Saturday, July 6, 2013

The story of the beetles

Let me start with a disclaimer. I did not put the thirteen beetles into the bucket of water last Thursday evening. No I didn’t. They dove in on their own, sometime during or after the storm, the same storm that filled the white bucket with about two inches of rainwater in about an hour. 

When I saw them squiggling their hairy legs in an effort to stay alive on Friday morning I considered doing the humane thing. Yes I did. And I almost emptied the bucket and its contents. But that would have meant releasing thirteen beetles of an unidentified species into my garden to do who knows what. So I turned around and walked in the house. I left them there to drown. 

But a curious thing happened. They wouldn’t! Drown, that is. On Sunday morning, about half of them were still squiggling furiously. 

European chafer beetles = lawn pests

My interest (but not my compassion) piqued, I did a little research on the prisoners. Ah hah! My callous non-action was well advised. European chafer beetles, it turns out, are a sneaky sort of pest, escaping our notice by emerging at night. They buzz about for a week or two, congregating on trees and light posts. They mate and fall to the ground, where females lay about 50 eggs over the two weeks of their adulthood. Each. They don’t eat leaves (unlike their Japanese cousins), but each egg they lay turns into a little white grub with an appetite for grass roots. Large numbers of grubs will ravage a lawn. 

Like I said, sneaky.

It is now Sunday, early evening, nearly three days after some mysterious force (or maybe my porch light) prompted the beetles to take a swim. Five are still paddling, their life’s mission—to mate and lay eggs—thwarted, but their will as fervent as ever. Every now and then, one will climb aboard a dead comrade for a brief respite before resuming the quest …  to reach the shore?  To find a soulmate? Relative to a human adult life span, their time in the water converts to something like thirteen continuous years in a pool, without lunch breaks or naps. It is becoming clear which of our two animal species will come out ahead, should a cataclysm befall us all.

Monday morning.  Rain pelted the thirteen beetles overnight, raising the level of water in the bucket by about an inch. At first all seemed still. Motionless beetles rimmed the edge. But, a little shake, and three of them resumed their paddling.

Monday, early evening. With a fascination turned morbid, I jiggled the bucket, now about 4 inches deep. Surely they must be dead. The three beetles responded by wiggling their legs.

Wednesday morning. At first I thought, why even mention the fourteenth beetle that dove into the bucket sometime yesterday? Except that it seems to have brought renewed vigor to the three still-alive-and-kicking beetles. The four live ones swim the rim, occasionally engaging with each other (rather than with the carcasses of their companions, which are looking a bit soft, and unappetizingly fuzzy). The water in the bucket is now about 4 ½ inches deep; thunderstorms have been rolling through every afternoon and evening, and Philadelphia and other nearby cities have set June rainfall records. Along the river, water spurts out of the hills and spills over the road, and the river itself is opaque with mud scoured from the banks of streams. This is all good news for beetle grubs—more of them survive in moist soils. Even in a dry summer, however, beetles are in no danger of disappearing. They’ve been around for nearly 300 million years … and counting.

Thursday. It is hot and sunny, perfect weather for a swim. The three determined beetles have nearly reached the 7-day mark.

Friday. Ok. I really thought that this story would have a nice concise ending. That I could count the beetles, and the days, and come up with an intelligent wrap-up about how the lowly beetle will prove its superiority in the end, as we blithely consume ourselves into oblivion. But there is no ending to this story. Twenty-some beetles, some (I have stopped counting) living, and some dead, float in the water of the white bucket, along with who knows what else. Mosquito larvae may be hatching even as I write. Life is just not neat. Lessons are not predictable. 

This story ends with Dawn, about ten drops, stirred with a stick. 

Unceremoniously, I dump the bucket and its now impotent contents onto the grass. 

Natural History Museum. 2007.

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