Cockchafer (Melolontha melolontha)

CockchaferOne of my abiding memories of early childhood was either of my two older sisters screaming “get it out of here” from their respective bedrooms and of me rushing excitedly to find out what beastie had encroached into their hallowed space! If it was the month of May, then very often it would be a maybug or, to use its proper name, cockchafer.

These are fairly heavy-duty and I suppose reasonably frightening beetles, with shiny brown wings and large antennae resembling the antlers of an elk that come crashing into bedrooms at this time of year, attracted by any light that is on after dark. These huge antennae are used to pick up, among other things, female pheromones enabling the males to locate females during the night.

These striking beetles are only around for about six or seven weeks, but their larvae are present throughout the year munching away at the roots of a wide range of plants, and it is because of this that chafer grubs, as they are known, are perhaps more widely recognised as they can be a serious pest. In fact the word “chafer” is a Middle English word meaning to “gnaw” and the cock part of the word probably refers to the “maleness” of this robust-looking beetle, as the word was similarly used in cock robin or sparrow.

The fat white grubs, with their orangey brown heads, grow very slowly and live in the soil for three or four years, growing up to 2 inches in length before pupating and hatching out as an adult beetle. The grubs are particularly fond of grass and cereal roots, but most plants are susceptible to their voracious appetite; patches of wilting plants giving away the first sign of their presence. If you pull up these plants you will find that they have virtually no roots left and with a little further investigation in the soil below the plant you will find the culprit, curled in its usual “comma” shape.

Because these grubs are fat and juicy they are heavily sought after by a wide range of species and are therefore quite an important part of the food chain. Rooks in particular spend lots of time hunting out such tasty morsels, so much so that many country folk call the grubs “rookworms”.

In the past cockchafers  were incredibly abundant and caused major crop failures, but the ploughing up of many old pastures and the introduction of certain pesticides have made them a far less common sight nowadays. In the Middle Ages collecting the adult beetles was really the only way that people could try to control their numbers and protect their crops. In France, this gave rise to events that seem bizarre from a modern day perspective. In 1320, cockchafers were brought to court in Avignon and sentenced to withdraw within three days into a specially designated area, otherwise they would be outlawed. Subsequently, since they failed to comply, they were collected en masse and killed.

Taking a look at some of the current day European laws that we all seem to have to abide by nowadays, I’m not that sure how much things have truly progressed since the 1320s!

Peter Thompson

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