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June Bugs - From My Window 6/15/22

Issue Date: June 16, 2022

Janie Thibodeau Martin

Yesterday I was watering pots on the patio and noticed one of the ubiquitous June bugs in the typical June bug pose: rolled onto its back, unable to right itself. I make a practice of "tipping" them back over if they are still alive, but after reading several scientific articles about them, I learned I am apparently wasting my time.

June bugs are likely named for the month they usually appear in numbers big enough to capture our attention, but in Oklahoma they should have been called "May" bugs. Some mornings the driveway under the yard light there would be covered in invented beetles, and flocks of birds would be perched on the powerlines and trees nearby, feasting on the easy prey. There is an old Southern saying "on it faster than a duck on a June bug" for a reason. June bugs are a rich source of protein and fat (50% and 20% respectively,) and are in no position to defend themselves as they lay upside down and helpless.

Almost everyone knows what June bugs look like due to their numerous numbers, their comparatively large size and their distinctive appearance ?? like a blimp with absurdly skinny legs. They are slow and clumsy in flight, the antithesis of aerodynamic, and often are encountered at night in great numbers, swarming around porch lights. (There is no scientific consensus on what draws them to lights at night.) I know two people who have a phobia of June bugs, the result of a hapless bug accidently getting tangled in their hair. Their legs have thorn-like spikes on them, and they easily stick to cloth or hair, without any evil intention on their part.

June bugs belong to the group of beetles called scarabs, and more than 800 distinct species* of June bugs are known to science; doubtless there are still more deep in jungles around the world. They start life as a tiny, pearl-like egg in the ground; it hatches and becomes a white grub of large size. I now realize some of the grubs I encounter in my garden digging are likely June bugs. The larva eventually turns into a pupa/chrysalis and then emerges as an adult. The larva eat plant roots; the adults plant leaves.

Adults live a single season, and normally die no later than the end of summer. (Their full life cycle, from egg to adult, is around three total years.) When they draw close to death, their systems fail and the top-heavy beetles flop over on their backs. That's normally the sign they are terminally ill and inverting them is unlikely to help them survive.

The beetle larva's diet of below-ground roots, especially grass roots, means skunks and other critters dig to get at them. This makes them unpopular with those who pride themselves on their lawns, and golf course groundskeepers. I began to think of June bugs as "chickens of the insect world." Chickens are so delicious that EVERYTHING likes eating them ?? people, coyotes, foxes, hawks, skunks, raccoons. June bugs are similar ?? they are sought by raccoons, skunks, owls, moles, snakes and almost all smaller birds. So while some of their habits as larva can be annoying, they are highly valuable food sources both as larva and as adults for wildlife.

At least one indigenous tribe of the Americas ate June bugs, and those who advocate for eating insects now use them "crushed into biscuits, sprinkled on salad (also called "croutons of the sky,') and fill the cooked larva with cheese and wrap them in bacon." I guess the point of eating insects for modern converts is they are healthy protein but by the time you fill them with cheese and wrap them with bacon they are about as healthy for you as chain fast food.

June bugs are sometimes said to be blind, but they have fairly large and well-developed eyes you can easily see if you pick one up like I did. As one source I read said "this myth no doubt developed because June bugs are such clumsy, inept fliers." Amen to that!

Now that I know a bit more about these neighbors, I understand why I have trouble avoiding stepping on them in the early morning they are so numerous, and there's not a one to be seen an hour later. Our neighborhood birds regard June bugs as breakfast deliveries. I suppose if I ever got hungry enough, I would too.

But the thing that draws me to June bugs is I can identify with them. I have days I bumble around in a clumsy way. Sometimes I roll over and can't get up. June bugs look, and act, like fairy tale characters, or something Dr. Seuss would have created. I actually find them kind of cute.

I now know it's useless to do so, but I will continue to roll them over when I see them on their backs still alive. I'd want someone to do the same for me.

*Some of the information sourced in this column is from an on-line newsletter "The Conversation," academic rigor with journalistic flair; published by a non-profit committed to facts. I like their content as it is citizen-accessible science.

Book I just finished and loved: "Riverman: An American Odyssey" by Ben McGrath. (Non-fiction.) I read this in two days. It's about a middle-aged American man, a little out of shape, a little unhealthy, and rough in appearance, making marathon solo canoe voyages on numerous rivers across our country over a period of years. He is "homeless" ?? he had no fixed base anywhere, lived on his social security money and got medical treatment as a former serviceman at VA centers. His $300 canoe was in essence his home. He struggled with mental illness, and the kindness numerous people extend to him is heartwarming. It is a somewhat sad story, yet restores your faith in the basic goodness of most people at the same time.

You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: JanieTMartin@gmail.com.


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