigate the commotion, and Quive-Smith says the cause of the cave-in was a deathwatch beetle and that he had seen the prior results of the beetle's work while staying in East Riding.


  1. E. A. Parkin (1940). "The digestive enzymes of some wood-boring beetle larvae" (PDF). Journal of Experimental Biology. 17 (4): 364–377.
  3. Twain, Mark. Three by Twain: Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and A Connecticut Yankee In King Arther's Court (Kindle Locations 12431-12432). Graphic Arts Books. Kindle Edition.

External links

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