On my evening walk the other night, a stag beetle flew past me at eye level, little more than two feet away, affording me an amazing view of the creature in flight. With its body at a 45-degree angle, its heavy antlers aloft, its wing-cases open and its legs dangling awkwardly beneath its buzzing wings. It looked for all the world like some clockwork flying machine invented by Leonardo da Vinci.
You most often see stag beetles in flight at dusk, at the close of a warm day in June. It’s a minor miracle they get airborne at all – indeed they often have to launch themselves from trees to take advantage of a supporting breeze. Usually they zigzag about clumsily, like oversized bumblebees, but with enough wind in their sails they can go at a fair clip. Though dwarfed by some tropical species, they are the largest terrestrial insect in Europe, and an impressive sight by any standard.
These fabulous creatures have attracted the attention of writers and artists for hundreds of years. Pliny the Elder noted that the Roman scholar Nigidius named the stag beetle “lucanus” after the Italian region of Lucania, where people used them as amulets (they are a member of the scarab family). The reference forms the basis of their scientific name, Lucanus cervus.
In 1505 Albrecht Dürer painted a powerful and astonishingly accurate watercolour of a stag beetle (left, now in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles), its antlers raised as if for combat. Macbeth, contemplating the murder of Banquo, says that before “The shard-borne beetle with his drowsy hums/ Hath rung night’s yawning peal, there shall be done/ A deed of dreadful note,” and “the beetle wheels his droning flight” through the country churchyard of Gray’s Elegy.
At the risk of anthropomorphism, I find a certain tragic grandeur in the life cycle of the stag beetle. After five years buried in a woodpile in the guise of finger-sized maggots with fierce orange mandibles, they pupate, and then the adults emerge in May or June in all their Baroque splendour. The male flies off in search of a mate, who then lays her eggs. By the onset of autumn – if they haven’t already become a handy, protein-rich snack for magpies or foxes – they die.
Despite their fearsome appearance, stag beetles are strictly vegan; the adults, having accumulated enough fat as larvae to last for the rest of their brief lives, ingest little but sap and the juice of rotting fruit. Quite harmless to humans and animals, they play an important role in the environment by breaking down dead wood to form new soil.
Nationally they are endangered, a victim of our practice of tidying away any pile of rotting wood, the use of grinders to obliterate tree stumps, the destruction of hedgerows, and pesticides. Perhaps counter-intuitively, they seem to fare better in London suburbs than in the countryside, perhaps because of the absence of agricultural chemicals and the number of compost heaps, rotting fences and decaying sheds.
If you live in southern England, this is the perfect time to spot them. In order to understand which habitats are best for the insects and to improve conservation measures, the London Wildlife Trust is calling on Londoners to report any sightings to the Greenspace Stag Beetle Survey.
Stag Beetle Survey: http://www.gigl.org.uk/online/staggeringgains.aspx
Outside London, you can report sightings to the People’s Trust for Endangered Species as part of their Great Stag Hunt: http://www.ptes.org/moremammals/greatstaghunt/stag_beetle.php
Both groups provide useful information on how to make your garden stag-beetle friendly by creating a log pile in which their larvae can mature.