The first click is the loudest

Between Friston Forest and the cliff-tops of the Seven Sisters is a rolling chalk downland of arable fields, hedges and grazing meadows, and when my family first moved down to Newhaven, in 1965, it was an easy bus journey away for a ramble in the countryside. It was here, I must have been about 10, so perhaps 1968, that I was ambling along behind everyone else examining the contents of my sweepnet, when I saw a large (15 mm) long, narrow, brown beetle at the bottom of the bag. I picked it up and was immediately jolted by its violent twanging in my fingers.

Humans are born coleopterists, otherwise why would we have such perfectly cushioned pads on finger and thumb to hold beetles gently but firmly in place? I held it there, softly, but it kept pinging away. I put it up to my ear to listen to the crisp clicking sound. Wow. I realized that this was something terribly exciting, so off I ran to show my find to Mum and Dad.

My father immediately recognized it as a click beetle; from memory it was probably the exceedingly common Athous haemorrhoidalis. The power of the jack-knifing beetle was amazing, and of course it was all the more impressive to see one flip right up into the air, spinning wildly, in its escape bid, a superb predator-avoidance tactic.

The clicking noise is highly reminiscent of the deathwatch tick. My father later told of the occasion he was sitting quietly at home when he suddenly became aware of a soft clicking noise, repeated erratically, but insistently from somewhere over in the corner of the room. Deathwatch beetles only occur in old buildings where massive hardwood beams and joists were already infested when the building was erected centuries before. Though they feed slowly and laboriously, scores of generations later they have hollowed out large voids, enough to seriously weaken the structural integrity of the woodwork, with sometimes catastrophic results. Our 1930s Newhaven house seemed a highly dubious locality, so what was this?

On hands and knees he started investigating the dusty corners of the bookcase and the underside of the armchair. Nothing. It seemed to be coming from the unlikely piece of spindly display shelf furniture referred to as the whatnot. Well, it was made of wood, but there was so little of it that a colony of deathwatch seemed implausible. The noise was definitely coming from underneath the bottom whatnot shelf, and gently tipping the thing on its side revealed a small grey lump of something dangling by a thread.

It was a click beetle, caught in the web of a house spider. It was still alive, barely, and despite its seemingly hopeless predicament, its flicking, jolting, predator defence mechanism had kicked it. It was struggling, flexing ineffectually, to escape the bonds of an undesirable fate. Another entry in the book of family legend.

I never pick up Athous haemorrhoidalis now, it’s probably Britain’s commonest click, and pretty easily named in the field, either on a flower, or at the bottom of the sweep net. Next time, though, I’m going to hold it gently but firmly, between opposable forefinger and thumb pads, and hold it up to my ear, to revisit that memory of a summer long ago.

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