Insect of the day: the May bug

Cockchafer front view - credit Dave Skingsley Flickr

Cockchafer, May bug, spang beetle and Billy witch are all names for what used to be a common sight at this time of year. pening the curtains and switching on the living room lights after dusk to attract the cockchafers was wildlife watching made easy. But sadly, they haven’t appeared for many years now.

If one of these browny-coloured iconic spring insects bangs into your window, you can’t miss it. The cockchafers aren’t small: 2-3 inches long and about half an inch wide with chunky bodies. They look like the sumo wrestlers of the insect world!

If you need another feature to identify it, the two ‘fluffly’ antennae on the front of their heads are a giveaway. They look like a couple of fans on sticks – seen from the front, these antennae make the cockchafer look like a mythical beast! They also buzz around a lot but, despite the noise, are harmless.

Their young are fat, white grubs with brown heads which live in the soil for three years eating plant roots – not good news for farmers as the larvae are particularly partial to cereals and grasses. It seems somewhat sad that after all that time growing and turning into grown-ups, they live for a mere 6 weeks in May to June. OK, they get to mate and chew on a few leaves and flowers during this time, but it doesn’t seem much of a trade-off!

In past times, farmers have killed these insects en masse to try to protect their crops – in 1911, over 20 million of them were killed in just 18km sq of forest. The powers-that-be in Avignon tried an unorthodox approach in 1320 – they put the cockchafer species on trial and ordered them to move out of town and live in a specially designated area or they’d be killed.  I don’t need to spell out what happened.

In past times, cockchafers have been eaten as a delicacy, and still are in some countries. Dry roasted grubs anyone?

Cockchafer cute - credit BashBob Flickr

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