Imagine you’re an entomologist specialising in beetles. You spend a lot of your time in your office, poring over your specimens, dabbling in your research, solving taxonomic conundrums. But every once in a while you will need to leave your academic occupations behind so you can travel (possibly to some remote part of the world) to gather up more samples. And if you happen to be the unlucky entomologist who wishes to study the beetle Ichnestoma stobbiai, that particular task will present you with quite a challenge.

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Endemic to South Africa, the beetles emerge for just a few short days of the year ... and only when conditions are perfect.

Why? Not only because these critters are rare and found only in South Africa, but also because they happen to emerge for just a few – perhaps only two – days each year. Miss that brief window of opportunity and it’s a long wait for another go.

So what’s the reason for the beetles’ elusiveness? Fussiness! A long checklist of demands must be met before Ichnestoma stobbiai will grace the world with its presence. The ‘veld’, its preferred scrub-like habitat, must be in pristine condition. The weather must be wet and warm, preferably after the summer season’s first good rain so the soil is soft enough for burrowing. And to top it all off, meeting up with a mate to produce the next beetle generation is no small logistical feat: unless both the male and female beetles hatch simultaneously, they’ll never run into each other in order to reproduce!

But when things do align perfectly, here’s how it all plays out:

First, the beetles pop out of the ground leaving behind a peanut-sized entrance hole. With no time to waste (it’s thought they live only for a fiercely brief day or two!), the males start to fly immediately, zigzagging over the landscape in the hope of honing in on a female’s pheromone trail. She’s flightless, so she must wait, grounded, at the entrance of her hole, staring skyward and hoping her chemical invitation will do the trick.

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The female is flightless, so she must wait patiently at the entrance of her hole, waiting for her suitors to pick up her pheromone trail.

Once the roaming male has caught the scent, he’ll fly frantically towards the source, drop to the ground and fan out his antennae to track down the (one and only) love of his life. If he’s very lucky, there’ll be no rivals around to challenge him for the prize, in which case he’ll grasp the female in a front-legged embrace and disappear underground into her love nest, never to be seen again. The End.

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Her chemical signals have worked and a male beetle has descended from above.
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Rivals could arrive at any moment, so the male beetle needs to act quickly.
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Before long, the pair burrows out of sight ... never to be seen again.

Sadly for any eager male, it’s very likely that the female’s pheromones have lured other contenders, too. And they won’t be keen to give up their once-in-a-lifetime shot at fatherhood. Fights will certainly break out, and for that, the beetles will wield their anvil-shaped clypei, with which they’ll push and flip each other until a winner emerges. 

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It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance at fatherhood, so the beetles are more than ready to fight for it.

The dejected losers must fly away, while the champion wins the prize… unless of course, in all the furious scuffling, it’s been stolen from right under his, er, clypeus. When all the fighting is done, the winner sometimes discovers that the female has beetled off with another (craftier) male who crept in from the sidelines. After all the effort, missing out is a frustrating blow. Sort of like searching for a rare and elusive beetle and then missing that once-in-a-year opportunity! 

And here's beetle fight club in action: