The height of summer has passed but the heat and humidity continue. Still, the evenings have become cooler and pleasant, and there are a few other signs of the changing of the seasons.
In Japan, you can actually hear the shift from mid-summer to early autumn. Cicadas – possibly the noisiest insect on the planet – are active at different times, depending on the species.
Nymphs ready to metamorphose into adult insects emerge from the soil, climb a convenient tree (or sometimes wall or even telephone pole), split their carapace down the back, and emerge as adults. They live for just a few weeks at most – conventional folklore has this at one week.
Different cicada species have different songs, so the most numerous species at any given time is the one most heard. For example, the species Cryptotympana facialis, known as kumazemi (熊蝉), is most common during the hottest part of August, whereas the large brown cicada (Graptopsaltria nigrofuscata) or aburazemi (油蝉) and Meimuna opalifera, otherwise known as tsukutsukuboshi (つくつく法師 or 寒蝉) are the predominant singers now.
Cicadas provide hours of fun for school boys, who idle away summer holiday time catching them, sometimes for school research projects. Being able to identify different species of cicada is a source of pride for fathers, although kids are becoming less and less interested in cicadas and more interested in pokemon.
Two other insects receive celebrity status during the summmer holidays – stag beetles and rhinoceros beetles. On summer evenings, it is not unusual to see small groups of boys or father and son pairs treck into local groves and around shrines, insect cages in hand, looking for these beetles.
Pitting males against each other is a time-honoured tradition, although in recent years breeding has become more fashionable – and I think it is much better than city kids just buying beetles. Believe it or not, home centres, pet shops and even department stores sell beetles.
A few years ago there was a boom in exotic beetle species, aided along by video games, trading cards and a cartoon series, where owning the largest and most powerful beetles in the world was a real status symbol. Some speecies could claim prices going into the hundreds of thousands, or even millions of yen.
Japan is home to nearly 40 species of stag beetle, and several of these are commonly found in my area. They all come under the generic term kuwagatamushi (鍬形虫).
Both the English and Japanese names refer to the large mandibles found on males – the English compares it to a male deer’s antlers, the Japanese compares it to the decorations on a warrior’s helmet (although “kuwa” could also refer to a mattock).
Some species live for just one year, while others can live for two or even three. The latter group includes the Okuwagata (大鍬形), the largest and most sought-after of the stag beetles. Unfortunately, it is listed as a vunerable species due to loss of habitat and cross-breeding with imported beetles.
For most boys (of all ages), however, the “king” of the beetles is the Japanese rhinoceros beetle (Allomyrina dichotoma or Trypoxylus dichotomus). The local name, kabutomushi (兜虫) is again a reference to part of a warrior’s gear, in this case the helmet (although sometimes the characters 甲虫 are used, refering to armour). Reaching sizes over 50 mm, it is the largest beetle found in temperate Japan.
These beetles have a one year life cycle.
As an English teacher, I get frustrated by the habit of translating “rhinoceros beetle” as simply “beetle”. I have found this in many dictionaries and is yet another hard-wired mistake I would like to see on the extinctions list!
Both rhinoceros and stag beetles feed on the sap of oak trees, particularly the sawtooth oak or kunugi (Quercus acutissima), and lay their eggs in the leaf-litter soil around it or in its rotting wood. The larvae hatch and feed on rotting wood and leaves, although some species may canibalise. They moult several times before becoming winged adults, which emerge in the summer, ready to start the cycle again.