Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Coleoptera
Family: Scarabaeidae
Genus: Melolontha

M. melolontha (Linnaeus, 1758)
M. hippocastani Fabricius, 1801
M. pectoralis Germar, 1824

The cockchafer (colloquially called may bug, mitchamador,[1], billy witch,[2] or spang beetle,[2] particularly in East Anglia) is a European beetle of the genus Melolontha, in the family Scarabaeidae.

Once abundant throughout Europe and a major pest in the periodical years of "mass flight", it had been nearly eradicated in the middle of the 20th century through extensive use of pesticides and has even been locally exterminated in many regions. However, since an increase in regulation of pest control beginning in the 1980s, its numbers have started to grow again.



There are three species of European cockchafers:

  • The common cockchafer, Melolontha melolontha
  • The forest cockchafer, Melolontha hippocastani
  • The large cockchafer, Melolontha pectoralis, which is very rare and occurs only in south-western Germany.


Imagines (adults) of the common cockchafer reach sizes of 25–30 mm; the forest cockchafer is a bit smaller (20–25 mm). The two species can best be distinguished by the form of their pygidium (the back end): it is long and slender in the common cockchafer, but shorter and knob-shaped at the end in the forest cockchafer. Both have a brown colour.

Close up of a male cockchafer, showing the seven "leaves" on the antennae.

Male cockchafers have seven "leaves" on their antennae, whereas the females have only six.

The species M. pectoralis looks similar, but its pygidium is rounded. The cockchafer should not be confused with the similar European chafer (Rhizotrogus majalis), which has a completely different life cycle, nor with the June beetles (Phyllophaga spp.), which are native to North America, nor with the summer chafer (or "European June bug", Amphimallon solstitiale), which emerges in June and has a two-year life cycle. (All of these are Scarabaeidae, have white grubs, and are turf pests.)

Life cycle

A female cockchafer

Adults appear at the end of April or in May and live for about five to seven weeks. After about two weeks, the female begins laying eggs, which she buries about 10 to 20 cm deep in the earth. She may do this several times until she has laid between 60 and 80 eggs. The common cockchafer lays its eggs in fields, whereas the Forest Cockchafer stays in the vicinity of the trees. The preferred food for adults is oak leaves, but they will also feed on conifer needles.

The larvae, known as "white grubs" or "chafer grubs", hatch after four to six weeks. They feed on plant roots, for instance potato roots. The grubs develop in the earth for three to four years, in colder climates even five years, and grow continually to a size of about 4–5 cm, before they pupate in early autumn and develop into an adult cockchafer in six weeks.

The cockchafer overwinters in the earth at depths between 20 and 100 cm. They work their way to the surface only in spring.

Because of their long development time as larvae, cockchafers appear in a cycle of every three or four years; the years vary from region to region. There is a larger cycle of around 30 years superimposed, in which they occur (or rather, used to occur) in unusually high numbers (10000s).

Pest control and history

This white grub of a cockchafer was about 5 cm long.
Melolontha melolontha larva.

Both the grubs and the imagoes have a voracious appetite and thus have been and sometimes continue to be a major problem in agriculture and forestry. In the pre-industrialized era, the main mechanism to control their numbers was to collect and kill the adult beetles, thereby interrupting the cycle. They were once very abundant: in 1911, more than 20 million individuals were collected in 18 km² of forest[citation needed].

Collecting adults was an only moderately successful method. In the Middle Ages, pest control was rare, and people had no effective means to protect their harvest. This gave rise to events that seem bizarre from a modern perspective. In 1320, for instance, cockchafers were brought to court in Avignon and sentenced to withdraw within three days onto a specially designated area, otherwise they would be outlawed. Subsequently since they failed to comply, they were collected and killed. (Similar animal trials also occurred for many other animals in the Middle Ages.)[3]

In some areas and times, cockchafers were even served as food. A 19th century recipe from France for cockchafer soup reads: "roast one pound of cockchafers without wings and legs in sizzling butter, then cook them in a chicken soup, add some veal liver and serve with chives on a toast". And a German newspaper from Fulda from the 1920s tells of students eating sugar-coated cockchafers. A cockchafer stew is referred to in W.G. Sebald's novel The Emigrants.

May bug on a windowsill near Settle, North Yorkshire.

Only with the modernization of agriculture in the 20th century and the invention of chemical pesticides did it become possible to effectively combat the cockchafer. Combined with the transformation of many pastures into agricultural land, this has resulted in a decrease of the cockchafer to near-extinction in some areas in Europe in the 1970s. Since then, agriculture has generally reduced its use of pesticides. Because of environmental and public health concerns (pesticides may enter the food chain and thus also the human body) many chemical pesticides have been phased out in the European Union and worldwide. In recent years, the cockchafer's numbers have been increasing again, causing damage to over 1,000 km² of land all over Europe. At present, no chemical pesticides are approved for use against cockchafers, and only biological measures are utilised for control: for instance, pathogenic fungi or nematodes that kill the grubs are applied to the soil.

Cultural references

Children since antiquity have played with cockchafers. In ancient Greece, boys caught the insect, tied a linen thread to its feet and set it free, amusing themselves to watch it fly in spirals. English boys in Victorian times played a very similar game by sticking a pin through one of its wings.[4] Nikola Tesla recalls that as a child he made one of his first "inventions" — an "engine" made by harnessing four cockchafers in this fashion.[5]

Max and Moritz shaking cockchafers from a tree.

The cockchafer is featured in a German children's rhyme similar to the English Ladybird, Ladybird:

Maikäfer flieg...
Dein Vater ist im Krieg
Deine Mutter ist in Pommerland
Pommerland ist abgebrannt
Maikäfer flieg!

Cockchafer fly...
Your father is at war
Your mother is in Pomerania
Pomerania is burned to the ground
Cockchafer fly!

The verse dates back to the Thirty Years' War in the first half of the 17th Century, in which Pomerania was pillaged and suffered heavily. Since World War II, it is associated in Germany also with the closing months of that war, when Russian troops advanced into Eastern Germany.

Cockchafers also play a part in Hans Christian Andersen's version of Thumbelina (1835).[6]

The cockchafer was the basis for the "fifth trick" in the well-known illustrated German book Max and Moritz dating from 1865.

In the novel The Siege of Krishnapur (1973.) by J.G. Farrell, the character Lucy rips off her clothes and faints upon being covered in a swarm of cockchafers.

There have been five Royal Navy ships named HMS Cockchafer.

The binomial nomenclature Melolontha melolontha was mentioned in an episode of Bones (TV series)(2005) entitled "The Tough Man in the Tender Chicken" as Dr.s Brennan and Hodgins enter the lab, Dr. Hodgins said he came in (to the Lab) early to see if his Melolontha melolontha had hatched.


  1. ^ Norfolk Wildlife Trust: See Did you know? section on this link
  2. ^ a b Natural History Museum, London: Image reference 54142: English Insects illustration of Minotaur beetles and Cockchafer by James Barbut, URL last accessed 2010-05-25.[dead link]
  3. ^ Barton, K.: Verfluchte Kreaturen: Lichtenbergs "Proben seltsamen Aberglaubens" und die Logik der Hexen- und Insektenverfolgung im "Malleus Maleficarum", in Joost, U.; Neumann, A. (eds): Lichtenberg-Jahrbuch 2004, p. 11ff, Saarbrücken 2004 (SDV Saarländische Druckerei und Verlag), ISBN 3930843870. In German.
  4. ^ Peter Parley's annual: A Christmas and New Year's present for young people.. By Samuel Clark, Ben George, Peter Parley, Samuel Griswold Goodrich; p56
  5. ^ Tesla, Nikola (1919). "My Inventions". Electrical Experimenter. Retrieved 2011-05-13. --
  6. ^

The Italian, specifically Neapolitan, collection of stories Il Pentamerone of Giambattista Basile (in its English translation by Norman M. Penzer from Benedetto Croce's Italian) contains a tale on Day 3, Night 5: "The Cockchafer, Mouse and Grasshopper".

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.


Look at other dictionaries:

  • Cockchafer — Cock chaf er, n. [See {Chafer} the beetle.] (Zo[ o]l.) A beetle of the genus {Melolontha} (esp. {Melolontha vulgaris}) and allied genera; called also {May bug}, {chafer}, or {dorbeetle}. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • cockchafer — [käk′chāf΄ər] n. [ COCK1 (? because of size) + CHAFER] any of several large European scarab beetles whose grubs live in the soil and feed on the roots of plants …   English World dictionary

  • cockchafer —    Not a term which is habitually used as a vocative, though an interesting example occurs in Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis. Jim Dixon is careful to address the head of the history department by his professional title to his face, but Amis tells us …   A dictionary of epithets and terms of address

  • cockchafer — /kok chay feuhr/, n. any of certain scarab beetles, esp. the European species, Melolontha melolontha, which is very destructive to forest trees. [1685 95; COCK1 (with reference to its size) + CHAFER] * * * Large European beetle (Melolontha… …   Universalium

  • cockchafer — [18] Etymologically, cockchafer (a medium sized beetle) is probably a ‘large gnawer’. The second part of the word, which goes back to Old English times (ceafor), can be traced to a prehistoric base *kab ‘gnaw’, source also of English jowl. The… …   The Hutchinson dictionary of word origins

  • cockchafer —    1. a treadmill    The flesh was rubbed raw by the coarse cloth used in prison garments. Punning on the Maybug, or Melolontha vulgaris:     He expiated , as it is called, this offence by three months exercise on the cockchafer (treadmill).… …   How not to say what you mean: A dictionary of euphemisms

  • cockchafer — [18] Etymologically, cockchafer (a medium sized beetle) is probably a ‘large gnawer’. The second part of the word, which goes back to Old English times (ceafor), can be traced to a prehistoric base *kab ‘gnaw’, source also of English jowl. The… …   Word origins

  • cockchafer — noun Etymology: 1cock + chafer Date: 1712 a large European beetle (Melolontha melolontha) destructive to vegetation as an adult and to roots as a larva; also any of various related beetles …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • cockchafer — noun Any of the large European beetles from the genus Melolontha that are destructive to vegetation …   Wiktionary

  • cockchafer — cock|chaf|er [ˈkɔkˌtʃeıfə US ˈka:kˌtʃeıfər] n a European ↑beetle (=a kind of insect) that damages trees and plants …   Dictionary of contemporary English

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