Copyright 2001 Kate Brooke

Kate Brooke, Opossum Track Press

Wood Chips & Wet Ink: The Scarab Pages

New as of August 27, 2008

A New Project
Over the past couple of years Robert has been working on a story whose protagonist is a scarab, or dung beetle. I plan to illustrate this story and print a hand-produced artist's book in a small edition. These pages will document much of the project, from its early stages through its completion.

Although this project has been on a back burner almost since Robert showed me his first draft, I've only recently begun the research stage. First and foremost, I will need a scarab. I want to use a local beetle. So on the afternoon of October 1st, I visited Peggy & Cary's horse pasture to poke around in manure piles with the hope of finding a dung beetle. I knew it was awfully late in the season to begin my search, but I was delighted to find (in fresh piles only) a small candidate for my project:

Copyright 2007 Kate Brooke Copyright 2007 Kate Brooke
Into my zip-lock bag went a handful of horse apples with some beetles. I brought home my specimens and set up a fish bowl terrarium with a layer of dirt on the bottom and the horse manure on top of that:
Copyright 2007 Kate Brooke  

Robert objected to my keeping this beetle habitat in the house. I moved it to my studio, where I took an initial set of photographs to help with identification. Although it seemed clear it was a dung beetle, I didn't learn anything more specific. As I read more about dung beetles in general, I found that not all of them are dung rollers. It is essential to Robert's story that the beetle be a dung roller, so I needed to find out who this little one was, and how it behaved. None of my field guides or my copy of Jaques' How to Know the Beetles had this particular scarab in it; I also had no luck searching the Internet.

Shortly after being relocated to my studio, the little beetles disappeared into the dirt. I periodically moistened the soil and wondered what it was they were doing in there. Dying, maybe? Then on the 29th of October I dampened the soil when I went to work, and two of the resident beetles emerged and crawled around. Soon at least half a dozen were active, most of them crawling on a slightly wet paper towel I had put in there. I got out my camera and started photographing. Shaping the paper towel into uneven terrain allowed me to observe the beetles climbing up and down and turning this way and that, exactly the kinds of poses I would need for my drawings. In the macro photographs the paper towel becomes a landscape that in some cases reminds me of something Dr. Seuss would have created:

Copyright 2007 Kate Brooke  
Copyright 2007 Kate Brooke Copyright 2007 Kate Brooke
One of the beetles was determined to fly, but it didn't manage to get very far:
Copyright 2007 Kate Brooke  
Copyright 2007 Kate Brooke  
Notice on the above beetle's left wing casing there is a small whitish blur. As I took these photos I wondered about occasional whitish gray spots on some of the beetles. Did they have mold on them? When I examined my photographs, I found the spots were even smaller creatures:
Copyright 2007 Kate Brooke  

I wrote to Soni Cochran at the UNL Extension office to see if she could identify both the beetle and the smaller bugs clinging to it. Soni referred me to Barb Ogg, who told me the smaller bugs are phoretic mites:

"You are witnessing phoretic mites associated with these scarab beetles. The word "phoresy" refers to the situation when a relatively immobile animal (the wingless mite) catches a ride with a more mobile animal (the dung beetle). I am assuming these mites are associated with dung and travel to "fresh" piles by hanging onto the beetle. The beetles probably had one or two mites on them when you caught them (sometimes they hide under the wing covers) and they (the mites) have been breeding prolifically in the favorable conditions of your fish bowl."

Barb then referred me to Brett Ratcliffe, who identified the beetle as Onthophagus fimetarius. He told me there is no common name, and these are not dung rollers. What he suggested I look for --beginning in May -- is a tumblebug, or Canthon pilularius, found in pastures throughout most of Nebraska. Tomorrow being Hallowe'en, it's too late to find any active now.

I am disappointed this is not a dung roller. I've grown rather fond of this little beetle and have collected good material from which to start drawings. That's okay. I will use these materials elsewhere, and in the meantime will continue to learn what I can from these non-rollers. I believe the tumblebug is entirely black and more round in shape. While I can use my pictures of Onthophagus fimetarius for reference in developing preliminary ideas for my drawings, I'll need to avoid relying too much on their shape and coloration. I may still be able to use these photographs to cartoon the eventual beetle hero of the story.

Meantime, I have plenty else to do for the project. Robert's story includes other creatures: a sparrow, a mouse, an ibis, a cow, a cat, a horse, an owl, and more. I won't insist these all be based on local animals.

And this is where I will leave off for tonight.

Summer of 2008: ongoing search for a dung roller

Copyright 2008 Kate Brooke
Left: a Rainbow Scarab, found by good friend and artist Lisa, and her family on their farm in Iowa. The male beetle has the rhinoscerous horn. We later caught a second male. These spectacular looking bettles are not dung rollers, so won't be the hero's of Robert's story. Both beetles remained alive for quite some time in my studio, but eventually perished. When the second beetle still lived, another friend supplied me with some fresh cow dung, which I immediately gave to the scarab. By morning the beetle was nearly dead. It might have been about to expire anyway, or the livestock that produced the dung may have been treated with a pesticide like Ivermectin which also kills the beetles when they encounter it in the manure.
Right: little dung beetles whose identities I still need to look up. These are extremely active, and seem to be the ones who perforate the surface of fresh cow pies (see below). Copyright 2008 Kate Brooke Copyright 2008 Kate Brooke
Copyright 2008 Kate Brooke

Right: in the (cow) field with friends, tracking down the second Rainbow Scarab. I'm the one wearing rubber gloves; I wanted to handle the manure so I could more carefully search for the beetles. Keeping watch in the pasture and on the cow paths, we never did see any dung rollers. Instead we found the above two kinds of beetles, as well as more of the Onthophagus fimetarius from last Fall.



Photograph by artist Lisa M. Davis-Kovarik

Copyright 2008 Lisa M. Davis-Kovarik
Copyright 2008 Lisa M. davis-Kovarik

Left: the artist in an Iowa cow pasture with my bird watching spouse, Robert, and a young collector.




Right: neither of these is a dung beetle. High summer in Nebraska keeps me busy investigating and photographing many different insects. This summer we have a large number of Green June Beetles which seem to fly around until they hit something (often my parked car), fall onto the ground, right themselves, and repeat the process. I have found more than half a dozen of these green beetles dead on my driveway. The one in the picture is in captivity. With it is a common ground beetle that I captured after a lunchtime concert by Metales: M5 for the Downtown Performance Series in the Lincoln Community Foundation Gardens. The two captive beetles are busy eating from a fleshy nectarine pit. When I put the pit in with the beetles, I picked up and placed the Green June Beetle onto it, and it glommed right on. I might as well have been plugging in a night light because the beetle remained in the same spot for several hours, with only its mouth parts working. In contrast, the ground beetle couldn't remain still. It, too, busily ate the fruit, but it moved about the whole time, soon walking across just about every exposed part of the fleshy stone. Later it looked like the ground beetle might have been contemplating moving the pit into a burrow, but by evening it had become more interested in eating a dog treat. Copyright 2008 Kate Brooke

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This page was last updated on September 24, 2008