This isn’t the best photo I took today – that would be one of these – but I’m posting it to mark my first ever meeting, in all my six decades, with one of these extraordinary beetles. It’s a Common Cockchafer (settle down, or you’ll find yourself in detention); which according to Wikipedia is also commonly called a May-bug or a doodlebug, and whose “[o]ther names include bracken clock, bummler, chovy, cob-worm, dorrs, dumbledarey, humbuz, June bug, kittywitch, billy witch, may-bittle, midsummer dor, mitchamador, oak-wib, rookworm, snartlegog, spang beetle, tom beedel and chwilen y bwm (Welsh).”
The first I knew about it was when R (who after 29 years of marriage knows how to gain my attention) shouted up to my study that there was a huge dead beetle on the patio, if I might be interested in coming down to identify it. As I thundered gracefully down the stairs I took a bet with myself that it would be a cockchafer – because “huge” doesn’t encompass many beetles in this country, and I assume that he knows what a stag beetle looks like – and as soon as I bent over to take a look and saw the divided antenna, I knew that I owed myself yet another new lens. Yay me!
I also immediately spotted that it wasn’t dead, although it wasn’t looking especially well – which isn’t surprising, because it had apparently been trying at some point to get into the kitchen, and had wedged itself in the gap underneath the back door. R had discovered it on opening the door, and had removed it to the patio, where it was now making very slight and feeble efforts to move. I went and fetched a teaspoonful of water and dribbled it onto the flag in front of the beetle, which reacted with the outrage I’ve come to expect from insects to which I proffer assistance, and slowly paddled through the water to the dry ground beyond. At that point I gave up trying to help and fetched the camera, and by the time I had a few shots the cockchafer was starting to look as though it was recovering – so we scooped it up onto a piece of card and moved it into the shade of the ground cover plants in the rose bed.
If it turns out to have been a female I may come to regret this piece of kindness: this flying beetle stage represents just the last few weeks of a cockchafer’s life, most of which (between three and five years) is spent as a larva, living underground and munching through the roots of plants until it reaches an appropriate size to pupate. Because of their voracious appetites and the amount of damage they can therefore cause to crops, these beetles have been persecuted for centuries – and with the development of effective agri-chemicals during the C20th they were brought to the brink of extinction. Since the 1980s however, pesticide use has been decreasing across Europe (damn you, EU, for your concern for human health and biodiversity!!), and they are now beginning to make a slow comeback.
As to its sex (I mean it – you’re on your final warning now), the debate continues. I think it’s a female, because the antennae of male cockchafers have seven leaves whereas those of the female have just six (a ruse by the males to ensure that they can always outvote their wives in company meetings, I believe) – and no matter how I narrow my eyes and twist my neck, I can only see six here. However, the Beetle Man on Facebook, though he agrees with me about the apparent number of leaves, still has a feeling that it’s a male. Some kind of Spidey Sense, or something.
I will iRecord it with a query, and let the verifier have the casting vote. And the next time I bump into the neighbour who’s lived in this village all his life I will tell him about it, and ask what its Worcestershire name is; given that this area depended on farming and market gardening for many hundreds of years, I expect it to be something uncomplimentary!