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108 The Curious Life of the Tumblebug It’s difficult to grow up in America’s grasslands without becoming acquainted with tumblebugs. Maybe that’s because a tumblebug’s lifework revolves around feces, a subject that country kids are inordinately fascinated with. Plus, the visual saga of a tumblebug attempting to roll a ball of dung up an incline has Aesopian qualities that make grasshopper and ant fables pale before this seemingly herculean effort. Tumblebugs rarely succeed the first time, but they seldom tarry before reengaging the object of their frustration and giving it, once again, the old tumblebug heave-ho. This drama of pushing excrement up a hill can go on for hours and was, before television and video games, a midsummer matinee for curiosities rather easily captivated. The tumblebug, in case you haven’t met one yet, is a stoutly built blackish beetle that lives by following its nose to prime poop. Actually, the insect’s olfactory receptors are located on its antennae, perfectly positioned to home in on any fresh neighborhood feces.And fresh they must be. Tumblebugs—or scarab beetles to those who can’t condone country colloquialisms—can be picky when it comes to selecting the proper pat of poo for nourishment and procreation. Scarabs are among the more interesting of the beetle tribe, varying in size, beauty, and occupation. Some scarabs dine on flower pollen, 109 The Curious Life of the Tumblebug some are shiny and colorful, some excited the imaginations of ancient Egyptians. The tumblebug of America’s grasslands is none of these. This beetle eats dung. It is neither colorful nor shiny. It’s just a workaday insect that labors in the fields, successful as long as cattle stay regular . The tumblebug of the prairies is a beetle of the Canthon species. Pairs are monogamous to some extent. Male and female work together to prepare a suitable nursery for little tumblebugs to be, the male excavating a hole in the dirt, the female attending to nesting duties. But all must begin with a bowel movement. American grasslands were once covered with buffalo, which were then replaced by cattle, both prime tumblebug benefactors.Tumblebug dung must be fresh,so large numbers of hoofed grazers ruminate to the tumblebugs’ advantage . Even so, the baking heat of a prairie summer can be desiccating. Therefore, the beetles have a slim window of opportunity for finding cow plop of proper vintage. Fortunately,tumblebugs are hard workers.The ten-to nineteen-millimeter -long oval insects have strong, flattened, sharp-edged heads, excellent for digging. The front tibiae also are flattened, with serrations on the outer edges for cutting and shaping. Middle and hind tibiae are slender and curved for dung ball rolling and steering. A day of dung mining begins with some scouting on the wing. Tumblebug antennae come into play as the insect seeks to detect the oftentimes not-so-sweet smell of a fresh cow patty. If all goes well, the airborne beetle locks in on a scent plume, follows the smell to its source, then drops down for a closer inspection. If the poop pat proves to be grade A choice, the tumblebug starts to assemble dung ball raw material. This involves slicing and shaping the fresh plop so that the results can be moved to the insect’s favored picnic area. The sculpting process involves head, forelegs, and maybe a few tumblebug pirouettes in a circular pattern. After just the right amount is carved away, the beetle climbs aboard and begins assembling a sphere with those tool-like forelegs. Rounding out the dung ball involves a lot of patting, trimming, and sometimes even plastering on a “handful” here and there to achieve better symmetry. The ball is rotated a few revolutions to ensure that it meets exacting tumblebug standards. Next, the half-inch ball must be pushed to a place where the tumblebug hopes to cache its treasure and dine in peace. The beetle uses its hind legs to push, steering and 110 The Curious Life of the Tumblebug steadying with fore and middle legs. This trial-and-error process is the part that has fascinated country folk for generations. Watching a tumblebug struggle can be gritty, down-to-earth entertainment . At the same time, it’s often vaudeville par excellence. The beetle routinely slips, tumbles (thus the colloquial name), or loses control of the dung ball completely. At that point, the tumblebug’s trophy always rolls back downhill, because dung balls don’t...


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