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The magnificent stag beetle is our largest beetle and being nationally scarce is a UK Priority Species for Conservation. Stag beetles are predominantly found in the south east of the country and we’re so lucky to have found them, or at least their larvae, whilst gardening at the Rec. We inadvertently dug up one while we were preparing the central bed and two during the course of laying the wildflower meadow (See photos): All were safely returned!
Photo courtesy Bruce Larner - Click to enlarge
Male stag beetles can be anything from 5 to 8cms long. They have formidable looking, antler-like jaws which despite their appearance are really quite weak, and possibly, being so large, prevent them from feeding. Throughout their short adult stage they therefore have to rely on fat reserves laid down as larvae. The main purpose of these impressive mandibles is to fight off rival males and display to females. Males can be seen on the wing, on balmy summer evenings, from May onwards. They fly with their bodies almost upright and their wings out behind them, making a faint clattering sound. The flight appears somewhat erratic and comical and crash landings aren’t unknown. But the males are using their brief lifespan to fly out in search of females with which to mate.
Photo courtesy of Bruce Larner - Click to enlarge
The female stag beetles can fly, but rarely do, spending most of their time crawling along the ground. They are smaller than the males, up to 5cms long and have much smaller, but more powerful mandibles. Both male and female beetles have the same colouration, which is a black head and thorax, with chestnut wing cases. It’s these that distinguish the female stag beetle from a lesser stag beetle, as the latter is entirely black.
Stag beetles have a fascinating lifestyle which is mostly subterranean and entirely dependent on a supply of rotting wood. Having mated, the female prepares a suitable place in which to lay up to 30 eggs. The eggs hatch into larvae after about 3 weeks and they then set about the business of feeding and growing. The larvae shed their skin at least twice to enable this, as they munch their way through decaying wood for up to 3 to 5 years. The larvae can get up to 8cm long, with white translucent bodies and orange heads and legs. When they have finished growing, the larvae prepare a cocoon in which to pupate and complete the metamorphosis into an adult. The cocoon which takes about 2 months to prepare, protects the vulnerable pupa, and it can be as large as an orange. Several months later, usually in May, the adult stag beetles will emerge and burrow their way to the surface. Their short adult lives are devoted to producing the next generation, and having mated and laid eggs, they will all have died by August.
Photo courtesy Jo Bailey - Click to enlarge
Stag beetles have a number of colloquial names and in the New Forest they were known as ‘Devil’s Imps’. Being far more common in the past, they were blamed for crop damage and pelted with stones by indignant locals. Hopefully we have a more enlightened attitude now and have the understanding to be able to help these amazing creatures. Sadly they are in steep decline across Europe and are actually extinct in some countries such as Denmark. One of the main causes is thought to be loss of suitable habitat, partly through development but also because of the tidying up of gardens, parks and other public spaces. Dead trees, tree stumps and rotting wood are perceived to be messy and are cleared away, removing an absolutely vital resource for the stag beetles. So let’s adopt a more relaxed style, embrace a bit of untidiness and give some space back to nature!
For more information on identification and what you can do to help, please check out the PTES (The People’s Trust for Endangered Species) website. And do let us (and PTES) know if you spot any stag beetles in or around The Rec, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and please attach a photo if possible.
By Denise Long