The dung beetle: from cultural symbol to environmental powerhouse

By Hayley White 

Reading time: 9 minutes 

For many people, myself included, seeing a dung beetle would probably make us scream. There is just something about insects and creepy crawlies that freaks me out, but a few thousand years ago the dung beetle was a sacred symbol and much revered.

Cultures all around the world have held the unassuming dung beetle in near godlike status. They crawled right into the hearts of our ancestors and were worshipped for their likeness to certain gods, while also being an important food and medicinal resource. Now though, they are being praised for something else entirely. Shaun Fogie, a New Zealand entomologist who specialises in dung beetles, found that they are an efficient way to maintain our environment and reduce pollution from cattle runoff.

The Scarab dung beetle (Scarabaeinae) was a powerful and divine insect in ancient Egypt. As far back as 2700 B.C., they represented a complex symbolism associated with the

By Hayley White 

Reading time: 9 minutes 

For many people, myself included, seeing a dung beetle would probably make us scream. There is just something about insects and creepy crawlies that freaks me out, but a few thousand years ago the dung beetle was a sacred symbol and much revered.

Cultures all around the world have held the unassuming dung beetle in near godlike status. They crawled right into the hearts of our ancestors and were worshipped for their likeness to certain gods, while also being an important food and medicinal resource. Now though, they are being praised for something else entirely. Shaun Fogie, a New Zealand entomologist who specialises in dung beetles, found that they are an efficient way to maintain our environment and reduce pollution from cattle runoff.

The Scarab dung beetle (Scarabaeinae) was a powerful and divine insect in ancient Egypt. As far back as 2700 B.C., they represented a complex symbolism associated with the sun god Ra. According to mythology, the sun God Ra would shepherd the sun across the sky every day and then guide it back to the earth at sunset. Of course, this whole belief was embodied by the dung beetle rolling dung into a ball and burying it into the ground.

From around 200 B.C., people also started to believe that scarabs had the supernatural powers of rebirth after death (Ratcliffe, 2006). This stemmed from the misguided belief that all scarabs were male and could procreate on their own. Thus, it was also the belief that Ra was created out of primary matter (i.e. he created himself) rather than born from a mother and father.

Scarab with hieroglyphs
Photo: Gus Fonsil, Pixabay

It was the scarab emerging from its pupa that inspired the process of human mummification. Egyptian priests thought that the sunset was the process of the sun disappearing under the ground, and was the same as scarab metamorphosis. Because of this, scarabs were said to have God-like powers surrounding rebirth and medicine. Ratcliffe (2006) says this led to people fashioning protective amulets and jewellery, and placing greenstone scarabs in burial chambers to promote rebirth.

But through all these cultural meanings, the dung beetle has always rolled dung and planted it deep into the ground. As dung is a powerful natural fertiliser, this alone was enough for the ancient Egyptians to worship the dung beetle – on top of the added benefit of less dung for flies, keeping their populations in check.

The ancient Greeks and Romans took on the sacred scarab to a lesser degree, mostly just as a symbol of good luck. Insects used to be very important food sources, providing protein during particularly hard food seasons for African, Latin American, Indian, Australian, and South American cultures – to name a few (Ratcliffe, 2006).

Scarabs and dung beetles were also medicinal, especially in folk medicine in Europe (Ratcliffe, 2006). Oil from the larvae was used for scratches, ground up beetles were said to ward off epilepsy, and eating dung beetles helped relieve earaches, bladder stones, and dropsy (known today as edema). It was also believed that biting off the head of the first beetle born in May would ward off fever for the year.

These beetles are not only cultural entities, they are also environmental powerhouses that can reduce the amount of pollution generated from cattle dung. Since the introduction of cattle into New Zealand in the 1800s, our native dung beetle species have not yet evolved to do the job that other beetles have been doing for centuries.

Shaun Fogie has been studying dung beetles for around 28 years and has been working on integrating imported dung beetles into the ecosystem here in New Zealand. He says that introducing dung beetles would not only benefit the environment, but our cattle too.

Dung versus No dung
Image: DBI BLOG

“[Through] the activity of dung beetles – so that’s nesting, improving soil structure, getting all that dung into the ground, and utilizing the manure in the pasture surface and improving the structure of the soil with these tunnels – we’re getting an 80% reduction in the surface flow of [cow dung] contaminants,” says Shaun. “That’s 80% less [dung] going down into our waterways. It’s a massive on-pasture improvement, so environmentally we could be looking at a really significant tool in the toolbox for us to use to try and reduce surface runoff.”

As for why our own native dung beetles cannot do the job, Shaun says it is because beetles  in places like Europe and Southern America, have co-evolved with livestock compared to places that did not previously have cattle, such as New Zealand.

“You look at the Amazon jungle when they shut down those huge sections and they put cattle in there,” he says. “They had an immediate problem with the amount of dung being produced because none of the beetles in the forests were actually coming out of their habitat and moving into this open grassland area to utilise all that manure. Exotic dung beetles were introduced into those pastural areas to get rid of that, too.”

As for the concern that the introduction of beetles could have a negative impact on our environment, Shaun says that they would not be able to bring them into the country if they were harmful. The Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act came into play in 1996 and makes it virtually impossible to bring in any new insect species that would negatively impact our environment here in New Zealand. “Anything new coming in has to go through a rigorous process to see if it’s got any risks attached to it,” he tells me. “Dung itself is a contaminant and you can bury everything that’s in that contaminant into the soil where it can be utilized by microbes, so disease borne problems like E. coli or Salmonella can’t spread if they’re in the ground. So, really the risks for dung beetles are negligible to non-existent compared to the number of benefits that we stand to gain from them.”

So, the sacred dung beetle that has been so important to cultures all around the world; that has incredible links to spirituality, medicine, and food, has finally graced New Zealand shores.

 

Since Shaun’s efforts to raise awareness for the importance of dung beetles within New Zealand, he has found vast improvements in the environment, especially in the way its activities prevent contaminants from spreading into our waterways. It is not essential that you wear a scarab pendant or bite the head off a beetle at the beginning of every May. But it is crazy to realise that an insect like the humble dung beetle that has had such an important cultural impact in its time, can still surprise and astound us today.

 

Source: Scarab beetles in human culture. The Coleopterists Bulletin, 60 (mo5)

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