Star Gazers

Dung beetles deserve a new reputation. After all, they’re the world’s tiniest astronomers.


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This morning, in coastal southern Florida, a group of men were pumping chemicals from tanks strapped to their backs into the crevices of the city. The spraying men were killing bugs. A once-steamy, tropical part of the United States that has been literally paved over with development, south Florida might hold the distinction of having one of the highest concentration of bugs in any U.S. state. It may also have the highest concentration of people who detest bugs. The people of southern Florida — especially those from the North who aren’t as used to infestation — hate bugs, hate the very idea of bugs. If you bring up the subject of bugs, faces get sour and scrunched; disgust fills the eyes. The conversation will immediately turn to the “problem” of bugs and the measures one must take to be rid of them. And just as this chemical warfare upon the insect citizens of Florida was being deployed, I happened upon an article about a study published in Current Biology. The study was about the dung beetle and how it has just been discovered to orient itself by the light of the Milky Way.

The dung beetle is common, found on every continent save Antarctica. Still, unless you are an entomologist, or work in agriculture, you are likely unaware of the importance of our dung beetle friends. Each day, as you go about the work of maintaining civilization, dung beetles are humbly going about the business of tidying up waste. They scurry along the ground, seeking out dung piles, of a horse or cow for instance. For humans and many other animals, these piles are considered the least useful and most disgusting of animal achievements. They are to be avoided at any cost. In fact, most of human civilization has been designed around the avoidance of dung. But for the dung beetle, the piles are treasure. The dung beetles will gather round a dung pile and each will take for himself a ball (for the dung rollers are male). He will then roll the dung ball quickly away from the pile, rolling and rolling until the nearly perfect sphere is in a safe place, away from beetle thieves. The dung beetle and its mate then use the ball to lay eggs in and as food. The dung is their home, their nourishment.

As these “rollers” clear away dung piles, they are doing the planet a great service, improving soil, preventing disease, and generally making the land more hygienic. “To see them seated so solemnly around a ball of dung,” wrote the great bug biographer Jean-Henri Fabre, “one would think that they were conscious of their function as cleansers of the earth, and that they were deliberately devoting themselves to that marvelous chemistry which out of filth brings forth the flower that delights our eyes…” And if this were not enough to endear us, it appears the wondrous dung beetles are steering their balls by the light of the heavens.

We’ve known for a while that dung beetles always roll straight, without doubling back. “If they don’t roll straight,” said Eric Warrant, a co-author of Dung Beetles Use the Milky Way for Orientation, “something is wrong.” Yet how beetles manage this, even when they hit a road bump or get temporarily off course, was, until recently, a mystery. The researchers eventually found that dung beetles orient themselves by day with sunlight and by following moonbeams at night. But what continued to intrigue Dr. Dacke, the study’s leader, and her colleagues was how the dung beetles stay their course even on dark nights when the moon is new. What they found was that the earthbound dung beetle can also steer by the stars, using star clusters or the band of the Milky Way as a compass. Our tiniest astronomers, dung beetles are the only known insect — and the only known animal save seals, birds, and people — to navigate by watching the galaxy.

If most of human civilization has been designed around the avoidance of dung, the rest has been designed around the avoidance of insects. Insects with a fancy for excrement, like the dung beetle, are even more anathema than many parasites, like mosquitoes. Considering that 25% of animal species are beetles, one in every four, we might think of dung beetles as the primary inhabitants of this planet. The neo-Darwinist biologist J.B.S. Haldane, an atheist and enthusiastic Marxist, was asked if biology had taught him anything about God. “I’m really not sure,” Haldane famously answered, “except that he must be inordinately fond of beetles, because he made so many of them.”

Though God may love the beetles, the rest of us surely do not. We don’t tend to like any animal that is low to the ground — the closer to earth, the more polluted we think the animal. The closer to the earth, the further from the heavens. Leviticus taught the Hebrews that the dung beetle was unclean and a reputation was formed that the beetle would not find easy to shake. As an unclean animal, the dung beetle (the Hebrews were told) would not make good eating and was best avoided. The Hebrews were being instructed by God to make a distinction between the sacred and the profane, the clean and the unclean, the holy and the common. But then we must ask, why should the dung beetle exist at all? Moreover, why make a pest that takes direction from the stars? Of course, we have learned that dung beetles are useful to us indirectly, cleaning up cow poop and such, but it’s hard to believe that the dung beetle does this for our sake. It’s hard to believe that the dung beetle was created for us even as it’s indifferent to us. What do we really know about the lives of beetles?

The ancient Egyptians had altogether different ideas about the purpose of the dung beetle. Long before the researchers at Lund University were putting little hats on dung beetles and leading them through Planetarium labyrinths, the Egyptians knew instinctively the connection between the dung beetle and the heavens. For them, the beetle was the sacred Scarab. In the stories of the ancient Egyptians, the sun god Khepri (a morning aspect of the greater god Ra) rolls the sun across the sky each day and each day is renewed by the sun. When the ancient Egyptians watched the dung-rolling beetle they saw “an image of the world performing its daily revolution,” wrote Fabre in The Sacred Beetle and Others. The beetle was seen as a manifestation of Khepri, and his little dung ball as a manifestation of the sun. Khepri was depicted as a man with the head of a scarab and more often, as the scarab itself. For the ancient Egyptians, the dung beetle and dung ball were symbols of renewal and resurrection and creation.

In the story of Exodus, God metes out a mighty punishment upon the Egyptians for the sake of the Hebrews: He showers a torrent of plagues upon them, and decides that the plagues will be the corruption of the very things the Egyptians hold as holy: the frog, the bull, the sun, the Nile. This is to show God’s power as greater than that of the Egyptian’s deities. The fourth plague, flies, is an attack on Khepri, demonstrating the god’s inability to bury the dung that helps contain the flies. The story doesn’t talk about the long-term effects of the plagues on the Egyptians. One wonders, though, if the story doesn’t mark the point at which the dung beetle lost its sacred status.

One morning, as Gregor Samsa is waking up from anxious dreams, he discovers that he had been changed into a dung beetle. The transformation is pretty disappointing for the traveling salesman. As a result of this metamorphosis, poor Gregor Samsa is no longer able to work, nor indeed leave his room. Moreover, his family and his boss find him horrifying. Gregor Samsa is Ungeziefer, unclean. His room becomes a place to discard unwanted things and Gregor is forced to live among this human detritus — apple cores and ashes. Eventually, to the relief of his burdened family, the lonely and lowly Gregor decides to die. “He remained in this state of empty and peaceful reflection until the tower clock struck three in the morning,” wrote Franz Kafka. “Then without willing it, his head sank all the way down, and from his nostrils his last breath flowed weakly out.”

Among the near-infinite critical interpretations of The Metamorphosis, is that Gregor Samsa is a metaphor for Kafka’s experience as an assimilated German-speaking Jew in the petit-bourgeois milieu of Austro-Hungarian Prague, a man with an unsteady identity who felt he did not belong. For hundreds of years, European Jews had been compared to vermin and scavengers, outcasts living on the fringes of society. Unclean. Whether or not this specifically Jewish metaphor was Kafka’s intention, the writer captured something profound about the experience of alienation. Though we too may find him revolting, we find ourselves sympathizing with Gregor Samsa’s plight. More importantly, his alienation becomes our own. In her essay “F. Kafka, Everyman”, Zadie Smith wrote:

For there is a sense in which Kafka’s Jewish question (‘What have I in common with the Jews?’) has become everybody’s question, Jewish alienation is the template for all our doubts. What is Muslimness? What is Femaleness? What is Polishness? What is Englishness? These days we all find our anterior legs flailing before us. We’re all insects, all Ungeziefer now.

It’s worth noting that none of the human beings in The Metamorphosis are very sympathetic, including Gregor Samsa when his metamorphosis is not yet complete. They are all petty, selfish, self-absorbed and cruel. It is only the dung beetle — or rather Gregor when he fully becomes the dung beetle — who is at all likeable. The dung beetle is humble, gentle, reflective, and indeed becomes something of a martyr at the end of the story. We identify not with Gregor so much as with the dung beetle. We never know why Gregor turns into the bug. Maybe Gregor is being punished for his assimilated petit-bourgeois lifestyle; maybe becoming an insect is the final result of that lifestyle. But Gregor’s transformation into a lowly dung beetle is the thing that also saves him.

It’s been written that the name ‘Samsa’ is a phonetic contraction of the two Czech words sàm (‘alone’) and jsem (‘I am’). The critic Norman N. Holland noticed something else. In Hebrew, ‘Samson’ (Samsa) means ‘the sun’s man.’ Why did Gregor transform into a beetle and not some other insect? If Gregor had been transformed into a glorious butterfly the whole story would be changed. It would be the story of a man uplifted by his metamorphosis, rather than a story of a man brought low. According to Holland, Kafka’s choice of insect was not incidental. “The dung-beetle” wrote Holland, “was the one animal that gave Kafka everything he needed: total metamorphosis from a wingless grub to a hard-working, traveling salesman-like adult plus the combination of loathsomeness and divinity.” Holland’s interpretation is evocative, a reference to both the Hebrews and the Egyptians. And if he is right, Kafka’s story was a metaphor for something other than human alienation. To touch the divine, it is necessary to be stuck in the mire.

“Nature abounds in… antitheses,” wrote Jean-Henri Fabre. “What are our ugliness or beauty, our cleanliness or dirt to her? Out of filth she creates a flower; from a little manure, she extracts the thrice-blessed grain of wheat… Notwithstanding their disgusting occupation, the Dung-beetles are of a very respectable standing.”

Going further, we might even say that the dignity of the dung beetle is dependent upon his disgusting occupation. Just like the phoenix that rises from ashes, or the beautiful lotus flower with its roots in the muck, the dung beetle is both purity and pollution, sacred and profane. • 8 February 2013 

Sources / Further Reading: Marie Dacke, Emily Baird, Marcus Byrne, Clarke H. Scholtz, and Eric J. Warrant Dung Beetles Use the Milky Way for Orientation (Current Biology, January 24, 2013.)


Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany's selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at