One of my earliest memories involves a giant insect. If you’re one of the few people who’ve read my blog from the very beginning (and you, my friends, are amazing!), you already know about my unfortunate run-in with this beetle:
For those of you who haven’t read the story, it goes like this: Imagine a 4-year-old girl in a cute little sundress sitting on her backyard swing, the one her father created from a smooth board and some rope slung over a strong tree branch. It’s dusk. She’s happily swinging, maybe humming a little, when suddenly a monster falls out of the tree and lands on her shoulder. It’s a 3 inch long, black beetle, one with massive jaws, spikes adorning its strong thorax, and sharp claws at the tips of its long legs. It lands inches from her exposed neck. The girl jumps off her swing and starts running around the yard, screaming her head off like any self-respecting 4-year-old girl does when a 3 inch long insect appears on her shoulder. Eventually, one of her parents rushes into the yard to see what is going on, brushes the beetle from her skin, and takes her into the house to safety.
I have a very, very vivid memory of this incident, even though it happened so long ago. The beetle did frighten me horribly when it fell onto my shoulder that night, but it was mostly from the shock, the beetle having magically appeared on my shoulder as if out of thin air. For some reason, apart from this one moment of weakness (and let’s face it – ANYONE who has a large, 3 inch long peevish beetle fall onto their shoulder unexpectedly is going to be shocked for at least a moment), these beetles have fascinated for me as long as I can remember.
Palo verde beetles are gigantic and very scary to a lot of people who encounter them. It’s wholly understandable that people might be a little squeamish of a 3 inch long, well armored beetle. It probably doesn’t help that they’re also nocturnal and emerge from the shadows when you least expect them. They’re so big that you can hear them walking before you see them, an audible harbinger of doom warning you before the beast appears.
But I love them still. I can’t explain why exactly, but I do know that if you have a chance to watch these beetles they become vastly less intimidating. Palo verde beetles are so large that they are very poor fliers. They bumble around in the air, swooping and swerving this way and that. They always look a little drunk when they fly. As a child, I used to love watching them try to fly through our chain link fence, only to knock their heads or wings into one of the metal parts and fall to the ground, dazed and momentarily disoriented. Often, they would fall on their backs and their legs would flail around in the air ridiculously as they tried to right themselves. To this day, I enjoy watching these beetles moving around. They smack into walls and cars and the sidewalk. They trip over their own feet at times when they walk. Even though they’re big and scary to look at, I love them in part because they’re hilarious to watch. There’s something so comic about these hulks tripping all over their gangly bodies like teenagers who haven’t quite adjusted to their most recent growth spurt.
Palo verde beetles are inexorably tied to “home” in my mind as well. I have hundreds of memories of these beetles from my early childhood and they eventually became a sort of symbol of my desert home for me. I was very sad when I learned that Colorado didn’t have these beetles when we moved there. Imagine a 9-year-old girl longing for a giant beetle! But Arizona was always home to me, no matter how long we lived in another state. When we came back to Arizona to visit my grandparents for the first time, about 7 or 8 years after we moved, I was absolutely thrilled that the very first insect I saw was a palo verde beetle, wandering along under the door to my grandparents’ guesthouse. I don’t recall ever having picked one up as a child, so I didn’t realize they could bite until I watched the angry beetle clamp his jaws onto my grandfather’s hand as he scooped the bug up for me. My poor, ailing grandfather cried out in pain because the beetle bit him. I gained a new respect for these beetles that day. But, I was still very happy when I moved back to Arizona and saw my first palo verde beetle. I mistook her for a pack rat at first because she was so enormous. I could barely believe it was possible for a beetle to be that big, but there she was, running along the wall of the apartment complex as I watched, the biggest insect I’ve ever seen.
The palo verde beetles are also a symbol of summer to me. The summers in southern Arizona are rather miserable. Temperatures of 110 degrees F are not uncommon and there is a long dry period of unrelenting sun and heat for a few months before the monsoons set in during the late summer. The beetles start to come out during that hot time, when people just want to melt into their couches and never move again. For me, they brighten an otherwise unpleasant time immeasurably. I squeal with childish delight every year when I see my first. Against my better judgement, I rush over to grab the beetle – carefully, by the abdomen directly behind the thorax. As the beetle illustrates his displeasure at my interruption of his evening by thrashing around in a mad attempt to bite me or skewer my fingers with the spikes on his thorax, I carry him into the house as proudly as a hunter bringing home a 12 point buck. I wave the giant beetle in front of whoever happens to be in the house at the time and ramble on and on about how fabulous they are. Then I snap a few photos and release him back into the yard, so he can continue flying drunkenly about the city in search of mates so that I can do it all over again the following year.
I really don’t know what it is about these beetles that I love so much. They’re big. They’re rather ill-tempered and can have a nasty mean streak if you interfere with their business. One of them frightened me as young child. By all rights, I should hate these beetles. But I don’t. I find their presence near my home a cause for great joy. I celebrate their return every year. It makes me so happy to know that they’re out there, that I might find one crawling sluggishly around my front door one night as I run out to chuck a bag of trash into the can. A whole day might turn around simply because I see one of these beetles. A few months from now, I’ll be carrying surly beetles into my house to photograph them, to document their continued existence, and then let them go on their way again. And it will make me happy, just like it always does.
I had intended for this post to focus on the natural history and lives of the palo verde beetles, but it has clearly turned into something else. Someday I’ll share more information about their biology. Today I wanted to share my appreciation for these magnificent animals. Hope some of you will appreciate them with me!
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