The Bug of Many Names – June 2017

Hello everyone! It seems that all those April showers we missed out on were stored up ready for a deluge in May. They certainly brought the fresh new leaves on the trees to life and saved many a wild flower in danger of giving up during the unseasonal drought. Our Quarry Wood pond was saved from becoming a muddy wallow and is slowly, but surely, recharging.

Fortunately, the rain held off long enough for us to hold our annual moth event, although a rather windy night kept the number of moths lower than we expected. Nevertheless, the overcast morning found twenty-four ‘Mothites’ standing bravely among dancing clouds of Mini-Biters and eagerly waiting for Ralph Hobbs (Powdermill Trust’s expert lepidopterist) to take the lid off the trap and see what was hiding amidst the egg boxes beneath the light.

We were reunited with a few familiar friends such as the Brimstone (Opisthograptis luteolata), White Ermine (Spilosoma lubricipeda) and Clouded Border (Lomaspilis marginata) and introduced to several species not recorded in the previous two years. These included the gloriously named Scorched Carpet (Ligdia adustata), Muslin (Diaphora mendica), Pale Tussock (Calliteara pudibunda) and a beautifully coloured Micro-Moth (Caloptilia alchimiella) that held its Matador-like pose for so long that Lorna was able get in close with her macro lens so it could be added it to the Quarry Wood Hall of Fame. We were astonished to see another Micro-Moth that looked as if it had been produced in some obscure guano-modelling club. It turned out to be a Yellow-faced Bell (Notocelia cynosbatella) one of many species of moth, so Ralph assured us, that are camouflaged as bird droppings; he even produced the field guide to prove it!

(Click here for more pics)

Twenty species of moth were identified on site and one species of beetle, the latter proving a source of wonderment for everyone, especially the younger members of the group. The Beetle in question was the amazing Cockchafer (Melolontha melolontha) and we had at least fifty of them in the trap! It is a member of the distinguished Family of the Scarabaeidae, a name which conjures up images of booby-trapped Pyramids, Jackal-headed Gods and beautiful Queens rolled in carpets. Yes, they are related to the Dung Beetle, revered by the ancient Egyptians.

Throughout our western history, we have shown no such veneration for the Scarab’s humble kin; at best, treating it as a tasty snack for feast days and at worst as an agricultural pest to be eliminated. It is a handsome beetle, growing to around 30mm, brown in colour with a white furry ‘ruff’ and distinctive, orange antennae which fan out at the top like antlers. The best way to distinguish male from female is to count the ‘fingers’ of the antennae, they have seven and six respectively.

The adult beetle or imago, to use the word favoured by our old friend Linnaeus (see What’s in a Name – December 2009), is the short-lived final stage of the Cockchafer’s life cycle. It spends three to four years in its larval stage underground where it feeds on plant roots making itself very unpopular with farmers and foresters. The use of pesticides almost eliminated the beetle in the mid-twentieth century, but regulation on the use of chemicals has seen a revival in their numbers. Once metamorphosis has taken place, the adult beetle overwinters in the ground and emerges in Spring in all its glory. From that point, it has a mere six or seven weeks to breed before it dies.

The beetle is known by a variety of interesting names, some of which are self-explanatory, for example May Bug, hence their abundance in our moth trap. Other monikers such as the Spang Beetle and Billy Witch are somewhat more mysterious in their derivation. It is said that Hitler gave orders for the VI Flying bomb to be called the Maikäfer (May Bug) which accounts for yet another name given to the insect, the Doodlebug.

Whichever name we know the Cockchafer by, we were delighted to see them in such great numbers at our event and, I for one, love to hear the deep drone of the much maligned Mitchamador!

To finish off this brief glimpse at the life of our May Bug, and by way of a change, here is one of my humble offerings in the brilliant Crowhurst Poetry Competition. Do click their website for some charming, original poetry, including several on wild flowers or birds, and a rather lovely Blue Tit painting. While you’re there, you might be inspired to write your own!

To a Cockchafer

Billy Witch, Billy Witch,
Where’d you spend the night?
In lovely Quarry Wood,
Trapped by a great light!
What did you find there, my Mitchamador?
Several kith ‘n’ kin and moths galore!

Any thoughts at

Paul Johnson


Image credits:

Images 1-8 & 10-11: original Quarry Wood photography by Lorna Neville; Img 9 (antennae): Melolontha Melolontha (Cockchafer) by Philip Birch, used under Creative Commons License 2.0