Sunday, August 11, 2013

You Never Know Where Dung Beetles Might Lead

My son and I were coming home, driving up the grade after crossing a local creek, when we saw something far ahead making its slow way across the road. We could not identify it until we were close and then we started laughing. It was two dung beetles rolling a large ball of cow manure - uphill. One beetle behind rolling with her front legs, and the beetle in the front guiding with his back legs. (I might be incorrectly inferring the sex of each.)

I saw similar beetles often on my grandfather's farm and they always delighted me. It was funny the way they were intently focused on their task, moving a large amount of manure, far more mass than the beetles themselves. The perfectly round ball intrigued me and I always wondered where they were going. They did not waiver from their course simply because a human being came by. As a child, I assumed the ball of manure was their winter food. It certainly protected them from being smashed under foot.

This morning I was thinking about seeing the beetles in the road, wondering why something so silly and insignificant stays in my memory. It was just a snippet of memory from the time when my son still lived at home. It led me to read a little about dung beetles. They can roll up to 10 times their weight. Male Onthophagus taurus beetles can pull 1,141 times their own body weight: the equivalent of an average person pulling six double-decker buses full of people. The American Institute of Biological Sciences reports that dung beetles save the United States cattle industry an estimated US $380 million annually through burying above-ground livestock feces. And lastly, dung beetles are currently the only animal, other than humans, known to navigate and orient themselves using the Milky Way. That places those beetles in a rather existential light.

Today I will be visiting an old friend who is terminally ill, to say farewell. As a parent myself, I know saying goodbye to his children must be particularly difficult. I wonder if he will be allowed to keep his memories of this earthly life.  I wonder if my friend will be able to remember forever all the silly, random instances of time spent with each of his beloved children. Some day I will surely find out for myself.

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