The May Bug – A Muse For Europe

Cockchafer, May bugThe beginning of May signifies the absolute end of winter, when spring is in full force and in theory we don’t have to worry about a cold snap for a long time (British weather oddities aside).

But it also means the emergence of the cockchafer. These beetles, known as “may bugs”, only live for about five to seven weeks, assuring their association with the brilliant time of year that is late spring and early summer. How else would you explain all these inspirational contributions it has made to throughout Europe?

Credit: Miloš on Flickr

Cockchafer Inspires Science in Ancient Greece

In ancient Greece, young boys would spin cockchafers as a game. They would tie a thread to a may bug’s leg, then let it loose and watch it fly in circles.

Aristotle was even inspired to pretty much invent entomology after observing the cockchafer, amongst other insects. In his collected writings on the subject, he notes:

Some insects are wingless (as the ioulos and the millipede), other winged (as the bee, the cockchafer, and the wasp); and sometimes one and the same kind of insect is found both winged and wingless (as the ant and the glowworm) Translation Peck, 1970

May Bug Contributes to Popular Culture in 17th-Century Germany

The may bug also features in a German children’s rhyme dating from the Thirty Years’ War:

Maikäfer flieg.
Dein Vater ist im Krieg.
Die Mutter ist im Pommerland,
Pommerland ist abgebrannt.
Maikäfer flieg.

Which translates to:

May-bug fly
Your father is in the war.
The mother is in Pomerania,
Pomerania is burned down.
May-bug fly.

Because it was about Pomeranian suffering from war, it became associated with Russia’s advance on Eastern Germany at the end of World War II.

The May Bug and Philosophy in Enlightenment-Age France

Voltaire also made reference to the cockchafer back in the 18th century, saying:

Before receiving your instruction, I must tell you what happened to me one day. I had just had a closet built at the end of my garden. I heard a mole arguing with a cockchafer; ‘Here’s a fine structure,’ said the mole, ‘it must have been a very powerful mole who did this work.’ ‘You’re joking,’ said the cockchafer; ‘it’s a cockchafer full of genius who is the architect of this building.’ From that moment I resolved never to argue.

The May Bug in Folk Art in 19th-Century Prussia

Max and MoritzTthe may bug also features in Max and Moritz (A Story of Seven Boyish Pranks), a rhyming tale of mischevious boys that is engrained in the culture of German-speaking countries. In the fifth of their seven pranks, the boys shake may bugs out of a tree and sprinkle them in their Uncle Fritz’s bed. Nice!

The Cockchafer and Literature in Nineteenth-Century Denmark

Thumbelina by Hans Christian AndersenIn Hans Christian Andersen’s Thumbelina, a may bug is one of the many creatures that captures Thumbelina after she escapes from the toad that originally kidnapped her. The bug abandons her to the elements, when his friends reject her.

So, although may bugs aren’t around for long, there is clearly a lot you can do with them while they are here. Or you could just have fun watching them, knowing that with them comes great weather, fun holidays and all the wonderful things we associate with Spring and Summer!

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