Scarab Beetles and Cultural Entomology

Like any large subject, entomology has been divided into a number of areas, many of which overlap in some fashion. Some, like taxonomy and systematics, tend to be academic, but the bulk are applied like those that are important to various aspects of agriculture. In addition to these more traditional divisions, others are less well-known. One of these, ``cultural entomology'', is relatively new, having been defined around 1980. People in this field examine the influence of insects on literature, language, music, the arts, general history, religion and recreation. (Since entomologists are often asked about creatures such as spiders and mites, the impact of bug-like creatures that are not insects are also included.) Many articles and stories about bugs contain some relevant information, but, to my knowledge, there are no books on the subject.

Scarab beetles come in a variety of sizes, forms and colors and fill many different ecological niches. They can be distinguished from the other beetles by their antenna, which have 3 to 7 broad, leaf-like terminal segments that form a tight club when they are closed. More than 30,000 species are known world-wide; some 500 or so are found in California. The Green Fruit Beetle found around the Nature Center in late summer and early fall is a scarab beetle. Dung Beetles or Tumblebugs, important environmentally for their work in the breakdown of dung, especially that of large animals like cattle and elephants, are also scarabs (I have not found these around the Center). Some species shape pieces of dung into balls, roll them away, implant their eggs and bury them. Activities during the shaping and rolling led to the name Tumblebugs.

A common, large, black Dung Beetle played an important role in ancient Egypt. Using their hind legs, the males roll their balls of dung (up to 1.5 inches across) sometimes more than 45 feet before burying them. This scarab is the symbol of Khepher, one of the principal Egyptian gods. Khepher is the god who turns or rolls and Egyptians thought Khepher moved the sun across the sky just as the beetle rolls its ball. The burial of the ball was likened to the setting of the sun and the emergence of the new generation was likened to the sun's rebirth. The hieroglyphic names of some of the pharaohs include the scarab, symbol for Khepher.

Numerous scarab carvings inscribed with hieroglyphics on their flat undersides have been found. Scarabs were used as seals by many people (breakage provided evidence of tampering). Some were used as symbols of power or delegated authority, the seals of office. Some mummies had scarab amulets wrapped among the bandages and special scarabs were sometimes used to replace the hearts of deceased persons (Khepher is a symbol of resurrection).

Astronomers have divided the sky into 88 regions called constellations. One constellation in the zodiac (the apparent path of the Sun through the heavens), known today as Cancer the Crab, is perhaps most familiar from the horoscope section of the newspaper as the sign of people born between June 22 and July 22 . To the ancient Egyptians, this constellation was known as Scarabaeus, the beetle.

Cultural entomology helps us see and understand the richness of our interaction with the insect world a little better. Just for fun, see how often you encounter terms, ideas or pictures, or other references to bugs. In the meantime, watch this column for more information and feel free to pass along any good stories you find.

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Ron Lyons (volunteer 1990-1999)
Chula Vista Nature Center, 1000 Gunpowder Point Drive, Chula Vista, CA 91910-1201