I was lucky enough to spend Midsummer’s Night this year in the depths of rural France. Tucked away between La Rochelle in the north, and Cognac in the south, our little villa sat in a small village surrounded by farmers fields and ancient woodland. Unsurprisingly, there was wildlife aplenty. However it was that one hot night in June that I will remember for years to come…
The Great Stag Beetle Invasion
With so many old tumble-down buildings and old trees our garden was awash with bats each evening. The spectacle was so good that I had taken to sitting outside at dusk, getting in half an hour or so of bat watching before it got too dark to see them.
On this one particular evening, however, my attention was diverted by what sounded like a helicopter overhead. This was followed by a “bang” as something big flew into the window. Grabbing my torch, I quickly realized it was a beautiful adult male stag beetle that must have flown across the garden in an ungainly manner, before crash landing.
After taking some photos of him, he soon took off again in the sweaty still night air that was still topping 25’C and went on his way. Within minutes, however, the garden was almost taken over with stag beetles. At one point I counted 15 beetles flying overhead in the near-darkness in just 10 minutes.
All around me, in the bushes and on the stone walls surrounding the garden, were the sounds of land-based stag beetles on the hunt for some female activity. In all, I must have seen some 30+ stag beetles in a matter of an hour or so; a mass “hatching” of adults on one of the hottest days of the year so far.
Stag Beetles in the UK
Stag beetles are one of our most impressive British insects. Whilst both sexes are large and stocky insects, it is the males that are particularly notable thanks to their enormous “antlers”. These are in fact modified mouthparts, used by the amorous males to fight off adversaries and win themselves the ultimate prize – a female!
Stag beetles have a fascinating lifestyle. The adult females lay eggs in the soil, which soon hatch into maggot-like grubs. These grubs then feed on rotting wood in or on the soil, slowly changing their skin time and again until reaching maturity. This process from egg to adult may take up to six years in some cases. The adults themselves, when they finally pupate, have just one thing on their minds; reproduction. Scientists believe that adult stag beetles don’t even have mouths, and so don’t eat as adult beetles; they just rely on the energy stored in their bodies.
As a result, adult stag beetles may only survive for a matter of weeks – months at best – before starvation or cold winter weather finishes them off. Hopefully, before that happens the females will have managed to mate and lay eggs, to begin the cycle once again.
This lifestyle goes some way to explaining why stag beetles seem to be getting quite rare in the UK. As our population grows there are fewer and fewer places where large volumes of rotting wood can be found. All too often our woodlands are either “actively managed” or are being turned into building sites. It’s the same with our gardens; wild patches are getting ever rarer as more of us devote space to lawns, patios and decking. As a result, it seems that stag beetles are slowly being pushed out.
Worse, stag beetles generally enjoy warmer weather; which helps to explain our French influx of stag beetles at the end of a three day heat wave that saw the thermometer topping 35’C. These temperatures speed up the metabolism, and encourage activity.
In Britain, however, average temperatures tend to be much lower. Summers are regularly cool and damp, which isn’t ideal for stag beetles. When combined with habitat loss it’s hardly surprising that stag beetles seem to be on the decline in the UK.
Where to See Stag Beetles
Whilst I saw more stag beetles in one night in the Charente-Maritime than I have seen in my whole life in Britain, there are some areas where you’re more likely to see them.
First and foremost, as stag beetles spend the vast majority of their lives underground eating rotting vegetation it should hardly be a surprise that woodlands tend to be the most reliable places to see them. Whilst you’re unlikely to find the grubs, which can burrow half a metre deep beneath the soil surface, the pupated adults may well be found exploring deciduous woodland areas.
But it’s not just the woods themselves. Nearby areas can also be rich sources of adult stag beetles. I have personally found quite a few in National Trust gardens over the years, where the males may fly out of nearby woods to find a mate.
A few people are even lucky enough to find adult stag beetles in their own gardens, though in many cases these gardens either offer – or are located close to – some old woodland.
Stag beetles are “fair weather insects”. The adult tend to mature in early summer, giving them the hottest months of the year to reproduce. If you’re keen to see stag beetles yourself then you could do a lot worse than investing some time in July or August hunting them out; at other times of the year your odds of success will be far less.
Whilst stag beetles may be found at any time of the day, they tend to be most active at night. If you want to see stag beetles with your own eyes, try heading out on a balmy summer evening as the sun is going down. Take your torch with you and keep your eyes peeled.
Despite their size, stag beetles can be surprisingly difficult to see thanks to their dark brown colouration. I have found that it is easier to find stag beetles by listening out for them. Pay attention to the beating of wings overhead or a slow, heavy rustle in the leaves beneath bushes. Investigate the source of the noise and you might just be lucky enough to stumble across your first stag beetle.
As stag beetles prefer higher temperatures it shouldn’t be a surprise that they tend to be more common in southern England than further north. The cut off line seems to be around the Midlands; those in Yorkshire or even further north may really struggle to see wild specimens.
Can Stag Beetles Hurt You?
So you’ve found a stag beetle; what should you do next? Without a doubt these are pretty dangerous-looking beetles; will they actually do you any harm if you pick them up?
As it turns out, male stag beetles are capable of giving quite a powerful nip if annoyed. It’s generally not enough to draw blood, but it might take you by surprise. Take care when picking up a stag beetle, therefore, to avoid getting your finger nipped.
There are two safe ways to pick up a stag beetle. The first is of course to simply scoop it up gently with a plastic tub, where you can get a closer look at it. The second is to gently grasp the beetle from it’s rear end. In doing so, the stag beetle will be unable to turn around and give you a nip.
It is important to say here that stag beetles only give a nip if they feel threatened. They certainly aren’t aggressive and don’t go out of their way to try and attack anyone. If you leave them well alone then you should be absolutely fine; no need to attack them with a rolled-up newspaper.
Quite the opposite in fact; now stag beetles are becoming rarer we should do everything we can to protect them, and to support their population. Possibly the best thing you can do is to create a “wild” area in your garden, where you build a woodpile. Leave the logs to rot naturally, and allow wild plants to grow up around them. In doing so, you’ll be creating the perfect habitat for the next generation of stag beetles.