Kamikaze Fright In The Night

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I consider myself to be an amateur entomologist. Insects have now taken the place of birds at the top of my interests list and with each new discovery comes a whole new excitement. Insects, the many millions of them, from Bees to Butterflies, Millipedes to Micro moths, form a great chunk of the planets fauna and are singly the most important species on the planet; without insects, humans, along with most other fauna and flora, would die out almost in the blink of an eye. Insects are also vast in their differing appearance, their unique traits, their habits, lifestyles and habitats and so the discovery, the wonder and the learning never stops; there is always something new to see, to study. Having said that, there is one particular branch of insects that I struggle to get to grips with. Large beetles. For want of a better word, they just give me the ‘willies’.

When I decided to start Moth Trapping, my mind was full of images of a trap laden with a host of beautiful and interesting moths to record, study and release each morning and, to an extent and much to my pleasure that does seem to be the norm. What people neglect to tell you when you start trapping is that nestled amongst the moths are an array of wasps, hornets, flies, lacewings, caddisflies, millipedes, mosquitoes, midges, gnats, spiders, craneflies, droves of ichneumon wasps and yes, large beetles. For the main part this is great; I go on to record everything in the trap, most of which gets added to the species list on this very blog and it improves my knowledge of all things ‘insect’. I regularly discover creatures that, had it not been for the lure of the actinic light in the dead of night, I would probably never see in my lifetime. In the grand scheme of things, having to deal with a few large beetles is a small price to pay for an introduction into a whole new world of nocturnal life. Right?

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To this point my mortal enemy has been the large Black Sexton Beetle which has invaded my trap on many occasions since the start of March. Like most carrion feeders (they slowly drag the corpses of dead rodents and birds underground, devouring them almost entirely) they absolutely stink. I’m not being overzealous here either; they absolutely stink. Really, really, really stink. It’s this trait that means I’m loathe to ever handle one; removing one from the trap is a painstaking operation usually involving a garden cane on which to coax the beetle before carrying it at arms length (preferably further) to the hedge running along the outside of the retaining wall of my house. One thing I’ve noticed during these removal operations is the crocodile-bite grip with which the Sexton clings onto anything and everything with its legs (I’m not joking here, it’s a tug of war trying to coax the hind-legs from the egg trays with the front legs firmly gripped onto the cane). As the Sexton has become a regular visitor, my disdain for them has subsided somewhat; after all, a fear of beetles is a completely irrational one, at least in the UK, where none are dangerous, none sting or bite.

This week though, a new threat has shown itself. There is a new beetle unleashing a reign of terror on my nightly visits to the moth trap and this critter is in a whole different league. Thud. Thud. Thud. The sound of three centimetres of pure bulk crashing against the conservatory window at a speed and sound that could rival the Kamikaze pilots at Pearl Harbour. The thudding subsides, the windows still in tact, the trap itself is now under attack where, with such blundering and ungainly flight the beetle has found itself sunken through the funnel and into the layer of egg boxes below. Crashing around, the egg boxes visibly flipping and turning, the moths encased within now being shunned and shunted, disturbed into a frenzy of flapping and all the time the loud, humdrum buzzing of the intruder whirls away in the background. It is a scene from hell. I approach with caution. I lift the lid. Before me, hard-shelled wing cases open like the doors of a spaceship and wings protrude, whir with the sound of a traction engine and take flight. In the air, they are as large as those small remote controlled nano-drones you see in the gadget shops around town and seemingly just as direction-less. These beetles have a habit of flying straight at you, not out of menace but out of bewilderment, and I can confirm that they pack quite a punch (I wouldn’t want to take one full in the face!). Up and away over the fence, calm is restored save for the audible beat of my heart.

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May bug, Spang beetle, Billy witch, Doodlebug or, more precisely, the Cockchafer. My earlier reference to the Kamikaze pilots wasn’t far wrong; The German V-1 bomb, used in World War Two was named the doodlebug, so-called from the audible buzz of the Cockchafers flight. Despite my apparent disdain, the Cockchafer is undeniably an incredible critter. Huge, in terms of bulk, there are few beetles for comparison in the UK and once settled and still, they are fantastic, even charming looking insects. Despite the ominous looking sharp point at the tail-end, Cockchafers do not sting (this sharp point is a pygidium, used by females to push eggs deep into the soil) and they do not bite; they are entirely harmless save for an unintentional bombardment. It seems I’m a bit of a wuss; it’s not like I wasn’t given fair warning, Cockchafers have been the joy or nightmare of moth trappers for years in May and June with a distinct appetite for any actinic or mercury vapour light source. It’s thanks to moth trappers up and down the country keeping record of these beetles that we can now monitor their well-being with unrivalled accuracy.

The terror will subside in any event as the adult Cockchafer is only on the wing for 6 weeks of the year. In May and June they take flight on warm nights in search for a place to lay eggs. Despite this relatively short adult life, the large white grub that precedes it can live a subterranean life for three to five years munching away on roots and tubers until they reach a whopping 4cm in length before pupating and emerging as these spectacular flying adults.

If I’m honest, I am glad of the experience. Cockchafers are not overly common in Leicestershire and although in times past they were highly abundant, pesticide use in the mid 20th Century almost obliterated them. Thankfully they have been making a come-back since the 1980’s with the regulation of pesticides and in the South are now relatively common once again. Though there is a certain (irrational) fear within me that means I’m left if not a little unnerved by the Cockchafer, I can give nothing but my absolute respect to such an amazing, alien creature. I may not be cuddling up to them any time soon (a fellow moth’er recounts the numerous times she’s checked the trap late at night in her pyjamas and unwittingly taken a Cockchafer to bed with her) but my adoration is growing. Without encounters like these I’d be none the wiser, my knowledge would be less and I would have been deprived a moment to meet one of Britain’s most enigmatic insects. My moth trap and dead-of-night adventures have been an eye-opener and long may that continue. All are welcome to the lure of my lights, moth or not.

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