Posted by: lensweb | May 15, 2014

May Bugs in April

May Bugs in April

A huge cockchafer was on the path as I walked through Nottingham University Park this morning. Straightaway my thoughts turned to evenings reading Hans Christian Anderson tales to my children. Thumbelina, a little maiden, delicate and graceful to behold, scarcely half a thumb’s length in height, was always a favourite:

‘There came a big Cockchafer flying up; and he saw her (Thumbelina), and immediately clasped his claws round her slender waist, and flew with her up into a tree. The green leaf went swimming down the brook, and the butterfly with it; for he was fastened to the leaf, and could not get away from it.

He flew up with her into a tree.

He flew up with her into a tree.

Mercy! how frightened poor little Thumbelina was when the Cockchafer flew with her up into the tree! But especially she was sorry for the fine white butterfly whom she had bound fast to the leaf, for, if he could not free himself from it, he would be obliged to starve. The Cockchafer, however, did not trouble himself at all about this. He seated himself with her upon the biggest green leaf of the tree, gave her the sweet part of the flowers to eat, and declared that she was very pretty, though she did not in the least resemble a cockchafer. Afterwards came all the other cockchafers who lived in the tree to pay a visit: they looked at Thumbelina, and said,

“Why, she has not even more than two legs! that has a wretched appearance.”
“She has not any feelers! ” cried another.
“Her waist is quite slender, fie! she looks like a human creature how ugly she is!” said all the lady cockchafers.

And yet Thumbelina was very pretty. Even the Cockchafer who had carried her off saw that; but when all the others declared she was ugly, he believed it at last, and would not have her at all she might go whither she liked. Then they flew down with her from the tree, and set her upon a daisy, and she wept, because she was so ugly that the cockchafers would have nothing to say to her’

Although they are known as May bugs, cockchafers are beetles, not true bugs. Cockchafers, Melolontha melolontha, are large, 25-30mmlong, Scarab beetles. In Old English ‘cockchafer’ means ‘big beetle’. They are common in the South and Midlands of the UK. They have whitish triangles on their sides, hairy bodies, reddish-brown wing cases that meet in the middle and orange fan-like antennae. They have a long and pointed  segment at the end of their abdomen, which is which is used to insert eggs into the ground.



Adult cockchafers live for only about 5 or 6 weeks. They fly into the tree tops, look for mates and feed on leaves. They fly at dusk on warm evenings, making a noisy hum and are attracted to light. The larva, of the cockchafer eats roots and lives underground for 3 or 4 years before pupating and emerging from the ground as an adult beetle in April-May (they are not always May bugs these days).

Both the larvae and the adults have a voracious appetite and can be a pest. In the Middle Ages people had no effective means to protect their harvest. In 1320 (according to Wiki), cockchafers were brought to court and sentenced to withdraw within three days onto a specially designated area, otherwise they would be outlawed. Subsequently, since they failed to comply, they were collected and killed. Cockchafers can be eaten. A 19th century recipe for cockchafer soup reads: “roast one pound of cockchafers without wings and legs in sizzling butter, then cook them in a chicken soup, add some veal liver and serve with chives on a toast”. And a newspaper from the 1920s tells of students eating sugar-coated cockchafers. A cockchafer stew is referred to in Sebald’s 1992 novel The Emigrants.

Other chafers to look out for in June and July are the summer chafer, Amphimallon solstitialis which is about 12mm in length and also has a hairy body under reddish-brown sparsely hairy wing cases. Garden Chafers Phyllopertha horticola 10mm long which have chestnut brown wing casings, covered in tiny hairs with dark green head legs and thorax and the beautiful rose chafer Cetonia aurata which is a beneficial species whose larvae are the insect equivalent of earth worms and help make very good compost where they may be found in great numbers in southern counties of the UK.

Marion Bryce 15/05/14


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