Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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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 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 a tumble.

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.

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