Meet the Makech

Thanks to the Mayan culture for developing a writing system more than 3,000 years ago, we have a considerable amount of knowledge about the culture of the Mayan. They used writing as a way of recording history. Still, the creation of folklore traditions claiming that they are based on Mayan culture continues, perhaps because of those who are uneducated with recorded history and current creations can be easily disproven.

And that brings us to the story of the makech beetle (maquech in Spanish). Surprisingly, not much is available in actual transcripts about the makech. The makech has a strange ability to survive for months without water or food, and is perhaps the ability is tied to the beetle’s life as a dry forest dweller. Known to science as Zopherus chilensis, the makech is a neotropical insect that ranges from northern Colombia and Venezuela to south-central Mexico, where it prefers to hang around decomposing wood in relatively hot, arid regions. These particular beetles naturally have a muted golden hue speckled with black, which is quite beautiful in itself. It should come as no surprise that due to their natural beauty and relative ease of care, that the makech would become a favorite pet in centuries past.

The adults are often found under logs and bark stumps. They’re wood scavengers, and sluggish. With proper care, including storing the insect in a well-heated vivarium, and adequate feeding, many insects can expect to achieve – or exceed- the average 2-3 year lifespan of an insect living in a natural environment.

Finding them, on the other hand, can present more of a challenge. Little is known about the beetle’s general population status, but it is believed that the makech are not generally abundant, in part because makech reproduce more like elephants than fruit flies. The makech has a slow life cycle, in that they live a long time waiting for the right moment to lay eggs. They are not commonly seen in the wild because they hide under the logs and stumps until you turn over the right piece of wood.

In Mexico today, groups of men called “Los Maquecheros” find and collect adult makech beetles in the wild, using specialized training to sift through decomposing vegetation on the forest floor, according to a 2014 paper in Cuadernos de Biodiversidad by researchers in Spain and the Yucatán. The makech will usually play dead when you find them. The entire Zopherus genus is also flightless, so catching them, once you turn over the right piece of wood, would not be that difficult. Once found, the live makech are delivered directly to the local Mercado, and sold for around $5 to $10 each as pets. However, before you purchase a makech, you should read the warning at the bottom of this article.

It doesn’t take much to keep them happy. Makech need old, moist wood and sometimes fungi to eat, but they can survive for a long time with no water.  As with most beetles, it has a complete development; that is, its stages of development are egg, larva, pupa and adult. Their diet is heterotrophic, they are xylophages and mycetophages. This means that they eat old, moist wood from non-resinous trees, and various fungi such as mushrooms. Water is extracted from these foods. They do not eat bread, green leaves, fruits, sugar, or honey as the vendors may state.

Local trade in wild makech beetles has been regulated on a community basis since the 1800s, but even today the practice isn’t addressed by national laws, the researchers note. That means producing and selling makech “involves resource extraction without knowing the vulnerability of the species Z. chilensis,” the researchers write. As a conservation measure, some Mexican researchers are now looking into breeding the insects rather than relying on capturing them in the wild.

The most common folktale about the makech states that during the Mayan period, there was a beautiful Mayan princess who professed her love for a prince from a rival clan. As the marriage between clans was not permitted by her family, the princess went on a hunger strike to force her parents to relent. She was sending the message that she would rather die from not eating or drinking than to live without the prince. In compassion, her parents attained the services of a traditional healer with magic powers to assist the princess. The healer, who related her lack of desire to eat or drink to the makech beetle, used his powers to transform the princess into a makech and gave the beetle to the prince so that he and the princess could be together for the rest of their lives. The adoring prince promptly placed the makech on his chest over his heart as a brooch and wore it there until he died. When the prince was buried, the makech was placed over his heart before the coffin was closed.

Another version of the folktale claims the princess was heartbroken when they were discovered, and her lover was sentenced to death, so a shaman changed the man into a shining beetle that could be decorated and worn over the princess’s heart as a reminder of their eternal bond.

In truth, both of these stories seem to be a somewhat recent creation, although elements of it do echo certain traditions in the pre-Columbian cultures of the Yucatán, such as the idea of a shape-shifting shaman and the use of living animals as offerings in religious ceremonies. There is no ancient record of this tale, and it is very muddy as far as which culture the makech was derived.

Jewelry

Jewelry made from living creatures is not new. The use of insects as live jewelry has existed for many centuries, with the Egyptians believed to have been the first to have worn insects as jewelry. Ancient Egyptian soldiers commonly wore scarab beetles into battle as the beetles were considered to have supernatural powers of protection against enemies. History has recorded that women from the Yucatán Peninsula would place a leash on the makech and pin the leash to their blouse over their hearts. It was thought that this would attract and sustain loving relationships.

Although live jewelry has featured in Mayan cultural traditions for many centuries, it was not until the 1980s that the Mexican maquech made from a subspecies of the zopherus beetle achieved mainstream popularity as live jewelry. The beetle is large, docile, and wingless, and is decorated with gold and semi-precious gemstones and is attached to a decorative safety pin by a chain leash.

In 2006, the giant Madagascar hissing cockroach (or Gromphadorhina portentosa) achieved high profile, short-lived popularity as live jewelry. Fashion designer, Jared Gold, popularized the “roach brooch” trend with the inclusion of the giant Madagascar hissing cockroach in his 2006 collection. The debut of the Roach Booch was on the show, America’s Next Top Model, where Gold’s cockroaches were hand-decorated with Austrian Swarovski crystals, accessorized with a leash set and were sold as “ready to wear” jewelry. Gold’s Roach Brooch sold as wearable jewelry for $60 to $500 a pop.

The beetles caught the eyes of officials with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol—according to USDA regulations, live animals can’t cross the border without the necessary permits. Since the makech is a coleopter, it will not be admitted into the United States by any one other than specific researchers.

The practice has also drawn ire from animal rights activists, who protest the use of any living thing as ornamentation: “Beetles may not be as cute and cuddly as puppies and kittens, but they have the same capacity to feel pain and suffer,” PETA spokesperson Jaime Zalac said during an interview with the Monitor newspaper in 2010. Another PETA spokesperson, Michael McGraw was quoted as saying that the “roach brooch” product “Gives a new, sad meaning to the term ‘fashion victim.’

Eventually, the producer of Jared Gold’s Giant Madagascar Hissing Cockroach Brooch announced that they were temporarily discontinuing the production of “roach brooches” due to “ethical debate” about the product.

Warning

Don’t be tempted to allow the person who is trying to sell you a makech, to place it on you or your clothing. you should be aware that the makech is a coleopter, which adapted to terrestrial life, thus it is able to secrete formic acid in its excrement. Formic acid is a colorless, irritant, and volatile acid made catalytically from carbon monoxide and steam. However, in nature it is present in the fluid emitted by some insects such as ants and beetles.

Absorption through the skin of the formic acid produces pain, redness, and burns. The concentrated solution causes irritation and blisters. It is rapidly absorbed producing serious toxic effects. If the formic acid touches your skin, expect severe pain spots, brown or yellowish, burns that usually penetrate the full thickness of the skin, have sharply defined the edges, and heal slowly with the formation of scar tissue. If the formic acid gets on your clothes and you do not eliminate it, chronic exposure can lead to dermatitis (rash), protein precipitation, and red blood cells in urine.

If for some reason you unknowingly ingest the secretion, you may suffer from salivation, vomiting, abdominal pain, burns and intense burning in the mouth, lips, esophagus, and vomiting with blood and diarrhea.

The Mayan women and those locals who continue to wear them, cover the anus of the Makech with a diaper-like cloth, so that they do not come into contact with this substance. Unscrupulous vendors of the makech will actually place glue on the anus of the beetle, which will lead to a painful death for the makech.

About G. William Hood

G. William Hood is a writer, fine arts painter, educator and world traveler. He lives in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
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