Dear Readers, today I went to Walthamstow Wetlands which, as the skies opened, proved not to be the world’s best idea. However, my friend S noticed a large, elongated insect with huge jaws crossing the footpath, right into the path of a jogger. We moved over to protect the creature from being squished, and it raised its abdomen in a gesture of threat. It had just calmed down when the runner actually passed and it performed its threat display again, probably roused by the vibration of the footfalls. Once the runner had passed we shepherded the beetle to the other side of the path and into the undergrowth. Goodness, if it isn’t geese that we’re trying to herd to safety at Walthamstow Wetlands, it’s beetles. What’s next? Bitterns? Kingfishers? Weasels?
A Devil’s Coach-horse! It must be twenty years since I’ve seen one. I’ve always had a soft spot for these tetchy beetles with their multiple defenses. Not only do they raise their abdomen in a satisfyingly scorpion-like fashion, but they also emit fluid from their mouths, a foul-smelling fluid from glands at the end of their bodies, and faecal matter just to complete the whole look. Their species name, Olens, actually means ‘smelly’. You mess with one of these critters at your peril.
Devil’s Coach-horses belong to the rove beetle family,Staphylinidae, which has over 46,000 members worldwide. Most rove beetles are elongated in shape, and feed on fly larvae, slugs, snails and the occasional earthworm, which they hunt down after dark. These insects are consummate predators – speedy, and equipped with huge jaws.
There are a lot of unfortunate superstitions about this beetle. It has long been associated with the devil, and there was a belief that if you squashed a Devil’s Coach-horse you would be forgiven seven sins. The beetles are said to have eaten the core of Eve’s apple, and are therefore guilty by association. There was a belief that the insect would raise its tail in the direction of a person that it wanted to curse, and in Ireland the only way to safely dispose of the poor creature was to pick it up on a shovel and throw it into a fire.
The only real danger from the creature (and the reason that I didn’t pick it up and move it) is that those powerful jaws are not just there for show – Devil’s Coach-horses are capable of giving a nasty nip, and shouldn’t be handled.
The love life of a Devil’s Coach-horse is pleasingly straightforward. The females mate in the autumn (maybe our beetle was out and about during the day because s/he was looking for love). The eggs are laid in damp soil, and the adorable (ahem) larvae appear after about 30 days. They are every bit as irritable as the adults, with the same huge jaws and the same threat display, and they too eat the larvae of other insects, slugs, snails and earthworms. After about 5 months the larvae pupates for another month before emerging in the spring. The beetle can survive a second winter by hibernating as an adult in an old mouse burrow or other underground spot, before reappearing above ground as the days get longer.
I was so pleased to see this insect again, a familiar friend from my childhood and a most welcome garden predator. It’s a shame that its sinister appearance has been the cause of so much prejudice. Maybe we should start a ‘Love Your Devil’s Coach-Horse’ campaign? The poor thing could certainly do with a bit of support.
Photo One by By H.-P. Widmer – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79435306
Photo Two by Quartl, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Three by Ben Sale from Stevenage, UK, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Four by Gail Hampshire from https://www.flickr.com/photos/gails_pictures/49599336556