(De Geer, 1774)
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 death watch 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.
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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." ("Stifled" because the death it was portending has taken place.)
The deathwatch beetle is mentioned in the film Practical Magic, and its characteristic ticking sound serves as the harbinger of death.
German progressive rock band Hoelderlin has a 17 and a half minute long track, titled "Deathwatchbeetle", on their eponymous album from 1975.
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.
They were mentioned in the BBC series Sherlock, where Sherlock is giving a toast at Watson's wedding and makes a comparison of John and Mary’s wedding to “the death-watch beetle that is the doom of our society and, in time, one feels certain, our entire species”
In Rogue Male based on a Geoffrey Household novel, Major Quive-Smith (John Standing) is staying at Drake's countryside boardinghouse while manhunting Sir Robert (Peter O'Toole). One night Sir Robert tries to steal food from Drake's dairy and falls through the rafters. Quive-Smith and Drake come out to investigate the commotion and Quive-Smith says the cause of the cave-in was a deathwatch beetle and that he had seen the prior results of the beetle's work while staying in East Riding.
- E. A. Parkin (1940). "The digestive enzymes of some wood-boring beetle larvae" (PDF). Journal of Experimental Biology 17 (4): 364–377.