“The Cockchafer, Part 1”
On a warm night in May, the cockchafer crawls out of the earth for the first time to take flight into the bushes and trees. It has been living below ground for four years since it first hatched: a pale, fat, maggot-like grub that will eventually transform into a winged pupa—easy prey for the mice, moles, foxes, badgers, and hedgehogs that lurk above ground. That is why this little creature has kept such a low profile over the winter, developing its chitinous armor. Come May, it can finally make its debut as the messenger of spring.
Also known as Maybugs and doodlebugs, cockchafers have affectionately been called “chimney sweeps” or “millers” because of the furry fluff around their heads, and they have large, fan-like antennae that allow the males to locate females from far away. Previous generations of children used to keep them in cigar boxes and shoe cartons, and would play games with them. Grown cockchafers have a voracious appetite, living off of tender spring leaves and flowers, and are therefore considered pests by many fruit growers and foresters. But, due to the intensive use of pesticides in the twentieth century, cockchafers have become rare today, almost to the point of extinction in some regions. As a result, many are unfamiliar with these creatures. And their many unusual roles—such as in balms against arthritis, or as food items—have largely been forgotten.
For Ernst-Gerhard Burmeister, an entomologist at the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology, cockchafers are just one example of the dwindling insects that have prompted him to reflect more deeply on insect loss. His reflections make up the second installment of this post, out tomorrow.