Word of the Day / Khomeini, the Man and the Beetle

In the 1980s, Israel was introduced to dual menaces from Iran: Ayatollah Khomeini and a bothersome beetle named in his honor.

Ronen Shnidman
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Ayatollah KhomeiniCredit: AP
Ronen Shnidman

The Middle Eastern ecosystem changed significantly in the 1980s with the emergence of two very different “khomeinis.” While the capitalized version, well-known Islamist firebrand Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, overthrew the Shah of Iran, the lower-case variant is more of a garden-variety pest.

Khomeinis are brown scarab beetles, known scientifically as Maladera insanabilis. As adults, they reach between seven and nine millimeters. In 1986, Israeli entomologist Kvir Argaman mistook the beetles for a new species and gave them the scientific name Maladera matrida, with "matrida” coming from the Hebrew word "lehatrid," meaning to annoy or to harass.

The khomeinim arrived in Israel in the years immediately following the Iranian revolution, hitching a ride with agricultural produce (possibly a batch of pistachios, one of Iran's major agricultural exports). Their appetite for roots, leaves and flowers makes them the bane of Israeli farmers, especially those who grow citrus fruits and sweet potatoes. And because they are attracted to light, they have a habit of entering homes and bothering inhabitants.

The beetles’ brown, hoom, color, the timing of their arrival from Iran and their particular insufferableness, all helped them earn their popular name. Unlike Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic Revolution, the pests have actually succeeded in exporting themselves around the Middle East and North Africa, with sightings reported in Iran, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Jordan and Libya.

Shoshana Kordova will resume enlightening and entertaining Word of the Day readers on October 9.