Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/The stag beetle


While autumn is fast dying, phantoms of summer still meet us in the woodland walk or haunt the river’s edge. The horse-chestnut leaves have changed to red and yellow, but like the setting sun which blazes upon their glowing tints, they seem more beautiful in death than life. Here and there some wild flower timidly shows itself—a blue meadow cranesbill for instance—which missed blossoming in July. Often, too, a strawberry flower, large, white, and lustrous, may be detected lurking in the garden amongst leaves scorched with autumn’s fiery breath,—

Fair as a star when only one
Is shining in the sky.

There is a mysterious silence in the morning gleams and at evening’s hour during this season, sure prophet of approaching decay, which tempts us to moralise on our buried years:—

The air is damp, and hush’d and close,
As a sick man’s room when he taketh repose
As a sickAn hour before his death.

Animated nature, too, has changed. The gaudy tribes of butterflies and the large white moths of twilight have disappeared. But the gorgeous red Admiral seeks the ivy-blossoms on every sunny noon in great numbers, as if to compensate for the decreasing ranks of his brethren. Swifts have long fled to warmer climes—those most interesting members of all the swallow tribe which visit our treacherous climate latest of all the summer immigrants and leave it first. Their cousins, the chimney swallows and martins, are congregating for their departure to sunnier climes round our roofs and towers. So loath are we to part with these cherished visitors of sunshine and enjoyment, that we are for once inclined to be angry with the robins which now emerge from private life, as if conscious that ere long they will be gladly welcomed. The newspapers will soon contain the usual autumnal notices of the great northern diver appearing on some southern sheet of water, or of some credible witness having observed the last of the swallows, after several unsuccessful attempts, dive into the Thames for its lengthy winter slumbers.

So, too, in lower grades of life there linger reminiscences of July. If at this time of the year we miss the noontide lullaby of insects, a familiar summer sound occasionally greets us in our evening rambles, the shard-borne beetle’s hum.

Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight.

This noise generally proceeds from the wings and wing-cases of the “geotrupes stercorarius,” the common black “watchman” beetle. Pleasant as the hum is to the ear, their habits and habitations are not very savoury. If you knock one down, too, and examine him, you will often find a colony of very objectionable creatures located upon him, like poor relations feasting upon a rich uncle, and (literally in this case) eating him out of house and home. Most people, therefore, give the “watchman” a wide berth. His relative, the stag-beetle (lucanus cervus), is a much more pleasant acquaintance. A few of them occasionally flit by us in autumn before permanently removing into winter quarters, and from their social, good-natured character well merit a few words here.

From an entomological point of view, both these beetles belong to the Lamellicorns, so called from their antennæ being tipped with protuberant discs. Of this large tribe, containing more than 2000 species, above 120 occur in Britain, and amongst them are those with which most people are familiar. All through the soft summer evenings of several of the southern counties of England the stag-beetle may be observed crawling on posts or the boles of trees, and floating round the foliage. Hants and Berkshire form his head-quarters, from which he passes into the west, being occasionally taken on the Haldon Hills beyond Exeter. Being impatient of cold, they are not found in the northern English counties, nor in Scotland, but are common enough on the Continent.

Some feeding-grounds are particularly grateful to them, and here they are of course found in greatest numbers. I well remember a favourite spot of theirs in Berkshire, where a road separated a vast tract of heather from woods of oak and fir. Amongst these trees, and up and down the road, hosts of stag-beetles might be descried every evening; some exploring the ground, others, like aërial fleets sailing (this word best expresses their flight) through the balmy air round the tree-tops, and well relieved on the amber sky beyond. This flight of theirs is peculiar, and to strangers rather terrifying at first. You see two or three of the huge fellows floating up to you in a vertical position as you approach their haunts, with their threatening mandibles extended like stag’s horns, as if ready for immediate combat. In reality, however, they are, like many other large animals, exceedingly pacific, and will float on harmlessly, as though, conscious of their superior might, they remembered the poet’s words—

Tis excellent to have a giant’s strength,
But it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.

The stag-beetle is in colour a dark chestnut shading into black; the males are two inches long, longer and with larger mandibles than the females—in direct contrast to birds of prey, where the female is generally the finer animal. On the ground their movements are sluggish; but when they open their elytra, or wing-cases, and spread out the wings of fine tissue so neatly folded under them, to the span of a couple of inches or more, they can fly very strongly. Several of them seen thus hovering over a bunch of foliage are sufficiently impressive, and help us to realise what must be the appearance of such tropical monsters as the grotesque but rare “Goliathus magnus” beetle, a specimen of which, found floating dead in the Gaboon river, may be seen in the Hunterian Museum at Glasgow.

If captured and kindly treated, stag-beetles are said to become tame in a very short time, and to display amusing traits of destructiveness on anything which falls in their way. Their mandibles are very powerful, strong enough to raise up a tumbler when placed under it. As the habits of larger animals are discerned by a glance at their teeth, the huge jaws of the stag-beetle direct us at once to his manner of life. By their aid they pierce and tear leaves or the bark of trees, and so get at the sap and juices underneath. The damage this causes to plantations is not so extensive as might at first sight be imagined. At the approach of cold weather they dig a hole in the earth, and pass the winter in seclusion; thus their ravages are not continuous, unlike those of the Scolytus destructor, which have proved so fatal to the trees of the Boulevards at Paris, and the elms in St. Giles’s at Oxford. Owls also keep down the numbers of the stag-beetle, and they form the favourite food of the great shrike.

In the tropics, where vegetation is more rank and abundant, the beetles are of corresponding strength. The prionus cervicornus takes the place of our stag-beetle in Cayenne. They resemble each other much in appearance and habits, but the exotic beetle is proportionably larger and stronger. In the steaming swamps of that country it may be seen attacking the branch of a tree or shrub with its powerful mandibles, which are edged like a saw, and flying round and round it till it has completely sawn it off.

Like many other British productions, even the stag-beetle was made subservient to Roman luxury. Latin epicures and cooks revelled in a large white grub called cossus, which they fattened to the requisite size upon flour. They describe it to us as inhabiting the interior of oak-trees. This grub is with reason identified by Kirby and others with the larva of the stag-beetle, which is hatched under the bark, and sometimes eats gradually on to the very heart of the tree. If we are inclined to wonder at such a strange taste, we may remember that to this day the palm-tree grub is eaten as a delicacy in the West Indies. In cookery, too, more than in anything else, the proverb, “Chacun à son goût,” holds good. It is lucky we can never know how many similar dainties we have unwarily consumed amongst our cauliflowers. Perhaps (though I shudder to write it) they were often the chief cause of that fine flavour for which the vegetable obtained the credit.

Such are a few particulars of a beetle on which, notwithstanding its size, naturalists still possess not very accurate information. As our orchids and ferns are our closest link to tropical vegetation, so the stag-beetle, from its habits and economy, forms the best British representative of the myriads of beetles that prey on the foliage of hot climes. It is by no means so scarce as many other of our large insects, and thus may hope to escape extinction at the hands of those enthusiastic collectors who bid fair to thin the ranks of British insects as their brother ornithologists have helped to exterminate many of our native birds. A true naturalist always prefers an animal at freedom to its mummy in a glass case. Thus the stag-beetle has much of the charm of the “Great Unknown” about him, and is just sufficiently uncommon to break the monotony of an autumnal evening’s walk. If he has not the same claim to the interest of the fair sex that many beetles of the buprestis family can bring forward, from furnishing their iridescent wing-cases to glitter as ornaments on snowy necks and arms, he is at all events a patriotic animal, and as such is always sure of their sympathy. Though he is a Tory of the old school, this is to some people all the greater recommendation. Having been in high favour with our ancestors long before the Normans came, like a true follower of the merry monarch, he is very glad to shelter himself amongst the acorns. In these days of naval reform he utterly abjures iron plates, and, with many more of us, is still always to be found strongly attached to the heart of oak of old England.