As the Dung Ball Rolls…

Dung beetles are perhaps some of the most well known insects throughout the world. They have played a role in pop culture, in literature and they were the quintessential image of the sacred scarab beetle in Ancient Egypt. Now, we are the proud owners of two separate species of dung beetles! I have always thought dung beetles were neat, but it was not until i saw them in action that they completely stole my heart!

Many people don’t realize exactly how crucial dung beetles are to our environment. They are responsible for not only waste removal, but they enrich the soil by recycling the nutrients back into the earth. They also eliminate breeding sources for important pests such as flies, that can pester and even harm livestock.

We are very lucky to have several species of dung beetles native to the United States. They save the country around 380 million dollars a year by removing the waste themselves! Some countries are not as fortunate. Australia, for example introduced 23 species of dung beetles from South Africa and Europe between 1965 and 1985 to help improve the quality of their pastures. The beetles also cut the population of bush flies, a major pest there, by 90%! Many other developing countries have benefited from dung beetles which have improved standards of hygiene.

Most dung beetles feed exclusively on feces of herbivores and omnivores. They can be divided into 3 categories: roller, tunnelers, and dwellers. Rollers are the most charismatic of the three and are very fun to watch. They will construct a perfectly round ball of dung and roll it away from the pile. Usually a male and female can be seen together with a ball, although the male does most of the work while the female hitchhikes! Once they find a suitable spot, they bury the ball. The female lays an egg inside the ball and the larva feeds and develops inside. Tunnelers simply bury the dung they find, and dwellers live inside of the dung.

We have acquired a species that is a roller, Canthon pilularius, and one that is a tunneler, Phanaeus igneus. Canthon Pilularius are also known as tumblebugs. As soon as I gave them dung, they started to construct and roll balls around. They have kept me entertained for a long time as they are extremely comical to watch! Phanaeus igneus are also known as rainbow scarabs and are beautiful beetles with a metallic red head and thorax and a metallic green abdomen. The major males have a long horn extending back towards their abdomen. They do not roll, but they are very active and visible on the surface of the substrate and can be seen busily preparing their burrows in hopes for a mate. I was able to capture both species on video and it was so cute I just had to share!

Reebie Scarab - Kodachrome-esque

Creative Commons License photo credit: swanksalot
a depiction of Khepri, the sun god

Probably the most interesting thing about dung beetles is their role in Ancient Egyptian culture. Simply known as the scarab, it’s image represented transformation, renewal, and rebirth and can be found throughout Egyptian religious and funerary art. They were linked to the god of the rising sun, also known as Khepri. Khepri was said to, as the dung beetle rolls balls of dung, roll the sun across the sky and into the underworld at night, only to safely return it to the sky each day. The god was often depicted as a whole scarab or a man with a scarab for a head. Images of the scarab have been found all around Ancient Egypt. They are usually small beads carved from bone, ivory, stone, or even precious metals. Similar beads can still be found today in bead shops! These scarabs would often accompany the dead into the afterlife by being placed on the chest of the deceased during entombment. They were known as heart stones, the most famous of which was was found buried with Tutankhamen. They were to help protect the soul in the afterlife. Other images of the scarab were very large and sometimes contained long inscriptions. Some of these massive sculptures can be seen at the Luxor Temple and many other places in Egypt.

Scarab, back

Creative Commons License photo credit: marioanima
a Scarab Sculpture

The Ancient Egyptians were very smart to revere this little beetle, even though, at the time, they didn’t know exactly how important they were to the environment. Many insects play an important symbolic role in ancient cultures and for good reason. I don’t even want to imagine where we would be without beneficial insects such as these. Every little bug, down to the most annoying or insignificant (to us) plays a crucial role in the delicate balance of nature. We all should realize this as our ancestors did!

You can celebrate the legacy of the dung beetle by coming to see them on display at the Cockrell Butterfly Center along with many other fascinating creatures. Until next time, happy bug watching!

Beetle-mania!

Think it’s good luck when a ladybug lands on your hand? Do you delight in dancing fireflies lighting up the night? Are you gaga for grub worms? Then, my friend, you’ve caught it…Beetle-mania! I know what you’re thinking; ladybugs and fireflies are beetles? Isn’t a grub a worm!  Don’t fret if you can’t name them all. Coleopterans (members of the beetle family) are a widely diverse group of organisms that make up a quarter of all animal species known to science.

scarab beetle
Creative Commons License photo credit: llisa

Beetles, like all insects, have an exoskeleton made of chitin. (Side note: THIS is the reason they crunch if you accidentally step on them!) They have six legs and can come in all the colors of the rainbow. Scarabs, in particular, are sought after by collectors for their brilliantly hued, glossy forewings. Think you’d need to visit an ancient Egyptian tomb to see a scarab? Think again! Just turn on your porch light and open your door around the sixth month of the year and try to keep the June bugs out.

Lady Beetles (Coccinellidae)
Creative Commons License photo credit: jpockele

Beetles are not just fun to look at (though they really, really are); they provide invaluable services to many human professions. Gardeners, landscapers, and farmers use beetles to help in pest management. For example, some species of lady beetles, commonly known as ladybugs or ladybird beetles, are aphidophagous, meaning they eat aphids. Other beetles prey on parasites, such as caterpillars, and even eat fly eggs.

Forensic entomologists can use beetles to identify a post mortem interval. Insects like beetles and flies are among the first to discover a corpse. Members of the Scarab, Carrion, and Carcass beetle families arrive at the scene to help break down the carrion and to eat the larvae of the flies that got there first. (Side note 2: Look up some info on blow flies to learn more, especially Chrysomya rufifacies, the hairy maggot blow fly! My favorite.) Dermestids, or Skin/Hide beetles, are among the last wave to arrive. Because of the very predictable development times of these beetles, forensic entomologists are able to count backwards to estimate the postmortem interval, and can sometimes do so to within a few hours.

Now that your brain is full of beneficial beetle facts, go look under a rock and see what you find! Don’t be surprised if you like it. If you want more, come to the Entomology Hall in the Cockrell Butterfly Center and discover the world beneath your feet!!!

100 Years – 100 Objects: Giant Longhorn Beetle

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 - meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Nancy, the museum’s director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center and curator of entomology. She’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the rarest and most interesting insects in the Museum’s collections, that we’ll be sharing here – and on hmns.org – throughout the year.

The name says it all:  the Titans were a race of giants in Greek mythology, while giganteus is Latin for giant.  This monster from the rainforests of the Amazon basin in South America is the largest beetle in the world, at least in terms of overall size (the African Goliath beetle, a scarab, is heavier).  The giant longhorn is a member of the Cerambycidae or long-horned beetle family, which includes over 20,000 species worldwide.  The family’s common name describes the very long antennae characteristic of most cerambycids – in some species over twice as long as the body.  Male cerambycids typically have longer antennae than females of the same species.  Shown here are a male (wings spread, longer antennae relative to body size) and female (larger, with somewhat shorter antennae). 

Learn more about beetles and their relatives in a visit to the Brown Hall of Entomology, a part of the Cockrell Butterfly Center – a living, walk-through rainforest at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the photo gallery on hmns.org.

Mock Mummification

* Walk Like An Egyptian *
Creative Commons License photo credit: pareeerica

We will be having an educator overnight soon at the HMNS – these events allow teachers to come in after hours and learn new activities to do in their classrooms with students. Teachers are also able to wander around our exhibit halls, have a catered dinner, and watch a planetarium show. Today I thought I would share with you one of the classroom projects for our Mummies, Tombs and Catacombs Educator overnight happening in April. (Teachers – you can sign up now at www.hmns.org

Materials:
Bendable action figure
Paper clips
Small heart sticker
Salt
Red food coloring
Scented oil
Glue
Udjat eye stickers – find an Udjat Eye design and print it on label paper
Sequins
Labels
Paper plates
Black Sharpies
Paper towels

Procedure:
1. Get a parent to help you (this only applies for kids.)

2. Talk about the different steps that took place during mummification. You may want to check out the book Mummies Made in Egypt by Aliki. You can find it at your local library.

3. Now it’s your turn to make a mummy! Grab an action figure and place it on a paper plate.

4. Get a small amount of water and a Q-tip. This represents water from the Nile River. The dead were first washed with water from the Nile. Dip a Q-tip in the water and use it to “wash” your mummy. Then, dry it with a paper towel. Save the towel. You will need it later.

5. Now it’s time to remove the organs from the body. Organs contain a lot of water, so they must be removed in order to preserve the body. Take your paper clip and bend it into a hook shape. This is the shape of the instrument used to remove the brain from the head. The embalmers inserted it through the nose. The brain was considered a filler for the head (kind of like stuffing) and not important, so it was discarded. Pretend to remove the brain using the hook you made.

Egyptian Embalming Urns
Creative Commons License photo credit: mamamusings

6. Next you need to remove the viscera from the body. A cut was made into the left side of the mummy using an obsidian blade (Use a black Sharpie marker to draw a line on the left-hand side of the abdomen); it was from here that the internal organs were removed. Four of the organs were taken out and embalmed separately. The liver, lungs, stomach, and intestines were embalmed and placed in separate jars called canopic jars to be entombed with the mummy. The heart was left in place inside the body. They believed the heart controlled thoughts and emotions and served as the place where memories were stored. The mummy would need to keep its heart. Place your heart sticker on the mummy’s chest.

7. The body was then covered in something like salt called natron. It took 40 days for the body to dry out. The natron was changed often. Sprinkle your mummy with salt to simulate the natron.

8. When the body was dried out it was washed again using palm wine. Wash off the figure using water dyed red (palm wine). Pat you’re the body dry with a paper towel.

9. The body was then stuffed with aromatic spices and resins. This made the body smell at least a little more pleasant. Use a drop of scented oil on your body to make it smell nice.

10. The incision in the side will need to be protected. Place your Udjat Eye sticker over the incision on the left hand side of the abdomen.

11. Next comes the resin. Resin was made from tree sap and was painted on the body to make it waterproof. Paint the body from head to toe with a light coat of Elmer’s glue. You may use your finger to do this.

12. Next are the amulets. Amulets are carved figures that are thought to have magical powers. The most important amulet for the mummy was a large scarab that was placed over the heart to provide protection. Place a sequin over your mummy’s heart to act as the heart scarab.

13. Next, the bandages. Mummies were wrapped with linen bandages. Linen is made from flax, which is similar to cotton. Take a length of cotton gauze and wrap your mummy from head to toe.

14. Now you have your own mummy! Maybe you can make a sarcophagus to hold your mummy!