Posted: Wednesday 5 June 2013
by Richard Jones

Last weekend was the 2013 Garden BioBlitz, an online Twitter-originated collaboration to observe, identify and record garden wildlife.

Cockchafer. Image by Paul Quigley.

Last weekend was the 2013 Garden BioBlitz, an online Twitter-originated collaboration to observe, identify and record garden wildlife. There is a special #gbb13 hashtag on Twitter, and a series of iSpot pages specially to put experts on hand to help observers with any tricky species.

One of the first species to be notified is, I think, one of Britain’s most handsome insects: the cockchafer. Once we’ve got the schoolboy giggles out of the way, and we reverently return to sombre scientific gravitas, Melolontha melolontha, is revealed as a truly magnificent creature. Approaching 3cm long, its solid body gives it an intimidating mass, and yet it is as an aeronaut that it has earned its renown.

Flying with a heavy buzzing drone, it has more than its fair share of local and dialect names, including doodlebug, billywitch, bummler, humbuz, snartlegog and chovy. Some dictionaries call it dumbledor (although most entomologists would argue that this name really applies to the large blue-black Geotrupes dung beetles), but it is as the May bug (or this year June bug) that its seasonal mass appearance is celebrated.

The stunning picture above is by Paul Quigley, who found ten cockchafers in his Cheshire moth trap one morning. I haven’t seen one for several years, and I’ve only ever met with occasional singletons, but there are vivid historical descriptions of evening skies black with them. I remember an old boy (as my Kent farmer grandfather used to call the more colourful elderly yokels of the parish) recounting how there used to be so many May bugs flying against his living room window that it sounded like someone throwing handfuls of gravel at the glass.

Since the grubs feed on plant roots and the adults nibble the leaves of trees, many of the older horticultural and agricultural handbooks consider Melolontha a serious pest. The inimitable Eleanor Ormerod (A Manual of Injurious Insects, 1881), recounts a harvest of 80 bushels of May bugs on one farm. Shaking the branches over ground sheets was her preferred remedy, then feeding the fallen beetles to pigs, or employing small boys to trample them.

Cockchafers are obviously still pretty widespread, they regularly appear for naming on iSpot, but gone of the days of universal familiarity. Even the metallic green rose chafer, Cetonia aurata, a veritable living jewel, is met with startled astonishment nowadays, rather than comfortable recognition. I was reminded of this, recently, when I wrote a blog article about the golden chafers of Central America, and Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The gold bug. Although he probably never saw one of the burnished golden beetles pretty precisely described in his tale, he would have known all about this group of exotic and brightly coloured insects, and ‘chafer’ would have been a perfectly ordinary word used in everyday language, rather than having the suggestive innuendo it has acquired today.

At the end of my garden BioBlitz I’d found several species of hoverfly, ground beetle, ant and leafhopper. A large, but rather battered, lime hawk-moth, Mimas tiliae, was the most impressive beast of the weekend. No chafers turned up, rose, golden, cock or otherwise. Nevermind, it’s June now, the stag beetles will be along any minute.

Thank you to Paul Quigley, for supplying the beautiful cockchafer image. Visit his Flickr page here.

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Talkback: Cockchafers
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gardeningfantic 11/06/2013 at 16:02

we have these in our garden all the time during season.. thou not so many this year as previous years.. o/h calls them maybugs.. but they are large and amazing bugs..

summerwine 11/06/2013 at 18:03

I also found a couple of these, had to go online to identify them! Don't their grubs do loads of damage to our lawns?

We have very sandy soil and I am worrying now as to how to deal with these things....I understand the adults themselves don't actually do any harm other than laying their eggs, that is!

Am I worrying unneccesarily?

Dovefromabove 11/06/2013 at 22:10

Back in the days when there were thousands of these lovely creatures, they probably did a fair bit of damage to lawns etc.  Now there are so few of them



around any damage they do is marginal, and they are fantastic!  I love them 

summerwine 12/06/2013 at 18:24

Yes,  they are handsome critters think I will leave the lawn alone after reading more about them. If a few blades of grass die off I can reseed.

Berkley 12/06/2013 at 19:57

It is the larvae that do the damage - or rather the crows, who will rip a lawn apart in order to feast on them. Our large front lawn looked like a churned-up football pitch two years ago and we were devastated. We have used the specific pro ado product ever since and had no problems. I quite like the look of the adults too - but can't forget how our lawn looked.

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