A Guide to Caring for Bess Beetles

Everything You Need to Know About Keeping Bessbugs as Pets

Bess beetle habitat.
A bess beetle habitat is easy to create. All you need is a chunk of rotting log!. Debbie Hadley/WILD Jersey

Bess beetles are among the easiest arthropods to keep in captivity, and make excellent pets for young insect enthusiasts. As with any pet, it's good to learn as much as you can about their habits and needs before you commit to keeping them. This guide to caring for bess beetles (also known as bessbugs) should tell you everything you need to know about keeping them as pets.

In North America, whether you purchase bess beetles from a supplier or collect your own, you will almost certainly be dealing with the species Odontotaenius disjunctis.

The information provided here may not apply to other species, particularly tropical bess beetles.

Things You Should Know Before Keeping Bess Beetles as Pets

Although they are quite large and have powerful mandibles, bess beetles (family Passalidae) don't usually bite unless they're being mishandled. They have thick, protective exoskeletons, and don't tend to cling to your fingers with their feet (like many scarab beetles do), so even small children can handle them with supervision. Bess beetles are easygoing, although they do squeak in protest when disturbed. That's what makes them so much fun to keep as pets – they talk!

Bess beetles often burrow and hide during the day. Flip on the light switch at night, however, and you'll probably find your bess beetles perched on top of their log or exploring their terrarium. If you're looking for classroom pets that will be active during school hours, bess beetles might not be the best choice.

They do, however, cooperate if you wake them from their naps for a science activity.

If you're looking for low maintenance insects, you can't do better than bess beetles. They eat their own poop as part of their diet, so you don't have to clean out their habitat. The only thing they need from you is a piece of rotting wood and a regular misting of water.

No need to chop vegetables or keep crickets to feed them.

Bess beetles rarely reproduce in captivity, so you don't have to worry about a population explosion in your terrarium. The unlikeliness of breeding also means they aren't a good choice for classroom life cycle studies.

Housing Your Bess Beetles

To keep 6-12 adult bess beetles, you'll need a terrarium or aquarium that holds at least 2 gallons. An old 10-gallon aquarium works well, fitted with a mesh screen cover. Bess beetles won't scale the sides of the container like roaches or stick insects do, but you should still keep their habitat covered securely.

Put 2-3 inches of organic soil or peat moss in the bottom of the habitat to give the bess beetles a place to burrow. Sphagnum moss will hold moisture and help keep the habitat at a comfortable humidity level for your bess beetles, but it's not necessary as long as you mist them regularly.  

Place the habitat in an area out of direct sunlight and don't put it too close to a heat source. Bess beetles do well at room temperature, and don't need special heaters or lights. In fact, they prefer a dark environment, so you can tuck them away in a corner of the room where there isn't much light.

Caring for Your Bess Beetles

Food: Bess beetles are decomposers of fallen trees, and feed on rotting wood. The North American species Odontotaenius disjunctis prefers oak, maple, and hickory wood, but will also feed on most other hardwoods. Find a fallen log that is already decomposed enough to break with your hands. Healthy bess beetles will break a log down in short order, so you'll need a regular supply of rotting wood to feed them. You can also purchase rotting wood from most science supply companies that sell bess beetles, but what's better than taking a walk in the woods? If you're keeping bess beetles in the classroom, ask your students to collect wood and bring it to school to replenish the habitat.

Water: Mist the habitat once per day, or as needed, to keep the substrate and wood moist (but not soaking wet).

If you're using chlorinated tap water, you'll need to dechlorinate it before misting the beetles. Just let the water sit for 48 hours to allow the chlorine to dissipate before using it. There's no need to purchase a dechlorinating agent.

Maintenance: Bess beetles recycle their own waste (in other words, eat their own feces) to replenish the population of microorganisms in their digestive tracts regularly. These gut symbionts enable them to digest tough wood fibers. Cleaning their habitat would eliminate these important microorganisms, and possibly kill your bess beetles. So there's no need to do anything other than give your bess beetles enough wood and water to live. Other than that, leave them be, and they will do the rest.

Where to Get Bess Beetles

Many science supply companies sell live bess beetles via mail order, and that's probably your best bet to obtain some healthy specimens to keep as pets. You can usually get a dozen bess beetles for under $50, and in captivity, they can live up to 5 years.

If you want to try collecting live bess beetles on your own, turn over rotting logs in hardwood forests. Keep in mind that bess beetles live in family units and both parents raise their young together, so there may be larvae living with the adults you find.