Are Cockchafer Beetles Dangerous? Learn All About This Large, Scary, And Ill-Reputed Beetle

Cockchafers are among the largest beetles in the world, and they can be pretty scary to encounter. But are cockchafer beetles dangerous, or just gentle giants? Let’s find out.

With various beetles having an ill reputation for being venomous or possessing a nasty bite, it’s only normal to feel scared of a new type of beetle on your property. 

This is especially true when the beetle in question is one of the largest of its species and keeps buzzing around loudly. 

However, you can rest assured that the Cockchafer beetle isn’t dangerous to humans. While these beetles can devastate crops and garden plants, they don’t harm us physically.

Cockchafer

What Are Cockchafer Beetles?

Let us first learn a bit about these scary beetles. Also known as May bugs, Cockchafer beetles are native to North America and Europe. 

They belong to the family Scarabaeidae, which also happens to be the dung beetle family. 

These beetles grow up to 2.5 to 3.5 inches long, which is fairly large by beetle standards. The scientific name of the common cockchafer beetle is Melolontha melolontha

Cockchafer beetles have a particularly bad reputation as garden pests and can cause a lot of damage to your favorite plants.

How To Identify One?

The cockchafer beetle is rather easy to identify. It’s a black beetle characterized by fan-shaped antennae, wing cases, and a pointed tail. 

All these three parts, along with the legs, are of bright reddish-brown color. The antennae look like large brows, giving the cockchafers a distinct look. 

However, such antennae aren’t exclusive to cockchafers alone – dung beetles have them too, and so does the stag beetle.

When in flight, Cockchafer beetles are quite noisy due to their wings beating rapidly and creating a loud, humming noise. 

Larval cockchafers are creamy white grubs with brown heads, but you may not see them often as they live underground.

Do Cockchafers Sting or Bite?

Don’t worry; these beetles don’t bite or sting despite their somewhat scary appearance. The females have a stinger-like structure, which might intimidate you. 

However, the sharp point at the end of a female cockchafer isn’t a stinger. It’s the terminal segment of the posterior part of the body, known as pygidium

The females use the pygidium to bury their eggs in the soil. They aren’t capable of stinging you with it.

Are They Harmful To Humans or Pets?

Cockchafer beetles are harmless to both humans and pets. As mentioned earlier, you don’t need to fear getting bitten or stung by them. 

They aren’t venomous either and won’t be able to poison you in any way. 

However, the loud buzzing noise they create while flying can be very irritating. If you have pets, it might agitate them to have these large and noisy beetles flying around.

Can They Get Stuck In Your Hair?

Unfortunately, cockchafers can get stuck in your hair upon landing on your head. They have plenty of hooks and spines on their long legs, which they use to get a grip on plant stems. 

However, these structures also get tangled up with the hair and cause the beetles to get stuck. 

Although there’s a common misconception that you have to cut your hair if a may bug gets stuck in it, this isn’t true.

Do note that these beetles get into hair only by accident. There’s a myth that may bugs get stuck in human hair while trying to attack people or lay eggs in the hair. 

This isn’t true, as these beetles aren’t aggressive to humans at all. Moreover, they prefer to lay eggs in soil rather than hair.

Are They Pests?

Cockchafers were deemed serious agricultural pests in the 19th century due to the heavy damage they caused to crops and plants. 

Adult cockchafers feed on leaves and flowers, which also makes them a garden pest species. 

The larvae, known as grubs, feed on plant roots and are particularly known to damage cereal crops. 

Heavy pesticide usage to control them led to the widespread extermination of the cockchafer population. 

They have made a comeback now, but they aren’t as devastating as in the past due to their dwindled numbers.

Are Cockchafer Beetles Dangerous

How To Get Rid of Cockchafer Beetles?

If you find cockchafer beetles in your garden, it’s best to get rid of them before they can cause much damage or grow in numbers. Here are some ways to go about it:

Manual removal

If there are only a few of these beetles, you may simply remove them by hand. Drop them in a soapy water solution to kill them after removal. 

You may remove the grubs manually, too, though it would take some more work. You’ll have to dig up the soil as cockchafer grubs live underground. 

This might ruin the look of your garden and disturb the various other soil-dwelling organisms.

Organic control

The best way to control cockchafers is to do it organically by bringing in natural predators. 

Tachinid flies, bats, cuckoos, woodpeckers, and corvids prey on these beetles. You may attract predatory birds by setting up bird feeders near areas infested by cockchafers. 

As for the grubs, you may use ground beetles, rooks, and moles.

Biological control

Biological control agents like certain nematodes and pathogenic fungi can also eliminate chafer grubs hiding in the soil. This is a good way to deal with larger infestations.

Chemical control is another option, but you should use chemical pesticides only as a last resort.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do I keep finding cockchafers in my house?

Cockchafers don’t have any specific reason for being indoors, but they’re attracted to artificial light. 
If you leave your windows open in the evening, especially during sunset, there’s a chance that you might find cockchafers in your house.

How do I get rid of cockchafers?

Depending on whether you’re dealing with a large number of cockchafers or a large infestation, you can either remove them manually or use biological control agents. 
The best long-term remedy, however, is to enforce organic control by bringing their natural predators to your garden.

What do cockchafers turn into?

Cockchafers don’t turn into anything; they’re already full-grown adult beetles. In the larval stage, they’re known as grubs – a common term assigned to a vast range of beetle larvae. 
Cockchafer grubs dwell in the soil for several years before maturing.

What damage do cockchafers do?

Grubs of cockchafers can kill plants by feeding on their roots and destroying them. Early symptoms include yellowing canopies and wilting leaves. 
The adults, on the other hand, eat the flowers and leaves. Too many of these beetles can quickly cause significant damage to your garden plants.
In fact, these pests were so feared that in the 1300s, they were once tried in the French court and ordered to stop destroying crops! Of course, these bugs didn’t give two hoots to the human courts.

Wrap Up

As we can see, cockchafers aren’t dangerous in terms of being able to hurt you. However, a cockchafer infestation does pose a threat to your garden, and you should attend to it immediately. 

If there are just a couple of these beetles, you can leave them be since they have their roles in the ecosystem too. 

I hope you enjoyed reading about cockchafers and you won’t be intimidated the next time you see one near you. 

Thank you for reading!

Reader Emails

Due to their rather large size, cockchafers (or billy witches, as they are also called) have been causing a lot of panic among our readers for many years.

Many have sent us emails with photos of these insects. Some were inquisitive, others wary and a few others were simply trying to get out of the way!

Here is a collection of all these emails from readers. Please go through and decide for yourself whether these bugs are scary or harmless!

Letter 1 – Billy Witch from England

 

Subject: What is this bug
Location: Cornwall
May 28, 2017 7:02 am
Hi I found this bug on my trampoline never seen one before was wondering what it is
Signature: joanne woolley

Billy Witch

Dear Joanne,
This is a Billy Witch or Cockchafer, a native Scarab Beetle in England.

Letter 2 – Cockchafer

 


Can you identify this please?
Jayne

Hi Jayne,
We were stumped and when we are stumped, we turn to Eric Eaton. Here is his conclusion: “Ah, that has to be from the U.K. or mainland Europe. It is a male cockchafer, Melolontha melolontha (by one reference I have). I don’t think they are very common in the U.K. any more.”

Ed. Note: This eye-witness account just arrived.
(11/14/2005) Cockchafer
Hi,
Just seen your I’D on the cockchafer. You have said they are not very common in the UK. I am a surveyor for a pest control company an we come across them quite often. They take to flight in may. We call them May bugs. We come across them because people think they are cockroaches and they call us out a lot,
Regards
Clive
Cheshire, UK

Letter 3 – Cockchafer

 

Are Cockchafer Beetles Dangerousso, what’s this bug
Please identify this bug, found today, in Belgium.
Thank you.
Karen

Hi Karen,
The Cockchafer is a type of Scarab Beetle in the tribe Melolonthini. They were once very common in Europe and periodically a population explosion resulted in mass flights. Widespread use of pesticides caused their numbers to diminish and they were eradicated in some areas. With tighter controls on pesticides, their numbers are once again increasing.l

Letter 4 – Cockchafer

 

What is this moth?
May 23, 2010
My friend had a pair of two HUGE moths flying against his window when he was in Lincolnshire, England. They seem unusually large for England. We have no idea what kind they were, We assume they would probably be some kind of hawk moth. We have some photos and we thought it might be best to ask you instead of searching google images. x Thankyou
Moth-lover Viola VonGore
Lincolnshire, England

Cockchafer

Dear Viola,
The Cockchafer, Melolontha melolontha, a species of Scarab Beetle, was once much more common in the UK than it is now, probably due to the use of pesticides between the fifties and the seventies.  The AgroAtlas website, the Interactive Agricultural Ecological Atlas of Russia and Neighboring Countries, has some good information on the Cockchafer.  The Cockchafer is sometimes called a Billy Witch.

Cockchafer

Letter 5 – Cockchafer

 

Subject:  Large Garden bug
Geographic location of the bug:  United Kingdom (burton on trent)
Date: 05/30/2018
Time: 04:37 AM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  Please identify this bug as it is troubling my children
How you want your letter signed:  Joe smith

Cockchafer

Dear Joe,
This Cockchafer is a relatively common Scarab Beetle found in the UK and other parts of Europe. 

Letter 6 – Cockchafer from England

 

Subject: WTb
Location: North West England
May 3, 2014 3:01 pm
Hi Bugman
My husband and I are sat out in our garden at approx 10pm in Thelwall, Warrington, England, United Kingdom and have spotted this interesting looking beetle which appears to have been attracted to our outdoor lamp. Having researched beetle with long eye lashes we came across your website and found a similar looking beetle called the cedar beetle although we noticed this originates from Australia. So…WTFB?
Thanks
Sarah
Signature: S&B

Cockchafer
Cockchafer

Hi S&B,
We recall reading once that Cockchafers, like the one you photographed, were more common in England in years past than they are now.  According to UK Safari:  “Cockchafers are sometimes called ‘May Bugs’ because of the month they appear.  In Suffolk they’re also known as ‘Billy Witches’.”

Letter 7 – Cockchafer from England

 

Subject: Beetle with eyelashes
Location: Suffolk, England
May 7, 2014 2:47 pm
Hi
I just had this bug land outside my window & I’ve never seen anything like it before!
Google only comes up with VW beetles with eye lashes so wondering if you can help?!
Signature: Sarah

Cockchafer
Cockchafer

Hi Sarah,
We just posted a letter last week from Sarah and it was an image of a Cockchafer as well.  We respond with emails when we select an image and identification request for posting, and perhaps our email response did not arrive if you are the same Sarah.  Search engines often leave much to be desired, and searching for caterpillar images often leads to links for large farm machinery.

Letter 8 – Cockchafer from England

 

Subject: Insect???
Location: South west England
May 22, 2016 5:57 am
Do you please know what insect it is. Looks kinda like a moth. I found it in south west England in spring in my garden. It has 2 sets of wings underneath the shell bit. And weird antenna and a pointy tail. Thanks
Signature: I don’t know what this means but I have to fill it in anyway

Cockchafer
Cockchafer

The signature line on our standardized form is a place for the submitter to include either their real name or some pseudonym, like “Perplexed in England” as a signature to the submission.  This is a Cockchafer or Billy Witch, Melolontha melolontha, a native Scarab Beetle that generally appears in the spring.  Thought to be on the decline in England for years, populations seem to once again be on the rise.

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

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