For this year’s Nunhead Cemetery Open Day, my 15-year-old daughter, Verity, drew me a golden chafer for the Bug Hunt certificates. Just sketching with pen and ink, she has perfectly captured the brilliant iridescence of these beautiful insects.
It’s one of the Plusiotis beetles, gorgeously metallic silver or gold creatures from Central America, now generally subsumed into the large New World genus Chrysina, which also includes a whole series of bright green, bronze, brown and reddish beetles. I found a fantastic catalogue and gallery of the genus on the University of Nebraska State Museum website.
The moment I first saw a photograph of a golden chafer I knew they were special insects, imbued with an almost mystical significance. I’ve never seen one alive, but they are in one of the marked ‘tourist’ drawers of the Coleoptera section of the Natural History Museum, in London, where a guide giving a behind-the-scenes tour knows to stop and show them off. When we went on holiday to Costa Rica, in 1991, we dropped into the entomology museum of the University of San Jose to say hello, and were shown several pure gold and silver species in a similar tour of the collections. Needless to say I never saw a live specimen during our fortnight in the country.
[I did find a bright green Chrysina, with golden tail spots, in Guatemala, the next year, take a look if you're an expert in the group — C. bruyeai/ crassimargo/ diversa/ flohri possibly?]
Of course it was the image of a Plusiotis/ Chrysina chafer that came to my mind when, as a teenager, I first read Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The gold bug. His description of “a scarabaeus which he believed to be totally new”…”of a brilliant gold colour—about the size of a large hickory nut”…”hard and glossy, with all the appearance of burnished gold”, perfectly fits this group. But it seems unlikely that Poe ever saw one. Although the broader genus of shining green beetles, Chrysina, was known from 1828, the first truly brilliant burnished gold species, were not described until the mid 1870s, fully 30 years after his mystery tale was published in 1843.
Various literary critics have sought to discover the sources of Poe’s entomological inspiration. The bright shining yellowish chafer Cotalpa lanigera is suggested by several writers, and this seems perfectly plausible. I’m much less enamoured with the suggestion that Poe combined features from a brilliantly metallic longhorn beetle, Callichroma spendidum, with a black-spotted click beetle Alaus oculatus; this is the notion put forward by the Wikipedia page on Poe’s story, but to be fair it is taken from a very scholarly biography of Poe. All of these large and dramatic beetles are to be found on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, where The gold bug is set.
Certainly, Alaus has dramatic black ‘eye’ spots on the thorax, and part of the twist of Poe’s story is the skull-like appearance of the beetle, which, according to the main protagonist in the story, William Legrand, who first find’s the insect, is marked with two black spots like hollow eye sockets near the head end and a black oval, like a toothless grinning skull mouth near the tail. But this also misses the point that these marks are a literary feint of coincidence to draw the reader in when the unnamed narrator sees, instead of Legrand’s sketch of the marvelous gold beetle, the image of a skull, revealed on a parchment scrap. We later discover that this is part of a secret message, revealed from invisible writing by the action of heat, leading to a real golden pirate treasure, buried nearby.
In reality, I suspect that, when analysing his story, we have no need to invoke any first-hand entomological knowledge that Poe may or may not have had of South Carolina beetles. Odd though it may seem, chafers were much higher up in the general social awareness of the times than they are today. During the 19th century brightly coloured chafers and handsome scarabaeids were amongst the most prized of natural history specimens, and large beetles vied with colourful butterflies and unlikely birds of paradise for glitter and glamour. These beetles were the mainstays of many an auction of wildlife booty collected by travellers and explorers, at that time bent on exploiting and cataloguing all that the natural world had to offer. Leaving aside any parallels with the sacred scarabs of the ancient Egyptians, which were also popular museum artefacts at the time, Poe would have come across specimens of exotic chafers at auctions, in museums, and in the collections of his wealthy or intellectual friends. He may not have seen one of the golden Plusotis chafers, but would have come across other fabulous scarabs with glinting metallic shells, in shining greens and browns, and with golden highlights. He knew, very well, what his scarabaeus was, and it was nothing to do with longhorns or click beetles.
Anyway, back to Nunhead. Nobody found any sort of chafer, golden or otherwise, but the certificate for bug-hunters looked fine. Thanks Verity.