The Tumblebug & Scarab Beetle
Nature Bulletin No. 605-A May 22, 1976
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
THE TUMBLEBUG & SCARAB BEETLE
The mention of Tumblebugs calls up childhood memories. After school
let out in spring, one of the chores of a farm youngster was herding the
family cows while they ate grass on the roadsides. He had nothing to do
except turn the cattle around before they strayed too far and see that
they did not break through fences. However, he had to stay on the job,
alone, because our fathers went on the principle, "One boy is a boy, two
boys -- half a boy, and three boys -- no boy at all. " Passing wagons,
buggies and, rarely, a chugging automobile added momentary interest.
With such limited sources of amusement, it is not surprising that many
of us became tumblebug watchers.
A "tumblebug" is a beetle, not a true bug. It is a nickname for those
kinds of Dung Beetles which mold, roll away, and bury balls of dung on
which they feed. In some they lay eggs and rear their young. The best-
known kinds are those which make balls from fresh cow or horse
manure. Other species roll the ready-made, pellet-like droppings of
rabbits, sheep and deer. Since these balls are often rolled considerable
distances over grass and bumpy ground, both ball and beetle take many
The tumblebug is built like a bulldozer -- a big, black robust insect with
stout legs fitted for digging and a blunt shovel-like beak used in shaping
the ball. In rolling its "marble" the beetle faces backward and almost
stands on its head as it pushes with the hind legs while the forelegs are
braced against the ground. These balls are rolled, buried and eaten, one
after another, until late summer when the female buries a few special
pear-shaped balls in each of which she lays a large, creamy white egg.
From this egg hatches a C-shaped grub, or larva, which feeds and grows
until the ball is a hollow shell. After passing through a resting, or pupa
stage, the new adult tumblebug breaks out, usually after a rain, and digs
its way to the surface.
The Sacred Scarab of the ancient Egyptians is a dung beetle of the
Mediterranean countries. This insect has figured importantly in their art
and religion for thousands of years. The ball, which the beetles were
supposed to roll from sunrise to sunset, symbolized the earth; and the
beetle, itself, the sun. As an emblem of eternity, it was placed in tombs
with their dead and its image carved in stone and precious gems.
Because it disappeared into the soil and afterwards reappeared, it stood
for resurrection. Later, Roman soldiers wore scarab seals set in rings to
bolster their courage.
One of the finest and most interesting descriptions of the habits of any
animal was written about the sacred scarab by the great French
naturalist, Jean Henri Fabre. Scarcely more than an inch long, this
beetle shapes a hard compact ball which may be as large as a small
apple or a man's fist. He showed that dung-burying beetles of many
kinds and sizes play an important part in fertilizing the soil as well as in
sanitation. In some cases, enormous quantities of manure are buried
promptly without being eaten. Fabre recorded an instance in which a
dozen inch-long beetles of another kind each buried 60 cubic inches of
manure night after night. This habit prevents the development of several
manure-breeding flies and other pests.
The Scarab family of beetles, over the world, has thirty thousand known
species. Their large sizes, bright colors, and unusual shapes make them
favorites of amateur collectors. The males of many kinds have knobs or
horns with which they butt and ram each other until one gives up.
Locally, the horseless carriage was the doom of the tumblebug.
To return to the Nature Bulletins Click Here!
Update: June 2012