24 May 2013

May: Rain and Scarab Beetles

By Jorge Ventocilla

Chilean poet Pablo Neruda claimed the following in his “Self-Portrait” (Autorretrato):

For my part I am or believe I am
hard of nose, minimal of eyes…
…slow in going…

…unrustable (sic) heart, fan of the stars…
…admirer of scarabs…

(Translation by Janine Pommy Vega, from the book Windows that Open Inward: Poems by Pablo Neruda, edited by Dennis Maloney)                                                                                                                          

In his biography, Neruda explains he was fascinated by beetles ever since he was a little kid. He used to look for beetles through the fallen leaves of the cloudy rainforest in Temuco, southern Chile, where he grew up. I am certain that Neruda was just like the entomologists* I know: he never lost the ability to marvel at these small bugs (*entomologists are biologists who study insects).

When it starts to rain in Panama, we immediately see a lot of different bugs. We will talk about a group of small beetles that crash into the windows and crawl into our homes both slowly and heavily. They are called “May Beetles”. Honestly, this year it has not rained much but I have already seen those May Beetles.

In Guarare, they call them “Coquitos”; in Chorrera, “Maíz tostado” (parched corn). In Panama City, some people call them “Totorrones” (this term is also used for the cicada). Blas Quintero once told me those May Beetles will perfectly fit under the widely popular category known by country people as “bijorochos”.

They are small, not more than 2 cm long, nocturnal and usually brown. Male and female look almost exactly the same. They belong to the Phyllophaga genus. This group includes a large number of species found in rainforests and also in open areas. Some of them could be considered a threat to corn, sorghum, rice, beans and other crops.

Its lifecycle can be summarized as follows: adult beetles we usually see flying around actually have a very short life, and their main purpose is to reproduce. After mating, the male beetle dies and the female lay the eggs under the surface only to die shortly afterwards. These hatch into creamy-white, C-shaped larvae (curl grub). They are thick and their head is dark; they have dark legs on their thorax and strong, well-developed jaws. You must certainly have seen one of these beetle larvae when gardening. They would make for a terrifying monster film if they were giants. 

Towards the end of the year, larvae pupate and from this pupa emerges an adult beetle. They will not come out to the surface until it rains because only then weather conditions will become favorable for them.

Because seasonal changes are more noticeable in the Pacific Coast, beetles will come out mainly in May. In the Caribbean (I am not convinced about calling it the Atlantic instead of the Caribbean yet), where the rainy season lasts longer, they would come up to the surface not just in May, but in any other rainy month of the year.

Somebody once told me these beetles are “really clumsy” because they are very slow when flying, crash into everything and keep falling to the ground. Actually, they are very sharp and accurate when they are in their own habitat, but artificial lights lure them and confuse them and this is why they end up flying into our homes.

Evolution and life must love beetles! With over 30,000 species, this is the most diverse group of animals in the entire planet. We can learn from them every day. Recently I read a technical article about dung beetles in Australia (those dung-rolling beetles) which navigate through the night thanks to the lights from the stars above.

Those common beetles we see when it starts to rain are part of the 25,000 species that have been recorded for Panama. By the way, this amount is higher than the number of beetle species found in the whole European continent.

We will certainly pay more attention in the future and acknowledge and cherish how lucky we are to be witnesses to this wonderful biodiversity!

English translation by Sara I. Melo D.

Galeria de Fotos: 
May beetle. Drawing by Ologwagdi, Kuna Master.
Attracted by artificial lights, they come to our homes during the rainy season. Photo by Jorge Ventocilla.
Harmless May beetles… Photo by Beth King.