'Most poisonous' beetle on Coast

NIGHTMARE BITE: Helen Benson can’t believe how such tiny creatures are causing her such pain. Photo: TONI MCRAE
NIGHTMARE BITE: Helen Benson can’t believe how such tiny creatures are causing her such pain. Photo: TONI MCRAE

A TINY, rarely seen, winged beetle, carrying the most poisonous animal contact toxin in the world, 12 times stronger than a cobra’s venom, seems to have landed on the Fraser Coast.

Yesterday the Chronicle sent chief photographer Alistair Brightman’s photos of the red-head beetle to Dr Christine Lambkin at the Queensland Museum in Brisbane.

“Please be careful,” the curator of entomology’s speedy emailed reply began.

“That appears to be a whiplash rove beetle, from the family staphylinidae.

“Contact collision with the beetle while travelling or sleeping, crushing it on the body or smearing with soiled fingers can cause conjunctivitis and severe dermatitis.”

Late yesterday, Hervey Bay’s Helen Benson, who caught one of the insects on Thursday and brought it to the Chronicle, saying she thought it might be a fire ant, rang back to say she was “suffering from a terrible dermatitis on my rear end”.

“I have been to the doctor because the pain and itch is getting worse and the rash is spreading fast. He gave me antibiotics.”

Ms Benson said her first close encounter with the insect was when she was sitting on her patio “in my knickers because of the heat” on Wednesday night.

“I could feel the bite. Then next day I found an insect on the patio table and tried to kill it. That’s the one I captured to bring in and show you.”

Dr Lambkin said the beetle was from a large family, although we seldom see them. The adults are either predators or carrion feeders in soil and leaf litter.

“These are known in coastal areas and can cause severe pain, often with a delayed response of 24 hours after contact with the beetle.

“The haemolymph in the beetle’s entire body (except the wings) contains the most poisonous animal contact toxin in the world called pederin (C24 H43 O9 N) named in 1953.

“It is 12 times more poisonous than cobra venom.

“A dried and stored rove beetle for eight years still retained its toxicity.”

Larger rove beetles are aggressive when handled and repeatedly try to bite the handler. However most are small and live hidden in leaf litter or under bark.

Ms Benson was concerned last night that a second beetle had also bitten her.

In September 2002 an epidemic of dermatitis linearis caused by rove beetles affected thousands of high-rise flat dwellers and dormitory students in Penang, Malaysia.

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