Anyone else ever wondered how this particular wood boring insect got its morbid name? Does this beetle perhaps like to preside over funerals or the dying?
Well, I have heard that this beetle used to be found in hospitals and churches back in the day when timber constructed buildings were very common. It is said that patients could even hear (hospitals must have been very quiet back then) the tapping sound of the Death watch beetle (Xestobium rufovillosum).
During quiet, sleepless nights their tapping sound could fill the night air, leading some superstitious folk to believe that the presence of this beetle signalled impending death.
In reality this tapping sound is used to attract a mate and is created by the beetle banging its head (some say it uses its jaw) against the walls of the tunnels it creates in the timber – gives a whole new meaning to head-banging, doesn’t it?
Even the Jerusalem Chamber in Westminster Abbey has had a run in with the Death watch beetle. The roof of this particular chamber, originally built during the reign of King Richard II in the 14th century, had to be repaired in the 1950s due to beetle damage.
Apart from the Death watch beetle, which is a native British insect, the Common Furniture beetle, is another common wood boring insect. As the name suggests, this pest is known to infest wood furniture.
Wood boring insects are seasonal pests, emerging each year from timber as the weather warms up from April to September. Within buildings the Death watch beetle has a particular penchant for oak timber. Once they have emerged, their sole aim is to find a mate and lay eggs (as much as 40 to 70 eggs at a time) in suitable undisturbed timber.
The moisture content of the timber has to be just right for it to be a suitable host for the eggs. The adult beetles usually die approximately 10 days after laying the eggs.
By the way, is Deathwatch supposed to be written as one or two words? Anyone know?
I have always wondered where the Death Watch beetle got its name from! I suppose it was quite worrying in the old days, lying in bed ill, listening to a tap, tap, tap.
There is a short story by Edgar Ellen Poe called The Tell-Tale Heart, which some believe may have a reference to the death watch beetle. In this story, the main character seems to be driven mad by an incessant tapping sound, which he thinks is the beating heart of the man he has murdered and hidden under floorboards. However, some reviews of his works suggest that in fact it could have been the tapping soundcaused by the death watch beetle rather than a beating heart – seems much more likely to me too.
Looking at the Google timeline search of instances of “deathwatch beetle” and “death watch beetle” deathwatch looks like a later contraction. The use of the term in the Rentokil library changes over time too, the first edition of “The Insect Factor in Wood Decay” by Norman Hickin refers to it as death-watch, but by the third edition in 1975 it has changed to death watch.
Incidentally: they bang their heads on the surface of the timber, not inside their tunnels. Not all wood-boring insects are seasonal either, but the anobiids (death watch and furniture beetle are from the same family) certainly are.
Here’s an enlargement of a photo I recently posted to twitpic.
We found a lot of felled trees whilst on a recent walk in the country, a lot of the wood had holes like this, presumably from Wood Boring Insects.. They really went to town on this piece!