Deathwatch beetle

Deathwatch beetle
Scientific classification
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]

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 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."

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]


  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. Twain, Mark. Three by Twain: Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court (Kindle Locations 12431–12432). Graphic Arts Books. Kindle Edition.
  4. "Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Poe Studies - Poe Newsletter - Thoreau and the Deathwatch in Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart".
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