Post image for Colorado Beetle

Colorado Beetle

April 7, 2011

I was 6 years old, WWII had ended. My mother, my three younger brothers and I were still living in the school house of a small village in Normandy. My father had just returned from captivity in the concentration camp of Buchenwald, very poorly indeed. For the first few weeks of his traumatic return, my mother had dispersed us amongst friends and villagers so as to keep the house quiet while he was beginning his long recovery.

My 5 year old brother and I were staying in a smallholding in the next village. The farmer and his wife were very proud of housing the children of the school teachers, never mind the son and daughter of a war hero. We were shown how to milk a cow, I still remember the huge teats (huge to me!), and their warm feeling, the smell of the animal and the joy of filling the zinc bucket with frothy, delicious milk. The farmer’s wife would then put the milk in a pan with a little glass disk that would rattle for ever while the milk boiled. The next day, a thick crust of cream had formed and we would have it spread thickly (bits of straw and flies and all) on an enormous slab of coarse farm-made bread, sprinkled with granulated sugar.

Sometimes, we would have a shower in the garden, in good weather ( no bathroom in the house!). A watering can was filled with warm water from the wood burner in the kitchen. This was hung up from a branch of an ancient apple tree, with a cord to make it tilt at will. We would stand in a zinc bath under it and soap ourselves with carbolic soap before pulling on the cord. Synchronising the whole operation was rather difficult since I always fought my brother for the privilege to pull the cord. Somehow, we always ended smelling clean and feeling very shiny!

Our “job” on the farm was to collect as many colorado beetles as we saw. We had a large jam jar each and competed to see which of the two of us would fill it first.

Colorado beetles had become a serious problem in the potato fields. Nazi propaganda claimed that the American forces had dropped the beetles on Germany. It is thought   more likely that, hearing of laboratory tests conducted on the beetle in America, the German Government believed that the Allies were preparing for Biological Warfare. Experiments were started in Germany, particularly to estimate how far and how fast the beetle would spread. Unfortunately, the German experiment backfired and the pest spread so much that by 1950, almost half of the potato fields in the German occupied Soviet zone were infested. It was easy to blame the old enemy once the rumour had reached rural France. Few people had forgotten that the Bordeaux area in the South had become badly infected by the end of WW1, the beetle first having been spotted close to the American bases nearby. By WWII, the infestation had reached Belgium, the Netherlands and of course Spain.

So, here we were, squatting in the long rows of the potato field, picking yellow and black striped, ladybird-like beetles. It was great fun to start with but we soon had to have lots of “encouragement” to carry on, particularly when we were told to also pick off and collect in a special (?) bag any leaf that harboured clutches of the beast’s long yellow eggs. I cannot remember how long the “game” lasted  but I still remember the smell of the jar contents as it was getting full of wriggling insects and also how stained with the beetle juices our hands were at the end of the day. We were told that we too were little heroes, but only my brother believed it.

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