Sonorous beetles

Egyptian scarab

Apocryphal or not, the famous J. B. S. Haldane quote about the Creator’s inordinate fondness for beetles has thoroughly confused god and beetle in my mind. As with most matters theological, of course, the Egyptians got there first, and so sacred and scarab also seem to me to have a very close kinship. The Spanish word for beetle is a cognate of scarab, escarabajo, and I was pleased to run across it yesterday morning in Lorca’s Poema del cante jondo (“Poem of the Deep Song”), in a poem called “Castanet.”

Crótalo.
Crótalo.
Crótalo.
Escarabajo sonoro.

En la araña
de la mano
rizas el aire
cálida,
y te ahogas en tu trino
de palo.

Castanet.
Castanet.
Castanet.
Sonorous beetle.

In the spider
of the hand
you make the warm
air ripple
and you suffocate
in your wooden trill.

Last night toward dusk, as I sat working at my computer, I became aware of a ticking noise in the kitchen. Thinking I might be able to surprise a mouse in some act of destruction, I snuck in as quietly as I could. The noise was coming from right beside the sink. A large brown click beetle had become ensnared in a spiderweb next to the sponge (and yes, this is a good indication of the quality of my housekeeping), hanging upside-down about an inch above the counter, and it was trying to escape the only way it knew how: by snapping the hinge of its body every few seconds. After each attempt, the tiny spider — about a tenth the size of the beetle — rushed in with another sticky grappling thread. Lorca’s lines suddenly seemed strangely prophetic.

For once, I decided to intervene and not let nature take its course, in part because I like click beetles better than I like spiders, but also because I knew if I let the clicking continue, aware now of what it meant, I would probably end up dreaming of time-bombs or the clock ticking down to my own eventual death. And a hinge, after all, is a synecdoche for a door. You want it free to swing open when the time comes. I released the beetle back into the sink to resume whatever it had been doing before it blundered into the web.

Around midnight, another noise got me out of my chair. This time it came from the front doorsill. Rather than turn on the overhead light, I grabbed my flashlight from the end of the table. There, bumbling along the bottom edge of the door, was the largest beetle I had ever seen on the mountain — some kind of longhorn beetle, I thought, but that didn’t narrow it down much. It was about two inches long, all black, and sported a pair of mandibles that gaped open and snapped shut with a faintly audible click. I scooped it up in a drinking glass so I could give it to my brother Steve, a beetle collector, when he stopped by the next morning.

This beetle too had come a cropper of some spiderweb, which I removed from its mandibles as best I could with a pencil. It seemed unable or at least disinclined to fly, so I left the glass open, but it made me a little uneasy being the guardian of such an enormous beetle — as if I’d imprisoned a minor god. In the morning I took the glass outside for some pictures, but the beetle had lapsed into a slight curl to fit the bottom of the glass and I had to poke at it with a grass stem to get it to uncurl and open its mandibles.

Steve had been having some really bad car troubles, among other things, but perked up a bit when he saw the beetle. “That’s a female Prionus laticollis,” he said, and spelled it out for me so I could look it up online. “The females are a bit larger than the males but have shorter antennae. The common name is ‘broadnecked root-borer.’ They’re not too common up here because they feed on the roots of fruit trees — they’re considered a pest. Yeah, this one’s a female. See the distended abdomen? She’s full of eggs.”

So if not the mother of all beetles, this was certainly the mother of some. Given the species’ tree-destroying habits, I wasn’t too upset when Steve decided to keep her for his collection, which he shares with his best friend Sam Wells, a professional entomologist — the Bonta-Wells, or Bowells, collection. He rummaged around in the bulging daypack he carries everywhere, found a mostly empty vial of alcohol, and popped her in. “Bonta-Wells can definitely use another Prionus laticollis,” he chortled. God isn’t the one with an inordinate fondness for beetles.

Prionus laticollis, broadnecked root borer

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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  1. I liked the poem, but it sent me on a long search. Crótalo, in the Spanish I know, means rattlesnake. Which doesn’t fit the poem, so I went hunting. I kept looking for “crótalo beetle”, which took me nowhere, until I stopped and just looked at the first definition I’d found. ’bout time!

    It is also a small hand musical instrument, the castanets of a Spanish dancer, las castañuelas.

    Now the whole poem comes alive. (Insert image of swirling skirts, the music of pounding feet, clicking castanets.) Wonderful!

    About the big beetle; a paintbrush works as a great bug duster.

    Reply

    1. I almost put in a note about crótalo, another cool word. The Valazquez Spanish English Dictionary actually gives “castanet” as the first definition.

      By the way, that wasn’t quite the whole of the poem, but the third stanza simply repeats the first word-for-word.

      Good tip about using a paintbrush.

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  2. I should have paid more attention to your translation; I rarely do, when it’s Spanish. But there it is, in the title, even.

    I was still thinking about click beetles, and imagined that crótalo referred to some local name in Spain for a native click beetle. Un escarabajo sonoro, in other words.

    Thanks for not calling me an idiot. :)

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    1. Sorry for confusing you! But since it sent you to the dictionary, I guess it was a good outcome. Me, I was just charmed to find a cognate for the Latin name for rattlesnake.

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  3. Dave, this was both entertaining and informative for me as I’m pretty ignorant about beetles. Great photo. I also like the image of the Egyptians and the scarab. If it had been me finding the beetle and the spider, I would have swept both outdoors if not squashed them, sorry.

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    1. Well, having a few spiders on the kitchen counter helps keep the ant invasion to a manageable level.

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  4. I’m greatly pleased by your inconsistency about letting nature run its course. I don’t spend much time wondering why God did such a counterintuitive thing as creating human beings, but it has occurred to me that it might have been to ratchet up the oddity of fate — something He seems even fonder of than beetles.

    Reply

    1. Oddness is all a matter of perspective. Haldane is also credited with the quote, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” And picturing human souls after death confronted with a karabomorphic deity, for example, amuses me no end.

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  5. Years ago, I knew someone who as a child believed that God was a cast iron lawn ornament in the shape of a dog that hung around the hoosegow. It makes sense in the same way as beetles being God-like, I think.

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  6. Great story, Dave. You are truly a great humanitarian/historian. Or bugatarian. My reaction would have been to dispatch both beetles and spider with a hefty book.

    Debugged

    I guess Egypt and the Arab
    World admire a beetle ‘scarab’
    But I have to say the feeling is not shared.
    Cause no matter the approach
    Well, to me, it’s just a roach.
    My reaction upon viewing it is scared.

    It is really understandable
    Anything which has a mandible
    Is just not the creature I would chose to stroke.
    And to make of it a pet,
    That’s just somewhere I’ll not get.
    A pet beetle? Well for me that’s just a joke.

    While I thank you for the story,
    Glad your bug has gone to glory.
    Though he’s dead now, be assured I will not stew.
    Gee, your photograph is great
    Taken ‘fore he met his fate.
    Still my utterance on viewing it, is ‘Eewww!’.

    Reply

    1. Joan, there is of course an even closer kinship between sacred and scared — at least for those of us who are slightly dyslexic. Thanks as always for the great light verse. My only criticism is that “he” was actually a “she.”

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  7. Hi Dave,

    Nice post. Makes we wonder what I’m doing out here in the middle of Fresno in July when you’re having all the beetle fun.

    Sam

    Reply

    1. Great photo. I have a tremendous wolf spider hanging out in the corner of my deck eaves. I rather like that it (she?) is there.
      A couple of weeks ago I discovered no fewer than five black widows in the eaves below the deck. They had to go. I still kind of wonder if that was the right choice, but I think it was. I did get a couple of halfway decent photos before they were dispatched.

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      1. Wolf spiders are cool, but I’m with you in eliminating black widows from aroung the house. Fortunately, we’re still a little north of their range here, though probably not for too much longer.

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      2. My mom grew up in a house where there were black widows in the basement — she says she and her sister used to catch them in jars. Now both she and my aunt have spider phobia — probably from exposure during their “critical period” for that. (It certainly works that way for snake phobia….)

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    2. Hi Sam – Good to hear from you! I thought of saving that click beetle for you, but I figured you must have every North American click beetle species in existence by now.

      Reply

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