June bugs. May-June beetles. Screen-thumpers. Whatever you call the large, lumbering beetles of the genus Phyllophaga that gather around Maine porch lights this time of year, rarely are they welcome visitors.
That’s something that mystifies Clay Kirby, insect diagnostician with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
“I used to play with June bugs as a kid,” he said. “I’d borrow a spool of thread from my mom and tie an end around the leg of a June bug and then fly it around with my thread before letting it safely go — this was in the 1960s and back before we had computer games [and] look, I turned into an entomologist.”
There are several species of Phyllophaga found in Maine, which start emerging at the end of May.
“These beetles spend most of their life underground,” according to Gary Fish, state horticulturist with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “In fact, they are one of the grubs that affects lawns and turf because the feed on the roots of grasses.”
The larvae of the June bug will spend two- to three-years below ground, allowing it to grow into one of the largest white grubs found in Maine.
“They grow for a couple of years and get fairly big,” Fish said. “They normally don’t cause a lot of damage, unless a lot of their eggs are laid in the same area and then they can eat a lot of the grass roots.”
Since there are several different species of June bugs in Maine, Kirby said it can appear they live longer than they do. What people are seeing, he said, is different species emerging on different schedules.
“Typically June bugs do not live more than several weeks,” he said. “I started seeing them on my porch in early May.”
The last of the June bugs, he said are usually gone by mid-July.
While above ground, a June bug is really interested in only two things — eating and making more June bugs.
“Actually, they don’t even eat that much as adults,” Fish said. “All they really do is come out, mate and lay eggs. … What little they do eat is a diet comprised of oak and other tree bark, but never enough to cause damage to the trees.”
Native to Maine, June bugs are harmless to humans and don’t bite.
But that’s cold comfort to people who face night time airborne gauntlets of the beetles swarming around porch lights or lighted screen doors.
“They just fly around and might smack into your head and get caught in your hair [and] that scares people,” Fish said. “Really they are just bumbling around and not any particular mission.”
That fear reaction is fairly typical when it comes to insects, according to Dr. Lorien Lake-Corral, associate professor of sociology and coordinator of the social science program at University of Maine at Augusta.
“There are definitely people with official entomophobia, but that is not what most people have,” Lake-Corral said. “What most of us have is disgust and our brains will mix that up with fear.”
Entomophobia is the fear of bugs, but Lake-Corral said, for whatever reason, when it comes to insects there can be a “general confusion response” in the brain that displays as fear.
“There is something to be said for the biology of this,” she said. “We are wired to look for potential dangers and we learn that some bugs are dangerous, even though we know cognitively most bugs are not actually dangerous to us and that’s where culture kicks in.”
In cultures where bugs are a human protein source, Lake-Corral said you don’t see that level of fear or disgust of insects like the June bugs.
“For them, it’s food so they don’t react to it,” she said. “It’s much the same way we don’t react to lobsters they way we often react to spiders, even though at the end of the day a lobster is just a giant, underwater bug.”
The fact that June bugs are good at startling humans does not help its reputation, either, Kirby said.
“They bang up against screens and windows at night and then make that buzzing sound with their wings,” he said. “So maybe it’s just about the things that go bump in the night.”
Then there are those hairy, barbed legs.
“They do have clingy legs,” Kirby said. “That does make it easier for them to get caught in your hair.”
There are things that can be done to limit June bugs congregating around porch lights, like using a yellow bulb.
“They are phototropic and attracted to light,” Fish said. “A yellow light may still attract them, but not as much.”
To control them while still in the grub stage, Fish said there are certain species of nematodes that can be released which feed on the beetle larvae.
“There really is no reason to control the adults because they don’t bite or harm vegetation,” Fish said. “But in high enough numbers, the larvae can be a lawn pest.”
Mammals like skunks, raccoons and birds including crows and seagulls feed on the larvae and if enough of the vertebrates come to dinner, it can tear up a lawn pretty quickly as they dig around for the grubs, he said.
Kirby hopes people take a live and let live posture with the June bugs.
“For me they are a lot of fun and I have pleasant memories of them,” he said, “Of course, I do remind my motorcycle friends to wear goggles or visors this time of year if they like to experience riding on these warm, summer nights [because] hitting a June bug at a high speed can give you a heck of a black eye.
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