Carry On My Wayward Bug

September 19, 2014

Finding a June bug, even a dead one, in September, is a strange thing. June bugs are talismans of summer. For years when I was growing up it wasn’t really summer until I found June bugs. There was something so exciting about them that, one year, in the last weeks before the end of school, my friends and I started naming other beetles we found on the playground for other months. The first ones we found, narrow-back black beetles, we called “May bugs”, because it was May, and these were smaller than June bugs. Then we found some bigger beetles we called “July bugs” and “August bugs” even though it was still May, but we figured beetles should get bigger through the summer.

Since not everyone may agree what a “June bug” is I should explain that, to me, it’s a beetle with a dull green back that may have some yellow on the thorax and a shiny metallic underside that may be green, yellow, or reddish. Like most of their beetle brethren—including stag beetles, darkling beetles, borers, weevils, and Bailey—they’re built like tanks. I think it’s beetles’ way of compensating for starting life as big fleshy grubs. Unlike many beetles June bugs aren’t shy. They’ll just barrel along no matter what’s going on. Maybe this is because their backs provide such excellent camouflage, blending in nicely with leaves, or maybe it’s because they look like coleopterid pro-wrestlers. Nothing, that I know of, eats June bugs, probably because anything that wants to has to get past the spiky powerful legs before even starting on the thick carapace. June bugs don’t bite or sting because they don’t need to. Other beetles will retreat when touched, or even if they sense movement. June bugs march along with their antennae out like radar dishes, saying, “Hey, what’s going on here?” Maybe that’s why I always think of them as having a friendly demeanor. They’re heavily armored but bumble around like big fat uncles.

Like anything big, though, they can still be intimidating. I remember one summer weekend I spent with my grandmother. Her next door neighbor had big bushes up against his house. We woke up in the morning to find them smoky and buzzing with some kind of large bug. Everybody was terrified and afraid to go near the bushes, including the neighbor who ran out to his car and drove away. Several of us stood around watching the bushes as though we were afraid they might burst into flames and start speaking to us. Beth, a girl who lived two doors down and was about my age, announced, “I’m going to catch one of those bugs!” Her mother and my grandmother both said, “Oh no you won’t!” What went down between Beth and her mother was none of my business, but I resented my grandmother getting involved. Besides my grandmother was scared of everything. She didn’t like me eating watermelon because she was afraid I might swallow a seed and die. She didn’t like me spending too much time outside because she was afraid I might get too much sun and die, but she didn’t want me to stay inside because she was afraid I might not get enough sun and die. She was afraid of June bugs even when she knew they were June bugs.

After lunch (grilled cheese on scraped bread, because if you eat overtoasted bread you could die) I made a bold and daring plan to strike a blow for courage. I was going to sneak a large jar out of the house, and, well, the middle part was vague, but the final step would be to have one of the bugs in the jar where I could examine it. And it might have worked too if I could have found a jar. Instead one of the bugs, which turned out to be a June bug. I realize now it was a mating frenzy: they’d emerged from their pupal stage from under the bushes, and were now working on producing the next generation. At the time I didn’t know that. I just knew they were June bugs, so I started doing what I always loved doing with June bugs: tying strings to their legs and letting them fly around like tiny buzzing balloons. It was a terrible thing to do to such unassuming creatures, something that I only realized when they got tired and would settle down to crawl around, bumbling over my hands and legs. And then, when rested, one of them flew up into the air and left the leg hanging from a string. I didn’t tie up any more June bugs after that. Next summer it was enough just to find them.

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