Common Red Soldier Beetle (Rhagonycha fulva)
Names aren’t easily come by when you’re a beetle – even in the UK, where coleopterists have been documenting beetle diversity for hundreds of years, only about 5% of beetles have common names. The reason of course being that experts don’t tend to give out common names, that’s the job of the general public – you and me! So from now on, I’ll be handing out names in an attempt to address this. If you have any suggestions or know of any previously suggested names that sadly never caught on, please do share them with me!
The reason I bring up the issue of names is because the beetle I want to talk about today has more than its fair share of them. This is fortunate not only because its scientific name, Rhagonycha fulva,is a bit of a mouthful, but also because these names give us a descriptive, memorable, and entertaining look into the life of a rather charming beetle.
Common Red Soldier Beetle
The most widely used English name for this beetle is the ‘Common Red Soldier Beetle’: ‘Common’, because they’re found in abundance; ‘Red’, because they’re orange; and ‘Soldier’ because the bright colours are reminiscent of the uniforms of British Soldiers in days gone by.
It’s not just in English that we seem a bit off with our description of the colour – across Europe, the colours red, yellow, and ‘red-yellow’ come up consistently. This is because the word ‘orange’, much like the fruit, is a (relatively) recent arrival in here Europe.
The Hungarian name, ‘Feketevégű lágybogár’, means ‘black-tipped soldier beetle’, and is a reference to the dip-dyed ends of the elytra.
An unexpected trend is that in most European languages our beetles are not ‘soldiers’ but ‘soft-wings’. In Germany they call them ‘Weichkäfer’ or ‘soft beetles’, and here in the UK we have the name ‘Leatherwings’. The reason being that soldier beetles have weaker exoskeletons than most other beetles.
Why did people know this? Did people regularly squish beetles? Did they closely examine their pliable wings? Were soldier beetles crushed and used by apothecaries as an aphrodisiac (much like the Spanish Fly, Lytta vesicatoria)?
These questions haunt my dreams – if anyone happens to know the answers, please tell me!
The English name ‘Bloodsucker’ is likely a reference to the striking colouration. Alternatively, it could refer to the menacing maggot-like larvae, which predate slugs, caterpillars, and other small invertebrates.
That being said, its not ‘blood’ that the Soldier Beetle larvae are after, but haemolymph (a green fluid – more on that another time). Additionally, they don’t so much ‘suck’ as mash their food. Still a nice name I suppose.
Hogweed Bonking Beetle
For some observers, the anatomy of the Common Red Soldier Beetle was not what made the biggest impression, and thanks to these individuals we have some of the best names of all.
In English we have the ‘Hogweed Bonking Beetle’ – ‘Hogweed’ being a preferred landing platform and feeding station for the beetle, and ‘Bonking’ being a very important (and popular) activity among Soldier Beetles.
For the best name of all we have to go to Norway, where we meet the ‘Prestebille’, or ‘Priest Beetle’, so named for their evident devotion to a life of celibacy!
Whatever you choose to call them (please let it be Priest Beetle), let it mean something.
Thanks for reading!
“We find it hard to love what we cannot give a name to. And what we do not love we will not save” – Robert Macfarlane, author of ‘The Lost Words.’
Illustration by Alicia Hayden – https://aliciahaydenwildlifephotography.zenfolio.com/
Sources and wider reading: