A key feature of our warm African summers, the surge of vibrancy in our tiniest wildlife is a key sign of the impending warm season. South Africans everywhere know it’s time to break out the bikinis and get ready for the upcoming party season the moment we hear the shrill tunes, buzzing and swooping wings begin to colour the early evenings. These humble little insects are an important part of our wildlife landscape, and you’re sure to remember their evening cries in the time you spend at Saragossa Game Reserve. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at these infamous harbingers of summer and fun.
When is a Christmas beetle not a Christmas beetle?
You’ll run across the ‘Christmas beetle’ wherever you go in South Africa. Sometimes it’s dire mutterings from gardeners facing shredded leaves where once they had gorgeous roses and homeowners cursing the silly bugs that come flocking to their lights and banging on their windows… but sometimes it’s the delighted cries of children sitting down to a home-cooked supper while the shrill song of summer evenings echoes around the neighbourhood, and the same homeowners relishing the pretty sounds of the evening as they relax and unwind after a hard day.
So why are there two iconic Christmas beetles in South Africa?
The answer is just the result of the diverse languages, peoples and cultures who call South Africa home.
The shrill song of the Summer Screamer
The faker to the ‘Christmas beetle’ title (but a beloved feature of the South African landscape) is the cicada. Of the Cicadidae or Cicadoidea family of bugs, they’re one of 1300 cicada species worldwide, 150 of which are found in SA. They look like a mashup between a cricket, fly and moth, but they are none of them- they are a ‘true bug’. You’ll particularly hear them anywhere where you also find the Mopani tree. They spend most of their lives- up to 17 years- as nymphs in the soil before emerging as adults to suck sap from the trees. The songs you hear are males attracting a mate. Unlike the cricket, they don’t use their legs to generate the sound, but rather have a special noise organ, called a tymbal, which acts as a sound box. The sound can reach over 120 decibels, so there’s no wonder you can hear their buzz in the bush so clearly!
After mating, the female uses a saw-like ovipositor to slit the bark of a tree, laying her eggs so the nymphs can later drop to the ground and burrow into the soil, starting the lifecycle all over again. Their explosion in summertime is a Christmas treat for the bush, with the insects providing a critical calorie-dense part of many creatures’ diets. They’re even eaten as a delicacy by some people!
The true Christmas Beetle
The other insect vying for the title is a small, golden-to-red, hard-carapaced beetle sometimes called the ‘tok tokkie’ in Afrikaans because of the seemingly senseless way they will throw themselves against windows, curtains and walls with a characteristic (and irritatingly repetitive) ‘plink’. Part of the Anoplognathus species, and a form of tiny scarab, they also spend most of their lives in the soil before evolving into their adult form to feed and reproduce. It’s a far shorter cycle, rarely lasting past 2 years. They’re responsible for the many holes gardeners see in the leaves of their rose plants and eucalyptus trees at this time of year.
As insects go, they appear clownish, often falling out of trees, tipping over in the home, and whirring erratically through the summer nights. While they can be a little irritating with their antics, some people consider them good luck- and with a very small season of activity, they’re certainly harbingers of the Christmas spirit.
No matter which Christmas beetle you cherish most, these two tiny yet critical parts of the ecosystem are very necessary to feed the animals of the bush- and you’re sure to see many of them in your time at Saragossa Game Reserve, too!