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.”
En la araña
de la mano
rizas el aire
y te ahogas en tu trino
In the spider
of the hand
you make the warm
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.