Beetlemania - Deathwatch beetle
The Deathwatch Beetle, Xestobium rufovillosum, is a woodboring beetle. The adult beetle is 7 millimetres (0.28 in) long, while the xylophagous larvae are up to 11 mm (0.43 in) long.
The changing climate has led to a upturn in pest infestations and insect and fungal pests such as the Deathwatch Beetle have become more active, according to historic building experts. The Deathwatch Beetle is a particular problem because it bores into old timbers and eats the wood. A serious recent infestation has affected Lincoln Cathedral.
In 2015, St Peter’s church, East Drayton, Nottinghamshire, completed a project of major structural repairs and re-roofing following an infestation of Deathwatch Beetle.
To attract mates, these woodborers create a tapping or ticking sound that can be heard in the rafters of old buildings on quiet summer nights. They are therefore associated with quiet, sleepless nights and are named for the vigil (watch) kept beside the dying or dead, and by extension the superstitious have seen the Deathwatch Beetle as an omen of impending death.
English Heritage have a useful factsheet about the Deathwatch Beetle on their website.
The term "death watch" has been applied to a variety of other ticking insects, including Anobium striatum, some of the so-called booklice of the family Psocidae, and the appropriately named Atropos divinatoria and Clothilla pulsatoria (Greek goddesses Atropos and Clotho were associated with death).
The larva is very soft, yet can bore its way through wood, which it is able to digest using a number of enzymes in its alimentary canal, provided that the wood has experienced prior fungal decay.
Its nature as an ill omen is alluded to in the fourth book of John Keats' 1818 poem "Endymion": "...within ye hear / No sound so loud as when on curtain'd bier / The death-watch tick is stifled." ("Stifled" because the death it was portending has taken place.)
Help at hand
Thermo Lignum, one of the members of our Professional Trades Directory, may be able to help if your church has problems with Deathwatch Beetles.