Dung beetles — sacred recyclers

2012-09-13 00:00

DUNG beetles have long intrigued people. The dung beetle or “sacred scarab” played an important role in the religious activities of ancient Egypt. To the ancient Egyptians, the dung beetle rolling its dung ball represented the sun god, Ra. According to Egyptian mythology, Ra rolled the sun (like a ball of dung) across the heavens every day — and the beetle’s 30 tarsal segments represented the days of the month. The ancient Egyptians observed that the scarab disappeared into the ground with its dung ball. About a month later her progeny emerged from the ground and led the Egyptians to believe that the original beetle had been reborn. Consequently, the dung beetle symbolised the immortal soul and it became common practice to bury dung beetles with dead pharaohs — probably in the belief that these people could also be reborn at a future time.

Despite their seemingly filthy habits, people usually like dung beetles. This is probably because they can be very attractive insects. Their beautiful iridescent colours and generally pleasing dimensions have made them popular subjects for photographers and artists. Actual beetles or replicas have over many years commonly been used as ornaments or jewelry.

One of the reasons behind writing about these beetles is that there are very few insects that are active during our cold winter months, and dung beetles are one such group. This is because the environment in which they are found is usually warm, and cold-blooded invertebrates need warmth for activity. As we all know, dung is usually just decomposing vegetable matter that has passed through the gut of an animal. Compost heaps are also piles of decomposing vegetable matter and anyone who has handled compost will know that it is warm to the touch. Decomposition generates heat. I have even heard of children being quite severely burned after jumping into piles of decomposing lawn grass. And so, even on the coldest winter night, certain animals are thriving in the warmth generated by dung or compost.

In suburbia, we do not usually find large quantities of dung, but we do find compost heaps. It is therefore not surprising that most of the dung beetles we encounter in our concrete jungle are those that develop in decomposing compost. This is not to say that we do not have beetles that develop in actual dung. Although suburban dogs and cats, our most common source of animal dung, are essentially carnivores, there is usually sufficient vegetable matter in their diet to attract the attention of certain dung beetles. However, most dung beetle species encountered in suburbia develop in compost heaps or indeed soils with high decaying vegetable content and are not actually associated with dung.

Dung beetles belong to the huge family called Scarabaeidae and while a few are considered pests in our gardens because the adult beetles damage flowers, the majority of species should be considered beneficial because the larvae do an excellent job when it comes to recycling nutrients.

The rhinoceros beetle (Oryctes boas), which belongs to a subfamily called the Dynastinae, is one such species and is well-known to people throughout southern Africa. The adult beetles are nocturnal, and because they are active at night they do not require bright colours to communicate with. Although they are rather dull, brownish creatures they make up for their lack of colour by being large and can reach a length of some 50 millimetres. It is only the adult male that has a horn, and although the adults are quite well-known, few people appear to be able to make a connection between these beetles and their large C-shaped larvae. Rhino beetles do not roll dung balls but lay their eggs into warm decomposing vegetation where their larvae can be found in large numbers. Perhaps one of the main reasons that there appear to be far more larvae than adults is that birds, especially hadedas, love eating them.

Dung beetles are unlikely to be able to assist us in finding another life after death, but their activities certainly assist us in establishing beautiful gardens so that we can better enjoy the lives we have now.

• Dr Jason Londt is a natural scientist with a special interest in entomology. He welcomes queries and comments, which can be sent to him at jasonlondt@telkomsa.net

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