Friday, February 24, 2012

Off The Beaten Track: Hercules Beetle Boxers

Our guest today is Alex Montalvo. Alex works in the education and conservation field and likes to wander, photograph, write, and make videos. When he's lucky, he works as a freelance photographer and videographer. Some of his work can be found at Originally from Miami, FL, Alex currently lives in Seattle.

As a child, I was reared to see insects in one light: objects of RAID’s affection. My parents, particularly my Puerto Rican father, militantly trained my two sisters and I to scream at the sight of a sugar ant, a battle cry to which he would respond immediately armed with a purple can of floral-scented RAID.

Strangely enough, with time I became an ecologist, developing enough of an insect appreciation to actually work on programs to attract insects to people’s yards.  While my choice of career was perhaps an anomaly, I find my parent’s behavior prototypical of American attitudes toward bugs: we don’t need them, they’re disgusting, kill them. In the back of my head, I felt my insect-loving was making me a cultural pariah, nearly ready to don a Coleoptera Society T-shirt and walk around with a pet praying mantis.

Imagine my surprise, when leading a study abroad trip to Northern Thailand, I encountered the sport of beetle boxing. Yes, Spain has bull fighting, Nicaragua has cock-fighting, and Thailand has beetle boxing, the most PETA-friendly international animal sport of all.

Travelers have long voyaged to Thailand to experience Muay Thai, a martial art characterized by drop kicks to the head, piercing body jabs, and relentless shin beatings, though few know about its gentle sister sport thrust upon the Arthropod world. Thailand is a Buddhist Kingdom, after all, and this form of boxing satisfies the pacifist as much as the purist.

I was nearly ready to strike the words Muay Thai from my vocabulary when, after a fortunate decision to gamble on a winning boxer, a wiry Thai bookie refused to pay. I complained, he called over his posse, and I ran, swearing never to utter the words Muay Thai again. It wasn’t until my homestay father Pi-San, a rugged 55-year old with bullet wounds from the Red Shirt protests, insisted I attend a boxing event that I agreed—one doesn’t argue with a man who stands down a machine gun.

The night of the match arrived and Pi-San squeezed our group of six into a shaky homemade metal sidecar attached to his 125cc Honda Dream motorcycle.  We arrived to an overgrown field surrounding a large sheet metal-roofed cabana. Groups of people, all men less two women, huddled in circles underneath fluorescent lighting like fevered gamblers at a roulette table. As we entered the interior’s green glowing edges, at least a dozen middle-aged Thai men rushed our group cradling 1-2 ft. long pieces of chewed-up sugarcane. Upon the cane fed monstrous beasts with apparent razor sharp alien claws. “Luckily,” my coworker Jackie murmured, “these giant cockroaches are leashed to the sugarcane….where the hell is the RAID?” This was Pi-san’s idea of boxing: his contenders were doping on cane juice before their big fight.

The “cockroaches,” it turns out, were the harmless Xylotrupes Gideon. A behemoth of a beetle, X. Gideon can reach up to 6.5” in length including its 2-4” claw-like horns, earning it the common name of Rhinoceros or Hercules Beetle.

Male Hercules Beetles are the strongest animals in the world, capable of lifting 850 times their own bodyweight, and the Thai conscript is one of largest and strongest. Their lifespan averages only 1.5 years, of which they spend only 3-4 months above ground to mate. Males use their massive horns to pick up a competing male and knock him to the ground, a move that grants him coveted claim to his female’s ovipositor. This period, during the rainy season, makes male beetles very aggressive, and it’s when Thai beetle boxers put their fighters in the ring. 

So here’s how beetle boxing works: beetle boxing ring vendors or home-grown enthusiasts hallow out a small wooden log, outfit it with a door, and carve two dime-sized holes midpoint on the log’s topside. Beetle boxers then adhere two female Hercules Beetles to the inside of the log, just under the holes, so a dime-sized portion of the female carapace is exposed, revealing her presence and scent to the two dueling males placed directly above her. The competing males face one another, on opposite sides of a hand-drawn line of scrimmage. Each beetle’s respective owner then vigorously rubs a 3-5” wooden stick or metal file across the log’s grooved exterior surface, resulting in a loud, relatively high-pitched grating sound, which mimics the hissing produced by an aggravated male rubbing his wing against his abdomen. This infuriates the sex-hungry duo, who now begin to battle for access to the entrapped female. 

No Thai entertainment event is complete without gambling and beetle boxing is no different. Determined to earn my pride back from my botched Bangkok experience, I placed a 100 baht bet on a handsome beetle specimen with extra long horns. Yelling, cheering, laughing, the grating sound of the metal files, and more cheering—at times the dueling beetles furiously locked horns, shaking their opponent in attempt of achieving the biggest mate-winning, point-garnering move, the Beetle Body Slam. Other times the beetles just sniffed around like curious insects.

Unfortunately my big-horned beetle lost, making me 0-2 in gambling on Thai sports. As I watched the money being counted, it seemed the biggest winners on this night were the two lone women selling cans of Thai beer—beetle boxing is just as much social as it is entrepreneurial. And speaking of entrepreneurial, the Hercules Beetle is reportedly an agricultural pest. In a country with a history of reduced access to resources, the Thai creatively took an agricultural pest and made it into a bona fide pastime. Economically, it’s no wonder the “sleeping dragon” awoke. In the States we often don’t know what type of bug we’re killing, less understand its life cycle enough to create a sport out of it. Watch out RAID, after this story breaks, your days are numbered.

Hercules Beetle Boxing from Alex Montalvo on Vimeo.


  1. Heart-stopping excitement, Alex. Love that video.

  2. Alex, I'm afraid I'm on your parents' side of the bug debate - although I'd rather live with the bugs than the RAID. :) But I may have to reassess my position after reading your post. You make beetle boxing sound so thrilling! So what's next on your gambling schedule? They say three's a charm, so maybe your luck will turn on the next match.

    1. Thanks for the comment Heidi! Actually, I'm with you about the critters--I love them, but I'm not the biggest fan of things crawling around in my apartment either (and much less a fan of RAID), so we tend to coexist. As for gambling, Oscar winners perhaps? The election? If three's a charm, I'm going big on the next one.

  3. Awesome post, Alex, and awesomely bizarre as well. Sugarcane doping? A Beetle body slam? Turning a pest problem into a pastime? Seriously bizarre. Love it -- all of it. Especially since you'll never find me anywhere near one of these sporting arenas...