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  • Writer's picturePaul Dobraszczyk


Exit holes of death-watch beetles

Beetles eat buildings from the inside out - they are architecture’s most troublesome parasites, liable to infest buildings. Whilst some beetles seek out stored grains and packaged foods, others come for wood and fabric. They enter buildings through cracks, gaps in door and window frames, or by already hiding in timber, furniture, plants and packages. They will eat anything that has an organic basis: whether clothes, wallpaper, wood, fibrous carpets, or leather. The various types of beetles that feed on timber are the scourge of architectural conservationists or anyone with an old house or valuable piece of antique furniture - the larvae of the adult longhorn and bark beetles and weevils are the primary decomposers of dead trees; but they’ll bore channels into hardwoods too. In a quiet house infested by death watch beetles, you can hear the adult males banging their heads against the wood to attract females. Larvae can remain in the wood for many years until they burrow out of their exit holes to emerge as flying adults.

Larva of the death-watch beetle

Adult male death-watch beetle

Adult male death-watch beetle

Even on this tiny scale, woodworm can decimate a timber-framed building, rendering it structurally unsafe; the wood itself turned into a Swiss cheese of meandering tunnels - multitudinous, miniature tubular architectures of their own. In China Miéville’s fantasy novel Perdido Street Station (2000), an entire district of its extraordinary city New Cruzubon is turned into a scaled-up version of architectural woodworm. Here, the larval offspring of the Khepri - human/beetle hybrids - have adapted conventional tenement housing to their own needs. The roofs and exterior walls are covered in the white mucus of the grubs, ‘linking different buildings into a lumpy, congealed totality’. Inside, walls and floors originally provided for humans, are broken apart and reconstituted as the grubs burrow their way through the spaces ‘oozing their phlegm-cement from their abdomens’. Rectilinear forms are replaced by ‘twisting organic passageways’ that ‘looked from the inside like giant worm-tracks’. The disgust provoked by such imagery has the effect of jolting us out of the miniature scale of the woodworm’s architecture into that of our own habitats; we suddenly see those spaces as not just as tiny tunnels inside wood, but profoundly alien worlds of their own that somehow stick to us in their gooey viscosity.

A beetle/human meld was rendered very differently in Franz Kafka’s 1916 novella ‘Metamorphosis’, its famous opening line seeing the unfortunate Gregor Samsa waking up one morning to find ‘himself transformed into a gigantic insect’. Usually presumed to be a beetle of some kind (perhaps a cockroach), Kafka’s fantastic story uses this literal transformation as a metaphor for the alienation felt by the young writer. Unflinching in its portrayal, the insect Gregor hears himself speak in his familiar human voice while his family only hear unintelligible hisses; he scuttles around the floor, walls and ceiling of the bedroom he barely emerges from in the course of the story. Gregor’s insect body - his hard carapace and scuttling gait - is poignantly contrasted with his quite human thoughts - of his love and concern for his family, his inability to go to work and support them, and of his bodily functions - most notably, his longing for food. The matter-of-fact way in which this fantastic transformation is described by Kafka provides a powerful and deeply unsettling, insight into beetle life. Gregor’s bedroom - the most intimate of domestic spaces - becomes disgusting to the rest of the family; first cleared of most of his furniture so Gregor can move around more freely and then used as a dumping ground for unwanted junk. In the end, the outsized beetle dies in squalor. Once his body is removed, his once loving sister is relieved, her own young body ‘stretching into life’ in the final sentence, a damning indictment of her emerging beauty with the dead husk that was her brother.

Vaulout & Dyèvre's Insectopia installation, 2015

Like all insects, beetles are disappearing at an alarming rate, victims of human rapaciousness: whether as enemies of agriculture, extinguished without a thought with pesticides or through the clearing of their habitats; or unable to adapt to anthropogenic climate change. The recent appearance of ‘bug hotels’ in cities like London are modest attempts to redress, through design, their alarming decline. Usually unassuming box-shaped structures, they are filled with small cavities that mimic insects’ proclivity to burrow to safety or hide in leaf litter and other decaying vegetation. In 2015, artists Vaulout & Dyèvre created an upscale version of these hotels in a Paris park. Their Insectopia installation was a conglomeration of tiny wooden boxes mounted on wooden posts that only insects could inhabit. Resembling the abstract cities seen in the paintings of Paul Klee, these installations invited a direct correlation to be made between the architectural form of insect colonies and our own urban environments - a very different kind of metaphor than Kafka’s alienated bug-human in a bedroom.

Fritz Haeg's Animal Estates installation at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, 2008

More ambitious still was artist Fritz Haeg’s Animals Estates project which ran from 2008 until 2013. In nine different cities, Haeg organised events to encourage participation in creating environments that would be attractive to a variety of native species of non-humans, including bats, birds and insects. In 2008, in Portland, USA part of Haeg’s installation was designed for inhabitation by snail-eating ground beetles; while in London in 2011-12, he encouraged citizens to make homes for Stag beetles (the UK’s largest native species) by burying decaying wood or wood-chip piles in the ground. Here, beetles, as much as humans, as seen as ‘clients’ in design, the architect’s job being to gain knowledge about multi-species habitats that normally go unnoticed. Animal Estates is about recognising the needs of non-humans in every design and planning decision.

But what if, in our enthusiasm to accommodate beetles, they were able to thrive too well, to infest a place rather than inhabit it with good grace? In Henriette Rose-Innes’s 2011 novel Ninevah, a luxury housing development on the edge of Cape Town becomes victim of a beetle infestation. Sited on former swampland, the resolutely inorganic architecture is taken over by what it has seemingly cast out - beetles swarming in the fetid, teeming swamp that lies just beyond the walls of the development. When a pest-removal specialist, Katya Grubbs, is hired to deal with the problem, she becomes increasingly aware of the infestation as a harbinger of the future destruction that awaits organic bodies and inorganic buildings alike. Putting her ear to a wall listen to a beetle scuttling within, Katya realises the truth of the transiency of all things - a truth that is often displaced by the seeming permanency of the buildings we inhabit, which, after all, almost always outlive our individual lives. The infestation also brings to the surface a primal fear we have of insects, of their ability to swarm in numbers beyond either our comprehension or control. Many a childhood is traumatised by just such encounters with insects: the unexpected swarms of flying ants in late summer; or a bees’ nest stumbled upon by accident.

Cockchafer emergence filmed in Sweden in 2012

Still from Mimic (1997)

When I lived in Oxford for eight years, every late May dozens of flying beetles suddenly emerged from the ground of my garden - the larvae of the cockchafers programmed, it seems, to emerge metamorphosed from their pupae on just one day of the year - and known colloquially as Maybugs because of this. The air was suddenly filled with these large, heavy, whirring beetles - they flew into your clothes and hair - an unheralded and uncanny menace emerging from the underground. Playing almost directly on this fear of monstrous things coming out of the depths, Guillermo del Toro’s 1997 film Mimic imagined a colony of giant mutant cockroaches living in New York’s subway system - the unheralded consequence of a genetic experiment to eradicate diseased roaches in the city. These monster insects have evolved the ability to mimic the human form in order to prey on unwary late-night subway riders. Although a fairly derivative story of science-gone-wrong and of the urban underground as a place of danger and secrets, Mimic nevertheless reminds us of the essential strangeness of beetles - of the ways in which they cannot easily be cajoled into a harmonious relationship with humans and buildings. We don’t have react with murderous intent though - as the human protagonists do in Mimic; rather, we can learn to accept the monstrous more in our own worlds. Perhaps the tunnels carved by woodworm need not be feared as inevitably leading to the destruction of precious materials; timber might be materially reconfigured to accommodate them. And, rather than a threatening swarm, the emerging cockchafers might be apprehended as creating a miraculous spatial knowledge - one that links us terrestrials with what lies beneath.

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