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GREENING

Their summer flights of fancy

June beetles spring to life, their bright green armor shining as they steer a shaky course. They're not the prettiest of beetles, but you can't help but admire such short-lived determination.

June 30, 2005|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

No creature matches the comic aplomb of the June beetle. Any day now, it will appear in our gardens, its flight so unsteady that it will make a bumblebee look like a Harrier jet. Yet somehow it will be aloft. Then, bap! It will head straight into a fence and tumble to the ground. As we debate whether to deliver the coup de grace, it will collect itself, take flight and proceed with doughty conviction in the general direction of a fig tree.

The June beetle is such an unlikely flier, so aerodynamically incorrect, that it seems like a mirage -- sunstroke with a sense of humor. In fact, it is the quirkiest harbinger of summer, the cue to look to our orchards. When June beetles arrive, the fruit is ripe.

Peach lovers among us can put down the slingshots. According to entomologist Arthur V. Evans, June beetles are harmless. "They go for fruit that's already been damaged," says Evans, co-author of a nice 2004 book, "Introduction to California Beetles."

If the name June beetle doesn't ring a bell, this bug has plenty of aliases. Fig eater. Peach beetle. Texas beetle. To Evans, the safest term is the scientific one, Cotinis mutabilis, a noun-adjective combo that states the genus, then describes the species. The genus name comes from the Greek kotinos, for "wild olive," and probably refers to the beetle's green coloring, thinks Evans. The species name, mutabilis, translates as "changeable," a reference to its metamorphosis from grub to beetle.

As for the suggestion that the beetle is olive-colored, maybe in Oz. Anyone know the Greek for Glam Rock Bug? The iridescent green and the gold trim (never mind the fold-out wings) seem more like something out of a 1974 Roxy Music tour. Yet according to John Abbott, an entomologist at the University of Texas, our June beetles are nothing special, especially in the tropics. "There are tens of thousands of beetles that are just eye-popping," he says.

What our beetle lacks in beauty, it compensates with panache. It's a western bug that hails from Arizona. On the wing, it has only two objects of desire: sex and fruit juice. Only a little juice will suffice -- say, dribbles of sap oozing from mesquite and prickly pear.

As for the sex, the hope that the bug's bright green armor might be the beetle equivalent of peacock coloration -- a device to attract mates -- didn't find much support. Evans, Abbott, Michael Caterino of the California Beetle Project at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and Jim Melli at the San Diego Natural History Museum all came back with the answer: Sorry, no. The coloration is more likely camouflage, they guessed, which might have evolved to thwart birds of prey in shimmering sun.

Then do they sing for seduction, click even?

"No, no song, either" says Evans. "June beetles find each other by pheromones. They don't undergo any type of elaborate courtship."

So much for romance.

After mating, the males die earlier than the females, who have more work to do, namely looking for a place to lay fertilized eggs. They need rotting organic matter, preferably enough to protect the eggs as they hatch into larvae, and they need to feed the larvae, or grubs.

June beetles spend winter as grubs, where they fatten so handsomely on rotting leaves and decomposing wood, they twice lose their skin. "Fear Factor" uses them to nauseate its audience, but in the wild, June beetle larvae are nothing short of a delicacy. Ask any raccoon, fowl or back--to-nature type. Lawn care companies say they damage turf and exhort us to kill them using pesticidal soil drenches. Wrong beetle, says Melli.

June beetle grubs in compost are usually curled in a protective C-shape. Their fans can tell you how they undulate through rotting vegetable matter. They squirm along on their backs, say the beetle fanciers.

Cool.

Then comes the pupal stage, when the beetle forms its bright green shell. For the butterfly, this takes place in a cocoon. The June beetle must metamorphose underground, so its larva forms a pupal chamber from its own frass -- in plainer English, grub poop. Evans is convincing when he says: "This deters predators."

The mature beetles emerge just as fruit ripens. A really good mother will have laid eggs near a prickly pear cactus, so the fledgling can go straight to the juice bar. As it emerges from its lair, the plating might seem clunky, but the armor is actually a study in economy. Its skin is its skeleton, or exoskeleton. This tough, waxy material helps conserve water and makes them less appetizing to birds and lizards. It also lessens the impact of midair collisions. "It's really strong, so when they hit something, they don't splatter," says Melli.

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