Billy Witches have MANY tales to tell – from their trial in the French courts to being toys in ancient Greece. But do Billy Witches get stuck in your hair? Here’s the truth.
Growing in sizes up to 2.5 to 3 cm long, billy witches are members of the beetle family that have brown, hairy bodies and white triangles on their abdomen.
They have a hard exoskeleton, antennae with multiple leaves, and translucent, rust-brown wings.
Their large body makes them clumsy fliers, and they often bump into things – including, sometimes, human hair.
Some people believe that once a cockchafer gets caught in one’s hair, there’s no other alternative than to cut off that chunk.
But this is an old wives’ tale! Cockchafers don’t particularly enjoy human hair. However, they have spiny legs and tend to burrow, which makes it difficult to get them out.
If caught – you can always get them out gently. They are harmless, non-aggressive, and do not sting.
What Are Billy Witches?
Billy Witches or Melolontha melolontha are a type of brown-colored scarab beetle.
The male and female can be distinguished by the number of leaves on their antenna. The females have six, while the male has seven.
Cockchafers lay eggs in the ground, which hatch into larvae. These larvae feed extensively on various plant roots for as long as four years before going into pupae in autumn.
After transforming inside the pupae for a period of 6 weeks, adult cockchafers emerge, mostly during the months of April to May.
An adult billy witch has a life span of only a few weeks.
Why Are They Also Called Cockchafers?
Billy witches have many names, with Cockchafer being the most common one used in England.
The name cockchafer translates into “big beetle” in old English.
More accurately, it is an amalgamation of ‘cock’ or the old English term for vigor, and ‘chafer,’ which means someone who gnaws.
This is due to the beetle’s insane appetite, both as larvae and adults.
They are also known by various other names, such as the May bug, as they tend to mature around the month of May. ‘Billy witch’ is a term commonly used in Suffolk.
Do Billy Witches Get Stuck in Your Hair?
Due to their large, hard body, Billy witches are quite bumbling flyers. Like other beetles, they have spikes on their legs for clamping onto the stems of plants.
During May, it is pretty common to find them almost everywhere. And one dropping on your hair from a branch above isn’t all that rare.
Due to their large size, people often freak out, which just causes the beetle to burrow further and get tangled with its spiky legs and antenna.
However, having to cut off your hair for this is simply a myth. You can gently get them out and release them again.
Are They Dangerous To Humans or Pets?
There are two types of cockchafers – the common and the forest cockchafers.
Common cockchafers have a spike-like structure at the end of their abdomen, which is often mistaken for a stinger.
However, they do not actually sting and are not dangerous to humans or pets. The funnel-like ‘sting’ structure is known as the pygidium.
Cockchafers lay eggs within the soil. The pygidium helps females push their eggs deep into the soil to avoid predators. Many kids have safely enjoyed playing with cockchafers during their childhood.
Interesting Facts About Billy Witches
Billy witches are the stuff of folklore and legends – these insects have even made their way into children’s nursery rhymes!
Here are a few unique facts about these bugs:
In 1320, the citizens of France put the cockchafers on trial for destroying crops. The cockchafers lost and were banished to a particular patch of land. However, the bugs did not comply (as expected), and soon, the French started capturing and killing them.
Billy witches have quite some tales to tell. In 1911, over 20 million of them were trapped, caught, and killed. In the 20th century, large amounts of pesticides were used to deal with insect infestation.
This dwindled down the cockchafer population until they almost became extinct. They have been completely wiped out from most of Europe. Now, as pesticide usage is being monitored, their population is replenishing.
As of now, chemical pesticide use against them is banned. Only a few biological or green pesticides, such as pathogenic fungi, are allowed.
Cockchafers are known for being extremely clumsy fliers that make a loud, buzzing sound as they move around. It’s very common to see them smacking into things and spider webs. Clumsy flying is almost a trait of all beetles!
Due to their cute appearance (as compared to other beetles), children often use them as toys. In Ancient Greece, kids would tie a string around one of its legs and then try to catch it as it whirled around. In fact, even today, many kids find the beetle cute and catch them to play with.
Their abundance and poor flight capabilities made them easy to be caught and, finally – eat. Many old recipes feature the cockchafer, such as the Cockchafer soup or the sugar-coated Cockchafers in Germany. Even the larvae can be prepared for a meal by using vinegar.
Frequently Asked Questions
What bug gets stuck in your hair?
While there is an old wives’ tale that cockchafers get permanently stuck in your hair – that’s simply not true.
However, a lot of bugs can get tangled in your hair in a way that’s difficult to easily pick out, including most types of beetles and insects with spiny legs.
What are Billy witches attracted to?
Growing up in the soil, Billy witches are nocturnal and adapted to the dark. They do all their activities from feeding to mating in night.
This is why they are often attracted to light sources and fly into street lamps and lit window panes. Sometimes they even fall inside chimneys, mistaking them for trees. They enter houses in this way, scaring the inhabitants to no end!
Can Maybugs hurt you?
May bugs are harmless and cannot sting, bite or spray. They are non-aggressive beetles and do not hurt humans. The shape of their abdomen is similar to a stinger but is used for a totally different purpose as we discussed above.
What bugs hide in human hair?
After falling on human hair, the cockchafer may often get tangled in deeper and deeper – but they don’t necessarily look out for human hair to hide in.
However, there are other bugs that may live in your hair and even nest there. Head lice are one of the most common parasitic bugs found in human hair.
The history of the cockchafer is an important lesson to understand how too much or too little of any creature within the ecosystem can pose a threat to the entire cycle of life.
Cockchafer invasions were memorable enough that many authors (such as J.G. Farrell) have immortalized them in their books.
The next time you chance upon a bumbling billy witch in your window, know it’s probably there looking to find some leaves to munch on and a mate.
Thank you for reading.
With such a rich history, it is no wonder that cockchafers have been a subject of much inquiry with our readers as well.
These June bugs have often created a scare due to the belief that they get stuck in your hair so hard that it is impossible to get them out.
Below we share some examples of such encounters with billy witches that our readers have shared with us.
After reading them, we hope you will appreciate that these bugs are really harmless!
Letter 1 – Cockchafer from England
May 4, 2017 4:45 pm
What is this? Is it a beetle or a cockroach
This Scarab Beetle is commonly called a Cockchafer.
Letter 2 – Cockchafer from France
Subject: Is this a beetle ?
Geographic location of the bug: France
Time: 06:22 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman: I would really like to find out what kind of bug this is I’m reallh curious, I found it late at night in my garden, thank you for any help.
How you want your letter signed: Thomas Young
This Scarab Beetle, Melolontha melolontha, is commonly called a Cockchafer or Billy Witch in England. According to Cabi, the International common names include: “French: hanneton commun; man; turc.”
Letter 3 – Cockchafer from the UK
Any idea what this bug is?
Location: Potton, Bedfordshire, England
May 8, 2011 6:39 pm
Hi there, just wondering if you could tell me what this bug is?
I had stayed out last night and my girlfriend was in on her own, which is probably why this little fella decided to strike!
Apparently it flew in through the window and ended up in our bedroom lamp, and proceeded to bash around frantically until stopping like it was dead. My girlfriend had tried to get it out by pointing the lamp to the window but it seemed like it was stuck and was not moving so she left it outside today until I got back. I went to move it just now and it started moving around a little. It actually seemed to be clinging to the lamp shade, or perhaps it’s feet stick to that kind of material? I don’t know, I won’t pretend to be an expert 😉
Anyway if you could shed some light on it that would be great!
Signature: Charles Beeching
This May Beetle, Melolontha melolontha, is commonly called a Cockchafer or Billy Witch. Your query is the second letter we received today from the UK requesting its identification.
Letter 4 – Cockchafer from the UK
Subject: What’s this bug?
Location: Chester, Cheshire, England
May 15, 2015 8:34 am
Hi there, I currently reside in Chester, Cheshire , England. We live by the river dee that runs through the city and found this bug in our sink.
Any help you can give in trying to figure out what species this is would be greatly appreciated. Is was about an inch and a half long and almost an inch wide.This is the first time I’ve ever seen a bug like this.
Signature: Darrell m
This Scarab Beetle is commonly called a Cockchafer.
Letter 5 – Cockchafer from the UK
Subject: Found in house, uk
May 23, 2015 8:01 am
Just found this beetle in my house, it’s may, West Yorkshire, uk, googled and looks like a cedar, but there not common to uk?
Several years ago we read that populations of this distinctive Scarab Beetle known as a Cockchafer were on the decline, though in recent years the number of identification requests for Cockchafers from the UK is on the rise. It is possible that it was attracted to lights, which would explain its presence in the home.
Letter 6 – Cockchafer from U.K.
Hi there BugMan!!! I live in Nottinghamshire, Northern England and I’m a landscape gardener. Whilst digging a hole in soft sandy soil, I noticed this little fella near the end of my spade – he doesn’t move very fast at all, seems to have a very firm grip with his legs, and his antennae are awesome fan-like things! His back has wings underneath although he just flexed them a bit, he didn’t actually get them out. He seems to have fur on his underside, and is altogether funny lookin’! Oh, and when he tips onto his back you have to set him right or he’ll be there all day! I was thinking maybe he’s on his way to becoming a moth, but I’m not sure…..
Your critter is not becoming a moth. It is an adult scarab beetle known as a Cockchafer.
Letter 7 – Cockchafer in UK
Please identify my beetle,there’s loads of them in my home in east Sussex
Steve to bugman
Sent from my iPhone
This May Beetle is commonly called a Cockchafer or Billy Witch. In the future, please use our regular identification form which has fields that require information. Sending messages from an iPhone has its advantages on the sending end, but it does complicate our posting process on the receiving end should be decide to use the submission on the website. Thanks for your cooperation in this matter.
Letter 8 – Cockchafer from Ireland, IN JANUARY!!!!!
Subject: Bug in my kitchen
Location: Cork, Ireland
January 1, 2015 5:11 pm
Hi, I was just wondering if you could tell me what this bug is? It scared the life out of me! It’s nt something that you would usually see. Hope the photos are ok because there’s not a hope I’m taking the glass off for a closer look!
Signature: H France
Dear H France,
This Scarab Beetle is commonly called a Cockchafer, Melolontha melolontha, and they are found throughout Europe. This January sighting is very unusual. According to the Natural History Museum site, Cockchafers are generally sighted: “flying on warm evenings from May to July. Melolontha melolontha is attracted to artificial light and often comes indoors through open windows or even down chimneys. May bugs may cause consternation to those who encounter them but are harmless to humans.”