Notes on British Stag Beetles

by W. H. Hudson

During the last week in June we can look for the appearance of our most majestical insect; he is an evening flyer, and a little before sunset begins to show himself abroad. He is indeed a monarch among hexapods, with none to equal him save, perhaps, the great goblin moth; and in shape and size and solidity he bears about the same relation to pretty bright flies as a horned rhinoceros does to volatile squirrels and monkeys and small barred and spotted felines. This is the stag-beetle-"stags and does" is the native name for the two sexes; he is probably more abundant in this corner of Hampshire than in any other locality in England, and among the denizens of the Forest there are few more interesting. About four or five o'clock in the afternoon, the ponderous beetle wakes out of his long siesta, down among the roots and dead vegetable matter of a thorny brake or large hedge, and laboriously sets himself to work his way out. He is a slow, clumsy creature, a very bad climber; and small wonder, when we consider how he is impeded by his long branched horns when endeavouring to make his way upwards through a network of interlacing stems.

As you walk by the hedge-side a strange noise suddenly arrests your attention; it is the buzz of an insect, but loud enough to startle you; it might be mistaken for the reeling of a nightjar, but is perhaps more like the jarring hum of a fast-driven motorcar. The reason of the noise is that the beetle has with great pains climbed up a certain height from the ground, and, in order to ascertain whether he has got far enough, he erects himself on his stand, lifts his wing-cases, shakes out his wings, and begins to agitate them violently, turning this way and that to make sure that he has a clear space. If he then attempts to fly-it is one of his common blunders- he instantly strikes against some branch or cluster of leaves, and is thrown down. The tumble does not hurt him in the least, but so greatly astonishes him that he remains motionless a good while; then recovering his senses, he begins to ascend again. At length, after a good many accidents and adventures by the way, he gets to a topmost twig, and, after some buzzing to get up steam, launches himself heavily on the air and goes away in grand style.

Hugh Miller, in his autobiography, tells of the discovery he made of a curiously striking resemblance in shape between our most elegantly made carriages and the bodies of wasps, the resemblance being heightened by a similarity of colouring seen in the lines and bands of vivid yellows and reds on a polished black ground. This likeness between insect and carriage does not appear so striking at this day owing to a change in the fashion towards a more sombre colour in the vehicles; their funeral blacks, dark blues, and greens being now seldom relieved with bright yellows and reds. The stag-beetle, too, when he goes away with heavy flight always gives one the idea of some kind of machine or vehicle, not like the aerial phaeton of the wasp or hornet, with its graceful lines and strongly-contrasted colours, but an oblong, ponderous, armour-plated car, furnished with a beak, and painted a deep uniform brown.

Birds, especially the more aerial insectivorous kinds, have the habit of flying at and teasing any odd or grotesque-looking creature they may see on the wing-as a bat, for instance. I have seen small birds dart at a passing stag, but on coming near they turn tail and fly from him, frightened perhaps at his formidable appearance and loud noise.

Notwithstanding his lumbering, blundering ways, when the stag is abroad in search of the doe, you may see that he is endowed with a sense and faculty so exquisite as to make it appear almost miraculous in the sureness of its action. The void air, as he sweeps droning through it, is peopled with subtle intelligences, which elude and mock and fly from him, and which he pursues until he finds out their secret. They mock him most, or, to drop the metaphor, he is most at fault, on a still sultry day when not a breath of air is stirring. At times he catches what, for want of better knowledge, we must call a scent, and in order to fix the direction it comes from he goes through a series of curious movements. You will see him rise above a thorny thicket, or a point where two hedges intersect at right angles, and remain suspended on his wings a few inches above the hedge-top for one or two minutes, loudly humming, and turning by a succession of jerks all round, pausing after each turn, until he has faced all points of the compass.

This failing, he darts away and circles widely round, then returning to the central point suspends himself as before. After spending several minutes in this manner, he once more resumes his wanderings. Several males are sometimes attracted to the same spot, but they pass and repass without noticing one another. You will see as many as three or four or half a dozen majestically moving up and down at a hedge-side or in a narrow path in a hazel copse, each beetle turning when he gets to the end and marching back again; and altogether their measured, stately, and noisy movements are a fine spectacle.

A slight wind makes a great difference to him: even a current of air so faint as not to be felt on the face will reveal to him the exact distant spot in which the doe is lurking. The following incident will serve to show how perfect and almost infallible the sense and its correlated instinct are, and at the same time what a clumsy, blundering creature this beetle is.

Hearing a buzzing noise in a large unkept hedge, I went to the spot and found a stag trying to extricate himself from some soft fern-fronds growing among the brambles in which he had got entangled. In the end he succeeded, and, finally gaining a point where there was nothing to obstruct his flight, he launched himself on the air and flew straight away to a distance of fifty yards; then he turned and commenced flying backwards and forwards, travelling forty or fifty yards one way and as many the other, until he made a discovery; and struck motionless in his career, he remained suspended for a moment or two, then flew swiftly and straight as a bullet back to the hedge from which he had so recently got away. He struck the hedge where it was broadest, at a distance of about twenty yards or more from the point where I had first found him, and running to the spot, I saw that he had actually alighted within four or five inches of a female concealed among the clustering leaves. On his approaching her she coyly moved from him, climbing up and down and along the branchlets, but for some time he continued very near her. So far he had followed on her track, or by the same branches and twigs over which she had passed, but on her getting a little farther away and doubling back, he attempted to reach her by a series of short cuts, over the little bridges formed by innumerable slender branches, and his short cuts in most cases brought him against some obstruction; or else there was a sudden bend in the branch, and he was taken farther away. When he had a chain of bridges or turnings, he seemed fated to take the wrong one, and in spite of all his desperate striving to get nearer, he only increased the distance between them. The level sun shone into the huge tangle of bramble, briar, and thorn, with its hundreds of interlacing branches and stringy stems, so that I was able to keep both beetles in sight; but after I had watched them for three-quarters of an hour, the sun departed, and I too left them. They were then nearly six feet apart; and seeing what a labyrinth they were in, I concluded that, strive how the enamoured creature might, they would never, from the stagbeetle point of view, be within measurable distance of one another.

Something in the appearance of the big beetle, both flying and when seen on the ground in his wrathful, challenging attitude, strikes the rustics of these parts as irresistibly comic. When its heavy flight brings it near the labourer in the fields, he knocks it down with his cap, then grins at the sight of the maltreated creature's amazement and indignation. However weary the ploughman may be when he plods his homeward way, he will not be too tired to indulge in this ancient practical joke. When the beetle's flight takes him by village or hamlet, the children, playing together in the road, occupied with some such simple pastime as rolling in the dust or making little miniature hills of loose sand, are suddenly thrown into a state of wild excitement, and, starting to their feet, they run whooping after the wanderer, throwing their caps to bring him down.

One evening at sunset, on coming to a forest gate through which I had to pass, I saw a stag-beetle standing in his usual statuesque, angry or threatening attitude in the middle of the road close to the gate. Doubtless some labourer who had arrived at the gate earlier in the evening had struck it down for fun and left it there. By-and-by, I thought, he will recover from the shock to his dignity and make his way to some elevated point, from which he will be able to start afresh on his wanderings in search of a wife. But it was not to be as I thought, for next morning, on going by the same gate, I found the remains of my beetle just where I had last seen him- the legs, wing-cases, and the big, broad head with horns attached. The poor thing had remained motionless too long, and had been found during the evening by a hedgehog and devoured, all but the uneatable parts. On looking closely, I found that the head was still alive; at a touch the antennæ- those mysterious jointed rods, toothed like a comb at their ends-began to wave up and down, and the horns opened wide, like the jaws of an angry crab. On placing a finger between them they nipped it as sharply as if the creature had been whole and uninjured. Yet the body had been long devoured and digested; and there was only this fragment left, and, torn off with it, shall we say? a fragment of intelligent life!

From: Hampshire Days (1923)


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