Sunday, March 9, 2008

Thats How The Elytron Crumbles

...or, more accurately, splinters disastrously. The last year or so i've been working with a wonderful batch of Torynorrhina flammea jewel beetles (here are pictures of the top and bottom to give you an idea of their body structure and beautiful iridescence). Originally, the modifications I was making only required cutting into the abdomen on the bottom side of the beetle. Using a sharp x-acto knife and some care, this proved to be no problem. However, a more recent project necessitated cutting into the elytra. In doing so, I discovered that the chitin has a distinctive grain. cutting lengthwise wasn't too problematic. However, once I began cutting diagonally and widthwise, things got trickier. It seems the wing covers weren't too keen on being swiss cheese. After extensive struggle and fudging some rough edges with glue (also, I must admit, an unkind word or two to the beetles I was hacking at. Most people talk to dead insects, right?), the project was completed. However, I swore never again to attempt cutting shapes out of elytra. No sir. never. not gonna happen.

Well, that was about two months ago. Last weekend I found myself staring mournfully at the belly of a beautiful 5-horned rhinoceros beetle (Eupatorus gracillicornus), my fateful vow echoing in my head. This was all supposed to be so simple; Cut a window into the abdomen of the beetle, empty out the body cavity, and transform the inside into a light-box with ultra-miniature diorama. Easy as pie, right?

But there before me lay the pitfall of my lack of foresight. I had thoughtlessly assumed that the belly-side of a rhino beetle would be the same as that of my earlier jewel beetles. Oh, what fools we mortals be! While the jewel beetles had lovely, workable, wide-open spaces between where the two rows of legs anchored to the body, the rhino beetles' legs emerged directly from the center of the thorax. Not only this, but the abdomen was a stubby thing, making any chance of simply cutting below the legs impossible. I would have loved to have cut into the top side of the beetle (thus being able to show off its full beauty), but for the issue of those pesky elytra. Because of my previous experience I had written it off as a lost cause, and resigned myself to working on the belly.

Here's where I owe a friend of mine a great debt of gratitude. He suggested using a Dremel rotary tool with the thinnest cut-off wheel. I was afraid a power tool-even one as small-scale as a Dremel- might destroy the beetle's fragile desiccated body. However, it worked brilliantly! On a medium-low setting, taking great care not to cut too deep, I was able to cut a nearly perfect rectangle out of the elytra. Once they were out of the way, my trusty old x-acto knife could get through the wings and the exoskeleton. Victory was mine! 

(A victory I celebrated with about 30 minutes of scooping out dried beetle innards.)

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