Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Cockchafers.

Male Cockchafer, © Steven Miller,
who runs the Herb Cottage in Gunthorpe

I've always thought the Cockchafer (a European beetle, genus Melolontha) was ridiculously cute, and it also has a really silly and hilarious name. These beetles have big feathery antennae: the males have 7 "leaves" on each antennae, and the females have 6. They are orange and delightfully fuzzy-of-face. The name Cockchafer, although it suggests that they have a tendency to irritate poultry and/or genitals, is supposedly just Old English for Big Beetle.

Cockchafers are completely harmless to humans--they do not sting or bite. They were once considered a major pest in Europe, however, due to their voracious appetites for crops. Now they've been nearly wiped out by pesticides and mechanical cultivators which kill the grubs. In some parts of Europe they've actually been completely eradicated; but in the olden days they caused some trouble. As grubs they gobble the roots of farm plants for the 3-4 years that they live underground. The grubs get quite big--up to 5 cm long! When they emerge from the ground en masse and develop into adult beetles (cyclically, every 4 or so years), they gorge on oak leaves and conifer needles for the 6-7 weeks of their adult lives.

Before pesticides, these insects could devastate crops. It's not a surprise that, like locusts during swarm years, Cockchafers were turned into food so that folks wouldn't starve. Some of those recipes are still circulating now. In the fascinating cookbook Unmentionable Cuisine by Calvin W. Schwabe (University Press of Virginia, 1979), you can find not one but THREE French recipes for the Cockchafer. Supposedly these recipes were once used for a Cockchafer Banquet at Café Custoza in Paris.

Photo by Falko Zurell

The Roasted Cockchafer Grubs in Paper (larves de hanneton en papillote) sounds particularly nice: "Salt and pepper the grubs and roll them in a mixture of flour and fine bread crumbs. Wrap in parchment baking envelopes well-buttered on the inside or in aluminum foil. Bake in the hot ashes of a wood fire." (Unmentionable Cuisine, p 371) While I don't know if I'm going to go busting down the café door to get me some larves en papillote, I can appreciate just about anything in mounds of beurre.

But rather than eating a Cockchafer, I might like to meet one, like Thumbelina did when she was abducted by a male Cockchafer who fancied her. Unfortunately, Cockchafers think human girls are ugly, as it turns out.


Andersen, Hans Christian. Fairy Stories from Hans Christian Andersen. Margaret Tarrant, illustrator. London: Ward, Lock & Co., 1910.

"'Oh! she is ugly,' said all the lady cockchafers, although Thumbelina was very pretty. Then the cockchafer who had run away with her, believed all the others when they said she was ugly, and would have nothing more to say to her, and told her she might go where she liked. Then he flew down with her from the tree, and placed her on a daisy, and she wept at the thought that she was so ugly that even the cockchafers would have nothing to say to her." --Hans Christian Anderson's Thumbelina, 1835

9 comments:

  1. When I was growing up in Belgium, in the 1940's, it was a custom among boys to bring a boxes of cockchafers (when they were available) to school. Inevitably, beetles would escape while the boys were in class and start flying around, while the teacher went nuts and the boys tried to recapture the flying beetles. All a lot of fun! There is a Daumier illustration (in his series on the war between students and teachers) of what regularly happened in those old days! Obviously, it was a custom which survived a long time.

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  2. What a wonderful story--thanks so much for sharing it! I'll look for the Daumier illustration.

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  3. Thank you for your lovely story about the cockchafer.I was looking online for imformation about a massive,scary bettle with strange antenne, because I just came face to face with one on my deck late tonight.I almost had a heart attack, because we dont have large bizarre bugs in British Columbia (I hope) and he really freaked me right out.But, I was also completely facinated and mesmerized by his oversized bettle body, his flashy antenne and in the end ,kind of liked him a little bit (with him on the other side of the glass door)
    We hung out.It was neat and now after reading your blog, I do see, he is kinda cute.
    :)

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  4. Sunya, I love it that you and your beetle pal hung out, despite the fact that he was a little alarming. That is lovely. Yeah, that fuzzy face is rather charming. :)

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  5. Thankyou for this info Julie. I've had these buzzing round last few days, been catching them and setting them free. Just found a dead one though so manage to research what they are. Not too happy that their grubs are what the problem is with our grass, I believe they are good bird food however next door now have cats so no birds!

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  6. ive got this super boring project to do on insects & I typed in cockchafer expecting some major dumb info,instead i got 2 read a super fun article which might actually make my project fun:)
    btw,the insect is kinda cute:D

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  7. Anon, I'm so glad you liked my little post about cockchafers. I hope your insect project goes well and that you have a great time doing research! I must say that I find insects to be completely fascinating and can lose myself for days at a time reading about them. Sending some happy bug project energy your way!

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  8. We have loads of these around our house every year as we live in the fens, they are very clumsy little things. My biyfriend once had the miss fortune of being bitten by a male he tried to rescue and it left him with a rather nasty mark on his arm, my dog also got bitten by one, however no matter where i look online everybody says they don't.

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