The Egyptian Scarab Beetle – Dung Beetles Do the Dirty Work!

The ancient Egyptians believed that Khepri – in the form of a gigantic scarab rolled the sun like a huge ball through the sky, and then rolled it through the underworld to the eastern horizon; each morning Khepri would renew the sun so that it could give life to the entire world. Khepri is one of the oldest Egyptian gods, mentioned as far back as the 5th Dynasty (ca 2494-2345 BC) in the Pyramid Texts.

The protective heart scarab beetle was a symbol for new life and resurrection. The large scarab amulet was placed over the heart and then wrapped in bandages of the deceased. On the base of the scarab amulet was an inscription, telling the heart not to speak wrongly of the dead. It reads:

“O my heart that I received from my mother, my heart that I have had since birth, my heart that was with me through all the stages of my life. Do not stand up against me as a witness! Do not oppose me at the tribunal! Do not tip the scales against me in the presence of the keeper of the balance! You are my Ka of my body; you are the creator god Khnum who makes my limbs sound. Go forth to the hereafter …”

The sacred scarab’s dung rolling and egg-hatching activities are what created a link with the gods. In Egyptian mythology Khepri – god of the rising sun – rolls the rising and setting sun in the same way as the beetle pushes the dung. Sacred scarabs were further associated with rebirth due to their emergence from the dung as young.

The sacred scarab is a dung beetle native to the Mediterranean region and central Europe. Like all dung beetles, sacred scarabs consume dung, locating it with their sense of smell. Often they will roll the dung into balls to transport it to burrows for safekeeping, and these balls can become larger than the beetle itself! Females will also lay their eggs within these dung balls, and the larvae will hatch and consume their ‘nest’.

Dung beetles belong to the family of Scarabaeidae. Dung beetles have a diet which is partly or exclusively faeces. Dung beetles live in many different habitats including desert, farmland, forest and grassland; many of them feeding on mushrooms and decaying leaves. They do not need to drink, as the dung provides all the necessary fluids. Most dung beetles search for dung with the aid of their strong sense of smell.

Dung beetles play a very important role in agriculture through burying, consuming dung, and improving the nutrient cycle and structure of soil. They also protect livestock such as cattle, by removing the dung which if left, could provide habitat for pests such as flies.

Sadly, like many animals these days, dung beetles are in decline; more than half of the different species are threatened or near endangered. Reasons include a lack of diversity in both dung and pastures – which nowadays contains more chemicals, such as anti-parasite drugs given to farm animals. In recent years however, pastures have become more hospitable, with more producers using different wormers or timing treatments so they are less damaging to the beetles.

It may seem like an unlikely environmental hero, but the dung beetle, with its sordid habit of laying eggs and eating cow poo, might just be a weapon in the battle against global warming.

Post by Shaun Bennett


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