On Capricorn and Aoûtat – an Autumn Lament

So what do Capricorn and Aoûtat have in common? Not much except both are small, both are pests, and both cause damage in unusual ways.

Oil extracted from the geranium is said to be effective against harvest mites (Credit flickr)

Oil extracted from the geranium is said to be effective against harvest mites (Credit flickr)

More importantly both recently have been making life tediously uncomfortable for our nature correspondent, Mike Alexander, a tale of autumn lament as he recounts below.

While Capricorn are a pest that will drive you dilly around midnight just as dark profound silence lulls you into a good dream, the near invisible Aoûtat shamelessly attack in broad daylight as you garden or march across fields and particularly at this time of the year.

Read on for more of Mike’s tale and what to do about the problem of

Like many foreigners living in France, I’ve done a fair amount of renovations on old houses and conversions on barns and such like. Indeed I’m living in my current renovation but the family are not alone. A large colony of Hylotrupes bajulus, old house longhorn beetle has invaded to take up residence with us.

Before starting the works, I sprayed the old oak beams three times with one of the toxic products specially advertised as ridding the property of the beetle. I also varnished with a lazure containing insecticide, so it was somewhat surprising to find on our first night in the house that we had company. Sleeping that night was rather like trying to get comfortable in a giant bowl of fresh rice crispies. My attempts to dislodge the unwelcome invasion has in time turned into something of an obsession.

For starters these particular beetles, or Capricorn as they are called in France, are not supposed to eat oak. Well that may be true in theory but no one told my guests. It is only the larvae that do the munching and the idea is that when they exit the beams they will hit the toxic coating and die. That’s great but my research suggests that these unwelcome squatters can survive in a larval state for up to ten years. I am not too afraid of my house falling down, as those old beams are really hard, but I do fear for my sanity.

My first tactic in raising the stakes in the conflict took the form of a large syringe and horse needle which I deployed systematically, injecting each of the obvious holes in the beams. I know these are old exit holes but they were my only way to breach the defences and wage chemical warfare on the illegal occupants of my beams — and it did have a dramatic effect in reducing the nightly chewing. However by now my obsession to win this war was scaling new heights so I borrowed a stethoscope in the hope that I could more accurately pin point where the defenders were lurking and thus refine the trajectory of my Tomahawk attacks.

In the middle of the night I would leap from the bed, grab my medical equipment and climb onto a chair to reach the beams closest to the crunching noises. With a bare torso and stethoscope I may have personally entertained an image of myself rather resembling Dr. Mark Sloan in the television series Grays Anatomy. However on suggesting this to my wife she did me the honour of thinking about it for a second or two before rejoining that as far as TV characters were concerned, I reminded her more of Fred Flintstone and Homer Simpson. She never has had much appreciation for my emotional well being.

Whilst perhaps failing to achieve star status in my war movie, my sorties were beginning to have an impact on beetle numbers. The nocturnal noise has not only dropped to something like a polite round of applause after a dismal concert, but I have also found the bodies both of beetles and larvae. It may sound cruel but you have no idea how much pleasure these small victories over the squatters has given me.

My latest weapon is an aerosol spray made by the same manufacturers as the original product —XYLOPHENE — I used on the beams. The aerosol comes complete with a small tube and needle which one inserts into the holes before blasting with spray. The result is a small eruption of dust, bubbles and fluid but the penetration appears far deeper than with the syringe, which I must admit had a tendency to back fire.

I hope that this latest high tech acquisition to the armory will prove the turning point and the undesirable invaders will finally decamp. If not, I may be forced to look at more expensive options such a bringing in experts from high command or – at worst, executing a scorched earth policy …. that includes the house!

Declaring war on unwelcome squatters - Hylotrupes bajulus (Credit Wikipedia)

Declaring war on unwelcome squatters – Hylotrupes bajulus (Credit Wikipedia)

As if armed midnight sallies were not enough of a blight on the normally peaceful existence that comes with living deep in the countryside, Mike has a further cautionary tale :

The aoûtat or harvest mite starts to become a problem in August and plagues us outdoor types well into autumn. Each year towards the end of summer I spray my legs with geranium oil from the local health shop.

For years this has served me well and I have been blissfully ignored by these tiny creatures so highly specialised in provoking a terrible itchiness on those unfortunate enough to make their acquaintance. This year, for reasons that totally escape me, I forgot to use the spray. Perhaps, sub-consciously, I was a little embarrassed at wandering the country side smelling like Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Harvest mites however are unfussy eaters. They latch onto dogs, rabbits, horses and even toads, but without doubt their favourite food is gardeners. We are to them what hostas are to slugs and snails. I have had clients and colleagues come up in huge welts after a run-in with these tiny critters known to Americans as chiggers.

The harves tmite sounds harmless, but wait till he bites! (Credit: Wikipedia)

The harvest mite sounds harmless, but wait till he bites! (Credit: Wikipedia)

They become really pesky in their larval stage. Brushed from the grass, they make their way up the body and bury themselves in folds of skin or beneath our clothes. One of their favorite nesting places is tucked neatly under a waist band or bra strap. Once comfortable they inject enzymes into the skin. These dissolve it to an easily digestible snack. After about three days they drop off and that is when the itching starts.

I first noticed such an itch, my first experience with these unwelcome critters, in my groin area just as I popped into a supermarket recently to pick up some groceries.

As a descendant of the old school where one was taught that even if your underpants were on fire you did not rub, scratch or otherwise interfere with that part of the body in public – ever. Long before corporal punishment went out of fashion my mother had trained me very well in this regard so I gripped the handles of my shopping trolley until my knuckles turned pale and hurtled down the aisles at a speed representing a serious challenge to Usain Bolt.

Of course this made it rather difficult to read the shopping list or be sure of what I was picking from the shelves. Unsurprisingly then when I reached the cashier I found I was paying for, among other things, one bruised pineapple, a box of kitty litter and three tins of clams to which I am highly allergic.

Nowhere could I find the bread, milk or dog food I thought I had swept into my trolley — but by this stage of the Great Itch I was not about to be fussy.

I suppose I am rather luckier than most in that other than a seriously irritating itchiness for a few hours I didn’t experience any more severe reaction to aoûtat attack.

I like to think that spending a childhood in Africa has accustomed my body to creatures with an overwhelming desire to suck the lifeblood out of you. Others I know however are less lucky, so here are a few remedies I am told are effective.

  • Rub the bites with a wet aspirin.
  • Coat them with baking powder and soap mixed as a lather or brush with castor oil.
  • Try my no money-back home-grown solution – geranium oil
  • If the problem becomes really bad ask a chemist for some antihistamine.

My dog, Miss P, suffers terribly at this time of year and spraying her with flea spray after a good shampooing seems to help. The aoûtat are mainly hyperactive in the heat of the day so if you have the choice, stay away from grassy areas until the day cools.

I might just point out that the geranium spray I mentioned earlier is entirely my own invention and there is no medical science behind it at all. If you choose to try it, it will be entirely at your own risk and … should that be appropriate … arrangements can be made to hire either the pink mini skirt or the blond wig I just happen to have handy!

Story: Mike Alexander

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