From “Sacred Scarab” to Professional Fertilizer
By “Awake!” correspondent in South Africa
BEETLES are everywhere in their millions and in great variety. But what insect has a history more interesting and unusual than the scarab, or dung beetle?
In ancient Egypt this creature moved in the very highest society, its Latin name being Scarabaeus sacer or “sacred scarab.” To the Egyptians it was the symbol of rebirth and everlasting life. Its dung ball was compared to the sun. The horns, or sharp protuberances, on the front part of the body were said to represent the sun-god’s rays, while its 30 segments were viewed as standing for the 30 days of the month. So, in Egypt, the scarab was believed to be sacred to the sun-god. It has even been found mummified. In the British Museum is a colossal figure of the scarab in granite, probably from Heliopolis.
The scarab also is frequently featured in ancient Egyptian paintings and sculptures and very abundantly in the form of seals and brooches. Many have inscriptions on them bearing royal names and supplying data about the ancient Egyptian dynasties.
An Unusual Diet
The Scarabaeidae or dung beetle family is a very large one, there being, it is said, over 20,000 species and they are found in most parts of the world. As the name “dung beetle” suggests, its main source of food is manure. In South Africa it feeds on the droppings of cattle, sheep, horses and other animals. As an old saying expresses it: “There is no accounting for tastes!”
The beetle has a scoop-shaped head, with the mouth and snout facing downward. Its jaws are hard and horny, and it has antennas ending in a paddle or fan of three or more flattened joints that fold one over the other. When scenting its food the beetle fully extends these jointed antennas, sniffing the breeze to ascertain the direction. Then it scuttles off to start work.
The beetle’s body is well adapted to its unusual job. It is short and rounded, with short leathery wing covers. It has six legs, the front pair being short and extremely strong for digging, the middle pair being longer and sturdy, and the hind pair being slightly curved—it is these that grip the dung ball.
Having found a deposit of fresh manure, the beetle sets to work. He works hard and fast. He quickly makes a ball the size of a marble, soon enlarges it to roughly apple size, with some species, and then rolls it with his back legs to a place where the ground is soft. Then he digs a hole in which he hides his ball as a store of food. Since excreta can carry disease and harmful parasites and encourage flies, our humble friend does an invaluable work in cleaning the terrain. Also, many such stores of dung are not used, but they do fertilize the soil. So our little friend is a “professional fertilizer.” Farmers like him!
In Australia the local species of dung beetles have needed help. Before European settlers came, bringing cattle and sheep, these dung beetles had always been nourished on kangaroo droppings. They are not equipped to dispose of the massive deposits of millions of cattle. So different species of dung beetles have been imported from South Africa and these have helped to clean up the millions of tons of cow dung deposited annually in Australia.
Although the dung beetle is no longer associated with the “high society” of “gods” and royalty, he continues with his more down-to-earth profession, the truly useful one for which he was designed.