At first, they come banging on your screens in the middle of the night. Or perhaps one crunches and splatters across your windshield in a large, brownish-yellow smear of yuck. Or maybe one lands on you while you fumble for the keys under the front door light, causing a momentary flashback to some 1950s horror movie about giant insects.
Whatever the case, the arrival of June bugs is the surest signal that summer has finally shown up in Maine. And like the human visitors that soon follow, June bugs are a bit misunderstood and, in some quarters, not particularly well appreciated. But from Kittery to Fort Kent, they are an integral part of the state's natural world, one which would be sorely missed if they were to somehow vanish altogether - which, by the way, is a highly unlikely scenario for a buzzing beastie that has been around in some form or another for the last 300 million years or so.
"Everything has its place in nature," says Dick Dearborn, who is widely regarded as the dean of Maine entomologists. "There's nothing on earth that's worthless, and that counts the June bug, too."
And Dearborn should know. Before retiring recently, he spent thirty-eight years in the Maine Department of Conservation's Forest Service, studying all sorts of insects, particularly beetles. And June bugs are actually beetles, not bugs. There is a scientific definition of a bug, focusing in part on the arrangement and flexibility of its wings. Among other traits, beetles such as the June "bug," arrange their less-flexible wings in a manner somewhat different from a real bug and therefore warrant a separate scientific classification. So Dearborn prefers to call June bugs June beetles.
"They're not only confined to June either," Dearborn adds. Among the nine distinct species of June bugs (genus: Phyllophaga) native to Maine, several emerge in May and some even procrastinate until early July. They are usually brownish or dark greenish in color, coated with a hard shell and sporting rapidly flapping wings, mimicking a bee's means of flight, albeit somewhat less gracefully. It's this lack of grace - plus their none-too-discreet size - that seems to panic some people.
"Yes, we usually get some calls on June bugs every year," says Clay Kirby, an entomologist at the University of Maine at Orono. Kirby and his fellow entomologists run an office dedicated primarily to helping farmers, professional gardeners, and ordinary citizens deal with problem insects. But June bugs are not very high on his list.
"It's their size, I think, that gives people problems," says Kirby, noting most June bugs measure an inch or more in length when fully grown. With a girth to match and a slow, ungainly looking flight path, they can be unnerving - particularly since they are active only at night.
Moreover, June bugs are attracted to light. Before humans showed up on the evolutionary stage, June bugs, and a lot of other fauna, used the moon to help guide them during their nocturnal wanderings. These roamings have always been focused on only two concerns: eating and mating. And scientists have found that June bugs, if left only to their natural navigational systems, would travel in a fairly straight line, mostly for distances of not much more than a few hundred yards at a time.
But alas, your back porch light, or street lamps, or even those all-night service stations have modern June bugs flummoxed. Thinking there are "moons" all over the place, June bugs bang into screen doors incessantly, or bumble around under streetlights until a sixty-mile-an-hour windshield comes along.
But if one does happen to land on you, fear not: They are vegetarians and lack poisons, stinging apparatus, or other unpleasant side effects of any kind. They just happen to be bigger than almost any other Maine insect, with the possible exception of a slumlord's cockroach. But don't worry about that. The two are not even distantly related.
"Actually, it's in their larval stage that June bugs can cause the most problems," explains Kathy Murray, an entomologist with the Maine Department of Agriculture. "An infestation of June bug grubs can cause quite a bit of damage to something like a golf course green."
Like a butterfly, June bugs go through a complete cycle of metamorphosis, starting as an egg and then developing into the problematic larval stage. As larvae, June bugs are known as white grubs. The white grub is very familiar to gardeners and lawn aficionados alike, mainly because it lives underground and feasts on the roots of grasses and sometimes even corn and potato roots. June bugs are not the only source of white grubs and white grub crop damage. Japanese beetles, chafers, the common ataenius, and a half dozen other beetles are also white grubs in the larval stage. But June bugs can be a more persistent grub problem.
Unlike butterflies and most other metamorphic insects, June bugs don't complete their metamorphic cycle within one calendar year. They usually take two or three years to change from the grub stage and emerge as a full-grown adult June bug. Indeed, entomologist Dearborn says June bugs can be downright fussy about the emergence into adulthood and may postpone their final stage for three, four, or as much as eight years. "They tend to want just the right conditions" for a successful emergence, he says. Meantime, during the winter, they simply dig down deeper into the earth - sometimes as much as a foot below the surface - and hibernate until all of the snow and ice is gone. Warmer weather, longer daylight hours, and seasonally moist soil conditions are believed to be among the triggers they await for emergence. As cozy as that may sound, it's not really one long series of free lunches for June bugs in the larval stage. Birds, skunks, and raccoons love to feed on grubs and even on soft-shelled emerging adults. The predators can hear grubs munching just below the soil surface and when they do, they quickly dig them out for a snack. Even as adults, with a life span of perhaps two weeks, June bugs also have natural predators, according to Dearborn, who speculates nocturnal birds go after the portly insects, particularly when they congregate around lights.
Most of a June bug's brief adulthood is spent nibbling on the leaves of deciduous trees and searching for a mate. "I've never heard of a case where they did any real damage to ornamental trees or shrubs," says Dearborn. And once a mate is found and eggs are deposited for the next generation of June bugs, the corpulent, blundering beetle simply dies.
And the June bug's value in nature? Dearborn points out that the white grub's destruction of certain plant roots does clear the way for a more diverse reseeding of the affected area. "It's a natural way of thinning an area with too much of one kind of grass or plant. In nature, diversity is always the best solution," says Dearborn, who is the president of the Maine Entomological Society.
So the next time you encounter a June bug on his two-week vacation in Maine, be kind to him. He's actually had a tough life and probably doesn't deserve to be whapped, zapped, or otherwise driven off. Like most of the rest of us, he's just trying to get the most out of the first brief spell of warm summer weather.