Monday, June 18, 2007

Animal of the Week -- June 18, 2007


It was playing on my mind recently that I had not seen any of this week's animal of the week yet this year, despite it being associated with the month of May and only really being active in European parks and gardens during the early warm summer months. But then, there I was, hanging around the flower gardens of Kennington Park as dusk approached this weekend when a series of rustling, the occasional bumps, and random banging announced the arrival of several of the large and hairy Melolontha melolontha (cockchafers).

Cockchafers (no sniggering at the back), are large beetles that emerge in May and can be spotted flying rather haphazardly whirring through the sky and bumping into trees, buildings and people around green spaces, and feasting voraciously on plant material, particularly oak trees, but also crops, until the end of July. They are particularly active late in the day, so, for example, in London, Hampstead Heath as dusk approaches is a good place to find cockchafers.

Their larvae spend 3 years eating roots and tubers growing to a size of 5 cm, they pupate in autumn, but the adults overwinter in the soil emerging in May. Until recently, cockchafers sometimes reached plague proportions, causing devastation to crops, typically in 30 year cycles. The main measure to combat them would be to collect the adults and disrupt the breeding cycle, this tactic led to inventive recipes for sugarcoated cockchafers and cockchafer soup. Although largely ineffective, this method was far more successful than that employed in Avignon in 1320, when cockchafers were tried in court and ordered to retreat to a specially designated area!

Neither legislation nor culinary endeavour eventually brought the cockchafer under control. The introduction of chemical pesticides decimated their numbers, but in recent years they have had something of a resurgence and parks, gardens, and open spaces across the UK and Europe resound with the sounds of the crepuscular activities of cockchafers.

At about 2.5 cm long and being such a large and noticeable beetle, they have fired the imagination of people, and in the UK alone they have a great many names: not only the suggestive cockchafer, but also the half-right "May bug", the conflicting "July beetle", the unbelievable "spang beetle", and the Spoonerism-tastic "billy witch".

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At 9:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are not going to believe this but I woke up at 3 o'clock this morning as I felt something clinging to my wedding tackle (not the wife!) It felt like a thistle heat or something so I grabbed it and chucked it on the bedspread. My wife woke up and asked what was going on. We put on the light and she nearly had a fit as she thought the bug was a cockroach as indeed did I. We killed it between us and had some trouble sleeping thinking where the hell it came from. The COCKroach connection did not register as funny , in fact didn't even register at all at 3 in the morning.
Later on in the day my old mate 2 doors away looked at the body (still twitching but not after a screwdriver through it's head)and exclaimed it's only a billy witch. Relief all round and the wife can stop bleaching the entire house and blaming local takeaways for their poor hygiene but finally having found the correct name for this bug of Cockchafer we can see a funny side and what an appropriate name.
I am seriously now considering pyjamas!!


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