Dung Beetles: Our Shitty Little Friends
Mankind's association with the dung beetle has been long and colorful, as the insect has played many roles, all the way from being worshiped as a deity to being munched as a tasty snack.
The earliest historical manifestation of these noble insects was in ancient Egypt in approximately 2,700 BC. The nesting habits and daily activities of the insects were such that they were deified as the God Khepri, who rolled the sun from east to west on a daily basis. The Egyptians were advanced enough to realize the absolute necessity of the sun's daily journey and likened it to the dung beetle, or scarab, happily rolling its ball of poop to its nesting area to provide nourishment for its young. The setting of the sun was symbolized by the burial of the poop by the beetle.
Scarabs were also used as a symbol for rebirth, as the immature beetles emerged from the burrows where their mother had laid her eggs in the dung ball before burial. Khepri literally means "he is coming into being", and the ancients thought the young were spontaneously generated from the dung.
Dung beetles have very discerning taste buds, and for the most part eschew the excrement of carnivores in favor of the output of the world's herbivores. Anyone who has ever had their nostrils assailed by the rather pungent aroma of dog shit, especially after releasing all the smell by stepping in it, would readily agree with the dung beetle's choice of appropriate cuisine. Interestingly, there is only one dung beetle species that dines exclusively on human feces (we seem to produce not only a stinky but also an unpalatable product).
Dung beetles are vital for our world and agriculture. In fact, it has been introduced deliberately for agricultural reasons, which has had no downside. By taking care of the dung in fields of cattle and other livestock, they not only recycle the nutrients and enrich the soil, but they also take away breeding grounds for flies. When 23 species were introduced in Australia, the pestilential bush flies were reduced by 90 percent in farmer's fields. Dung beetles are also of high importance to hygiene in developing countries because they bury or eat the dung. The one species that eats human feces exclusively reduces the danger of illness that is passed on by contact with it or by flies laying their eggs in it.
Although they appear well-protected due to their hard shells and horned heads, dung beetles are prey to a number of creatures, including birds, bats, small snakes, large spiders, some reptiles, mongooses and jackals. There is even a species of African plant – Hydnora – which grows on the roots of acacia trees that preys on dung beetles. When it rains, Hydnora sends up enormous red "beetle catcher" flowers that smell remarkably like shit. The flowers have a deep well at the center and slippery petals that prevent the poor beetle from crawling out. The hapless beetle that falls in finds itself in proverbial deep shit, dies, and is used for nourishment by the underground portion of the plant.
Humans are also a minor predator of this species, as traditional Chinese medicine encourages the use of dried dung beetles, called Qianglang, to treat a number of diseases. (Take three dried shit bugs and call me in the morning!)
If you are interested in this folksy type of medical treatment then you can read The Compendium of Materia Medica, compiled by Dr, Li Shizhen during the Ming Dynasty (16th century).
The strangest use of the dung beetle by western standards would be that they are used as food. Some people in Thailand eat roasted Buffalo dung beetles, which are allegedly crunchy, tasty, and are considered a gourmet delicacy. If you're interested in trying some yourself I would imagine a dung beetle found in a nice cow patty in a local barnyard would be just as tasty as one found anywhere in southeast Asia. I personally plan on sticking to possum or groundhog when I have a craving for something a little exotic.
If you need another reason to feel affection toward the lowly and oft overlooked tumble bug just follow this link and take a look at them. They run the appearance gauntlet from cunning to downright gorgeous.