Rove Beetles (Aka Tomcats) in Bali
You wake up with some marks that look and feel like a burn, but you have no recollection getting them. Welcome to one of Bali’s biggest mysteries (which we are happy to solve for you).
Tomcats in Bali
First let us introduce you to paederus riparius, otherwise know as the Tomcat – an insect you’ll probably never even see but will know if you’ve been near one thanks to its toxin which is more potent than cobra venom. These guys belong to the insect order Coleoptera (beetles) and the family Staphylinidae (rove beetles). Adult Tomcats beetles are quite small: 7-10mm long and 0.5-1mm wide (so around the size of a large ant). For something so poisonous, they look innocuous with their black head, lower abdomen, and elytral (structure covering the wings) and a red thorax and upper abdomen. 1,4 Not all Rove Beetles cause the skin irritation we associate with Tomcats – that is the specialty of the species belonging to the subfamily Paederini – of which Tomcats are a member.
Rove beetles are found in many countries and like to live in moist habitats, which may explain why they are fans of Bali’s rice paddies.1,4 The beetles are commonly seen in the rainy season or after particularly hot and humid weather.3,7
During the daytime, these beetles can be seen crawling around on the ground, with their wings hidden and could be easily mistaken for ants. Adult Rove Beetles are predators of other insects. At night they are frequently found around light sources, which means they often inadvertently come into contact with humans.1,2,4
Tomcat beetles are members of the subset of Rove Beetles with the toxic venom which causes paederus dermatitis due to their highly toxic venom. Tomcats do not bite or sting, but accidental brushing against it or crushing it near the skin provokes the release of its coelomic fluid, which contains paederin, a strong blistering chemical.1,2,4 Even using a towel, or sleeping on a sheet which the beetle has been in contact with can lead to burns. Paederin has been compared to cobra venom, but it is actually the product of Pseudomonas bacteria living as an endosymbiont within the beetle.4 In any case, even a small exposure to this toxin can cause skin and eye irritations.
If not immediately washed off, the chemical leads to the characteristic linear lesions with a burning sensation, reddening of the skin, followed by painful irritation and itching, with extensive pustules and blistering of the skin, then heal with post inflammatory hyperpigmentation.2,5,6,7 These signs appear after 24-48 hours after contact and take a week, months, (or more) to disappear.
Preventing human-beetle contact is the primary method of preventing paederine-based trauma. Above all else, if you see a Tomcat, do not handle or handling or crush it. Blow or wash beetles off your skin, and if you need to exterminate, use spray with chemical insecticide spray then sweep them up and dispose of them. If you’re in an area prone to the beetles, minimise outdoor lighting at night, as this will attract them.
Most people who are burned by Tomcats in Bali find they never see the Tomcat that gives them the burn, however, if you’re in an area with a known problem, taking other insect-smart precautions can’t hurt:
- Wear long-sleeved and long-legged clothing to minimise exposed skin. Keep doors closed and put screens on doors.
- Sleep under a bed net (this may reduce the probability of a beetle falling on the skin during the night).
- Have bottles of soapy water handy for first aid. Use the buddy system to keep a lookout for beetles on others.
- Check areas for beetles (especially on walls and ceiling around the light) before going to bed.
- Clear excess vegetation from and around the residence, as beetles may rest in these areas.
Remember that beetles can cause symptoms, alive or dead so always avoid handling the beetle directly.
If a Tomcat is accidentally crushed against the skin, immediately wash the affected area with soapy water. This can help since the toxin penetrates the skin slowly. Washing shortly after exposure will remove much of the toxin before it has time to harm the skin. Afterwards, use cold wet compresses, followed by oral antihistamines and topical steroid (e.g. Hydrocortisone, Betamethasone) combined with antibiotic (e.g. neomycin sulphate) ointments are helpful against skin irritation and secondary infections.1,2,3,4,6,7 Be careful with treating the skin irritations, as some traditional remedies can actually make the marks worse. Always seek medical attention for any severe skin reactions to the toxin.
Paederus beetle exposure is irritating and sometimes painful but can be managed more effectively if people know the source of the marks. Education and prevention are our best bets in dealing with this tiny menace.
1. Singh G, Ali SY. Paederus dermatitis. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol. 2007;73:13-5.
2. Mammino J. Paederus Dermatitis: An Outbreak on a Medical Mission Boat in The Amazon. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2011 Nov:4(11):44-46.
3. Beaulieu AB, Irish SR. Abstract: Literature review of the causes, treatment, and prevention of dermatitis linearis. J of Travel Medicine. 2016 July:23(4).
4. Gibbs LM. Beware of the Beetle: A Case Report of Severe Vesicating Dermatitis. Mil Med. 2015 Dec; 180(12):e1293-5.
5. Cáceres L, et al. Dermatitis Due to Paederus Colombinus: Report of an Epidemic Outbreak of 68 Cases in the Province of Darien, Panama. Cureus. 2017 Apr 12; 9(4):e1158. Epub 2017 Apr 12.
6. Mittal, et al. A Study of Beetle Dermatitis. Indian J of Clinical Practice. 2013 Apr;23(11):714 – 716.
7. Karthikeyan K, Kumar A. Paederus dermatitis. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol 2017;83:424-31.