The Tragic Tale of a Beetle in Love

Photo credit: Volkan Olmez, Unsplash

Typically on a Saturday, I try to post something happy. Something to make us smile. But this tale came to me recently and I can’t get it out of my head. It’s the tale — the tragic tale — of the Death Watch Beetle.

Cool name, isn’t it? It comes from a time when people died at home. (Sorry. I told you this wouldn’t be happy.) As the person was lying in bed ill, clinging to their last thread of life, the family members would be very, very quiet. Out of respect. This period was called “the death watch.”

And in those times of absolute silence, during the death watch, they would hear a light tapping. Almost like fingers drumming on a table, very faint and rhythmic. Legend had it that it was Death, drumming his bony fingers, waiting for the person to die.

As it turns out, it was actually the mating call of a little beetle. Hereafter called the death watch beetle. Scientific name: Xestobium rufovillosum.

This is the life cycle of the death watch beetle (you might want to grab a tissue):

The female lays her eggs in a little hole or crevice in wood. When the little pupa emerges, he eats. He eats wood. He does this for 10 to 15 years. Years, people! Ten to 15 years!

Photo credit: Getty Images

When he emerges, he’s a fully grown adult. About 1/4 inch long and not very pretty. Also, fairly blind. He only has one task at this point, and that is to find a mate and have sex. Quick like, before he dies. Which will be in less than a week.

Since he can’t see much of anything, he bangs his head against the wall and listens. Hoping a lonely beetle chick somewhere hears him and answers his call. By banging her head against the wall. This is how they find each other.

If, by chance, they do find each other, he will scramble on top of her and in his eagerness, possibly cause both of them to tumble to their demise. Or he may miss her all together, on account of how he’s blind. Or he may jump on her the wrong way, not knowing her head from her bum. So she keeps banging her head against the wall, basically saying, “Dude! This is my head! Poke it in the other end!”

Or — and this is key here, so pay attention — she may reject him. She may decide, “Eh. I’ll see if someone better comes along.”

There’s a chance someone more to her liking will come along, but there’s a chance he won’t. She’s taking a big risk here, but this is one discerning chick. She’d rather die than have sex with a beetle not up to her standards. And die she will. Very shortly.

So, what can we take away from this sad tale, gentle readers?

  • Well, it puts a different light on our lives doesn’t it? Whatever we may be experiencing, at least we’re not a death watch beetle, eating wood for an entire decade, only to be rejected in love and dying as one lonely bug.
  • If reincarnation is a thing, what kind of monstrous act warrants coming back as a death watch beetle? I mean, holy crap, that’s some kind of freakin’ bad karma going on there!
  • When all is said and done, we don’t have it so very bad finding a companion, do we? Granted, I’ve not been in the game for a long while, but geez, even online dating sites are better than banging your head against a wall. Isn’t it?
  • Clearly, most women do not have anything close to the standards of a female death watch beetle. If you are a hetero-male, let this be a comfort to you. If you are a female, give it some thought. You could do better.

If you’d like to hear the full beetle story as I heard it, Click Here. It’s a 20 minute podcast from RadioLab, and it ends with a fantastic rap piece. I highly recommend listening to it, especially if you’re a fan of the hit musical Hamilton.

Below is a video of another tragic tale about the death watch beetle, about the damage they can do to a home. (If you have these little buggers in your home, my heart goes out to you.)

7 thoughts on “The Tragic Tale of a Beetle in Love

  1. 🙂 Puts our life in perspective quite well. I do LOVE that the chick beetle might think “Ah, to heck with it, you’re just not worth it, I’d rather bang my head against the wall till I die a lonely old woman”. I Think there is a story there for all of us 🙂

    1. Indeed! If I ever get to feeling sorry for myself, or impatient, or unappreciated, I’m going to think about these little guys banging their heads against a wall. My life could be sooooo much worse! 😄

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