OF DUNG BEETLES AND THE SOURCE OF LIFE
What! Moving dog poop? Were my eyes fooling me? Yes it was moving–right there at the edge of the driveway. I was on my way to the mailbox, but never mind that. I sat down right there and watched. It was definitely moving. A piece of this all too familiar canine calling card” was rising up. Yep, levitating dog poop right before my very eyes! And underneath it a handsome shiny black beetle appeared. The beetle had just cut off a chunk of feces. It had fashioned it into a perfectly round, symmetrical sphere about an inch in diameter, and now it was underneath, heaving away. Its head was facing down and its long hind legs reached up and grasped the sphere (reminiscent of the way ice tongs grip a block of ice). The ball of dung was almost twice its size. The beetle heaved with the front legs (like an upside down weight lifter) and the ball began to roll. It rolled a half a turn and stopped, another heave and the ball rolled some more.
Inch by inch, across the miniature hills and dales it rolled its precious cargo, laboriously pushing it up each small incline. On the downward slopes, the beetle merely tried to hang on to keep its precious orb from rolling away.
Below is a short video done by Todd Elliott of dung beetles rocking and rolling:
A mere ball of poop, has been transformed by this beetle, into a sacred chamber of potential. Not only is it a nutrient bonanza, it is a brood ball. Once an egg is deposited and the ball buried in the earth, it becomes a repository of valuable genetic material–that creature’s unique contribution to diversity on the planet.
Dung beetles lay relatively few eggs. Most insects lay dozens, if not hundreds or even thousands of eggs, but dung beetles invest so much special care providing each of their eggs with food, shelter and protection that fewer eggs are needed to reproduce the species. In some species of dung beetle, the female may lay only one egg the entire season. For an insect to lay so few eggs is extraordinary.
After the dung ball is interred in the earth and incubates for a number of days, the egg hatches into a tiny grub-like larva. Safely underground, the larva feeds on the dung and eventually pupates. A few weeks later a newly formed young adult beetle will emerge from the pupa, dig its way up to the surface of the soil, and lift its hard elytra (the shell-like wing covers that fold over a beetle’s back), unfurl its membranous flight wings, and with a whirring buzz, it flies away. It sallies forth on a pilgrimage, a mission, a quest–a journey into realms where other beasts refuse to tread–the fresh dung heaps left by larger animals.
For dung beetles, waste makes haste. “Before the sun becomes too hot, they are there in their hundreds, large and small, of every sort, shape and size, hastening to carve themselves a slice of the common cake,” wrote the great 19th century entomologist, J. Henri Fabre, as he described the frenzied activity of dung beetles in a French cow pasture more than a hundred years ago where he observed as many as 200 beetles of 10 or 15 species working on a single cow pie.
As you read this, millions of dung beetles are working day and night. They are practically everywhere, from our neighborhood dooryards and lawns, to farms, woodlands, pastures, prairies, and deserts the world over, laboring with strength and determination cleaning up dung, making a better world for us all.
During Operation Desert Storm, in the early 1990’s, my friend Clint was in Saudi Arabia on maneuvers. They were camping on a barren desert plain with no latrines or restroom facilities. The troops were instructed that when they had to “answer nature’s call” to merely go off into the desert and dig a hole. Since there was no cover or privacy, Clint said that if at all possible, he would wait till after dark. Except the problem with the darkness, he said, was the beetles. On a calm night those ever vigilant beetles would scent the not so subtle odor wafting across the desert sand and with determined wings buzzing, dozens of these large beetles would come madly flying in to claim their share of his precious offering. Scarabs are clumsy fliers and it was unnerving, he said, when one of those large insects crash-landed onto your exposed flanks.
After hearing Clint’s “war story” I found myself perusing the pages of a scholarly volume published by Princeton University Press entitled Dung Beetle Ecology. It was here I learned that from the point of view of dung beetles (and the scientists who study them,) the pile Clint was depositing there in the Arabian night is regarded as an “island” of high quality resources known to dungbeetle-ologists as a “patchy, ephemeral microhabitat.” A patchy ephemeral microhabitat! That’s quite an epithet for a pile of poop. The text explained that they are described as patchy, because in nature, “dung pats are scattered in spatial occurrence” (An occasional pile here and there); they are “ephemeral” because a dung pile in nature normally does not last very long. And no matter how large the pile, when compared with the environment at large it is still a small or “micro” habitat.
As small, ephemeral, patchy, and downright disgusting as a pile of poop may seem to us, as a source of food and shelter, dung has lots to recommend it. Most mammals, especially herbivores, digest only a small portion of the food they eat and what is left is rich in proteins, minerals, bacteria, yeasts and other nutrients. It is already partially digested and, best of all, dung is easy. Dung never defends itself or fights back like a live prey animal would. It doesn’t have thorns, irritating saps or other chemical defenses like many plants have. Most critters have no interest in it. Feces is simply there for the taking.
And takers there are — insects of many kinds, including beetles of many sizes, shapes, and lifestyles. Not all dung beetles are rollers, (i.e. Those that form a dung ball and roll it away.) There are the tunnelers that bore down into the soil, making nesting chambers directly under the pat and dragging dung down with them and there are the dwellers, those that simply move into the dung where it lies, chow down heartily and lay their eggs there.
Back at my driveway here in North Carolina I learned about another kind of dung beetle. When I watched that beetle bury its ball, I marked the place with a twig, wondering about how the beetle might develop and when it might emerge. After a few days, however, my curiosity got the best of me. I returned to the spot and carefully unearthed the ball, rolled it out on the ground and broke it open. I wanted to see the egg. You can imagine my surprise however, when I found not an egg, but a tiny beetle tunneling through the ball. Was this the new baby beetle? No way. Young beetles do not look like adult beetles; they look like grubs or larvae. Any fully formed beetle, whether it’s the size of a pinhead or a golf ball is a full-grown adult. This was an entirely different species of dung beetle with a different lifestyle. This little rascal was a klepto-parasitic dung beetle who makes its living by moving in and stealing the dung that another beetle has collected.
Thousands of years before Christ, the ancient Egyptians watched dung beetles rolling their loads across the desert sands. They linked what they saw with their observations of the heavens. They believed a celestial dung beetle known as Kepeherer, the sacred scarab, was responsible for rolling the solar orb on its daily journey across the sky. Every evening in the West the great celestial sphere is buried, just like the scarab’s ball of dung, and just like the newborn scarab beetle that rises out of the sands, every morning on the eastern horizon the brilliant ball of the sun rises out of the earth and brings a new dawn to the day and new life to the world.
If something as lowly as the humble dung beetle, as well as something as glorious as the sun can be reborn after they were dead and buried, could it be that humans might also experience rebirth and life after death?
To investigate this eternal question, the ancient Egyptians observed the scarab. They watched the wormlike larva living and growing, neatly encapsulated within its own sphere of existence, squirming about, eating constantly and carving itself a cozy little niche inside its own personal ball of dung. “This is not unlike the human condition,” Egyptian theologians might have surmised. When the larva has eaten almost all of the ball and nothing but a thin wall separates it from the surrounding earthly outside world, it stops eating, and pupates. All external movement stops while the pupa drops into a deep transformative sleep. The early Egyptians contemplated the quiescent pupa lying in its underground chamber bound tightly in its pupal wrap. After a time, the pupal skin splits open and this once inert creature crawls forth, metamorphosing into a glistening adult who pushes up out of the earth.
Bearing jagged protrusions on its head, and serrations on the front legs that look like the rays of the rising sun, the gleaming new being unfurls its sparkling, diaphanous wings and soars triumphantly off into the heavens.
“Could this be a metaphor for us humans?” the Egyptian priests might have wondered. Whatever their conclusions, the fabulously wealthy and powerful Egyptian royalty were taking no chances. They devoted most of their lives and their fortunes as well as those of thousands of their slaves and subjects to building and preparing proper pupal chambers for their own metamorphoses. The royal crypts of the Egyptian rulers were provisioned with everything from golden bejeweled coffins, hieroglyphic prayer books, chariots, maps and hand-painted murals of the underworld. The body of the deceased ruler was preserved by an elaborate embalming process using herbs, spices, oils, resins, and gums. Often the heart was removed from the body and replaced with a stone carving of a scarab beetle. The body was wrapped in strips of linen to form a mummy, and the royal coffin was covered by an ornate sarcophagus.
Some claim that the Great Pyramids were an attempt by the pharaohs to conceal their remains and protect the accompanying treasures from grave robbers. I still can’t help but think about that little klepto-parasitic dung beetle quietly working away there in the soil beside my driveway, plundering the work of others in the same way the grave robbers plundered tombs in Egypt many centuries ago. Only a few Egyptian tombs survived undisturbed into the modern era, and now much of their wealth has been removed and is in the possession of the European museums. Are they institutional klepto-parasites?
Entomologist Yves Cambefort (one of the editors of Dung Beetle Ecology) speculates that the tightly bound Egyptian mummy is actually an attempt by the ancients to replicate the pupa of the sacred dung beetle. He suggests the Great Pyramids, in all their glory, just might represent stylized camel or cattle plops!
Amidst this lively flurry of cross-cultural interpretation, theory and speculation about the artifacts and belief systems of ancient Egyptians, we must not ignore or discount the deep intrinsic wisdom of a culture whose spirituality honors the burying of manure in the ground as a source of rebirth and new life.
I hope your enjoyed the cross-cultural dung-beetle-ology above . It’s an excerpt from my book, Swarm Tree, Of Honeybees, Honeymoons and the Tree of Life. Swarm Tree is on sale along with my recordings (see below). Feel free to check out the products page of my website to take advantage of the
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An Evening with Doug Elliott DVD
Stories, Songs, and Lore Celebrating the Natural World
Elliott performs a lively concert of tales, tunes, traditional lore, wild stories, and fact stranger than fiction–flavored with regional dialects, harmonica riffs, and belly laughs. One moment he is singing about catfish, the next he’s extolling the virtues of dandelions, or bursting forth with crow calls. He also demonstrates basketry, ponders the “nature” in human nature, tells wild snake tales, and jams and jives with his fiddler son, Todd.
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Swarm Tree Book Sale!
Swarm Tree: Of Honeybees, Honeymoons, and the Tree of Life
Following tracks, messing with bees, chasing butterflies, stalking deer, tickling trout, and picking up pawpaws—and hitchhikers. This lively collection by celebrated storyteller Doug Elliott will delight readers with its blend of natural history and heartfelt, hilarious takes on life. Whether tracking skunks, philosophizing over dung beetles, negotiating with the police, or reading divine script on the back of a trout, Elliott brings a sense of wonder and humor to every story. His broad scientific and cultural knowledge of the Appalachians and beyond is a treasure. Join him on this down to earth spiritual journey as he probes creation, asks the deeper questions, and reveals fascinating details of the great narrative of life that connect us all. Dive deeply into the richness of the natural world; climb high into the tree of life, and return–with amazing tales, humorous insights, and surprising truths that explore and illuminate, and celebrate the confluence of nature, humanity and spirit.
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