In the middle of the night, in the dark moments reserved for anxiety and existential dread, it suddenly came to me that I really don't know much at all about dung beetles. And in the very next redemptive moment, I thought: this can be rectified.
After all, this should be my soul beetle. Here is a critter more interested in poop than I am. The dung beetle seeks it out, collects it, sculpts it, rolls it around, eats it, and raises the chilluns in it. Compared to that, I have only a passing interest.
The true dung beetles, as opposed to those merely drawn to the lifestyle, are members of the Scarab family. Some, called Dwellers, are content to live in shit--we all know the type; some, the Tunnelers, prefer to bury it; but the coolest ones are wholly Rollers. They form dung into perfect spheres and roll them over the landscape. Any kind of dung will do, but most prefer it from a herbivorous source, and why not? That comes in pies and apples. A small underclass of Rollers with an unhealthy sense of entitlement prefers to wait for rabbit doots, which come pre-balled.
The shit balls themselves are a triumph of architecture. They are perfectly round and roll nicely in a straight line, which is important to the dung beetle, who, in a moment of his evolution that had great consequences for dung beetledom to come, has elected to roll it with his hind feet, backwards. This behavior developed at an evolutionary crossroads comparable to the juncture at which early hominids lost the ability to swing from trees and had to substitute religion to soothe their trudging souls. The dung beetle, operating blind, likes to get a read on his direction and then start pedaling away. Every so often he stops long enough to get up on his shit ball and dance. This is a satisfied beast.
Usually the balls are taken away to be eaten, but sometimes they are formed into a Brood Ball by a paired set of beetles, and the female lays her eggs inside of the Brood Ball and the larvae eat their way out. It is a tidy arrangement. In human terms, it would be a gigantic ball with a milky center, an inner shell of strained carrots, a middle core consisting of ten years of balanced nutrition surrounded by a mantle of pizza and soda pop, with the whole thing soaked in beer and whiskey. By the time our baby has eaten his way out of that, he's ready to roll, one way or the other. And the dung beetle replicates all of that with shit alone.
The ancient Egyptians, who did not have TV, spent a lot of time looking at this beetle, and found much to admire. In particular, they believed the dung beetle represented the Sun. Their best minds had already discovered that the sun did not travel from east to west, as it appeared to, but rather backwards, from west to east. And here the lowly dung beetle was propelling his ball of shit, which looks exactly like the sun, if you squint, backwards. They furthermore assumed that all of the beetles were male and they were able to replicate themselves by jacking off in the dung balls. Which was more or less what the sun was presumed to do overnight when no one was looking. So the science of sun-to-beetle equivalency was a slam dunk. Hoo-Ra, they said, and began carving scarabs out of jade as fast as they could. And that's why I love ancient Egyptians. Anyone who can look at a ball of shit and be reminded of the Sun is a poet, in my book.
Meanwhile modern scientists are hard at work. Already the dung beetle has been declared the strongest of insects, gram for gram, capable of rolling 1141 times its own weight, which means that someone, somewhere, made a project of carefully weighing beetles and shit balls and developing tiny harnesses and traces and applying math to it all, and that's why I love scientists.
Much was learned about the dung beetle world in the 19th century by the pioneering scientist Jean-Henri Fabre, the Father of Modern Entomology. Fabre it was who discovered that the dung beetles did not congregate in order to advance beetle society, but were merely trying to rip off each other's balls. Fabre is famous for another experiment in which he arranged a set of Processionary Caterpillars, known to follow each other closely on a scent trail, in a loop on the lip of a pot, and watched them go around and around. The caterpillars, known as the Unwanted Stepchildren of Modern Entomology, continued marching in a loop for seven days, after which they beat up M. Fabre, trashed his place, stole his coin collection, and bought a bunch of meth.
Late-breaking scientific work is gaining insight into the frolicsome Shit Ball Dance, too. Researcher Emily Baird has rigged up shit ball rolling fields and introduced obstacles into them, and (bless her heart) fashioned little hats for the beetles, and she has come to the conclusion that the beetle climbs aboard his dung ball in order to track the polarized light from the sun and correct course, if need be. Essentially, the dashboard with the GPS is on top of the dung ball, and it's also the spot with the best coverage, in case he needs to phone for help.
So say the experts. But I like to think that maybe the ancient Egyptians just thought scarabs were fun to watch and easy to carve in jade. And that sometimes, when you've made a perfect shit ball and you're rolling it in the sun, you just gotta get up on it and dance.