Sitting in a pub garden a few years ago on a warm summer’s evening at dusk, a strange flying apparition careered into view. It wasn’t one of my drinking companions but something that looked like a small crazed drone, clearly having little control over its flightpath as it weaved clumsily through the air. This was my first encounter with a male stag beetle. It is a magnificent insect and at about 7.5 cms (3 inches) long is Britain’s largest beetle.
Despite its fearsome appearance the stag beetle is completely harmless. Rather like the creature from which it gets its name, the insect’s large antlers which are actually it’s jaws, are possessed only by the male. In the Middle Ages it was believed that male stag beetles could carry red-hot coals in their mouth parts and use them to set fire to the roofs of houses! In reality, these adornments are used for jousting with other males, with the aim of intimidating rather than harming them. The females are smaller and have no antler-like appendages but can give a slight nip if handled.
The beetles eat no solid food during their adult lives (about four weeks) but rely on fat reserves built up during their larval stage. The insect starts its life when females lay their eggs in rotting tree stumps or logs. After hatching, the white larvae spend up to three years feeding on decaying wood before pupating and then emerging as adult beetles.
Wild Marlow is giving a helping hand to these spectacular creatures which are in decline across Europe, including Britain. Stag beetles do not venture very far from the rotting wood where they were originally laid as eggs, as little as 20 metres in the case of the females. This makes them very vulnerable to changes in the local environment and individual populations can be easily isolated, or worse still, disappear entirely.
Supplies of rotting wood are vital to their survival and Wild Marlow has created such a habitat in the Higginson Park Wildlife Area. We have built a log pile by standing logs of different lengths on their ends with the bottom 50 cms buried in the soil to aid the process of decay. The logs, each about the diameter of a human arm, are arranged in a kind of pyramid shape with the tallest in the middle. This should provide a ready supply of decaying wood in which the females can lay their eggs and on which the larvae can feed and thrive.
So perhaps if you are walking through the Higginson Park Wildlife Area one summer’s evening at dusk you will have a chance to encounter and be captivated by one of Britain’s most charismatic insects as it flies in its engagingly clumsy way through the evening air.