Gossamer Tapestry

Reflections on conservation, butterflies, and ecology in the nation's heartland

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Elegance of Scarab Beetles

My friend Misty is home schooling her daughters. I’ve been working with them on some lessons, and they are all becoming more interested in insects. It has made for some lively email. Recently Misty commented that "I think bugs, when you really get into the nitty gritty of how they work, are the most interesting and sophisticated creatures around, designed almost like gadgets." I agree heartily, and thought that the comment was very well put. Similar sentiments have been expressed for quite a while now in Japanese culture. The Japanese have been fascinated with insects for centuries- witness the exquisite cages for keeping crickets that have been crafted there. Today, there is a national passion for beetles in Japan, and they are frequently kept as pets. You can even buy live scarab beetles in vending machines in parts of Japan. The aesthetic elegance of insect structure has been cited as contributing to this passion.

My own interest in beetles is relatively recent, but growing rapidly. It's now one of the many things about me that my partner accepts with good grace. I had heard about the Japanese take on insect elegance before this interest blossomed, and I now think of it frequently when working with beetles. Nowhere do I sense this more strongly than with the scarab beetles. This is a huge family of insects, and includes everything from flower scarabs to dung beetles. Some species are very large.

A flower scarab. These sit on flowers where they are striking bumble bee mimics.

Even medium size scarabs are impressive. Typically, the body is very heavily armored with chitin and the prominent legs show amazing articulation. The articulation is not unusual among insects, it’s just especially apparent in some of the larger beetles. I’m also taken with scarab antennae, with their prominent "elbow" and comblike structure extending away from the head. These anatomical structures increase the "gadget-like" aspects that I see in scarabs. Many of them remind me of tiny wind-up toys.

Polyphylla decemlineata - Note the antennae

Many of the scarabs are extraordinarily beautiful. A species called Plusiotis gloriosa (now, unfortunately, renamed Chrysina gloriosa) is considered by many people to be the most beautiful insect in North America. I caught mine while black lighting in Madeira Canyon in southern Arizona. Nearby, you can find another beautiful scarab beetle called Phanaeus vindex.

Plusiotis gloriosa

Phanaeus is a dung beetle. They lay their eggs in or under clumps of dung, which the developing larvae eat. Some species of dung beetles, the tumblebugs, actually scoop up piles of dung that they roll into balls and transport to a favorable spot for egg laying. This is the group of scarabs that was revered by the ancient Egyptians. Phanaeus is not a roller however. They just burrow into dunghills and lay their eggs. You find them by walking through a pasture flipping cow patties until you find one with fresh beetle burrows. Then you dig until you find one. The first time I ever succeeded in doing this, I thought I had uncovered a shard of green plastic, because the wing cases are such a bright, shiny green. As with many of the insects that I have collected recently, the showiest specimens are typically from the near tropical environment that I find in Arizona. I was very pleased this past summer to find Phanaeus right here in the Chicago region.

Phanaeus vindex

Scarabs are very beautiful. They inhabit many ecosystems where they play a great diversity of roles. They have a fascinating interaction with human history. And they aren’t even my favorite family of beetles. TO BE CONTINUED…


At 08:56, Blogger Ur-spo said...

hurray for scarabs and beetles in general! (but not the ones that shoot fire out their backsides).
FYI - the National Geographic has a new electronic tarantula apparently quite 'real'. It looks odd as it is not 'brown' but apparntly they are modeled after some from Thailand.

At 19:58, Blogger steve'swhirlyworld said...

Okay...I'm so gay. The first thing I say to myself is, "wow, I love the color of those bugs"

At 20:03, Blogger steve'swhirlyworld said...

Pretty bugs...pretty, green bugs...I know, very gay.

At 18:40, Blogger rodger said...

For some reason I find the vending machine thing fascinating. It's a commentary on the lack of open spaces where kids can find their own bugs yet a novel idea.

At 02:04, Blogger Tony said...


I just have to throw out a bit of humor...the Plusiotis gloriosa kinda luck like a miniature version of the scarabs from The Mummy.

Oh the little bugs we use to play with when we were kids.

At 11:13, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am sorry but beetles make me cringe a little. They are hard and crusty and make horrible sounds as they get stuck in my hair. We were invaded by the Japs last summer and you couldn't walk outside without being bombed. Beetles = Yuck


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