Seeking Romance: the Cockchafer

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The beautiful May Bug, with its comical antler-like antennae and fuzzy face, used to be a common sight across the European continent. Specifically it was melolontha melolontha, or the ‘European Cockchafer’.

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Cockchafer. Photo: Nutmeg66, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

They’re actually flying beetles and spend their short beetle lives flying about the tree tops at dusk – seeking romance. Prior to that though, they spend several years underground, slowly pupating in the form of a big white grub.

Once upon a time these flying beetles ‘inundated’ the European continent, causing farmers much grief as they laid waste to crops.

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Photo: Nordic Food Lab, licensend under CC BY-SA 4.0

They were so abundant that children played with them. In Ancient Greece they are said to have tied thread to the cockchafer’s leg and watched it fly around in circles. In parts of England they were nicknamed Billy Witch and Spang Beetle.

The beetles feature in children’s rhymes and songs – anyone who was read Hans Christian Andersen tales as a child will remember Thumbelina being kidnapped by a cockchafer, though he then deemed her too ugly because she only had two legs.

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Cockchafer larvae. Photo: Nordic Food Lab, licensend under CC BY-SA 4.0

But what’s not well-known today is that cockchafers were also eaten quite widely. People ate the beetles like shrimp, roasting them and eating the flesh. Cockchafer soup was popular in France, Germany and neighbouring countries right up until the mid-twentieth century. You can find a reference to this soup in W.G. Sebald’s novel about German emigrants to the UK and US in the early twentieth century.

A recipe book recommends that adult cockchafers “flavourfully enhance an otherwise insipid or mundane broth”; in the late 1800s, a French senator proposed that everybody catch the bugs and eat them as a solution to the crop destruction they brought.

Bad news for farmers, good news for gourmets?

“Catch the May Bugs, pound them and put them through a sieve,” he wrote. The soup would “give a delightful dish, esteemed by the gourmets.” He was French, so should surely have the last word on what’s ‘gourmet’ and what isn’t.

Even earlier in the beginning of the same century, Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus was pondering whether or not the beetle would be “grateful food”, as he watched sparrows devouring them.

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Digging for cockchafers. Photo: Nordic Food Lab, licensend under CC BY-SA 4.0

Sadly the rather excessive pesticide enthusiasm in the twentieth century resulted in these little beetles almost disappearing in just a few short decades. But now that dousing every inch of land in chemicals is more strictly regulated, they’re making a comeback. Bad news for farmers, good news for ‘gourmets’?

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