Deathwatch beetle

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Deathwatch beetle
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Euarthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Coleoptera
Family: Ptinidae
Genus: Xestobium
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 (Greek goddesses Atropos and Clotho were associated with death).

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]

In culture[edit]

Its nature as an ill omen is alluded to in the fourth book of John Keats' 1818 poem "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.)

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.[3]

The beetle was referenced in Mark Twain's 1876 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."[4]

In 1988, Linda Pastan wrote a poem entitled The Deathwatch Beetle.[5]

In 1995 Alice Hoffman referenced the deathwatch beetle in her novel "Practical Magic" as an omen of death whenever anyone hears its clicking until that person dies.


  1. ^ E. A. Parkin (1940). "The digestive enzymes of some wood-boring beetle larvae" (PDF). Journal of Experimental Biology. 17 (4): 364–377.
  2. ^ "35. Endymion. Keats, John. 1884. The Poetical Works of John Keats".
  3. ^ "Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Poe Studies - Poe Newsletter - Thoreau and the Deathwatch in Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart".
  4. ^ Twain, Mark (1876). The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. American Publishing Company. OCLC 47052486.
  5. ^ Pastan, Linda (1988). Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems 1968-1998. W. W. Norton. ISBN 978-0393319279.

External links[edit]