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Zoe Foster

Common cockchafer (Melolontha melolontha) © Zoe Foster

Common cockchafer

Zoe Foster

Fast facts

  • Latin name: Melolontha melolontha
  • Notable feature: Unusual fanned antennae
  • Rarity in UK: Rare / Common
  • Where in the UK: Widely distributed
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This handsome chap is the Common cockchafer, also referred to as the May bug, the Spang beetle or the Billy witch. These beetles usually appear around late April – early May and can frequently be seen and heard flying into lit windows and even lamps indoors!    

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Common cockchafer males can easily be distinguished from the females by counting the number of 'leaves' on their remarkable antler-like antennae, males sport seven ‘leaves’ while females have only six. These leafy antennae can detect pheromones, enabling males to find females even in the dark!

Lifecycle

Life begins as an egg laid around June - July, hatching into a white grub which lives underground. Grubs can spend 3 years underground (up to 5 years in colder climates) until they pupate. As grubs they munch on roots and tubers until they reach around 4cm. This is the point when they pupate, emerging as an adult beetle (or imago) in the spring. They live as adults for a mere six weeks during which time the female can lay as many as 80 eggs.

Dragisa SavicCockchafers were once highly abundant until pesticide use in the mid 20th Century almost obliterated them. Thankfully they have been making a come-back since the 1980’s with the regulation of pesticides.

Off with your head!

The larvae are considered to be an agricultural nuisance since they can be highly destructive to crops. Before agricultural intensification these beetles were especially problematic, so much so that adults were caught and killed to break the life cycle, in 1911, more than 20 million individuals were collected in 18 km² of forest. A less conventional approach was taken during 1320, when the cockchafers (as a species) were taken to court in Avignon where they were ordered to leave town and relocate to a specially designated area, or be outlawed. All cockchafers who failed to comply were collected and killed. Both adults and grubs have been considered a delicacy at times and are still eaten in some countries.

In ancient Greece, young boys used to catch the unwitting cockchafer, and tether it by tying a thread around its feet, amusing themselves by watch the poor chap fly aimlessly around in spirals.

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