Monday, April 11, 2011


Worm or beetle, drought or tempest, on a farmer’s land may fall,
Each is loaded full o’ ruin but a mortgage beat’s them all.

oil beetle
While in today’s financial climate, no one would dispute the malignant weight of a mortgage, Carleton’s couplet suggests that worms and beetles are bad too.  Was he a rep for an agricultural chemical company in between penning poems?  I jest, of course, and there are plenty of bugs and beasties that do for veggies but they’re not all bad.  Permaculture teaches one to look at these creatures in terms of equilibrium, rather than extermination but I also enjoy the aesthetic.

Maturity and living in the French countryside has diminished any fears I may’ve had in the proximity of creepy-crawlies, which have been replaced by an appreciative fascination.  For my recent 50th birthday, I received Richard Mabey’s new book, Bugs Britannica.  Like his other ‘Britannica’ books (Flora and Birds) Mabey doesn’t give you a regular identification guide but penetrates the lives of Britain’s bugs via history and folklore, prose, poetry and art along with the more usual natural history approach.  So, while I first turn to my Collins gem Insects and the Internet for identification, I quickly turn to Mabey’s book for an altogether more fun approach.

First up is some oil beetles we came across during a recent wander in our woods.  Our ones were very blue and had heavily textured head and thorax, so I reckon they are Meloe violaceus.  It can’t fly or even run very fast (hence I was able to get in close with my camera) and so its trick to escape the dustbin of evolutionary elimination of the weaklings is to exude nasty blistering goo (the ‘oil’) from between the joints of its legs, so putting off anyone higher up the food chain.  Not an endearing quality, you might think, but it has been well used in ‘traditional’ (should that be ‘barking mad’?) medicine.  To quote from Mabey’s book (and so you’ll see what a fun volume it is) :
In Spain, where the beetle is known as frailecillo (‘the little monk’), it is still used, immersed in bottles of olive oil, to ease sciatic pains.  A stronger concoction of bottled beetle was also used to burn off sores and carbuncles and to treat ‘wounds made by a mad dog'.  In Germany, powdered beetle was added to beer to make a drink called kaddentrank, which put a sick person ‘into a sudden and great sweat’ and so drew forth the injurious ‘humours’.  No mention of an oil beetle suppository though!

the dumbledor
Next up in our beetle hall of fame is the Dor beetle, Geotrupes stercorarius, also known (Harry Potter fans sit up and pay attention) as a dumbledor.  It is a dung beetle and needs to eat its own weight in dung each day.  Its eggs are laid in dung buried underground. 

Permaculture-wise, we thus have holes helping water infiltration into the soil, manure buried underground to feed hungry pasture roots and less dung on the surface means fewer nasty flies that bother cattle and horses.  When all said and done, a fine worker.  It’s a shame that they suffer from stock worming chemicals: chemicals that kill intestinal parasites in cows and sheep also go on to reduce the dung beetle population.  We’ve been following a program for the last two years or more of not worming our animals and keeping them healthy with herbal supplements and moving them onto fresh pasture often.  Which is why I was very happy to see this chap.  Even though s/he is dead (allowing the photo close-up!) it suggests that they are about.

Stop Press: next blog, how a photo of me sitting on our compost toilet made it into a national French magazine!