This ode to June bugs was first published as “The Blunderers of June” in the June, 1985 issue of Yankee Magazine.
In one of the most moving elegies in the English language, the poet Thomas Gray speaks of a summer night where” — all the air a solemn stillness holds, save where the beetle wheels his droning flight.” Another poet, William Collins, was moved by the same sentiments to write, “Now air is hushed save where the beetle winds his small but sullen horn.” Both lines capture the essence of June — warm, still evenings, serenity, and gentle, lulling song.
What a contrast to the advent of spring when the shrill piping of spring peepers proclaims the end of winter while the fanfare of birds and the drumming of April showers herald the bursting buds of May flowers. Surely the serenity of the first month of summer merits a harbinger of refinement and delicacy. Instead, it is proclaimed by June bugs — boisterous, rowdy blunderers that bang on the screens, thump at the doors, and whirl around porch lights as though intoxicated by the import of their message.
These crude, hardheaded heralds, so out of tune with the character of this gentle month, have been summoned from a long winter sleep in the soil by the warm nights of late May and early June. They answer to many names: May beetle, June bug, cockchafer, dor beetle. It is they that drive through the gloaming in humming flight, content to “wind their small but sullen horns” until the lights in our houses draw them hypnotically from the fields. Then, too aerodynamically unstable to execute sharp turns, they crash into whatever lies ahead, be it foliage or building. Thus is June announced and summer begun.
A June bug begins life as an egg in the soil, having been placed there by its mother just before her death. During the first summer of life, until the first frost, the small grub hatched from that egg chews on fine rootlets just beneath the surface of the ground. As winter approaches and the land gives up its heat, the grub burrows ever deeper until it lies safely below the frost line. Not until spring does it crawl back to the thick nutritive mat of roots. Here it passes the entire second summer in total darkness, grazing so effectively that large populations of grubs can kill entire pastures, fields, lawns, and gardens.
For three years each generation lives out its subterranean existence. At the end of the third summer the grubs transform into beetles. Winter may symbolize old age for us, but for June bugs it signals the beginning of adult life.
As the end of May of the new year approaches, those beetles that have not been rooted out of the soil by skunks and crows stir in their galleries. On the first warm, still night they swarm forth into the dusk. By early June the emergence has reached its peak. Throughout the night ravenous hordes gorge on the succulent foliage of leafy trees. With dawn they hasten back to the soil like the spirits of the dead, to be called forth by the next twilight.
As long as the weather is warm, they make their nightly appearance, knocking at the doors, summoning us out to enjoy the night. By Midsummer Night, life, hardly begun, is nearly ended. The grubs have labored in the soil for three years to live as adults for a single June. In equivalent human terms it is as though a person spent a childhood of 68 years in order to enjoy as an adult a mere two summers. Perhaps it is worth it.
This ode to June bugs was first published as “The Blunderers of June” in the June, 1985 issue of Yankee Magazine and has been updated.