Introducing Strategus aloeus

Most friends know that I’m a defender of the odd animals in the garden. Others celebrate the bluebirds and the box turtles, but I’m the one who encourages the paper wasps, the Mediterranean geckos, and the occasional armadillo out back. That’s why these guys went back into one of the garden beds as soon as this picture was taken.

Ox beetle grubs

Mention “grubs” in North Texas, and you’ll get a few choice curses. The bane of most lawn obsessives is the grub of the June bug, Phyllophaga crinita, which feed on the roots of most of our local turf grasses. (Considering that Bermuda grass, widely considered a viciously invasive pest that probably originated the invective “Kill it with fire,” is one of the few turf grasses that can survive a North Texas summer, this should give an idea of how badly some gardeners loathe June bug grubs.) The big grubs up here, though, are from Strategus aloeus, commonly known as “ox beetles”.

The late-instar grubs can be the size of an adult’s thumb, and while they have sharp jaws, they’re otherwise completely harmless. They consume rotted organic matter, so most gardeners tend to find them in rotten wood, compost piles, and raised beds. They’re alarming, but having them in large numbers is a sign that you’re doing everything right with your garden. The handful in the picture above were collected solely by sweeping up leaf litter off my porch and onto a raised bed, which also revealed the wide tunnels they dig through the soil. Those tunnels manage to get humus and other debris into the local Blackland Prairie clay and loosen it up, going much deeper than earthworms or other detritivores.

What’s interesting for me is that the grubs are common, but I haven’t seen an ox beetle in thirty years. The beetles themselves are very impressive beasts, with a purple-brown shell and the males bearing small horns like a rhinoceros beetle. They apparently used to flock to streetlights in the first half of the Twentieth Century, but their descendants appear to have burned out that urge, and they’re only occasionally encountered. I’m certainly not complaining, as I’m perfectly happy to let their spawn turn my compost pile for me.

As far as predators are concerned, most larger carnivores (opossums, crows, raccoons) will eat the grubs if given an opportunity, which is why the grubs usually rapidly undulate deep into their burrows when disturbed. Fifteen years ago, I had a savannah monitor named “Steadman” (so named after regularly leaving his cage as splattered as a Ralph Steadman painting) who would practically do tricks for ox beetle grubs, but now I rescue them and feed the June bug grubs to the local mockingbirds. It seems to be a fair trade, and the ox beetles return the favor by loosening the soil around the roses and the tiger lilies. Again, I’m not complaining.

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